I was thinking about Debbie today. The 30+ year memory of her came suddenly into my consciousness. Debbie was in my youth ministry program. She committed suicide.
Debbie was not a pretty girl. She was short, bulky, and had zits. She wasn’t a great socializer. She was on the fringes. I liked her.
If memory serves me well she had a great experience on a retreat. It was an experience of community that lasted, unfortunately, only as long as the car ride home. I knew she longed for a carry over experience. But true community proved elusive for her.
After high school Debbie went away someplace for school. She found a drug crowd. They accepted her. She found that if guys got high enough they found her attractive. The sexually intimate exchanges that followed gave her a sense of belonging and love. She wasn’t being loved. Just used.
For some reason or another Debbie came home. The changes in her exasperated her parents. One night they had enough. They kicked her out. I remember a phone call “Please come get me.” And on a very frigid Minnesota winter night I found Debbie. She was alone and afraid.
I helped her get into a treatment center. Her drug use was killing her. She was getting better but something happened and she ran away. When I tried to find her word came back that ‘she was ashamed of what was happening in her life and she didn’t want to face me.’ I sent back word ‘tell Debbie that I care about her no matter what.’
Late one evening a few weeks later a phone call came late at night. “Mike, we found Debbie. She’s dead. She found an abandoned barn and hung herself.”
At the funeral I remember someone coming to me and saying something along these lines. “Wasn’t that a horrible sin that Debbie committed?”
I lost it a little.
I remember saying something along these line.. “I think we have to take responsibility for some of this. Debbie was part of our church, our ministry. She felt alone. Not included. The only place she could find community is with people who wanted the drugs she could buy. It’s not right. Debbie died of loneliness. She felt abandoned. Her life couldn’t get traction. Suicide wasn’t the answer. Never is. But she felt she had run out of options. Why did she feel so alone when so many of us were all around her? Is there anything we need to own in this?”
Debbie came to mind today. I’m reading a book that I’ll write more about in the days ahead. Part of the author’s discussion revolves around the individualism that runs rampant in today’s church. Individualism stakes out the territory of ‘I’. As long as I’m OK, and me and Jesus are good …then it’s all good. Unfortunately the gospel says a whole lot about ‘we’. That’s hard for us to grasp.
Debbie longed for community. She found it once on a retreat but the mountaintop became a valley. She found it in ‘drug friends’ but she was being used. She couldn’t find it in her family. And at her death some in the church wanted to talk about what they perceived to be her sin, not her life. And it was clear that we didn’t want to use her death as an opportunity to repent of our lack of caring.
That was a long time ago.
Community is still elusive for so many. We capture it occasionally on a mountaintop. We desperately need it in the valley below.
I serve at a big church. People say ‘hi’ all the time. And I wonder. How many Debbie’s are here? Who’s close to losing it? Who’s afraid to come out of hiding? Where are the models of transparency? Where’s the ‘we’ in our definition of community?