It was midnight mass on Christmas Eve 2010 when I first came to God. Sure, I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten to third grade, but I never understood, so I never believed. At that time, I was living downtown—almost always chronically drunk and clinically depressed.
“I’m spiritual, but not religious,” I would respond when the topic turned to theology at a party.
My life centered around a midnight shift bagel-baking job that only permitted me a daily hour of sunshine and even less time to socialize. My day was dark and after months of loneliness, the darkness seeped into my mind.
On the night of December 24th, I felt like I was shrouded in a black veil that was smothering me. I wanted to escape—from my apartment, my body, my monotonous and torturous life. I got into my car and started to drive aimlessly with one goal: Escape.
Soon, I found myself in my old neighborhood. I tried reliving happy memories, to escape into the past, but I felt nothing. My car continued to propel me forward. It was then, when I passed the church. Despite being 11:30-ish p.m. the little chapel was lit up and people were walking inside. Looking at the cross on top, it was the first time in a while I felt something besides anxiety and misery. It felt like an invisible lasso pulled me into the parking lot.
I left my car and heard the music from inside the church pouring out. It was like a beckoning choir of angels, and with each step, the veil of darkness that plagued me was lifted more and more. When I entered, I didn’t see the packed pews, but only the crucifix that hung on the wall in front of me. It seemed as bright as a thousand suns and suddenly that light filled my heart, casting away sorrow and replacing it with inexplicable joy—and with it a small, calm voice saying,
“Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
I was transformed in that moment and knew that Jesus had saved my life. I promised to Him that I would do anything in return. Little did I know, that promise would shortly lead me to be homeless for seven months.
Following my supernatural experience with the Alpha and Omega, I began to greedily devour the Holy Bible as if it was my only sustenance. This centuries old once-boring text to me became a living, breathing mouth of God.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” (Luke 4:18-19) I read.
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me’,” (Matthew 19:21) I read.
But it was Matthew 10 that resonated with me most, compelling me to become a self-proclaimed missionary. After reading it, the invisible lasso that first led me to Christ, began to pull me towards the road. I knew I had to leave everything from my old life to truly begin my new spiritual life of trusting God.
Without telling anyone (sorry friends and fam), I took my car and left Detroit. I traveled wherever the Spirit brought me. From northern Michigan, to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and finally, to Missouri. I crashed on couches, slept in my freezing car, received a free room provided by a church-going hotel owner, and was even given a week’s stay in a religious couple’s cottage. With less than $500 and limited resources, I had to trust God completely and He never ceased to amaze me. In turn, I ministered everywhere I went.
At times, “ministering” meant telling people my testimony, other times it simply meant listening to someone’s story. I encouraged church leaders in their faith as I told them my miraculous encounters and knowledge of Bible passages that I haven’t even read yet. The Spirit moved with me and through me, proving itself to be a beacon of light no matter where I went.
I found myself in several shelters along the way, but it was the one in Des Moines, Iowa that impacted me most.
The common room was the dining room, with a wall of ragged couches separating four long tables. Each occupant received a locker and bunk in a crowded room that slept about 30 people, including some loud snorers.
It wasn’t an unusual scene to see people mumbling nonsense to themselves. Not a week went by without someone having a mental or physical crisis. Meals were provided daily by volunteers, but if something were to happen (say, inclement weather or an unforeseen accident) there were times we didn’t receive dinner at all.
The shelter wasn’t a good place, but it was filled with good people. One such person was Merlita. That wasn’t her real name but, to protect her identity, that’s what I’ll call her.
Merlita had a meek beauty. She wore modest blouses buttoned to the base of her long neck and never wore makeup- her rosy lips and dark lids didn’t need it anyway.
Merlita was quadriplegic and didn’t know a word of English.
Every day I watched as she would sit at the end of the table in her wheelchair and pour over her Spanish Bible, just as I was doing with my English one. I formed an unspoken bond with her, wondering how God was communicating through the Word.
Shortly after arriving, I discovered I could volunteer at the shelter to avoid getting kicked out during the day. The perks were: I didn’t have to wander around on the street until the library opened, and I wouldn’t have to go through the long check-in and search procedure to get back in for the evening. My main job was sweeping and mopping the women’s dorm and stripping beds of people who hadn’t come back in X amount of days.
After a couple hours of chores, I would plop down at one of the long tables and draw, write, read the Bible, or make jewelry—something I learned along my journey from a stranger I stayed with who gave me all the materials I needed.
At the end of the table, there the unmoved Merlita sat reading her Bible. I tried asking her what passage she was reading but she smiled politely and shook her head. Feeling some need to show her that I cared, I pulled out my jewelry kit, and went to work.
The earrings I made were similar to the ones in the picture above, except mine had simple gold crosses. When I gave them to her, she beamed at me and slipped them on.
One day I didn’t see Merlita in her usual spot at breakfast. Breakfast became lunch, lunch became dinner.
“Did you hear about the wheelchair lady?” a friend said at dinner. “She got hit by a train.” He had such a dark sense of humor. It wasn’t until the next day when I heard the guard talking about Merlita’s funeral that I realized it was true.
I stripped the beds as usual, except this time, Merita’s bed was on my list. I saved it for last and cried the whole time I pulled the blankets off.
Did she kill herself? The article about her death said she did. How could such a good Christian kill herself?
When I pulled away the sheets, my heart dropped. A single earring I made for her was on the bed.
Did she plan for me to find this, knowing it was my job? Was this her farewell…her suicide note since we had no other way to communicate?
That moment shook me.
So much so that I didn’t write anything about it in the eight journals I kept during my travels. Because I feel like I’ve grown more mature in my faith and understanding of mental illness, I can now reflect on what happened.
According to a study from North Carolina University on homeless suicide, “The percentage of study participants reporting suicide ideation and attempt was much higher than that reported by the general population,” (71).
The study concluded that when a person experiences prolonged homelessness, existing problems such as mental health problems and physical pain is amplified and increases the risk of suicide (61).
“Alarmingly, scant research exists on suicide behavior among homeless individuals,” (1). I believe this is the first problem that needs to be addressed. The lack of research shows a lack of attention to some of the most poor and downtrodden in our nation. If there is a trend of people dying we need to figure out why in order to prevent it.
I don’t know if Merlita had depression before becoming homeless, but being a disabled immigrant might have contributed to the risk of her suicide. She had no support or anyone to talk to. The shelter never reached out, at least not from what I saw or experienced first-hand. She spent most of her time completely isolated and I wouldn’t doubt she saw the small building as a prison.
A few weeks ago, I talked to a devout Christian about depression and whether a believer should take anti-depressants. Discussion turned into argument when he implied that a Christian who suffers from depression is weak in faith. When I told him that the mental disorder is a disease, much like diabetes, he shook his head and blamed it on the person who dwelled on negative thoughts that demons can manipulate. I was angry. Nobody should be shamed for an imbalance of chemicals in their brain. I saw it as a way for him to feel superior in his faith and I called him out on it. God tests us all differently, and whether depression is our cross to bear, a Christian should not judge whether a person is too unfaithful to fight it, but rather, help lighten the load if possible.
Throughout redemption history there have been many Biblical figures who have struggled with depression: David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Moses, and Jeremiah. Even Jesus was prophesied as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” (Is. 53:3).
Just check out His time in the garden of Gethsemane just before being arrested and executed:
“And He said to them, ‘My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.’ And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, ‘Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.‘” Mark 14:34-36
Suffering brings us closer to God. It allows us to call on Him for help. It allows us to feel solidarity with all the rest of aching humanity. How we treat others in that moment reveals who we are, not the suffering itself. But what if the suffering is too much to handle? It’s easy to say, “God only gives you what you can bear,” but the reality is a clinically depressive state can make you hopeless enough to make you take your own life. Maybe as Merlita rolled onto the tracks, she saw it as an escape from her dark world and broken body, and felt it would hurry her towards Jesus–her only friend. Believe what you will—I believe I will see Merlita in heaven.