An Open Door

Thinking ahead to the end of the summer, I chose to save Eberhard Arnold’s short piece, “Why We Live in Community” as a summative reading, suitable for a reflective last week on the job. Arnold’s essay is accompanied by two discussions by Thomas Merton, a 20th century Catholic theologian (and one of my favorite thinkers). Arnold writes that community is animated by God’s triumph of love over death (and the great hope this implies), which in turn is enacted by ordinary people. Ever the practical and deliberate thinker, Merton interprets Arnold’s words for the modern context, calling for a renewed commitment to faith in the power of the collective. This quote from Arnold, which I think best represents my education on the value of community, is worth repeating in full:

Community life is possible only in this all-embracing Spirit and in those things it brings with it: a deepened spirituality and the ability to experience life more keenly and intensely. Surrendering to the Spirit is such a powerful experience that we can never feel equal to it. In truth, the Spirit alone is equal to itself. It quickens our energies by firing the inmost core – the soul of the community—to white heat. When this core burns and blazes to the point of sacrifice, it radiates far and wide. Community life is like martyrdom by fire: it means the daily sacrifice of all our strength and all our rights, all the claims we commonly make on life and assume to be justified. In the symbol of fire the individual logs burn away so that, united, its glowing flames send our warmth and light again and again into the land. (14)

The meat of my summer work is now behind me, and this week is full of reflection and transition. To live well in community necessitates the sharpening of my life perspectives, and becoming more attuned to the state of the world. It means becoming emotionally keyed in to the delicate fluctuations of other community members, and learning to read the ambiguous and fluid moods of a group. This summer has seared in me a new type of insight and a new lens through which to see the world. This may sound a bit corny and contrite, but it is true. These new realizations are seared in the Light of the Spirit.

The big question I face now is, where do I go from here?

The “white heat” of community is the new sharpened focus I bring to my work and understanding of the world. Work becomes urgent and direct. Each action has a purpose and reaction. “White heat” seems appropriate because of how clarifying this new lens is. Presuppositions of privilege and what normative, human life should be have been burned back to expose unalienable needs. Human desires for security, trust, affection, and belonging—these gifts of grace are what I have found most indivisible and most precious. The white heat of this loving and inclusive community has burned away all excess claims I thought people were somehow born with to reveal true joy of life. Homelessness and poverty are still serious issues, and are not problems to be glamorized. The right to dignified shelter and the ability to self-determine the course of one’s life should never be left unresolved. Yet in this complexly knit group of people, reality was pared down to the bareness of love. The individual logs burn away so that the core of the fire becomes clear. The secret of community lies in the power of free choice, the individual choice to walk towards God’s unity; “it becomes life’s most vital and intense energy” (22).

After ten weeks at the Haven, my perspective on the world is profoundly different. I would even say that this summer will turn out to be a defining moment in my life. My time at the Haven has “messed up” the tidy plans I had for myself for a neat and step-by-step academic future. Life feels too urgent and too immediate to live separately from a community in need; I feel “antsy” considering any career path that would isolate me from the parts of life that are harder to face. How can I focus my intellect and energy on anything besides aiding the needy when there is such a desperate call for aid and attention? I found myself feeling desperate, lost, and slightly overwhelmed at the hugeness of something like poverty. Even if I commit my life to imitating the work of Mother Theresa, how will I know that I have made a difference? In other words, in what way will I measure the success of my life? Speaking this worry aloud to a mentor, a good friend, and a parent helped me realize how unnecessary this worry is. I was forgetting one of the main themes I have afforded so much thought: relationality. A career path or a specified graduate degree will not pigeonhole me into any kind of life, nor will it prevent me from engaging in a community as an authentic and compassionate participant.

As one actor, I am not integral to the community. The Spirit alone is equal to itself. My departure will not break the community. Yes, I have learned more than I thought possible this summer. The friendships I have formed at the Haven will sustain me through the next year, and fortunately, I can continue to grow within and by them over the coming Charlottesville seasons. However, I am not the most important thing that has ever happened to the Haven, but am one spoke that helped turn a great wheel for a little while. A serendipitous look into another Thomas Merton collection unearthed this quote from his journal composed on a pilgrimage through Asia: “Such is the door that ends all doors: the unbuilt, the impossible, the undestroyed, through which all the fires go when they have ‘gone out.”’[i] My light has not “gone out” upon departure from the Haven’s daily world, but will be burning with me in every angle by which I now better understand the gifts God hands me every morning upon waking. The door has not closed.

Working a breakfast shift in the Haven's kitchen


[i] The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, 1973. Pages 154-155.

Open Friendship in a Closed Relationship

Perhaps every writer is inexplicably surprised when their work is actually read, but I did not expect this blog to reach as wide of an audience as it has. Following last week’s blog on fatherhood, the link to this blog (shared only once by me) began to circulate amongst the Haven guests. Happily, the response was uniformly positive and one of excitement, but this has raised some important questions for me. Even in the anonymous blog world I am not entirely separate from my summer work. At the request of a guest, I gave out my blog link. It seemed like a flattering request at the time, and I was eager to share my thoughts and experiences with them in a different light. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the link spread. This week has become an exercise in exploring boundaries and connections set up between myself and the Haven guests with whom I work.

The most apparent theme weaving all my readings together is the theme of relationality, and the ability of authentic, personal relationships to effect change. People in crisis can see right through false intentions. The effort to build and maintain personal relationships also seems to be a central theme in the work of my intern colleagues, Reilly and Kate. Their wonderful posts include references to creating trust and friendship with those they serve, and all three of us acknowledge the difficulty of creating, nurturing, and maintaining these relationships in the short span of a summer internship. With the desire to create these authentic relationships, the thought of consciously applying boundaries and limitations to these relationships seems incongruent, yet this is where I have found myself.

Encouraged by my last post, in which he was featured, my new friend R poured his heart out to me this past week. He told me the entire tale of his years on the road, crisscrossing the continental United States from west to east. His voice and stories spoke yearningly of acceptance and affirmation—and most essentially—security. At the heart of this monologue was R’s desire to find a romantic partner who would support and comfort him. The direction of the conversation was predictable. At the conclusion of his monologue, he asked me to give him a chance and go on a date. Naturally, this is not territory I can enter as part of my internship and education in relationality. Heart sinking, I had to explain that I couldn’t engage with him the way he was asking me to. All I could do was be somewhat of a professional friend: be a supporter and cheerleader in the evolution of his life, but resolutely on the sideline. My unwillingness to engage R in a romantic relationship is, I believe, an occupational hazard of being a listening ear to people craving stability. As a Haven staff member put it, the talker tends to perceive a kind listener as a revolutionary way to access healthy romantic relationships—the kind of model with which they may be unfamiliar. For my own wellbeing, I have had to maintain a professional distance from the men that I serve. In theory, this is far from ideal because it technically means that am creating conscious distance between me and those with whom I wish to relate. For me, staying safe in my relationship building is the opposite of radical hospitality; it is selective and limited. And if building relationships is the best way forward to healing, what am I doing putting up barriers?

In his book, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, Peter Slade discusses the need for a barrier-less theology of friendship. If we wish to break down long standing social and religious barriers, he argues, we should take inspiration from Jürgen Moltmann’s theology, which calls for the emulation of radical and indiscriminate friendship demonstrated by Christ’s life. Moltmann harnesses the power of hope inherent within potential friendship and the hope actualized within the body of friendship. Inspired by the contemporary political and racial climate of the United States, Peter Slade adopts Moltmann’s call for open friendship in context of racial reconciliation in contemporary Mississippi. Slade’s book studies Mission Mississippi, a statewide Christian initiative that aims to promote social progress by nurturing individual friendships among religious people of different races. Slade quotes British theologian Liz Carmichael: “Where walls of division have been put up, we should ask ourselves and the others: what do friends do together? And start doing these things at every level” (187).

I want to create open friendships, but don’t know how to navigate my role as a professional (or semi-professional); I am the intern emulating a service provider role. I do feel that I have created authentic relationships with people at the Haven this summer. I truly do feel that I have reached the point of trust and openness with many guests that they have little hesitation confiding in me or reacting to my presence. I’m not sure how to reconcile this necessity for professionalism and call for friendship. In terms of what “friends do together,” my days are filled with conversation with guests at the Haven, but our lives part when we leave the Haven campus. We do not go out to eat and I do not invite anyone to my home. Should I? Much of the reading I have done this summer seems to suggest that I need to open my home and life to those in need to be fully engaged in theological change. I struggle with feeling that this is the best way for me to engage.

For Slade’s purpose, the “friendship” is literal, as Mission Mississippi calls for white southerners and African-Americans to form authentic, personal bonds over a common theology. My interpretation of Moltmann’s theology of friendship is closer to Slade’s application. This summer, I have worked among and alongside people I normally would not encounter in my “normal” social reality. Unlike Mission Mississippi and Peter Slade, I consistently struggle with being completely open and available to those I wish to serve. As I will remain in Charlottesville for at least another year, I have the unique ability to continue these relationships once the summer is over. It is my hope that the balance between professionalism and friendship will become easier to navigate when I am out of semi-staff position and can focus on connecting to Haven guests as a fellow community member with less conditional strings attached.

A snapshot of the artist studio at the Haven. Photo credit: Haven website www.thehavenatfirstandmarket.org

 

 

Thoughts on Fatherhood

Fatherless families have an unfortunate association with poverty and homelessness. Although an uncomfortable reality, popular culture tells us that poor or homeless families are not as likely to remain intact (i.e. all young children with two parents). The stereotype of the deadbeat dad permeates our understanding of the reality homeless children experience. A good portion of the Haven’s guests are single men, as in unaccompanied. The “single” does not necessarily mean they are unmarried. Many Haven guests are parents, even if their children are not, physically, in their daily lives. But just because their children are not with them at the Haven, in Charlottesville, or even Virginia, does not mean those children are not constant realities in their lives and minds.

Fatherhood is a curious topic at the Haven. We see new fathers made every month, as young men discover they have a baby on the way, and we hear stories of children left behind in another town or another life. A few recent conversations have made me think that the longing of fathers to be beloved by their children is an insatiable need that only intensifies with absence.

The warm, summer months are good for traveling and living outdoors, and the Haven has seen an upswing in the number of travelers visiting with us. The transient population is far smaller than the familiar faces of Charlottesville’s homeless I have come to know. Travelers are usually young, probably not too far from my own age, many speaking of journeying across the country to disappear. Others are eager to get home.

One of these new summer faces was R, who arrived at the Haven with his travel companion hoping to get directions and bus fare to the Social Security Administration Veteran Affairs Regional Office where he could fill out paperwork to get his veteran ID card and sign up for veterans benefits. When I thanked him for his service, he started to cry. R rolled up his sleeves to show me two matching tattoos on each forearm with the names of his children inked in newsletter script. R explained that in New Mexico, earlier this summer, someone mugged him on the road and stole his new backpack containing his laptop and most of his money. He said,

“I could have gone after him. I could have fought back. I had an eight inch Army knife with me, but I knew I couldn’t do that – couldn’t risk being in trouble, even for self defense. I need to get back to my kids in Oregon and I can’t do that locked up. I have to get my benefits, get a job, make some money that I can send back to them so they know how much I love them and that I’m not a dead beat like those other guys. You know, their mom and me, we just didn’t get along. It’s not their fault.”

Another man in his thirties, an artist, told me his whole summer plan revolved around getting back to Waynesboro to be close to his three young kids. The only reason he was in Charlottesville, thirty minutes away from home, was because his job at a construction company paid so well during the summer rush. A phone the call the night before our conversation had cut his construction plans short; an eight year old boy asking his dad not to miss his upcoming baseball game was the linchpin that convinced this particular guest that working three 14-hour days a week in Charlottesville with a weekly commute was better than working five 8-hour days and no kids. Yet another young man, M, told me his daughter’s mother got a court order against him after M threatened the new boyfriend in her life. M said he was infuriated that another guy was “pretending to be [his] daughter’s dad.” A few minutes later, M called me over to the computer to show me pictures of his daughter playing with stuffed animals. Given that M admitted that he has a violent history, maybe the mother’s protective order wasn’t completely unwarranted. But the only time I saw him smile was when I asked him about his daughter, and the eyes with the teardrop tattoos crinkled with delight.

There is an immense, perhaps desperate desire to prove their love as fathers, either with monetary support or by lashing out at others they fear will take their place. These men are heartbroken with love over separation from their children. There is, of course, the foil father figure to these anecdotes. There is the father who owes $125,000 in back child support for eight unpaid years and five children, or the one who leaves town upon discovering his girlfriend is pregnant. So, what does “family,” or at least caring for one’s children, mean in this variable context? In Shane Claiborne’s immensely exciting book, Irresistible Revolution, he calls upon Christians to construct family in the way Jesus did, by leaving behind societal and familial attachments as a demonstration of the willingness to craft a new community. Claiborne quotes Mark 10:29-31:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life….And there is also an omission from the second list: fathers. As we are reborn, we leave our biological families. Now we have sisters and brothers and mothers all over the world. And yet the omission of fathers is consistent with Christ’s teacher in Matthew that we should call no one father but God (23:9). In an age in which fathers were seen as the lifeline of the family, the seemingly indispensable authority and providential centerpiece, this statement is God’s final triumph over patriarchy (174-5).

I always prefer to think that Jesus didn’t command his disciples to totally renounce and sever bonds with their families at home (though in a world without Skype and email, it would have been challenging to stay in touch!), but rather expand their notions of immediate family to include essentially the whole world. In another chapter, Claiborne writes, “Rebirth is about being adopted into a new family—without borders. With new eyes, we can see that our family is both local and global, including but transcending biology, tribe, or nationality, a renewed vision of the kin-dom of God” (200). I think this is the key to sustaining familial bonds across time and distance. For some guests, the Haven is their family. For others, friends made on the streets become dear brothers and sisters. The Haven family invites anyone to be a member; it doesn’t matter if they have another, biological family far away or if all they know are brothers and sisters from the Charlottesville streets. In a theological sense, we are all loved by the same Father, making us part of the same family. Claiborne writes, “we are made in the image of a God who is community, a plurality of oneness” (134). Fatherhood may be an imminent concern for some male guests, or it may be only a memory of a distant relationship, something absent from their daily vocabulary. In God’s plurality–His life in every man and child—fathers, sons, and daughters are still connected.

Shane Claiborne is all about relationality, and the radical togetherness and interdependence required of a justly Christian community.[i] Fathers separated from their children by unhappy choice or circumstance may use the Haven as a place to express grief and to cry out for forgiveness. With their explanations of why they had to leave and reiterations that they are “not that kind of deadbeat dad,” they ask the listener to affirm that they themselves are not unlovable. Other fathers may use the Haven as a place to create new family that knows nothing of the old. We are all looking for a home. We are all sons and daughters of the same community, united by kinship that may seem accidental. Truly, it is not.

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[i] I found Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution, particularly inspirational in its unexpected coalescence of the work done by all the summer PLT interns. Reilly’s work at the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina and Kate’s partnership with the Catholic Worker Movement in England contribute to two specific initiatives happily discussed by Claiborne.

Reconciled Space

When Tom Shadyac purchased the Haven’s building in 2007 for $2.15 million, the building was just like any other traditional, Southern church. Formerly known as the First Street Church, the historic church building was renovated and transformed into a new kind of community-gathering site for TJACH (Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless) and its clients. Like many downtown Charlottesville buildings, the old First Street Church building has lived through many political and social ages. The current building is recorded to have been built in 1920 (City Records), but one Haven guest I spoke with said his grandparents attended the church during early Reconstruction. The guest, Mr. B., spoke of his own childhood attending the church, where he recalled being frightened by the “spitting and yelling of brimstone and Hell,” but how the non-denominational church taught him to take religion seriously. That congregation relocated to a building in Keswick, a rural hamlet six miles from Charlottesville and known for its vineyard and idyllic farms.

As a double major in Religious Studies and Art History, I am constantly fascinated by how the architectural and visual shape of the space we inhabit informs how we feel and what we believe. Even following extensive renovation after TJACH’s acquisition, the space of the Haven resonates slightly out of tune between its original, liturgical context and its modern purpose. The Sanctuary is used by the Haven as a place of quiet contemplation and relief from the hubbub of the Day Haven. Community groups can also rent out the space for weddings, concerts, and events. It is a place where many voices join together in silence and in discussion. The interior space is exquisitely lovely, covered in stained glass windows and stately pews. The balcony in the back of the Sanctuary has an unspoken history; this is where the African American congregants sat during services.

The small staircase leading up to the Haven’s sanctuary balcony seating.

 

The upper deck is accessible only by a very narrow staircase on the right hand of the foyer. Worshippers using the staircase to get to their seats would not have even entered the main space of the sanctuary or touched a pew. The relegation to this secondary space denied tactile access to the sanctified space. Congregants seated in the rear balcony have a great view of the rafters, but could not easily access the altar or choir. People sitting behind and above the congregation seated on the ground level would have been intentionally out of eyeshot. Today, the balcony is only used for roof access and to hang decorations. Events or gatherings held in the sanctuary have one seating option: all people together. In its contemporary use, the Haven’s sanctuary has been more than integrated; it has become a reconciled space. Once a mark of social hierarchy, the building now architecturally expresses the constant effort of restoring hope and the reconciliation of the invisible with the public. In its current state, the Haven’s public gathering space is just a more perfect expression of the wholeness innate in beloved community.

View from the balcony seating. The hung images are part of an ongoing photography festival in Charlottesville.

View from the balcony seating. The hung images are part of an ongoing photography festival in Charlottesville.

When the building was renovated in 2007, a four-story annex was added to house service-provider and Haven staff offices. This architectural update purposefully expounded upon the Haven’s collaborative atmosphere and made philosophy of community concrete in its bricks. The upstairs office room, where Haven staff call home base, is one open room surrounded with windows with vista views of Charlottesville proper. Each staff person has his or her own desk (until a certain summer intern needs to borrow a table) in this communal room. The openness facilitates pithy conversation, musical and intellectual musings, and presents the staff as a unified team to anyone who walks up the stairs looking for guidance. The redesigned spaces of the Haven’s building embody a healthy “confluence of optimisms,” a phrase Charles Marsh borrows from John Howard Yoder in his explanation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s formation of beloved community in the segregated American South (49).[i] MLK’s “confluence of optimisms” is the fortuitous meetings of the “kingdom of God…[and] the American dream,” and the aims of the Haven are not too different (49). All who visit and work with the Haven pursues the restoration of hope in self-sufficiency, wholeness and economic stability.

Unity is a happy byproduct, if not crucial element, of beloved community. By creating an open space, both physically and in philosophy, the Haven creates space for healing and resolution. By transforming the old First Street Church building into a community center, the Haven fosters an experiential and potent vitality Marsh describes in Clarence Jordan’s theology. An open workspace for staff and a purposefully integrated sanctuary space invites “experiences that are often more formative than participation in the sacraments” (59).

One of the main beneficial elements of maintaining an open and unified space is a suppression of latent violence. The Haven is a low-barrier shelter, meaning anyone in any (non-violent) state is able to walk in off the street in search of respite and support. Guests are not required to navigate a screening process or pass through metal detectors. Instead of imposing limits and strict guidelines to receive care, guests and staff voluntarily maintain an atmosphere of mutuality and trust. In a historic parallel, Marsh illustrates King’s developing sense of place for coercion in enacting political and social reform. Niebuhr, who argued, “coercion was a practical necessity in view of the collective selfishness of groups” became untenable with King’s later tendencies to change by example and nonviolent guidance (26). MLK felt the stirrings of nonviolent necessity when his parsonage was bombed in January of 1956. MLK calmed the tense crowd with a call to forgiveness and patience, urging his supporters not to resort to retaliation, but continue to extend hands of peace and friendship: King said, “The spirit of God was in our hearts, and the night that seemed destined to end in unleashed chaos came to a close in a majestic group demonstration of nonviolence” (38). As a low barrier shelter, the possibility for unleashed chaos is not absent from the Haven. However, the visiting crowds of guests and volunteers are committed to peace and coexistence. The thoughtfully-designed open spaces of the Day Haven, the unfettered access to staff, a beautiful sanctuary welcome to all, and a collaborative workspace produce a sense of architectural wholeness and a clear invitation for the formation of peaceful community.

“While the church as a worshipping community exists for the specific purpose of confessing, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord, the beloved community quietly moves from its historical origins into new and unexpected shapes of communion and solidarity” (208). Marsh refers to the abstract church, but I believe this statement applies to one tangible church architecturally converted into a space for collaboration and radical unity on the corner of First and Market.


[i] Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Calming Song

As a lover of music and a firm believer in music’s ability to unite and inspire, I write about it quite a bit. For me, music braids a perfume of the divine into my everyday. Everyday life at The Haven is not exactly “easy.” Days can be crisis-filled, emotionally draining, or busy with mitigating conflict and unease. Yet, among these tremulous hours, joy is born in our community. This week I witnessed something extraordinary in the sanctuary.  The transcendent moment I witnessed was a blessing of memory—a reminder that among human hardship there are constant moments of human brilliance.

The Haven sanctuary is usually empty in the afternoon, after sleepy morning-dwellers leave and business for the day picks up around the building. I heard music playing from the office space on the fourth floor, and went down to investigate the sounds coming from the sanctuary. It was a young man in a red t-shirt and black basketball shorts playing the piano. Slightly out of tune, the piano still produces equal amounts of melancholy and joyful tunes. He had taken off one shoe to better use the pedals. The young man was playing a very passionate piece full of chromatic chord progressions and rising crescendos. Fascinated, I sat quietly in the back of the sanctuary and listened to him play, enjoying the late afternoon light filtering through the stained glass windows.

The Haven sanctuary is used for public concerts, like this performance by The Nettles. As I have learned, it can also be a space for personal creation.

At the end of the song, I gently applauded and he turned around, startled: “Geez, where did you come from?” He bolted from the piano bench towards the water fountain, but returned to introduce himself as “S.” Another guest, Mr. F., came up the stairs and asked S. to keep playing. The two of us returned to the pews and respectfully took our front row seats next to the piano. At a close vantage point, I realized with incredulity, that S. was playing only with the three middle fingers of each hand. He had clearly taught himself to play, as no piano teacher would allow a student to play with only six fingers. It became clear that he had also written the song. After the second rendition, S. launched into a rapid fire pace explanation of where the song came from. He explained that he had needed to teach himself to play the piano in order to finish composing a song begun with a good friend, who had passed away last year. S. needed to finish writing the song in honor of this friend.

S. had the unmistakable air of someone with an intellectual disability. The pace of his speech was nearly unintelligible, and it was impossible to make eye contact. I’m not sure S. knew how much he had impressed me with his performance. All day, I raved about this young man’s seemingly genius ability to teach himself a new instrument merely to compose with it. The apparent barrier of an intellectual disability was not a barrier at all, but an obvious revelation of God’s mysterious presence in every day’s reality.

In a parable on handing over a fugitive to the enemy Henri Nouwen quotes: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known” (The Wounded Healer, 26). Nouwen’s reflective, instructive book adamantly teaches that it is impossible to know the secrets of another person’s life until you slow down and concentrate on creating individual relationships. It should not be a mystery that every human life is complex and surprising, but it can be easy to lose track of that micro scale when facing such a sweeping issue as homelessness. It is all too easy to concentrate on the policies, the reform, and the operating life of the Haven. Even on the main floor in the Day Haven space, days can fall into a routine of familiar faces and familiar needs. This experience with S. has taught me to remain open to the miracles of human life happening every day.

Henri Nouwen also writes, “the God within can not only be a source of a new creative life but also the source of a chaotic confusion” (37). I cannot claim to know the intricacies of S.’s mind, but the crafted music he produces seem to indicate a wrestling of a confusing reality into a creative offering. He said he wrote the piece to preserve the legacy of a friend and mentor. I can only imagine the depth of the bond and friendship that inspired S. to learn an entirely new instrument in order to process and honor his friend’s life and death. Life among the poor does not mean a poverty of love and hope. S. was not playing for an audience; he was playing for himself. The contemplative ability of music to quiet the soul and comfort in times of loss was apparent and strikingly glorious. Within the Haven’s bustling world, a young soul creates his own space of calm.

In his guidance on becoming a contemplative leader, Nouwen asks the future Christian leader to “look for signs of hope and promise in the situation in which he finds himself” (45). There is hope in the boy playing his passionate, fervent music. In every individual life, there is revelation of wonder and peace.

“White Girl on the Job”

On one hand, life at the Haven proves that poverty does not discriminate. People in need come from all walks of life, ages, religions and colors. That said, about sixty-five percent of the Haven’s guests are African-American–a majority. Recently, a UVA friend asked me “what it feels like to be the only white girl at my job.” Quite taken aback, I had to explain that not only was this assumption untrue, but it suggested that I am a racial outsider to the community I serve. His comment revealed that many of my UVA peers assume poverty in Charlottesville to be a “black problem,” exclusively affecting one population to the point of rendering me, a white volunteer, totally isolated in the building.

camillehavendeskThe idea that poverty could be simplified into a racial group issue is unfortunately not unique to my misinformed friend. Interestingly, this idea conflicts with the not-uncommon belief that people in poverty can and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to improve their living situations. In their study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith identify this individualistic responsibility as an inheritance of a capitalist economy and, in the religiously political sense, a belief in personal accountability for salvation. The erroneous assumption then is that the inability to own personal accountability just “happens” to disproportionately affect African Americans in the Charlottesville community. Emerson and Smith confront some of the questions of race and poverty I face as a student ambassador between the Haven and the UVA community. For example, why isn’t systematic discrimination addressed for what it is, instead of denying a racialized America? How might faith be used as a catalyst for racial reconciliation?

An interview conducted by Emerson and Smith with Curtiss DeYoung particularly struck me. DeYoung, a white man, attended seminary at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, preached in an all- black congregation in Harlem, New York, and worked in a shelter for runaway youth in Times Square. DeYoung recounts, “I was completely out of my comfort zone the whole time in New York. I said to myself, I need a least an hour or two of comfort. I thought I could find a congregation of my own denomination, and there I would find people like me” (61). I identify with DeYoung. As a fair skinned, blonde college student, I am a poster child for the university world, and not the community with which many Haven guests are comfortable. As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe the novelty of my newness among the staff has shielded me from any outright negativity. The Haven is wholly a supportive and safe space, and significant conflict between staff and guests is uncommon. On the occasion that tensions bubble over and there is an issue, one of the white staff members involved in the conflict will inevitably be called a racist. It is an easy insult, because it immediately distances the two conflicting parties and aims to invalidate any genuine empathy. I do not think that anyone at the Haven is under the impression that racialized society does not exist. Working at the Haven has forced me to admit that our world is not colorblind. One of the most challenging things for me has been to realize that a barrier exists between many of the Haven guests and me, a barrier that I would rather not admit to. However, race isn’t really something that is talked about a lot inside the Haven. Among the staff, discussions on discrimination pertain to issues affecting all groups, such as substance abuse or criminal history.

The complex reality of race in Charlottesville is something I am confronted with more in conversation outside of work hours. Through casual conversation, I find that many of my university peers understand discrimination as an urban, downtown issue separate from our college world. Even when meaning to erase poverty and reconstruct discrimination, it is easier to pretend these systems of inequality do not exist in our own neighborhood. America’s complex history of race relations belies this societal dilemma. Emerson and Smith write, “the early white abolitionists opposed slavery but not racializaion. They were uncomfortable with these strange Africans, and, to put it bluntly, wished them to go away” (29). This nineteenth century attitude is not too different today. People want to erase poverty, but not welcome the impoverished onto their own block. One of Emerson and Smith’s conclusions is that the majority of their study subjects (white evangelical Americans) are willing to consider their congregations and neighborhoods open to integration and support creating personal relationships with members of another race, but resist any initiative that requires impetus on their end. They accept further movement towards inclusive community as appropriate and desirable, but do not wish to do any of the moving. For example, Emerson and Smith do not cite any instances in which a white interviewee said they would prefer to move to a more integrated part of town. UVA students rarely live east of 13th Street NW, lest the interactions with “townies” become too frequent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that the most segregated hour of American life was Sunday morning at 11am. If one believes, as I do, that faith can be a unifying force, the faithful community must advocate not only for equality and acceptance, but unity. There is a significant distinction between equality and unity. In my anecdotal existence, awareness about discrimination is framed as a need for acceptance, tolerance, and equality between all people. Not often (or never) has it been framed as, “what can you do to actively diversify and unify your community?” Ideally, Emerson and Smith write, diverse community carries the pragmatic function of “expos[ing] whites, typically unable to understand or see the depths of racialized society, to a United States seen through the eyes of those experiencing its injustices” (55). Everyday at the Haven, I am getting a full force of education thrown in my face. Everyday carries a unique realization that some part of my life I thought was universal in fact varies for others. The Haven is a unique nucleus where a diverse Charlottesville is unified under an umbrella of need.

In unifying our community, I continue to believe that we cannot deny the self-selection of our social environments. My former professor, Dr. Valerie Cooper, taught her students, “We tend to be drawn to people who look like us when facing big issues like determination of faith or support through hardship.” However, poverty is not exclusive to any one denomination, any one community, or any one race. It is a human issue that must be faced with visions of unity and mutuality, not as a responsibility for one slice of humanity to bear. I am grateful to the many writers, thinkers, and scholars that instill a solid optimism for a deconstruction of racialized America. Emerson and Smith conclude their book with a call for evangelicals (and really, all Christians) to embrace both the creation of individual relationships and the condemnation of debilitating social structures as major actions to deconstruct racism in America.

Faith has a deep power to inspire action and hope. From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights era, religious faith and social movement have been inextricably linked, attesting to the power of faith to demand and realize change. Scripture like Galatians 3:26-29, Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 12:7 and Romans 2:9-11 make it easy to argue for biblical equality among all people. It is not difficult to make the case for increased unity among all people, with the accompanying acknowledgment that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters. There must be more than a simple call to action to alleviate pockets of poverty across town. Working in a very diverse climate of the Haven has been the greatest way for me to confront fallacies on racial poverty and to actively engage (if only at an individual level) in unifying the privileged college bubble with the sphere of Charlottesville. I anxiously await the day when no one will think to call me the “white girl on the job” or identify housing insecurity as a problem inherent in the African-American population, but refer to each neighbor as Brother and Sister.

Cultivating Trust

I came into work today with a sprained ankle and a limp. At The Haven, several guests suffer from chronic leg or back conditions that produce a limp. Two men sport broken bones. This week, I entered the canon of visible injury, provoking a handful of bemused comments: “Girl, who’d you kick this time?” or “We should get matching canes.” Joking aside, I have never had more doors held, chairs fetched, or heavy boxes carried for me than today by Haven guests. While the gestures are kind and make me feel accepted, I feel this also indicates that I am still somewhat of a novelty newcomer. Almost halfway into my summer work, I still float somewhere between semi-anonymous college volunteer and respected staff member. A regular guest, who I’ll call Mr. M., remarked, “They made you come in even with a messed up foot? I guess you don’t like to miss much.” In my mind, this suggested that I am entering the realm of a dependable presence, which, to me, is a major affirmation. Without making coming to work with a hurt ankle a bubblegum martyrdom, vocalized appreciation at my basic presence delights me. After five weeks at the Haven, a new sense of trust is being built.

Now a more familiar face, some of the regular guests have begun to reach out to me. Some suggestions of growing relationships are subtle: a returned “good morning” or head nod where before there was only silence or blank stares, or guests remembering my name for the first time. These small gestures are extremely heartwarming. The big gestures are slightly startling: a mostly disinterested teenage girl greeting me with a wave and a “hey beautiful!” from the window, or an around-the-shoulders hug from another female guest.

Last week, I completed my first solo intake interview, in which a Haven staff member sits down with a new guest to assess their service needs. The man I did the intake for trusted me with the secret ups and downs of his past, his personal dreams, and even his social security number. It is amazing how much people open up to you about their darkest secrets when they think you have the answers. I don’t. I just have a pen and a piece of paper. The powerful trust woven into the intake process reminded me of a confessional: lay all your cards on the table with a stranger in the hopes that they might be able to fix something, or everything.

When most of the Haven staff was occupied with attending a board meeting, they trusted me to open the building and take responsibility for an afternoon desk shift. As the most

As temporary Person In Charge, I was responsible for maintaining the security of these personal storage bins.

As temporary Person In Charge, I was responsible for maintaining the security of these personal storage bins.

junior member of the staff , it was a bit odd to jump up to a major leadership role, even if just for the afternoon. Luckily, there were no catastrophic emergencies, and it was business as usual at the front desk. During my two-hour shift as The One In Charge, I reflected on what it meant to be seen as the primary point of contact for guest needs. Although it was a fairly quiet shift, guests approaching the desk to ask for help in contacting the Social Security office, fast tracking their re-housing applications, or young mothers asking for daycare assistance we couldn’t offer had me thinking, “Camille, you better know what you’re talking about.” Just holding the key to the front door produced a new level of trust in my ability to be of valuable assistance.

One of the best pieces of advice about cultivating trust that I have received so far has been from a service provider with office space in our building:  don’t filibuster. In working with the homeless and vulnerable populations, he said, you must be as direct as possible. “Young lady,” he said, “either you say ‘yes’ or you say ‘no’. Even if it’s not the answer they want to hear, you will be respected.” In the social service world of complicated answers and red tape, direct answers are a relief from the uncertainties of life on the margins. Part of the responsibility of temporarily being The One In Charge is telling adults that no, I don’t have an answer, or no, your iPod speakers cannot be played inside. Frankly, owning that level of direct authority is difficult for me. As a young college student, I struggle not to feel self-conscious of my youth and relative inexperience. For some guests, I worry that it is like their daughter or granddaughter asking them to follow house rules. Chris Haggerty, a staff member, explained to me that being firm and authoritative in resolving guest conflicts actually strengthens the trust in the staff, because resolutely defending the policies of the Haven translates into resolutely defending the rights and dignity of our guests. When a guest knows he or she can trust a staff member to be honest, direct and consistent, Haven staff note that the guest is more likely to engage with the staff and accept that engagement as a positive force in their life.

At the Haven, we strive to be accountable to one another. We must be resolutely accountable to the men, women, and children we serve. This accountability and trust strengthens the possibility of an open, inclusive community. The luxury of being the reacher in social outreach is that the people you serve depend greatly on your dedication. The Haven does not have any market competitors; we are the only day shelter in Charlottesville. It is still the only place to get a nutritious, free breakfast any day of the week. Our guests deserve to have a place they can trust will be able to provide respite and supportive community. We owe it to our guests that they can trust that our doors will be open every day and that volunteers and staff will show up and offer a caring hand. It is an honor to experience a deepening of relational ties that run thick with respect and compassion at the Haven.

Lifting the Veil

Nearly 50 million Americans deal with food insecurity (defined by the consistent lack of access to food that is conducive to a healthy life) every day. Before last Friday, I had never seen the inside of a food bank (or outside, for that matter—Washington suburbs do an excellent job of masking signs of economic crisis). It is not comfortable to admit this. For me (if not for most), it is easier to pretend poverty does not exist in the fruitful world I want to create for myself. It seems an inexhaustible problem: commit to aiding one person’s need, and then release the floodgate of reality–the millions more imploring assistance and advocacy. And I just want to read my book in peace…

Eleis (Haven kitchen manager/staff person/generally wonderful person) and I arrived at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank just prior to a shipment of fresh produce, crates of nectarines, grapefruits, and apples unloaded from eighteen-wheelers. Eleis visits the food bank to shop for food staples not often donated, like fresh produce, that would otherwise have to be purchased using the Haven’s kitchen budget. While there are some surprising finds in the food bins—I didn’t expect to find three hefty packages of gluten-free lemon bar mix—most of the non-perishable items are back-of-the-shelf variety: dented, ripped, discounted, almost-expired.

Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provides sustenance for much of central Virginia, feeding children, men and women among the working poor, homeless, or otherwise in-need populations. We are very lucky in Charlottesville to have the distribution center within our city, as most agencies or individuals collecting food must drive a not-insubstantial distance to pick up a donation. The food bank is housed in a warehouse-type building, with practical concrete floors, fluorescent lighting, and food displayed in deep bins that remind me of the $3 DVD piles at Wal-Mart. There are designated bins for rice and pasta, canned beans, canned vegetables, and baking supplies.

Here, thousands of Virginians are given food on the brink of extinction from the middle-class world, offered to the needy one step before heading to a landfill. The Blue Ridge Food Bank is a great organization, and its affiliates persevere every day to provide the best quality food for the people they serve. Nevertheless, this is the food that is easy to donate. This is the food that no original possessor will miss.

The radical hospitality of The Haven (one of my favorite one-liners from my mentor, Stephen Hitchcock) may need a radical theology. The famous lines from Matthew 25:35-40 might not be enough.[i] This is a universal Bible verse, one that every mission trip and Christian volunteer cites as the inspiration for doing charity. It is a phenomenally important selection, imploring followers to stay attentive to the needs of all humankind. This chapter follows the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, as Matthew 24 ends with a warning to be on your best behavior every day, as you never know when judgment may come.

I am no biblical scholar, but I am more inclined to see The Haven’s work through the lens of Douglas John Hall, a 20th century Canadian theologian who presents a “theology of the cross” that “faces human weakness and limitation head-on.”[ii] According to Kelly Johnson, what is significant about Hall’s “theology of the cross” is that it “pronounces an unresolved ‘beggarliness’ on all creation, and identifies Christian faith with the recognition of this truth” (163). In an America where it is easier for the majority to forget about food banks, Hall reminds us that we are all beggars; that is, we are all profoundly reliant on one another for sustenance. We desperately need to be held by those we love. One person cannot support him or herself in isolation. Hall’s writings acknowledge that there is no distinction between the one on the lookout for Christ in the guise of a beggar and the beggar himself. There is no beggar group or lookout group; we are all members of the same body and cannot be isolated from one another.

The total rejection of isolation within The Haven’s low-barrier philosophy may be considered a radical theology. It challenges the notion of the other, of the invisible, undesirable blots of poverty among comfortable neighborhoods.  Part of the volunteer orientation includes a round table discussion on how being at The Haven might put a new participant out of her comfort zone. While it may not be a theological jump for some volunteers (after all, Matthew 25:35-40 is justification enough for most), committing to The Haven is a social and classist rejection of poverty’s veil. It certainly was for me. I am grateful for the startling (and much needed) perspective The Haven has provided within my daily life as a University of Virginia student.Taking the 6:40am bus downtown to The Haven launched me into the tangible layer of Charlottesville, a real world of early morning work shifts and construction uniforms. To accept The Haven is to accept that Charlottesville is not encapsulated by the privilege of the university biome. Kelly Johnson writes, “[The non-poor] can find the courage to give up their security, if they will, that Christianity is a story about a person, not a set of doctrines, and that the Person possesses the churches, rather than they him” (165). In that way, we can work towards exceptional humility and openness to all women and men as fellow beggars in need of one another.

Maybe Americans try to make poverty invisible out of fear. Perhaps we fear the poor because we fear drowning in the entanglements we believe momentary generosity will produce. Perhaps we fear beggars because we fear to be like them; we fear to acknowledge that the economic world which has made us not-them will make us them. But we are all part of the same impossibly knit family. As Alphonse Lugan wrote, “Man in the gospel is part of an organism whose members tend to the same end by different means.”[iii] All men and women are a reflection of a unified self, yet I still do not know where to find a food bank in my hometown. “Fear of poverty” is an over-simplification, of course. Understanding the psychological implications of belonging within a class system is far beyond the scope of my summer. At this point, I can only hope to keep learning with open eyes and ears and a face turned towards the theology of the cross.


[i] “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (New International Version)

[ii] Kelly S. Johnson, The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

[iii] Alphonse Lugan, Social Principles of the Gospel, trans. T Lawrason Riggs (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1928), 151.

Photo Credit: Readthehook.com

Necessity of Respite

The urban, modern life never pauses to catch its breath. We are pushed along by traffic, by deadlines, by the demands of our relationships. Amongst the stressors of today’s world, it is essential to reserve time for relaxation. When picturing this delicious escape from reality, we may think of lying on a tropical beach with a new book, or falling asleep in an armchair by the fire. But what if letting your awareness drop for only an hour meant the imminent danger of hypothermia or assault? What if you had nowhere to rest?

The Haven is a low-barrier shelter, meaning anyone can walk in the door and access services. In traditional homeless shelters, there are metal detectors at the door and guests must often pass sobriety tests to be seen by service providers. The Haven is an exceptional place where literally anyone in need can walk off the street and find a place of rest.
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For many living outside or in precarious homes, waking rested and calm is simply not possible. Existence is marked with anxiety: Where will I sleep tonight? Will I be safe from violence and the elements? How am I going to eat? Where are my children? This hyper-aware state reminds me of taking care of a newborn; there are some many basic needs to attend to that complex issues requiring great energy and resilience, like job-hunting, become secondary.

By opening its doors to anyone and everyone, The Haven offers a safe place for rejuvenation. Inside its walls, it is safe for an unaccompanied woman to fall asleep. With centralized heating and air, the body can relax into a natural temperature and rhythm. Basic safety and comfort provided, guests are able to be still and quiet, awash in relief.

This approach is not without controversy. Low barrier shelters are criticized for their lack of enforced security, or for their indiscriminate application of care. Who decides who is “worthy” of care or help? This is a tricky question–or perhaps it is profoundly simple. The Haven’s philosophy is to meet people where they are, and not dictate what the “next step” should be in regaining stability. It seems that there are more barriers than open doorways to people seeking assistance, whether it be for affordable housing or substance abuse. Those individuals most at risk are often the ones refused by other shelters because of their current inability to adhere to conditional policies (for example, total sobriety or showing up to provider appointments). The Haven’s policy is not to try to skip to the end of the recovery program, but strives to meet every individual where they are in their journey towards stability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this bold equality in his beloved book, Life Together:

Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the meditation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men. (36)

I am beginning to understand that individuals in crisis do not deserve more conditions to receive help or treatment; they need a place to come out of the cold (or heat) and rest from the constant fear and anxiety of the street world. When the innkeeper opened his barn to Mary and Joseph, he did not ask to see their housing voucher or proof of identity. The hesitation traditional shelters feel in retiring their security measures or conditional requirements is a fear of being cheated; that somehow they might accidentally give assistance to someone undeserving. We fear that we enable laziness or people looking to “play the system” by applying for unneeded social services. I do not claim to have an answer to this worry, but I agree that the first step in offering help is offering a refuge from fear and a place to rest.

The idea of the Sabbath is as old as Genesis 2:2. Among the chaos and disorientation of our lives, we need time for reflection and contemplation. In purposeful solitude, we give thanks for life and, perhaps more honestly, ask why our life is the way that it is. Time for silence and self-reflection is a time to connect inwardly and rekindle a sense of personal identity. Inside The Haven’s building and out of the never-ending public gaze, guests are free to be absolutely alone. Community is a certainly good thing, but cannot be actualized without the acknowledgement of individual space, for “only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship” (Bonhoeffer 77). On the main floor, there are spaces to gather and spaces for solitude. The renovated sanctuary (a vestige of The Haven’s history as a community church) is usually empty in the mornings. In this quiet space, guests will sometimes sit in contemplation, or sometimes sleep. The clarifying power of the calm sanctuary reminds me that I do not have to push through life alone, but can rely on essential re-centering periods to cultivate new resolve.
Haven Sanctuary
In a place as demanding and occasionally chaotic as The Haven, its caretakers are also in need of time to rest. The Haven’s staff intentionally reserves time for contemplation and quiet discussion every Thursday afternoon, where we come together for a three-hour lunch and meeting. In the words of my mentor, the staff needs this time to process the week’s highs and lows so as not to become “jaded and drained” from the emotional fluctuation and intensity inextricable from days at The Haven. Ensuring the mental and spiritual health of its employees is a pronounced value at The Haven. As Phileena Heuertz writes in her memoir, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life, we are all “in need of a calm and grounded center that could withstand the buffeting of a world full of injustice and unrelenting demands” (17). The Haven’s staff advocates strongly for self-care, and believes we must be healthy and sound ourselves to walk with those in crisis.

Earlier this week, I had a bit of an emotional moment after I thought I gave someone in need the wrong advice over the phone. With an affirming conversation, Chris, one of the Haven’s staff members, reassured me that all we try to do is the best we can, and to try not to speculate on the hypothetical results. By setting aside time to work through the emotional and spiritual demands of our roles in this ever-busy community, we strive to cultivate a safe space for every person and voice affected by The Haven’s work.

I confess that I tend to labor under the assumption that the way to find rest for my soul is to finish my grand to-do list, and present it like a book for publishing. In my time here, I am starting to see that it is the quality and health of the journey that matters in seeking restoration within a community. With a good day’s rest, we could all be better seekers.