A Summer of Unexpected Gifts

Beloved for its connection to presidential history and commended for its top university and cultural milieu, Charlottesville is often recognized for its intellectual sensitivity. A side of Charlottesville unfortunately overlooked by many students and town residents is the population living in or on the edge of poverty. In celebrating the great community of Charlottesville, people are routinely excluded from the visible and acknowledged fabric of our town. This summer, I will explore the creation of intentionally inclusive community and the ethical questions surrounding poverty and social justice in Charlottesville. My days of work and discussion will be sponsored by The Haven.

The Haven is a day shelter for Charlottesville’s homeless and very poor population. Set in a renovated church building just off the downtown mall, the Haven has become a nucleus for gathering, hope, and respite. Every morning, a locally sourced and health conscious breakfast is prepared and served on site in the state-of-the-art industrial kitchen. Besides a hearty meal, the Haven offers laundry, mail, shower, and storage facilities to guests. Staff and volunteers have easy access to service providers, some of whom are housed in upper levels of the building. If a guest comes in needing a clothing voucher, help getting to a domestic violence shelter, or just a spell check on their resume, staff and volunteers are available for guidance and conversation.

Haven-Kitchen

The Haven has an unusual founding story. Most of my friends assumed that the Haven was either religiously funded (I presumed this is due to the history of the building as a church) or an arm of Charlottesville’s social services. Neither is exactly true. The Haven is not religiously affiliated, and works intentionally to be a safe space where all beliefs are welcome. While the City of Charlottesville supports The Haven’s mission, all of The Haven’s funding comes from private grants or donations. Tom Shadyak, a Hollywood producer came to town to film Evan Almighty, saw the need for a homeless shelter and provided the initial funding and renovation for the current building. Opened in January 2010, The Haven has rapidly become a central location to receive vital services and get connected with local service providers.

My internship hours will be a combination of many tasks: working in the kitchen to prepare and serve breakfast, assisting guests with laundry, mail services, and computer tasks, researching grants, learning about HMIS (Homeless Management Information System), supporting the New City Arts Initiative (a local art nonprofit housed and partnered with The Haven – look out for updates on this topic!), and discussing weekly readings with my mentor, Stephen Hitchcock. The first week working here has been magnificent. As a former Haven volunteer, I thought I grasped how everything worked, but I could not have anticipated the degree of thoughtfulness, compassion, and ingenuity among the staff. I am very thankful for this opportunity to learn and to grow within such a supportive and passionate group!

This week, I read two memoirs: Unexpected Gifts, by Christopher Heuertz, and Pilgrimage of a Soul, by Phileena Heuertz. While quite different in approach, the two books spoke to the importance of regarding our fellow humans in a way untainted by expectation or prejudice. As one can imagine, issues of respect and simple acknowledgment are potent questions in working with the homeless. Why do we feel uncomfortable engaging with homeless individuals? How does encountering a panhandler make us feel—guilty, annoyed, saddened, apathetic, intrigued? How does the person asking for money or help perceive the passerby? What can we do to bring these seemingly disparate worlds together? Why is this even important?

When I explain my summer internship to friends, the response is predictable: “Wow, I bet that is so rewarding!” All too often, volunteer work is perceived as self-sacrificing and a noble affirmation of one’s goodness and compassion. I find this view problematic. While well meaning, the presumption of a reward gained by working on behalf of the underprivileged identifies these people as tools for our self-affirmation. In his book, Unexpected Gifts, Chris Heuertz speaks to the necessity to regard one another without selfishness. He writes, “Whether unconsciously or intentionally, we exploit [the served community] by taking advantage of their poverty for either our personal formation and discipleship or to make ourselves feel good” (127). It is so easy to glorify the self-sacrifice of the work, yet we are actually sacrificing nothing. Indeed, the greatest “reward” we derive from volunteer work is the engagement with our fellow human beings. Regarding one another, the creation of friendships, and strengthening the ties within our immediate community by learning about one another are the truer rewards.

If we invest real time in creating personal relationships, there are only more things to learn. Victoria, one of the artists in residence at the Haven, leads a weekly art session with the guests. Her vision for creation of community through inclusive art is captured in the latest art project, an ink painting created by the many hands of whoever chooses to participate. When I introduced myself to Victoria and told her I wanted to join her session, she was a bit skeptical. She spoke seriously of how many well-meaning volunteers she has seen, arriving bright eyed and full of passion for serving the underprivileged, only to abruptly depart, citing disappointment at the deliberate speed of the “process.” Victoria spoke to an important truth about the creation of community: you can’t will perfect community into being because you think you know the way. A rich community is grown over time, as personal histories are laced together to create common ground and trust between members.

We need not live by Henri Nouwen’s third lie of the unknown self: “I am what others think of me” (C. Heuertz 98). Ultimately, we must live by how mutually engaging our relationships become, for “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy” (1 Corinthians 12:26).