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Choosing to Stay

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I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide lately. Before you freak out, I’m not contemplating it this time but pondering the reasons why people attempt it and why they should choose to stay alive in the midst of great struggle. This week’s episode of Chicago Fire ended with the suicide of (spoiler alert!) a young woman whose overbearing father did everything in his power to keep her from living out her life’s dream as a firefighter.

Earlier in the episode, a young man jumped from an indoor bridge, attempting to take his life as well. He was caught in mid-air by a firefighter who had strapped himself to the building. As the two slowly belayed down to the ground the young man pleaded, “Don’t drop me!”

Some may find this strange– wasn’t he just trying to kill himself? Why would he beg to not be let go? It is because, as psychologist Jennifer Michael Hecht explains in her recent On Being podcast interview, “Suicide is tremendously impulsive.”

Dr. Hecht goes on to describe studies of people who tried to jump off a bridge to commit suicide. If the person went to a bridge with a suicide barrier that prevented them from jumping they didn’t go find another bridge off of which to jump; they went home. I’ve often wondered how many people have crossed that threshold of no return and thought to themselves, “Oh shit, what have I done?!”

A friend recently told me of a story she heard of a man who jumped off a bridge and lived. The moment he saw his hands letting go of the railing he immediately regretted his decision. My therapist recounted similar stories of clients who, after they crossed the threshold, had intense regret. How many people have felt this and died?

Since suicide is deeply impulsive, the temptation to do it comes and goes even in the midst of the worst depression. It is hard to see beyond the depression when you are in it and even harder to believe that you have ever or will ever feel differently. But we human beings are blessed with a range of emotions and “have different moods that profoundly change our outlook and it’s not right to let your worst one murder all the others,” Dr. Hecht explains.

We’ve all heard (or perhaps given) reasons for people to stay, to not go through with killing themselves. Many of the ones that I heard are religious (“It’s like slapping God in the face!”) or naive (“You’ll feel better soon, just you wait!”) or guilt-trippy (“You are being incredibly selfish!”). But the ones with the greatest impact on me are these: stay for those you love and stay for yourself.

As Dr. Hecht puts it, “You owe it to other people and you owe it to your future self to stay alive. Life is worth living– this absurd strange thing should be witnessed and it’s vital that you, essentially, have some respect for your future self who’s going to know things you don’t know.”

When I think back on my own suicide attempt (six years ago this month), I think about how much more I know now about myself, about life, about those I love. I think about how much I’ve changed and how happy I am now. And I’m beyond relieved I did not cross the point of no return that day. The impulsive decision I made based on deep yet fleeting emotions could have prevented me from experiencing the full, beautiful life I am today.

And I know my past self and my future self are so glad I chose to stay.

 “Let me say right now for the record, I’m still gonna  be here asking this world to dance, even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet. You, you stay here with me, okay? You stay here with me.” – Andrea Gibson

 

Bigots and Racists and Jerks Oh My!

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Three young black men entered the store and began to look around. The white clerk watched them come in, peering over the top of her bifocals. At first she froze. Then she followed. There were plenty of other customers in the store, but there was something suspicious about these three to her.

So she followed them, up one aisle, down another, across the whole store. As the young men turned to leave, one of them angrily shoved something off the front counter and faced the clerk, “Was it our color or our language that offended you?”

This incident happened just last week in a flea market near my rural Pennsylvania hometown and I cannot get it out of my mind. It’s not a unique story. I have multiple friends with multiple stories of being followed and there are few things more degrading or humiliating or angering.

The racist woman is the one who told the story, seeing nothing wrong with her actions. In fact, I’m sure she felt justified when the one man shoved the item off the counter.

At times it’s hard for me to believe that people like this exist. And then I am reminded of a justice system in our country (in 2014!) that allows white men to shoot and kill black teens because their music is too loud or they are wearing hoodies. I am reminded of a justice system that sentences two black women to life in prison for stealing $11 and puts a black woman on trial for a possible 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot into a wall when her husband was abusing her.

When our own “justice” system sets this kind of precedent and sends the message that black bodies are not worth as much as white bodies, that young black men are to be feared and shot at, that skin color is a crime that can bring a life sentence, then we have store clerks in Hagerstown who feel justified in following black customers. Then we have white men annoyed with loud hip hop music shooting and killing black teens. Then we have racial profiling laws in Arizona. Then we have kids growing up in a culture where racism is not only learned from mom and dad but is reiterated and indeed validated systemically.

My boyfriend and I often rage over these things and feel hopeless and depressed in the face of it all. It’s hard not to hate people who are blatantly racist and full of ignorance. It’s hard not to want revenge. It’s hard to even hear stories.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be enraged and want to throw things and scream and cry. We should have a level of righteous anger at racism and hate. But I also know that living in that state will eat away at your soul.

I wish I had some kind of perfect answer. Somehow saying, “Love them anyway.” And, “They are still God’s children.” makes me want to scoff and spit in my own face. I guess in those moments I try to think on the people doing good– the Cesar Chavezs and the Mother Tereseas and the Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings and Oscar Romeros and Dorothy Days and all those working for peace and justice and love even though it’s so damn hard.

I try to think about the people who can love those who are literally throwing stones at them and those who react with nonviolence because they know that violence only breeds more violence and hate only breeds more hate.

And until the day when our justice system is actually just and until the day when following people in stores is an abomination instead of the norm we will continue to rage and seek true justice and cling to the words of Mandela that

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of [their] skin, or background, or religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”

And maybe this is all easier for me to say as a white woman of privilege. And maybe it seems like a fantasy in the face of reality. But if I don’t have love and light and hope to cling to then I have nothing. And if I don’t let my righteous anger burn towards restorative justice then it will just eat away at my soul and without my soul I am truly hopeless.

“Extending the Hand of Peace” (My sermon from 2/16/14)

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“Peace!” “My peace I give to you!” “Go in peace!” “Peace be with you!” We hear these beautiful words and phrases often in our Mennonite world. We are, after all, a historic “peace church.” These words often evoke a sense of inner calm, a deep hope, a stillness in the soul. But have you ever looked at how these words can reach beyond ourselves? How, while a sustaining inner source, they can be a catalyst for change? Peace is not just something we keep to ourselves, tucked away in our own hearts but it is also a gift we share, an extension of ourselves. We extend the hand of peace, spreading its power to each person we touch. And that touch can transform lives.

Some Biblical scholars, when researching the origins of the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, discovered that the root of the word is wholeness, intactness, well-being. In this sense, according to Perry Yoder, shalom is referred to as “an event rather than a condition. Shalom, peace, is experiential and dynamic.” It is not just a sense of feeling but a sense of being. Peace moves beyond an inner stillness and becomes an outward extension of hope, light, and reconciliation in our world. This traditional meaning of peace as wholeness was part of the hope Jesus brought in his ministry. It was, in many ways, the essence of Jesus’ ministry, to bring wholeness to humanity.

In the essay, The Dual Concept of Peace (pp. 122-123), Biblical scholar Luise Schottroff writes:

“During Jesus’ lifetime Herod and his sons were allies of the Roman Caesar in order to guarantee Roman peace in Palestine. The land was ruled above all by military means through a large number of Herodian fortresses […]. “Peace”” and “security” were the political-religious words with which this situation was normally summarized. […]. Jesus and his followers traveled as prophets throughout the country. They used the word “peace” in quite a different sense. They were Jews living out of the religious tradition of Israel. Shalom/peace— meant something like life, life in its comprehensive sense. It included eating, health, fellowship, and hope. It included being whole or complete. The word had such an all-embracing connotation that many Jewish rabbis would say: shalom is the name for God […].“

Donald Kraybill, in his book “The Upside-Down Kingdom,” describes peace in this way:

“We often think of peace as the absence of violent conflict. Shalom, the Old Testament word for peace is closely connected with ideas of justice, righteousness, and salvation. It refers to a pervasive sense of well-being in personal, social, economic, and political spheres. There is no peace when greedy systems oppress poor people. There is no peace when the stigmatized find no justice in the courts […] Shalom comes when there are right relationships among people in every area of life. Peace is God’s gift to God’s people […] Shalom is the core of God’s message.”

This is the message Jesus brought to the people in his day and still brings to us today: that there is a peace that passes all understanding, a peace that gets to the core of our hearts and our relationships, a peace that makes us whole. And this deeply angered the empire and religious leaders of the day because Jesus’ way of peace was one that challenged the status quo, challenged the rulers and their authority, and shook things up. It made people realize the false sense of peace and security under which they were living and the oppression under which they suffered. It was a way that questioned, called out, and called forth others to do the same.

In many ways peace has been co-opted within our society as well. Many religious and political leaders in the American empire hide behind labels of peace and security in order to keep the status quo unchanged and unchallenged. We militarize our borders to make us more secure, we make it nearly impossible for people to enter this country or gain status to keep us safe from the unknown, we live under the pretense of a peaceful society while we are bombing people in faraway lands. We funnel money away from our schools and into our prisons under the guise of keeping the peace and securing our communities. We stop and frisk large numbers of black and brown youth in the name of justice. In these ways we allow peace to be used as a weapon. And when we are silent, the violence continues.

This is why, when we embrace Jesus’ definition of peace, systems and structures are turned on their heads. Jesus calls us to a way of living that stands in between passivity and violence, a way that calls us to question and hold accountable the powers that be, a way that reconciles and transforms relationships. It’s not easy. Peace work takes imagination and God’s grace.

In the Fall 2013 volume of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology, writer and speaker Nekeisha Alexis-Baker describes her journey into transformative peacemaking. “I have taken steps away from a narrow view of peace as the absence of war and violent conflict and toward a pursuit of peace that challenges systemic human oppression and embraces forgotten members of creation.”

She goes on to say that “When people accept the status quo, they perpetuate violence that is less obvious than planes flying into buildings and bombs falling on cities. The more I realize this fact, the more I believe that peacemaking involves more than resisting overt destructive conflict. Today peacemaking includes investing in my church families, networking in my community, mentoring youth of color, learning about the prison-industrial complex, and discovering ways to be a better neighbor.”

Time and again we see Jesus embracing forgotten members of creation and restoring the humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressor. When a woman accused of adultery was thrown at Jesus’ feet, he calmly asked those without sin to cast the first stones. One by one the accusers unclasped the tight grips around their stones and turned away. One by one they realized they were as flawed and human as this woman. And then shame and the anger and guilt washed over them. And as God’s grace was extended to them, perhaps they even saw the pain and the beauty in the eyes of the woman they accused.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, as soldiers come to take Jesus away to be tried and crucified, Simon Peter, one of his disciples,  angrily cut off a servant’s ear. But Jesus, extending the hand of peace, healed the man and condemned Peter: “Put your sword back in its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup Abba God has given me?”  And I’m sure Peter felt the waves of shame and guilt surge through him. But he also felt grace and peace extended as he was able to see the servant, Malchus, as a man who perhaps worked to support a family, who was following orders so he could receive pay, who also felt pain and hope. Through the physical healing of Malchus, Jesus also healed a relationship, allowing two people to see themselves in the other.

Right relationship was so important to Jesus that in Matthew 5 he commanded his listeners to be reconciled to one another before bringing their gifts to God in the Temple.  Jesus knew that in order to be in right relationship with him we need to be in right relationship with one another. Building and restoring relationships—it is the foundation of Jesus’ ministry and the challenge to which we are called. When we extend the hand of peace to those around us, its dynamism expands beyond ourselves and indeed begins to infiltrate oppressive systems.

In our Scripture reading from Luke today we heard how Jesus commissioned his followers to be messengers of his peace as they traveled the land. Upon entering a house, Jesus instructed his followers to say, “Peace be to this house!” In essence proclaiming, “Wholeness and well-being be upon this house!” Peacemaking is the act of restoring wholeness. It is the yeast that makes the dough rise, the active ingredient in transforming relationships.

If we look at peace as the transformative process it is then Passing the Peace on a Sunday morning is a symbol of restoring our relationships with each other. It is a dynamic act that signifies right relationships with one another. By Passing the Peace we are recognizing each other’s humanity and extending a loving hand of relationship.

Abe Jenzen, director of Mennonite Central Committee Alberta, describes peacemaking in this way: “There is nothing magic or mysterious about peace work; it just means that we notice each other. It means that we problem solve endlessly … together. We don’t stop. It means that we walk towards each other and not away from each other […]. Peace making is relational work and it is never finished.”

Franconia Conference Peace and Justice Minister Samantha Lioi writes, “I remember a seminary professor’s clarity, honesty, and humility in admitting that while we may choose to reject the use of violence, we live in a world governed by force and the threat of it, and we rely on systems built on both…Emotional and relational nonviolence is perhaps the most challenging because it requires long-haul commitment and daily practice, which I believe lays a foundations for refusing to resort to physical violence.”

Transformative peacemaking starts with restoring relationships. It starts with noticing one another. In his book, “Preventing Violence,” James Gilligan explores the root causes of why people commit crimes or perpetuate violence. He talked with many incarcerated men about why they committed their crimes. Time and again it came back to, “He dissed me.” He disrespected me. As Gilligan states, “People become indignant (and may become violent) when they suffer an indignity.” Extending the hand of peace is the small but profound act of recognizing the humanity in each other.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Antoinette Tuff, a school bookkeeper in Decatur, Georgia. One ordinary Tuesday morning in 2013, a young man, Michael Brandon Hill, entered Antoinette’s elementary school armed with an assault rifle and other weapons. I’m sure the blood drained from her face, her palms sweated, her heart raced. She may have even been filled with anger that someone would dare to bring such tools of destruction into an elementary school. But no matter what emotions seared through her as she watched the gunman approach, she did not show anything but compassion and boldness as she calmly asked his name.

At first he was hesitant to respond, so she began telling him her life story, how her marriage fell apart after thirty-three years, how she struggled to start her own business. After talking with Michael for an hour, Antoinette finally persuaded him to lay down his guns. “I just started praying for him,” Antoinette recalled. “I just started talking to him … and let him know what was going on with me and that it would be OK. And then [I] let him know that he could just give himself up. … I told him to put [the guns] on the table, empty his pockets. He had me actually get on the intercom and tell everybody he was sorry, too.”

By recognizing and acknowledging someone else’s pain, by telling someone they are not alone, by the simple act of looking someone in the eye, Antoinette restored Michael’s humanity. She could have frozen or ducked under her desk. She could have screamed at the gunman or reacted with violence. But instead, Antoinette Tuff extended the hand of peace, embracing another way between passivity and violence. And in that moment, the transformative power of peace changed the mind of a would-be killer.

And it’s not easy, this thing called peacemaking. I am reminded of a t-shirt I’ve seen that says simply, “Peace takes guts!” Extending peace can be hard work and it can require everything we have within us. In fact, peacemaking often grates against our very nature. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes us vulnerable. It forces us to be creative and to think beyond ourselves. But it teaches us to accept God’s grace through which we can begin to imagine what peace can look like in our lives and relationships and communities. And then it releases such beauty.

Now I don’t want us to confuse making peace with keeping the peace. Peace keepers smooth over a situation so all parties involved are no longer at odds. Peacemakers have the courage to say or do what is necessary to restore wholeness even when it hurts or costs them something. Peace keepers allow others to walk over them in order to prevent a situation from exploding. Peacemakers stand and speak boldly when needed and sit and listen intently when needed and give others space to do the same. Peace keepers are people pleasers, trying to maintain the status quo. Peacemakers take risks, trying to turn this broken world around and make it whole. Peace keepers bandage wounds. Peacemakers find the source of the wound and heal it from the inside out.

I am convinced that peacemaking must begin with our most immediate relationships, with those closest to us: family, friends, coworkers, community members, neighbors, our church. If we cannot make peace with those in our immediate circles, how can we expect to make peace outside of them? Ironically enough, restoring relationships with those closest to us can be the most challenging kind of peacemaking and the place where we are most tempted to keep bandaging and re-bandaging the wounds.

But when peacemaking feels too big or difficult of a task, Jesus reminds us in John 14:27, “I’m leaving you peace. I’m giving you my peace. I don’t give you the kind of peace that the world gives. So don’t be troubled or cowardly.” It’s as if he‘s saying, “I did not come to give you a false sense of security or peace in an oppressive system but I give you something better, something more powerful. I give you a peace that heals the world and, indeed, your very soul. So take heart, there is hope.” By God’s grace we are given the strength to bring wholeness to our world and the imagination to see God’s vision of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

“Peace!” “My peace I give to you!” “Go in peace!” “Peace be with you!” Jesus is sending us forth with much more than an inner calmness which, let’s not forget, is a necessary and beautiful foundation. Jesus is equipping us from the inside out with a transformative power that turns the world on its head, that challenges power structures, and stands against empires. A power that transforms relationships, that brings healing, and restores humanity. Jesus is saying, “Peace! My wholeness I give to you. I’m sending you forth with the ingredients you need to right relationships. Go and transform your world! Peace be with you!”

Resolving to resolve

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It’s hard to believe we just rang in the year 2014! Social media reminds me almost daily that all the fads from my youth are extinct, N’Sync broke up over a decade ago, and kids born in 2000 are going into high school. High school!

Each new year I contemplate the changes and constants of the previous year. And each new year I am surprised by both but 2013 was the most surprising year yet. The first 6 months were miserable, difficult, defeating, one of the lowest times of my life. The second half of the year was joyful, life-giving, empowering, and one of the highest times of my life as I started to climb out of the pit I dug for myself. So much changed that, last year at this time, I would have never guessed what my life would be like now. But it’s beautiful.

So, riding that wave of positivity, hope, and light, I resolve to make 2014 my year…starting with the oh-so-cliche new year’s resolutions!

I failed pretty miserably at last year’s resolutions, but, to be fair, they didn’t have much of a basis in reality. For starters, I was going to learn Spanish. Nevermind the facts I had no money for a class and Spanish wasn’t something I was forced to use in every day circumstances. I joined a website to learn Spanish online but the lack of actual conversation with an actual flesh and blood individual left me hopeless in the endeavor.

Then I was going to read every David James Duncan book. I did read a couple but for one reason or another kept getting distracted by other books and/or projects. I did, however, read the entire Harry Potter series for the first time and it changed my life so that has to count for something (even though I was about 15 years late)!

I also endeavored to “work out” three days a week. I purposefully left the term pretty vague just in case I couldn’t run three days a week or make it to a gym. Therefore, surprise surprise, I ended the year the heaviest I’ve ever been. Oh irony, you slay me!

So this year I am implementing goals that I can actually achieve and working on things that I am already striving toward.

1. Health, health, happiness. For starters, I want to get healthier. I drink too much and exercise too little. It’s weird because I didn’t drink that much after I turned 21 but turning 24 was like, “Boom! I’m gonna buy a drink wherever I can buy a drink simply because I can buy a drink.” I miss feeling healthier and more energetic, two things I felt in spades when I drank less and was more active. So this year I want to hike more, bike more, yoga more, walk more, kayak more and resist that craft beer or bottle of wine more.

I also want to cook more. I love cooking and find that I spend less money and eat healthier food when I cook for myself. And cooking leads to community dinners which leads to joy and laughter and who doesn’t want more of that in their life?

Being healthier also includes mental, spiritual, and emotional health. I was much healthier mentally in the last six months than I’ve ever been and I intend to keep that up. Counseling, journaling, women’s group-ing, church-ing, conversing, meditating…I’m keeping up with all of it and then some. A friend recently told me that she takes retreat days from time to time to treat herself and take care of herself. What a lovely idea.

2. Clean it up. I also want to swear less (you’re welcome mom!). While I do feel like a perfectly placed cuss word can go a long way in certain situations, I realize I am over-salting my language and would do well to cut back majorly. When it comes to the point where you are offended by your own language, there’s a problem.

3. The friendliest ghost. I also want to work on friendships, near and far, this year. As any and all of my friends can attest to (especially the long distance ones) I am THE WORST person to keep in touch with. I’m awful at returning calls, initiating calls, making plans, etc. (I am beast at writing letters and cards though so I’ll put that feather in my cap). So this year I am going to invite friends over for dinner more often, call more often, plan trips more often and be there for the people I deeply care about.

I’m so excited for another year of life and love! With my 25th birthday right around the corner (January 16th) I look forward to making it the best year so far! Cheers!

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The Wish Wall

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Last night my sister and I went to check out the Christmas Village, a quaint German-style outdoor shopping center that pops up for the holiday season, in Love Park. Sadly, the little shops were closed but we came across this lovely display called The Wish Wall. Here, on shiny, circular “ornaments” were written the wishes of anonymous strangers.

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Many expressed wishes for unborn children:

I wish for a healthy baby boy or girl!

I wish for a happy and healthy pregnancy!

Some expressed prayers and deep pain:

If you read this please pray for my mom.

I pray that his cancer will be cured.

I wish that my family can be together for Christmas.

I want to be loved.

A child with shaky handwriting wrote:

I love mom and dad!

A die hard Philly fan wrote:

I wish the Eagles would have a winning season!

Others were written in foreign languages.

As we gingerly turned over ornament after ornament, we could almost feel the presence of the writers as we held their wishes and hopes in our hands. Excitement bubbled over as we rushed to uncover more. It was a magical moment, reading each wish out loud to one another, smiling and sighing with each new discovery.

In the quiet, cold, near-empty darkness of the park we found a corner of light and it was every bit of the infinite hope that under-girds this season.

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Wherever you are, it’s ok

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She stops by the church office to pick up a few things. We chat, mostly small talk, and, as she turns to leave, she asks, “How are you?”

She has this way of asking as if it’s the most important question you’ll answer today, as if she longs to know, as if the answer actually matters. A smile reaches her eyes and spreads across her face, head slightly tilts, as she awaits my reply.

I pause. “I’m doing really well.”

I didn’t mean for the answer to come out the way it did, as if I was surprised by my own words. I’m doing well. 

“Do you not often stop to think about it?” she smiles.

“Outside of therapy, no. That’s my one hour a week to really stop and think and deconstruct things. Other than that I really try not to.”

Before I knew it we were swapping stories of therapy, about when we first realized we were beginning to heal, about how early life experiences left deep scars, about how our lives are complex and beautiful messes, about how we struggle still and compare and despair.

“I’ve come to realize,” she says after a pause, “That wherever I am, it’s ok.”

Wherever I am, it’s ok. The years it’s taken me to realize this! In times of joy, it’s ok. In times of pain, it’s ok. In times of suicidal thoughts, it’s ok. In times of guilt and shame, it’s ok. In times of struggle, it’s ok. In times of hope, it’s ok. In times of growth, it’s ok. In times where my mind is spinning and I don’t even know what to think or say or do, it’s ok.

It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been wronged, that you haven’t made mistakes, that you haven’t suffered or won’t continue to, but it means that those feelings you have, the ones that are suffocating you, are natural and real and it is ok to feel them. You are ok to feel them.

It’s so easy to wish to be “there” already– to be depression free, to be whole, to be fulfilled, to be hope-filled. When really, all I need to do is be. And that can be the hardest thing, to sit with discomfort, really sit with it, until it rattles in your bones.

I agree with Terry Tempest Williams when she says, “I fear silence because it leads me to myself, a self I may not wish to confront. It asks me to listen. And in listening I am taken to an unknown place. Silence leaves me alone in a place of feeling. It is not necessarily a place of comfort.”

When is the last time you left yourself in a place of feeling? It’s terrifying. It’s strange. It’s uncomfortable. But, it’s ok. And so are you.

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The Possibility Hope Brings

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The first time she came to the church door I trusted her, I’m not sure why but I did. I didn’t believe her story, with all its many loopholes and catastrophes, but I trusted her anyway, believed in her.

Her car broke down on the Jersey turnpike. She ended up in West Philly at a cousin’s house but then got kicked out. She tried a few shelters and government assistance but they also kicked her out. A thousand dollars awaited her in Jersey, if only she could get back there and get it.

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“I can’t give you any money from the church but I can pray with you, as small as that may seem,” I told her. To my chagrin she accepted. Not that I didn’t want to help her but I never prayed with a stranger before and didn’t really know what to say. As I walked her through the building to my office I suddenly felt incredibly ill equipped.

“Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” I asked, not quite knowing what else to do.

She nodded. I prayed. Each word sounded dumber than the last but when I opened my eyes she had tears in hers.

“Sister-friend that was beautiful girl. Just what I needed.” She went on to tell me how she was six month’s sober and trying to get back on her feet. “Sisters like you are really the only people I can trust in this world. Women are the only ones who understand.”

She asked for tea. I made some for her as we sat and talked. She asked for food. I gave her the apple and pistachios in my bag. “It’s not much,” I stammered, debating whether I should go buy her an actual meal somewhere.

“This is perfect! Do you want to split the apple with me? I don’t want to take all your food,” she explained, grabbing a small handful of the pistachios. After about an hour and several phone calls to her mom, I walked her to the door.

“I hope you are able to find your way back to Jersey.”

She smiled and hugged me. “Thank you sister.” And with that she headed down Baltimore Avenue.

The situation left me feeling strange. In some ways I felt good that I had helped her, in other ways I felt bad that I couldn’t do more, in still other ways I wondered how much of what she told me was true. I wondered if any of that really mattered.

When I took the job at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship I thought I knew what I was in for: basic office administration, coordination with other groups in the building, correspondence with church members. It hadn’t dawned on me at the time just how much more this job requires.

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A church building, especially in the city, represents a place of refuge and hope for many people. I never know who will show up at my door and what their needs or requests my be. While I’m getting stronger at denying people money and watching out for my own safety (some of you may remember my post about Simon), I realize that I have no idea how to handle the variety of hurts and problems people bring to my doorstep.

The woman returned this week. This time a man was with her. “Can I come in and pray for a few minutes?” I felt really uncomfortable but let her in, explaining that I had to wait with her in the chapel while she prayed.

The man she was with proceeded to hit on me and pry into my life while we waited for her. He said he knew her from the neighborhood. “I thought she lived in Jersey?” I asked him. He shrugged.

After they left I felt angry. I felt like she had somehow violated my trust, lying to me about where she lived, coming back to my building with a random man. I felt like all the “good” I did for her was meaningless.

I hate that I feel this way. I hate that I feel like I need to pick and choose what and who to believe. I hate that I have to worry about getting harassed by strangers at my own job and church. I hate that I feel so ill equipped. But I love hearing people’s stories (as true or false as they may be). I love feeling like I can make some sort of difference, even if it is nothing more than a prayer or an apple. I love the possibility hope brings.

As winter approaches I know more people will come to my door, seeking something, anything, to help them on their life journeys. I know that at this moment I feel too empty and jaded to offer them anything more than a forced smile and a hollow prayer. But maybe, somehow, that is enough for now.

Restoring Community

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2:00 pm. I’m sitting alone in my office at the church when I hear a knock at the door. Expecting the admin assistant from one of the other churches in the building I call out, “Come in.”

Another familiar face appears, one I do not expect. “Simon,” a homeless man that often attends morning services at my church enters, asking for money or tokens to get to Center City. He’s a little more drunk than usual, probably because I’m used to seeing him at 9:00 am.

“I’m sorry, you know I can’t give you money from the church,” I tell him. “I have some food here if you want it but I can’t give out money or tokens.”

“I won’t tell anyone!” He assures me, becoming agitated. “I swear on the Bible!” His hand slams onto my desk.

“Simon, I cannot give you money. I can give you food but that is it.”

We go back and forth for a few more moments before he finally caves. “Alright, alright. Can I at least get a hug?”

Now Simon is known for trying to hug women so this request is nothing new to me. Knowing his hugs are prolonged and inappropriate and that he will most likely try to kiss my shoulder as well, I decline, offering him a handshake over my desk instead. Rejecting it, he comes around my desk, going in for a hug as I sit in my chair. Immediately I stand up, pushing his arms away.

“Simon, I told you not to hug me,” I tell him firmly as he pushes his body towards mine. We struggle back and forth, him leaning his body and face toward mine, me two-hand pushing his chest and body away.

The stronger and more forceful my words and motions, the stronger his counter motions become. My mind races: Should I call someone? The police? What if he doesn’t leave? I need to get him out of here!

Finally I am able to half drag, half guide him out onto the front steps. “Simon, you need to leave the building. You cannot be in the building when you are acting this way.”

“I’m sorry,” he slurs, “I’m really drunk right now. I’m sorry for getting fresh with you back there. I’m really into white women,” he continues, “You’re so beautiful.”

“Simon, that is not appropriate. You need to leave. You can’t be here unless you are sober.”

He ignores my request, instead asking when I’ll be at the church again, telling me that he got his approach wrong and that’s why I was rejecting his advances. He begs me to talk to him on the steps but I turn and lock myself in the office. Immediately my body goes limp. I shakily dial the pastor’s number as tears stream down my face.

I didn’t expect this to be a trigger moment for me but it was. Even though I didn’t think he was going to rape or physically harm me, the unwanted advances and blatant rejection of my commands to stop left me feeling violated and small. Thoughts of the rape flooded over me. And I cried.

The sadness was soon replaced with anger. Simon received many second and third chances over the last year and I’d always stood up for him, always given him grace. But this? This was over the line. He knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong. And that made me furious. What if it happened to another woman alone in this building, someone who could not so easily and forcefully reject him?

Some people said I should call the police but in my soul I knew I couldn’t. As someone who studied and embraced community processes and restorative justice I knew that if ever I needed to live out these values it was here and now.

So I’m setting myself up for the conversations, be it with church leaders, community members, even Simon. It’s hard, it’s a bit scary but it’s what I know in my soul I have to do. And, truth be told, I’m a little excited to be part of a restorative process, as unpredictable as it can be.

I know that there are only so many second and third chances we can give Simon before we have to say enough is enough. Being community to one another is not an easy thing. It is hard to hold hospitality and safety in both hands, especially when it feels like you have to choose one or the other. But I have faith in my community and in our ability to hold this tension with love. And whatever happens in the end I pray that restoration can bring healing and healing, peace.

April, May, and Me

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So I’ve been thinking a lot lately and, ironically, the more I think the less I am able to write. Hence, no blog posts for about five months, starting this past April.

April just might be my least favorite month of the year (sorry April birthdays) because shit always seems to hit the fan in April: suicide attempts, breakups, intense headaches that require MRIs, CAT scans, and ER visits, and the like. April and I are not friends.

Usually in April I stop doing all the things I love for no reason at all really and this past April was no exception. I stopped crocheting, stopped working out (ok, i stopped working out longgg before April but I didn’t even consider working out in April), stopped reading, stopped writing, stopped cleaning, stopped everything. I cruised through both jobs on auto pilot, letting the routine take over, trying to let my mind go blank. And it was miserable.

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Winter usually drains my soul in so many ways and, by the time April comes around, I expect her to bring me sunshine and joy. She never delivers and her disappointing showers usually send me reeling into an even deeper depression.

But alas April finally ended this year and, for the first time, May brought me flowers. Or, maybe it was that I actually went out and picked me some damn flowers. Either way, it was worth holding on through May’s dreaded predecessor.

You see in May I decided to go back to counseling. I dragged my sorry sad butt off the couch, set down the continuous pint of ice cream and/or beer I was constantly drowning my sorrows in, wiped the self pity off my chin, and landed in a therapist’s chair.

And that was the spark that set me on this path of self re-discovery. That one simple decision led to many more monumental decisions that led me here, knock, knock, knocking on happinesses’ door. And she let me in. Or I let her in. Either way, we’ve been hanging out for a while now and I think we are going to be great friends.

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The End

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We both needed that trip. We needed to fish, to be in the ocean, to hear the waves speak to us, to get away from reality if even for a week. We needed to realize just how far we drifted apart. And we knew it was going to be the end.

We both were probably the happiest we’d been in months. But not because of each other. And we knew it was going to be the end.

We returned, a little more energized and a little more broken than before. In some ways we believed the lie that we could fix it. In other ways we embraced the hard truth that we couldn’t. This trip made it all come crashing to our doorstep. And we knew it was going to be the end.

So we took the plunge, holding our breath. Me gasping for air between sobs, you holding it in. The time had come and it was a long time coming as much as neither of us wanted to admit. And we knew it was going to be the end.

And the end came, quickly in some ways, at a glacial pace in others. But it came. And I realized it was ok. It was the end of us but the beginning of you and the beginning of me. And we knew the end was paving the way for an even better start.

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