The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
As I mentioned in my last post, I grew up Southern Baptist. I can’t say whether the church was liberal or conservative; I knew no such distinctions then. My parents voted Democrat (mostly); many of their good church friends did not. That’s about where the conversation ended for me. All in all, it was a loving place for me.
We went to church three times a week — twice on Sunday, once on Wednesday — throughout the year. By that I mean that we attended Sunday School and a church service on Sunday morning, and then training union and a church service in the evening. Wednesday night was a meal, Girl’s in Action (missions class), a prayer service, and choir. My dad sang in the choir and was a deacon. My mom’s passion was missions. Both taught Sunday School. Whew!
By the time I was in high school, I’d go on Wednesday night for the meal and maybe choir practice, and cut out on the rest. One Wednesday night my senior year, my parents brought someone home with them: a woman, wailing in psychic pain, intent on committing suicide.
I do not know who she was, only that she did not attend the church. And I don’t know how she came to be with my parents (did she know someone? did she call the church?). All I know is that my parents went to Wednesday night church and came back with her. My mother introduced her casually, as if bringing someone home in this state was the most normal thing in the world. She said they were trying to find this woman some help.
At first I thought nothing of it. I tried to ask a few questions to learn more about the situation, like why it was my parents, of all people, who were handling this situation, but the woman’s emotions were too unstable. I remember she and my mom sitting at the dining room table, then moving to the couch, and then back to the dining room, while she sobbed all the while.
She appeared to be in her 40s or 50s, and, as I remember it, she had her hair pulled back in a bun. I don’t remember much about her face because she mostly held her head in her hands, either face first into both hands or with one hand on her forehead as she leaned on the arm of a chair. She vacillated from crying to wailing to apologizing for being so much trouble to talking about wanting to die.
I think that she refused to go to the hospital. I got a sense that had to do with money.
And, somewhere in all that talk was the mention of a knife. (Was this true? Or did I project that on to her?)
When Mom wasn’t comforting this woman, she was on the phone trying to get help.
“Doesn’t someone at the church know people to call about stuff like this?” I finally had the courage to ask when I found a moment to speak.
My parents looked at me blankly. No.
“Don’t be afraid,” Mom said. “She’s harmless. She’s just hurting.”
But I couldn’t get the thought of knives out of my mind. I remember that she was nervous to be at home with knives around. (Or did I make that up, with my overactive teenaged imagination?) The truth is I was trying hard not to pay attention to the details of her situation. It felt too personal for me to hear, and too scary.
And I couldn’t get away from her tears.
More phone calls. More talking and comforting. But no help. I came to realize that the phone calls were about two things: finding professional help for this woman’s crisis and finding her a place to go for the night. What became clear to me as the night wore on is that we were on our own. Finally, my mom announced that this woman would spend the night with us.
I was terrified.
As my parents made more arrangements, I tried to get their attention. “Please no, not here. Isn’t there somewhere else she can go?” I may have said aloud, but the words dissipated into the chaos of the night.
Finally, I got my mother alone. “Mom,” I said. “What if she gets up and tries to find a knife?”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said, “You’re not in danger. She is more likely to harm herself than you.”
But that’s exactly what I was worried about. What if I woke up to her committing suicide?
Knowing that she had a place to stay, that she was not alone, did calm her a little bit. I, however, was still terrified. I’d never seen such despair, such anguish.
Then, in a rare quiet moment that evening, I appealed to my dad. “Could I please stay next door?”
We lived next to a family who also attended our church, and I was good friends with the youngest daughter. Dad agreed quickly, but I felt like I was abandoning my parents. Isn’t this the stranger at the door that Jesus talked about? Isn’t this the Christ in the unexpected place that we are to help? Aren’t I horrible for running from it? And, why are we alone in this? Where’s the rest of the church? The ministers? Doesn’t the church get calls like this regularly? What do they usually do?*
I never got answers to those questions.
I can’t remember how many nights this woman stayed at our house. I think two. My parents did what they could to help her. Later, when I asked my mom why no one else helped us (not really, at least), she said:
“They are afraid.”
Just like me.
*This is some of what my friend was referring to (see last post). I do not have any empirical data on this, but my experience is that evangelical churches focus on saving souls, not necessarily on helping the community in need (church members, yes; larger community, often not). Of course there are always exceptions and “liberal” churches often care about social justice, but help in problematic ways. In the end, I realize that both approaches are problematic, and fear is what’s driving the problem.