How To Not Save People

By Mike Soika

I have a friend who is a pastor of a local suburban church and who operates a street ministry in Milwaukee.  This pastor, along with his staff and volunteers routinely sweep through the streets of the city looking for people they can help; people who are hungry, who are homeless, who are alcohol and/or drug addicted, who are mentally ill.  They seek out the kind of people most of us try to avoid or ignore.  They provide food, clothing, referrals for services – whatever is helpful.  But mostly, they provide a tangible love for those who haven’t felt loved for a very long time. 

Here is an excerpt from a recent post from this pastor – about a fellow he has seen off and on for the past six or seven years.

Every time I see him, I give him a hug. I find some words to encourage him, as does everyone else. We don’t try to change him. We do try to help him remember a time before drugs, before the all-consuming dope game. We make sure he has numbers for recovery resources, and that he has our numbers for when he’s ready. We put people around him who made it out, got clean, and are living joy-filled lives. But mostly we just love him. We have released him in love to the care of his higher power, and that allows us to love him without judgement or trying to control him.

I can’t love like that, and for that long.  Maybe I could hang with this addict for several months, perhaps even a year.  But, seven years, while watching the same destructive and drug induced behaviors?  I’m sure I would have turned my back by now.  I’m sure I would have justified my actions by quoting the scripture about how one shouldn’t cast pearls before swine; that time and resources are too precious to spend on someone who clearly  doesn’t want to change. 

I wonder, what would it take for me to get to that place where my pastor friend lives; to accept others as he does, to love others unconditionally; to be so faith filled that I can just do my work and trust that the Divine will take care of all the rest. 

I figure that this pastor can persist in this seven year relationship with a mostly off the wagon drug addict because he doesn’t own the outcome.  He has no ego involved in the addict’s success.  The pastor only owns the outreach and the sense that he can just simply love this person until either God or drugs, or death wins out.

As the serendipity of the universe would have it, I was letting this article “rest” for a bit because it didn’t feel quite right.  While doing so, I ran across a quote from author Anais Nin on one of my social media sites, which says:  “ You can’t save people.  You can only love them.”

And so the message from my pastor friend and the message from the universe is pretty straight forward:  get your ego out of the way and just embody the love of the Divine to those you meet.  Ok, maybe not so easy.  In fact, I feel pretty unworthy of becoming the love of God incarnate in the world. 

As I prayed on this challenge, a plan began to appear.  The first step is to surrender myself to God’s loving embrace.  I must accept that regardless of what I have done or what I have failed to do,  I am the Divine’s beloved.

If I can accept that I am loved with all my warts and failings, then it is easier to share that love with others, which leads to the second step: love without conditions.  Afterall, who am I to judge who is worthy of love?   Perhaps, my primary job is just to love.

The third step is to just do it.  Just begin loving people without conditions.  Just accept that I am a failed human being who is loved and thus I can love others who are fellow failures.

I wrote to my pastor friend and told him that I couldn’t do what he does, that I couldn’t love like he loves.  In response he said, “I’m just doing penance, Mike.  My boss does the work.”

Maybe it is that simple.  Maybe I just need to surrender myself to the care of my higher power and let God work the rest out.