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?