On Wednesday afternoon I walked over to the student center and voted. I was walking back, musing on the election craziness, when a voice pushed its way into my consciousness. A young black man was spewing profanity. Streams of profanity are common on a college campus, but this was unusual in its vulgarity and its volume. I looked over at the man and saw that he was clearly out of control. His movements were jerky and abnormal; his frantic furious words weren't aimed at anyone. He dove into a busy intersection against the light. I noticed that everyone around me was studiously looking away. "Is that guy...all right?" I asked the man closest to me. "Couldn't tell you," he said, and flicked his eyes away again.
I watched the man as he headed away from me, knowing that he was not all right and not knowing what to do. He was walking right past the student services building -- maybe someone there could help him? As I thought about running after him to ask if he needed help, my own inner voice was unequivocal: "Not safe." I thought about calling 911, and something twisted inside me at the thought. He was moving quickly northward; my office lay to the south. I turned away.
I went upstairs to my social worker friend's office. "What should I have done?" I asked her. "911," she said. "If someone is completely dysregulated, the police are his point of entry into the mental health system." I wanted to tell her how wrong that seemed to me. In this year of Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I am intensely reluctant to call the police on a young black man. Probably, objectively, it is less safe for him to lurch into Gladlyville traffic than to encounter the police in his out-of-control state. I think. I hope.
I'm not sure.
I was sitting in Karen's office trying to explain the wrongness on display, the way that something was clearly broken inside this man. "I appreciate how appalled you are," she said as words failed me and the tears spilled over. "It's easy to get jaded, but you're right: it's outrageous."
Every time I've tried to pray for this man I've thought about Jesus and his resolve to help the mentally ill of his day: the self-injurious, the people disconnected from reality. I'm fully on board with destigmatizing mental illness; I suspect I'm not alone in wanting to keep my distance from its more severe manifestations. I am remembering my resolute "nope," and thinking about Our Lord's willingness to draw near. I can't stop thinking about the way he welcomed the people on the margins.
I have been trying to get a new ministry off the ground at my church, aimed at people on the margins. Here's how it started: we always sit in the first or second pew at Mass. One day two years ago we didn't leave quite enough time and the church was packed, so we wound up sitting in the narthex. The vibe back there was so different, astonishingly different. It made me think of Eutychus, in Acts 20. Something drew him to hear St. Paul preach, but he was hanging out at the edge of the room, on the margin. He was not engaged, to put it mildly, and yet his disengagement brought him into a transformative encounter with the power of God.
What if we could share that power with people on the margins today?
Trying to get a ministry off the ground is making me keenly aware of my weaknesses, I have to tell you. I keep wondering if this is a dumb idea, in fact. But then this afternoon during the 4:00 Mass I was in the Adoration chapel when I heard someone weeping right outside -- enormous, heartbroken sobs. I left Joe in the chapel and stepped outside to see if anyone needed help. A woman was walking briskly toward the parking lot. "Excuse me," I called to her. "Excuse me, are you all right?" She was wiping away tears. We spoke for a few minutes about her situation and I wound up praying with her there on the sidewalk. "You are welcome here," I wanted her to know. "Please come again."
So it's probably not a dumb idea, to reach out to people on the margins. But it's a hard idea. I went back into the chapel and worried about whether I could have handled the conversation better. Maybe someone more socially adroit should be in charge. But I am remembering what my friend Kathy said when I told her about the new ministry: "So you just want me to be a friend to people? I can do that!" And I am remembering what Pope Francis said: "Love heals everything."