James was a local legend in my home town. He “hung out” in downtown Rockford, Illinois, a dilapidated city center commercially orphaned in the age of malls and suburban sprawl. James acted as a kind of informal chaplain to Rockford’s social misfits: the homeless, the addicts, those with mental illness, the folks living in boarding homes, the urban refugees who wandered downtown for a bit of community.
It was said that James sent most of his monthly government disability checks to Mother Teresa. He frequently advocated for the rights of residents at a local mental health facility, often to the irritation of the directors. His letters to the editor, peppered with quotes from Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi, were a regular feature in the local paper. More than once he almost got beat up passing out self-prepared tracts outside bars, calling on people to repent and to be healed and to work for world peace and harmony.
When I first met James, I had just graduated from college and had moved back to Rockford to start a small intentional community we called “The Ashram.” James more than lived up to the legendary status. His appearance alone warranted notoriety. He was an explosion of long hair and beard, both flaming red. His wardrobe befitted an aging, veteran hippie. Most days he sported colorful hand-made T-shirts emblazoned with a gamut of religious and political messages:
“Jesus is Coming!”
“World Peace Now.”
He was, as one friend put it, a “walking 60’s lexicon.” His vocabulary was sprinkled with colorful hippieisms:
“It was really heavy, man.”
“I’m telling you, it was a downer.”
“Some kind of trip, man.”
James had lived through a series of life passages that included a stint in the military, a rock musician/acid head period, a dalliance with the Hare Krishna movement, and a “Jesus Freak” phase. When I got to know him, he seemed to be some kind of amalgam of all those experiences.
James’ whole being was imbued with an unabashed reverence for all life, like a local St. Francis, or a Hindu holy man. He was known to “liberate” stray animals that were locked up in the local pen. Were you indiscreet enough to swat a mosquito in his presence, you would be subject to a fervent sermon. “That’s life, man! You can’t just go and kill life! I mean, that’s your brother, man!”
Among the many great stories in the James Beam canon was the time he called up all his musician friends to solicit their help in staging a massive benefit concert in one of Rockford’s large parks. He put posters up around town promoting what he auspiciously titled, “The Concert to End War and Starvation” (this being long before “Live Aid”). The three dozen or so people who attended seemed to enjoy the afternoon of mostly amateur head-banging hard rock, though the event fell somewhat short of its lofty goal.
Among my personal memories of James, one encounter stands out as a milestone in my spiritual tutelage.
One early winter afternoon, James unexpectedly dropped by the Ashram, as he was wont to do. His usually invigorated mood was strikingly downcast.
He was just returning from a meeting with several members of City Council. He had tried to convince them to turn over to him the keys to one of the many abandoned buildings downtown. With another severe northern Illinois winter on its way, James was offering to run a low-key flop house. Clearly, there weren’t enough shelter beds for those who were homeless. He tried to assure the municipal worthies that he would be responsible, that it wouldn’t cost the city anything. After all, most of the folks living on the streets were his friends. He could assure everything would be safe. He could manage to somehow procure heat. He could easily scrounge for food, mats, blankets, or other necessary supplies. All he needed was a key to a building.
Unfortunately, what seemed entirely reasonable to James Beam was not so appealing to the City Council members. Their bureaucratic sensibilities put a damper on his plan. With a battery of arguments about fire codes, insurance, security, and whatever else, they squashed his moral zeal and made it clear that, thank you very much, but no key, no building.
As James recounted the meeting, he became increasingly agitated. “They were looking at me like I was crazy!” he shouted, waving his hands.
Then, he spoke words I will never forget:
“They’re gonna let people freeze to death in the streets, and they’re saying I’m crazy! They’re crazy, man!”
He was right. All James was trying to do was save some lives. The System not only refused him, they branded him insane.
I was a wet-behind-the-ears radical, fresh out of college and full of theories about social justice and gospel discipleship. In that moment, listening to James Beam, I was struck by some bizarre, profound truth. I felt like I had just been privy to a prophetic utterance that jolted my world, shifted my paradigms.
Many years later, more experienced but perhaps a bit more jaded, I vividly remember James Beam’s words. These days, I might harbor some sympathy with the City Council members. After all, I have worked with programs that serve folks who are homeless. I am aware of the paperwork, the bureaucracy, but also the very real needs of building and fire codes, safety and security, and sundry regulations. I also know the fragilities of many of the men and women who experience homelessness. In my mature understanding, I would harbor some uncomfortable hesitations about simply bringing troubled folks in from the streets without certain programmed supports.
Looking back, I also recognize that James had his own fragility, his own struggle with mental health. Much of the colorful and impassioned facets of his personality could, I suppose, be diagnosed and rooted in some deep psychological wounds.
I have, over the years, become reasonable. Yet there he stands in front of me, fiercely unreasonable, with wild red hair, tie-dyed T-shirts, and assorted eccentricities, saying: “They’re gonna let people freeze to death, and they’re saying I’m crazy. They’re crazy, man!”
I can’t help but think of another outlandish character who also spouted crackpot wisdom:
“Blessed are the poor.”
“The last shall be first.”
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
“Take no thought for what you will eat or drink.”
“When they abuse and persecute you, rejoice and be glad.”
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the other cheek as well.”
“Take up your cross and follow me.”
Is it too much to compare James Beam with Jesus? Maybe. But I think of James’ reckless love that defied the reasonable social order. I think of his absurd compassion, his boundless cherishing of life. I recall how he lived in communion with society’s “untouchables.” Whatever his fragilities or even lunacy, James lived his life with a crystal clear truthfulness that tore into the heart of our common-sense world. He grasped, as much as anyone I have ever encountered, the topsy-turvy ethics of Jesus.
Everyone thought James Beam was crazy. And maybe he was. Crazy as the Gospel. Loony as the Beatitudes. Struck with the madness of God. He was certainly crazy enough to think that if you could do something to keep people from freezing to death on the streets, you should just do it.
If that’s crazy, may James Beam and Jesus save me from my sanity.
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