Before I was ordained, I worked at a child and adolescent psychiatric hospital where occasionally my job was to restrain violent patients. I hated that, but often it had to be done. But not when Ted was around. Ted was a psychiatric nurse who was 6’5” and 275 pounds and all business. Ted had played college football, and on his shift, he liked things to run smooth and by the numbers. There were never any problems from our violent patients when Ted was around. If trouble started, Ted would look kids in the eye and simply say, “Is there a problem?”
The immediate response always was: “No, sir.”
I loved Ted. Ted made my job easier. As one volatile patient said, “Whenever Ted’s around, there is peace – peace through fear.”
But there was another hospital staffer, who was even better than Ted at killing conflict. That was Bessie. Bessie wasn’t trained in psychiatric nursing. Bessie never even finished high school. Bessie was the janitor – and she loved all the kids. She had absolutely no power over them, but she had immense authority with them.
While she was cleaning, Bessie would talk to the kids, who were in time out or on room restrictions: “Baby, what went wrong? You were doing so good. What happened?” Kids, who would barely talk to the hospital psychiatrists, would bare their souls to Bessie. Violent kids calmed down. Withdrawn children opened up. Depressed teens asked her for hugs. All of us – patients and staff — loved Bessie.
During a real rough stretch on the unit, I asked Bessie what her secret was. She smiled and said, “My job title is Janitor, but my real job is Grandmother. I just try to love these kids. I know you do, too. But most of them have been hurt by men. So, they take out all their hurt on you.” Her words were little comfort. There had been a lot of incidents on the unit. One staff member had been hurt. I’d been bitten by a patient. I confessed, “I wish I was Ted. There’d be more peace around here.”
Bessie said, “No, there wouldn’t. There would be more quiet. But there wouldn’t be more peace. Kids don’t misbehave around Ted – and they don’t learn anything. But when things happen when you’re around, you always talk with the kid afterward. We all do. We try to teach them how to be angry without being violent and how to work things out. Whether it is on this unit or in this world, that’s how we all find real peace. We have to want it. And we have to do the work to make it real.”
Looking back on the work that I did at that hospital 30 years ago, I realize now that in those past good times and bad times – especially the bad times – that Jesus was on our unit every day. Jesus was at the hospital because Bessie brought him to work with her. Jesus was with us because Jesus was in her.
While the world is focused on Christmas, the Bible invites us during Advent and always to focus on Christ by incarnating his way of peace. Peace isn’t some unobtainable, holy mystery. Peace can happen every day in this world through people like Bessie and you: Saints, who teach us all how to be kinder and more loving. And for sinners like me and you, we can become more like Bessie as we beat our swords into plowshares – as we pound our wounded pride into willing forgiveness; as we turn our spears into pruning hooks – as we transform the grudges that we savor into the graces that we share; and as we put down our swords and refuse the way of war – by taking up our cross and walking with Christ in his loving way.
You might not have the power to cut the Pentagon budget. But you definitely have the power to share generously with charities that labor for peace. You can’t stop mass shootings, but you can contact your representatives, respectfully demanding common-sense gun legislation. You can’t stop tyrants like Putin or racists like the Proud Boys. But you can root out hate from your heart. You can vote for candidates who don’t flirt with hate groups. You can welcome immigrants. You can love everyone as Christ loves us all.
We can live differently. We can be better people. We can be a better nation. And we can work with Christ to build a better world. And as we do that, things will change. We will be changed. Our nation and world will be different. A new day will arrive. The good news is that that day is here to dispel every darkness. Its peaceable dawn continues to rise. Let us rise, too. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.