From Word Made Flesh staff and Chris Heuertz's blog...
Here’s a song about our friend, Tuna.
Tuna sleeps on the sidewalk across the street from one of Kolkata’s (formerly Calcutta, India) largest outdoor markets. He spends his days outside the Government Art College.
Tuna carries all he owns in a bag or tied up in a blanket. He usually has some old notebooks or a newspaper completely filled with sketches and drawings. Sometimes he has another shirt or some soap or a toothbrush, but that is about all. He often makes friends with a street dog that will follow him around and sleep with him at night on the sidewalk. A mere 96 pounds, Tuna looks like he could be about 20 years older than he is.
If you saw him on the street, you might give him some change, but most of us wouldn’t give him the time of day. Tuna is a visibly broken man. Sadness is carved into his face. His kind eyes reflect a deep sense of the tragic.
Word Made Flesh community members first met Tuna in 1995, but it wasn’t until a few years later that we actually got to know him. Over the past decade, many WMF community members have given themselves to a deeper relationship with Tuna.
Read the rest of this story and more stories about returning dignity to impoverished people on Chris Heuertz blog.
Getting to know Tuna hasn’t been easy. For the most part, Tuna lives in his own world, and trying to tap into it is as difficult a task as any. When someone is able to make a tangible connection with him, it’s short-lived and easily interrupted by the slightest of distractions.
People who live and work in the area where Tuna spends most of his time have filled in some of the mysterious gaps about his past. They say that Tuna was a very talented and successful art student until something terrible happened to his brother. Whatever that crisis was, it was so traumatic that Tuna broke under the burden of it and went to the streets. He has never been the same since and it seems very unlikely that he will ever be the same again.
Most of our interactions with Tuna happen over a meal at Khalsa’s, a little “Northwestern Frontier Restaurant” run by a kind Punjabi family. Over the years, the WMF community has contributed to a running tab allowing Tuna to eat there as often as he’d like — for most of us not a big deal, but for a homeless man it’s been an answer to his prayers.
But Tuna doesn’t like to eat alone. So, sadly, he often goes without meals while he waits patiently on the streets, looking for a friend to join him for lunch. Though he expects you to pay for it, he is not looking for a handout. He is looking for an opportunity to be known and accepted over a cup of sweet milk tea (with lots and lots of sugar) or a plate of fish curry.
When he sees a friend, he will shout out their name and come running. He immediately asks to be taken to lunch or at least for a cup of tea. A friend once asked him if he had already had a cup of tea that morning, to which Tuna replied, “Yes. Five cups.” The friend then asked how many cups Tuna could drink in one day. After some thought, Tuna replied, “About fifty.”
Tuna also loves to go to see movies if someone will take him—especially if they have “good action.” Be warned, though: a movie is never enough, and ice cream is always in order once the movie has completed.
Over many meals we’ve sat with Tuna and tried to get him to talk about himself. After gentle persistence, he sometimes begins to recall things from his “old life.” In eruptions of surprising vulnerability, Tuna has said that he had three brothers and sisters. He’s said that his real name is Dipankar Pal (a typical Bengali name). He seemed to want to remember, but there was something that wouldn’t let him.
As a typical artist, Tuna is constantly drawing. And as a form of payment for the meals provided on his behalf, he loves to draw the faces of the friends with whom he eats. And nearly every one of these precious portraits are scribbled out on a slightly used Khalsa’s napkin.
As he sits down with a pen and begins to fill whatever paper he has at hand with tiny, seemingly confusing little scratches and lines that magically become the portrait of whomever he is sitting with, he shares his story bit by bit.
when we befriend people who are poor
it is not our job to save them, but to love them.
His napkin sketches seem to speak a truth. An artist and WMF community member once wrote after observing Tuna’s drawings, “I appreciate the vitality and the magic of drawing. In a few lines with a ball-point pen on a napkin, a human person appears. It is a record of an intimate dinner conversation. The pen is the sensitive instrument able to carry a pulse and the tender humanity of the person holding it.”
Another WMF staff member reflected on his own portrait Tuna had drawn: “A friend recently penned a picture of me on a napkin as we shared lunch together. What he created conjured up many of these thoughts in a moment of hopefulness. His crooked lines and scribbles provided a portrait that depicted much more than myself. It helped me to see, with new eyes, the humanity that has been gifted to us.”
The napkins we walk away with are a tangible reminder that, although Tuna is poor and we have come to serve Jesus among the poor, we receive so much from him—namely an invitation to be known and accepted.
Being friends with Tuna has been transformational for the entire WMF community. It has challenged us to move from a mentality of programmed ministry to one of relationship.
For so long, many of us have perpetuated a mentality that has been one of ministering to the poor as objects and recipients of compassion and charity. But Tuna has reminded us of our need to include those who are poor in our lives through intimate relationships — not to see those who are poor as people we “minister to,” but those we identify with.
Being in relationship with Tuna has allowed us to move from donor to receptor. When we view him as a person with intrinsic dignity that points to his proper identity, we receive tremendous gifts from him. In our efforts and prayers to help “liberate” Tuna from his physical, emotional and spiritual poverty, we have found ourselves being “liberated” by his presence in the life of our community. Though we had hoped to give to Tuna, he always seemed to give us more.
Let this shirt be a challenge to every person who wears it to seek out relationships with those the world sees as unimportant. For it is those who seemingly have nothing to give who will give us the most. In seeking to love God, we must follow God’s children — those who are weak, those who are vulnerable — with an expression of that love embodied through voices reminding us to keep our love pure.
Tuna’s story is unfinished. It’s a restless reminder of process and longing. Though he’s been offered all forms of assistance, he opts to stay on the streets and live on his terms. As strange as it might sound to others, he has his rhythm of life.
What’s unresolved in his life is painful for him and painful to many of his friends. In our relationship with Tuna, we are reminded that when we befriend people who are poor it is not our job to save them, but to love them.
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