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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Urban Way of the Cross Walk

The Maundy Thursday Tenebrae and Communion is over and now we sleep until Good Friday.  I always like our Good Friday Way of the Cross Walk.  We started the walk several years ago and it has grown, now including seven congregations of five denominations — Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Mennonite, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ.

The walk will begin in the sanctuary of our DOC congregation and conclude at one of the Presbyterian congregations.  The walk usually includes people of all ages, including babies in strollers, and elders. One year a 15 year-old boy skateboarded most of the way.  Tomorrow it will likely be raining; even then a hardy smaller group will walk.

The Way is casual and involves everyone in leadership.  Each person has a copy of the 14 Stations we have created, with readings, reflections,  prayers, and songs.  As we walk between stations, the leader simply asks different people to read or lead prayer at the next station.

Ours is an inner-city neighborhood.  We create a different route through the streets and identify different stations each year.  Over time the stations have included such places as:  local markets, a fire station, a clinic serving Vietnamese immigrants, an alley where a young girl was murdered, nursing homes, boarded-up abandoned buildings,  mental health facilities, a coffee house welcoming those in the LGBT community, schools,  etc.   At each place, we make the connection between Jesus ministry and the path toward his crucifixion and our own ministry and the cost of discipleship.

Tomorrow our stops will include the telephone company, an area of small businesses, a nursing home, the Missouri School for the Blind, a residence for adults living with mental illness, a struggling residential area, a school that is being closed,   a building, now for sale, that housed a program for troubled youth, but had to move because the neighborhood residents did not want the program near them, a Center for Early Learning that supports both children and families, and a new neighborhood bakery and art center, a park, and an Ecumenical Food Pantry and Urban Ministry center.

As we create the route each year, and then walk it in prayer and reflection with others in our community, it is an opportunity unlike any other  to really see our neighborhood.  We see what is going well and we see the challenges.

Children in the Church

One of the gifts of being a pastor is to share in the joy of children.  In the life-cycle of our congregations we inevitably move through times with more children and times with fewer children.  Wherever we are in that cycle, the congregation may be vital in its life and ministry.  We need not fall into the trap of speaking of children as the future of the congregation; and thereby imply that a congregation with no children or few children at a particular time has no future. (It has been pointed out that in our mobile society, very few of those who grew up in a particular congregation are still in that congregation.)  Children are certainly the future of the Church (universal) in the sense that the children nurtured in faith today will be among those who become Christ’s Church in the world.

Primarily, however, children are the present of the congregation and the wider Church.  We are not waiting on them to grow up; to become something beyond who they are in this moment.  Rather, we learn what it means to be human and what it means to be people of faith as we live with every child at every age with every ability.

When I was first called to this inner city congregation, 13 years ago, there was a very active group of children.  Some were the children of families in the congregation, but most were children from the neighborhood whose parents did not attend church.  The congregation needed to take on the responsibility for the nurture and care of these children who had no parental supervision while in church.  I was awed by the willingness and the commitment of some very special adults who were deeply committed to being Church with all the kids — even when behavior was a challenge!

We developed a “Pew Partner” program in which we paired children with adults who would sit with them in worship, build relationships of trust and care over time.  Years later we would see some of these ‘children’ (now grown up) come back and seek out those special adults who been their pew partners. Some of these, though not still active here, have come back for us to meet their young children.

There were adults who made sure that every child who could possibly go to Church Camp was able to go — even when the child’s family could not pay the usual half of the camp registration.  Then there were those adults who made the commitment to go to Church Camp themselves; to be there because we knew that our kids from the inner city sometimes brought extra challenges to the camping environment.

In the midst of it all, I am convinced that we are the ones who were touched by love, transformed by God’s gift in each child.  Especially I — who like things fairly ordered and in control — grew as a result of the relationship with each child.  I’ll never forget the day that one little boy was serving as acolyte.  It was the end of the service and he came forward to take the light out.  Walking down the aisle with the lit candlelighter, he disappeared into the narthex.  Soon there was smoke.  Apparently — as described in a way that only he could put it — there was the fire and there was the stack of left over worship bulletins.  Fire — worship bulletins.  He just wanted to see if they would burn!  The deacons did have the fire out by the time I got down the aisle.

Then there was the day I had call from a neighbor down the street.  She wanted to know about our ‘collecting money in the neighborhood to pay the church bills!”  (This is never a good start to a call from a church neighbor.)  She proceeded to describe 3 boys who came to her door with offering boxes (a second really bad sign!) and told her that they were from our congregation and we needed help paying the bills.  I, of course, assured her that we never collect money in that way, and that I would be getting back to her.  I called a couple of church members who came and joined me in going door to door to do some damage control, and find out who all had been approached by our ‘creative little stewardship team.’

As the story unfolded we discovered that the kids had ‘borrowed’ a few offering boxes and decided to gather some spending money.  By that evening their mom was taking them door to door to make their apologies and their restitution.   Some interesting pastoral conversations were to follow in the days to come.

The children who remain fixed in my deepest memory are Jelissa (5), William (4), and Erica (4) who were killed in a tragic housefire.  It was the horrible, sickening case of a slum-lord who had no alarms and had the back door blocked off.  They could not escape.  The image of Jelissa sitting with me during a choir practice just prior to that dreadful day, and of William throwing his arms up in the air in Church School in Easter morning, saying “He rose up!”   And now these prescious children were just gone from our midst.  As I reached the last of the three little caskets for the commendation in their funeral service, I truly did not know if I could speak the words a third time.  I pray that I never again …

For a few years the congregation was in the place of having very few children.  Now we seem to be beginning again.  Just this past Sunday, 5 year old little girl came running up to show me her new shoes and the little hearts at the hem of her long pants.  Only a few weeks ago, another 5 year old little girl who is autistic and does not speak, slipped her hand in mine for the first time.  I was in awe of this gift of relationship.  There are 3 boys at this time who serve as acolytes and who walk down the aisle with such reverence that the congregation is in awe.  (And not one of them has set the bulletins on fire!)

In the past 5 months, we have welcomed the births of 4 babies.  What a joy it is to bless these newborn gifts of God, and to explore the wonder of it (and the challenge) of it all with these new parents.

I am blessed. We are blessed.  Thanks be to God.

Pastor’s Lectionary Study Group

Like many pastors, I meet weekly with an ecumenical group of colleagues for lectionary study.  This is not the first wonderful group of this kind in my years of ministry; I’ve been fortunate to participate in three of these.  This group meets on Tuesday mornings at 8:30, rotating our gatherings between our different church buildings.  In recent summers, when our schedules are less dependable, we have held our gatherings in a neighborhood coffee shop.

The group at this time includes 2 Disciples of Christ, 2 United Church of Christ, 2 Presbyterian, and 1 Episcopal Church pastors/priest.  We are 3 women and 4 men.  We are gay and straight. We are in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.   We are high church and low church and somewhere in between. We are congregational pastors, hospice chaplain, and a director of an ecumenical urban ministry.  Our congregations/ministries are all located within about a 2 mile radius — in the inner city.

The added gift is that our congregations have grown to share in ministry together through outreach, worship, and special events. Just last week, one of the Presbyterian congregations hosted the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper that was a fundraiser for our outreach ministry.  Then all of the congregations shared in our “Ashes to Go” on the street on Ash Wednesday.  And that evening, we shared in Ash Wednesday worship hosted at the Episcopal church.   On Maundy Thursday, we will be at one of the UCC churches.  And on Good Friday, we will all share in our annual “Way of the Cross Walk” through our neighborhood.  Almost 40 years ago three of our congregations, along with another that is no longer in existence, developed the ecumenical urban ministry that we now all support (along with the support of many other congregations in the metropolitan area).

This morning, as we sat together in the library of our Disciples congregation studying our preaching text for this coming Sunday, I could not help but think of the amazing gift of this community of pastors and congregations.  As pastors we support each other personally.  We listen to and challenge each other.  We laugh and we cry together.  We are able to share and help each other work through difficult times in our congregations.  As congregations, we grow and change and deepen in our ministry through relationship with each other.

I have been in lectionary groups that used a research approach, bringing a variety of resources from theological and biblical scholars to the text each week.  That was a good approach.  This group, however, approaches the text through Lectio Divina.  I have grown to cherish the experience of group lectio and the prayerful, always fresh connection to the text that emerges from our time together.

This type of group cannot always be created.  Some groups work and some do not.  There are times and situations that are more or less conducive.  Every group is different.  But I am convinced that, through these relationships, the ministry of the Church is strengthened in ways we would never have imagined.

Thanks be to God for my dear, dear friends in ministry!

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.