Those Who Have Eyes, Let Them See

Yes, I said I was on sabbatical.  But I do have to write.  Like, I do have to breathe.  My facebook page this morning, somebody posted an Ernest Hemingway quote, There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.  I have learned there is more than one way to bleed.  Teresa of Avila's stigmata, by the way, were interior.  Mine (writing) seems better than other alternatives.

So yes, I am on sabbatical.  That means I don't have to post.  I might anyway.  Oh well.

NAMI National Convention 2012

It started with Shepherd.  He stood straight tall.  Life has taken a lot out of him, including a lot of teeth.  But he stood straight tall.  I remember him as a black man, with piercing light blue eyes.  I know that's possible, a black man with blue eyes.  Maybe it isn't true in this case.  My brain really isn't that dependable anymore.  But the piercing part is the most important.  I am so glad I wasn't afraid to look in his eyes.

It was Wednesday morning at the NAMI Convention in Seattle.  The first morning is given over to the organization seminars, and I am a person with a mental illness, not yet recovered enough to dip back into organization waters.  So I didn't need to attend organization seminars.

The first morning is also given over to estate planning.  If Shepherd's mother were at the convention, she would be at the estate planning seminar.  But again, I am a person with a mental illness.  And my own son is healthy, employed, and had health insurance even before Obama made it possible for parents to protect their young adult children who will never be able to hold a job, let alone one with health insurance, let alone one that covers pre-existing conditions.  So I don't have to do estate planning.

I had the morning off, and walked down to Pike Place Market.


No, it started with Craig Rennebohm.  Craig is a UCC minister who began a work of companioning street people with mental illness.  Click on his name, and read my review of his book.  Better yet, scroll down on the left side of this page where there is a link to buy his book.  Seattle is Craig's home base.  So FaithNet, NAMI's network of faith communities would have a presence at this convention.

Craig taught me to open my eyes, which is how I saw Shepherd panhandling.  He also clarified my confused thinking about which of the two of us, the homeless man or the woman with a purse, had reason to be afraid.  So I am grateful to Craig, because that meant I could see.  Otherwise I would have missed those incredibly piercing blue eyes.  I think they were blue.

Spiritual Disciplines From My Son

No, it started before that, with my son.  We were tourists in Seattle when he was fourteen, and walked the waterfront as a pilgrimage site, the first Starbucks, the warehouse that housed that year's -- I don't remember the name of the show -- reality show that ran on MTV and featured a bunch of young adults who lived together and did stuff that the producers thought would make for good viewing.  It certainly created a market for reality shows.  I didn't care about this show, but it was a pilgrimage for my son, and ten blocks is not that long for a parent to tag along on a pilgrimage.

But what my son really taught me that day was, Never pass a street musician without dropping something into the case.  We listened to some marvelous music at Pike Place Market, and I learned that new (to me) spiritual discipline.  I think these may be the same guys we sang with that day.

It isn't the only spiritual discipline my son ever taught me.  I was always trying to teach him to tithe his allowance.  But he hung out with kids on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City.  One day he finally owned up to what happened to his tithing money.  He was the only kid who had a safe place to go home to every night.  The others crashed on each others' sofas.  He was the only one with an allowance.  I can just imagine him, buying something at the grilled cheese cart, and then deciding he wasn't hungry after all, but he didn't want to waste food, would anybody like to share?

People who have eyes but do not see don't like the Ped Mall in Iowa City.  It's filled with those homeless kids.  You know, the ones who might suddenly turn from the hackysack game and hit you with a crocheted beanbag!

So, Craig taught me to open my eyes, but Jacob taught me to carry a bunch of singles.  And here let me say thank you to them both, because I was prepared for my walk on the morning when, however much I am miserable and lost in my own suffering, which is often a lot, nevertheless:

  • I do not have to do estate planning
  • I have eyes to see, and
  • My wife sent me to Seattle with a pocket full of singles.

Where Is Jesus In This Story?

Shepherd wanted three bucks for a Subway sandwich.  I gave him one, which immediately made me feel small.  But he was gracious about it and asked if I was a Christian.  I said yes, and he said, Whatever you do to the least of these...

I was confused by that, though I know the verse.  I didn't know which of us he meant by the least.  But I took it as an opening.  Maybe there was something he could do for me.  Could he tell me where the Eileen Fisher store was, because I saw it yesterday, but couldn't find it this morning.

Well, an outside observer to this conversation might also wonder which of us was the least of these.  In retrospect, I realize that Shepherd is not likely to shop at Eileen Fisher, even at the outlet store, which I did eventually find, and bought a sweater on sale for $109, down from $149.  So why would he know where it was?  But this was his neighborhood, and you never know.

But no, he didn't know.  But if I could give him a couple more dollars, he could get a sandwich at Subway.  It is clear that I am the least, because I persisted, and said I had my supply of singles, and was running out.  But was this his regular spot?  Would he mind if I gave his name to Craig Rennebohm?

Then I explained that I was at this NAMI Convention, National Alliance on Mental Illness.  He interrupted, I have a mental illness.  I answered (obviously), Me too.  I explained that Craig likes to talk to people, and might like to talk with him.  That was okay with Shepherd.  He took my notepad from me and carefully wrote his name, his cell phone number (his son pays for it - God bless his son) and his address, this corner where we were standing.  I added a note to remember to tell Craig that his sleeping bag is in bad shape.

A Message For Craig Rennebohm Or His Friends

Later, I gave that message to the information desk, but I don't know if Craig ever got it to pass on to his congregation, because he doesn't do this companioning ministry by himself.  He travels the country now, teaching people in faith communities who have eyes to see how to be companions to people who are mentally ill and live in the streets.

I don't want to violate Shepherd's privacy.  So I won't publish his address.  But if Craig happens to see this, or somebody in Seattle who continues the work that he began, then get in touch with me, and I'll give you the street corner.

This story has a sequel.  I'll get to it, after I tell a few more stories about that week in Seattle with all of us people who have mental illness, and people who love us, and, yes, other people who seem more focussed on what they have to sell, but maybe their hearts are in the right place, even if they can't see us very well, and certainly not hear us, if we ask them to deviate from their script.

Meanwhile, there's a man over there who doesn't worry about the very poor, because there is a safety net.  There won't be any stories about that, because I didn't see any safety net.

Meanwhile, there's another man in Washington D.C., who broke ideological ranks that week, and has saved, literally saved the lives of people I met there, and for others, their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile, a bunch of nuns were on a bus across the midwest, and took on a bunch of guys who think nuns spend too much time worrying about people like Shepherd.  What can you do in these times?  What can you do?  The nuns did a road trip, which I guess is what we have to do.

Real World -- that was the name of the show.  But you need eyes that really can see, to see the real Real World.

painting of Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens, in public domain
photo of Pike Place Market in Seattle by Daniel Schwen, used under GNU license
book jacket by
photo of Pike Place Market Gospel Singers by Marmaduke Percy, used under Creative Commons license
photo of hackysack by Higgins and in the public domain
NAMI logo in public domain
photo of homeless man with shopping cart by Aaron Logan, used under Creative Commons license

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