On a pretty regular basis, I help out at a center that serves men and women in our community who are homeless. It is a worship service and meal. Simple and incredibly moving. The reasons people come are diverse. Some are chronically homeless, others recently lost jobs or had a major illness. For women, domestic and sexual violence are a pretty common reason for ending up on the streets. There are people there who volunteer and they have their own diverse reasons for being there. I am no longer surprised, but always brightened that folks at that service pray for me as we work together setting up, singing, and cleaning.
This week there was a different vibe and I am not sure why, probably just the coincidental convergence of the people there that day. That, and all the various struggles they had. In any case, when it came time to ask for prayers, nearly all of them were about mental illness.
“God, I hope my family will talk to me more often and I hope for bi-polar to be gone from the earth.”
“I pray for the man I saw yelling at no one and everyone on the street today.”
“Thank you for a church that is honest. I will not be as sick as my secrets.”
There has been a lot of public discussion lately about mental illness and how we can better “handle it” as a society. Mostly those who have mental illness are seen as the perpetrators of violent and scary behavior, so “handling” them is supposed to make us all feel safer and correct a lot of social ills. But in my experience–in my family, through the center where I volunteer, through friends–I know that people who struggle with mental illness are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators. So I am pretty sure that what most people mean by “handling” mental illness won’t fix the problems they expect.
Despite their struggles, the men and women I see in this small worshiping community do some pretty healthy things from a spiritual perspective. They seek out the company of friends and helpers, they look for ways to help others, they are grateful for all that they have. One man approached me after the meal to ask if I knew of a shelter for him that night. He had been kicked out of one the previous day, but was suffering from flu and needed to be inside during what was expected to be a very cold night. “I broke one of the rules,” he said, “Mea culpa, it was all my fault.” I wondered how many of my friends would face such immediate and harsh accountability for our behavior? I surely would not.
While not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill, their challenges often hold up a mirror to struggles we all face–a magnifying mirror. Health and illness, inclusion and exclusion, love and indifference. I face all of those, but the impact on my life is usually not as harsh as it is for my neighbors who live on the streets. The judgements and barriers they face every day magnify the violence and injustice woven through our whole society.
And still they pray. And sing. And hope.
The woman who prayed for bi-polar to be gone from the earth later closed our intersessions that day. “Lord,” she asked, “I wish for a car so that I could drive old people to get to the doctor.” I’m going to hold her up as my role model for hope and gratitude this week.