Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Soul Tender

I just finished an uncorrected proof of Craig Rennebohm's Souls in the Hand of a Tender God, his profound account of a life of relational mental health ministry to the homeless. I can't remember the last time I've been so moved and inspired. This is the sort of book you want to share. A book that can change lives. Perhaps the world.

My first encounter with Craig was unforgettable. It was a hot summer day in Seattle. Real Change had been around for about a year and I was sitting just inside the door with ozula sioux. We shared a desk for two that was custom built for the space. This was the entire Real Change office then.

ozula said, "Oh my God. Look outside."

I turned from my computer. The door was open, but the storefront is all window. It's easy to see out. A tall African-American woman had removed all her clothing and was standing just outside the door. As I struggled to formulate a response, she placed her hands on the sidewalk to gaze backwards through her legs.

Craig Rennebohm brushed past her as he strode through the door. I'd heard of him as someone who did a homeless mental health ministry, but we'd never met. "Don't you think we should help?" he asked. Then, brilliantly, he arrived at the obvious.

"Do you have a blanket?"

We did. He wrapped it around her shoulders and asked to walk her to Street Outreach Services a few blocks away. She seemed happy for the company and they disappeared down the street.

"Who was that masked man?"

I'd run into him every few years. Recently, more frequently. When we talk lately it's about relationships and wholeness, our mutual preoccupation.

A number of years ago, Real Change decided to ask around sixty people what they valued about our work. We were doing our first strategic plan, and decided to use a method called appreciative inquiry. You begin with what moves people and then you ask why.

It's the relationships, people said. Readers care about the vendors, and vendors change as a result. I'd seen this but still hadn't grasped the meaning. It was a recurrent theme when I did interviews for vendor profiles. People who once felt lonely and isolated gained a new sense of themselves as they interacted with Real Change supporters. Sometimes the change would be profound.

I grew to understand this as the center of our work. The place where the change occurs. Over the last half-dozen years or so, as we've tried to apply this truth to the everydayness of the work, the sense of this has deepened. Relationships are transformational. This is how we come to understand ourselves and our place in the world. All of us.

While the isolation that many homeless people feel and the loneliness that is endemic to twenty-first century consumer culture is of different orders, there is a mutuality to the healing that takes place within the grace and miracle of simple eye contact and a smile. Over time, this grows, and people become important to one another.

The simple beauty of this amazes me each time I think of it.

Rennebohm understands this better than most anyone. His more than three decades of work with mentally ill homeless people is based in creating what he calls circles of care, a practice rooted in spirit and compassion that sees past the illness to the person within.

There is an idea that I learned from the Quakers of speaking to "that of God" in everyone. Even as an agnostic person-of-faith-wannabe I could see the deep truth in this. I've found, time and again, no matter how broken or disturbed or addicted someone might be, beneath all of the pain and confusion is a person more like myself than not. A bright, clear, point of light that struggles toward realization.

In the pages of his book, which tells the stories of the people who have helped deepen his own understanding, Rennebohm describes the communal process of finding wholeness. Deep listening. Nonjudgmental presence. Shared humanity. And the tender work of nurturing the path of spirit toward wellness.

Rennebohm describes the city of Geel, a town in Germany that for seven hundred years has lived in community with those who experience mental illness. The tomb of Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness, is there. What began as a pilgrimage site has over the centuries evolved into a modern marriage of compassion and science, where more than seven hundred of the city's families, supported by a well-developed, state-supported, infrastructure of technique and care, offer short and long-term foster homes to the mentally ill.

Inspired by a visit twenty years ago to Geel and other communities that learned from their model, Rennebohm struggled to apply this vision of community to his work in Seattle. A house was started with eight people, half mentally ill guests and half full-time residents. They extended the circle of care to include other people of faith and various professionals and advocates who could help others become who they are. Rennebohm speaks of there being a familiar self and an illness self, and the importance to healing of discerning the difference.

But he also speaks of not confusing wholeness with perfection. The brokenness of the world is part of its wholeness. In recognizing this and embracing the suffering in life we find what is whole in ourselves as we recognize the fullness of others.
The Spirit is at work not just within us each, but also in our life together at every level of human organization. Just as the Spirit moves within the most minute movements of our bodies, it moves in the unfolding of family in its various forms, the creation of neighborhood, the organization of community, the formation of society. The Spirit seeks our wellbeing, not just in terms of health and moral character, but also in terms of public witness and social justice. The Spirit has concern for our common life — for the way we treat one another as persons, manage care and human services, provide housing, keep order, use the resources of the planet, steward the environment, divine our callings, and give expression to our varied gifts and abilities.
Souls in the Hand of a Tender God is out on Beacon Press in May, and offers an inspiring vision of community as well as a practical model for healing that has been adopted by countless others. Despite the immense importance of this book, most of the world will have to wait just a few more months. For myself, I'm glad to have the head start. There is much here to be learned, no matter what our calling.


Dr. Wes Browning said...

I want that book.

I'm a fan of James Hillman. He talks about letting the "mental illness" speak. "Psychology" literally means, "talk about the soul." He says the mental illness is the soul speaking out for itself.

Pastor Rick said...

Foundationally, we're all a little nuts, but we've set up these boundaries of acceptable practice. Mostly artificial.

Craig was another Capitol Hill minister like me, but cooler. I look forward to getting a copy of the book.

Sally said...

Pastor Rick: Don't assign yourself to a lower spot than anyone. You're extremely cool.

Shell said...

Hi Tim,

I'm an old friend of ozula's and I've been trying to find her for a few years. Are you still in touch with her and, if so, would you be willing to pass on my e-mail address? My name is Michelle Reis and we volunteered together at Q Safety Patrol.

Thank you for your consideration,

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