I work in mental health, with some of the most disadvantaged, vulnerable, vilified and misrepresented people in the country. People living in poverty, simply because they have a mental illness; people who face judgement and persecution, so subtly that it goes unnoticed even by them. “The mentally ill? Aren’t they dangerous?” – if I’d a dollar for every time I was asked that question I wouldn’t need to work at all. Nut jobs, freaks, crazies: the woman you don’t make eye contact with because she’s muttering and gesticulating to herself in the supermarket; the man whose gaze you don’t meet when you think he’s drunk at ten o’clock in the morning, because he hasn’t touched a drop in years but his meds make him slur his words. Maligned, misunderstood. Untouchables. People. Souls.
My boss and I were sharing a quiet moment of despair today, and she said to me, “How do you touch the untouchable?” It was a good question and I love that her questions make me think, but this time I didn’t need to think: I had the answer, and I heard the conviction in my own voice.
How do we touch the untouchable? By making eye contact. By smiling. By listening, and really hearing, and allowing what we hear to touch us. By sharing moments of simple humanity. By showing up when you say you will, doing what you say you’ll do. By showing courtesy and respect. By refusing to be fearful of what you don’t understand. By acknowledging that some people – most people – are fighting a battle you can’t see, and to which you’ll probably never be privy; and by honouring the privilege of being let in to the deep fears and darknesses which dwell at the heart of each of us. By letting the very presence of these people on the planet change us.
I’m not usually one to ask the What Would Jesus Do? question, because I think it’s bandied around and used to justify actions that I’m tolerably certain Jesus would never have taken. But in this case I have to ask it. How did the itinerant, ritually unclean, rebel teacher from a dusty backwater of the Roman Empire – the same rabbi who showed us what it is to be of God, who carried our darkness and drew death into the very being of the Creator – touch the untouchable?
He did it by acknowledging them. By holding out a hand, by allowing them to reach out to the hem of his garment without pulling away. By meeting their eyes and refusing to allow litigious ideas of cleanliness to pull him back. By holding hope, and roaring out the reality that each person he touched – each person he still touches – is a shining fragment of the Divine.
How did he touch the untouchable? Simply: by touching them. How do we touch the untouchable? Exactly the same way.