Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tales From the River #3: Without Hope

How do you give hope when by all appearances there is no reason for it? When to offer hope seems somehow cruel?  I can hear the "pat" answers right now in my head, because many of them were or are mine.

"There's always reason for hope.  You don't know what tomorrow holds."

"Don't quit before the miracle happens."

"God has a plan."

I have a feeling that this is about to get deeper than I want it to go at present, so I'm going to pull it back up a little.  I'm trying to keep these "Tales From the River" short(er).  But ultimately, what do you do when the best, non-fake, most authentic prayer you have to offer with someone is for protection, comfort, and peace in situations, environments, and lives where such prayers answered would border on miraculous?  I'm a big believer in giving thanks in all prayer, but what happens when it seems cruel to do so?  When to give thanks for the day is to give thanks for a day not deserving of thanks in the minds of those you pray with?

Tough questions to be sure and questions I find myself wrestling with far more frequently than I ever dreamed I would.

I got a phone call today as I had just sat down for a staff meeting.  It was from a very good friend who is homeless.  He called with desperation in his voice that I have only ever heard in his voice one other time; a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon when he called to tell me that he was going to take his life.  (His is a story for another day, Tales From the River #0: Providence)

"Corey, you're the only one that can help."  (You want to send a cold chill down my spine and cause my stomach to sink to my toes; start off a conversation like that.)

"What's going on 'Fred'?"

"There's this guy down here, a really good guy, that says he's going to kill himself.  I don't know what to do and I knew you would.  Can you come down?"

I excused myself from the staff meeting and headed straight "downtown".  On the way, I texted one of the members at Grace who is a police officer, letting him know where I was going, and asking if he could send a squad car if I texted him again.  If the man was truly suicidal, I didn't want him to know that I had called the authorities.  If you spook someone "down there", they can disappear in an instant.  My fear was that if he knew that I had called he would run off and kill himself.  I had prepared the text to send just in case it became necessary.

Upon arrival, I was immediately led to the gentleman.  He was lucid and very matter of fact about things.  He was pleasant, but chillingly calm.  This was a man who had by all appearances come to terms with the hand that he was dealt and surveying the situation determined that it was a losing hand.  In these situations, I think I would much rather see tears and histrionics, than calm.  At least with tears and histrionics, it seems there is usually something to work with.

He shared his story with me, a story which involved drugs, alcohol, arrests, anger issues, and a shattered family.  He had just run out of time at the shelter and was told he no longer would have a bed.

"Pastor, I've been on the streets off and on for a long time.  I'm diabetic, I'm sick, and I just cannot stay out in the cold one more night.  I won't do it.  There is no other way out of this."

"Do you have a plan?"

"I'm going to throw myself in front of the TARC bus."  He was so calm and peaceful; the release that this scenario promised him was real and palpable.

At this point, I have a legal, pastoral, and moral obligation to involve the authorities; I begin to slide my phone out of my pocket to send the prepared text to the police officer.

"I called my brother today to tell him," he continued, staring off in the distance.  I slid my hand off the phone.


"Yeah." He replied solemnly.  This was the first hint of emotion I'd seen from him.  "I told him my situation, that I didn't know what to do and that I planned to kill myself."

"What was his response?"

The man smiled, "Oh, he said that I should call the United Way or the Coalition.  He said short of that, he'd bring me the knife.  I have no one."

He was right.  All the while talking with him, I am literally screaming at God in my head, "Help me!  Give me the words!  Show me what I'm supposed to do!"  As I sat with him, a homeless man with a life of profound pain, I had nothing to offer him.  How do you tell someone in that situation, "It'll get better" and keep any modicum of your integrity?  It won't get better.  The street is unforgiving, it is frightening, and it is far more miserable than most of us can imagine.  He was right...only he was wasn't.

In a moment of what seemed wildly inappropriate levity, I nodded and smiled at our mutual friend sitting just out of ear shot on his walker, picking his nose.

"You know, I know it might not seem like much at the moment, but he cared enough to use his dwindling minutes to call me because he was worried about you.  And I, who don't even know you, I left a meeting and raced down here for a total stranger because if you meant that much to him, then you mean that much to me.  Look man, there's not much I can offer you.  I don't have any resources at my disposal, my church is poor; but I can offer you is friendship.  If you let me get you help, I will do my very best to walk along this path with you and we'll see where it goes.  I will be your friend, it's a start."

His entire countenance changed with those words, "I will be your friend."  Within a few minutes I had him in my vehicle and we were on our way for an emergency psych evaluation.  (The adventure that ensued upon arrival is one of those crazy stories that always seem to spring up around me; but it had nothing to do with my new friend.)


Sometimes there is no clear/clean pay off to stories of life and ministry.  As a matter of fact, I would say that more times than not; there isn't.  However, in this case I think there is; no matter the outcome.  I found myself amazed and humbled at the sheer power of unexpected kindness, empathy, and a hand extended in friendship.  A person in a truly desperate situation, without legitimate reason or cause for hope, found hope simply because he realized that he mattered.  I didn't have to have an answer, I didn't have to lie to him, and I didn't have to put off the inevitable by calling the police the moment that it became clear it was my obligation.  I simply offered the only thing that I knew I could offer and truly mean in that situation; my hand.  It was enough for today and it insured a tomorrow.