My seminary dean once told me that divinity school is a lot like the counseling profession. Troubled people become therapists, he said. Folks hurt by religion enroll in seminary.
“So what we do,” he said, “is graduate a lot of educated, broken people.”
I’m not sure a memoirist is much different: We explore difficult or hurtful areas of our lives in search of … something. Meaning, maybe. Clarity. Direction.
In my case, I wrote The Weight of Mercy because the memories of the most traumatic three years of my life were fading. I was glad to see them go, but I wanted those memories to teach me something. And so I wrote.
The book is about my landing, fresh out of seminary, as pastor of a mission church to the homeless. As a longtime writer for The Greenville News and an occasional contributor to the Greenville Journal, I thought I knew Greenville. I thought I knew its issues. I thought I knew its poverty. I was mistaken.
The Triune Mercy Center flattened me. I was like one of those bop-a-clowns with sand in the bottom. Punch it and it bounces back upright. That was me – until I got to Triune.
My experiences among the homeless and drug addicted and alcoholic and mentally ill and mentally challenged staggered me. This was a population I scarcely knew existed, hidden under bridges and in abandoned buildings and in the woods. The surreal combination of everyday niceties and casual violence, of generosity and endless begging, of surprising compassion and shocking abuse upended my balance. As I explored my horror and distaste, my nightmares punctuated by lightning bolts of grace, I bargained with God: One year, I prayed. You can’t ask more of me than one year.
Well, actually he could. And did. Along the way, I met some of his more intriguing children. One child-like man began burping so loudly during a morning service that I had to halt the sermon and ask him to stop. “But Pastor,” he called from the front pew, “I swallowed some wind.”
Another man traveled the country, hopping trains from soup kitchen to soup kitchen. Smelling of cheap whiskey, he came into Triune one rainy Saturday, passed out, woke up and spied me. Leaping to his feet, he sent a metal chair clattering into a wall, and shrieked, “You BITCH! Don’t you know you’re not even supposed to BE here? Paul said women aren’t supposed to preach!”
And that was before the sermon.
When people find out what I do, they inevitably say, “That must be so rewarding,” or “You must love your work.” Dispensing mercy at a place with mercy in its title – what could be better?
But mercy can have an underside, a heaviness, a weight. “I would rather smoke crack than live in a house,” one man told me. I pass him sometimes on my way to work, panhandling in the median of six-lane Pleasantburg Drive. Sometimes I roll down my window and remind him we’re still there, still feeding, still worshiping, still offering access to drug treatment. I never give him money. He knows better than to ask.
I struggle constantly with the line between empowering and enabling, helping and hurting. This book is the story of that struggle.
It is also the story of a dying church’s struggle to redefine itself in the face of a changing neighborhood. Police call our section of Greenville “the homeless triangle,” and every city has one. The question for a church in such a place is pretty basic: Do we become a forum or a fortress?
In choosing “forum” at Triune, we’ve done some counterintuitive things to bring housed and homeless people together. So in addition to things you might expect – hot meals, clothes, groceries, laundry services – we offer some things you might not – gardening, art, volunteerism, opera.
I hope this book will show people in other cities what can happen when a church opens its doors to the homeless, when it allows ministry to flourish not to them but alongside them. I hope it launches conversations about the complexity of life among the homeless.
I hope it encourages others to take on the weight of mercy.