I arrived on campus a week early for leadership training and to help move in new students soon to arrive. On the day freshmen flooded the campus, I noticed a tall, gangly black guy, very peculiar because he was albino and had chiseled facial features. He dressed like an older gentleman and appeared to have stepped right out of the 70s. I wondered who might get him as a roommate.
It was a real surprise seeing him moved into my room later that day. His name was James, and he was an interesting fellow. James was a quiet and pensive person and slightly shy. Staunchly conservative, he often ranted about the way things should be when issues raised his ire.
But James also had a lighter side. He was funny to watch when something excited him because he was prone to giddiness, and he sounded like Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants when he laughed. He loved pizza and was a movie buff. Bond was his man.
On campus, James hung out with a bunch the very replica of Fat Albert’s misfit friends of which he was the leader. He stuck out anywhere he went, more for his beanpole look and adornment in his favorite burgundy or green suit and Gatsby cap—yes, on campus. I would often chuckle watching him go to and fro.
But James had an issue. Perhaps I should say that I too had the issue since it was the second time I had to experience this type of thing at college. James had bad body odor. I suspected that it may have resulted from some type of problem in his body. My first roommate two years prior had awful odor, but he was merely unhygienic. I confronted him and the problem ceased. This was something I wasn’t sure could go away.
The odor was bad—putrid bad. I would walk in the room and detect a strong mothball scent and then the smell of decay. So when he was out of the room, I would sniff around and investigate. His clothes were my red flag that this was a personal issue because James wasn’t an unclean person.
I sat in class one winter day wearing my favorite sweater and suddenly smelled James’s scent reeking from me! I knew then that I had no other option but to confront him. Soon others on the floor took notice, and these guys weren’t the most considerate ones to handle a situation like this. I had to watch out for my own pride, too. I was the floor chaplain. Peers and other student leaders came to my room for different reasons. I didn’t want them to think I stank.
I built my nerve and decided to talk with James. It was easier to do with this roommate, but, as always, I first prayed for the right opportunity. I knew without doubt that this was an issue in his life; it was obvious to everyone else, but he never acknowledged it. I remember meeting his parents those first few days and observed how closely they kept tabs on him and all the more now with him alone halfway across the country. There was much he wasn’t saying, and I knew I had to cover him.
This is when the situation became less about James and more a search for trustworthiness and authentic care in me. I became empathetic and made myself feel the snickers and stares he drew, to feel what it’s like to be the misfit and last man chosen on the team every time. The one forced to walk alone; forced to love libraries and bookstores (because books don’t judge); forced to share yourself in fragments as you’ve had to teach and reteach yourself who to trust in what might as well be a jungle of suspects, Christian or not.
No one else was thinking this way and I knew it. Not even the group he hung out with on the floor was reaching out to him. I had to do it, not because I was Chaplain or older than everyone else. I knew that people could be cruel and cruel motives have devastating consequences. Sometimes neglect alone does it.
People don’t handle the truth about themselves well. We all have deep-seated issues and flaws that others may know or that we know about others. But we don’t glibly use that information because it’s sensitive and highly charged. People shut down when they are psychologically denuded and made to lose face. They get scared and fidgety and depressed. They fly off the deep end and kill people. James’s B.O. became a much smaller matter after I considered the stakes.
I trusted God for the right moment and it presented itself. I told James about the odor and asked him if he had an issue in his body. (Too private?) I offered some possible solutions to our problem. He mostly nodded. Then, I told him what my real concern was: him not being hurt. He opened up to me and explained that he had always been picked on for how he looked and said he knew about the odor.
In the end, it was meaningful to him that I had been honest, and he was appreciative for how I handled the situation. He controlled the problem better, too. He became very loyal to me his chaplain and roommate. The lesson has profoundly shaped my character.