I recently wrote responses to a few questions regarding my calling with the LDS branch at a state mental hospital:
1) What is special about the branch?
There are really two branches within the branch:
1. The adults in the main building and the youth and children
2. The people in the Forensics Ward.
Having church is very basic. Patients have to work pretty hard and overcome opposition to attend meetings and stay focused. Meetings tend to be shorter. The concerns of branch members are very real, very basic, sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous. The gospel becomes very real and very practical. Spirituality is not an extra. It's not superstructure. Spirituality is something that many of our patients crave in a visceral way. They are reduced to a cathartic state for many reasons, including the large amount of self-reflection, the feeling that they are not in control of their lives and bodies because of the hospital's structures and because of medication. It brings to mind Alma 32: 6
6 And now when Alma heard this, he turned him about, his face immediately towards him, and he beheld with great joy; for he beheld that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word.
In the forensics ward, many of our patients are visibly contrite and maybe a bit harrowed by things that they have done.
One of our principle duties is to escort patients from their units to the chapel or conference room (depending where the meeting is being held). This is sometimes a mildly tedious process, having to go through security checkpoints, convincing patients to join us, being told that certain patients have not "reached their levels" and therefore cannot leave the unit. Once they are off unit, we are technically responsible for them and for their safe return. Someone will sit at the back and maybe follow patients if they go out. The reason I mention this is that the volunteers in the branch are "shepherds" in a kind of literal way, leading groups of people here and there, preventing them from getting lost. The "quality of instruction" or discourse etc. in our worship services can vary, but we are more focused on creating an experience and environment for the patients that choose to and are able to attend.
> 2) What have your learned working there?
I have learned a lot, but I am still in the thick of it. I have learned that many of the formal aspects of the church don't matter that much, and that once those aspects are gone or are in flux, it can be very disorienting, yet liberating and uplifting. You get so that you focus on more basic things. I have been very interested as an artist lately in intimacy as a means to reach the unseen, as opposed to pageantry, which I think sometimes blinds us to the unseen by providing a kind of surrogate. Our meetings and interactions are intimate and basic. Our goals are certainly very basic, but I think this enables or forces us to encounter the unseen as a way to accomplish these very basic goals.
I have also learned how teach lessons in a more engaging and universal way. We have such a diversity of intellects and attention spans that it forces you as a teacher to come up with lessons and strategies that work for a wide variety of people.
I think the thing that I have learned most is not to judge other people. This is a hard fought lesson, because I have a problem with judging. This particularly comes up in the Forensics Ward where we have people who have killed people and committed sexual crimes. We also have people who have committed pretty minor offenses while a bit loopy, trespassing, petty theft, etc. Because of the unusual nature of our branch, we don't have disciplinary councils and we don't withhold the sacrament from anyone. At first it was a little strange, but then I came to find it very liberating and it helped me to realize that God is the only judge and that we don't need to worry about other people's worthiness. It's really not our concern, and thank heaven for that.
> 3) How has it shaped your ideas about forgiveness and accountability?
I remember someone asked me if I felt the spirit in the Forensics meetings, considering the nature of some of the attendees actions. I think I replied that it was hard not to feel the spirit there. The people that attend the Forensics meeting are very humble and often want to bear their testimony and express their gratitude. They are reaching out for deliverance from pain, and, I think, struggling with complex issues of accountability relating to their own actions vis a vis their mental illnesses and mistreatment they have gone through as children and adults. These are things that I have not had to deal with. It means that their search for redemption is much more urgent and heartfelt than anything I have experienced. It also means that they grapple with riddles more complex and yet more basic than the ones I grapple with. It has taught me that, while obedience is better than forgiveness, forgiveness is more miraculous than obedience.
> 4) What should people who have never attended a ward like this know?
Wards are too big to really do the kind of service for their members that is needed. It is hard not to shake someone's hand in our branch. If you have something to say, you will get a chance to say it. If you have a concern, it will be heard and answered by a friendly, helpful person. All of the fancy programs that are enabled by the economies of scale inherent in large wards are of little benefit, compared with the personal interaction afforded by a small unit.
"When 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I..." is literally true. That phrase says nothing about worthiness, only about multiple people gathered in the name of Jesus. That's it. And that's enough. There is inherent virtue in gathering in Christ's name at any time, with anybody, under any circumstances. Any time the accessories of these gatherings bog down the fact of gathering in Jesus' name, I think we have a problem. Any time we start to experience such gatherings as performances, concerts, lectures, programs, etc., I think we have a problem.
> 5) Describe three memorable experiences from your time there.
There are so many that it is hard to pin 3 down. We have given many blessings to people after meetings that have been very powerful. Fast and testimony was the first meeting I went to. Fast and testimony in any ward or branch is usually an opening for nuttiness. But maybe that's the way that God intends. Maybe the crazy run-on testimonies are what we need to hear. Well, as you can imagine, testimony meeting at a mental hospital is extra nutty, but I think it goes over the top to a new sort of transcendent level. We had two native american men in the Forensics Ward who really bore their souls and documented the kinds of mistreatment at the hands of people and institutions, including what can only be described as torture at the hands of the criminal justice system, as well as redemption and the reality of spiritual forces. I have noticed that our patients are apt to get up twice in a testimony if they feel they have forgotten something the first time. With some exceptions, they don't tend to go on very long, though. Their testimonies can be nutty but strangely put together. You know me. Not very strong on the narrative/story telling side. Prone to abstraction. I wish i could get some of your narrative mojo, make things come to life, show don't tell...