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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