This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children.

One Mary talked quietly to herself, shuffled back and forth with coffee. She had a small backpack and two large garbage bags full of clothing and blankets.

Another Mary has diabetes and made her way around in a wheelchair. She has open sores on her hands and she wants to die. But she came in from the cold to sleep here, so there is still some survival left in her.

There were two quiet trans-Marys eating breakfast and and complaining bitterly about having to go back outside. It could have been because of the cold weather or the cold treatment out there. Three layers of sweaters can only protect you from so much.

A fifth Mary thanked everyone for her bed and her food. She was helpful and cheerful…until she was not. Something set off a memory and she traveled down an angry tangent while packing her belongings. I’ve heard her mention her children before, she’s lost custody and is trying, trying, trying to see them again.

The last Mary was quiet. Hardly a peep. Silently slept, silently ate, silently packed. Silent night. Was it a holy night?

This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children. But all of them are somebody’s child.

A guy I met

So, today I met a guy who had some things in common with me or people I know. It was not a comforting experience.

This guy was average height and weight. Polite and kind of quiet. He was disorganized, could not find the papers he needed in his messenger bag. Been there! (About 12 times a day, actually.)

Turns out, this guy also has some pretty common mental health problems. Nothing unusual – depression, anxiety. Been there, too. Do I know anyone who doesn’t have one or the other or both?

And, this guy has recently been hospitalized for his mental health problems. I’ve not had that experience, but I am close to people who have.

Here is where things get uncomfortable: this guy is homeless and penniless. When I met him, he was seeking help to get his prescriptions filled after just being released from the hospital. I started to imagine what the things we had in common would be like if I didn’t have regular health care, a family, a house. I started to imagine people I know who have been hospitalized going home with the meds they need to a safe home and a network of friends and family. And then I imagined them getting out and not having any of that.

There were other people I met today who were trying to get IDs to get a job, or asking for a new pair of shoes, or meeting with a caseworker. These are things that your homeless neighbors do when they are struggling against a mountain of obstacles to climb out of poverty. But what do you do when the urge to climb that mountain is overwhelmed by mental illness?

While I like to think that I can take care of myself, what separates me most from the guy I met today is not what I do to keep myself healthy and safe, but what others do to keep me that way. If I get sick, I have a spouse, a parent, and siblings who will care for me. If I am late getting home, there are a dozen neighbors I can count on to greet my kid at the bus stop. On the few occasions when I have been laid up, there were casseroles and offers to care for my kids and people to run errands and bring flowers.

Even the prayers I get via email and Facebook are more than this guy had. He was utterly alone, devastatingly poor, trying to manage his health with virtually no resources. And he knew it, was nervous about it. How would he get through today? He could barely hold a conversation for the dread.

There is no real way to wrap this post up with a nice lesson learned or happy ending. I don’t know how it ends and I am pretty sure I’ll see another version of it next week. But I do know that in this case, being grateful for what I have doesn’t make me feel any better. Being uncomfortable is an appropriate response to what I know. I am grateful, but no matter how good I’ve got it, there are still too many people out there trying to get through a long, cold night alone in our big, crowded world. Surely, there is enough medicine and friendship and compassion and warmth to spare for them.

A lesson in hope and gratitude

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.