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December 21, 2015
Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!
Twenty-five years ago, on October 24, 1990, I boarded a plane to begin a new step on my journey towards the most significant border crossing in my life. To help you to understand the border I crossed, first let me share some back-story.
For much of my adolescence the prayer I prayed the loudest was for God please, please to end my suffering; whether that end would come through my death or through a transformation of my life was irrelevant to me, I just hoped for an end. Somewhere in my teens I lost my faith in a loving God that would help me make my life better and began to believe that life was simply a matter of survival, and that God was, at best, nonexistent or, at worst, indifferent to my suffering. My courage to continue living was mostly dependent on the small sense of power I got from the knowledge that, if things got too bad for me to tolerate living anymore, I had the power to take my own life and end my suffering.
My struggle for daily survival culminated in a series of psychiatric hospitalizations for suicide attempts, suicidal ideation and, ultimately, homicidal ideation - I spent about 5 out of the 16 months from August, 1989 to December, 1990 in psychiatric units or in addiction treatment. During my last hospitalization it became clear to me that either my life needed to change drastically or I was going to die by default. With the help of friends from the United Church of Granville (then First Baptist Church of Granville) I made contact with The Meadows, a treatment center in Wickenburg, AZ, and made arrangements to go into a 6-week treatment program - partially for addiction and disordered eating, but mostly for dealing with my underlying desire not to be alive anymore.
In the midst of treatment, a lot of good, therapeutic things happened, but the most significant thing that happened was a deep understanding of what it meant to commit to a life without suicide as an option, and to look forward with a genuine belief that there is hope in the world. That commitment seemed very complicated to me, with the best commitment I was able to make being, "I'll try to live without suicide as an option," until my seemingly-frustrated treatment psychiatrist one day pulled his car keys out of his pocket, tossed them on his desk, and said, "Try to pick up my car keys." So, I picked up the car keys. "No, try to pick up my car keys - I didn't say pick them up, I said try to pick them up." Aha... understanding sets in (along with a bit of pissed-offed-ness at the annoying perceptiveness of psychiatrists).
The following day I sat meditating, looking out at the desert. During the months leading up to treatment I had become progressively more aware that no other person could fix what was broken in my life, and that fundamentally I was alone in my journey. Not that others couldn't journey alongside or help to support me, but ultimately this was my walk and my responsibility. A large part of my despair came from that feeling of fundamental aloneness.
I closed my eyes and told God I needed some sign that God was with me and would always be with me, some small ray of hope to hold onto before I could make the leap and give up suicide as my ultimate means of protecting myself. When I opened my eyes there was a rainbow over the mountains in the desert distance, and a deep stillness in my soul - I knew that God was with me and that, regardless of what suffering I might experience in the future, God would suffer with me and continue to love me through God's presence in that small, still space between breaths.
There is a discrete moment in time in my memory in which I made the commitment to myself that, from that moment forward, I would seek ways in which to build my life up and care for myself, and that suicide would never again be an option. I made a decision to cross over from believing only in suffering and death, to instead believing that life is meant to be lived in partnership with God, both the somewhat abstract and non-embodied God that lives in the space between breaths and the God whose people shared their love with me through their quiet, steadfast presence alongside me. That moment of decision involved stepping across a raging river of despair that lives inside of me to this day, making a choice to live on the side of the river that was unfamiliar and filled with uncertainty, but offered the possibility of walking with others on the journey. As with my choice to live in abstinence from my addictions, the choice to live without suicide as an option isn't a choice that, once made, has been without effort to maintain. It requires a daily commitment to hope that every day brings the wonderful, terrible possibility of change, and that change will on the whole bring about a better life over time. Not a life without loss or pain, but still better for having been lived.
During my time in the desert I also came to understand the message behind Matthew 25's "when you did it to the least of these" litany, and came to see the loving, quiet presence of folks from 12-step groups and from the church in my life as the arms, hands, legs and feet of God. The ministry of presence - of being willing to walk with me on my journey - was an incredible gift from a lot of folks who didn't know me from Adam when I walked through the church doors or the doors of my first meeting. When I consider being in ministry, what I hope most is to be present in some small way, to be able to mediate God's love at a time when someone is feeling the despair of being alone in their suffering.
My discovery of God in the desert is in some ways a contemplative cliché, but it came at the end of a year-long process during which many, many people stubbornly acted out God's love for me by being present in my life and witnessing both my suffering and my inherent goodness, my inherent child-of-godness. After years of feeling broken, people in the church and in 12-step programs helped me to see that there was a different narrative of my experience of suffering than the narrative I learned in the church of my childhood. God was with me in the suffering. God was not testing me, and this suffering was not meant to build my character. The suffering was just inherent in the free will that was part of God's turning loose of the world. But in the midst of the suffering I was not alone, and that has made all the difference.
Those of you who feel alone in the desert, listen quietly for the small, still voice that comes between the breaths of your life. Watch closely for the rainbow that heralds the life-giving waters. Look beside you and see the outstretched hand of those of us who walk with you, and know that you can cross over that river of despair. You are loved, we are with you, never again do you have to walk alone.
Matt Hartfield is a long-time BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz member, computer programmer, project manager and rabble rouser. With an eye towards getting involved in community-based LGBT/dechurched ministry, Matt is currently working towards reentering seminary in 2016/2017.