It was Wednesday night at the 2006 Friends General Conference Gathering in Tacoma, Washington. I had been spending the evening sitting with Debbie Humphries from Hartford (Conn.) Meeting, getting an update on the growth of her ministry and hearing her joy around the travel minute from her home meeting.
As we sat on a park bench outside a building on the edge of campus, a young man approached us, seeming to just appear out of the dark of evening. He was stripped to the waist, low-hung jeans, strongly built. He asked us, "I know this is a strange request, but could you look to see if I have been stabbed in the back?" He turned around as we stood to approach him. Indeed there was a 3/4-inch stab wound on the back of his left shoulder.
He lived in a nearby town, was 17, and a high school student. He explained that he had been waiting for a bus to get to work when a carload of his friends came by and there was a fight between them and "some black kids." I then noticed another puncture wound on the right side of his chest. Both times as we got closer to examine the wounds, he would say, "You don’t have to touch me! You don’t have to touch me. But I am clean." He continued to be singularly focused on his need to get to work. He needed the money.
We asked if he wished to call his parents. He said no. We asked if there was anywhere he could go to to get medical attention. No. We stressed that he needed medical attention. He said he would call a friend. He then walked back to a nearby picnic table where his shirt and backpack lay.
Debbie and I returned to our bench, blankly staring at each other, trying to make some sense of what had just happened. In a few moments we were on our feet again and walked over to the young man, who by now had put his bloodied shirt back on. He told us that he had gotten ahold of a friend who was on the way to pick him up. He began to put his backpack on, which would have rubbed over the two wounds. Debbie insisted that he not do that. The state of shock this young person was in became more painfully obvious. Debbie noticed some dampness on the back of his head. He knelt down so she could look closer. As she spread his hair aside to look at his scalp he again was responding, "You don’t need to touch me." He had a rather long gash or cut on the back of his head.
Again we stressed the need for medical attention, particularly because he seemed still intent on getting to work. He then walked away, off campus to go meet his friend.
We once again returned to our bench, stunned, and not feeling released from this situation. We tried to replay what had just gone on and make some sense of it. We got up again, this time to leave campus. We knew we needed to find this young man.
We circled about a four-block area, walking past a neighborhood coffee house that had become a place to hang out for attendees at the Gathering. We circled back to campus with no sight of him. Deb remembered that he had mentioned the transit center, which was a block beyond where we had just walked. We set out again. As we approached the transit center, we could see several police officers and a couple of squad cars.
We told the police of our experience with this young man. They explained that there had been a big gang fight here earlier and that three youths had been sent to the emergency room. They asked for a complete description of the young man and for our names and phone numbers. We then seemed to be at liberty to go.
Suddenly, Debbie started walking away from us toward the parking lot. She had sighted a station wagon driven by a young man on a cell phone pulling into the parking lot. I then saw the wounded youth emerge from the shadows of a school yard across the street and come running to his friend’s car. I ran to catch up with him. By the time I got there we were surrounded by a bunch of squad cars and more police.
An exchange of glances between Debbie and me. Do we stay or do we go? We stayed, primarily to watch the police and their handling of this situation. They did not cuff him. They were immediately giving him medical attention and taking his vitals. It seemed okay. Again, were we done here or not? "We need to give him our names and phone numbers." I scrawled that information on a dining hall napkin. It seemed more appropriate to give it to the young man’s friend, who was standing just outside the circle of activity.
I walked over to him and said something inane like, "Has something like this happened before?" "No," said the friend, but his buddy had been in trouble with the cops before. I gave the friend the napkin, told him we were at a conference at the college, and that if his friend needed anything, he should call us. Anything. I then tapped him on the arm with my finger, firmly saying, "And you—you be a good friend to him."
I walked back to Debbie. We stood awhile outside the circle and watched. We felt done. Not complete, but done. We walked the four blocks back to campus. Here we immediately crossed paths with Elizabeth, Debbie’s traveling companion and elder for her ministry. We bubbled over with the surreal description of what we had just experienced.
I shared the story with only a few Friends at the Gathering. The weight I felt from it made me wonder if I was carrying a message for the next day’s FLGBTQC meeting for worship. But Way did not open. In that worship my clearest sense was that I needed to carry this home and paint it—to call forth the experience and let it come through my hand, my brush onto the paper. I had done a similar thing last winter with my Pigeon River painting. I intentionally focused all the emotion and memories that got stirred up in seeing the movie Brokeback Mountain and poured them into the act of creating that painting.
This experience has lain on my heart like a hot coal. I am greatly affected by it. I feel I am still carrying a part of it with me, not knowing what it means, or what I am to do with it.
Since being home I have sat several times attempting to express the experience with this wounded youth in brush work. But it has not been there to release.
I have shifted to just sitting in meditation and replaying the whole experience in my head. One piece that has come forward is a glimmer of memory of having had this urge to place my hand on the youth’s wounds and heal them. At the time I ignored that guidance, thinking I don’t do things like that, or at least not in public with strangers. Now, when I hold that impulse and imagine that I had done that, the weight of the experience lifts. I sit at home with my hands extended—as if to hold a palm closely over the wound on his back, and another over the wound on his chest. I imagine myself allowing whatever energy that could pass through my hands to "heal" this young man. And the weight on my heart lifts.
—but who is my neighbor?
I am haunted by these words—the theme for this year’s FGC Gathering here in River Falls, Wisconsin. This episode with the wounded young man took place the night before that theme was announced to the Tacoma Gathering. I had spent the week before coming to the West Coast creating the graphic for this upcoming Gathering. A simple black and white image with the words of the theme surrounded by a question mark made up of circular photos.
In designing it, I wanted to explode the idea of neighbor, mixing in a few identifiable faces with others. I wanted to push Friends out of our comfort zone. (What do Donald Rumsfeld, Britney Spears, and Jerry Falwell have in common? Are they my neighbor? Nooooooooo way! —Way.)
I am still aware of the tenderness of my heart where it was seared by that experience—aware of how this act of violence came crashing deep into my experience of being at the Gathering, breaking the protective bubble that can surround us there, as I sat with a dear Friend on a park bench.
I continue to hear the echoes of that young man’s voice telling us, "You don’t have to touch me. You don’t have to touch me." I feel a painful sadness.
I remember the sight of those wounds on such a beautiful young body with images of Christ and St. Sebastian flashing through my mind.
I try to make some sense of it.
I find none.
It makes no sense.
And yet I am still required to respond —but who is my neighbor?