Chicago’s Torrey Bible Institute required each student to do “Practical Christian Work” (PCW). The height (or depth) of Sean’s PCW experience happened on his only visit to Cook County Hospital.
One day in October five TBI students left TBI’s arch, walked to State Street and disappeared down the stairs to the “L.” A drunk lay face up on the station platform, still as stone, his skin hanging on his bones flaccid and greyish, like a too-large coat on a fasting man. Heedless of the chilly day, he lay insensible as two flies crawled over his scalp. Sean felt guilty stepping around him.
A rising roar and bright light signaled the “L”’s arrival. They boarded the great integrator, filled with people of all social classes, colors and races wanting to get somewhere fast. Sean swayed, holding onto the strap. Not much talking¾people stared straight ahead or read the paper. You couldn’t talk much anyway over the thunder of the train.
All at once the train burst into daylight and rose onto elevated tracks. Sean felt like a bird, looking down on the heads of pedestrians, the tops of cars and busses, and gazing across at the office buildings with their windows framing people working at their desks.
Soon the PCW group disembarked, descended the steel steps and headed toward the hospital, inhaling the diesel exhaust from the busses, keeping their heads down to protect their faces from the Chicago freckles.
A forlorn young woman walked toward them as she carried some dirt and a small plant in the chalice of her cupped hands, crying, looking like a poster child for the human condition. Thin and slightly built, she wore open sandals and only a light windbreaker against the cold. “What’s wrong?” Sean asked.
“God just gave me this gift, the most precious gift in the world—the Tree of Life. [She held up the small plant cradled in her dirty hands.] And now it’s dying.” She raised her supplicant eyes to him. “I don’t know where to plant it, how to water it, how to care for it. The world’s so cruel and I am so sick. If this plant dies, I die with it; the whole world dies. Please help me!”
Sean stood speechless. Tanya from the PCW team put her arm around the bedraggled girl’s bony shoulders, then turned to whisper to Sean, “She smells of alcohol.” The whole group sympathized, but they had to get to their hospital assignment, so they prayed for her, sat her on a bench hunched and shivering, then walked away. Sean glanced back over his shoulder at her pitiful form, her hands still clutching the Tree of Life.
Cook County Hospital’s Beaux Arts façade featured sweet cherubs and rampant roaring lions anchored by fluted Ionic columns, reminiscent of a magnificent woman past her prime. Known as “Chicago’s Ellis Island,” Cook County embraced all who came, all who otherwise could not afford medical care.
They entered the huge doors and walked across the cracked floor tiles. “Look at those sagging doors,” Sean said to Tanya, “and the paint peeling from the walls.” Bleak, unwashed windows looked out at the great city.
TBI’s Practical Christian Work director had given no orientation—only told them to walk the halls and talk to people. The rooms smelled of urine and rubbing alcohol and overflowed with beds. IV feeds hung down from hooks; oxygen tubes protruded from patients’ noses. A woman moaned and thrashed about. One old man raised his head, crying out. A young boy kept calling “nurse, nurse!” Patients lay on wheeled gurneys lining the hallways. One man had a body cast on, steel rods protruding out of his shins to hold broken bones in place. Harried nurses passed from one patient to the other, their voices echoing through the vast building.
The PCW director had told them, “Just submerge yourself; do more than get your feet wet. Figure it out yourself. Let God guide you.”
Sean wondered, Why am I here? These desperate people, some terminally ill with no one to talk to. How talk to them? I have enough trouble talking to people I know!
Somehow he got separated from the others and found himself at a cul de sac in front of locked doorsl Then an orderly walked up to a keypad. “Here; I’ll punch you in.” Sean wondered (too late) where the other TBI students were. The doors slammed behind him and he entered purgatory—the mental health ward. Perhaps the hospital staff imagined that these naïve Bible Institute students could distract the patients, entertain them, and relieve the orderlies for a few minutes.
A Negro girl about twelve years old sat at a table and looked up at him. “They say I killed my two kittens. But I loved my little kittens. I don’t know…. They just ate something and died. I took their little bodies out and buried them in the back yard but our dog dug them up and was eating them just as Daddy got home…. He whupped me. Mommy said she’s coming back this afternoon to pick me up. I don’t like it here.” Tremulous, sobbing, she paused coloring in her book and turned to look at her beat-up, dark-faced, doll. “Abigail says Daddy can’t come home anymore because he drinks too much.” Then turning back to Sean, “I love my mommy and daddy. They’re coming to get me.” When Sean tried to touch her, she recoiled.
Raising up from his chair, a shriveled man mistook Sean for his son. “So good to see you, Roger. They treat me terrible here; I’m so glad you’re taking me home!”
A heavy-set woman lay on her bed, just staring up at Sean. He froze. What should I do? he wondered. Read the Bible? Pray? Try to engage her in conversation?
Then the woman yelled, “Turkey, turkey, turkey!” Was she anticipating Thanksgiving?
Another man whispered, “My daughter brought me here with a bad fever. They’re discharging me tomorrow. Some of these people are crazy.”
Another: “God will send fire to consume the whole world. Most of these people are lost souls but I’m saved by the blood of the lamb.”
A middle-aged woman smiled at Sean, then whispered, “I’m a virgin; I’ve kept myself for Christ, but one of the doctors tried to rape me. I screamed and he ran away. Everybody woke up. Nobody believes me, but God protected me.”
The orderly walked up. “A psychiatrist makes rounds…. We keep the dangerous ones in a different ward. Most of these just need medication—they’re not a threat to anybody. Not much we can do. Nobody ever visits them; not even their relatives.” He punched Sean out of the lockup.
Walking into the men’s bathroom, Sean stared at the urinal, trying to control his urge to vomit. He wanted to feel compassion but instead, felt only revulsion. The piety of the mentally ill shocked him. How could Christianity be true if crazy people believed it? he wondered. Where is God in the lives of these troubled people? The sick and injured, bereft of grace, cut off from the love of family and from God. Who cares about these people? Do I even care?
His own lack of compassion, his emotional weakness, guilted him. Kathy would flourish here, he thought. She harbors a huge heart that embraces all kinds of hurting people. But he vowed to himself—I’ll never come back here again.
Shaken, he joined the other TBI students in the entry hall. Some of them enthused about their conversations; others remained silent. A visit to Cook County Hospital gives your faith a reality check, Sean thought. What a failure I was!