When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons sitting there, dressed and in his right mind, and they were afraid … The man went away and began to tell in the ten cities how much Jesus had done for him: and all the people were amazed. (Mark 5:15, 20)
I met Fernando after he arrived from Rikers Island, where he had attempted suicide.
As we waited for the surgeon to arrive, he told me he had been in trouble most of his life but had managed to stay out long enough to get married and have kids. His court date for this particular charge, a violation of his parole, was in a week and his chances were grim.
“I’m looking at a long stretch, a lot of time,” he said.
Here was a man drowning in self-hatred. Fernando described watching another detainee hang himself in his cell. My own reaction was horror, but I watched his face turn almost wistful.
“I was jealous,” he said. “Why couldn’t I do that?”
“You want to die like that,” I said, clarifying.
“Yeah, instead of wasting my time doing this shit.”
My first instinct was to pull out my cape and remind him of his worth and value under heaven. There was a time when I said such things, but now I tried to embody them instead.
For an hour I sat with Fernando and listened, the two of us together in that terrible boat.
And as I got up to leave, I said to him: “I enjoy talking with you. You’re a real blessing to me today.” I watched him do a double-take, then tears came to his eyes.
“For real?” he said. “No one’s ever described me like that.”
Father Gregory Boyle, who for decades worked with gang members in Los Angeles, talks about practicing “radical kinship” with those on the margins, just as Jesus did, so that the margins themselves eventually disappear. Entering into kinship, pulling Fernando out of self-hatred and into community, signals acceptance and grace and leads to a place where “the soul feels its worth”, Boyle writes.
For us residents, we also learned that if we can practice empathy that’s this close, this focused, there is little room for bias or stereotypes to wiggle in and derail us. We start to see people not as two-dimensional but as full human beings whose lives have meaning and who, like us, are coursing with the same darkness and light. This is how, by the end of our residency, my conservative evangelical colleague was presenting beautiful verbatims with her transgender patients, and the Nigerian Catholic priest had entered kinship with his fellow countryman, a Muslim patient from the north.
We learned that once we were able to get out of our own way, our role was very basic.
Helping our patients required little more than meeting them where they were … my role wasn’t to teach or reveal to them anything, but to simply affirm the best parts of themselves that had become obscured by illness, but had been there all along, and to revel together in that place where the soul feels its worth. “This is our chaplain,” Nzodom said one day as she introduced a new patient. “He makes us feel good about ourselves.” Ω
Reflect: When prejudices or fears block you from being with particular people? Pray about this.
What is this? Lent is the 40 days, excluding Sundays, before Easter. Traditionally it is a time of reflection and pilgrimage. To help you on this journey, Sanctuary has put together 40 stories from people both within and beyond the congregation, with associated questions for reflection and prayer. A reading will be uploaded every day of Lent. This year’s theme is Fruit of the Spirit. Why? Read this. #Lent2022. Real People, Real Stories: 40 Readings for Lent © Sanctuary, 2022. From Bryan Mealer. “Death, Addiction, Grace: A Year as Chaplain in New York’s Toughest Hospital.” The Guardian. 25 October 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/25/new-york-hospital-chaplain-bellevue-death-addiction-grace. Access date: 28 October 2021.
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