I know what you need.

I’ve been thinking recently about evangelism. They haven’t been comfortable thoughts.

Evangelism weirds me out. I can’t get comfortable with the idea of going up to random people and telling them, “I know what you need [spoiler: it’s Jesus].” As a matter of fact, I don’t know what you need. I barely, if ever, know what I need. And people who are sure, without knowing me well, that they know what I need—church people, health care people, other people’s mothers—tend to be disastrously wrong, and to piss me off correspondingly.

A story: I was in the psych ward, again. I was sitting in the dining room, eating styrofoamy hospital ice cream and having a conversation with another patient about meds: bitching about prescribers, swapping side-effect horror stories, and sharing what has actually worked. This kind of low-key, repetitive insider bonding takes up a large percentage of one’s time on an inpatient unit, and forms a significant part of the healing process. For me, though, no meds had worked, and so I was telling my friend how my psychiatrist and I had decided to stop all my medications, and what a positive decision that had been for me. At this point a nearby staff member (a young edwardian-mustache-and-pocket-watch hipster) who’d been in the room but not part of the conversation interjected. “You know,” he said in a let-me-instruct-you tone, “A lot of psychiatric medications take a very long time to get into your system and take effect. So if you’re expecting them to start helping right away, you might be disappointed. You should make sure to wait a couple of months before you discontinue a medication.” Mental health crises tend to lower my bullshit tolerance dramatically, so instead of a polite “thank you,” I said bluntly, “Yeah. I know. After fifteen or so different medications, I did actually figure that out.”
The next day I pulled Mustache Dude aside and told him that it was patronizing, offputting, and unhelpful for him to barge into our conversation with his unneeded “advice.” I told him that it had already been heartbreaking for me to have my hopes for aid dashed again and again as one after another medication failed, without his implying that it was my own fault. I told him (maybe not in so many words) that his bedside manner needed work if he was going to be successful in mental health care. He apologized, but it was clear that he didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, wasn’t going to reflect deeply on it, and was simply humoring me. I let it go.

I think what Mustache Dude did here is sort of what we do with church, a lot of the time. We barge into other people’s lives without bothering to understand the context. “I know what you need: Jesus!” Never mind that it’s impossible to live in America today and not have Jesus (or something that gets called Jesus) be part of your consciousness whether you will or no. Never mind that, for so many people, faith communities have been loci of pain, shame, neglect, or hypocrisy, and asking them to come to church with you might well be asking them to relive trauma. Never mind that plenty of atheists and agnostics would say that they are quite happy and fulfilled already; that there isn’t actually a God-shaped hole in their lives, thank you all the same.

And yet–

And yet, when things in my life bring me great joy, I want those things for others; and I am sure that this urge to share what is good is itself a great good. And yet, Christians are called, by scripture and tradition, to evangelize, whatever that means. Euangelion, the Gospel, the good news. How do I take that seriously? How do I share the things that make my life good while still respecting other peoples’ autonomy and ability to know what is best for themselves? For me, this is part of a larger question: How do I reconcile ways that the church has been such a force for good in my life (and in the lives of so many) with the ways in which it has been such a cause of suffering? Books on what made the early Church successful, posts on earning the right to invite people to church, all the brass tacks that I originally set out to talk about here, they all come down to this: how do I–how dare I–invite others into this complicated relationship? How do I know whether it is what they need?

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On Taking Care, Part 2

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Sieger Koeder, “The Washing of the Feet”

Carmen, in her casually incisive way, responded to my last post on working as a nanny with the following:

My question for you is this: how does being an actual servant change the way you see the Christian vocational call to servanthood?

This made me realize two things. First, I’d done that thing I do where I talk around a topic, narrating all the peripheral events and the emotions it brings up, without, somehow, ever actually addressing what I’d set out to. And second, answering her question was going to require a new post of its own.

What has my experience as a servant taught me about Christian servanthood?

First off, I’ve learned a lot about the mutability of human power structures, about their underlying falseness and even absurdity. People react fairly differently when I tell them I’m a nanny, versus when I used to tell them that I was a Ph.D. student at a high-prestige school. It’s absurd. I’m the same person–at least, mostly–as I used to be. I still like knitting and sewing, cheap red wine and expensive beer, and talking really loudly about theology on the train. (Sorry, people on the Red Line who didn’t really care about Open Table at 10 last night.) There are some ways in which the Mary of today is fairly different from that of two years ago–I have a lot less data on languages and biblical scholarship at my fingertips; on the other hand, I’m better at cooking healthy meals quickly and with the minimum of pots to wash, and I know a lot more about the range of human responses to suffering. But when people first meet me, their expectations are set in clear ways by my job title. And sometimes (not always, but often enough) actually getting to know me isn’t enough to overcome that powerful image of what a low-income domestic employee must be like.

This should not be new information for me. There is no reason for me to be all shocked and pearl-clutchy that people might make assumptions about my intelligence, ambitions, and drive based on my work. This was something I thought I already knew. And yet, I myself bought into the system. I made being a scholar the center of my identity. I thought I was detached about the academy and my place in it, that it wouldn’t matter to me where I was as long as I was doing good work, but (I have ruefully come to understand) I was one of the least detached people I know. So it’s been very difficult, but quite salutary, to learn–with the intimate knowledge of experience–how fallible, arbitrary, changeable, and ultimately absurd all of these power roles are.

Second: I’ve learned that I actually do like taking care of people. I sort of knew this already–it’s why I applied for the job–but it’s not just that I like the kids. I like taking care of the family. I like that my role makes the kids’ lives better (caregivers are better at it when they have breaks! Who knew!) and the adults’ lives easier. Being someone who helps others become all that they might be–this is my vision of personal vocation, and it’s good to be doing it in this immediate and concrete way.

There’s a line from Gosford Park that I have been thinking of while planning these posts. At the very end, Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, is speaking to a young woman in service for the first time:

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.

Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that this line is spoken in great bitterness and vexation of spirit. Mrs. Wilson takes pride in her skill, but you can feel, underneath the quiet resignation, rage that this anticipation of others’ needs has taken up her whole life. (Side note: Helen Mirren and everyone in that movie are SO WONDERFUL. GO SEE IT [again, if necessary]. It’s on Netflix!) But honestly, I don’t share her bitterness. I like being able to tell what people need, and being able to give it to them. And being good at this seems worth working toward.

Third: I think the difference between Mrs. Wilson and myself has to do with mutuality. My work is (at least much of the time) joyful, because the family I work for also takes care of me, in big and in small ways. They pay me a fair and steady wage that includes paid vacations and sick leave. They respect me as a person and, ultimately, as an equal. They have gone above and beyond in their support of me during my ongoing health issues. They don’t ask me to do work that they themselves are unwilling or unable to do. These things matter. And also: the kids love me. They are happy to see me, and they miss me over the weekend. They freely share with me what children have to offer, their goofiness and sly humor, their interminable and confusing stories, their hopes and fears, their desire to hang out with me, and their trust that I think they’re awesome. Which, conveniently, I do.

Mrs. Wilson is not so lucky. Her existence is wholly devoted to serving her employers, without their ever recognizing her humanity or caring about her well-being. Her sacrifices go unnoticed, taken for granted. Even that which makes her a good servant, her ability to anticipate what people will need, receives a cursory “I don’t know what we’d do without you” (a phrase which, it seems to me, tends to erase rather than recognize work). She is necessary but not appreciated. I’ve worked in these situations (cough *Starbucks*), where I was taking care of others without being taken care of in turn. No one knew or cared what it cost me to work grueling shifts at unpredictable hours, during a time when I was barely hanging on. I wasn’t being paid enough to support myself. Whether customers were polite or rude had, it was clear, virtually nothing to do with me. I felt trapped: I didn’t know how and when I would be able to find another job, but the work I was doing was physically exhausting and emotionally depleting. With mutuality of care, I find pride and satisfaction in taking care of others. Without it, I feel myself to be exploited.

 

 

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Vermeer, “Diana and her Companions”

The passage I think of when I think of Christian servanthood is always the pericope from John 13, usually read at Maundy Thursday services:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…

 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.     (John 13:1-5, 12-17, NRSV)

What I like about this passage is that Jesus isn’t erasing or eliminating or ignoring structures of power and authority. They exist. They are a fact, and he’s not trying to make them go away. He talks, indeed, about the ways in which his life has conformed (in some ways) to power roles: “‘You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.'” The disciples are his true and intimate friends, but they are also his disciples, his students, and those divisions are real. Real, but, as he shows, not solid. Real, but not immutable. Jesus can be their teacher, the example they strive to emulate, and also the person who cares for them in these inescapably awkward and close ways. Jesus does not erase power; he plays with it, upends it, shows the gap between the roles we give one another and the true tender selves who inhabit those roles. In his hands, power structures become the very locus of intimacy, where before they were the barrier to it.

On Taking Care

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ for you?

Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.


“You don’t look like a nanny,” says the Doctor to Clara.

I am catching up on Doctor Who. We’re with the Eleventh Doctor: manic, boastful, a bright and petulant child making up imaginative games with arbitrary rules; how convenient that this new companion be a nanny. Or, well, not exactly a nanny, because she’s way too pretty and quick-witted and shiny-haired and young to be anything so mundane as just a nanny. She takes care of children whose mother died a year previously; she meant to travel the world, but then the friends she was staying with suffered this loss, and out of the goodness of her heart, she’s stayed on. As a sort of…nanny. Only not.

What does it mean to be a servant today? “Domestic employee” is the official parlance; I know this because, unlike Clara, I am a real live nanny. And this is a puzzling place for me to be.

Let me be clear: I really, really like my job. I’m proud of the work that I do, and I dearly love the family I take care of. Also, my boss cares a lot about employee rights, so they take pretty great care of me as well. I have a deep gratitude for my specific situation.

But when I take the kids out and about, I see some interesting sides of people. For example, the majority of people tend to think I’m the mother of my charges. I assumed that it would be obvious that I’m not—for starters, I’m white, they’re South Asian. But no. On my charitable days, I think, “Wow, isn’t it nice that people are comfortable with the possibility of interracial families.” When I’m feeling bitter, I reflect that we all just assume that brown people serve white people, not the other way around.

What I find working in this job is that I’m in a sort of liminal space. Like Clara, people tell me that I don’t “look like” a nanny, or that I’m not a “typical” nanny; or they ask me what I’m planning on doing next (because this obviously isn’t a career for me). These are not-unkind comments, coming from good people, and in a sense they’re absolutely right. I’m white, and I’m highly educated, and (my financial insecurity notwithstanding) I know how to speak the language of wealth. I learned how to ski as a child. I studied Latin at a prep school. I myself had a nanny growing up. And these things matter. One way to express the divide that I feel is to say: on the playground or in the children’s room at the library, the mothers tend to talk to one another, and the career nannies tend to do the same. Whom do I talk to? With whom do I have more in common?

Which brings me back around to the quote with which I began. When we think of Christian servanthood, we think, as Carmen put it in a Gchat conversation, of “doe-eyed paintings of Jesus washing people’s feet.” We think of Pope Francis, causing a scandal by washing the feet of women and non-Christians. We think of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Perhaps we think of mission trips to far-flung places, and building schools for bright-eyed children to sing songs in. I’m not sure that we think very hard or very often about what it is like actually to be a servant; to be someone who makes her living by taking care of people’s most basic needs. I know I never used to.

It is difficult to be a poor person in a wealthy church. It is difficult even for me, who is probably not technically poor. It’s not supposed to be difficult, but it really is. It was difficult, when I was searching fruitlessly for work, to sit patiently through sermons on how “we” are all so busy that we don’t have time for contemplation; it remains difficult, when even thrift store clothes shopping feels like an unwarranted luxury, to listen to sermons on how “our” lives are full of material distractions but empty of spiritual fulfillment. It is difficult to make the decision that no, we genuinely can’t afford to pledge this year, and to feel like a freeloader, and to feel guilty when I choose to spend $3 on a cup of tea rather than put it in the collection plate. It is difficult for me to talk about these things. Perhaps they are personal and specific to my situation, or perhaps they are symptomatic of a larger pattern. I suspect the latter, but I do not know.

Before working as a nanny, I worked briefly at Starbucks. I’d worked in coffee shops in college and enjoyed it, but doing it full-time was pretty awful. I remember an exchange with a friend from church, who is ordinarily deeply kind and empathetic. I told him where I worked. His response: “Wow, that must be such a tough job, having to be on your feet and talking to people all day. I could never do that kind of work.” I thought (but did not say): You know what? You really could. If that was what it took to pay the rent, you could do it.

So many of my posts end up feeling like the fragmentary start of a conversation rather than a completed thought, and this one is especially so. What do you think—about what being a servant is, and what it means? About what it can teach us as a church?

Rejecting Exile

My home parish hosted Walter Breuggemann for a weekend recently. And yeah, I geeked out over that about as much as you might expect. For someone like me, who spends a whole lot of time thinking about biblical scholarship and also about theology and also about mainline Protestant culture and about how to get these different worlds talking to one another, this was excitement on a par–dare I say it–with the release of a new Harry Potter book. (Not Deathly Hallows, though. Let’s not exaggerate here.)

Saturday’s lecture was a sweeping introduction to the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, centering on the prophet as a voice subverting and resisting the dominant narrative of empire. The ideas were pretty basic, in the best way, and were thoroughly grounded, beautifully and clearly explained, and peppered with sharp wit. (One of the most pitch-perfect images came out of a digression into the importance and sacredness of the biblical canon: “It’s like having a family album. There are more attractive pictures of other people elsewhere…but this is our family.”) It was a lovely and inspiring day, and I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole thing, and honestly, that’s about all I have to say about that.

Sunday’s lecture (which you can and should watch here)–how do I put this–gave me considerably more grist for the mill. Breuggemann moved from talking about prophecy generally to talking more specifically about exile as a metaphor for the current state of the gospel community in America, and…I just didn’t quite buy it. I feel like it wouldn’t really be fair to fuss at specific pieces of his argument, since he made it pretty clear that his emphasis was more on the metaphor of exile than on the historical reality of Jewish exile which gave rise to that metaphor. He noted furthermore that no metaphor is going to fit its historical antecedent (is that the word I want?) precisely. Also, it’s cheating to attack specific points without first comprehensively paraphrasing his argument, which latter seems too much like work.*

But taking the historical argument apart piece by piece isn’t the point here. Breuggemann’s lecture got me thinking: is the metaphor of exile an authentic one for Christians today? Is it fair to think of ourselves, as Christians both individually and communally, as displaced, cut off from our “home,” isolated within a foreign community that is indifferent or hostile to us and that seeks at all costs to assimilate us to itself, or even to erase us altogether? Is it useful to envision ourselves in this way? Does it open us up to God and to other people?

One of the things that concerns me about the metaphor of exile is the variety of ways in which various people talking about the lecture before and afterward paraphrased it. As I heard it, Breuggemann’s argument was that Christians feel as though we are in exile due to an increasing sense that our baptismal values–the values of the gospel–are no longer (if they ever were) the values of the dominant culture. That is, we live in a world dominated by the cruel exigencies of the market rather than by the Christian virtues of generosity, hospitality, and self-giving love. Okay, cool! That is a sentiment I can get behind. But when I heard other people describe what they were hearing, there was a subtle difference: people talked about the demise of Christendom, that is, a world in which Christian culture was the default setting. People talked about feeling pushed aside, displaced, misunderstood. And I think these are two ideas which are fundamentally very different, but which bleed into one another incredibly easily. We need to distinguish between “We have an abiding sense that our baptismal values are not the values of the dominant culture” and “We’re anxious about not being quite as much the center of our own universe as we used to be.” The former is a deep concern for me. The latter is a grief that I think is probably understandable, but that, honestly, I really struggle to understand or sympathize with.

So, here’s a more tentative question: What does it do to other people to claim the language of exile? We claim a metaphorical exile; is that–can it possibly be–a neutral act with regard to those among us who are literally in exile? As I listened to Breuggemann’s lecture, I thought, What would a refugee with no support network and little English think of this? And honestly, I don’t have any idea. (Which is something I need to sit with.) Are we taking on the romance of exile without being privy to its disorienting, devastating grief?

And my last, still-more-inchoate thought: It seems to me that exile as a concept depends on the idea of a pre-exilic existence, a home that exists, somewhere, to which you maintain your loyalty, on which you pin your hopes. You used to be in control, have self-determination, live in your homeland. You used to be part of the dominant culture. Though it looks forward to the future, the exilic imagination necessarily has strong roots in the past. And I want to say that my identity as Christian is fundamentally at odds with this sense. The Kingdom of God is always already-but-not-yet, always looking forward, never looking backward. I guess this is where one could bring in Paradise and the Fall and say that really, we’re exiled from Eden; but that’s not a story that gets me very far. Because to me, saying “I want to return to Paradise” is like saying “I want to turn away from this world,” and I will always reject that. Always. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it, is not some other place, from which we have been exiled, to which we will return. It is this place, transfigured into what we can even now see that it might be. This place is our home. That is the whole point.

 

 


*Okay, I’m going to cheat, just a little: 1. Breuggemann’s sweeping dismissal of empires as culturally sterile, homogeneous entities (“If you’ve seen one empire, you’ve seen all the empires;” “By and large empires do not have any visions; they just imagine keeping doing what they’re doing, but they do it better”) is just…not true. The Babylonian empire =/= Persian =/= Roman. There were definitely some strong similarities in the ways those empires chose to administer their vassal states, but that’s mostly because the Babylonians were really freaking good at it to begin with, is what I dimly remember. 2. He characterizes the formation of the Torah during the Persian period as a straightforward rejection of the culture of empire, rather than a complex borrowing, transformation, and appropriation of the high culture of the ancient Near Eastern powers. He cites Genesis 1 as a text that develops in order to show that “the world does not belong to the gods of the Persians, or the gods of the empire, but the world belongs to the God who has long loved the Jews”; but the very thing that makes this text work in that way is its total saturation in the mythology and literature of the powers it seeks to supplant.** 3. This is a little further out of my (former) area of expertise, but every time he draws a sharp dichotomy between the gospel community and the “market ideology” of contemporary global capitalism, I think, “Wait, didn’t capitalism develop within a Christian society? Do we really get to wash our hands of this market ideology?”

**WRT 1 and 2, I feel moderately confident that he knows that the historical situation was much more complicated than he’s making it out to be, and is simplifying for the sake of telling a coherent story to a non-specialist audience. Which opens up whole new vistas of puzzlement and frustration for me.  It just hurts me inside when people dismiss or malign the monumental achievements of human civilization to make a rhetorical point.

Young People In The Church (TM)

I am a young person in the church. It is great! I love my parish, and my church community is a source of friendship, spiritual sustenance, and purpose. As should surprise no one, I have some thoughts about what being A Young Person In The Church has felt like to me, and what we might do to welcome, incorporate, respect, and learn from other Young People. (Spoiler alert: Stop thinking of us in capital letters.) Some of these ideas come from things my congregation does really well; some of them originate with frustrating or hurtful encounters I’ve had. Some of this will probably be pretty specific to the Episcopal Church, and some of it probably will not be.

(NB: For the purposes of this post, Young People = anyone under 40.)

Please don’t tell us that we’re babies.

I feel like this should be obvious, and yet it keeps happening to me: someone (usually in his or her 40s or 50s) will ask my age, and when they hear it (28), they’ll exclaim, “You’re a baby!” Or I’ll describe a troubling or distressing situation–financial instability or vocational concerns–only to have it met with, “Well, you’re SO YOUNG” (the implicit corollary being that my difficulty in making rent is therefore not a serious problem). Or someone will say in my presence, “Anyone under 40 is just a baby to me.”

People. I am a grown-ass woman. I have grey hairs and wrinkles. I pay taxes, I get drunk legally, I try to live into my wedding vows. When you tell me that I’m a baby, you dismiss my whole life, all my suffering and struggle and hard-earned wisdom. You tell me that my life doesn’t count to you. This would be equally unacceptable if I were a college student, or even a high school student. We all have wisdom to offer. We all have suffering that needs to be acknowledged. We are all very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. We all count.

Ask us to do stuff.

By which I mean: invite young people into leadership positions; not just as acolytes or youth fellowship groups, but as vestry members, as members of the committees that make the big decisions. When you’re choosing a group to think about what you want your church’s future to look like, to think big, to decide how to allocate your money and how to grow your church, ask young people to be part of making those decisions.

By which I also mean: invite us into areas of church life that don’t just have to do with worship. Ask us to help serve coffee hour, or to be on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer to help serve the homeless, or to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners. Let us know that we’re needed, and help us feel that the church is ours, too, and we’re not simply filling a pew on someone else’s sufferance. Be our friends. My parish is particularly good at asking people to do stuff, with a fantastic ministry of hospitality and welcome to newcomers, and it’s made such a difference in my life.

Facebook is a red herring.

You guys, I have sat through so. many. sermons. about Facebook. And The World Wide Web. And the perilous allure of Technology. At best, these make me roll my eyes, and at worst, they make me furious. It’s sort of like re-watching the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they set up Willow as the computer wizard who “surfs the net” using the wonders of dial-up: these episodes just don’t wear well, and I can’t really take them seriously. But any discussion about Young People In The Church must apparently include some reference to Facebook, which makes it hard for me to take any discussion about YPITC seriously.

Technology moves very fast, and it’s hard to keep up with (like, what is Snapchat? Is it or is it not purely for sexting? Discuss.), and I get that it’s scary to have this huge pervasive element that wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives a generation ago. And yet, no matter how fast technology changes, people don’t change. People still need the same things we have always needed: sustenance, shelter, community, God. Our tools evolve, but what we’re trying to do with those tools remains pretty stable. The fact that many young people create communities on the internet does not change the fact that we need community. Focus on that.

Spend some money on us.

Fund youth ministry programs, church summer camps, college chaplaincies. Invest in Christian formation for all ages. Ask that your youth ministers be professionals, and compensate them accordingly, both financially and with respect for their roles and gifts. This article by Frederick Schmidt says it beautifully:

Youth and campus ministry need to be treated as a vocation and destination and not as heavy lifting done by someone young enough to survive a week at camp with a hundred kids. That means paying youth ministers as if they do something critical. That means cultivating an approach to the vocation that makes it possible to continue doing the work as long as they feel called to do it. And it means eliminating structures that suggest that this is something worth doing only as long as you are young, unattached, and willing to eat pizza.

Think of us as people rather than members of a demographic. Treat us as an end rather than a means.

One thing I don’t much like in the article linked to above is that Schmidt opens by citing the (admittedly troubling) decline in Episcopal Church membership and aging of its clergy and congregations, then presents his powerful plea for good youth ministry as a solution to this problem. Personally, I don’t want to be anyone’s solution to a declining church. I don’t want to be welcomed as a Young Person; I’d prefer to be welcomed as a real person. Similarly, youth ministry is important not simply because without it the church might not survive; it’s important because young people–like all people–have pressing spiritual needs, and because every person is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and because it’s our job as Christians to spread the light of Christ in the world.

We talk a lot in the church about seeing the full humanity of all people, and in the end, I think it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that. Young people are not babies. We are not alien masters of technology (I still don’t have a smartphone). We are not the holy grail sought by an aging church. We’re just people.

Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.