The following comes out of an experience I had yesterday. I try to be very careful in deciding if/how to share about stuff that I encounter in my daily work. There are issues of privacy, of course, in addition to the simple fact that not every experience I find meaningful necessarily needs to be shared—especially in an online/cultural context where over-sharing is reaching almost epidemic proportions.
Having said that, I think it is important to hear the stories of our world and our communities—perhaps especially the unsettling ones. Stories move and change us. At the very least, it’s important for me to hear/tell them. There are so many things that I cannot do in light of the many problems in our world, but one thing I can do is simply to write, to tell stories like this one. It is especially relevant, I think, in light of my recent posts on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (here, here, and here) and yesterday’s post on “Normal Unhappiness.” All the names below have, of course, been changed.
“I met a woman at the soup kitchen last week, and she was wondering if you would be able to come and pray for her and her husband sometime.” The call came from one of our church members last week. The woman’s name was Sandy and her husband Leroy was struggling with dementia, she said. He needed prayers for healing. I gulped and said, “OK, I will go.” I was more than a little apprehensive. Do they think I am a magician? Are they expecting a priest? What will I say? How will I pray? And so on. But, whatever my misgivings about what I might or might not encounter during this visit, the fact that I should go was never in doubt. And so, yesterday, off we went.
It was a kind of run-down looking apartment. When we entered there were a group of people sitting in the living room while the country music station loudly blared from the TV in the corner. Introductions were made, and then people slowly started to trickle out. “You’re gonna pray for Leroy, right?” one of them said. “I am,” I replied. “You’re welcome to stay and join us.” He grinned, and said, “Nah, I pray my own way, by myself… Hey check this out!” He proceeded to show me an “article” he was reading from Maxim magazine before shuffling out the door, followed by a few of his friends.
“Those are my street brothers.” The voice came from a little old man who had come tottering into the living room. It was Leroy. Actually, he wasn’t very old at all, I would discover. Only 49. But he looked far older than that. To say that the years had not been kind would be the height of understatement. His body was thin and frail, his long black hair hanging over stooped shoulders and heavily bruised arms. He had few remaining teeth and a nose that had been broken many times. The knobby knees and stick legs emerging out from under his shorts revealed numerous scars. His movements were painfully slow. He slumped down on the couch looking like one of the most defeated human beings I have ever met.
Sandy sat down beside him. She, too, was thin. She, too, was quite obviously well acquainted with the harsher side of life. We began to talk, and gradually a painful story began to emerge. Leroy’s parents had died when he was 12. He had spent a bit of time in a residential school, but he didn’t like that, and kept trying to run away. After his parents died, he went to a white foster family. “They didn’t like me,” he said. “They beat me. So I ran away. I been living on the streets since I was 16.”
The story got worse. We heard of near-death experiences, of crippling addiction to alcohol and drugs, of a long train of broken relationships, of kids and grandkids that he rarely saw. We heard that Leroy had recently been forgetting things, seeing dark visions, wandering aimlessly around the house, confused, at all hours of the night. “I don’t know how to help him anymore,”Sandy said. She looked at him. He looked down. He mumbled, “Sometimes she gets angry at me when I forget stuff.” She looked out the window, a tear falling down her cheek.
I looked at the walls in the room we were sitting in. There were pictures of Mary and Jesus alongside kitschy Bible verses in calligraphy with lace borders. There was a poster advertising a Pow-Wow on the local reserve that must have been at least five years old. There was also a picture of a basketball team, with a strong, happy-looking black-haired young man front and centre. Beside the picture were some awards and plaques: “Most improved player.” “Honours student.” “Player of the month.” And beside these, an obituary. I swallowed hard. “Is this your son?” Sandy nodded. “What happened,” I asked, inwardly bracing for the response I knew was coming. “He hung himself,” Sandy said. She looked out the window again. This time, there were far more tears.
And then, into this ocean of sadness, we set out in our little rowboat of prayer. I sat down on a rickety chair with an old pair of socks hanging on the back, moved aside the coffee table with the Calgary Flames towel draped over it, and joined hands with Leroy and Sandy and pleaded for mercy to the God who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” to the suffering God well-acquainted with sorrow and rejection. We prayed for healing, for peace, for strength, for any kind of goodness and joy to find it’s way into all this pain and confusion. We prayed that God would banish the “dark spirits” that Leroy had been encountering in his nocturnal walks (there had apparently been a murder in this place prior to them moving in). We prayed that the doctors could help uncloud Leroy’s mind. We thanked God for Leroy’s faith, even in the midst of a life of struggle (“Yeah, amen!” Leroy mumbled at this point). We prayed for some shred of hope and light for these two dear people so well acquainted with darkness and despair.
And then, we said goodbye and walked out into the glorious sunshine of a spring day. Leroy and Sandy’s friends had just returned. One of them, Paul, took me aside. He was wondering if I could help him out. He had just moved here, he said, to take care of his three kids. His wife was an addict and had just been sent to jail. “Just a bit for groceries,” he said. “Until I get back on my feet.”
I asked to hear more of his story. He told me about how his parents were always drunk and never around…. About running away… About the white family that took him in and “taught me a lotta good stuff.” He told me about his time in the residential school, about being dragged around by his ear until it bled. I felt a heaviness that I can’t explain. I told him how very sorry I was that the church bearing Jesus’ name had been involved in this. “It’s OK,” he said. “I don’t blame the church…. I’m not sure we would have been any better if we were the ones in power… I dunno… power… it does something to people.” He paused. Then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo. It was a buffalo skull over a medicine wheel, with a cross and feathers superimposed on it. “I believe in God,” he said. “The four colours of the medicine wheel, they’re kinda like the four directions of Jesus’ cross.” I smiled and nodded. “You know,” he said, “I think if we all just realized that we’re the same, that none of us are any better than the others, we could fix a lotta stuff.” This time it was my turn to wipe a tear away.
We shook hands, exchanged numbers, and went our separate ways. I prayed again, as I was driving home. For Leroy. For Sandy. For Paul. For all of those who life seems to chew up and spit out without a second thought. For those of us who find them so easy to ignore, or explain away, or treat as an impersonal “issue” to resolve rather than individual human treasures, made and loved by God. And then, I ran out of prayers, out of words. I simply said, Kyrie eleison. Christ have mercy. And give us some of it for one another, while you’re at it. How desperately we could use it.
Image above courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.