When I baptize a baby, its never in a embroidered christening gown in the middle of a service at church. It is usually with borrowed water in a hospital room, as a small family snatches the last few moments with their child. I grasp at those few precious moments, seeing a mother with her child, a family together for a brief moment. I baptize knowing that these moments may be the only ones they ever have together. I trace a cross on that baby’s head and I say the name their mother has given them, a name they may not ever know. I seal that baby’s head, marking him as Christ’s own forever, because I know that it will be a long, twisted road. Sometimes I have five minutes before CPS takes custody. And, then, I hold mom in my arms as she sobs; “They took my baby.”
When I sit down for a pastoral care conversation, I hear about hell. I witness hell. I kneel in the mud with dying men and pray desperately next to suicidal teens. Every day, every hour brings a crisis. A mother who had her child torn out of her arms, a teenager whose boyfriend overdosed in a tent, a drunk woman wailing the loss of her 10th family member in two years. Young men tell me about fathers and friends and officers who beat them, whose bodies are so broken by the time they are 30 that they suffer the health issues and pain of a 60 year old. Foster kids tell me about fingers being cut off by crazy foster moms and young women tell me about being gang raped and gay guys tell about being targets of harassment and gay bashing.
I get calls from elderly women who have lost housing and are facing life on the street, from drunk men who need socks to try to prevent frostbite as the weather worsens. Faces brighten when I visit jail. I hold my hand to fiberglass barriers, willing myself to hold together the young woman crying and babbling in a manic episode for which jail offers no treatment or medication, but only punishment. Twenty-one year old kids celebrate their birthdays in maximum security, alone, unable to make calls out because no one has enough money to put on their accounts.
When people ask me if I can marry them, it is often a decision born out of desperation. Desperate love, desperate need to survive, desperate attempt to name a baby’s father. We talk about trauma, so much trauma. We talk about the intense stress and the conflict it creates. Most wedding plans fall through. The weddings I do are usually small affairs, as we try to work with tiny budgets and fraying nerves. For better and for worse.
People die all the time. People come up to me and say; “Its not going to be much longer for me.” People on bikes stop and ask; “Did you hear that so and so died?” Sometimes I try and call the coroner to verify. 49 year old male found dead with an IV in his arm in the back alley of a city 40 miles away. 23 year old veteran found dead of an overdose. Into your hands, oh merciful Savior, we commend your servant. I want to stretch out my arms and hold them all. Instead, I sit and I listen, I baptize and I bury, I weep and I get up every morning to do it again.
I do memorial services, but almost never do funerals. The bodies are usually quickly cremated and sitting in little metal boxes in a tent or crumbling apartment. Sometimes there is no memorial. We light candles in borrowed churches and whisper the names of our dead. All of us go down to the dust, but even at the grave we make our song. And then we go out into a harsh world to try and survive another day.
And I keep going back and keep doing what I do, not because I am courageous and not because I am kind, but because I am honored to know the people I love. Because I witness their courage. Because they teach me how to survive in a terrible world. Because they struggle every day for their own liberation.