Recently, a video made the rounds, showing an obviously disturbed woman committing what might best be termed an unsanitary act in a neighbourhood Tim Horton’s. A number of media outlets published it online, but I won’t share the link. I consider it a form of pornography; but the incident does raise an important point.
According to my friend Don Lehn at Fraser Valley News, people already knew the woman and knew she was mentally ill; Don – whose newsroom did not post the video – works with the mentally ill and addicted. He says incidents like that are not uncommon.
Neither is the response many would have: “get this woman into rehab so she can be a productive member of society!”
Translation: “Get this woman out of my sight so I don’t have to think about her ... but I’ll mention treatment, so I don’t look callous and uncaring.”
But as Don points out – and I’ve seen with my friends on the Downtown East Side – people have to want to be mentally healthy and/or beat their addictions, or else treatment will have no effect. They need to have a reason to stay alive and clear-headed: if they emerge from their illness and start to look clearly at the world, only to see the same despair as before, why bother?
A fellow I knew at Gospel Mission was in danger of being evicted from his SRO because he was caught smoking crack in his room. He was 60-something at the time, had suffered a stroke a few years before; he broke his collar-bone in a fall and the doctors decided it was too risky to insert a metal plate, because he could fall, break the plate and get infected. So he was going through life, limping on a walker, with a piece of bone occasionally jutting out through his skin.
I was talking about Jim’s case with his social worker, and at one point, I pontificated, “Clearly, Jim has to get off drugs.” There was a pause, while the idiocy of the remark sank in, and then the worker and I said together, “WHY?”
Given Jim’s physical situation, why not let him keep smoking his crack? Certainly, the threat of eviction (he wasn’t, by the way) is one reason, but any one of us can help provide a reason to keep on that goes far beyond it.
It’s called HOPE, and no “program” can instill it. For followers of Jesus Christ, that’s our job.
Jesus tells a parable of a man who was mugged, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A number of people see him and cross the road to walk past him, but one man – a Samaritan – stops, gives a form of first aid, then takes him to an inn and tells the innkeeper to let him stay there until he’s recovered. He pays up-front for the care and promises to pay anything over that when he returns.
Jesus tells the parable in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”, so His point is that your neighbour is anyone you see who is in need. The colour of that person’s skin, their age, background, whether they “deserved” to be in that position or “brought it on themselves” doesn’t matter: what matters is, they’re in need and you’re able to help.
But the Samaritan was wealthy – he certainly had enough money to cover the injured man’s medical treatment and accommodations: what can I do?
Let’s turn that on its ear: the Samaritan did what he could. So can we.
It doesn’t take much to help someone “turn the corner”. It doesn’t take a particular college degree, special training or a large staff with a multi-million-dollar facility. It just takes something any one of us can give.
Simply saying “hello” to someone can break through walls that have taken years to build up. Treating them like another human being, rather than a “street person” or an addict or someone who needs help, can be the catalyst that gets them feeling like there’s something worth striving for in their lives.
That is the essence of following Jesus Christ. His half-brother, James, writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27 NKJV)
Frankly, who is more of an orphan than someone who’s lost everything in their lives because of addiction or mental illness? Keeping yourself “unspotted from the world” is simply refusing to to join the chorus of judgment that causes people to pass by on the other side, or to fall into the groupthink that people who are head-sick should be “treated”, “put away”, or handed over to “them” to be “fixed”.
Sure, there’s an element of fear: fear of getting too close to someone who’s “lopsided” or that they might do something irrational. Fear of being seen talking to a weirdo. Fear of being exposed to a side of life that makes us uncomfortable, because that person could be us. Jesus provides us with a way of overcoming that fear and pressing forward.
Jesus invites us to come out of our comfort zones to help raise others out of their sadness and despair. But He does more than “invite” us, like a cheerleader, waving pompoms on the sidelines. He promises to get involved when we do.
“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV) Being Jesus’ witness involves deeds as much as words, and the Holy Spirit gives you strength that you don’t naturally have to take that first step ... and the next ... and the one after that.
Think of it: yours may be the word that sets someone on the path to health. It could be the first kind, loving, word that they hear, or it could be part of a chorus, confirming that they, too, are children of God and worthy of being healed.
If you don’t take that step and say it, who will?
Drew Snider is a writer and former broadcaster who pastored for ten years on Vancouver's Downtown East Side. He's an occasional guest speaker at churches and writes a blog, "Two Minutes for Cross-Checking!"
You can read more articles on our multifaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE