Telling others’ stories

A fact of life that all of us good post-modernists know is that reality is relative: a fact that is important to keep in mind when attempting to tell any story, especially someone else’s. Everyone sees and interprets things differently, and to some degree, we will never, ever be able to fully understand another’s point of view. In the book Reading the Bible with the Damned, Bob Ekblad describes his experiences with teaching bible classes and forming relationships with prisoners and illegal immigrants. He describes the differences in our perceptions of reality anecdotally to his students one day. “‘You already know how to see many things I cannot see,’ [he] tells them. ‘You can tell where crack cocaine or heroin is for sale. You know which cars are likely to have stereos worth breaking windows for. You know the telltale signs that alert you to someone from an enemy gang, or an undercover narcotics cop.’” (14). I have to side with Ekblad on this one—if I went outside into the parking lot right now, I wouldn’t know which car would be worth breaking into or not. But it still doesn’t mean I see things exactly the way Ekblad does, and there’s beauty in that, and there’s isolation in that.

I asked my theological mentor about this idea, and he explained that the fact of relativism can be combatted, to a certain extent, by putting ourselves in scenarios that broaden and enhance our ability to see others’ points of view. By interacting with strangers, investigating differences, and putting ourselves into the role of the ‘other,’ we can make our own realities a little bit more comprehensive and closer to a metaphysical, perhaps omniscient sense of ‘holistic truth’ in the world.

Why is this important? In his biblical courses, Ekblad attempts to read the Bible in a way that his students can deeply relate to. This means reading the text as a narrative of setting the oppressed free, of God suffering alongside the prisoners and the damned, of giving ear and story to the ‘least of these.’ An alternative reading to this type of biblical interpretation would include focusing on the triumphs of individual characters, creating heroism in individuals’ unrelenting faith, and picturing Jesus as docile and gentle to all, rather than wrathful and sharp in his criticisms of oppressive wealth systems. The second reading of the Bible tends to be one that the “powerful” in our society often lean toward. But when this is the only message that the poor, the powerless, the prisoners in our society hear, the Bible’s message is deeply unappealing and inaccessible. When Ekblad asks his students how God speaks to humanity, one of his students answers, “through someone like you” (14)—which implicitly means “not through someone like me.” This should fundamentally alarm us. If Christians are to believe that the Bible offers good news to all of humanity, yet the people that society has shunned believe that God shuns them as well, then the message of God that is emerging from our pulpits and pews is clearly not good news to all of humanity.

To circle back, I believe this idea of relativism is one of the core causes of this disconnect between the text of the Bible and its accessibility to all people. If the faithful, the literate faithful, and the privileged faithful are not committed to understanding the experiences of those who are vastly different from themselves, then exclusive theology will be normalized and accepted. We even have reason to believe that this theology would become exclusive to the point of excluding God herself from our theology—and ourselves from eternal life. Matthew says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

Call me an English major, but I believe that intentionally incorporating others’ stories into our lives is the best and truest way to make our theologies as inclusive and comprehensive of the entire Kingdom of God as possible. How to do this? Working at The Haven this summer and interacting with our guests has truly been one of the greatest privileges of my life, and I feel so thankful to have met so many excellent people. Ekblad writes, “As the years go by and I converse with hundreds of individuals convicted of every possible crime, I find my view of people becoming increasingly positive” (24), and I feel the same way after spending the last nine weeks at The Haven. I want to share my experiences with those of you who may be unfamiliar with those who are poor or homeless—but I feel great anxiety about telling their stories truly and rightly. As a person in a certain position of power because of my skin color, abilities, and socioeconomic status, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to how to tell stories well. Any time we try to portray any person, scenario, or story, we make assumptions and decisions concerning our audiences, our subject, and our own ability to write or describe. That imparts responsibility onto the speaker to uphold an assumed trust: to portray truly and honestly—both for the sake of the storyteller’s audience and their subject.

I’ll loop back to the beginning again to make my final point: that ultimately, I can’t encompass the stories and lives I’ve heard this summer on paper. I’ll try, but I deeply hope that you’ll try to experience them yourselves, too. This past week at writing group, we each tried to write the first line of our own autobiographies. It was both a lighthearted yet meaningful experience, and after sharing what we’d written, Angela looked around at us. “I can just tell… we’re not amateurs at this,” she said. She’s right, of course. We’re experts at the story of our own lives. Angela, and all of the others who attend the writing group, don’t need me to tell the stories of their lives: they are ready and able to tell you themselves, if you only give them the time. And we are missing out on such beauty and perspective and expertise if we fail to listen, hear, and pursue greater knowledge and understanding of the reality that we all share. In this, we experience a fuller and truer revelation of the Kingdom of God. Ekblad writes, “Revelation appears to happen precisely when we see that this weak one, this one wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the text, is God’s very self. Through the weak, powerless word and its feeble mediators, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The apparently distant God draws close” (92). As we draw near to the lives and stories of the least powerful in our society, we also draw near to the divine, and the fullness of perspective and truth that comes along with Holy presence. I hope that as our guests become further equipped in the sharing of their own stories, they’ll be met with eager ears and open minds, and that each listener will gain a greater perspective of the shared reality of the Kingdom of God.

The Haven

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Grief and “a multitude of pains”

In our society, grief is often a lonely, quiet, private affair. There is a time for public mourning: funerals, vigils, anniversaries of tragic events. But generally, sorrow is kept behind closed doors. We muffle sobs into pillows, wipe tears away quickly, hide numbness behind polite smiles. However, many individuals who are very poor may not have private spaces to conceal their grief or quietly recover from a personal tragedy. The Haven is a space filled with our guests’ lives, a place where they experience and share their joys as well as their traumas. During the first week of my internship, a woman’s loud sobs echoed throughout the dining hall. Discreetly, the other guests left the room, leaving only one friend to sit beside her through her pain. Her friend did not provide comfort, rather, her presence merely validated the raw emotion her friend felt. In these public spaces, grief may be robbed of the reverence and respect that it deserves—however, moments like this may equip others with true camaraderie and companionship in their greatest need.

“Jesus was sent by His Father to the poor and to be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in His own Body and Soul. We too must experience poverty if we want to be true carriers of God’s love. To be able to proclaim the Good News to the poor we must know what is poverty” (Mother Teresa, 1991).

There is a different woman with whom I am quite friendly at the shelter. A while ago she and her husband were both in and out of the hospital. They both looked so tired. Each day I look into her face to see how I should greet her. On days she looks more tired, I softly say, “How are you doing today?” On days she looks less tired, I tell her, “You look good today!” She always looks tired. Yesterday she looked more tired. She went into the hospital the previous night because she had a miscarriage. One of our regular volunteers was sorting shampoo and did not look up when she told him. He mumbled, “At least your baby doesn’t have to face this cruel world.” Today, this woman came to the desk, and I gave her scissors and a safety pin. She did not look so tired today. She even bounced a little. “We are going swimming today!” She told me. “We just made swim trunks!” she told me. She looked joyful. I smiled, and remembered the way her face looked yesterday.

None of the theology I’ve read so far has taught me what to say to a woman who lost her child and has nowhere to hide her loss.

“I loved God with all the powers of a child’s heart. He was the centre of everything I did & said. Now Father—it is so dark, so different yet my everything is His—in spite of Him not wanting me, not caring as if for me.” (Mother Teresa, 1961)

The Haven can be a beacon of hope in these moments of grief, a night light in a very dark room. But sometimes that beacon seems very small, and the light very dim, to combat the deep darkness that envelopes the daily lives of our guests.

“Pray for me—for within me everything is icy cold. It is only that blind faith that carries me through for in reality to me all is darkness. As long as Our Lord has all the pleasure—I really do not count” (Mother Teresa, 1949).

Today, a woman approached me at the front desk and asked if we had any Bibles. It’s the first request of its type that I’ve received all summer, and it was perhaps only providential coincidence that I had seen one lonely Bible earlier in The Haven that day. I found it on a shelf of random odds and ends that guests are welcome to take: a yo-yo, a pair of shoes without the laces, a very small purple sweater, and one Holy Bible. The guest who requested it looked new, and she sparked my curiosity, so later in the day I approached her as she was reading it. The woman—I’ll call her Naomi—had set out on the valiant yet regrettably difficult task of reading the Bible by starting in Genesis 1—a feat perhaps not even accomplished by Mother Teresa herself. Naomi has only been coming to The Haven recently because she just got evicted from her apartment a week or two ago. She’s been in Charlottesville for less than a year. She moved from another town in Virginia after she witnessed her boyfriend’s murder during a robbery. “He had three hundred dollars on him—that’s what someone thought his life was worth.” Now she can speak about it calmly and frankly, but she had to leave her hometown for a time in order to try to escape the hauntings of the event. Sometimes the grieving process is a luxury that few can afford without quickly falling behind in financial responsibilities. The Haven has been a small stop on her journey of healing.

“If you only knew what goes on within my heart. Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel as if everything will break. The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains” (Mother Teresa 1958).

Today, another guest informed me that that one of our frequent guests (I’ll call him Joe) was hospitalized due to alcohol. Often, our guests who struggle with addictions suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms if they don’t have enough money one day to purchase the substance to which they are addicted. This causes guests to experience debilitating headaches, shakes, and even seizures, which sometimes result in even greater injuries caused by falling or seizing while unconscious. Joe is one of our most friendly, kind, beaming, and sweet guests. He keeps to himself, minding his own business. I’ve grown very fond of him, and I was heartbroken to hear that he was in very serious condition. He’s since returned to The Haven, but I wonder if anyone visited him in the hospital. I wonder if he had to walk by himself from the hospital back to his normal corner at The Haven.

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love” (Mother Teresa).

Stephen Hitchcock, the executive director at the Haven and my site mentor, has years of experience working here. Last week, we spoke about his experience on staff and the reactions he receives when he describes his job to people. Stephen often finds himself confronted with well-meaning perceptions that his job must be “fulfilling” or “rewarding.” He said bluntly, “Sometimes at The Haven, we work in full knowledge that we are accompanying folks to their deathbed—and often very early and painful deaths. We know that. There is dignity in that, and honor in that, but I would use a different word than rewarding.” Stephen often emphasizes a core value that traces through each of our services: to provide our guests with the most excellent, compassionate, and thoughtful care possible. Homelessness can often be a choiceless experience. Individuals often have little autonomy over the type of food they consume, the places they sleep, or the clothes they wear. Our guests might lack choices of where to grieve, or what will cause them misery. Our guests are sometimes not given the privilege of making healthy lifestyle choices which could provide them long lives. To provide a counter to this, The Haven tries to provide our guests with lots of options, excellent options, in order to restore a necessary sense of individualism and personal control. The tangible services provided that address physical need provide opportunities for intimacy and emotional compassion along guest’s journeys, however painful or joyful they may be.

**All quotes are taken from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk

Grieving woman

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Writing group at the Haven

One of the parts of my summer that I’ve been most excited about was the opportunity to help start a weekly writing group at The Haven. The group is led by local writers, who facilitate workshops in creative writing, poetry, and even graphic novel writing. So far, our writing group has been part reading group, part therapy group, and part writing group—and on different days, different amounts of each of those. Some guests show up merely because they are bored, others, because they have a lot of ideas and creativity, and want to learn how to better express themselves, or even improve grammar and technical skills.

Last week, we read an essay by Annie Dillard entitled “Living Like Weasels.” The essay details an encounter between the speaker and a weasel: an unexpectedly fierce, startling and intimate moment where the two lock eyes, and the world freezes for a moment. The speaker muses and admires the necessity-driven, unrelinquishing lifestyle of the rodent. Everyone loved the essay, and was riveted by Dillard’s prose.

It was the first writing group that I had led, and I felt nervous and tentative as we started. Previously, the facilitators were published authors, and I’m just an English major whose favorite search engine is Wikipedia and whose emails begging for paper extensions are more eloquent than my papers themselves. So I started the group with the disclaimer that “We’re all equals today!” and began reading the essay out loud.

The essay is divided into six short sections, and there was a very brief pause as I took a break, expecting to begin reading the second section aloud. But one of the other participants dove in, unprompted, and began reading aloud. Her raspy, rich voice molded the words in a way that made my rendering of the essay plain and much too formal. She skipped over a whole line without noticing; stumbled over ‘suburbia’, substituted “inexplicably” for “unexplainably” without missing a beat—understandable, easy mistakes.

Seamlessly, we each took turns reading the essay. Intermittently, we paused to discuss and reflect on what we read. Sometimes the conversation stayed close to the text, most times it lost connection to the text rapidly and extensively. Dillard uses vivid and evocative language to describe the weasel encounter in her essay, and we spent at least ten minutes coming to a group consensus that weasels had, without warning, taken the top spot in each of our personal phobia lists. The conversation devolved into stories that ranged from attending college in Colorado to sleeping on the streets in Denver; we learned about each other’s therapists and children. We moralized about good southern manners and generosity and compassion. We spoke with passion, energy, excitement, confusion, and curiosity. Our conversation was at times serious and at other times humorous, as we shared our perspectives and impressions of the piece.

Our writing group was particularly diverse that day, and initially, I felt our differences poignantly. As we began to talk about and interpret the essay, I felt disarmed by some of the group member’s reactions. The conversation was so different than the ones I participate in my UVA courses! Yet as the conversation continued, barriers began to dissolve and we wrestled with the text together, each providing our own colorful interpretation and imagination of the essay’s imagery. Three of us had attended some level of high school, three were college educated. Four had experienced homelessness, two had not. Two were black, four were white. Four women, two men, two mothers, two teachers, three former addicts, one politician, one smoker.

One woman, Annie, spoke candidly about her life experiences, citing her lack of education as a regret, yet her grandchildren as her greatest joys. She talked about relating to the weasel, such times when she felt genuinely fearful of others she encountered on the streets, threatened by them—until she connected with them on a personal level and learned their stories. She spoke about how her own experiences of need and poverty shaped a personal philosophy surrounding generosity and charity. “Its important to meet people where they’re at—wherever that is. I’m fine with giving people a dollar for a beer, because maybe that’s what they need right now, maybe that’s where they’re at, and maybe that’s all life has to offer them at this second. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray for a different future, a different future need for them, that one day they’ll use that dollar for something else. But you can’t expect more of people than what life’s given them.”

Before we knew it, nearly two hours had passed. Members of our group had other commitments to get to: meeting with addiction counselors and old friends, work and volunteering schedules. Two hours had passed, and none of us had written a word during the workshop. I quickly assigned a “challenge-by-choice” option that they could write on their own time if they chose, and we parted ways. The next day, Annie said she couldn’t get the assignment off her brain all day. She loved the group, and enjoyed creatively thinking about the writing prompt. Another participant came up to me, thrusting a piece of paper with scrawling writing towards me. She had worked on the “homework” the night before and wanted to share and discuss what she wrote. Her sentences were short, brusque, simple. Reading her thoughts, communicated on paper, was a privilege.

I think it is fair to say that there is room to be celebratory as well as critical about our weekly writing workshops. I try my best to be realistic about the extent of the writing group’s impact and ability to truly “make a difference.” I don’t hold overly romantic views that we will begin churning out poets and novelists, radically transforming the modern canon of literature. But these homespun philosophies, formed over lukewarm coffee on a wobbly plastic table, are as valuable as any intellectual productivity within a UVA classroom. Our group is small, but the guests value and enjoy the time as their own opportunity to explore fun ideas critically and creatively—whether in writing or just in discussion. And for now, I think that’s enough. Coffee cups

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Picking favorites

Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved picking favorites.

My favorite lollipop flavor is mango. My favorite place is the mountains. My favorite color is yellow. My favorite Taylor Swift album is Red.

I’m finding that this trait about me is not going to bode well if I chose to go into a career of social services. You don’t get to pick favorites and dole out Big Brother’s funds according to who has the best smile or the saddest story.

I’ve indulged some of my favoritism at the Haven this summer. In the kitchen, we are only supposed to give out one scoop of sugar per cup of coffee, but there’s one guest who I always give two—he doesn’t even have to ask anymore. A few weeks ago, a woman came to the kitchen and the only thing she wanted for breakfast was fruit, because it was healthy. I gave her a heaping bowl of our beautiful fruit salad—more than I was supposed to. Maybe she would become my new favorite.

Yesterday, she flicked me off. We’ve never exchanged a word after the fruit salad incident. But I was just sitting in a chair by the exit, and she walked past, and she looked into my eyes and stuck her middle finger in my face.

Honestly, she still has a chance of turning out to be a favorite. I sort of like the sass.

But in all seriousness, it is interesting and sometimes disturbing to me how easily our emotions impact the way we might fight for justice or equality for others. Sometimes, I fear that my internship this summer is actually making me a less compassionate and empathetic person. When you’ve dried the tears of a victim of domestic abuse who is scared for the future of her children, it can be hard to muster sympathy for anything less extreme. I often find myself emotionally exhausted and resort to hoarding my love and compassion for only those who’ve earned a spot on my favorite list.

Fruit salad

In her book, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty, Susan Holman explores popular church teachings surrounding the poor during the first eight centuries of the Christian tradition. Just like today, priests had differing viewpoints and instructed their congregants differently about how to properly provide alms to the needy. However, Holman found, as she translated these ancient sermons, that more often than not, churches from this time period adopted a “broadly inclusive” view towards charity and almsgiving. One church leader, Basil of Caesarea, “urges his congregation to…imitate God’s generosity, since God without distinction gives rain and food to all on the earth, just and unjust. By this divine imitation, Basil suggests, differences between rich and poor could be leveled…By sharing equally, the hungry will have what they need, the rich will deflate into healthy and spiritual sanity, and the city will enjoy peace and good political order” (Holman 60). This theology links humanity to divinity in the way both our beings and actions belong to the divine: the mere act of God’s creation requires that we regard and interact with it in light of God’s ownership and authority over all creation. The ramifications of Basil’s theology on my personal life is that he just effectively destroyed all permission for me to use favoritism amongst the Haven’s guests. Shoot.

Another priest named John Chrysostom wrote this around 400 AD: “If you see any one in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further. His being in affliction gives him a just claim to your help. For if when you see a donkey choking you lift him up without inquiring whose he is, you certainly ought not to be over-curious about a person. He is God’s, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, he needs help.” (57). He elaborates, explaining that we should not place ourselves in the roles of a jury, trying to determine whether someone’s need is real or fake, or less or more than someone else’s. The mere fact that someone asks for help is cause to give them whatever they ask for.

I read this at my house one evening and become totally enamored. I romanticize this type of radical charity, excited by the way it equalizes and restores humanity to everyone, no matter what their story is. But then I go to The Haven in the morning and experience sexist remarks from some of the older male guests. They are not seriously concerning or threatening, but the gendered remarks rile up the feisty feminist in me. I decide that Laura deserves extra warmth and hospitality, where Rob deserves a curt nod at best. Aaron deserves a large bar of soap, whereas Sherika deserves the leftovers of my charity. Based on whether a guest’s personality, smile or demeanor strike my fancy, I decide they are more or less worthy of my help or kindness. I wish I was like Jesus, who healed the sinners and saints alike, whenever they asked. Instead, I’m the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld doling out sugar scoops, only deeming certain individuals worthy of my kindness.

This is where the priests’ linking of divinity and humanity is effective. Ultimately, everything on this world is finite. There is never enough funding for housing; there are not enough beds in homeless shelters. At the Haven, there is a limit to how much food our fridge can contain, and my capacity for compassion for the hungry will lamentably always be finite. But this idea of imitating the divine provides access to the infinite, incomprehensible and all-encompassing magnitude of God. Through attempting to serve, love, and enact mercy like Jesus, Christians remember, realize, and embody the Christian doctrine of incarnation. With this teaching, we consider that the divine encourages creation to adopt holiness, embodying divine righteousness and justice in a way that evokes awe and reverence that reflects back towards the Holy. Volunteer and guest alike participate in enacting this doctrine: each are recipients as well as administrators of the incarnation.

Holman explains “affirming the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires more than an intellectual exercise within our usual comfortable physical routines” (162). Our resources are limited; even our intellectual resources are unequipped to fully comprehend the magnitude of God. Holman suggests that liturgy, or ritualized practices of service and worship, are our best tools for imitating the grand mercy of God. Holman quotes a Catholic woman religious named Mother Skobtsova (certainly no stranger to ritual) as she says, “It seems to me that this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity” (163). It requires comprehension and ritualization of both the mystery and the miracle of human and divine connection in order to even attempt to solve the problems of our world with our finite resources. It means acknowledging the limits of our own flesh, yet also inviting the unlimited power of the divine into the embodied suffering of the poor in our society—and into our own bodies, to be vessels of God’s infinitude.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Uncomfortably close

How does homelessness make you feel?

Feet on city streetI don’t know what your experience with homelessness is. Perhaps you are homeless. Perhaps you’ve never had a conversation with someone who has experienced homelessness. So rather than assume your answer to this question, I’ll tell you mine.

When I encounter a homeless individual, particularly someone that may be panhandling or directly asking me for help on the streets, I feel raw inside. I feel awkward. Embarrassed—for myself, and for them. I feel uncomfortable. I feel sorry for their poverty and guilty of my privilege. I experience secondhand the shame that they may feel, as well feeling ashamed for not stopping and caring about them. I feel annoyed. I feel love, overwhelming me to tears. Sometimes I want to avert my eyes and ignore the individual. Sometimes I want to stop and pray for them and care for them. Sometimes I feel trepidation. I feel compassion yet am uncharitable. I am kind yet act uncaring. I feel anxious yet am insensitive. I feel ambivalence, anxiety, pity.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these emotions. I bet I’m not alone in this strange mixture of feelings. Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of these emotions, if you were the person asking for help. I’m pretty confident that these feelings are common, frequent, and familiar to many who may read this. I wonder, though—why? How and why does a stranger evoke such strong and weird emotions from us?

In his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr talks about how we make decisions about love and justice for others in society. He describes how our desire for justice for others varies in accordance with their relational proximity to us. “Love is most active when the vividness or nearness of the need prompts those whose imagination is weak, and the remoteness of the claim challenges those whose imagination is sensitive. Love, which depends upon emotion, whether it expresses itself in transient sentiment or constant goodwill, is baffled by the more intricate social relations in which the highest ethical attitudes are achieved only by careful calculation” (74). Translated a bit, he suggests it’s easiest to give twenty dollars to your child, or to a starving child in a third world country, and that it’s much harder to hand a twenty to the homeless man panhandling on your daily commute. For the first example, love that is near and immediate compels our sensitivities because we are able to see and experience both our relationship with the individual, as well as their need for our help. Their mere relational proximity compels us to extend mercy—even extravagantly or irrationally so. On the other hand, when we are informed of individuals’ needs who are far from our comprehension, the strangeness of their identities and circumstances compels our imaginations to sympathy. But persons whose identities have complex relationships to our own often fail to impact our charitable instincts—say, for example, a fellow citizen of your nation but one who lives many miles from you, or is of a different religion and ethnicity from you, or votes differently from you.

I think that the individuals experiencing homelessness that we encounter in our everyday lives somehow find themselves in this strange desert of love and justice that Niebuhr describes. We hold our families and friends comfortably close, and we hold the victims of famine in Sudan comfortably far from us, but homeless folks in our own hometown are uncomfortably close. Their signs and their families and the places where they sleep and their disability checks and their smelliness are uncomfortable, because they are too close but not close enough for us to truly, deeply care about their bodies and souls. Instead of being an abstract concept capable of compelling your sympathetic imagination, need and hunger appears in front of you, in bodily flesh—but it takes too much time and energy to make the careful calculations Niebuhr claims are required to actually show mercy to these individuals.

When I think about it this way, it seems so strange. Why do we try to contract our existence from those who deserve our sympathy the most? People in your city are hungry. Children in my city are in need. Men in your city are sick. Mothers in my city are in pain. Veterans in your city are homeless. This is not apart from us.

Niebuhr constructs a theology where individuals attempt to comprehend morality both through reason and/or love: but both are insufficient to procure justice in the case of individuals whose proximity resembles that of the homeless population. The purity of our goodwill becomes distorted through our irrational modes of reasoning and our unequal methods for compassion. In this scenario, I think that our physical and perceived proximity to folks without homes in America inspires fear within those of us who have financial privilege. For some reason, the nearness of the pain and poverty is too uncomfortable for us to naturally desire their earthly redemption.

Truly good and righteous intentions may become distorted and even immoral due to this fear of proximity. I agree with Niebuhr. Our desire to distance ourselves from moral responsibility for the poor causes justice to lie far outside of the reach of those facing the greatest injustices—those that are right beyond our own doorsteps.

I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to end this blog post for a while now, because it feels uncomfortable and unfinished. However, perhaps that perfectly sums up where we are at in the work of ending homelessness: a place that is both deeply uncomfortable and thoroughly unfinished. Perhaps we all need to rest in that space a bit more, and a bit longer, in order to learn together how to make justice for the most vulnerable in America a bit more proximate.

Niebuhr writes, “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing is intrinsically good except goodwill” (170). Humbly, I suggest that most Americans do not wish ill-will towards our poorest citizens, but as a society, we do not wish them good-will, either—not how Niebuhr defines it. I hope that dwelling in that suggestion makes us uneasy. I hope it makes us more willing to make more and more careful calculations, transforming the emotions we feel towards our most weak and vulnerable neighbors and friends.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Learning humility at the Haven

This week, I have been repeatedly surprised by small, random interactions with strangers. Each has been beautiful, making me stop to appreciate sweet moments of this already-too-short summer. I’ve met a taxi driver named Houston who used to travel the world playing music, and a sweet older man named Bob who taught me about rose gardening. I’ve learned so much from each conversation. I’m especially learning how to listen carefully, to seek understanding before judgement, and to welcome free advice that strangers often bestow on me.

For example, yesterday I met a man, and, during the course of our conversation, we discovered that at different times we lived only a few blocks from each other in Richmond, Virginia. We shared a wonderful conversation, and he ended by offering me some advice. He urged me to find my passion and pursue it, not become discouraged in doing good, and love rather than judging others. He ended with this: “Don’t try to change the world. It is too big, and you are too small. You will become tired and weary. Just do small things. Find work that means something and do it with all you’ve got. You don’t need to change the world; you can just do small things”.

I walked away from that conversation humbled and joyful. His words reminded me of Mother Teresa’s: “Do small things with great love.” They also reminded me of quite a number of comments I’ve received after explaining to individuals what I’m up to this summer. The conversation normally goes like this:

Me describing my summer internship: [says a lot of words about my feelings, homelessness, humanity, writing, theology, justice, more feelings]

Nice, kind person who asked about my internship: “Megan, you’re so incredible!!! See, it’s people like you who are going to change the world.”

I’ve received this exact comment probably a dozen times since I accepted the internship with the Project on Lived Theology, and it fills me with conflicted feelings. Here’s a sample of my stream-of-consciousness thoughts when I hear those words:

  • Ugh, I hate when people compliment me. Laugh it off and act like you’re humble.
  • If you think serving the homeless is so great, why don’t you ever volunteer yourself?
  • I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to serve The Haven this summer. I wish others could experience this too.
  • I’m so excited… I can’t believe these are my summer plans! I’m going to learn so much.
  • Yeah, it’s cool, but I’m not going to tell you how super nervous and apprehensive I actually am.
  • Lol, I’m definitely not gonna change the world…
  • Why do “people like me” have to save the world? Isn’t that your job, too?

Sharing these thoughts feels almost too vulnerable, but I want to be honest. I’m selfish. I’m prideful. I seem to believe that I am worthy of praise, yet I am judgmental of those who praise me. I’m bitter and cynical and self-righteous and critical of good, kind, lovely people’s intentions and altruism.

These traits that I perceive in myself help make Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, intensely relatable as she described her own experiences with those in poverty during her early, radical-communist days, when she was not too much older than I am now. She says: “Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized….I was professing to be a radical. But I was not a good one. I was following the ‘devices and desires of my own heart’” (Day, 59).

One of my favorite guests is a younger woman who I’ll call Allyson. I’ve been working hard to win her respect and friendship. She mostly stays out of the other guests’ way, and often helps out with everyday tasks—sometimes she’ll ask to sweep, or fold our aprons and towels. She has expressed to me that she wishes she could volunteer like I can. But it takes some things to be a volunteer. It takes a full belly, so you have energy to work. Proper clothes. A good night’s sleep, with a roof over your head.

Folded LaundryYesterday, we talked for a while, and it was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. She expressed her envy that I was a student—she had to drop out of college because of some family financial crises. She hates writing but loves math. She’s smart. She’s fearful that she might be going crazy—that this homeless lifestyle, this constant struggle, this constant instability and struggle might become permanent. Yesterday, she untangled the pesky knots that the dryer puts in the aprons when we wash them. No one had asked her to. No one knew she was doing it. As I watched her, I realized that she would make a much, much better intern than I will ever be.

Day self-critiques, “So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of the works of mercy as we know them regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I wanted to … make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” (Day, 60).

I am almost certain that I, and every person reading this blog, is in favor of the very small works of mercy we perform at The Haven: frying an egg, handing out socks, listening to guest’s stories. But I am also certain that my own pride, my own arrogance, my own selfishness prevents me, and perhaps others, from seeking truly transformative and selfless justice. It prevents us from being good radicals: because selflessness, generosity, and mercy are radical acts of love. However, Dorothy Day doesn’t recommend that we should radically attempt to change the world: rather, she suggests that we create a world “where it is easier for [wo]men to be good” (Day 181). For myself, perhaps seeking uncomfortably vulnerable humility will make it easier for me to do good.

May this repentance of my pride further the revolution, in my heart and in ours.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

The Haven and the Kingdom of God

The Haven KitchenFor the past two weeks, I’ve been busy settling into a routine at The Haven, a multi-service day shelter for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Charlottesville. Over the course of the summer, I’ll be preparing lots of food, helping manage the structured chaos that is the welcome desk every morning, answering a financial crisis helpline, and helping create a writing program for our guests to enjoy.

This past semester I volunteered in the kitchen once a week, but I wasn’t able to truly appreciate this special nook of the Haven until I began spending time there every day through my internship. Most volunteers work the same shift every single week, and this routine results in strong and distinct camaraderie and community between the different volunteer shifts. It’s a largely accepted theological truth that God created kitchens in order to facilitate fast friendships and meaningful, joyful conversations, and the Haven’s kitchen is a prime example. Within each time slot of volunteering forms a small family: a network of individuals devoted to the same cause of loving our neighbors. In these early weeks of my internship, I’m intruding into communities as I cook alongside these families of volunteers. The volunteers ask for updates on children, vacations, and your health. They care for one another as they care for our guests.

In their attempts to explain the general failings of the Christian social gospel in America in the past century, theologians blame the way our consumerist, capitalistic society values individualism and self-sufficiency in ways that complicate the creation of collective community necessary to imitate the Kingdom of God on earth. Moments of true community, selflessness, and solidarity seem to be hard to find. One of the guests at the Haven is a kind, older gentleman who is originally from the hills of Tennessee—I’ll call him Richard. He loves to garden, used to be an avid tennis player, and frequently demonstrates genuine care for others. Richard lamented to me the other day that “no one works in teams anymore. It used to be, people would care for one another, we could wait outside of The Haven and people would drive by, pick us up and take us to work, give us rides. But people don’t care like that anymore. No one wants to be on your team.”

That team mentality, that sense of community even between strangers, a willingness to take care of those who are struggling… where did it go? And, perhaps more importantly, where can we find it again?

Walter Rauschenbusch wrote extensively on the idea of a living, breathing idea of the ‘Kingdom of God.’ This kingdom is often conceptualized as a distant place that Christians will reach in the afterlife if they live a life worthy of God—that is, if their individual piety and purity stand up to the test when they show up at the pearly gates. But the social gospel movement, propelled early on by Rauschenbusch, emancipates the Kingdom from the realm of the ethereal and contends that Jesus’s ideals should mobilize humanity towards justice, peace, unity, and liberation: not in the future, but right now. Social Christianity attempts to “embrace the tridimensional social vision of liberty, equality, and community … but in a country where people only understand individualism, social Christianity is constantly pressed to defend the values of equality and community” (372). Rauschenbusch’s hopes for the power of the social gospel to transform people’s lives don’t seem to have trickled down to my friend Richard at The Haven, wistfully remembering a time when people were kinder and more generous and more willing to be in your corner.

The language of the social gospel is active, immediate, urgent and compelling. Theologian and historian Gary Dorien explains in his book Soul in Society, “If the church is not merely the body of Christians that awaits the kingdom, but the partial manifestation of the kingdom as the body of the resurrected Christ, it cannot regard the way of Christ as an ethic for an age yet to come” (371). By this, he suggests that the Church is more than just a group of people. This statement deifies community—and not some distant community, but one that is immanent and tangible in this life, in this very day. Which brings me back to the rag-tag army of volunteers that faithfully march in and out of The Haven each week. In each plate served, our guests can taste traces of the Kingdom: an authentic, not-from-concentrate glimpse of the realities of Christ and the coming Kingdom. “In the biblical faith recovered by social Christianity, the reign of God is an immanent/eschatological reality that engenders community, peace, and justice” (Dorien 19).

Social gospelers today cling to the hope that through transforming the Church into a restorative community, we can perhaps attain once more that team-mentality that Richard remembers. Personally, when I think of examples of the “kind of progressive religion that plays a morally regenerative role in American culture” (Dorien 372), the kitchen of the Haven seems like a pretty good starting point. Perhaps each breakfast can feed the growing and present Kingdom of God alongside our hungry guests.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.