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22 February 2021
Connecting with the lonely on the frontline of life
Words Belinda Cassie
Not all that long ago, my role as a chaplain found me sitting, quite literally, in a streetfront office. It really doesn’t get much more frontline than that. Much of 2020 saw the world come to a screeching halt. Well, for many people anyway. But that frontline work that we speak of … let’s just say, that didn’t slow down for a minute.
There was one day that will likely be forever etched in my memory, because, when your very first request of the day is a guy experiencing homelessness who wants, or perhaps more accurately, needs, to talk because he is suicidal with an active plan, you’d better believe that I’m eating toast with loads of butter and peanut butter afterwards. And maybe chocolate. A day like that sticks with you.
Here’s the point of sharing my toast and coffee with you. People’s needs haven’t changed. They still need food and shelter, healthcare and companionship. I spent about an hour or so with this man that morning; it took him almost that long to tell me what was really going on for him.
Realistically, there is a lot that could have tipped this guy over the edge, but it’s loneliness that had been the final straw.
At least six times he said, “I’ve got no one.” But he had a family once. He was a regular church attender once. He had a job and mates. I don’t know the full story of how he got to that place, but in that place he felt like he had no one.
We couldn’t find him a bed in a detox unit or a homelessness service, but that wasn’t what got to him. It was the loneliness of his life that had him weeping in my office. COVID- 19 made a bed impossible to find, but the pandemic of loneliness was what was crushing him – and that’s been around much longer.
I thought that he would eventually be okay. At the time, though, he wasn’t okay. It got me thinking – just how many people do we know that aren’t okay at the moment?
Once upon a time, what feels now like a very long time ago, I was a nurse in a small but almost chaotically busy, emergency department in Sydney. I loved it – even on the especially chaotically busy shifts. But I noticed something one day and took the doctor responsible aside to ask her about it. What I had noticed was that every time she picked up a patient who had self-harmed, attempted to end their life or were experiencing a mental health crisis, she would bring them to one of my beds. So much so that it seemed she would even wait sometimes until I had a spare bed. Why? That was my question for her that day, and her answer should have been a ‘no brainer’ really. She said, “Belinda, you and I both know Jesus, and the people that I’m bringing to you for us to care for are probably having, not just their toughest day, or their saddest day, or their most physically painful day – it’s their loneliest day. Between you, me and Jesus, at least in this moment, they aren’t going to be alone.”
I don’t think I will ever forget that. Whatever spaces I move in now, whoever I might encounter, between you, me and Jesus, for the time that we are with them, no one needs to be alone.
Loneliness and lack of community didn’t start with COVID-19, but the pandemic has certainly heightened it. How many of our friends and colleagues, given the hour, might get around to telling us how they are really doing? And how many won’t? Because the stigma around saying, “I’m lonely and I’m not okay” is, sadly, still very real. And the Church is not exempt from that. I think sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we’ve been the worst at it. An “I’m lonely and I’m not okay” translates in too many church circles to a lack of faith or positivity or resilience, instead of a courageous moment of truth-telling.
And, I don’t know if you ever checked, but when I read the Scriptures, Jesus never criticised anyone for their lack of positivity. He never suggested to anyone that they aren’t cutting it because of their perceived limited resilience. He did, however, create spaces, almost every single time as it happens, for people to share honestly and openly about the realities of their situation. And the loneliest among them, at least for that moment, weren’t alone. If we are followers of Christ, shouldn’t we be doing the same?
COVID-19 isn’t going away yet. Isolation continues. I fear that we’ll be socially distancing to some degree for quite a while to come. But even when COVID-19 isn’t a headline anymore, who are we reaching out to? Who are we calling and asking real questions? Who are we connecting with in a bid to genuinely hear?