By Jon Berry
"CAN YOU HELP ME?" THE BEDRAGGLED, SLIGHTLY wild-haired man wove his way down the platform of the 59th Street subway station, waving a piece of paper. He was obviously homeless. The morning commuters stepped back en masse, like the parting of the Red Sea. His eyes alighted finally on mine. “Hey,” I found myself saying. “What do you need?” I didn’t know him. But I’d talked with enough guys like him while visiting a friend who’s been in and out of the mental wards of New York hospitals to take the risk.
“I need to get to Brooklyn,” he said. He showed me the paper. It was a discharge form from the hospital. The usual. With hospital’s constrained budgets, there’s no money to transport most mental patients to the halfway house or shelter that will be their next stop. So the hospital gives them a subway pass and directions. I walked him across the platform and told him to look for the subway with the orange circle, the B or the D, and get on, and ask someone to point out when he gets to his stop.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to feel that the Psalms are being lived out in the streets of New York and everywhere else across the country where people are being turned out of hospitals, homes, jobs, and life with no clear sense of where to go or what to do. “Dear God: I need a miracle,” read the cardboard sign I saw recently in the Union Square subway station. Behind it was a gaunt young man, sitting on the floor, knees drawn up to his chin.
The other day, I got into a conversation with a guy in his 20s sitting outside Trinity Church across from Wall Street. “Can you help?” read his sign. “War vet waiting for benefits.” I asked him what he was applying for. He knew about the main ones my friend’s secured (Medicaid; food stamps; reduced-fare subway tickets). Housing is tough. The vet said that when he gets enough panhandling, he takes the ferry to Staten Island, where there’s a cheap SRO hotel. He doesn’t like to go to the Bellevue men’s shelter; his stuff always gets ripped off when he was asleep.
A guy I see periodically on my morning commute (“Got any food to spare?” is his usual line) – who turns out to be pretty friendly – has a girlfriend in New Jersey. But when he’s not with her he sleeps in the subway tunnels. Church steps are popular. Lenny, whom I met the other night when a friend came back to find a ticket on her car (“I would have told you not to park here if I’d been here,” he averred), says he’s been sleeping on the steps of a church down the block from me for a year and a half. Another says he goes to an all-night Internet café in Chinatown.
Help. Miracles. Refuge. Peace.
As an adult, I’ve re-entered Psalms from time to time looking for solace in times when my life was turned upside down. It's one of a handful of texts that are my "go-to's" when I'm in need of what a professor of mine calls "conversation partners across time and space." Some are from the Western wisdom traditions -- Job. Ecclesiastes. Some are poets and novelists from the near distant past -- Hopkins, Dickens. Some are music. I need them, I find, and not only for what I get; in them, I find, in the words of one scholar, "someone who understands me."
Over the next few weeks, I’m reentering this blog – which has been quiet for altogether too long – to see what Psalms I’m reading for a class this semester can say to my experiences today.
Mostly what comes to mind when I think of Psalms are images -- fitting, as they're, essentially, poems: psalmists who wish for “wings like a dove” to “fly away” to some safe haven (Psalm 55); yearn for connection “as a deer longs for flowing streams” (Psalm 42); who feel their days are passing “like smoke” (Psalm 142); and, occasionally, the faithful, whose spirit is “like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1). Sometimes a phrase breaks through -- lately, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34)
They've become lectio divina, words to turn over in my morning meditation and think about the people I see and talk to. I hope that God is near to the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit. “God is in the midst of the city,” says Psalm 46. I hope so.