Archive for January, 2011

A Win

A Win

Today was what we call a “Re-birthday” for a man named David. January 26, 2011, David was born anew – given a new heart, new eyes, and a new start.  Six weeks ago he was unemployed, homeless, and at the end of his rope.  Being a convicted felon (though the crime was more than ten years ago, and he’s been off paper for ten years), he was finding it impossible to even get an interview for a job.  He was clean and sober when we met him and has been since his release from prison. That’s a major plus in terms of our ability to help someone.  He has had no police contact during those ten years.  He was employed for most of those ten years as a roofer when the owner of his company decided to retire and close the company.  He was instantly out of work.  There aren’t any construction jobs right now…or at least very few, and those that are out there are gotten through networking not applications.  Over four months of unemployment, his savings was used up, he got behind on his rent in West Bend, and found himself evicted.  There are no jobs in West Bend, so he thought his best shot was here.  He thumbed a ride here but found himself just as bad off here as there.  He had never been homeless before.  He was clueless as to the ways of the street.  He would not have lasted long out there.  It was zero degrees the day he called me.  He was alone, and scared, and knew no one in the area.  He also has no family save a brother no better off than him living in North Carolina.

He got my cell phone number from 211 (which I need to do something about) and called me, having called countless churches and been turned down for help.  I turn people down, too, so don’t take that as a snooty comment.  We help who we can.  But I heard God’s voice when I got this call, that the call wasn’t an accident.  I make a habit of trying to do what I hear God tell me to do.  So, when David called, I heard him out.  The only place I could get him into at that time was the same hotel he was in on a voucher.  The voucher was set to expire that day.  So we kept him in that room at $277 a week, and got him involved in our pantry and street mission the next day.  The pantry got him groceries and the street ministry fed him and gave him a sleeping bag, coat, and gloves.  After talking to him for awhile, I realized he was help-able.

Several of us worked with him on job searches and helped him get connected to benefits that consisted of a Quest Card (food stamps).  We were hard on him, but we also loved him and accepted him.  We took him door to door to fill out applications, introduced him to people we knew who were in a position to hire him.  We minced no words in telling him if he had come across poorly in his attempt to get an interview.  At first he argued.  Then he listened. Eventually he got in front of five people, and two of them offered him part-time work totaling 40 hours.  We also brought him to church.  Somewhere along the line his eyes opened to God’s claim on his life, and to the Kingdom of God that was here in the midst of his predicament.  Over six weeks, I watched an angry, blameful and hopeless man change into a humble, quiet, and grateful man.  Amazing what God does with us when God gets a hold of us.  The transformation allowed him to be gracious in the interviews he finally got.  Had he gotten those interviews sooner, his anger and attitude would have blown it for him.

Last week God connected me to a person who buys up foreclosed properties and rents to homeless men.  The men then labor on the upkeep and improvements in exchange for greatly reduced rent.  I was able to get David into one of these homes…I should say that the landlord moved heaven and earth to fit David in.  He, too, tries to do what he hears God telling him to do.  Had David’s transformation not taken place, he would have blown this, too.  But he is ready for it, and today was the day.  We paid his security deposit and first week’s rent which will carry him over to his first paycheck on January 30th.

When I dropped him off at the new place today and told him today was his “Re-birthday” I got to see him the way that God created him to be: humble, grateful, and amazingly hopeful.  He had a proud smile on his face.  He knew that with God’s help he had climbed a mountain. He shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye.  He told me he’s stay in touch.  I believe he will.  And I believe he has as much chance as anyone to make it.  As I walked away, I heard him say quietly, obviously choked up and barely able to speak, “Thank you.”  I hope he was talking to God and not me. It was God who saved his life. Jesus was the Good Samaritan.  We were just the Innkeepers. He is on his own two feet as of today.  Start to finish, it ran about $1700, a bicycle, two sleeping bags, some luggage, lots of guidance and conversation, and a few trips to the food pantry…and thousands upon thousands of prayers.

What’s a soul worth? $1700 and some stuff? What’s your child’s soul worth? Every one of these people like David is someone’s child.  We can’t change the world.  We can’t get rid of poverty.  But we can help one person help himself or herself.  Today, that seems enough.

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I Hate Dope

I Hate Dope

I don’t make a habit of getting in people’s faces about spiritual things.  So I won’t get in your face right now, either.  But I do have a problem with people using illegal drugs, including marijuana. I have heard one too many rich kids tell me that using marijuana is a victimless crime.  I have heard one too many smug teenager tell me I don’t know anything, and tell me to pound sand because I’m stomping on their buzz.  I am not thinking that I am better than you because I don’t use and you might.  There, only by the grace of God, go I. But I want people to understand that my issue with illegal drugs isn’t whether you get high or not.  My issue is that the money people spend in our suburban high schools to buy drugs is spent on our streets to support other things.

If a high school kid in Brookfield buys a bag of dope for $10, chances are you bought it from someone who paid a lot more than that for a bigger bag of it.  Sometimes as much as half of that money goes back to the supplier who is almost always engaged in other enterprises.  A 20-round box of 7.62×39 ammo goes for $4.99 at the local sporting goods store.  Congratulations, someone just bought a magazine of ammo for an AK-47.  A couple of times a year, some gangster drives by a party and unloads a full magazine into a crowd.  Anybody ever seen what an AK round does to the human body?  It makes a hole the size of a tennis ball when it exits.  What does that look like on the torso or head of a 12-year-old kid who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Gangs in Milwaukee control the drug trade, so the money that gets spent to “party it up” is used to buy guns and bullets that are murdering and maiming and crippling kids on our streets.  When you buy a bag of dope, you buy a box of bullets.  It’s just that simple.  Using dope is not a victimless crime.

Five blocks from our food pantry, 15 and 16-year-old girls sell their bodies on the street corner to buy crack or heroin and to pay off their pimps to avoid a beating or worse.  The same people who sell crack, sell marijuana.  It’s just another product in their catalog, just another income stream in their larger enterprise. Some of the money from that “innocent” little dope purchase goes to support that business, too.  I want every single kid who is thinking about just using a little dope to have a mental image seared into their brain of a 16-year-old prostitute in the hands of a disgusting 50 year-old man one night, and being beaten by her pimp the next night for not turning enough tricks with other disgusting 50-year-old men.  And I want every one of those kids who are buying bags of dope in the local high school to know the name of one of those prostitutes and the names of her terrified and helpless parents, and see the dollars that they spent on their good time going into the hands of the person beating that kid.  I want them to know the name of at least one kid who will spend the rest of their lives in wheelchair because their spine was severed by bullets bought with those kid’s innocent allowance money.  I know several of them.  If you think I am lying to you, give me one day of your time this week, and I will introduce you to some.  And I will introduce you to their parents and brothers and sisters and children.

We can argue about whether marijuana ought to be legalized.  But today the world isn’t what it ought to be.  It is the world that is.  In the world that is, marijuana is illegal and buying it supports horrible things.  There is nothing innocent about dope.  If you use it, you have blood on your hands.  End of lecture.

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

– Mother Theresa

Homage – I Do Not Have Words to Understand This

Random acts of violence are random. Their very randomness is what makes them so overwhelmingly scary. Their very randomness means that we are all potential targets, and we are all potential victims. Random violence makes me feel that we are all below the apex on a food chain that has nothing to do with nature or nourishment. Sometimes I think if I can only place these acts or these perpetrators in some categorical rationality that I will be able to avoid becoming a victim myself, that I might keep these perpetrators from knifing down my children or your children. I think if I can just do this or not do that, that I can keep myself and others safe, but such is not the domain of random horror.  Sometimes I think that if we can find the general cause, we can stop this in the future. But…the world that “is” is not the world that “ought to be”. Randomness and chaos are synonyms – they are what was here before there was a “here”, and they clamber up from under the floorboards, jaws agape, reminding us that though God is very much at work here, God is not finished with this world yet. I have been silent on this senseless slaughter because I do not have words to understand these things. I don’t know any category to put this in. I have no salve that will heal the kind of wounds that the violent death of a child or a husband or wife or friend tears into people. I do NOT understand. I pray that none of us were made to understand such things.

Multiple “Realities”?

Multiple “Realities”?

Howard Thurman wrote, “Proximity without understanding breeds hatred.”  I just ran head long into a situation that brought the deepest meaning of that statement into stark visibility for me.  A person that I work with was very upset, and rightly so, with something that one of our volunteers had done that put a lease we need in jeopardy.  Indeed, the volunteer’s actions cost us our pantry’s lease.  One of our volunteers who was entrusted with keys had let a homeless couple (including the volunteer’s sister) stay in our food pantry during a recent cold snap without permission from our landlord, and without letting anyone know he was doing so.  Our landlord found out about it, and went ballistic.   The landlord is a steward of the building, and is responsible for it.  If those that he answers to found out about a homeless couple staying in the building, his job could be in jeopardy for the same reason that our lease was/is in jeopardy.  The irony is not lost on me that the people he is accountable to are church officials. The irony is also not lost on me that this happened a few days before Christmas.

Another person who is instrumental in our mission and who has a position of responsibility who was unaware of the situation found himself in the terrible position of having to tell the landlord that he didn’t know anything about the couple because he didn’t know anything about it.  Well, sort of.  He had heard people in the building and told me about it, and we both thought that maybe the family that leases the upper floor of the building was sheltering some family members secretly.  We didn’t want the family to get into trouble, so we didn’t say anything about it. We chose to look the other way. I remember telling  him that if someone was being kept off the street, I didn’t want to be responsible for putting them back out there.  This person has worked extremely hard to make our feeding mission very effective and very successful in a very short period of time.  He works hard to make this mission work.  Losing the lease because we breached it will be a giant setback to our mission.  In a moment of great frustration and exasperation, he said, “What was he (the volunteer) thinking?!?! Has he lost his mind?!?! This could cost us our lease! In the ‘real’ world, he just can’t do things like this. He will never understand!!”

I live in three worlds and move between three paradigms several times in any given day.  I work among the poor.  I am middle-class.  And I frequently rely upon the amazing generosity of the wealthy in order to do what we do. While I do not condone using access to facility that is not ours to do something secret, what has occurred here has revealed a problem that we have not yet addressed in our mission field.  I tell people never to steal what they can ask for.  If I know someone is homeless and at risk, I do everything in my power to get them to a safe place.  In the scope of things, my position and years of relationship building with people who have access to considerable resources and assets has afforded me some degree of “power” to help to resolve situations like the one that this homeless couple is in.  But what does a person do who is asked for help – is compassionately connected to the pain and danger of the situation – do when they have NO power?  They do things that make no rational sense in the paradigm that the middle and upper classes in our country think and live in.  But that doesn’t mean that they make no rational sense.

In the landlord’s reality, everything is held together by contracts and legal documents and issues of domain and ownership.  In his reality, the maintenance of property is his priority, as is the management of liabilities.  Without those things, in the paradigm that he operates in, the world would be chaos…and the truth is, it probably would be chaos, in fact.  But to even enter into a contractual agreement, one has to have a certain standing in society that not everyone has access to.  We have to have good credit, a clean police record, a good track record of job responsibility, a driver’s license and social security card.  Those things hold the paradigm together and make things work. But if a person is missing even one of those criteria, they are crippled in terms of full participation and access.  There are illusions in the paradigm that create chasms between the world that ought to be, and the world that is.  In the mind of the person in his moment of extreme frustration, it became clear to me that anyone’s predicament that didn’t fit into his paradigm was simply not “real”.  In the mind of the landlord, a church representative, anyone’s predicament that didn’t fit into his paradigm was simply irrelevant.  And it was also clear that the volunteer didn’t take the fact that the consequences of his choice would not only affect him, but it would affect perhaps thousands who rely on this mission.  He couldn’t grasp that others would look at this differently than he did.  Through the volunteer’s lens, the values and liabilities of the landlord were irrelevant to the situation. Irrelevance and not “real” are illusions…distortions…and “distortion” is another word for sin.  Sin not only separates us from one another as if we live in different realities.  It also separates us from God whose intention for the world is found in the image of a “seamless garment” – no separations between us.

In the volunteer’s reality, everything is held together by one’s willingness to help people out even if helping them out put’s the helper at tremendous risk.  The reason it makes sense is because in the volunteer’s reality, it is a mere thread of good fortune that keeps them from being in exactly the same shoes as the person he was trying to help.  He had been there before and probably will be there again.  When he finds himself there again, he will be dependent on the willingness of other people to take those same risks to help him out.  Risks that seem insane in one paradigm, are part of day-to-day mundane existence in the paradigm of the powerless.  You help people out because very soon you are likely to need them to help you out.  In any apartment in the part of the city we serve, you will find multiple people living there who are not on the lease and who the landlord has not approved to be there.  Sure it puts the renter at risk, but tomorrow it could be them on the street, dependent upon others to take a risk to provide them shelter.  It is very real.  It just doesn’t fit neatly into the world of contracts and property rights.  When you have no access to legal means, legal means are seen to be irrelevant – again, a separation.  On the other hand, wringing one’s hands and simply saying that there are homeless shelters for people like this couple is tantamount to Scrooge’s statement, “Are there no poor houses? Are there no prisons?”

Also in the volunteer’s reality, young women on the street are raped and murdered.  We have two women on our client list who were homeless and were murdered in the last two years.  The murderer was never found in either case.  Why? Because nobody with real power cares.  People with real power rarely personally know people with no power.  Even if they know them, it is rare indeed that they “understand” them.  I personally know five women who were raped while homeless.  I know too many women to name who were willing to trade sex for shelter.  That’s real.  Now suppose the woman in question is your sister, and you know too many women to name who were raped or abused or entered into abusive relationships for lack of options while they were on the street. (How do we think women get into prostitution for heaven’s sake?!?!  Do we think they do that because they are starved for sex? Or because they are all drug addicts?!?! They don’t start out that way.  They end up that way because they are powerless and lose hope for anything else.)  And suppose you have keys to a building that could be used to shelter her.  And suppose there was even a small chance you wouldn’t get caught.  And suppose the building housed a ministry that purported to be there to help the poor. And suppose the building belonged to a church – an organization that espouses the concepts of compassion and forgiveness.   And suppose you thought that agencies like those would at least understand your sister’s predicament and would jump at the chance to help, or least would forgive you if they found out.  And suppose that you knew that if you didn’t help your sister, nobody else would.  What would you do? That, my friends, is the “real world”, too.

In this case, we had a volunteer who did not understand the reality that putting someone into a building without authorization put a man’s job at risk, and put our lease at risk, thus putting the mission itself at risk.    Indeed, it cost us our lease.  Our landlord gave us five months to relocate.  I am at least grateful for THAT charity.  And we also had a landlord who does not understand that a girl on the street is in real peril, and who does not understand that women don’t last long on the street.  In the meantime, I listened very carefully to what our landlord said, and he is working hard to find ways to demonize us and morally justify his decision.  He doesn’t realize that he doesn’t need to do that.  What’s done is done.  That’s a whole lot of not understanding, and that can be overcome with education.  But to say that one way of looking at things is “real” and one way is not real, is a much harder problem to overcome. The need to demonize is almost impossible to overcome.  In the real world, responsibility holds things together. Yes. Without stewardship for property and responsibility to uphold contracts and agreements, the world would be a much worse place.  Our volunteer risked things that were not his to risk. Yes.  And also in the real world, people are abused and die, and those people have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers who know their names and love them the same way that wealthy people love their kids.  In the real world, people make mistakes, and our only hope is to use those mistakes as learning opportunities.  THAT is the only hope for any of us.  ANY of us. Can we, at least for a moment, see that one world is no more real than the other world? The lines that separate them are illusions that must be addressed before hatred takes over and actually does throw the whole world into real chaos.