By Cindy McMillion
Gus, b. 1963 / d. Feb 5, 2018
I met Gus downtown at St. Mary’s Cathedral in December of 2016, not long after I started attending the Wednesday morning community worship and breakfast there. The midweek service and meal are designed especially for people who are homeless or housing-insecure, but it draws people from many walks of life: black, white, wealthy, poor, male, female, young and old. We hear the words of Christ together, we kneel side by side to receive the bread and wine of communion, we sing Lean on Me, Let It Be, or What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love. Then we move together to the room next door to continue our communion over eggs, biscuits, grits and coffee. It’s a sweet time and a high point in the week for many of us.
I was working on a community storytelling project at the time I met Gus, so I asked if I could interview him. We sat down together on the steps just down the hallway from the breakfast area. My question for him that day was: “If you could meet and talk to anyone, past or present, who would it be, and what would you talk to that person about?” Gus was deep in thought for a few minutes, and then he replied:
“If I could meet anybody personally it would be Jesus Christ, and I would ask him why I’m not healed --- why I’m not delivered --- from alcohol, drugs and the world. I been crying out ever since I was 20. That’s when I first started doing drugs. My mother loved me; she’s the one who kept things together, but after she died, it seemed like I just didn’t care anymore, and I started doing things that weren’t good. I’m 54 years old now, and I’ve been in a lot of rehabs.
“It’s a big world out here, and it’s lonely when you ain’t got nobody you can cling to. I’m a loner. I’m always drifting. Drifting away. I used to go state to state, city to city, trying to get away. Why I was running, I don’t know. I was just trying to find some comfort, but everywhere I’d go, the stuff I go through was still there. I think I been seeking the kind of love my mother gave me, love without conditions.
“I don’t know what Jesus would say. I just don’t know. I think I’ll meet him one day; I believe I will. I be talking to God as I be walking along the road, and I know he loves me because I’m still here, I’m still in this world. He’s the one who created me, so I know he understands. He said if you believe, all things are possible. And I believe, but I ain’t healed yet. I just deal with life the best I can. I cope with it, and I stay to myself a lot. I’m looking for spiritual comfort. I haven’t talked to nobody about that, but I’ll get around to it.
“I been trying to do things my way, but my way’s not working. My way just ain’t going to work. I believe God is trying to break me from the things I do by the trials and tribulations I’m going through. If I was healed, I believe I’d be living then. I’d be living life, and it would be wonderful. I’m not really living now.”
I asked Gus if he had talked to Andy or Laura, the priests at the cathedral, and he hadn’t, but agreed it might be a good thing to do. I took a photo to accompany his interview, and we said goodbye. In the months that followed, I saw him now and then at the Wednesday morning service, and we always greeted each other with a hug. He participated in a Bible study at Constance Abbey and had gotten close to some of the people there. I took another photo of him in June, and there was a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. He seemed to be doing better, although he still struggled with homelessness. He asked me once if I had any work he could do, but I didn’t. I regret that now.
At breakfast on February 7, I was asked if I could find a photo of Gus in my files. He had been murdered three days earlier, just up the way from the cathedral, and a photograph was needed for the funeral. I don’t know much about the circumstances of his death, only that he was here one day, and the next day he was gone. We will never see his sweet smile again in this life, never hear his achingly honest words. I don’t know if Gus ever found the peace he longed for, but I know God loved him to the end, and I trust that love.
I am so thankful to have had a conversation with Gus all those months ago. When we are privileged to walk beside someone for even a part of his or her spiritual journey, it is an honor, a sacred trust. We hold that piece of their lives like a treasure in our hearts. Another person’s path may be beset with pain and questions, and own journey may be filled with deep grief or doubt, but we can walk this road together. That’s why we are called to community. Community is where we find the strength we need to survive the hard things in our own lives, and it’s where, with God’s gentle guidance, we learn to love others along the way. There is unspeakable sorrow in the journey, but also times of the greatest joy. We can’t usually take away each other’s challenges --- at least that’s been my experience --- but we can listen. We can hear. We can let people know they matter to us. We can ask God to help us see his image in whomever is before us --- black or white, rich or poor, male or female, old or young --- because where the image of God resides, there is beauty and worth. As author Victor Hugo has said so famously: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
May His mercy rest upon us all.
(Editors's note: Cindy McMillion is a photographer who spends time each weeking making portraits of the people who attend the Wednesday morning service and breakfast at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral. For many of the attendees, it is the only picture they have of themselves.)