Thursday, October 17, 2013

Finding Ministry in the Streets

What holds me separate?

My first night sleeping on the streets of Long Beach I felt the separateness deeply. I walked up and down Pine Ave, looking into restaurants and bars where people with money sat at tables sparkling with glasses and plates full of food, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Somehow, the fact that I chose to allow the window to come between us for that week didn’t reduce my loneliness. I had hung out at a park outside the library that afternoon, hoping to make a friend, but no conversation got much beyond “Hello,” and certainly didn’t get to an invitation to camp out on the streets with someone, as I had hoped. So I walked alone between the worlds of the street, where I came to be, and the tourist, which is how I came to be there. That night I made my bed out of a sheet of cardboard hidden in a bush beside a bank and lay there alone thinking of all those I loved until I fell asleep.

I was there for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual General Assembly, getting to know the streets in preparation to lead a Street Retreat for conference participants, and fulfilling a vow I made four years earlier to sleep on the street if I ever returned to the Assembly. In the four years since making that vow  to myself, I had encountered the Faithful Fools, and made a practice of Street Retreats in San Francisco.

This practice of spending time in reflection on the streets for a day or a week revealed to me, again and again, aspects of the reality of poverty in the midst of wealth and wealth in the midst of poverty. I was learning to engage what I encountered on the street, in the soup lines, in others, and myself as a mirror. As I was learning to see myself in that mirror, I found the distance between my recognizing a need and acting to meet it shortening. Of course I would do what I could to make this practice available to my fellow UUs gathering from around the country. Even if it meant sleeping alone on the streets of a strange city?

I woke early in the morning, returned my cardboard to the dumpster where I had found it, and waited outside a church to get breakfast. The guy next to me in line struck up a conversation. “Where are you from?” he asked. His name was Perry. We ate together, came back a couple hours later to get a bag of groceries, and hung out at the library park. He invited me to join him that night in the shelter he stayed in, and paid my fare for the 45 minute streetcar ride into Watts – there were no homeless shelters in Long Beach at that time. He introduced me to his friends, and showed me the ropes at the shelter. Perry and I swept the floor together while the other men hung out smoking and talking in the yard. That night, the guy in the bunk next to mine told me he was stuck on the street for three more days, waiting to collect on a $50,000 legal settlement, and had three dollars to get him through till then. I said I thought it would be tough to have to wait like that. He said “It may rain pennies tomorrow.” I slept better that night.

What keeps me separate?

I was worried about telling Perry what I was doing on the streets of Long Beach, so I waited until right before I had to go to the convention center to register. He said he appreciated what I was trying to do, but I still felt caught in between worlds again – especially when a police car drove up while I was sitting on the steps talking to other friends there for the convention and asked me to leave. The officer quickly decided it was okay for me to be there, after I showed him my conventioneer’s badge.

I spent each night out on the streets, eating free meals served in local churches or parks, and spent my days in the convention center, sharing my experiences of life on the streets of Long Beach in the Assembly’s workshops, booths, and halls. My schedule at the convention became dictated by soup kitchen hours, and my time on the streets was defined by an urgency to get back to for a workshop or presentation. I never ran into Perry again that week.

What still connects me?

I felt grounded by the support of the community of Unitarian Universalists I met with each day, and began to feel like I was in the streets not just for myself, but as an extension of our collective desire to participate in needed societal change. I felt like an embodiment of the connection between what happened in the  world outside the convention center and the conversations and decision-making that went on inside.

At the end of the week, we held the one-day Street Retreat. A small group of Fools and other convention-goers took off their badges crossed the boundaries of the convention center maps to discover the humanity they hold in common with the residents of Long Beach’s streets. Our walking spelled out the words of the Fools’ mantra: “What holds us separate? What keeps us separated? As we walk the streets, what still connects us?” Together, we made the walls of the convention center, and of our own hearts, more permeable. I returned home changed by the week’s experiences.

We enroll in street level learning when we invite chance to dictate the curriculum, step out of the identities of student and teacher, and study the textbooks of ourselves and each other. When I go into the streets, I no longer can pretend to control what will happen, or who I will meet. I do not get to choose who I will learn from, or who will learn from encountering me. If we embrace the experience available to us, we can be changed by our learning. By sharing our experiences, we expand our circle of learning.

What would you learn in a day, a week, or a regular practice of walking the streets in reflection?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Weaving the Purple Web

Originally written for the Faithful Fools' monthly e-newsletter.

Kay Jorgensen beginning a Street Retreat
“My name is Alex, and walking the streets is my spiritual practice.” “My name is Amber. I’ve helped in soup kitchens with my school, and I want to see what it’s like to eat in one.” “My name is Hideki. I want to see how life on the streets is different in your country.” “My name is Maria. I’m kinda nervous, but I trust my teacher when he says this will be a good experience.” “I’m Hannah. Our group came to San Francisco to volunteer. I’m looking forward to reflecting on what we’ve been doing.”

We start each Street Retreat by introducing ourselves, and how we came to be on Retreat that day. As each of us presents ourselves, we toss a purple ball of yarn across the circle to the next participant. A beautiful web is woven between participants’ hands, as we build tangible connections with each other.

People of all sorts, from all over the world have joined the web in our fifteen years of retreating into the streets. In just this past year, we have walked the streets with: eighth-graders from a girls’ school in Oakland, Unitarian Universalist teens coming of age in the Pacific Central District, a UCC youth group from Boston, high-schoolers from a continuation school in Hayward, college students from St. John’s/ St. Ben’s in Minnesota, Pacific U in Oregon, U.C. Merced, University of San Francisco, and Tokyo, Japan, as well as the myriad people who join us on the third Saturday monthly.

This past month, we also hosted a Street Retreat in Portland, in collaboration with the Heart of Wisdom Zen Community, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland, and the Sisters of the Road Cafe. Five of us retreated that day - some were experiencing streets in their city in a new way, others of us experienced the difference between a day on Portland’s streets and our own here in San Francisco. I greatly appreciate getting to witness, first hand, innovative programs like the Sisters of the Road, where food is served cafe-style to guests who pay as little as $1.50 or provide volunteer service for their meal, or Right To Dream Too, a houseless community who work together to provide a dry resting place for up to 90 people on a formerly empty lot downtown. Extending the web into other communities through the Hometown Street Retreat program allows us to share ideas and experience and continue learning from each other. We have hosted Retreats in Sacramento, Bakersfield, Long Beach, Richmond, CA, Portland, Detroit, Fort Worth, St. Louis, Ft. Lauderdale, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Managua.

A Street Retreat in Managua, Nicaragua
The purple web, and the connection it represents, is reassuring as we prepare to walk out into the unknown of a day on the streets. By now, it connects us to over 4,000 people who have made Street Retreats with the Faithful Fools; it also connects us to those who will Retreat in the future - possibly thousands of more people! As I reflect on our society’s major failings, such as homelessness, addiction, poverty, war, discrimination, violence, and climate change, I am buoyed by the recognition of these thousands of allies who have joined us in reflection on the streets.

This purple web is a great foundation for us to continue to build our community upon.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Last week, while we were introducing ourselves at the beginning of Bible study, we were asked to talk about our experience with being saved. Before I got my turn, I heard a commotion downstairs in the lobby. I went down to see what was happening. One of our guests was upset because someone had closed the door and locked it while he was smoking a cigarette, denying him access to his things. I tried to talk to him about different reasons that might have happened, hoping to explain that it was not necessarily someone acting against him. He was pretty sure they were, or that at least they were testing him.
As we were discussing the whats and whys of the incident, someone approached the glass double-doors, knocked and, almost as if a part of the same act of my opening the door to her, reached their arm in and handed me a blueberry pie, saying "this is for you guys."
Like that, our conversation in the lobby shifted to how we would share this pie, who would get the plates and forks, and how we would enjoy it together. As Kay Jorgensen said, years ago, "one simple act of compassion can end a war or feed a stranger."
We were saved, and I still had time left to tell the story at bible study!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Welcoming Presence

Originally written for the Just Lutheran Blog.

Welcome’s mission statement reads:

“Welcome seeks to provide a faithful response to poverty and to improve the quality of life for individuals in our community by providing: hospitality; education; food; and referrals for housing, health care and drug and alcohol treatment.”

Living out this mission in the context of the meals Welcome provides on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday evenings requires presence. In his book “Living Presence,” Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski calls presence “the quality of being there.” This means an attention to the food we prepare and serve: Is it healthy? Is it tasty? Would those serving it be pleased to eat it? Will there be enough for all the guests? It means an attention to ourselves, to continue our process of learning together: What do I notice about the volunteers? The guests? Which of my assumptions turn out to be wrong? How might I have done that better? In an ever-changing landscape of services, the ability to provide referrals requires ongoing attention to what is available, as well as attention to those we are referring: What are the new resources? What resources are gone? How do the referrals turn out? Which providers might be easy for which people to work with?

Hospitality, out of everything we attempt to provide at Welcome, requires the most presence. Real hospitality is presence, and is the core value that underlies all that we do. Our guests can taste the care the cooks put into the food we serve. Guests and volunteers return to our meals again and again – some can be counted on to be there almost every night – because the connections formed are real, and those connections are the reason, beyond the food, that we all are there. When we show up, no matter how we are feeling that day, we open the door to relationship and the mutual transformation it invites.

At a recent meal, a guest asked for a new garbage bag to replace the one he was carrying his things in, which was full of holes. These kinds of things are among what we attempt to provide – we do not have a “garbage bag program” and aren’t prepared to hand out bags to everyone who comes to our meals, but if an individual has a need, we attempt to meet it. A few minutes later, a volunteer came looking for a mop, as someone had lost control and made a huge mess in the bathroom. The guest who had just gotten a garbage bag quickly spoke up: “if you give me the mop and bucket, I’ll clean it.” This was an easy offer to accept. Once the mess was cleaned, our helpful guest said “hey man, you helped me out, so I helped you.” Sometimes it is that simple.

As it turned out, this story was not over yet. Three days later, this same guest came to Welcome again, this time to ask a difficult question: “I know drinking is bad for me, but I don’t want to stop drinking – how can I stop drinking?” My experience is that the transformative power of relationship comes through how we help each other see ourselves differently. By this guest asking me for help handling their addiction, I was invited to see myself as someone who can help another person in their struggle with addiction – and being asked made me feel good. Similarly, I imagine that the act of volunteering to help out with the cleaning might have given our guest a different view of himself – maybe only slightly different, but something changed enough that he chose that week to ask for help with his addiction.

These simple, but sometimes profound, actions and reactions don’t require great skill, knowledge, or training to bring about. You don’t have to be someone special, or at least not someone more special than yourself, to participate in personal transformation. You do have to be present. Fortunately, that is something all of us can do – right?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Accompanying Franklin Street

Originally written for the Just Lutheran Blog.

“Your money would be much better spent supporting the Faithful Fools in their work than hiring a security guard.” I did not expect to hear that sentiment expressed by a police captain. It was a great affirmation, and a reminder that we have allies in unexpected places.

It was 2004, and Kay Jorgensen and I were meeting with representatives of the T.V. station, the Catholic Archdiocese, the Longshoreman’s Union, and the condominiums which share a block of Franklin Street with the Unitarian Universalist Church. One of the condo residents had called a series of meetings to address what they saw as a growing problem of homeless panhandlers on their street. What they saw as a problem, Kay and I had come to know as Bruce, Jay, Johnny, and T.

They spent most nights sleeping on the steps of the church or some section of sidewalk in the vicinity, and Bruce, Jay, and Johnny spent their days begging for change. None of us knew their whole stories: how they ended up on the streets, who their families were, what they were like as children, what experiences or decisions might have led them to this point in their lives, or what their dreams were.

The neighborhood group did end up hiring a security guard for about a year, and Kay and I - along with other Fools - continued to get to know these four men, and help them out here and there - sometimes with a couple of dollars, or a hospital visit, a trip to the welfare office or drug treatment center, or a phone call to their mom.

As time went on, each of them made great changes in their life circumstances. Johnny reconnected with his mom, moved to Texas and, with the help of physical therapy, got out of his wheelchair and started walking again. T found his way to the top of a housing waiting list, and moved indoors. Bruce broke free of his addiction to heroin, was approved for Social Security Disability (including a 9-year retroactive payment), got a brand new apartment, a motorcycle, got married, and adopted a dog from the SPCA before succumbing to a chronic illness and dying in 2009.

Finally, Jay received word this month that he, too, has been approved for Social Security. Over the past eight years, we have gone to countless doctors’ appointments and meetings at the county welfare office, written letters of support, passed on phone messages, helped stay in touch with family, been there to hear good and bad news, gratefully received volunteer energy, and done our best to be faithful friends.

These men’s stories  - or any of ours - aren’t over yet. There will be more meetings, appointments, good and bad news, and friendship, and the effects they’ve had on our lives and others’ will continue, even beyond death. The on-going relationship is why we are here, and it is in moments like these we are invited to remember to celebrate what we have done together.

In each of our interactions with a world that is not quite how we wish it were, we have a choice to distance ourselves from the discomfort, by doing something like hiring a security guard, or to move toward the discomfort and through trying to understand, open the door to healing. In this new year, the story of our friends on Franklin St strengthens my resolve to enter into relationship, rather than to call on my own inner security guard* to help keep me separate.

*No offense to the many caring security personnel I have encountered who use genuine relationship as a tool to do their job.
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