The piece of cement still sits on the floor where it fell. A shattered window lets in the cold December air. Earlier today, a homeless woman threw the cement through a window of the church, climbed over the jagged shards of glass and entered the building. Mentally ill, in need of medication, food, and a winter coat, she ran through the sanctuary and then out the front door into the winter morning.
I have met her before. A month ago, she came into the church when the door was momentarily propped open (we have a security system where we buzz people in) and paced in a tight circle muttering words I couldn’t understand and then demanded a bible. Handing her the bible, I asked her to leave. She grabbed the bible and told me she was going to burn it that night. She hurried out back to the street and was gone. I am generally not afraid of the many homeless and nearly homeless people that come through the doors of Zion church. She scared me though. Tall and angry, she seemed out of control.
A colleague once criticized me for keeping the church door locked during the day. He is a catholic priest, a man, and doesn’t live in my world. I told him that unfortunately hospitality doesn’t trump security though I wish it did. Of course all the security in the world doesn’t keep someone from throwing a rock through a window and climbing in. And yet, as unsafe as the church staff might feel knowing that anyone who feels like it can bypass our expensive security system (complete with camera and buzzer) and come right in, it is not as unsafe as the woman must feel as she sleeps on the street, hears voices, and runs from the police. I would imagine that her world is unsafe to the point of daily terror. And yet, she is not uncommon. Over one-third of all homeless people have untreated psychiatric illnesses–about 250,000 individuals. (1)
In 2006, a study of 81 US cities, demonstrated a direct correlation between the decreasing availability of psychiatric hospital beds and the increase in homelessness. This study validates previous research conducted in Massachusetts and Ohio demonstrating that “27 and 36 percent of the discharges from state mental hospitals had become homeless within six months.” (2) In Jesus’s day, mental illness was understood as demon-possession and he called those demons out healing all whom he touched. Today, the demons of mental illness can be healed not with the touch of Jesus but with appropriate medical care. Except that there isn’t any. You might as well wait for the apocalypse than wait on help for those who are mentally ill and homeless.
Throughout the day following the window breaking, church members retold the story. I noticed that we described the woman who did it as “crazy” “on something” “out of her mind”. Sometimes we would laugh or smile as we described her bizarre behavior. Perhaps we had to make light of her not because we are really that insensitive (I hope), but because we desperately need to be freed from the responsibility and frustration that we feel for the woman and people like her. It is easier to laugh than it is to acknowledge the utter hopelessness of her situation. Our frustration comes from the reality that no matter how many bags of food, free winter coats, or soup kitchen meals we offer this person, none of it matters as long as her mental illness is untreated. She doesn’t stand a chance. Like many churches, the outreach program of Zion is great for people who have the chemistry of their brain in balance, but not for anyone who needs true mental health help.
A woman whose very existence is abysmal, dangerous, and deeply sad, throws a rock through a church window. And the only thing the church could fix was the window.