Sunday, September 20, 2009

thoughts from room 124

Alabama, USA. I have stepped into the thick Southern humidity for four days to visit a friend who goes school at Auburn. Until I set foot outside the airport, I had forgotten how much I hate the sticky feeling of the air as I walk, the feeling that I am breathing soup instead of oxygen. Yet I had also forgotten how much I love the rolling hills and vibrant greens, kudzu vines blanketing the landscape, draped over trees and bushes like a sheet tossed over seldom used furniture. And in accordance with Southern tradition, the people are so welcoming and gracious that you might as well just move in. Of course, there are elements of Alabama that are foreign to me, and sometimes quite funny. I was feeling a little guilty for making so many snide remarks, until a walk through the Piggly Wiggly revealed a shelf dedicated to pickled pig parts. Pickled pig lips, anyone? What planet am I on? The other evening highlight was a drive-in restaurant whose marquee read: "You gotta eat and we need the money!"

I write now from one of the sketchier motels I have ever graced with my presence, just off the highway in Phenix City, AL (yes, that is spelled correctly). I'm with one of the few friends who would join me in purposely finding a fairly trashy motel to stay in. As one who needs to explore the world this way, I am unspeakably grateful for such friends. So here we are, sitting on stained mattresses we hope don't have bugs and adjusting to the stench. The carpet is torn up in places, there is a filthy office chair where a normal sitting chair might be found, and an unidentifiable stain marks the wall next to my bed. Four paintings hang on the wall: three of them are the same print. I look at them and immediately begin the song in my head: "One of these things is not like the other..." (Thank you, Sesame Street, for helping me identify my world even 20 years after I abandoned you for cooler programming.)

Working with the homeless, and doing my best to learn more and more about the life of the American working poor, I look around this room and cannot help but think of the millions of Americans who are paying most of their paychecks to stay in such motels for months at a time. Unable to save the money for the huge up-front deposit on more suitable housing--indeed, more affordable housing--they shell out hundreds of dollars a week to keep a roof over their heads. It is not an option. It is the option. Not so for me, of course. If I wanted to, I could say "Dude, this place just reeks a little too much," and Kristin and I could pack our things and drive home, or check into a place that has a more diversified art portfolio. But my growing awareness of the part of our society for whom this rank room is reality makes me want to stay simply for that reason. Something in me wants to understand, even if it is on a limited level. We are arrogant indeed if we think we can fully understand, coming from a secure middle class world. I can come to understand the aggravation that comes with appliances constantly breaking, the discomfort of having no insulation in the walls, or the shame of walking through the world knowing that your clothing and hair reek of the room you slept in last night. But I cannot understand the hopelessness, the sense that this all there is. I cannot understand the isolation that is often a key factor in perpetuating poverty. And I cannot understand the depth of frustration that led the mother in the room next to us to scream at and slap her child into the middle of the night. I tried to report the incident, but I know nothing will be done. That child will experience the true plight of the poor in America: invisibility. Silence. As I lay in my bed on the other side of that thin, stained wall, listening to the horrible sound of a frightened child, I could not stop thinking of the Proverb God used to call me to the poor several years ago: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:8-9)

In a few weeks, I am headed back to the low-income neighborhood where I lived before coming to work at FMS. I desire so much more than to be the school bus and the homework help and the Thursday night cook. Granted, I adore those things. I love simply living life at the Trailer. Yet I long all the more to speak up for those around me who have no voice. The child in a terrible home setting. The struggling family being cheated by the landlord. The injured working man who cannot get the insurance that would allow him to go back to his job. These people need a voice. It takes courage to be that spokesperson, courage that I do not always show. Looking at the months ahead, I pray that I might be brave. I pray for grace to love the invisible, and the courage to raise my voice.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

the need for dignity

One cannot work with the downtrodden long without becoming aware that there is something they crave more than a meal: dignity. Dignity is why my clients are far more upset if our shower is broken than if our food has run out. It is why, much to our frustration, so many of them will turn down work that pays less than what they once made. It is why so many of them come in with heads hanging and with tears welling up.

Just yesterday, a man came down to register, and I invited him in to my office. I began as we always do when it comes to new folks that come down: "So, tell me about your situation right now." This man immediately reached behind him and closed the door, then began a desperate plea. He trembled and spoke quickly, his eyes looking anywhere but at me, clearly ashamed to be asking for help and afraid I was judging him the whole time he talked. "If I could just get a shower and wash my clothes. I won't ask for a place to stay. I'm staying in my storage unit. I can sleep there. But if I could just get a shower and get out of these clothes...I...I just need some help." He tried to hold back tears, and only partly succeeded. Before I went to get the registration forms, I asked, "Are you a hug man?" He wavered, "Well, yes, but I don't think you want to hug me. I'm pretty ripe." But when I gestured, he stood anyway, and I hugged him. I could feel him shaking. Later, I watched that same man emerge from the shower like a whole new human, still a little shaky, but with a calmer face. "Feel good?" I asked. "Oh! that was divine," he replied. My replacement, who started this week so that we can overlap for a while, looked at me and shook his head in amazement. "That's incredible." I nodded knowingly. It is indeed incredible what happens when you allow someone the dignity of being clean.

Sometimes it is difficult to know how to use dignity as a motivator. As I mentioned in a previous post, there is debate about whether offering work to an alcoholic may help them out of their addiction by offering dignity and curbing boredom. The situation I mentioned in that post ended with the client in question guzzling 6 bottles of cooking sherry (high alcohol content and can be purchased using food stamps) and spending the next few days in the hospital after a minor heart attack. Strike one.

Another client, Tom (not his real name), recently got a job at Wal-Mart and lost it within a week because of his drinking. Of course, he later confessed to me that he had also mouthed off to his manager because he couldn't handle the idiotic way they were going about a shipping/stocking task. True, most of our guys are skilled tradesman. It must be painfully difficult to be a peon at Wal-Mart, accepting orders from someone who doesn't know what they're doing (in regards to the mechanical/technical side of things) because you aren't the professional in that setting and have no say. Still, a job is a job--some dollars is an improvement on no dollars-- and so we encourage our guys to get rid of excuses, even when we understand where they come from.

When Tom came into my office to vent about the situation, he was drunk again. I listened for a while and debated about how to respond. "Suck it up," was an option. "You're going to have to deal with your drinking, man, and take what work you can get." In some cases, that is the right response. But in Tom's case, I just asked, "Tom, what did you do before you were homeless?" He told me about his work in mechanical engineering and electrical jobs and plumbing. He's a very skilled guy, a jack of all trades. Watching him light up, I took a different angle. "Then go do what you're trained for, Tom. You're good at your work. Go find it." I could see the wheels turning in his head, the sudden boost of confidence. "Yeah. You're right. Hey, there's a place I used to work. Can you look up their number for me? I did good work for them. I know that if they can, they'll hire me." I typed in the business name--a construction place in Michigan--and handed him the number. "Tom, you are better than living in a tent. You are better than Wal-Mart. Go and do th..." He stopped me short, stepping in right after the word Wal-Mart. "Thank you, Katie. I heard that. Thank you." And then Tom, who has shown almost no motivation from the moment he registered at FMS, walked out my door straight to the phone, and called Michigan. He didn't get the job, but he has been calling other people ever since, and left early on Thursday because he had some day labor to attend to.

I never know when it is a good idea to say, "You're better than Wal-Mart", and when I should say, "Hey man, I know it isn't the professional setting you're used to, but it's a good job. Suck it up." I'm learning that it just takes case by case discretion, and that such discretion will only come through relationship, through me putting in the time that helps me see the difference between Tom's mindset and that of any other client in my office. But the need for the Church to establish that kind of relationship with the downtrodden is a whole different blog...

For now, I just say again that dignity seems to be at the heart of healing for the folks I work with, and for so many others around us. To be called by name, to have a shower and a shave and some clean clothes, to know that their skills are recognized...these things are as important as the loaf of bread we might offer. May we always seek to acknowledge and affirm the dignity of those who need our help, but not our condescension.

Monday, September 07, 2009

a prodigal comes home

The paper has become a stranger now.
I have forgotten the feel of it:
[my thoughts stretched out across thin blue lines,
a thousand-word self portrait,
the moment of finding myself on the page]
I want to return somehow, like
a prodigal wordsmith
a wanderer coming home.

Here, notebook open
I imagine myself, small,
timidly stepping out onto the first of 33 thin horizon lines.
I pause, look around wide-eyed, taking in the whiteness
hearing it call to me like a field of untouched snow.
I make a mark
step back, look
make another.
And before I know it, there I am dancing
jumping and climbing from line to line
flinging ink
I flip my wrists, let my thoughts fly, fall where they wish
big words
small words
Reaching the bottom, I plop down exhausted
and dangle my legs over that last blue precipice, #33.
I am covered in smudges,
my face stained with the messy markings of self-expression.

Reacquainted with the once-blank page, content
I lie down there and sleep
peaceful, dreaming
like the prodigal wordsmith
a wandering poet come home.

Friday, September 04, 2009

it's not about breaking the rules

Lately I have been reminded of something about myself: I am pretty prone to idolatry. Not so much the carving images out of wood variety of idolatry, or the kind that has platinum hubcaps or custom plates. My idolatry tends to be a little less visible, but it is there all the same. It is more in line with what the dictionary calls idolatry: "blind or excessive adoration of something" often something that is "visible but without substance". In many ways, I simply have an addictive personality, a tenacious devotion to the people and things I value. I am an all or nothing kind of kid, to be sure; it is both a strength and a weakness. Sadly, I often get mixed up on which things get my all, and which ones get my nothing.

Most of the time when I am confronted with my tendency for misdirected devotion, I feel my conscience chide me for breaking the law of the Torah: "You shall have no other gods before me." I live a pretty rules oriented life, unfortunately, and so I process most failures as simply an inability to live up to the standard of the law. This time around, however, has been a little different. I am seeing the same problem through a different lens.

Recently, God has been doing some pretty amazing things in and around me. He has answered prayers in ways that have dropped by jaw, and has sent confirmations and encouragements from the most unexpected places. It has been a sweet time of sensing him walk closely with me. His kindness toward me has been undeniably relational and undeserved. Now, as I again feel the pull toward idolatry, this kindness sets a new backdrop. Idolatry is not a law that condemns me. No, idolatry is a lie that cheats me.

Even in the midst of sweet expressions of love from the Father, I find myself reaching toward my most common idol: people. I want a love that is tangible sometimes. I want it in writing I can read, a photo I can stick on my bulletin board to look at when work feels depressing. Those aren't necessarily bad things. In fact, those very things are often expressions of love from God ("every good and perfect gift comes from above"). The problem comes when I offer those people--those words, those pictures, those phone calls--my "blind and excessive devotion." The problem comes when they, rather than God, consume my thoughts and efforts. And the problem is this: those things are always going to fail me at some point. They are only a shadow of the love that is steady and reliable. No matter how sweet those sources of love are to me today, there will be a day when I find that they fall woefully short, and I will be crushed, because I threw my all into them.

But like I said: this isn't a law thing for me right now. It's not a shameful violation of standard for me to put all my eggs into an unreliable basket. Instead, it is the sad exchange of what is better for what is only good. And the love of God is always better--better than life, if you ask the Psalmist. Better than any letter in the mail or photo on my bulletin board. It is the great reality behind those shadows, and the framework in which I am meant to enjoy them and yet not rely on them. The God who is love is the only safe and worthy place to offer my "excessive (even blind!) adoration." May I let him capture that tenacious devotion in me, and allow him to take my addictive personality and satisfy it with the only thing that won't ever leave me dry. As I wrote once before, may I choose to live a live that speaks aloud: "The love of God is better."