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pastoral care and street church

I don’t think I know what the dictionary definition of pastoral care is. I am pretty sure it means something done with another person and means listening to that person very carefully. You both know that at least one person is somehow in need. And I think both people feel something at the end, moved, or comforted, or understood, or helped.

Pastoral care is probably not what my husband used to say to students: “I understand, but I don’t sympathize,” though they kept coming back and talking to him. It’s probably closer to what my friend John and I meant when we said of a coworker that he was the guy you wanted to grow up to be, and that you always felt better after talking to him.

A fine theory. But how do you get the other person to start talking? “How about them Hawks?” doesn’t work in Boston, and I don’t think I ever heard a conversation that started that way go anyplace. In my usual work, people expect me to ask questions, and they expect to answer. In the clinic, this works pretty well. They come to me. Out here, I am coming to them, and they can choose to acknowledge me or not, to respond or not. Giving them my name helps, and making sure I’ve got theirs.

I must digress: I’m learning some names, and I’m recognizing people. Batman and Chino probably had different names at baptism. It’s always first names: Mary, Angelo, Lillia, Michael, Peter, Steven, Eddie, Neal, Martha, Brenda, Billy, Vinnie.

“How are you doing?” seems to work as well as anything. Asking if people have a safe place to sleep, if they get meals anyplace, if they are on a list for housing — these are all OK and most people will answer. But when they talk is when they’ve seen you a couple times and recognize you. Or, for me, I come with Steven, and they know and trust him. So they next thing I’m learning to do, after “how are you doing today?” is to sit and wait. And very often, people start talking and telling you remarkable stories. I don’t always understand everything — poor teeth don’t make for clear speech. But they talk about hard times, and about good times in the past, and about the things that haven’t worked out for them. Then, along with agreeing with the pain and loss and anger, sometimes I can ask what they hope for. I can ask what their good luck, or their special gift is. I can ask what helped them step back from a bad choice or even suicide.

I can see that better relationship makes for better conversations. And that knowing both a name and a story makes the next encounters richer. This isn’t therapy, and it’s not very directive; the goal is not to improve people or better their lives–not, that is, in any short run or any way that will improve an outcome score and make your data analysis look good.

When I did literature, I thought something like this: if humans are made in the image of God, that must mean in the mind and soul, not the physical likeness (since God as Father isn’t physical). So we can learn something about that divine by studying the minds of other people. Literature is the preserved record of the workings of human minds. I can touch human minds from many times and places by reading what they’ve written. So I can study God, indirectly.

Doing pastoral care in any setting I think is like that. We honor each other as children of God, as created in His image, as carrying God. Listening, building a relationship so that there is more trust in what is said and listened to, brings both of us closer to God. It’s hard to do, but it’s easier to do it than to explain it.

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