Since 1987, Craig Rennebohm has ministered to people on the streets of Seattle who are homeless and struggling with mental illness. In Souls in the Hands of a Tender God, he tells the evocative stories of persons who desperately need psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual support-like Mary, who surrounds herself with huge trash bags for protection from a threatening world; Jerry, whose fits of rage get him barred from every shelter and meal program in Seattle; and others, abandoned and marginalized by their community, who need care and treatment to find their way back to a life of stability and meaning. As Rennebohm reaches out to each one, their stories become parables that explore mental illness and the spiritual heart of care and recovery, helping us understand what it means to be human, on a pilgrimage together toward wholeness.
As these stories unfold, we encounter Rennebohm's powerful experiences with a God of kindness and compassion, drawn from his own life and the lives of those he has aided in their struggles with homelessness and with mental illness. Souls in the Hands of a Tender God offers a clear understanding of Spirit, faith, soul, and religion that will prove invaluable to individual conversations and to dialogue among congregations about how we can best serve "the least among us."
Souls in the Hands of a Tender God follows the path of healing and the way of companionship to build communities of caring that welcome and include our most fragile and troubled neighbors. With gentleness and grace, solid knowledge and wisdom, Rennebohm lays down the foundations of healing communities in which all may have a home, safely rest, and be well.
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About the Author
David W. Paul is a Seattle-based writer and editorial consultant. He is a former political scientist who taught at Princeton and the University of Washington. He has authored or co-authored six books and many articles ranging from politics and history to film criticism, the Internet, and poetry translations. As a technical writer and editor, he worked on contract with Microsoft, Adobe, Boeing, and other companies in the Puget Sound area. His recognitions include awards from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and the Seattle Arts Commission. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, a Fulbright-Hays Fellow, and a scholar-in-residence for the Washington Commission for the Humanities and the Washington State Arts Commission.
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Souls in the Hands of a Tender God Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets
By Craig Rennebohm David Paul
Beacon Press Copyright © 2008 Craig Rennebohm and David Paul
All right reserved.
Chapter One At the Doorway
Pilgrim Church in Seattle has a chapel with a small courtyard opening through an archway onto a side street, and one morning as I was passing by on my way into the building, I noticed four bags of garbage, one at each corner of the courtyard. At the doorway to the chapel itself, protected from the rain, a man was sleeping. He awoke and raised his head as I approached. I said my name was Craig and that I was the pastor. He told me he was a baker and that he spent the nights baking bread for the whole city. He shot constant glances over my shoulder, his eyes scanning the courtyard.
He said there was a great evil in the world; he had put the bags of garbage out to protect himself and the church. I moved closer and crouched down to listen more carefully.
"The evil goes to what it knows," he said.
I asked his name.
"Sterling Hayden," he said, "the actor." He was referring to the movie star whose career had peaked in the 1950s, some twenty years earlier.
It was November, a season of ever-colder weather, but Sterling continued to sleep in the chapel courtyard, exposed to the night air. Each morning for a week I found him there, bags of garbage carefully set out around him to ward off the evil. Each morning we talked a little. Each morning the custodian carefully removed the garbage to the Dumpster. Each evening Sterling rebuilt his surround of safety.
One morning as we sat side by side on the steps leading from the street to the courtyard, a steady downpour began. I invited him inside. We climbed the stairs of the parish house to my study, a room with an old rolltop desk and a simple sitting area with comfortable chairs. Sterling confided to me how worried he was. Unnameable threats hovered about him. He lapsed into silence, an inner world of terror showing through frightened eyes.
What I first saw in Sterling was his "illness self"-the homeless man, his strange sense of identity, his terrible fright, his unusual attempts to create safety. As we sat together over the course of that week, there were also brief and fleeting moments of ordinary conversation and health. He asked for a drink of water. He gently touched a small green plant growing on the windowsill.
On his last night with us, Sterling placed large amounts of toxics around the courtyard. The next morning, in one corner we found a box of used motor-oil cans and dirty rags scavenged from a gas station. In another corner was a five-gallon bucket of old cooking grease hauled from the alley behind a nearby restaurant. In a third corner was a bag of half-filled bottles and spray cans of cleansers. In the fourth corner sat a carton of empty containers that once held paint thinner, shellac, and wood stain. These materials were the only protection Sterling could devise.
When I saw Sterling's volatile collection in the courtyard, I talked with him about going to the hospital. I said he might find safety and care there. The hospital, I told him, protected people from disease and infection. They had good security and staff on duty day and night, help that we didn't have at the church. I told him there was a team that could come and help him. To my relief, he was willing.
I called King County Mental Health Crisis and Commitment Services, and was told that county-designated mental health professionals (MHPs) would be dispatched promptly. Sterling and I waited in my office, and after about thirty minutes two men arrived. They listened to Sterling's frightened and confused story. The MHPs agreed that he needed help and should be in the hospital.
Sterling relaxed a little. "Can we go now?" he asked. "Will you take me?"
The MHPs looked at each other, then at me, and then at Sterling. "Sterling," one of them said, "we can't do that. We can only take people to the hospital if they don't want to go."
Sterling looked crushed, and I was incredulous.
"He wants to go," I said. "Why can't you take him?"
"Sterling is a voluntary patient," one of the MHPs replied. "We can only arrange transportation for involuntary patients, people we're committing to the hospital against their will."
I shook my head. This was absurd.
Before I could put together a question about what we could do, Sterling shouted at me, "You said these people would help!" and dashed out of the room.
"Sterling, wait!" I called. I wanted to ask the MHPs if I could take him, and to which hospital, and whom we should talk to. I hadn't a clue how to get someone into a psychiatric unit in Seattle.
Sterling bolted down the stairs and out the back door. I assumed he would head for his haven in the chapel courtyard, and so before pursuing him I hurriedly got some suggestions from the MHPs. After they left, I went to look for Sterling. He wasn't in the courtyard. I looked on Broadway, the street in front of the church, and in the nearby neighborhood, but he had vanished.
I watched for him over the next several days, but he never returned.
Just before Thanksgiving, several weeks after Sterling disappeared, I was reading the Seattle Times. At the bottom of a back-page column was a paragraph of filler. A transient had been found under a viaduct downtown, dead from exposure. His name was Sterling Hayden.
The experience with Sterling was a beginning, coming early on in my ministry with Pilgrim Church. Pilgrim stood on the corner of Broadway, in the middle of a diverse and ever-changing neighborhood just beyond Seattle's downtown core. The needs of our neighbors and the makeup of our congregation offered a ready calling to mission. Among us were elderly individuals and couples on fixed incomes, students, street people, young professional families and families on assistance, young adults, and people from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. We sought to diminish the barriers that discouraged or excluded anybody from participating in the life of our community of faith by ramping the front entrance for wheelchair access, signing the Sunday services for the deaf and hard of hearing, and printing the hymnal and weekly service bulletin in braille. Residents from nearby group homes became members of the church, and we did our best with anyone who came in on a Sunday morning acting out of the ordinary.
We hosted a community meal we called the Lord's Supper, where served and servers prepared and ate dinner together. We used an old locker/shower facility in the basement to create the "Lower Room," named by the street community and staff in reference to the Upper Room where Jesus met with his disciples. Here was a practical but also sacred place, a down-to-earth starting point for a new journey. We replumbed the showers, put in a laundry, and stocked the shelves with clothes and supplies for people who were homeless or hungry. The Lower Room became a center of support and fellowship, as well as a base for opening another space for emergency shelter in cold weather.
We discovered, however, that there were neighbors who could not make it to our doors-people who were too hopeless, too gripped by delusional fears, or too caught up in mania: minds too confused, souls too wounded to find their way into survival services. And even when they found us, we were often unprepared as a congregation for ministering with them. Out front, our reader board proclaimed, "All are welcome, come as you are," but our ability to put that bold and basic principle into practice had a serious limitation when it came to the nearly 10 percent among us who are afflicted with major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other severe mental illnesses.
It was not just the congregation; I was unprepared to help a person like Sterling. Sterling had brought his struggle to our doorstep, and I had responded to the best of my ability. We began with hesitation on both sides of the relationship. Sterling had tried to tell his story as clearly as he could from out of the ominous clouds of his illness, and I attempted to listen and find the path with him toward healing. We took a few trusting steps, but lost our way. Why?
I had a background in counseling, but no real understanding of brain disorders. In seminary, I had taken the basic pastoral care class, but during the course only one sentence was spoken that specifically addressed major mental illness: "A person with mental illness should be referred to a psychiatrist." In our seminaries and churches, as in the wider culture, mental illness was shrouded in myth and stigma. Care and treatment were a mystery.
Sterling's story was tragic, a painful memory that slipped into a forgotten recess of my mind, only to be awakened several years later. In the meantime, I had left the parish ministry for a year of study at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, and I began the program with an intensive summer of clinical pastoral education. In that capacity, I was assigned as a chaplain to a psychiatric unit of a county hospital. After a brief introduction to the unit and its staff and patients, I was given a key to the ward and told to make sure that the door was always locked behind me.
It was an eye-opening experience. One man sat in the dayroom muttering, "No hope, no hope." Another wandered about the halls, stringing together words that seemingly made no sense: "Debt, debt, debt, everyone's in debt, gas, got to get the clover in, got to get the clover in, no, no, no clover, everything goes boom." A young woman talked rapidly about a book she was writing, which would contain everything a person needed to know about any subject, "all the wisdom of the world, a superbible." One day a man ran down the hall and slammed his head into a door.
Slowly I got to know each of these souls, along with dozens of others who came through the unit over the summer. My approach to them was simple: I introduced myself as a fellow human being, a neighbor, and offered to be present. It wasn't clear to me what help I could be, but I was willing to learn from the patients and staff. I looked for small ways to create islands of safety, little spaces of sanctuary where the patients and I could sit quietly side by side, or stand, or just walk a few steps together. I listened to people's stories, in whatever way they were able to share them with me. I participated with patients in group art activities, in singing together, and in activities involving movement and drama. If asked, I joined patients when they met with their psychiatrist or other staff. I said goodbye as patients left the unit, some heading back to their families, some to group homes and other facilities, and some to the streets.
One afternoon I was called to the emergency room. Franklin, a patient who had been discharged that morning, had returned. With nowhere to go that night, he begged to be readmitted and was so agitated that he had to be strapped down on a gurney. He asked to talk with the chaplain. When I found him, he was still lying on the gurney as staff evaluated his condition and made a decision concerning the disposition of his case.
Franklin saw me enter the room. He reached for my hand and said, "Tell me, please, that someone cares."
I thought of Sterling and recalled my sense of helplessness when he bolted from my office and disappeared. What could I tell the man here before me now? I couldn't guarantee him anything, but I could minister to him. I could share with him what I most deeply believed.
I took Franklin's hand. "Someone cares," I said. "Someone cares."
He nodded, lay back, and rested.
In the space between us, we sensed the tenderness of God, holding us in quietude and patience, a Spirit active even when our lives are broken. The healing touch of God is manifest in the times of our greatest vulnerability and when our relationships with one another are fragile. God is there for us when we reach the precipice. When we feel helpless, when we are all too conscious of our failures, when we have done all we can and it is not enough, when we feel overcome by destructive forces at work in us and in the world, when we stand at the abyss ... it is then that we experience the touch of God: an aged, veined hand that reaches out to soothe us, support us, and anoint us with love and life.
This is faith: to experience a spirit of assurance transcending all that is negative, destructive, and alienating. This is faith: to know that, whatever our condition, no matter who we are or what we have done, no matter how overwhelming the forces working within us or upon us, there is One who cares for us and dwells with us and holds us with an infinitely tender strength, One who is pained by our pain and passionate about our healing and well-being. This is faith: to feel, to comprehend, to be touched by the presence of divine love in a moment of shared clarity. The gentleness of God creates room for us to be present with one another and to discover in depth who we are and what it means to be human.
We are pilgrims. Some of us travel familiar roads throughout our lives, highways well marked; we might never leave the village or neighborhood in which we grow up. Others of us move out into new territories, different and distant lands, to follow our calling or our dreams. And some of us are taken, not of our own will or choice, into the landscapes of illness. But wherever we are on the journey, we are on holy ground. Our lives are sacred-and no less so when our brains are in disorder. God holds our souls and walks with us.
Out of the experience with Franklin and other patients, a new ministry emerged for me. I had gone to Berkeley with the idea of pursuing peace work, but what I began to realize was that the work of peacemaking, the work of healing and reconciliation, was literally on our doorstep. Our first calling is to create communities that care for and include the most fragile, vulnerable, and estranged among us. In reaching out to the stranger in our own midst, the person we have been taught to fear or ignore or shun or despise, we discover the fundamentals of faith. The pilgrimage of peace does not require travel to faraway sites; the way begins with our next step, with our neighbor who is suffering.
In June of 1987, I returned from Berkeley to Seattle and started the Mental Health Chaplaincy, a ministry that took me into the streets to share the journey with people like Sterling and Franklin.
Soon after arriving back in Seattle, I met Terri. Terri lived on the streets of Seattle's First Hill. Each night she passed by St. James Cathedral, a stately, Italian Renaissance-style church on First Hill overlooking downtown, with a warm and open ministry especially for those who are on the margins. Terri often stopped and took up a post by the main entrance or a side door, sheltered as much as possible from the wind and the cold. When others came seeking sanctuary, she helped them find a place, too. Those who were troublemakers she asked to leave. "This is holy ground," she said with determination, standing at her full height of four feet, five inches. On the stormiest nights, Terri found shelter in the emergency waiting area of a nearby hospital; she had once worked there and knew the security staff and maintenance personnel.
During the day, Terri helped out in the cathedral sanctuary, volunteering for small duties such as polishing the pews or replacing the candles. She loved the daily services at eight, noon, and five, which to her were like the hours prayed in medieval abbeys and monasteries.
Terri lived with two neurological illnesses. She needed medication to control seizures, which had plagued her since childhood. She also suffered from tuberous sclerosis (TS), a rare genetic disorder that causes growths to appear spontaneously throughout the body. Terri had experienced episodes of disfiguring growths on both her hands and face.
Despite these impediments, she maintained steady employment and raised a developmentally disabled son, who moved into supported living as an adult. Terri quit work and gave up her apartment to assist her mother, an invalid, in the family home. When Terri's mother was transferred to a nursing facility, the house was sold to help pay for the cost of her care. Terri stayed with friends for a while, but then, insisting that she did not want to be a burden, she drifted out onto the streets.
With no income and bereft of daily contact with the two people she loved most, Terri did her best to create a meaningful world on the street. She saw herself as a kind of Saint Francis. Money given to her she would pass on to others. Food and other material mercies that came her way were always shared. Terri initially viewed her homelessness as a call and a test of her faith that God would provide. She cherished two small candles of hope in her life. She had once served as the day housekeeper and cook in a rectory far out in the country and wished very much to be of service in this way at the cathedral, but no such position was available. Above all, Terri desired to become a eucharistic minister, a layperson in the Roman Catholic Church trained and authorized to assist at the altar in serving Holy Communion. For that to happen, she needed more stability in her life.
Excerpted from Souls in the Hands of a Tender God by Craig Rennebohm David Paul Copyright © 2008 by Craig Rennebohm and David Paul. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Scriptures XIII
Part I The Movement of the Spirit 1
1 At the Doorway 3
2 Jerry's Song 19
3 The Potter's Field 29
Part II The Life of the Soul 45
4 Approaching Mary 47
5 Companioning Breezy 65
6 Creating Karl's Circle of Care 87
7 Grace 105
Part III A Community of Tenderness 127
8 Do You Know the Legend? 129
9 Home, Healing, and Wholeness 143
10 Caring for the Soul of the World 165
11 Words Are Medicine, Too 177
Appendix A A Call to Healing Ministry 201
Appendix B Books 205
Appendix C Organizations 207