“Jamie, can I ask you something?” Jimmy, our homeless friend, was being unusually cautious with me. We were sitting in our living room, gathered for our weekly potluck and worship at Little Flowers Community, the inner city church we planted. As an adventurous hitchhiker, we never knew when he would show up, but we were always pleased when he’d stop by.
On this trip he’d moved in with us for a few months, riding out the bitterly cold Canadian winter. Jimmy is a great guy- generous, kind and really very funny. He also lives with severe, untreated mental illness, subjecting him to dark visions and fearful hallucinations, usually involving demons and vampires out to get him.
More often than not we could count on Jimmy to say exactly what was on his mind, with no thought to censoring the wild ideas or bizarre visions that came to him. Now, however, he was clearly hesitant and so he had my full attention immediately. Assuring him that he could ask me anything he wanted to, he went on.
“Well, I don’t want to offend you or say something sacrilegious or anything, but something happened to me. The other night I was riding the bus trying to get some sleep, so I was laying back with my eyes closed. Then I had this feeling that someone was standing over me. I opened my eyes and… umm, well, Jesus was standing over me with His arms spread wide.” He looked at me, waiting for a response.
Given the terrifying nature of most of Jimmy’s visions, which usually left him agitated and afraid, he seemed excited (if perplexed) by what he was sharing with me. I asked him to go on, but he hesitated, looking a little embarrassed.
“That’s what I don’t want, you to be offended or anything. I mean, I was half asleep so I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or nothing. When I saw Him standing there I did the first thing that came to mind. I reached up and tweaked His nipple. You don’t think I am going to Hell for that, do you?” I grinned widely at Jim and assured him that Jesus completely understood. Relieved, he continued:
“I am glad you said that, because I am pretty sure it was really Jesus too. A couple of nights later, it was getting cold out and my buddy wasn’t home so I needed to find a place to crash for the night. I found a corner in a public parking garage where I could wrap up, but it was getting colder and colder. I remember saying out loud, ‘Oh God, I could use a blanket!’. Just as I said that, I felt as though a blanket was being pulled over my body, immediately keeping me warm. No one was there, but I knew right away that it was Jesus. You know how I knew? Because after the invisible blanket was in place, I felt a hand slip down to my chest and tweak my nipple!”
For some, this story might seem to reflect a person with no respect for Jesus. Yet for those of us who know Jimmy, we see it as a divine encounter where a loving God reached past the cloudy confusion of mental illness to demonstrate His love for one of His children.
When we began our ministry in our neighborhood nearly a decade ago, we could not have anticipated that we would have found ourselves in relationship with so many people struggling with various degrees of mental health. Neither could we have anticipated how deeply so many of them longed for a place of love and acceptance, a place to explore faith without fear or judgment. For many people with mental illness (who represent a significant number of the poorest of the poor in North America), the church has not been a place of welcome or understanding. The stigma attached to mental illness is deeply rooted in most Christian circles nurturing an ignorance that makes connecting to these people nearly impossible. They represent one of the single most neglected “unreached people group” in our cities. This must change.
And yet, it is not only the mentally ill who need the church to reach out and love them. We are in genuine need of them. Encounters like we have with Jimmy and others force us to push our faith beyond intellectual ideals and shallow spiritualities. They demand that we confront the messy reality of a broken world and rely entirely upon God to reach past the impossible circumstances with His divine grace and love. Beyond the romanticism that often clouds reality, we must learn to genuinely see Christ in these children of His. Then we will learn what it means to live the words of Jesus with our lives.
Jimmy is still very ill. He still is tormented by his demons and hunted by vampires. Yet, in the midst of that, he has encountered Christ in a real way. During his most recent visit with us, he interrupted our meal to tell us something:
“I just want to thank you guys for taking me in and being my friend. No one else would. You guys are good Christians- and I don’t mean in a cultish way!”
We all laughed with appreciation and left humbled that God has chosen to use us to build His kingdom in Jimmy’s life.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is a writer and pastor of Little Flowers Community an inner city church plant in Winnipeg, MB. He is the author of “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom” (IVPress, Nov 2011). He blogs regularly at www.missional.ca .