Why I wrote The Weight of Mercy

Weight of Mercy Book

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.

 

My Favorite Gift

I have already received my favorite Christmas present this season – a bright red baseball cap with sequins and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Not that I would have known it was Our Lady of Guadalupe, had her name not been scrawled across the hat, right between the sequins and serenely smiling face.
When people see me coming — and oh, they will — “Protestant pastor” will not be their first thought. But I cherish the cap because it was a gift from one of my longtime parishioners at Triune Mercy Center. A man who spent the last nine Christmases homeless.
When I arrived at Triune in 2005, Lee was among the surliest of my new congregants. He spent every weekend sleeping in our dining hall, his head cradled on his arms. When spoken to, he grunted. When asked to take out trash, he rolled his eyes.

A couple of years in, I asked Lee to help me serve communion one Sunday. To my surprise, he agreed.

Together we made our way along the altar rail. “The body of Christ broken for you, Denise, Sippio, Pete, Robert. The blood of Christ shed for you.”

I uttered the words and handed over the bread. Lee followed with the tray of communion cups.

Three weeks later, he caught me after a service. “Communion is next Sunday,” he mumbled, slouched against a wall. “Do I have to help you again?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, you do.”

When the next Sunday rolled around, he backed out. But then we started noticing that he was helping out in the dining hall. He set up tables and chairs, took out the trash. He served the tea. Then he started making the tea. He brewed the coffee.

We talked about him at staff meetings. What’s up with Lee? What’s gotten into Lee? Nobody knew.

But he was a different person. He wouldn’t sit down and eat until everyone else had been served.

One December morning, I was going to visit Fourth Presbyterian Church for an alternative gift fair. I stopped in our kitchen to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn’t. “Don’t worry,” I told Lee. “I’ll get some at Fourth Pres.”

Ten minutes later there was a knock on my office door. There stood Lee with a steaming cup of hot coffee.

I just stared. “You brought me coffee?”
“You were taking so long the men were going to drink it all up,” he replied. Gruffly.

Lee still had a drinking problem. He still lived outside — in a tent, during good times. But after that day, he brought me coffee every Sunday morning. He and I were unlikely friends, yet friends nonetheless in this ragtag community we call church.

He was the illustration I used when I told proponents of outcome measurement that there is a point to church, to relationship, even when sobriety and housing and employment don’t happen. There is a way someone can be “with us” in the same way Emmanuel is “God with us.”

One day this spring, Lee entered rehab at a Veterans Administration clinic in Asheville. He got a job. He calls every Sunday to let us know how he’s doing. On the first Sunday of Advent, he rode the bus to Greenville and dashed into the middle of our worship service where I sat on the front row, listening to the offertory. He handed me that blazing, garish, flashy, quite lovely paean to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

We Christians will mark this Christmas amid fear of terrorism and cataclysmic climate change and racial strife and domestic shootings. The truth is, most of us aren’t in a position to do much about any of that.

What we can do is be with our brothers and sisters. As Emmanuel promised to be with us.