Last week, after another long day, I got the frantic call. No, the floodwaters had not destroyed the camp and neither had the police. The camp residents were destroying one another. Tensions were high, nerves were frayed, words were said, and then one of them picked up a 2×4 and beat the other, slamming the wet wood into forehead, face, limb, and body, again and again. I left our house within minutes of getting the call like a bird in flight, my heart beating and frenzied like wings.
Lately, on long days, long weeks, I’ve found myself drawn to bodies of water. Something in me needs to be near the troubled depths so I drift to the banks of the Cumberland, to Radnor, to Frederic’s Lake. I drift to the rivers and lakes seeking solitude, refuge, and healing. I drift to streams and brooks flowing through this land like arteries, rushing their way down, always down, singing with the voice of Sirens, wade in the water.
Last week the waters rose again with some of the highest levels we’ve seen since the flood of 2010. Everyone held their breath as the rains came down drenching everything that was exposed. Storm systems rolled through, the sodden earth opened its mouth, and the bloated Cumberland swallowed up everything low on her banks, giving our friends at the riverside encampment a mighty scare. She lapped at their pallet fence, she swirled across their gully trail. She was roiling and reckless, but finally, the rain dried up and the camp held. She drew back into herself, pulling silt and soil and song back down to the deep. Yes, wade in the water, she sang.
Lauren and Samuel met me at the camp and we started our work: survey the situation, make sure everyone is safe, tend the wounds. When we got out of our cars, our hearts still pounding, two of the residents were on the path and one was hiding in a ravine. We took the wounded one first. Most of the damage was internal, a concussion was definite. Soon, bruises would spread like sunset across his face, his body. He could not stay there for the night so Lauren administered first aid and made arrangements, opening up her home. Then we turned to the one with fresh splinters in his hands, also wounded in a deep way that came through in his eyes. And finally, we moved to the one in the ravine who Samuel found first. As soon as the 2×4 came out, he had a flashback that threw him back nearly 40 years to when his father use to beat his mother, his brothers, his sisters, and him with fists, with belts, with hoses, with boards. “If something happens, run and find a ravine,” his mother told him. “I’ll find you when it’s over.” And so he ran.
We weren’t interested in blame. This time, everyone was to blame or no one was. Or maybe it wasn’t about blame at all. “Tell us how you’re feeling,” we said to each one. “What is really going on here? What do you need to begin to heal? What would it take for you to be healthy and whole?” And the words and tears poured out.
“This isn’t who I am,” said the splintered one. He had learned to fight in prison. “When I was thrown into the general population, I didn’t have a choice,” he recounted. “It was either learn to fight or be crushed.” So he fought. He learned when and how to defend himself, learned that brute force meant power and power meant survival. Like a viper, he learned when and how to strike, and when he came out, he was a different man, a harder man. When he came out, he covered all his wounds with money, with drinking, with women, never forgetting the feel of a face bend with a blow, a bone snap, never forgetting the taste, the sting, of blood.
When I found the ravine, the third was hunched, his eyes swollen and wet with tears. Samuel sat beside him, holding him like a child and when I took his hand in mine, he held on tight. The ravine was small and we sat crumpled on the ground together like the last leaves of fall. I tried to keep from shivering, shuddering, weeping, as he told us the horrors from his childhood, as he told us why he ran. “I was scared to go home,” he said to me later, “I wasn’t sure what I would find.” We listened and held him, it was all we could do. We listened and held him as the dark waters swirled nearby, as they held the reflection of city lights, as they held the power of life and death in their depths.
These men on the river want to be free. They have been boxed in, beaten, caged, strapped down, and stripped of everything. Some grew up in abject poverty, some fought in condemned and horrific wars, and others have been branded by past circumstances and will never escape their charges. There is profit to be made when their bodies are behind bars and they are constantly fighting to stay out jail. Their barriers to housing, sobriety, and wholeness feel insurmountable. They are constantly fighting because the rivers of poverty, of homelessness, of mass incarceration, of death want to swallow them up. Anxiety and despair ravage their bodies and minds and when they are overcome, they turn to the bottle. There is profit to be made there, too, and instead of fighting systems and structures that oppress us all, they (we) fight one another.
A different kind of river also calls to us, however. It is said that Harriet Tubman and slaves along the Underground Railroad sung “Wade in the Water” as a code to those on the run, advice to those escaping the horrors of slavery. Why wade in the water? Because it throws off the hounds hot at your heels. Why wade in the water? Because it will bring you a kind of healing and freedom you have never known. Yes, the Israelites also fled from bondage through the waters—waters held back with some holy force fierce like a hundred lions. Elisha and Elijah crossed the River Jordan before Elijah was taken into the sky by a flaming chariot and John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Christians found their freedom through these waters, as well. So come to the cool waters and feel them ease over your ankles and legs, step down and feel the depths surround you, cleanse you, carry you to freedom. Yes, let us wade in the water.
In the 5th chapter of John, we find Jesus walking among the porticos of Bethesda where a multitude of the blind, lame, and halt lay on mats. They lay on mats waiting for days, for months, for years, for an angel to come stir and trouble the stagnant waters so they bring healing. Ease into the troubled waters in time and you could be made new. But if you were too slow, too alone, you were left waiting, longing to feel the cool, living depths cover you, heal you, and throw off the hounds of death and decay. As he was walking, Jesus noticed a man who had been ill for 38 years and asked him, “Do you want to be made whole?” Yes, but this man had no one to help him into the pool when the water was stirred up. “Take up your mat and walk,” Jesus said, and at once the man was made whole. What power did he feel pour into his limbs that day? What power straightened his legs, his back, his will? Whatever it was, it changed him, and he walked out of the porticos a different man, a healed man.
“What would it take for you to be healthy and whole?” we asked the men at the river. What would it take for all of us, for what Dorothy Day calls our “filthy rotten system,” to be made whole?
“Healing is impossible in loneliness,” says Wendell Berry, “it is the opposite of loneliness.” Hospitality, warmth, welcome, community, connection with the earth—these things bring healing and wholeness, he says. So my prayer on another long day is that we will all have the courage to find each other and start on that downward path. Let us go down to the earth, down to the river, down to where all the things we use to drown our sorrows cannot reach us. The water is right to be stirred, and when we see those troubled waters, let us wade. Let us bathe in the sunlight, in the moonlight, washing ourselves and each other clean. Let us throw off the hounds together and emerge from the waters changed.