by Luke Heineman
In the Gospel of Luke, we learn the method of obeying the law of God; love God and your neighbor as yourself. However, this commandment isn’t always clear: The Gospel tells us that one man asked Jesus for further clarification, asking Him “who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t respond with a simple answer, but instead gives one of his most famous parables, that of the Good Samaritan. We and the man learn that the true neighbor in the parable is the one who showed mercy, and Jesus instructs us to “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37).
Boston College students are gifted with opportunities to embody the concept of “the good neighbor” through service within the PULSE program. PULSE has ties with over 50 agencies throughout Boston, all of which provide unique service opportunities and exposure to various societal issues. Samaritans Inc., a suicide prevention center, stands out as one of the more unique partner sites that coordinates with PULSE. I recall that when it came time for me to search for a site to perform service at when I was enrolled in PULSE, I did not even consider serving at Samaritans, for fear of not being able to handle the experience. I cannot possibly imagine working under that kind of pressure, yet every year PULSE is able to send students to serve; 16 students have served there this year.
The Samaritans of Boston was founded in 1974 as the first stand-alone Samaritans branch in the U.S., following the principle of “befriending,” first established by UK Samaritans in 1953. There are several more offices all over the country and the world today. While the branches share common missions and philosophies, they operate independently of one another. In 2005, the Samaritans of Boston combined with Samaritans Suburban West to become Samaritans, Inc. It prides itself on being a non-denominational agency that provides services to any and all individuals, regardless of “age, ethnicity, gender, race, disabilities, sexual orientation or religion.” For over 40 years, Samaritans has worked to reduce suicide incidents by providing non-judgmental support to millions of calls on their 24/7 crisis hotline. Additionally, the group works to educate the public about suicide prevention and reduce the stigma associated with attempted suicide through “services that emphasize confidential, nonjudgmental, and compassionate listening.” These have come in the forms of suicide prevention workshops, community outreaches, and support to family members who have lost a loved one through suicide.
In 2013, more Massachusetts residents died from suicides than car crashes and homicides combined. Suicide, although a massive public health problem, is a preventable one. Boston College PULSE students have learned how to ameliorate the issue not by giving advice or trying to solve the problems of callers on the Samaritans hotlines, but by offering respect, caring and understanding; their goal is not to fix, but to offer respite. Tori Crawford MCAS ’17 is the PULSE Council Member for Samaritans this year, and explains just how difficult this service can be for her student volunteers, as “they are not allowed to give advice to the callers, which can be hard for both the caller and the listener. However, I stress that befriending is more than advice giving, but a process of accompaniment through simple conversation.” Working with her students this year, Crawford has observed how her students have learned to understand the value of listening; “One of my students told me that she had a caller who had not spoken to anyone but her for three days. To listen and validate whatever worries the caller had, without giving advice, made a world of difference.” Indeed, Samaritans may appear to be an intimidating placement, but Crawford’s students receive special training at the site to handle intense situations and learn the incredible value of their service; “A majority of the calls are not high risk. Often, people call Samaritans because they have no one else to talk to. Imagine having no one to talk to about your day and imagine the isolation you would feel. My students are able to listen with open hearts and minds to those whom would normally not be heard.”
What astounds me the most about Samaritans is that this is one of the only community partner sites where PULSE students do not directly interact with those they are serving. They don’t see their faces, but they do hear their voices. And sometimes that makes all the difference; to listen is to love.