Will you pray for us?

July 23, 2008

It's a simple question. Unless you're a journalist, a documentary maker, a man who doesn't believe in God. But it's the only thing Bill asked me to do. Bill and his wife Linda constitute the hub, the nucleus, of a group of homeless and precariously housed people who live, loiter, drink, smoke, laugh, cry, argue, love, and sometimes die at a bustling intersection underneath Interstate 55 on the South Side of Chicago. My wife Erin and I entered their world recently. We drove by their encampment and noticed them interacting with the police who had "rolled up" on them. Bill's $38,250 in outstanding, unpaid tickets (for loitering, drinking in public, obstructing traffic, etc.) testify to their conspicuousness, their tenacity. Because of my commitment to serving the homeless, the indigent, the marginalized, and doing so ON THEIR TERMS, my wife and I went back to visit them. We wanted to get to know these folks and to help them in any way we could. And, to be honest, I was entertaining notions of possibly telling their story on radio and/or film. My motivations for visiting them were therefore a blend of good will and self-interest. That's how it always works, in my opinion. We journalists and researchers often act from a blended place--our intentions may be good, even noble. But we also want to advance our careers. That's why a group like this one represents many things-one of which is self-promotion. In the best case, impure altruism outweighs the self-advancement in the calculus of motive. "The Underpass" reminds me a lot of The Brickyard, which I am reporting on for Eight Forty-Eight. I write this because my first encounter with The Underpass folks differs from my first encounter with The Brickyard. However, nearly every one of my initial sojourns into a so-called "underground" group is marked by good will, self-interest, sincerity, and artifice. So I wasn't at The Brickyard, but I approaching The Underpass speaks to how one goes about entering an "outlaw group," a subculture. So we charged headlong into their lives, hoping to do some good, and maybe develop a comparative analysis of The Brickyard and other places where people engineer their own off-the-books solutions to the failure of the American Dream. After brief introductions I opened my "trick bag." The bag's contents? Bottles of drinking water. Clean, sterile needles. Kits for safer crack smoking. Condoms. Antibacterial liniment for cuts and scrapes. The people there were agog at the presents coming out of my bag. They marveled and wondered aloud how this could be legal. We gave them identification cards authorizing their legal possession of the crack kits and syringes (although only one person there took the needles, and only a few took the crack kits, and even fewer had any use for drinking water, but several took condoms, if only for "a friend"). "We're all pretty much just drunks here," Bill reported kindly, his clear blue eyes radiating out from a weather-worn face. We yukked it up for two hours. Great conversation. They shared parts of their life stories. And we shared ours, when asked, but mostly we just listened, assuming a seated position on the ground, in the figure of student. Jason incurred a massive brain injury one year ago in an automobile accident that killed his best friend. He's now illiterate, trying to raise a daughter single-handedly. "My uncle's a drunk, he hangs out here, and he loves these people. They're all good people. So I come down here to check on him just about every other day." Dan's a heroin addict. He's been shooting dope for more than 20 years. He hates being addicted, and he hopes to kick it one day soon. "But it's hard, man, I can't stand the withdrawal. Some people can do it, they can go cold turkey. Not me. I need help. So does my old lady. I can't stop, or stay stopped, when she's still using. I'm too weak." He asked my opinion, so I replied, "Well, I wouldn't say you're weak. It's just that everybody experiences the drug, and the addiction, their own way... different from everybody else. Just because one person kicked cold turkey doesn't mean that everyone else can." Dan considered this, "Hmm, yeah, I guess you're right. I need help. That's not a bad thing, I guess." Stella is a proud mother of six children. And she happens to smoke crack. She and her boyfriend have a camp under the expressway above us. "We've got a nice set-up. We even got us a table for sitting." She spends 15 minutes braiding my wife's hair while we chat it up. Linda (Bill's wife) used to sell lighting to commercial enterprises. She's been institutionalized, voluntarily and against her will, on several occasions. She's very religious, and she tithes and offers every month because "my pastor told me that if I keep giving, even when I've got nothing to give, then when I start slipping back, God will keep the devil off my back." Bill loves Linda. "She's beautiful," he says matter-of-factly, as though he's telling me that we're now standing on a concrete sidewalk.‚  But she never ever shuts up," he says with a laugh, "except when she's drinking." We've handed out the goods. The group seems fairly well convinced that I'm not out there to hassle them. I'm not there to get them to stop doing what they do. Now I ask, "Anything you need us to do here?" "Yeah," Bill says, "will you pray for us?" Silence. An icy vice grips my intestines. I'm shocked...and scared. He can't be serious. In all my years of doing street-level outreach, research, journalism, and documentary work, no one has ever asked me to pray for them. And I haven't even prayed since I was 8-years-old. In fact, I pride myself in part on being profane, on embodying profanity. I try to laugh it off, nervously. But no one else is laughing. So I stop the feigned chuckle and ask, "You really want me to pray for you?" Bill's earnest eyes stir something inside of me, an emotion that makes me want to cry. Everyone starts shuffling toward a huddle formation. "Yes, I do. Please," Bill says softly. "Okay." And here I go. I can't believe I'm doing this. I don't know what to say. Everyone's now moving in swiftly, concertedly, pushing their hands toward the middle. I've coached little league baseball for many years, and it occurs to me that I'm just leading a cheer, really. Guys who were lingering on the margins of the group have now moved, nearly a dozen people have crowded around. Bill looks up at me, supplication is the word that comes to mind. Drawing on some long-since padlocked reserve of divine worship, I begin speaking. I realize that I'm not praying to God for these folks. I'm praying to humanity, to a sort of American collective conscience, and maybe God is listening. I feel enveloped by a secular moralism that, to me, feels holy. "Heavenly father, we pray in your name, gathered here today, we ask for your divine mercy, we ask for your mercy and forgiveness, and we ask that you bless each step we take, the ground we walk upon, the souls that now live inside our bodies. We ask that you grant us the power of forgiveness...so that we may forgive ourselves and those who lack mercy and compassion. Please be with us, always and forever, dear God. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen." And so it went. Bill looked up at me and said, "That was the best prayer anyone's ever said for me. It's the best I've heard. It's the only prayer that's moved me in my heart." I don't know if Bill was putting me on. And I don't know why he asked me to pray for them. Was he testing me? Did he figure that I was just another "religion and rice" street corner preacher promising food in exchange for the acceptance of Jesus Christ (and an offering) and that I therefore would be most comfortable leading a prayer? Bill doesn't even believe in God. But it's clear that he believes in something. Later, while looking into an abandoned but highly trafficked building near Douglas Park, Erin and I talked at length about whether or not I should have agreed to lead the prayer. There's no clear answer. Not in my mind anyway. I ask you: should I have declined (politely) to pray for them? After all, I don't believe in God. And I am not a spiritual leader. I was there doing outreach and perhaps some journalism. Is it a breach of ethics to occupy, under "false pretenses," a position of spiritual leadership, if only for 90 seconds? I'm pretty sure I know why I agreed to pray, and I could give you a well-reasoned argument justifying it. But what would you have done? Would you have led the prayer?