He was well groomed and sober when I met him at the downtown men’s shelter. Harold had called the church office looking for an Adventist pastor who might be willing to visit and do some Bible studies. Under normal circumstances our secretary would probably have passed Harold’s call on to our male senior pastor, but since he was out of town, it was passed to me instead. Later that afternoon I hopped in my car and drove into Harold’s world.
Harold was polite and well spoken during our first meeting. He told me about the alcohol problem that had led to estrangement from his family and a twenty-year relationship with the streets of America. He wanted it to stop; he wanted help and healing from his addiction, reconciliation with his children and the church. He was doing well as a member of the shelter’s recovery program, and they were helping him apply for the personal documents he had lost on the road that would soon enable him tap into state benefits and low income housing.
Life was looking up. Harold and I started Bible studies to supplement the therapy and addiction groups he was already attending at the shelter, and though I knew Harold had a long uphill journey ahead of him, I felt sure it was a journey to recovery.
Then one evening while entertaining guests in my home I got a call from a Harold I did not recognize. His voice was strained by alcohol and he was barely coherent. I gathered that he had come back to the shelter drunk and after curfew—two no-nos that cost him his place in the program. Harold had walked two hours to a detox center, but they wouldn’t let him in without the identity card he'd left back at the shelter. He wondered if I might drive him back there to collect his stuff and then back again to the detox center. Houseguests in toe, I went to collect him.
The next morning I got a second call from Harold. The detox center had kicked him out because his blood sugar reading indicated that he had diabetes, and he had failed to present any medical papers to that effect when he had entered the night before. “I didn’t know I had diabetes,” he said through tears. “Can you buy me a bus ticket so I can go to Pittsburgh? I heard about another program there.”
Remembering Harold’s twenty-year pattern of shuffling from city to city and program to program, I refused. At least here, I thought (somewhat heroically), Harold had someone who was committed to helping him (me). Of what use or virtue would it be to send him packing so as simply to repeat the process in another city?
Although I was ready to do everything in my power to help Harold, I recognized that Harold’s needs were beginning to surpass my ability to provide care for him as a pastor. Bible studies I could do. Addiction and homelessness were a bit beyond me. I found Harold a temporary place to stay and decided that my best course of action would be to connect him with professionals and organizations in the community who were better equipped to deal with his situation than I was. Little did I know I had just embarked on a two-month crash course on “The System.” Harold still needed papers before he could get state benefits, but he needed an address before he could apply for said papers. He needed medical clearance before he could get into any housing, but the free homeless clinic only took the first ten people every second Tuesday, and one had to have a special note from a shelter across town in order to gain admittance. The persistence and resourcefulness needed to succeed in this set of circumstances were enough to test me to the max, but for a drunken man without a car, telephone, access to Internet or a place to rest safely at night, it would have been impossible. The system seemed set up so that people like Harold couldn’t help but fail from discouragement.
Then, of course, there was Harold himself. He tried so hard to hold it together, but invariably he failed. The most painful thing for me was witnessing his enslavement to a lifestyle he himself hated. He loathed his life on the streets, putting one cold foot in front of the other while his aging body ached, walking mile after mile without a destination, with no soft security to still his ceaseless movement. It was unbearable to watch, and his suffering cost me many sleepless nights.
This is not an article about what it means to be abandoned by God, but rather what it means to pray the best sort of prayer that can naturally emerge from the experience of being abandoned—a reality we are all acquainted with and that many have written about more eloquently than I.
I don’t know if Harold was ever “abandoned by God,” but there is a sense in which he embodied the abandonment all of us encounter to lesser or greater degrees in this world of ours. Harold was “abandoned” not only by the ability to exercise self-discipline in his consumption of alcohol, but by his family, society, normal human securities, and his own listless self. Truly, he was a prisoner of his own brokenness.
Two prayers were prayed in response to that brokenness—one by him and one by me. I will never forget either. A call from a downtown Burger King disturbed my productive reverie one day at work informing me that a “drunk named Harold” wanted me to come pick him up on the corner as soon as I had a chance. I found him there not long after, smashed and pleased with himself for a job he’d done cleaning trash from a church yard not far from there. “I did a really good job,” he said like a child. “And the pastor who paid me said he’d have some metal ready for me to scrap if I came to collect it later. Can we go pick it up? I want to show you what a good job I did cleaning up.” “Fine,” I said, “Let’s go get the metal.” The “pastor” turned out to be a pious old church handyman who had offered to pay Harold to pick up his trash. Two hours later, he was revolted to see Harold back and drunk—obviously with the money he himself had nobly supplied in exchange for Harold’s labor.
“We’re gonna pray for your soul,” the old man said with vivid disgust. “It’s time you accepted Jesus Christ into your life.” I winced and joined the two men sitting down on the steps on either side of me. The old man’s prayer was a mixture of sincerity, judgmental condemnation of Harold’s sin, and evangelistic appeal for Harold to repent and reform. Harold nodded his humble agreement of the old man’s prayer at every sentence break.
When the man was done, it was Harold’s turn. He opened his mouth there and then and began speaking the holiest prayer I had ever heard (then or since). It was not a prayer of repentance—God already knew of Harold’s sorrow for his alcoholism, and Harold, more than anyone else, desired release from his addiction. But there was no outward blaming or self-defending in Harold’s prayer either. His prayer was pure thanksgiving. “Thank you God,” he said, “For the pavement that I walk. It goes on and on and it hurts, but you’re always there with me. I talk to you all day long. Thank you for these feet that force me to keep going.” Harold thanked God for the very things that symbolized his own homeless exile. Unable to find rest from his inner and outer wanderings, he nevertheless abandoned himself to the God of the abandoned.
That was Harold’s prayer. My own was soon to come. For weeks Harold and I continued battling the system, checking out programs, trying to get Harold the help he needed. It had been one door in the face after another, and I was feeling very discouraged. Indeed, I was nearly at my wit’s end. Then for a moment it seemed like the clouds parted in the sky of our fortune. A manager of a low-income apartment complex told us that he had one unit available and that he would give it to Harold so long as a criminal screening revealed no felonies. Harold had a lot of “disorderly conduct” arrests for drunkenness, but to the best of his knowledge, no felonies. Indeed it was true: the screening came back felony free. But to my utter dismay, the complex manager informed me that Harold had so many minor arrests for alcohol that he would not give him the available unit after all.
I was devastated. That’s right: I was devastated—not Harold. We sat in the car while I fumed. “Maybe you should just get me a bus ticket,” said Harold consolingly. “I’ll try again in the next town.” Jaw clenched, I dialed the last few numbers on my newest housing list and received all negative responses. I tried not to, but right there in the car with a faith-filled and homeless drunk, I started to cry.
I don’t know what my motives were for wanting to help Harold so much. I cannot tell whether they were entirely altruistic or whether I was driven by a mixture of ego, guilt and a desire to play the hero. I just don’t know. Harold, gracious and selfless as ever, thanked me for caring so deeply. He reassured me that I had done everything I could to help, and that in the end he was the only one who could change himself. In prayer, I was forced to face Harold’s alcoholism, the harshness of the world and my own inability to work out a solution to both. I was forced to face these things for what they were, and I, like Harold, was invited to pray my own prayer of abandonment.
Releasing Harold and my insatiable need to solve his problem, I took him down to Greyhound and bought him a bus ticket. Having exhausted every possible resource within my power to help, I abandoned Harold—and my own efforts—to God. The prayer of abandonment, I learned, is the appropriate natural response to the fertile soil of interminable human brokenness. It looks and sounds different from person to person, but at its heart, the prayer is a brutal acceptance of one’s inability to control Life and an invitation for God to work in hiddenness. Harold’s prayer was an abandonment to God; mine was an abandonment of myself. They were honest prayers, tilling spiritual soil so that very humble little seedlings could emerge: patience, modesty, generosity.
For at least a year after Harold left town I got occasional phone calls from various U.S. cities on his behalf. Often they were from compassionate church ladies or pastors: “I have a Harold with me right now in my office. He just wanted you to know he is okay. Is there anything I can do for him?” “If you can, give him a meal and a warm blanket for the night,” I would respond. Perhaps Harold, or someone like Harold, has landed in your town. If you can think of some way to help him more permanently than I was able, please try it. But if you try and it doesn’t work—if you find yourself unable to fix the world and its suffering overwhelms you—you may also need to say a prayer of abandonment. Like Harold, let us abandon ourselves and our expectations to the God of warm meals, soft beds and kind words. A famous line oft repeated by Mother Teresa says, “We can do no great things, but only small things with great love.” The ministry of meeting basic needs for drifting drunks does not make us saviors or heroes, but it does give us the chance to comfort Jesus in disguise, if only for a little while (Matt 25:40).
This week we remember the Jesus who was both abandoned and self-abandoning on the cross of suffering. Ultimately, it was Christ’s prayer of abandonment that carried him through death and into a resurrection that meant victory for him and for us. This Easter, let us pray for all those who are abandoned in our midst, in hope that on the other side of their cross the other side of abandonment might break forth upon them, sweeping them up into resurrected rest, warmth and belonging. That is my prayer for me, for you, and for Harold.
*Names and locations have been changed. Vitalia Tee is a pseudonym.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3117