A game my three siblings and I played as kids was poking one another and then making a quick exit. If a threat was even perceived by an approaching sibling, the immediate response was DON’T TOUCH ME! Today we can’t hug each other enough.
A few years ago I was asked to perform a one-man show I had developed from the Gospel of St. John for a chapel service at an organization devoted to serve the homeless population. I had agreed to do the performance months in advance, but when the day came, I regretted having said yes, and struggled to summon any enthusiasm.
On the drive to the Mission, I toyed with a number of creative excuses to get out of it at the last minute without just pulling a no-show. I even grumbled to God, “If I have to through with it, I will, but I don’t have to like it.”
Some level of joy began to seep into my heart as I performed the play, but it was hampered by the constant wheezing and coughing and sneezing and yes, snoring, that echoed in the room during the performance. It was like audible sounds of diseases cultivating in a giant Petri dish.
After the performance the chaplain asked if anyone wanted prayer. So many came forward that he asked for more staff to help with the penitents. The brokenness displayed by those who came forward began to dissolve the crust around my heart…a little.
Then came a surprise. The chaplain announced that if any of the men would like to meet me that I was happy to greet them. I’m an actor not a minister. All I saw were swarms of infections converging upon me.
I shook dozens of hands with a few chest-bumps for extra emphasis. The joy of these men at meeting me was undeniable if not reciprocated. But the sucker-punch came when the last man in line stepped forward: scraggly beard, wooly red knit hat unraveling around his scruffy face, a big smile revealing the evidence of a lengthy hiatus from the dentist chair. I extended my hand, but he swung his arms behind his back. “Don’t touch me, man,” he said. “My hands are dirty. I’m dirty.” Then he gently laid his chin on my shoulder, the one area of his body he thought clean enough for human contact, held it there for a second, and then quickly disappeared into the crowd.
I was brought low, undone by such humility and awkward kindness; a nameless man conscious of his “uncleanness” so as not to touch me any more than was necessary but needed to express his love. May I never recover from that holy and pure moment.