Jesus of the Streets: Honoring “Duff”

duffBy Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal, former professor emeritus at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary

For the last number of years a rag-tag bunch of us have remembered Good Friday by utilizing the Catholic liturgical tradition known as the Stations of the Cross. However the particular form we have employed is borrowed from the radical liberation theologians from Latin America, a practice which departs from standard piety by moving into the streets both to stand in solidarity “for” and “with” those crushed by poverty within our midst and to challenge that imperially driven alliance of corporations and their political sycophants which sustains and undergirds a socio-economic war against the poor. We carry signs, posters, have readings and pass out leaflets.

begging jesusFor me, one of the highpoints is a brief moment of silent prayer before a sculpture by St. Andrews Presbyterian Church called “the Begging Jesus.” The sculptor Timothy Schmalz has also crafted the well-known “Homeless Jesus”, adopted by Pope Francis. For a handful of years this “Begging Jesus” brought to life for me that Radical Christ who demonstrated solidarity with the marginalized and vulnerable among us, so much so that he had to die rather than threaten the imperial deities of wealth and power.

But not this year! My “Jesus” is not a statue but rather a flesh and blood “Jesus of the Streets.” I could look up his full name, but for me and so many others we knew him as “Duff.” On December 29 this fifty-one year old man of the streets had a heart attack which killed him. What followed was an outpouring of pain and sorrow for the loss. For once a death among the poor and forgotten trumped all the phoniness of civic funerals which eulogize the powerful and wealthy. Jesus was murdered in his early thirties, so I suggest you take “Duff’s” photo and make it look about ten years younger, yes ten not twenty. Why just ten years? Because, like Duff, Jesus was from peasant stock, hit the road as a radical wandering “sh*&-disturbing” preacher who lived what he taught in such words as “Blessed are the poor; God’s reign belongs to you”, and with equal force “Woe to you rich since you have your consolation now.”

So I see Jesus looking and acting more like Duff than the well-shaved, white-robed safe and sanitized Jesus that is portrayed in our churches and offers no challenge to the status-quo. This Jesus becomes safely embedded in our theologies and liturgies. “Duff” lived on the streets, personally facing homelessness, and yet he was everywhere with the “casts off” in our city’s core. He challenged our elected officials to move beyond words by inviting them to come with him to see folk dying from the drug-shot overdoses, often with dirty needles, to witness the fights and violence in the alleys.

Virtually every time I left my suburban enclave to hang out at our local Working Centre’s cafe (the Queen Street Commons), often with sisters and brothers of our advocacy group the Alliance Against Poverty (AAP), I would run into “Duff” and listen to his wisdom, always sprinkled with the “F” word in its multitude of forms. I would run into him quite frequently, on our city buses. and often bump into him on the streets where he mixed and jawed with all and sundry, especially those denizens known as “street people.” Of course, he had his faults; I do not “idolize” him, if for no other reason, that would put him at a safe and saintly distance, you know, like we do with Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and others.

So, although tired and hampered by my Parkinsons, especially in this inclement winter season, I will join those who loved and still love “Duff” at the rough-and-tumble St. John’s Soup Kitchen this Friday (February 1st.) for his memorial, followed by an hour walk in the city’s core where “Duff” could be seen constantly. Immediately thereafter we will gather at the Kitchener’s indoor market to eat munchies and share stories, as well as hearing words from those who knew him well. Short of an absolute emergency I feel I must be there to honor my “Jesus of the Streets.”

Last week, about two hours before our AAP meeting at the Working Centre itself, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss, because emotionally I was prepared to see “Duff” and then instantaneously remembered that only his spirit was present, especially in the words people wrote by his posted photos on the cafe’s bulletin board. Our city’s daily newspaper had stories about him, as did our local Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). For once a vagabond saint has captured the local imagination instead of the standard puffed-up phoniness and eulogies rendered to the elites, either dead or retiring.

“Rough and Tough Duff,” there will be no buildings in your name, no cathedrals built, no civic centers to honor you, but like Jesus, until he became co-opted by imperial power, you will live in the hearts of those broken and cast aside souls, as well as with those like myself, who timidly and fearfully look to you to lead us, however slowly, down that dangerous anti-establishment path. Thank you, Duff, for being my “Jesus of the streets” with, of course, your creative abundant usage of the “F” word.

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