Monday, March 8, 2010

Don't just do something. Sit there!

by Stephen Crippen

The reflection group on homelessness and our homeless neighbors gathered again yesterday, and we had another lively discussion of the issue of homelessness, how we're responding to it at St. Paul's and elsewhere, and where to go from here.

One member of the group talked about her experience with Real Change vendors (a mix of positive and negative) and how it led her to reflect on how privileged most of us are, and the tension that inevitably arises when people interact across socio-economic lines. We welcome this tension because we want to follow Jesus, a poor peasant who doubtless would be much more skilled walking the streets of our own neighborhood than many of us are.

This led to a discussion of guilt, a common feeling that arises when well-intentioned (yet economically privileged) people try to make a difference in an economically unjust society, and find their own limitations and blind spots getting in the way. I offered the idea that Jesus is a model for many things--radical equality, love for the most vulnerable among us, self-giving love for all, a prophetic voice for justice--but he never modeled guilt. He didn't show us how to be guilty, or feel guilty. We could say that this is because he was without sin, and therefore had no reason to be guilty. But we could also interpret this to mean that following Jesus means pushing past guilty feelings and getting back to work!

Another member of the group talked about his work with another agency in town that serves a specific ethnic group, and how race and culture--not just economic status--can be a barrier that's hard for people to cross. He is a white volunteer in a setting that understandably does not trust white people, so he had to be in the community for quite some time before he was welcomed as a safe companion.

Finally, the threads of our discussion led us to reflect on the importance of simple relationship: that the relationships we develop are more important than the services we provide. I said that in my work this year at the Millionair Club, my mantra has been, "Don't just do something. Sit there!" This is because it would be all too easy for me to stay focused on the task at hand--collecting socks for a sock drive, cooking breakfast, handing out food coupons, and so on--and neglect the relationship I might develop with another person who happens to be homeless. There is everything good and nothing wrong with sock drives! But I am mindful that Jesus was a companion of his poor friends, not a social worker who had them on his caseload. I can't focus on the socks to the exclusion of the human beings in my midst.

And one last thing--we talked about small efforts, and the frustration that many of us feel when we see how little we're actually accomplishing. This is often what leads to the guilt I mentioned above. It's the sense that yeah, I'm volunteering X number of hours a week, but the problem is huge, and sometimes I can't shake the thought that all this work is not really doing much to change the situation and improve people's lives.

The group reflected on this by again discussing the stories in the Gospels in which Jesus, using just a few loaves of bread and a few fish, somehow feeds thousands of people. These stories suggest that small efforts can lead to major change, even if we can't see how. One of the men I worked with last week was much more cheerful than me about his job prospects, and I thought, "What do I know? Maybe we really can help him find a job!" And the interaction we had--just two people spending a half hour together--can resonate far beyond the two of us. Small efforts by a few can lead to abundant life for many.

3 comments:

Mary Davies said...

Thank you for this, Stephen. I love how practical it is, and how rooted in our faith in Jesus.

jfriddle said...

A week ago, I arrived early at St. Paul's for Monday night's centering prayer practice. I was hungry, so I went to the market across the street for a cup of soup and some crackers.

The day had been difficult. Parts of me were unhinged, wrecklessly blowing in the gray space that corporate work sometimes forms in people.

I got my soup and I found a seat in the "dining area" of the market. Soon, a man I assumed was homeless began what I have seen many times among the homeless in Seattle. He began a ritual settling down in a place that is safe but not quite home.

Can you imagine living this way? Safe but not quite home. Did Jesus live this way? I think he might have. He was, practically speaking, homeless. And he spoke in a way only a minority could understand.

The man began to open his many bags that carried his belongings. A guitar neck protruded from a shopping basket he had co-opted for his purpose. A small amplifier was wedged into a corner of the cart. Some bags contained food, others contained articles of clothing, and others contained yet more bags.

Were I not so annoyed with this man, at the time, I might have noticed how similar to a liturgy was his ritual. Everything he had was before him and holy, and I could tell how difficult it was for him to depart, even this, for a moment.

Why was I annoyed? I reflected on this, later. I was annoyed because I am best with the homeless when I feel I have a home. But this particular day I was very aware of the many parts of me that have no home. In other words, I have kept these parts of me isolated, ostracized, outside, in the cold, the dark, shivering in thin cold rain. I make for these parts beds of cardboard with sheets of plastic, give them scraps of whatever is left over, ignore them altogether if I must, to get through a day. The man before me personified all that is homeless within me and all that I have "constitutionally" kept homeless.

I believe if St. Paul's is to create a long-lasting ministry and program for the homeless, the people involved in it will need to be doing this kind of reflection, and to be prepared for periods of feeling overwhelmed and that nothing is working. Showing up and paying attention is most of the work, in my experience. As my spiritual director says, "Get out of the way."

A couple of days I ago, I saw a woman scavenging cigarette butts near my office. I stood with my annoyance and let her approach me. As I listened to her story, I braced for the "ask," which always comes. And even though I gave her a bit of money to buy her "Real Change" inventory for the day, I hoped in my heart that I had given her much more. I had listened to her for a moment, and she was in relationship to me and I to her, briefly, but I think, importantly.

If I am prepared to admit that I, too, am homeless, my annoyance at The Problem of Homelessness becomes more a practice in recognition rather than charity. While it may appear to be charity on the outside, I feel that it is more like recognition, a kind of homecoming I never would imagine could happen when everything is under control, when I am not unhinged, or when I have not had a bad day. In this way, their dignity becomes my salvation.

jfriddle said...

A week ago, I arrived early at St. Paul's for Monday night's centering prayer practice. I was hungry, so I went to the market across the street for a cup of soup and some crackers.

The day had been difficult. Parts of me were unhinged, wrecklessly blowing in the gray space that corporate work sometimes forms in people.

I got my soup and I found a seat in the "dining area" of the market. Soon, a man I assumed was homeless began what I have seen many times among the homeless in Seattle. He began a ritual settling down in a place that is safe but not quite home.

Can you imagine living this way? Safe but not quite home. Did Jesus live this way? I think he might have. He was, practically speaking, homeless. And he spoke in a way only a minority could understand.

The man began to open his many bags that carried his belongings. A guitar neck protruded from a shopping basket he had co-opted for his purpose. A small amplifier was wedged into a corner of the cart. Some bags contained food, others contained articles of clothing, and others contained yet more bags.

Were I not so annoyed with this man, at the time, I might have noticed how similar to a liturgy was his ritual. Everything he had was before him and holy, and I could tell how difficult it was for him to depart, even this, for a moment.

Why was I annoyed? I reflected on this, later. I was annoyed because I am best with the homeless when I feel I have a home. But this particular day I was very aware of the many parts of me that have no home. In other words, I have kept these parts of me isolated, ostracized, outside, in the cold, the dark, shivering in thin cold rain. I make for these parts beds of cardboard with sheets of plastic, give them scraps of whatever is left over, ignore them altogether if I must, to get through a day. The man before me personified all that is homeless within me and all that I have "constitutionally" kept homeless.

I believe if St. Paul's is to create a long-lasting ministry and program for the homeless, the people involved in it will need to be doing this kind of reflection, and to be prepared for periods of feeling overwhelmed and that nothing is working. Showing up and paying attention is most of the work, in my experience. As my spiritual director says, "Get out of the way."

A couple of days I ago, I saw a woman scavenging cigarette butts near my office. I stood with my annoyance and let her approach me. As I listened to her story, I braced for the "ask," which always comes. And even though I gave her a bit of money to buy her "Real Change" inventory for the day, I hoped in my heart that I had given her much more. I had listened to her for a moment, and she was in relationship to me and I to her, briefly, but I think, importantly.

If I am prepared to admit that I, too, am homeless, my annoyance at The Problem of Homelessness becomes more a practice in recognition rather than charity. While it may appear to be charity on the outside, I feel that it is more like recognition, a kind of homecoming I never would imagine could happen when everything is under control, when I am not unhinged, or when I have not had a bad day. In this way, their dignity becomes my salvation.