His name was Jonny. He was one of the very first people to come into my life and truly teach me what it means to be in ministry with people who are in crisis.
Jonny was almost always in jeans rolled up at the ankles (he wasn’t much taller than me), a t-shirt, and his blue jacket. At least that’s the image that forms in my mind every time I think of him. He was of a similar age to me, but his body bore scars of life that I could only imagine. He showed up one morning at Breakfast Church. I remember sitting in my office and hearing this horrible keening sound coming from the dining room. As I sprung up from my chair, I heard, “ummm, Erica?!” from down the hall and knew that this was a situation that was mine alone. When I got into the commons, Jonny was sitting on the bench right outside the offices. He had a shopping cart next to him that was overflowing with a variety of belongings and he was crying so hard he could hardly breath.
I immediately sat down next to him and gently placed my hand on his shoulder. “Hi, my name is Pastor Erica. Can you take a couple of deep breaths with me?” Together we breathed in and out and he began to settle down. As he slowly started to focus on where he was and come back to the present, he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry for causing a scene.” “No worries. Can you tell me what’s going on so I can maybe help you?” From there his story started to pour out. He had just been evicted from his apartment of 10 years because the building had been sold and it was getting renovated and rent was going to double. Jonny was the sole caregiver for his brother who had multiple disabilities. He was distraught because he had to find a place to live to safely care for his brother and to put all of their stuff. He was panicked about what to do and couldn’t figure out a first step because it all felt so overwhelming.
It’s funny to look back on this time now because I know so much more about community resources – help would have looked a lot different now than it did then. But in that moment, the most important thing was being present. Over the next several months, Breakfast Church became Jonny’s home. He was able to get his brother settled into a group home facility and only had to worry about himself. He had a tent and a sleeping bag and a few of his most treasured possessions.
As the days and weeks dragged on, Jonny began to cope with the stress of survival with drugs and alcohol. Many mornings I would arrive at the church and find him sleeping somewhere on the property, tucked into an alcove or splayed out on the front bench. He would wake up, apologize for being a mess, and then come in for breakfast and coffee. One particular morning he asked if we could talk privately. My custom was to meet with guests out in the commons, but I could tell that Jonny needed more privacy to talk and so I brought him into my office.
He sat down in the rocking chair in the corner of the office and slowly started to rock. “This is nice,” he said. “It feels safe and calm. That’s all I want, safe and calm.” I asked him what that might look like for him. He said he needed to get out of this community and start over. He had some family in Oregon and he thought if he could get there, he could start fresh. I let him know that we could get him a bus ticket. Tears began sliding down his face. “I want to start over. Can you really help me?” Three days later, with a sack lunch full of pb and J’s and trail mix, he got on the bus, headed for Oregon. That was the last I heard from him.
Many years later, I still wonder about him and pray that he has found some safety and calm. It is truly one of the hardest parts of this work. Walking so closely with someone through all the mess and then guiding them on a path toward hope and not knowing how it turns out. So many stories remain unsolved and unresolved… but still live in my memory and leave lessons from our shared journey that shape the why I care for the next story that walks into my life. – Pr. Erica