People are Awesome
How do you describe a day in which you meet not one, but two very special human beings? Last Tuesday, as is my custom, I spent time in Ipswich Mall. As the day unfolded I met a young man who was clearly very much drug-affected, and a young woman who seemed to be something of a contradiction: sensible and determined on one hand, but clearly “of the street” in her social attitudes and modes of speech.
They stopped to talk for a couple of hours, but they had me at “hello”.
Is any age a good age to shoot-up?
This remarkable young lady, over the space of a couple of hours, told her story. I’m going to leave aside some of the more unpleasant, violent, and sexual details and just focus on her experience with drugs.
5 Year-Old junkie
Her mother first injected her when she was five. I didn’t ask how often it happened, but she said that by the age of nine she was managing by herself. That’s a 9 year-old injecting drug user…
Fast-forward a bit, and during a prison stay she started meeting with a Prison Chaplain. She was so bound up with emotional pain that she was unable to even speak with him during their sessions, so he gave her a journal and encouraged her to write down her thoughts. When they met, he would discuss what she had written. This process unlocked her whole life.
She reports that she slept with a Bible under her pillow in prison. I don’t know precisely what to do with that factoid. I just mention it here, much as she mentioned it to me. So much of what she told me just struck me dumb in surreal admiration.
Strength to Strength
This lady is now 19 years old. Although initially crippled with anxiety about going outside her own room when she was initially released from prison, after several weeks she was able to venture out to attend her parole obligations. In the interim, the parole officer had come to her boarding house!
That was only three or four months ago. I took the opportunity to point out that now, she was sitting in a public mall talking to a perfect stranger. All I could do was affirm and celebrate her courage and determination.
A month ago she enrolled in a program that will allow her to complete high school, and to progress to an apprenticeship in Diesel Engine Mechanics. She finds it a bit frustrating and difficult to engage with, but is determined to succeed.
Let’s face it. Most of us are content to find an excuse to fail when finding the will to succeed is a bit tough. But here we have a true hero. This girl has the kind of grit and determination that translates to success in life. She is smart, too. If I was one of those “undercover millionaire” people, I’d hire her straight away.
All I could do was affirm her and encourage her. What else is there? This woman is incredible.
The Hungry Bandit
My other new friend was flying pretty high, but even at first contact I could read him like a book.
He’s very affectionate. Desperately in need of physical affection, he hugs everyone he meets. When I hug people, I have a policy of not letting go first. I reckon we hugged for a full minute… and that was just the first one!
Physical touch is one of five key “Love Languages” famously identified by Gary Chapman. All of the love languages are vitally important to every normal human being, and Dr Chapman recognises that everyone tends to have one or two “primary” ones. In my friend’s case, although clearly sexually active (I had to direct the conversation off the topic of sex several times), he exhibited what I interpret as emotional starvation. The physical contact he gets is evidently tainted in various ways so that he remains malnourished even as he overeats. He quite clearly got a lot from hugging (being hugged by) me. My hugs come without strings attached.
We chatted quite a bit. He rambled a lot, but when he said something about friends, I said, “Do you have many real friends?”
At this he stopped and became quite sober and lucid. His body slumped. “No”, he said, “not really”.
I said, “I’ll be your friend”. That triggered another hug of socially questionable proportions. We sat and talked for quite some time, and the word “friend” came up a lot.
The Hungry Bandit
In a fairly ambiguous way, he reported that he was “the Hungry Bandit”, and got me to Google the phrase using my phone. I located a news article from 2010, of which he claims to be the subject. His reference to it was ambiguous in the sense that he seemed uncertain whether the fame/infamy was going to be interpreted positively or negatively.
His own reflection had a lot to do with the fact that the magistrate laughed at him, dismissing the case. Again, though, it isn’t clear whether he thinks this is good or bad.
I think it depends whom he speaks to about it.
The Phenomenon of Judgementalism
One of my friends is learning a lot and developing very well. Unfortunately, encountering this particular person challenged her in interesting ways. She wanted to take him to task, over the course of the conversation, for being drug affected, for swearing, and for being involved in an armed robbery.
It was clear that each time such a comment was made he retreated like a snail, touched on the antennae, retracting back into his shell. I gently covered my friend’s objections while reassuring him of my continued approval of him as a person.
Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God
In managing the situation, I could not simply shut-down, rebuke, or exclude one friend in order to include and minister to another. All of my friends are equally important! Just as one is starting to learn about receiving uncritical and unconditional love from the People of God, another is starting to learn about the charity, longsuffering, and grace that the People of God are obliged to exemplify.
So each time a dis-empowering comment was made, I simply countered with an affirming one. For example, “Get off the f*ing drugs”, from my friend, followed instantly by, “I love you” from me.
I’ve had people suggest to me that the role of a Christian Minister is to stop people if they are “heading towards a cliff”. By this they mean telling a person that they are in the wrong. I agree that there is a place for this in some settings, but the people I’m talking to already know that they are in the wrong. They know that the drugs are bad, and they don’t want to be bound by them. They also know the same of swearing, anger, violence, pornography, sexual immorality, and everything else! They don’t need one more person telling them what they’re doing wrong – they have hundreds of those.
What they need is someone telling them that they matter, that they are loved, and that there is hope for them.
The Role of the Police
With each of my friends on Tuesday, as I was talking to them, the constable on the Mall beat took the time to have a little chat. He clearly knew them well, and just as clearly was concerned for their well being. He asked follow-up kind of questions (“are you still living at so-and-so?”) which revealed an ongoing relationship.
The role of the police in the community is not known or appreciated well enough. They know who the junkies are and who the dealers are, and they have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. They have to walk a fine line as they both enforce the letter of the law and use discretion to promote a healthy community.
So my hat goes off to the Police. I’m certainly grateful that I don’t have to concern myself with preventing criminal acts; I can focus on loving the criminal. Not that either role can be dispensed-with. These are two sides of the one community-building coin.
It was a fascinating challenge, having one friend yapping and biting at another. It brought several of Jesus’ teachings to mind in very helpful ways. The speck and the plank of Matt 7:3-5, for example, suddenly became so much more than a pithy proverb. It is a tool in the hands of the community leader, to gently teach the principles of the kingdom in real time. This is a stark contrast to the style of teaching that we have made ourselves accustomed to, in which we gather to sit in silence as a teacher makes the case for their pastoral nugget of wisdom.
Much of Jesus’ ministry was not conducted in that way. He was an itinerant preacher, but much of what he is reported to have said was said to the crowds, or indeed often only to the disciples, in response to real life situations.
Not having the time to prepare a teaching and dream up appropriate metaphors and parables, this real-time ministry is deeply spiritually demanding. Wit and intellect do not suffice. What is required at each moment is prophetic utterance. That is, the speaking out of God’s will for the moment. To operate in that zone, one must be both ultra-present and spiritually well nourished. No wonder the story goes:
… his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” – Mark 9:28-29
Note to self: Recommit to a life of prayer, do not ever settle for a prayer life (in the same sense as a “sex life” and a “work life” and a “home life”).
People are Awesome
The human condition knows no limit in its wonder. The people I meet continually affirm to me that human people are awesome, and I have no trouble understanding God’s delight in His creature. It is precisely this delight which informs His aghast dismay when these very creatures harm themselves and one another. I bear the double-edged burden of empathy with both His abounding love and deep anguish.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. […] And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
I remain acutely aware that I am telling people’s stories here. I meet so many awesome people, and get involved in so many best-seller stories, but can’t share them because they don’t belong to me. I work hard to share what I can in ways that honour the people I’m describing.
One point to note is that many drug users, particularly injecting users, do refer to themselves as “junkies”. It is accepted as a factually descriptive term, as is “alcoholic”. In fact, on Tuesday the term that was being employed in the vernacular, by those involved, was far too coarse for me to repeat here. “Junkie” is the milder option.
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