For many of us, engaging the tangible, felt brokenness of humanity around us can be easier than stepping into the spiritual mysteries of our lives and the lives of others. Here, Joshua Longbrake (MDiv ‘10) reflects on what he learned about prayer and pastoral care from a woman on a pier. This post originally appeared on joshualongbrake.com.
She called out to me down the pier as I walked in her direction, though not toward her. She was sitting on a concrete slab, her back against a ledge bordering the water. Her friend had a fishing line in the water but no pole in his hand, the translucent line wrapped around a finger in one hand and draped through the other, waiting for a sign, though his worn face said that he didn’t expect a bite. An orange five-gallon bucket was at their feet, right side up, a receptacle for both fish they hoped to catch and a few bottles of booze. I could see the tops of the bottles peeking over the rim of the bucket. I know those long-necked clear bottle tops with the black twist caps: vodka—cheap and quick.
She spoke in a tone and cadence with which I am familiar; it bore the coarseness of sandpaper, the boldness of speaking daily to people she does not know, the expectation of rejection, and a certain resilience, like a solider on her third tour.
I responded as if I’d known her for months, which disarmed her. My face did not change, my body not defensive or alarmed. This is my standard approach—an approach that mirrors my body from moments before the interaction. She asked where I was from and I told her Chicago (I was in Baltimore at the time). There was that specific stench of human feces; I glanced around but I couldn’t spot it. I sat down. I asked her where she was from and she told me. I asked where she stayed and she told me about a few abandoned houses in the area.
“How long until you get bounced?”
“A few days, maybe up to a week at a time, until the construction picks up.”
“Then where do you go? More abandons?”
“Yeah. Winter will hit soon and construction slows.”
“How are the shelters here?”
“I hate them. 40 people to a room. Can’t get no sleep.”
Her friend caught a fish.
I asked her about her social security, when was the last time she received it and if she knew ways to access it again. I asked about family in the area. I asked her if she’d been diagnosed and she told me about her PTSD and borderline personality disorder, and then about how she was abused as a child and how she got cut with a knife under her eye a few days ago.
We discussed those issues with tremendous ease, mere minutes into our meeting each other, because I know her face. I knew her story before she said a word. This is where I shine—talking to the stranger and the strange. I speak with more ease, poise, and fluidity with people I don’t know than I do with my own wife. My father-in-law asks me a question and all of history becomes lodged between my vocal cords. Asking my wife for sex seems impossible. Speaking to my father or step-mother or sister can be difficult, not solely because of them, but often because my fear and timidity stir in my gut. My language comes out stunted, my voice cracks like a pubescent kid. But with the homeless and the ill and even the cashier at Trader Joe’s, I speak in sonnets. It’s always been that way, and I do not know why.
My day job is in the mental health field. I work with adults who suffer from mental illness, and I work on a broad spectrum, ranging from very high-functioning adults who are enrolled in educational programs to adults who suffer from such deep, dark paranoia that they believe my truck is bugged, and then when we move to a spot in the park and they see a woman in running clothes stretching near us they accuse her of being an agent, and so on at every place we sit. I work with a gentleman who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and hoarding, who every morning leaves his SRO (single room occupancy) men’s hotel and walks around for two hours on the streets before he goes into any business in order to give time for the roaches and bugs to get out of his clothes and bag on his pull cart. Some of my people live in apartments and some live in buildings where when I knock on their doors I see bed bugs scatter to the cracks.
My work is to engage people who suffer a vast darkness, to be an advocate for them in a system that is very difficult to navigate, to fight for them with landlords who discriminate, and to take them to all the places that we hate, DMVs and Social Security Agencies, anywhere with a 2+ hour wait, in order for my people to get state IDs and the benefits entitled to them. And part of my job is to counsel them, to help them develop coping skills, to budget their money, and to be one of the few voices in their lives that tells them that there is no normal, that they are valuable, lovely, and good, and that their mental illness does not define them in the same way that the flu does not define anyone with it. There are no schizophrenics, bipolars, or borderlines; there are only people, and we all suffer from something. My agency is funded by tax dollars and private money, it is not religious, but my job is very, very pastoral; this is by far the most pastoral work I’ve ever done. Some days are very hard, some days I hate my job, and some days are so profoundly gratifying in ways I never knew possible.
So when this woman on the pier called out to me, I already knew her, and I sat down somewhere very near human feces without hesitation because I sit in that space all the time. I’m not careless, I know what to look for, but I don’t have the same reservations and fears that once kept me from engaging. And I do not speak with an agenda or a religious righteousness; I talk as though I know her, because I do. I repeat to myself, daily, “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” I find great relief and freedom in that mandate.
Her friend caught another fish.
She threw me a curveball, fast, without hesitation.
“Will you pray for me?”
Does she know I’m religious? Does she care? I felt stuck. I can talk for hours about the logistics of finding and receiving support, where she could go to get her social security check, and how she could find housing. I can speak as a clinician, though not a psychiatrist, to her mental illness, being bathroom-reading-familiar with the DSM-V definitions of mental illnesses and the side effects of psychotropics like Haldol and Prolixin and Thorazine. But all of a sudden she asks me to pray for her, to leave the realm of what is in front of us and enter into an unseen mystery, and my throat binds in knots. I am not ashamed to say that I am a Christian, trinitarian, and fairly devout, but I will also say that when she asked me if Jesus loved her I told her that yes, I believe that he does, but that idea lives in the realm of belief, my belief, and I’m a fearful man of imposing my beliefs on others. And I suppose I have a good amount of fear in general. So odd to be fearful of imposing my beliefs but not of sitting in or near feces.
But I told her Yes, I’ll pray for you. What should I pray for? in an attempt to stall, and she listed some things and waited for me to start. I paused, my mouth slightly agape. And then she said,
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
And I joined her. We said the Lord’s prayer by her leading, and I found myself being taught how to pray. We ended our prayer in unison, she hugged me, and I wondered who had cared for whom as I walked back up the pier.
Joshua Longbrake (MDiv ’10) is a social worker in Chicago and with adults who suffer from mental illness. Joshua is married to Kirby and is a father to Waits.