There Will Be Drought
Searching for Empathy in the Written Word

Caring for Souls in Need

Today's post is from Craig Rennebohm, author of Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets. Rennebohm has worked for twenty years on the streets of Seattle, WA, supporting homeless individuals struggling with mental illness on the journey through the community mental health system to stability in the community. You can read more about his work at The Mental Health Chaplaincy.

Rennebohm The scene is the pastor's study of a major church in a large American city. I am waiting for an appointment in the company of homeless women and men who have come through the church's doors seeking help, a daily occurrence here. Church staff and laypeople are trying to respond to the needs of these souls who have little or nothing to their name. One person has on only a worn t-shirt, muddy jeans, and shoes that are falling apart. No socks. His words make little sense, but it's clear that he's expressing fear of going back outside, probably because it is rainy and unusually cold for this late in the spring. On a bench not far away, a woman sits with her bags, quietly waiting her turn for the clothing room. A community outreach worker named John is interviewing people in the attempt to get help for as many of them as possible before nightfall, when the streets become more dangerous. Just as I am called to my meeting, the man in the t-shirt takes a sweater from the clothing room and makes his way slowly out the door.

The pastor greets me in the church's service center.

"It breaks my heart," he says.

We talk about the need for more resources — shelter, housing, more treatment and care, ready access to mental health and substance abuse programs. The pastor praises the dedicated cadre of volunteers from the congregation who work in the service center program. We talk about the coming Companionship training program we are planning together, aimed at equipping a new group of laity to serve in ministries of presence, hospitality, listening, and healing support.

"I've been thinking," the pastor says, "we've been asking ourselves what, in one sentence, it means to be a member of this congregation. One answer seems very simple: we are companions. We share the journey together, especially with our neighbors who live on the edge."

Companionship is as old as humanity. It's not a complicated concept, but in our world today it often seems we need to be reminded of what it means to be a companion, especially when being a companion entails slowing down, opening our hearts, and truly sharing in the journey of another person. Learning how to be a companion is at the center of my work with church and service organization groups, people who want to help those who are struggling with a mental disorder or a personal crisis but don't know how to go about it. It's all about walking together along the road to healing and wholeness. It's about listening to each other's stories and discovering life-giving moments of faith and truth in unexpected places. It's about the movement of the Spirit in our lives.

Companionship is at the heart of Souls in the Hands of a Tender God, the book I've written with David Paul. The book tells stories from the streets, but it also speaks beyond the streets to the question of what it means to be human — and what we as humans can do to build caring communities.

It might seem like a small thing, developing a one-on-one relationship with a person in need, whether that be someone in our own household, someone we see at a downtown intersection every day as we go to work, or the souls who wander into the church or community service center desperate for some warm clothes, medical care, a bite to eat, or just a smile and some encouraging words. But think of what the cumulative effect of such one-on-one companionships could be if it were replicated around the world.

A Canadian reader of our book wrote to say that her favorite sentence in it is "We begin caring for the soul of the world by caring for the souls of our neighbors, for each life that touches ours." It's not far-fetched, really.

The environmental movement gave birth to the slogan "Think globally, act locally." What's true for the natural environment is true also for the human environment: what we do in our little part of the world, multiplied by the world's population, can become a transformative force. If we undertake small acts of personal kindness and compassion in our own neighborhoods and communities, and if our neighbors do likewise, and if our neighborly acts spread throughout the village or city, across the country, and beyond in the wider world, we then are acting at the crucial point of a global movement of kindness and compassion. By caring for the soul next door, the soul who sleeps in an alleyway, the soul who stands beside a freeway exit ramp with a sign, we are caring for the soul of the world.