This story is from the print Spring 2016 Issue of Shattered Magazine.
Jamie Blaine was still in college, working as a roller skating rink DJ, when the director of a nearby psychiatric facility approached him about a job. He accepted, and that job became the background for some captivating stories he chronicles in his book, “Midnight Jesus.”
It’s just after meds at the psych ward where Jamie works, and he’s taking his patients out for their last smoke of the night.
Everybody’s passing around the pack of community cigarettes, lighting them end to end, people at the end of their ropes talking about love and sex and work and God and trying to make it through one day at a time.
“Out there, it was just people sitting in the dark,” Jamie remembers, “smoking and talking about their wrecked lives, and for some reason they let me in and accepted me as one of their own. It might have been because I had the lighter and a key to the door.”
The smoke break often slips into a little reprobate Bible study before bed. Nothing fancy or planned. Just fifteen cigarettes glowing in the dark, a flashlight, and a motel Bible. Old drunks and outlaws, loose women, outcasts, losers, dope fiends, failed suicides, and schizophrenics reading about the peace that passes understanding, grace that trumps all sin, and a love and forgiveness that knows no end…
“The psych ward’s smoking porch was an interesting conglomeration of people,” Jamie explains. “Schizophrenics and drug addicts. Sex addicts and failed suicides. Old drunks and anorexic beauty queens and bipolar housewives. Jail was more dignified than the psychiatric ward. At least in jail you could bond out. People in the psych ward were locked up because they couldn’t function anymore. They were failing life. ‘Amazing Grace’ wasn’t some topic you studied in Sunday school or the words to a nice old hymn. This group was desperate for grace. If grace wasn’t amazing, we were all screwed.”
Keith’s hair sticks up, he’s got a bad stutter, and his mouth hangs open most all the time. He wears charity glasses from the Lion’s Club—a thick, old, pewter-framed pair that sits crooked on his head, and he shuffles from the psychotropic meds. He’s mentally challenged, actively psychotic, and has been in and out of prison and group homes all of his life. Keith has been on acute ward lockdown for a month now, and I could get in trouble just for bringing him out. But I promised Keith if he didn’t cuss anybody or throw anything all evening, I would take him out to smoke with the patients from the other side. He kept his end of the deal, and I’m keeping mine.
Jamie says the psychiatric ward was a community of sorts. The residents all had struggle in common, and they were all in a place where they had no choice but to depend on each other. People didn’t ask questions, judge them or turn them away. There, they felt accepted, cared for, and staff worked with them as they learned to face their stories.
“Mr. Keith,” Moses says. “It’s your turn.”
“I-I only, uh… I only know one,” Keith says, hands shaking and head down.
That’s okay,” says Moses. “Just read the one you know.”
Keith thumbs through the Bible for the longest time. Then he puts his face close to the page and slowly begins to read, “For G-God,” he says. “So loved… th-the world. That he gave… he gave his… gave his o-only…”
“It’s all right, baby,” Crazy Mary says. “Take your time.”
He draws a deep breath, and in a soft, clear voice says, “His only son. That whoever b-believes in him… would have life.”
Keith closes the Bible and turns off the light. And in the dark, silent spaces, the Spirit rushes in.
“Come to think of it,” Jamie recalls, “we had an official community group that met with a therapist twice a day; but that wasn’t community. The patients hated it, and everybody lied about how they were doing in hopes of getting discharged quicker. The smoking porch, late at night, was the real community. Everybody was just their real, ugly, messy, honest selves.”
I wish I could gather my church and show them this moment. There are lessons here we all need. Every day it seems the patients are teaching me to look for the good, to not believe everything I think, that often the best prayer is simply, Help me, please. They show me that God is so close to the lost and broken—closer in many ways than the religious can ever be. Jesus said that first, you know.
“Be careful,” Jesus taught. “Those people you call lost are actually closer to the kingdom than you.”
“I’m a misfit too,” Jamie admits. “If anything, God has used criminals and old drunks and schizophrenics to reach out and teach me. I’ve never really been comfortable with the notion that this, my work, is some great ministry where I reach down to help and teach others. If anything, ‘Midnight Jesus’ is about how the clients have taught and helped and ministered to me.”
He continues, “We have to be careful that our ministry and outreach efforts don’t inflate our egos. How scandalous for the church crowd, huh? I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty top dog when I’m helping. That’s a place of power. But when I need help? When I need to learn? That’s a much more humble portion. Here’s what the reprobates and addicts taught me about God:
If I ever need to see mercy and grace in action, all I have to do is bring a really sick patient over from PICU. If I take someone over who is an absolute wreck, the addicts and depressed patients will step up and show so much compassion and love. It’s a reminder that in our finest moments we really do take care of each other down here. When we drop our agendas and realize that as long as we are obsessing over self, we will continue to die inside.
Jamie continues, “Here’s the greatest, good news story I learned in all my experiences, whether (I was) working at a Bible belt psych ward, roller rink, crisis outreach line or mega church: In the dark lonely places, we are all so much the same. We’re all looking for our place to fit in and not feel so alone in this crazy life thing. We all feel like we’re doing about the best we can do.”
But when we meet each other in that honest place, past labels and divisions and petty disputes, when we pick each other up and pretend to be nothing other than exactly who we are, the truly supernatural can occur. I don’t want to knock church, but something’s missing. It’s not the same. Maybe we’re not desperate enough. Maybe we’re too busy putting on the show. Man, I don’t know.
“The church especially is made up of messy, screwed-up, flawed and falling-apart-at-the seams-people,” Jamie says. “But that’s good news. That’s why we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Just As I Am;’ we’re all misfits and ragged stragglers. We’re all in the same boat. We help each other down here.”
I love the shiny, happy Jesus from church, but there is another side—that dark-eyed Lord of Glory with dirt beneath his nails. The troublemaking Son of God who shows up when drunks march in courtyards and cry that life is unfair. The Christ who is there when schizophrenics throw chairs and just want to go home. The Light of the World who loves people in the lowest place. The King of Peace who turns over tables and makes water into wine. The Great High Priest whose good news went something like this: No matter who you are, where you are, or how far gone, there is always a way back home.
So, how can we get better at this whole compassion and love thing? How can we step up and be there for each other? How can we allow ourselves to be real with others and receive others well when they’re real with us? How can we be BE community?
Perhaps it is best said through a story Jamie shared:
“It’s an explicitly disastrous night of double takedowns, psychotic breaks, multiple admits, escape attempts, and copycat episodes of self-harm. We somehow manage to get everyone calmed down, medicated, and into bed. Slipping out to the rehab patio, I find a retired Episcopal priest smoking his pipe and studying the twelve steps. I flop down in the rocker beside him. “All right, Father,” I ask. “Got any advice for me on this helping people thing?”
He looks me over, lighting his pipe again. “You have to go empty, son,” he says. “With no agenda. Never think you’re above it all. You show up like someone who barely escaped the fire, found water, and returned to rescue those who are left.”
“No agenda,” I reply.
The old priest pulls a slimline Bible from his pocket and flips through pages until he finds his place. “In returning and rest, you will be saved,” he reads. “In silence and trust you shall find your strength.”
I nod along, rock awhile. What’s that supposed to mean? “Anything else?”
His grey eyes sparkle as he fills the air with the glorious smell of Captain Black. “Find the secret place,” he says. “And let God give you rest.”