“Excuse me, are y’all pastors? My name is Josh.* I smoke crack. I just set fire to this guy’s stuff under the bridge because he threw away my stuff. I’m about to kill him. I need help. Can you help me?”

What would you do if someone came up to you and asked you these questions? Would you stand there, transfixed and confused? Would you know the appropriate public resources that could help him? Would you have the courage and the patience to locate a community that could provide him love and support as he rebuilds his sense of self? While I don’t get these questions every day, this situation has been the essence of my summer working as a CPE chaplain with the Training and Counseling Center.

For those unfamiliar with it, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a program that brings theological students and ministers of all faiths into supervised encounters with persons in crisis. Traditionally, CPE is done in a hospital, nursing home, or hospice setting. My unit, however, is a little different. This summer, through the Training and Counseling Center (TACC), I’m working as a chaplain to two different nonprofits in downtown Atlanta: The Church of the Common Ground and the Emmaus House. Both of these organizations work with people experiencing homelessness, financial instability, addiction, and severe mental illness (among other issues). One day I will be praying in Woodruff Park with someone experiencing severe hopelessness in the face of dire medical needs. The next day, I’ll be helping a different person get their Georgia ID, and maybe giving them a referral for a neighboring food pantry.

My job is not to evangelize. Instead, my job is simply to listen for ways I can offer hope, courage, and peace in the midst of instability. In addition to working with these non-profits, I have daily meetings with other CPE students working in similar non-profit settings. We talk about our different service contexts, our strengths and growing edges, and how we can improve our actions/reactions in future moments of pastoral care. My fellow CPE chaplains keep each other accountable to our ministry goals, and serve as a safe space for confidential ministry matters. It is a context where “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and personal growth is inevitable. 

I chose chaplaincy work with TACC for two reasons. First, the TACC program is a unique CPE model. There are only two or three like it in the whole United States. Second, the type of ordained elder I want to be in the South Carolina United Methodist Conference is a community missional pastor, one that uses the sacraments as a social justice statement and combines direct service and direct action to bridge the needs between churches and surrounding communities. What better way to learn this than by ministering with non-profit organizations in inner-city Atlanta!

My experiences have provided me with lots of food for thought on ministry with those experiencing marginalization. I’ve discussed Star Wars cosmology and the intricacies of DC and Marvel comics with people experiencing profound schizophrenia and developmental disabilities. I’ve been called a racist, and in the same hour, been praised for my care and compassion with people racially and ethnically different from me. I’ve been to anti-death penalty vigils with a person formerly on death row, and discovered that many newly-made CPE ministry friends had been standing there with me all year long as I protested against the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. These experiences (and many more) have taught me that we’re not so different from our brothers and sisters living on the streets. Those of us with socioeconomic means are just as broken and addicted and ill. We just have the resources to cover up our brokenness, which is perhaps more insidious and sinful than panhandling for food in a public park.

When I tell people that I’m taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education this summer, most people respond by saying something like, “Enjoy the misery!” or “Good luck with that hot mess!” Many are surprised to learn that I’ve been looking forward to this experience for the last 10 or so years, and are even more surprised when I say I’m enjoying it. While terrifying in many respects, it is blessing to be approached by people on the street like Josh. The two most important things I’ve learned this summer in CPE is the importance of listening and the power of relationships. When we listen to one another, we convey to others that we see them and we want to know them and love them, just as God knows and loves them. Each person affiliated with Church of the Common Ground and the Emmaus House has been hurt in some form or fashion by other people, whether those people are relatives, neighbors, strangers, sociopolitical systems, or even bodies of faith. As a chaplain, I cannot fix another person’s brokenness, but I can offer community resources and prayers, knowing that God can take my meager compassionate offerings and use them to transform the hearts and minds of those I encounter, however brief my time with them may be.

I don’t know what became of Josh. He left as quickly as he came, but it is my hope and prayer that he is in recovery and not living under the bridge anymore. A good mentor of mine once told me that ministry is the opposite of being a builder in that one cannot instantaneously see the fruits of their labor. The fruits of ministry take years of constant nurture and attention before they can be produced. But oh, how sweet they are when they come into fruition!

Recently, I heard a really moving story about the fruits of one of my CPE internship sites. A woman got into an altercation with her boyfriend on the streets of downtown Atlanta and the police were called. The APD arrested both people and put them in two different police cars. As the woman sat in one of the police cars, she spotted someone she knew walking down the street. She told the police officer, “That’s someone from my church! Can I ask him to come over and pray for me?” The police officer let her out of the car to pray with her fellow church member. After the prayer, the police officers decided to let her go free. I learned later from my supervisors that she is someone who they otherwise thought didn’t understand what it really means to be a part of a church community.

That’s someone from my church! Can I ask him to come over and pray for me? How beautiful it is when we can serve as witness of God’s love in our communities! Here’s to the beginning of many, many years in ministry with those on the margins, no matter their socioeconomic status, racial background, recovery status, or physical/cognitive ability!

*Changed for privacy purposes.

Top photo: Hillary (center) hangs out with Thomas and Eddie during the "Common Soles" Foot Clinic provided by Church of the Common Ground.