An essay by Autumn Dennis
I volunteer at a soup kitchen in a Catholic Worker house, and I see a large volume of people experiencing homelessness come in and out each week. There’s one man who comes through our soup kitchen frequently, and I always recognize him. I don’t know his name, but we’ll call him Steve. He’s distinct with his long dreads, big bright eyes, and a face that shows a lot of emotion. From my encounters with Steve, I believe he experiences severe mental health problems, most likely schizophrenia. Because mental health problems like schizophrenia seem so prevalent on the streets, I have tried to learn about them to make sure I can recognize them, speak about them, interpret people well, and interact sensitively with those diagnosed with mental health problems. Among other behaviors that he exhibits, Steve’s speech fits the textbook definition for impoverished, disorganized speech and thought patterns characteristic of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
Most of the time, his eyes are wide open and he carries on constant conversation with himself, or possibly with beings he can see that I cannot see. He has enough engagement with the world around him to be led into our dining room and to accept a bowl of warm soup, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look another person in the eyes. He’s isolated from most people in his own realm of reality.
Sometimes when there’s a slow moment in the soup kitchen, I like to go stand a little bit near Steve and just hear him talk. He is usually at a table alone, glancing around the table a little nervously, and talking to himself fervently in a low tone.
I’m a strong believer in God’s preferential option for the poor, which claims that Jesus strongly identifies with all the addicted, homeless, mentally ill souls of this world, and that we find God when we are also near those people. And honestly, honestly…
As much as I know that schizophrenia is a painful disorder and is not appropriate to romanticize, I feel I hear the voice of God every time I hear Steve speak. I hear the language of angels. I hear a mysterious realm of reality that I cannot encounter but through Steve. Steve’s level of disorientation from our piece of reality is so great that I cannot have a relationship with him. From what I can gather, Steve probably does not know I exist in the way that others know I exist. His voice and speech make sense to nobody except Steve and God. I feel that God is truly near him, and even when Steve eyes his soup suspiciously as if it will start dancing and singing, I feel that I can sense a indomitable spirit inside of Steve’s sick, damaged body that is itself dancing and singing.
I have cast my lot with Steve’s, with all those who suffer from schizophrenia, with all those who call the streets their dwelling place, and with all those who are being murdered by our system.
John Wesley wrote a “Covenant Prayer” that I recite several times a week to center myself, and I would like to quote the ending of the prayer with the intention that I have covenanted myself not only to God, but with all the “least of these” brothers and sisters.
“Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And let this covenant which I have made on Earth be ratified in heaven. Amen.”