I pulled up to a run-down glass wall covered by blinds in a sketchy area of downtown Chattanooga. Feeling slightly apprehensive, I parked my car and walked up to see if this was the right place. I opened the door to find a group of about twenty people, some who you might guess were alcoholics or drugs addicts, others whose appearance did not fit an addict’s stereotype at all.
I raised my hand when the leader asked if anyone was attending for the first time. The group congratulated me and thanked me for coming. I wondered if they knew I wasn’t an alcoholic, and in a strange way, felt bad for not being one. I didn’t want to be a snobby overseer here to observe these people and use my expensive college education to come to some conclusions about them.
The leader asked for a topic of discussion and a teary-eyed woman told the group of how she was feeling the loss of her husband strongly recently. She concluded by saying that she knew she needed to give her feelings of loss up to her “higher power.”
Others followed with their stories of grief and loss, each truly terrible and heart breaking. One girl shared how her grandfather’s last wish on his deathbed was to see her and talk to her, but she was too busy getting high and never saw him again. Another woman shared her frustration with men having sex with her and then leaving her. She said she didn’t know how to be by herself without drinking.
Sometimes people would respond by expressing their empathy or giving advice. The advice was always given in complete humility. The general tone was one of, “We’re all broken here and we’re all accepted here.”
One man offered some counsel to the lady who was grieving the loss of her husband. “You mentioned your ‘higher power’ but you didn’t say who your ‘higher power’ was,” he started. He went on to tell her about his higher power, Jesus. He quoted Scripture and offered to talk to her more afterwards and pray with her.
The leader pointed to me signaling it was my turn to share. My introduction was met with a resounding, “Hi Bethany,” which I shyly followed with, “And I’m just here to listen.” They offered a genuine, “Glad you’re here! Keep coming back.” We often mock this script, but I found it to be quite powerful. Saying someone’s name and hearing your name said has a way of connecting you to people. I felt like I was in a room full of friends.
At the end we stood in a circle and held hands and prayed the Lord’s prayer. I thought that they had achieved an effective balance of incorporating religion without being forceful. These people are in desperate positions, making them hungry for the Gospel. I see the “broken and contrite heart” described in Psalm 51 in these people. I see the tax collector who went to the temple and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They claim no virtue. They admit their helplessness. This is exactly how the body of Christ should be.
As I listened to their tragedies, solutions kept coming to my mind. I could give them answers to everything they said. I could present them with a theology of suffering. I could tell them that there was a cure for shame and grief and sorrow and that all they needed was God. I could spout out Bible verses. I could even give a rough explanation on the science of addiction.
But I didn't understand at all. I had no idea what it was like to lose a spouse, sibling, or parent. I had no idea what it is like to grow up around drugs or to be abused or neglected. Nor had I ever been in a situation where using drugs or alcohol was the only source of happiness in sight.
I wanted to help them. When an issue was raised, I had a biblical response that I yearned for them to hear. I felt the Holy Spirit quieting the solutions that kept coming to my mind. God softened my quick-to-answer self and asked me to just listen. My answers were replaced by compassion – compassion without answers, compassion that just wanted to listen, a quiet compassion, that desired to mourn with these people who felt the Fall so intensely.
These are the eternal souls behind the lectures I hear in psychology of addiction class. These are the lost sheep that Jesus lays down his life to save. I remember the verse Ephesians 2:3, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” I see my old self in these people: desperate for redemption and miserable in my sin.
Studying the way drugs alter an addict’s brain, reading the sociological statistics of drug abuse, or nailing down a Biblical defense of why suffering exists, we can forget about the real, image-bearing people affected by the problems and only see the problem. Knowledge is insufficient. Answers are insufficient. Compassion is necessary.
Perhaps knowledge without compassion is one of the ways the Church grows cold. Often we pride ourselves on being able to spot sin and recite its remedy when really our response to sin should be a deep sense of compassion and a broken heart. I’d like to thank the beloved AA attenders gathered on Feb. 19, on E 11th Street in Chattanooga, for demonstrating to me a broken and contrite heart, and reminding me of God’s great love.