Laura Rorem

Living and Growing: ‘UBUNTU: I am because we are’

Ironic. As I received the 1998 Parent of the Year Award for my outstanding contributions to children’s mental health in Alaska, Tanya experienced a severe psychotic break from her schizoaffective disorder, holding police at bay with a knife.

Recognizing the symptoms, we tried unsuccessfully to warn the appropriate people days before. A debate ensued as to whether to arrest or hospitalize her; she was committed for 30 days. As a result, she lost her apartment. Three weeks later, against medical advice, Medicaid decided she was well enough to be released…into homelessness…which triggered another psychotic episode. She disappeared, but there were sightings of our barefoot, underdressed, terribly sick daughter running wildly among the tourists downtown.

UBUNTU: An African philosophy meaning “to be human is to recognize the humanity of others.”

“McDonald’s number nine, clock tower, 1:00!” Out of nowhere leaped my lovable child! She hopped into my car, grabbed the fries and commanded “DRIVE!” The hallucinations and voices were not quiet: I stopped in front of the “Spam Can” as she vaulted out of the moving car; kicked the car door off its hinges; stuffed her mouth full of food; spit it out; hit imaginary beings haunting her; and jumped back in the car. I parked. She ran across the street chased by the “beings,” unfazed by the car that hit her and disappeared. Frantic attempts to find help were fruitless. The next afternoon she was in the hospital.

UBUNTU is showing care and displaying respect, dignity, compassion, empathy, love, and social justice for humankind and the most vulnerable.

Unaware of Tanya’s brain damage from prenatal exposure to alcohol, with a birth family history of mental illness, we were stunned when her schizoaffective disorder emerged at age 14. Professionals assured us this was not a result of personal weakness, lack of character, poor choices or upbringing. Unfortunately, our desperate three-decade efforts to provide safe housing for Tanya were futile. Our loving child of God died in 2018 in an undignified place for chronically homeless people.

UBUNTU: “Acts of humanness have to be Christ-centered…When we see in people’s eyes and hearts the image of God and their dignity, irrespective of culture, economic status, gender, race, faith, ethnicity, circumstances.” (Rev. Dr. Fidon Mwonbeki)

During the early 1960s, federally funded Community Mental Health Centers replaced institutions. It didn’t work as envisioned, resulting in too many drifting from the revolving door of a psychiatric unit to an apartment to homelessness, to shelter or jail, then the hospital again. Eventually responsibilities shared on different care levels became responsibilities denied on every level and individuals with brain disorders and their families pay the price of an inappropriate, expensive and humiliating nightmare: fertile ground for chronic homelessness.

UBUNTU: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.

World Homeless Day is Oct. 10. Working for justice with and for people experiencing transitional, episodic, chronic or hidden homelessness is doing God’s will. May this day be an opportunity to reflect on how we understand and address the plight of those without homes, and the problems they face, and to think about what actions our consciences and humanity require of us in response? How we treat the unhoused is a test of our “inner ubuntu.”

• Laura Rorem is a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church. She writes to honor her husband, Pastor Larry Rorem’s legacy of love, compassion and understanding for all humankind, especially the most vulnerable. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Saturday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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