I love October in Virginia. A famous ad agency came up with a classic marketing slogan that most people associate with Virginia (which I guess means they did their job well): Virginia is for lovers. It is easy to love when it’s October in Virginia. At night it turns very cool, which is a refreshing break from the hot, humid summer days in Richmond, Virginia. It’s NOT easy to be a lover in the summer in Virginia – unless you are at the beach, and I don’t happen to live at the beach all summer. I live in hot, humid Richmond.
During October in Virginia I open my windows at night and let the cool wind whistle through my white cotton curtains. Those sheer white IKEA clearance finds flutter in appreciation. Some mornings, if I’m up early enough, I light a fire in the fireplace and enjoy my devotional time at my dining room table, warming my backside to the fire. Other days, I might sit opposite the fire, and stare contemplatively into its dancing flames. I love early October mornings in Virginia.
Except for today. Today, loving was tough. No time for warm backsides or contemplative gazing today!
As a recovery pastor, I am accustomed to conversations about tough love. And, I suppose that I qualify as a person who has occasionally had to administer tough love. I guess that’s why I’m trying to make sense of my experience this morning, and I’m wondering if you could help me. How do you make sense of this story?
Last week I got one of those calls that I can never decide how I feel about after I hang up. Some might say these “reach out and touch me” calls are ministry opportunities and should be a source of gratitude for the chance to serve. (Isn’t that how good pastors should feel?) Time and experience has taught me that sometimes that’s just Christian-code for bad news.
I’ve been living and working in a recovery community for almost 14 years. After more than a decade, I’ve gotten to meet a fair number of families struggling with addiction. Surprisingly, it turns out that my relationship with a few of these families is multi-generational, and this story about one particular family is one of those.
I first met the father in this drama in 1999. He showed up one Sunday morning at NorthStar Community with a bad attitude and a hangover. But he stayed and soon became a regular on the set up team, putting up chairs (for those who would soon attend our worship service) with the same bad attitude and impatience that he exhibited in pretty much every other area in his life. I was grateful for his help. The occasional broken chair resulting from his aggressive set up style seemed like a small price to pay for such dependable help. Eventually, he asked me to baptize him. Soon he went to treatment. But his anger overcame his willingness and he dropped out of treatment over a petty dispute (It seemed petty to me. He would tell you it was a big FREAKIN’ deal – if he could.) Within a few weeks of bailing on treatment, he was dead of an overdose.
He had a son who followed in his daddy’s footsteps, like sons tend to do. This boy made a man-sized decision and married a heroin-addicted young woman he met in one of his trips to rehab. One month prior to graduation from a yearlong intensive program, his bride convinced him that he was cured and he checked himself out. He left treatment with big dreams and a sense of confidence in his recovery program that proved unmerited. He overdosed and died the same week he received his first paycheck from the job he had worked so hard to find. I still see his eyes staring back at me when I gaze at his beautiful baby girl, born 7 months after his death.
His wife and daughter have continued to live in and around our recovery community. Like many of us in recovery, their connection to community waxes and wanes. When she disappears, we don’t presume she’s decided to check out other churches because she prefers a different style of music. We fear that she is back to her old ways. When she called last week, our concerns were unfortunately well-founded.
“Teresa, I need a ride to a place downtown that I think can get me a bed in a treatment facility for women. Can you give me a ride?”
This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Her desire for treatment is not accompanied by a plan of action, a time of pick-up or even a known address for delivery. This is what it’s like to serve in a world that needs recovery. There are impulses that my friends who are actively addicted have; some of them are both sincere and good. But attention to detail and the capacity of follow through on these inclinations is a challenge.
In Richmond, Virginia, no matter what season of the year, it is hard to get treatment for addiction if you are a female who has run off all her friends and family and even a lot of her using buddies, can’t hold a job and has a very expensive heroin habit that demands feeding on a regular basis. But she has some experience and we make a plan that involves me showing up at a particular corner of a certain busy street at 6 a.m. on a chilly October morning for the purpose of giving her a ride to rehab.
These plans rarely work out, but I continue to show up, because, well, some days I don’t know why I keep showing up (more on that point later). Today was typical. As I pour myself a cup of coffee and run a brush through both my teeth and hair (different brushes), I say to myself, “Expect the unexpected. Stay calm. Let go and let God.” These are the kinds of deep, profound things I think about as I prepare for ministry or simply showing up – whichever the day requires.
It’s chilly. It’s dark. But my coffee is hot and my car has enough gas to get me where we need to go – what can go wrong? Well, I suppose that answer depends on how one defines the word “wrong.” I pull up on the designated street corner. She stands watch with smoke billowing around her. This is not surprising. What does startle me is the car seat at her feet, the baby bag slouching carelessly in the damp grassy patch of land that separates her from on-coming, speeding cars carrying drivers who are mostly on their way to work. And then there’s this – the little munchkin in her arms. Dressed in one of those flimsy “onsey” outfits that are so convenient to put on when babies actually have cribs to sleep in, with an attached hoody covering her tiny baby head – it is hard at first glance to tell if this is a live baby or a doll. It sure would be nice if it was a doll.
“Are you bringing the baby with you?” I holler as a roll up behind her, closing her off from eminent escape from my judgmental words and frowning face.
“Well, yeah,” she answers, looking at me like I’m crazy.
I stare. She stares back. I sigh. “Ok, let’s get you in the car.” She hands me the baby, the car seat, and the diaper bag while she continues to puff on the dregs of what may be, but probably isn’t, her last cigarette. “You still remember how to put one of those things in, don’t you? You’ve got to do it right, or else the baby won’t be safe.”
I look down at the car seat, glance at the little sweetie in my arms and return my gaze to this precious child’s mother. As hard as I scrutinize her face, I find no sarcasm or irony in her countenance. This is one mother looking at another, assuming I understand the need for caution when handling an infant.
It turns out, I do remember how to hold a baby, fasten in a child protective seat, load up a diaper bag and manage to get back in the car in time for the real mother in this scene to amble around and take up her place riding shotgun. “You think we can stop for a cup of coffee somewhere? Maybe a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit?”
I’m kind of out of words, but evidently she is not. She begins to explain about how her family is mad with her.
I nod, thinking I understand. But, as usual, it turns out that’s not quite true.
“Yeah, they think I’m really being a bad mother to go to treatment. They want me to stay home and help my brother out with his kids. He has four, you know. All under five, and he and his wife don’t have a clue how to raise them. Those kids are seriously out of control.”
I venture an opinion. “Well, maybe everyone is going to benefit from you getting sober, what do you think? You think that will be helpful?”
“I guess. I mean, I’ve been an addict since I was like twelve. That’s a long time. I’ve got a friend, he’s like my only friend left. He’s sixty and on methadone. I know that HE’S never gonna change, I mean, what are the odds? He’s decided that methadone is the way to live, and why not? It makes him feel good, the government gives it to him for free. I mean, it’s better than getting busted for possession, or selling, or having to hustle to get stuff off the streets.”
“I’m still young. I’ve got more choices. And I hate methadone. My best friend OD’d on methadone. I’m not going back on methadone – it’s not safe.” I doubt that you can believe this, but I do not think she means to be sarcastic here, or use irony as a literary technique. In the midst of active addiction, there are lots of inconsistencies and irregularities in how information gets processed.
“You know, I wouldn’t be in this fix if my doctor hadn’t retired. I did fine when I was on suboxone (a drug used to help opiate addicts maintain sobriety), but once he retired, I didn’t have the money to go to another doctor to prescribe it for me. Did you know those doctors sometimes want, like, $200.00 to start you in the program? That’s ridiculous! Who has $200.00?”
As it turns out, I happen to have $200.00. In fact, yesterday I spent more than that for a haircut, eyebrow wax, color, a six month supply of hair product and some make-up thrown in for good measure. As far as I know, that wasn’t even my last $200.00, but you’d have to check with my husband for verification of those facts.
This is a lot of information to digest as we’re speeding down the highway.
I hear the baby breathing hard from her safely strapped in car seat positioned behind me. Her breath makes a rattling sound that meant trouble when my kids sounded like that when they were babies. Maybe times have changed.
“Wow,” I say with what I hope is a casual tone. “Little Lexi sure does snore!” I suppose this is a way of asking a question without really having to commit to a direct inquiry.
“Oh, haha! She’s not snoring, she’s wheezing! She has pneumonia!”
No wonder I didn’t ask a question. I really did not want to know the answer.
We reach downtown and make several looping attempts to hone in on our target – a large, sagging brick building that houses a city department that tries to provide help for women without any other resources.
“You know,” my adult passenger crows with enthusiasm, “Since I have a baby, I’ll get put at the front of the line. It’s good to be pregnant, or have a baby. The government tries to help women who are pregnant or have children. That’s how I got into this program last time. I was pregnant with Lexi. Babies sure are good luck charms.”
“What will happen now, I mean, when I let you off?” I ask because I can’t stop myself.
“Well, I’ll stash the car seat in the bushes, and we’ll go stand in front of the building until they open. They open at 9!”
“Gosh, I could have brought you down then, rather than so early.” I am starting to feel anxious. It’s still dark and cold and the reality of this noisily breathing car seat clad kid is starting to permeate my denial filter.
“Oh, no problem! I had to leave where I was staying, so, just as well. We can stand here and wait.”
I notice others standing around as well. When you’re homeless, it’s hard to sleep in. Several guys mill around on the corner. I wonder. Are they waiting for treatment, or eager for….something else?
“It’s pretty cold. Does Lexi have a coat?”
“A coat? It’s September! Why does she need a coat?”
It is, in fact, actually mid-October, one of those chilly mornings that I mostly love. The day will warm, eventually, but it is 6:20 a.m., and the warming won’t occur as quickly as little Lexi needs it to in order to stay warm. But even I can understand the futility of trying to get this young mother to clue in on the actual name of the month we’re presently occupying.
“Hey, there it is! You got us here. Just pull over there, that’s close enough.” She hops out, as do I. I carefully lift the baby from her cozy nest, feeling the heat rise off her forehead. Yep. This baby is sick. Oh, how I want to say, “You run along. I’ll just….take Lexi home with me.” But this is not the decision I make, because, honestly, I don’t have the power or authority to make that kind of pronouncement. I hand Lexi over to her mom, who clucks approval and provides a smile in response to her daughter’s gurgle of delight at being held by her Mama.
Off they walk, passing through those men standing at the corner, on their way to a doorway already occupied by a couple other young women – without kids. This is Lexi’s mom’s lucky day. Thus far, she’s the only one with a baby-shaped ticket to enter.
This may not be the end of this story; maybe this is yet another chapter in the continuing lives of a family that has been marked by addiction for at least three generations. But frankly, this may be the last I ever hear from Lexi and her mommy. This is the nature of the work I do, and it is the way of the world. And this story might possibly have a happy ending. Some of them do and I don’t want to turn into a cynical, bitter pastor.
Although I lack the protective gear of inexperience and arrogance to predict optimistic outcomes for the stories I hear or people I meet, I continue to have hope for the process of recovery. And this is why I keep showing up. I show up because it’s the next right thing to do. I show up because we never know the ending of a story, and therefore, I think, we have a responsibility (no matter how small, seemingly futile and downright insignificant our part) to keep doing our part to advance the ball down the field.
Jesus said it better, when he said it like this, ““When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’
“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’ Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.” Matthew 25:31-46 The Message
October is a beautiful month to be in Virginia if you have a house with a roof over your head and the resources to take your sick kids to the doctor. But if we don’t, then we must hope that there are folks out there to give us a ride without judging our decision-making paradigm. And if we are one of those lucky ducks who has time, money, and/or willingness to serve – we must do that too, knowing that to do this work is be counted among the blessed, because it is a blessing to give. Even if it’s just a ride, and the story is unfolding in ways that leave the participants uncomfortable…and even freaked out.
If we were sitting at a local coffee shop, I would share this story (with appropriate respect for confidentiality and necessary fact adjustments to protect the identity of others) with you. I would invite you into my ministry context. What might I hope for, expect, and dare to dream of in the sharing? A listening ear? An empathic response? Advice? Feedback? Or maybe something as simple as, “Hey, been there, done that. I too have had to make tough choices. I too wonder what it means to love during times when people are not at their best.” I suppose that’s what all of us want – whether we are the young mother, the ministry leader, or the social worker looking for resources. At the NACR, we continue to look for ways for all of us to connect with people who might understand our story, and provide us with resources, with training, and even with hope as we encourage one another to keep stepping, even if our path seems winding and dimly lit. Would you like to help? Join our efforts by attending events, donating funds to help make it happen, submit manuscripts for consideration, and even ask us for the particular kind of resources you need to improve your serve. We look forward to continuing to find new ways to connect and serve one another.