Broken People and the Problem of Community

It was warm in Seattle last night. This is the season for the long evenings in our northern part of the world, and finally we are getting a taste of summer. I decided to go for a walk in downtown Seattle. People had come out of their winter caves and were strolling through the late summer light and unfamiliar warmth. People were laughing and talking and walking together, heading somewhere I am sure, but not too much in a hurry.

Quite a joyous scene, a feeling of genuine community. But I noticed in the midst of it all there were the broken people. They too had hit the streets in search of something. Perhaps they, too, wanted to connect with others on this warm evening. But clearly there was a lostness for some of them, a vacancy in the eyes, a defiance perhaps not to fit in, an openly displayed desperation perhaps, a cry for help.

We all know these pictures. And I am always disturbed, troubled, not so much frightened, but profoundly uncertain about what we ought to be doing for these people. So many broken people on our streets tells us that our community is broken, that we are splintered, that our sense of togetherness doesn’t run very deeply, that our structures for help are limited and ineffective, that families are shattered and ineffectual, that we are not very capable of addressing illness.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Starbucks in Pasadena very early in the morning. I love that time of day. There I was sipping my latte and reading the paper and enjoying the early morning bustle of people and the smell of good coffee, when a woman sat down next to me and picked up my paper and started reading. Suddenly, she leaned over to me, fairly close to my face, and said, “He just won’t stop hitting me. I can’t go back this time.” Her hands were shaking, and she was dabbing her face with a napkin.

I began to talk with her, asking her questions, trying to respond kindly to her sense of desperation. But I had no clue what I should or could do. Was she mentally unstable? Even so, was there something, however small, I might be able to do?

Suddenly she said, “I called my dad. You know, my dad just retired, and he can’t take me in. But he said, you know, you haven’t been to mass in 20 years. Why don’t you go to church.” And then she said, “So I went to see the priest. And he said he could give me a place to stay and a meal if I would do some cleaning up around the church. Maybe I should. I just can’t go back. He will never change.”

I grabbed onto this solution as the only thing I could think about. I said, “Yes, you go see the priest. He can help. This is the place you must go. Today. Will you do that?”

I am haunted by the need for some new kind of direction for our society. These people are not flourishing, and one of my deepest theological assumptions is that God wants all of his children to flourish. We ought to be able to do something.

I know so many people who minister to these people, individually, compassionately, persistently. I think of Rick Reynolds of Operation Nightwatch, one of the illustrious alums of my university. Rick has been walking the streets of Seattle almost every night for 20 years. He opens his place for meals. He is doing something tangible and helpful while at the same time sharing God’s love into these broken lives. Rick is one of my heroes.

But I also believe this is a community problem, a problem of community. We’ve got to see that we are desperately splintered as a people, that we have all pulled off into our own little enclaves, our separate communities of safety and comfort, our separate communities of discourse and meaning.

“The United States is becoming a broken society,” David Brooks said back in March. The forces at work are complicated, of course, but basically we have “created an atomized, segmented society,” and then we look to the state to “come in and attempt to repair the damage.” But the solution is something much more local. The only way to address some of our deepest problems, says Brooks, “is from the local community on up.” We need to go to work on a culture that places less emphasis on “individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations.”

This seems like maybe the only direction possible to address the desperate needs we see around us all the time. There is no community for these broken people. And we all feel the loss of community. Isn’t this one of the really big tasks out in front of us? As I think about how to educate our students at Seattle Pacific, this question must be part of the package: Grounded and guided by our strong theological tradition, how then can we help to envision and build life-giving, grace-filled communities?

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Categories: Culture, Gospel, Missions

7 replies

  1. Thank you for giving voice to this issue with which I myself wrestle every single time I encounter “broken people.” I have gone through many iterations over the years of what my own personal response will be during such encounters. Each time, I hope that the new approach will be “the right” response and will give me the peace of mind that comes with having a right response.

    The sheer scale of the problem indicates that it isn’t an issue that this problem-solver can tackle by herself. But the fact that I feel unsettled about my response regardless of what that response is – say hello or walk on by; give some money or don’t give money; ask if they know where to find food and shelter or don’t say anything at all – tells me that I need to keep wrestling and praying for wisdom.

    I’m not sure that I have an answer to your question about how we can educate our students with relation to broken people and communities. However, I do know from my own experience that giving students opportunities where they will encounter such people and issues is key to finding a solution. I participated in Urban Plunge along with volunteering for Operation Nightwatch when I was a student, and actually hearing people share their stories of brokenness was life-changing for me. I hope that all students have that kind of experience in their time at SPU.

  2. In the earliest of times, being in community offered advantages of survival – during the time of passover, it was commanded that if the slaughtered lamb was too big for one family, that it should be shared with another. We have always been called to community by God to nuture us, and keep us safe.

    In all cultures, however, I feel there is too much tolerance for people to “choose” their community and by doing so, excluding others that might be different, yet have so much to offer the community. Be that exclusion by religion and/or belief systems, exclusion by race, or exclusion by financial status, we have worked to build customized communities designed to fit our stilted view of “community”.

    As we grow with God’s ever guiding hand towards more enlightened views of community, we must be careful not to merely pretend without truly being in communion with others. Do we merely feed the homeless, yet refuse to befriend them? Do we look beyond their basic Maslovian needs to truly embrace them in our communities? Or do we tell them “go over there to be homeless and I’ll come feed you once in a while”? This kind of “drop in” response to the challenges of the homeless robs us of an opportunity to really get to know some seriously extraordinary people.

    It also robs them of becoming part of a community other than the broken one they currently belong to. It allows the division between “those who have” and “those who don’t have” to continue and grow. If we are to effect the kind of work Jesus has called us to do with our poor and homeless populations, we must welcome them into our communities. Befriend them, get to know them as people first and homeless second.

    Tent City 3 gives some of the homeless of Seattle those opportunities. They are welcomed into communities far outside the usual life of “The Shelter”. Their presence in these neighborhoods allows people all over Seattle to not just drive to a shelter for an afternoon of volunteering, but to effect real and positive change in people’s lives. It breaks down stereotypes, walls of misinformation, and challenges us to respond more fully to their individual situations. Welcoming them into our communities not only benefits them, but gives the surrounding community an opportunity to grow beyond their inward-facing lives.

    Instead of being the collective “The Poor” – they become Mary, Joe, Becky and Jonathan. They become real people with real issues, but with real hope for our world. They become individuals who are each struggling with their own challenges, and give us the chance to really touch a life.

    Jesus didn’t go into communities and perform mass healings of hundreds of people at a time. He healed ONE person at a time, bringing them each into his community, getting to know them as a person, and healing them individually, each with their individual story. When we treat the homeless as a collective, as a nameless mass of people, we rob ourselves of an opportunity to be Christ – to touch a life – to be a friend – to welcome a person into our community and build Christ’s community one person at a time.

    I believe that is the difference between the usual methodology and what Rick is doing. By welcoming individuals into his home and getting to know each and every one of them, he is more effective in touching their lives. By breaking down the walls of “we (who have)” come to help “y’all (who have not)” who need our help into a sense of “I” am interacting with “you (singular)” – Rick and his volunteers truly show Christ’s face in the world. That is also the difference between a standard shelter and the community of Tent City 3. Christ’s work is done when the homeless become individuals and as individuals they are brought into communion with their fellow human beings.

    A community starts with one person inviting another into their lives. Make a friend, Be a friend, Bring a friend to Christ.

  3. This is a very serious problem in communities aross the country. Thank you for sharing this experience and view on what has become a servere issue. People who once had hopes and dreams finding themselves with broken spirts and hopelessness. Some due to taking wrong paths others due to circumstances. Nevertheless these are Human Beings who have a soul and spirt and are at dismay. I once worked for Pasadena School District CA. and something that was extremely disturbing was to see children as Broken People from the lack of love given from their parents at home who were Broken People.

    The challenge lies not only with people ministering to these indiviuals but giving them hope and help from those who are able and led by God to do so. It also lies with the Broken person to have a willingness to be repaired. I commend your act of graciousness suggesting that the man who was in actuality that going to see the Priest and it is a Must and getting a commitment that he does so. Sometimes these people just need to talk to someone who genuinely cares.

    Seattle is a beautiful community unfortunately consumed with many Broken People who are lost with dispair as most communities. I don’t have a magical solution to how to educate Students at Seattle Pacific toward repairing the broken community. But If I may, I would suggest students creating community activist groups and educating students that with their profession of choice they can empower the community as a whole with leadership mindsets by actually starting businesses with the wealth of knowlegde and education obtained at Seattle Pacific. This will in turn create more jobs in the community for the Broken People with willingness.

    The mention of these people having no where to go is a green light for those who care to perhaps start a non profit organization for rehabilition or lodging facilities. I have a company ive done work for who writes Grants for these types of oganization who has a great track record and is head by a Professor at UNLV. Please don’t hesitate to contact me for this. Peace and Blessings to all at Seattle Pacific.

  4. Of course, we can never underestimate the value of face-to-face, heart to heart, and hand-to-hand encounter.

    However, our super individualism and collective passivity keeps us from getting at the heart of these problems. We will never begin to solve them unless and until we take seriously the fact that urban communities are constructs of systems–integrated ones: political, economic, and social. And then there is the underlying system of values.

    So, if the problem is systemic and several systems are integrated, then an educational institution that’s serious about engaging such a culture and changing this kind of world will have to devise a curriculum that deliberately teaches for systemic, integrated engagement and transformation.

    Eugene E. Lemcio, Ph.D.
    Professor of New Testament, Emeritus
    School of Theology
    Seattle Pacific University

  5. Broken people as you call them are people searching for something to fill the void in their lives whether it be substance abuse or other activities one chooses to participate in. The state mental institutions are releasing more of the mentally ill due to huge budget cuts in the Department of Social and Health Services. Look around the next time you are downtown in Seattle you will see more security guards and police presence. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. The Union Gospel Mission does all it can for the homeless mentally ill population and they can’t do it alone. As a former SPC student of the mid 1970’s a lot has changed in our society and world. I’ve been through a domestic violence situation and there are shelters for women and children. Out side of church we “Christians” are the Jesus that people seek and need to tell people to turn to God for all of our needs. God brought me out of several situations and my faith in God kept me sane.

  6. The real question is, can we do something!

  7. Very thoughtful reflection, but we must be cautious about labels such as “broken people” that make us think of people as objects. We can dismiss people by putting them in categories. Living in a small town, after 35 years in Seattle and working around and in the King County Courthouse, I find people living lives of desperation in what might seem to be an idyllic setting.

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