Dead man on the sidewalk

He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.

When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.

That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.

Image courtesy Elizabeth Odhner

The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.

Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.

“I always wait.” he says.

Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.

“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.

I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.

Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.

A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.

A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.

A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.

A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.

Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.

I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?

As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.

“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.

“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.

Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)

At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.

I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?

Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.

Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”

In the Andre House Catholic Worker, Phoenix, AZ

Elizabeth Odhner

Elizabeth-DiedrichOriginally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nurse in Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.


With apologies to Agathon
Image courtesy of

“O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”

~ Agathon

Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.

And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.

But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.

When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.

I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.

In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

The hope rock

With one hand I grip my luggage and move slowly down an air-bridge at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. With my other hand, I reach around to check that my backpack is securely zipped. My skin brushes a cool and smooth rock poking through the mesh pocket on the outside of my bag. I turn to my friend, Sister Priscilla, and point to the palm-sized glacial stone decorated with colored markers. With a hushed voice I quickly explain, “I forgot this hope rock was in my bag, I made it when I was leading a retreat a few weeks ago. I’m glad I’m bringing a hope rock to the border.”

Sister Priscilla and I were on our way to meet other members of Giving Voice at the Tucson airport so we could go to the SOAW Convergence at the Border. In Nogales, the giant border town that straddles the line between southern Arizona and northern Sonora, we would join immigrants, activists, and other religious for a weekend of speeches, song, and prayer. We would rally on both sides of the border fence, not far from where…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora.  Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

ugly body

orange over me

upon still solemn sidewalk

silent under black

My breathing quickens.

the truth is too tight:

innocent men are confined

tortured to death

human-inflected trauma

in the name of national security

The cells of my eyes water what my heart holds.

my love, Jesus, tortured by thorns, nails, cross

laments stab while questions weigh on a helpless body

centuries later the crowds still scream crucify

My bones grind and stiffness sets into sore feet and knees.

prayers are uttered into Mary’s ear, as she knows

secrets of torture techniques told

“feels like drowning two hundred times.”

“hanging by wrists for hours, no sleep.”





My body shudders with shame.

trying to yell NO the over-used too old sign bares challenge:

let it close, it needs to end.

sorrow looks through cloth pores

there, no dignity

here,  fashions rush by wasting fast food, texting into cellular phones

ignoring the pain of the ugly orange body

I don’t understand.

Yesterday,  June 23,  I vigiled with a few other members of Witness Against Torture  on a sidewalk at a busy intersection in Chicago.   I wore an orange jumpsuit and a black hood like the men who are imprisoned at Guantanamo.  (I am the second person from the left in the photo above.)  I stood as a reminder of what tax dollars still pay for.  While I prayed in solidarity for all who suffer because of torture, others answered questions.  And, at the same time, 15 protesters were arrested in Washington DC for disrupting the discussion on the defense bill in the House of Representatives. Today, the day after I had the intense experience of wearing that ugly outfit, Guantanamo is still open. I will never be the same because of what I felt inside that hood.  My prayer and work for justice has deepened.

May God bless all our bodies. Amen.