The Soloist – Mental Illness

We saw the film The Soloist today.  As one who serves an inner city congregation and has contact with men and women who are mentally ill and who live on the streets, I found this portrayal to hold such deep truth.  So many men and women who are mentally ill live on the streets. They are first and foremost individuals, people with hearts, and histories, and the need for friends.  We are clear that our mental health system has abandoned so many.  Yet, the answers are not clear.  The issues and behaviors are complex, to say the least, and cannot be romanticized.  Those with extreme untreated schizophrenia live in a world that most of us cannot understand.  Very often we respond in fear, and in self protection.  I understand why:  not because they are violent (they seldom are) or are a threat to us, but because we are at a loss and do not know how to relate with care, while keeping appropriate boundaries for ourselves and for the one who is ill.   That requires a level of work and commitment that most of us are not ready to give.   The one who is mentally ill, very often does not function within expected and accepted  social boundaries.

In The Soloist, Nathanial and other homeless, mentally ill people in the community have needs and passions rooted in their life experiences — just as we all do.  Theirs are just muddled in a mind that is jumbled; that at least I don’t understand.  Nathanial’s ways of speech and expression are so familiar.  I confess that there have been times when I have heard this apparently nonsensical mixture of words, phrases and images and I have written that person off.  I have forgotten that she or he is someone trying to make sense of her/his world, trying to express a concern or a need.  Perhaps my care and respect for her as person is what I can give at that moment. All too often, it is not that those who are mentally ill and homeless do not have families; but that those who loved them have worn out, given up, reached the point of not knowing what to do.  Worn down by their behaviors, their families have backed away out of a need to care for themselves and others in the family.

The Soloist, though affirming the need to care for the individual as he is, leaves us with the difficult question of how we as communities best care for those living with mental illness.  Yes, we need to offer friendship without the need to “fix” the person.  On the other hand, how can we offer protection and care and, yes, helpful treatment when possible.  The need to respect the individuality and rights of the person cannot mean that we stop searching for ways to improve the life conditions of those who are ill.

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Where’s the outrage?

Yesterday, I took that bike ride with a woman in the congregation. It was beautiful day and we road 16 miles. It felt good. Today I talked with a colleague about the images of the shooting still in my head. The sense of anger and frustration at not being able to stop the violence. The very particular pain at not knowing what happened to this specific young man. We talked about the fact that so many in our society just shrug and seem to accept that young black men kill each other. It is as if it is somehow okay. As if this young man — any young man or woman — is dispensable. Where is the outrage? I know there is outrage in the Black community and in the Black Church. Where is the outrage in the white community, and every other community?

If a white kid had been shot in that spot two days ago, wouldn’t the neighborhood be shocked, outraged, looking for answers? I realize it is not about me or how I feel; it’s about the young man in the white t-shirt laying in the street. But I believe my inability to get past seeing him is precisely because I saw him. I don’t want it to be okay. I don’t want it to be normal. I don’t want it to be just “what they do” (as someone said to me). That is not acceptable. That acceptance is what grows out of racism.

I think of youth who have been active in the church — Some are still here or perhaps in another place, but doing well — in school, or working, or raising their own families. There are others who are or have been in jail and in prison. Two currently. Both young black men with families who love them. I remember specifically when one of these boys was young. It was during a “Children’s Moment” in worship when we asked what they children wanted to do when they grew up. This young boy said that he wouldn’t grow up. He already knew older friends and family members who had been shot. He accepted what others accepted for his life. I ached and raged inside then. We tried for years to instill an expectation of life and purpose and future. Today, I am painfully aware of our failure.

We have work — ministry — to do.

This morning when we were on the street for “Happy Friday”, we were meeting people and serving coffee and cocoa as usual. It was not “as usual” however; I kept looking at the spot when the young man fell and lay. It wasn’t the same. It could not be the same.

This afternoon I planted flowers. The Director of our Isaiah 58 Hunger Program came outside and with some amount joy described how much those we serve in the food pantry and clothing room are enjoying resting on the new benches in the garden before they walk or catch a bus with the bags they are carrying. Today was fresh produce day; I found a banana peel by one of the benches. I had to smile; it was a good thing. A little thing, but I’ll take it. A good thing.

Shots Fired

In my dreams the very presence of the church in a place makes a difference in the community.  I believe that is true with Compton Heights CC as we see people receive care and nurture – through the worship, prayer, and faith sharing in the congregation, the sharing of food and clothing with those in need, help with employment for those searching for jobs, and the opportunity to discover and share our gifts to extend God’s love to others.  In my dreams, I see the church creating a safe space, a beautiful and nurturing space as people rest on benches in the church garden and share our lives in SOUL CARE.  Lately, I see these dreams being realized.

But today I was reminded once again, that we are present in the midst of the mess of society.  We do not take away, fix, or heal the anger and the violence.  We are in it with the rest of the community.

Late this afternoon, I was at my desk when I heard gunfire.  I ran to the window (probably not the best response to the sound of gunfire) and saw a young man fall to the street.  Others were running.  Some away and some toward him.  As I called 911, I could see the blood begin to come through his white t-shirt … it looked like he was shot to the side of the abdomen.  As I was describing what was happening, the dispatcher told me to let them know they were on the way.  But then 2 of the guys running toward him, picked him up out of the street and began carrying him to a truck they had parked at the corner.  They laid him in the bed of the truck (with no license plates) and sped off.  When I got outside, there was one other man who had tried to intervene.   He indicated that none of those involved would speak to him.  He, too, had called the police.  But they were intent on getting away before anyone could arrive.

As one of the officers interviewed me, I was aware of how difficult it was to describe everything I’d seen and heard.  How many shots?  How many people?  The make of the truck.  I mainly remembered colors – white shirt with blood coming through.  Green truck.  The light grey sweatshirt of the guy who jumped in the back of the truck with the one who’d been shot.  The contrast of the young man laying shot in the street with this beautiful, blue-skied day and the flowers blooming in the boulevard planters and the bank of roses on the opposite side of the street.   The dispatcher had asked me how much blood?  Now this officer wanted to know.  That widening circle on a white t-shirt on a human being.  It was as if my mind was stuck on that image.   And quiet — eerily quiet — a few shouts at first and then quiet.

The police combed the street and the planter for evidence, and then everyone was gone.  A few neighbors still standing outside staring.  But I looked at the street and it seemed unreal that only moments earlier, he was laying there — shot.  And then whisked away by those who wanted to protect themselves.  Gang activity.  It’s not new here.  We live just down the street and we’re familiar with the territories of the Bloods and the Crips.

We hope that our Isaiah 58 Ministries Youth Groups have a positive effect on kids, providing a place of  belonging so that they do not turn to gangs.  Covenant House is working in our neighborhood with youth who are on the edge.  We reach out beyond the church building to interact with people on the street in our neighborhood.  The reality, however, is that gang violence continues.  Young black men, in particular, lose their lives and take the lives of others for no reason.  They are looking for something sadly misnamed as ‘respect’ when, in fact, there is no respect in it.

Following the shooting, I needed to eat supper and then have a pastor’s cabinet meeting there at the church.  I was then and still am — hours later — shaken, and running the images over and over in my mind.  I’ve prayed for those young men and others like them.  I’ve prayed that the Church may make a difference; that we may set the table of reconciliation with God and God’s people right out there in the street.  Oh, God, let it be so.

Discussing “Amistad”

This evening 12 of us gathered at the church to watch and discuss the movie “Amistad”. This was a part of our denomination’s Reconciliation Ministry focus.  Reconciliation is our ministry to end racism.   The movie “Amistad” has been around for several years, however this year’s focus is rooted in the 200th anniversary of the abolishment of the slave trade in Britain.

The discussion this evening was very good; ranging from the specifics of the movie to the challenges of healing the racism in our community in St. Louis; to the racism and cultural alienation at work in American forays into other countries, such as Iraq at this time.  There is so much in this hard, hard story, but the central theme that emerged in our discussion was the importance of learning and telling the story of each person.  How easily we categorize people and then essentially forget that we are all people of God.  When we do not understand the language and the culture of another, it is all too easy to forget that this person, or these people, are as deeply human as we are.

For the first few minutes of the movie, we, the hearer, do not understand the language spoken, and the subtitles give us no help.  This section of the film lasts long enough to evoke frustration.  It is a profoundly effective preparation for the language and culture gap that must begin to be bridged for the trial of Cinque and the other 43 African people from the slave ship La Amistad.  We see both the African and American people making assumptions about each other and about the motivations of the other, when language and actions are not understood.  One of the members of our group noted that we see and interpret others through different lenses.

In the film we hear court debates about whose property the “cargo” of the Amistad is; Spain, Cuba, the United States?  There was an ability to carry on the conversation about property without ever considering that the “cargo” consisted of human beings who were no one’s property.  Their fate would depend on their story being told.  Not what  they were, but who they were.

We are no longer in the days of the Amistad.  However, we still limit the freedom and abundant life of God’s people because we do not learn and tell each other’s story.  We do not get past what we have labeled someone to be, to learn who that person is.  It is true across the lines of race, but also cultures and subcultures, sexual orientation, political party, age, and gender.  In learning to share our stories, we can set each other free, and live into God’s Realm of Peace.  The challenge is that it takes work to “hear each other into speech” (is that phrase from Nell Morton?).

Let it be.

The Summer Worship Dip

These are the days of the summer worship dip — when it seems that half the congregation is off taking a dip in the pool at the time of worship on Sunday mornings.   I know that this happens every year.  I know that a couple of months ago I was feeling encouraged by the energy in worship and the life of the congregation.  I know that it’s not about the numbers.  And I know that it takes a greater commitment in a small congregation to maintain that critical mass in worship than in a large congregation.   I know all these things and yet I am frustrated.   Unfortunately the  summer slump has a more significant effect on a small congregation.  Just a few regular worshipers absent each Sunday can significantly alter the experience of the community for others, especially for visitors and those looking for a church home.

In these recent weeks we have had quite a number of first time worshipers — some  we met at PrideFest who are looking for an Open and Affirming Congregation — some who have been invited by others — some who have found us through our website.  Yet when they arrive I feel that they do not experience the strength and wholeness of the congregation.

There are several challenges for me as pastor:

1.  To remain focused on what really matters:  on proclaiming the life-giving love of God and reaching out to nurture the congregation and those beyond.

2. To encourage the congregation to worship together when they are in town in the summer, without being negative about those who are taking vacation time away.

3.  To find creative ways to celebrate and worship together in the summer so that worship is full and complete for those who are present.

4.  To affirm that we all need time away and that those who give so much year round can benefit by spending time with family and finding time for rest.

5.   To love those who are present and let go of that pastor’s desire to control the congregation or even to believe I can control people’s experience of the congregation.

6.   To remember that we need only to be faithful and joyful; to live the ministry of Jesus Christ.

If others have insights or suggestions, I welcome them.  This is remains one of my growing edges.