Craig Rennebohm provides a refreshing look at compassion and caring for Seattle's outcasts in Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets (Beacon Press, 2008 194 pages).
Rennebohm, a Seattle native, describes a personal journey from struggling with depression to attending the Chicago Theological Seminary and the Pacific School of Religion, to, finally, his experience dealing with mentally ill homeless people through his Pilgrim Church parish on Capitol Hill. Through it all, he learns that understanding and helping homeless mentally ill people involves reaching out and communicating with them — that institutions are not the solution, as he had been taught.
The book is composed of Craig's personal stories of interactions with homeless individuals battling their demons — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, substance abuse, memory loss, and paranoia. The references to familiar neighborhoods and buildings serve to emphasize this as an immediate problem in the Pacific Northwest, as elsewhere. Craig discusses the skills needed to help these people and how the Bible approaches illness. Perhaps because I am not especially religious, I found that last topic slightly tedious, though well-intended. He includes advice on how to listen in a world of constant hyper-communication, how to be hospitable and a good companion, and what a soul is (although I'm still a little confused). Craig advises newcomers to the world of the mentally ill to view each patient as engaged in a constant battle of crossed neurotransmitter signals – not so much in a good vs. evil sense but, rather, in the form of an unfamiliar "illness self" appearing momentarily or taking over an everyday "familiar self."
The book is touching and not overly preachy, but Rennebohm leaves the reader with an isolated account of experiences. I don't feel armed with the tools to conquer Seattle homelessness, or even to approach it. But he does succeed in providing insight into the minds of the mentally ill. I now can cut them more slack and recognize that they are enduring far greater battles than my liberal arts college mind can comprehend. I find it odd, however, that there is no mention whatsoever of the homeless who aren't mentally ill. I realize that's not the point of the book, but I could see how it would leave ignorant readers with the perception that homelessness and mental illness always coincide.
The title Souls in the Hands of a Tender God alludes to Jonathan Edwards's 1741 sermon titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which portrayed God as a fiery punisher and the faithful as fearful and guilt-ridden. Rennebohm writes about the nature of self, faith as an odyssey, and everyone's need for a companion to guide them through life. I'm not convinced faith is a journey, but this work was inspiring nonetheless.