Monthly Archives: February 2010

Stop Doing; Start Being

This past week we concluded a three week training session at a local church.  This particular church is very active in urban missions.  They provide shelter through CARITAS, participate in feeding programs, the members sit on a number of non-profit boards, they assist with housing rehab for the elderly and donate money to local charities.  They are a very active church.

At the conclusion of our training one of the comments we got back from a participant was that “We still do not know what Embrace Richmond “does”.”   I wish I could say this was an uncommon comment but I have heard it after trainings before.  It always disturbs me and I am continually trying to figure out ways of overcoming this challenge.  However, this week, as I prayed about this comment, I realized that perhaps the problem is not in the way we are answering the question; perhaps the problem is with the question itself.

We are a society obsessed with “doing”.  When we want to get to know someone, often the first question we ask is “What do you do?”  We define people and organizations by what they do, more than who they are.  However, what Embrace Richmond “does” is empower others by “being present” with people in their own communities and helping them to “do” the things God is calling them to do for the benefit of their neighbors.

Like all non-profits we have programs that are about “doing”, like our Faith Works program which provides youth and families with short term, hands on missions experiences, and our Community Works program that provides transitional employment to homeless and at-risk individuals.  However, all our programs are about empowerment, not about us “doing” something for someone else.  We have no program to provide shelter, no feeding program, no furniture program, no clothing program and no financial assistance program.  We do none of these things as “programs” yet we do all of these things.  We do provide shelter, we do provide food, we continue to provide furniture and clothing, and on occasion we provide financial assistance.  However, rather than create a “program” we choose to provide these services through relationships that empower rather than programs that often breed a sense of entitlement.

I think rather than asking “What do you do?”, we should be asking “What kinds of relationships are you forming?”  Non-profits that spend all their time “doing” and no time “being present” to their participants may have impressive short-term outcomes but programs do not change lives, people do.  Every person I have met who has successfully escaped the cycle of poverty did so by building strong relationships with a healthy network of support and a relationship with a God.  This is the power behind the AA/NA model and why case managed care and peer based programs like The Healing Place are so successful.

So, the next time you “check out” a non-profit, don’t spend all your time reading the annual report, judging the quality of the board members, or evaluating the outcomes; instead listen to those who are a part of the communities where the non-profit works and judge success through those relationships.  Do you see people who are empowered to address the needs of the community themselves, or do you see people dependent on the “programs” of an outside agency?  Which do you think is healthier?  I guess I should be thankful no one can define what we “do”; it means we are doing the right thing by simply being present with those we care about and empowering them to do good works.  To God be the glory…we are not willing to claim credit for any of it.

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Filed under Urban Ministry

Just Work – My Next Book (I hope)

This week I completed the proposal and first three sample chapters for what I hope will be my next published book.  Below is a summary of the book.  The first three chapters are available on the “Wendy’s Book” page of this site.  Please let me know what you think.

Just Work: Justice in a Culture of Charity

We have all heard –and perhaps spoken–the phrases, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “You get what you work for,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Live the American Dream.”  We have all driven past men and women in our city intersections holding signs that say “Will work for food” or “Homeless. Please help.”  Probably the sight of them has sparked in us some combination of pity, guilt, and disgust.  Many of us have thought or said, “Get a job!” as we speed past, avoiding the sign-bearers’ desperate eyes.  Most likely, we are not so much heartless or uncaring as confused and frustrated.  In a society where there is supposedly equal opportunity for all, why are some unable or unwilling to work for a living?  Why would anyone choose to beg on a street corner when there are homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens throughout our cities?  We are doing our part, we reckon, by giving to the local shelter, praying for these men and women, and serving in the local food pantry. Yet the problem persists.

In the fall of 2004, Wendy McCaig befriended a homeless woman and began a journey toward finding the answers to these questions.  At times she has felt like Alice in Wonderland, following the white rabbit down the rabbit hole into the world of mental illness, addiction, violence, and poverty.  While there, McCaig was befriended by three very wise men who themselves had fallen into that hole and had lived most of their adult lives trapped in that strange land.  McCaig also met the children of this world; their eyes that had been bright with hope at age ten were dull and desperate a few short years later, their futures robbed by drugs, pregnancy, violence, and injustice.  With the wisdom of her three guides, McCaig takes us down that rabbit hole and on a journey toward finding hope for the children trapped in poverty in the inner city.

That journey out of poverty and toward hope and justice necessarily includes work, and the dignity and purpose it brings. By recognizing that we create imprisoning systems of dependency through our habits of charity and entitlements, dependencies we can avoid through offering work instead, we find that we are not powerless in the face of poverty but hold the keys to freedom from that prison.

Wendy McCaig is our Alice on this journey.  She invites us to join her, to meet her friends, to see the travesties of justice committed by those in power who, like the mischievous Cheshire cat, try to lead us astray, and to change that predictable cycle by offering just work.

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The Weirdest Day Ever: Dead bodies, mice, preaching heroin addicts and more

Today, February 4th, 2010 will go down in the history books as the strangest day ever.  I woke this morning and found I had no voice despite the fact I was to facilitate two conversations today; one in Fairfield and one in Hillside.  Yesterday I was diagnosed with a sinus and ear infection and today I am voiceless.

 The children had a two hour delay due to ice and snow.  As I was going out the door to the car, my 16 year old slipped and fell down the steps, I tried to scream but nothing came out.  Last year I was diagnosed with osteopenia after I fell down some steps and shattered my arm which has made me very uncomfortable on steps. I froze in fear and just stood there and watched my daughter tumble down.  She was fine but I was feeling helpless.

When I got to the office today, the road was blocked off.  Apparently someone hit an electrical pole and was killed, the body still lay on the side of the road covered with a blue tarp as on lookers waited for the coroner to arrive.  I watched as a woman got out of her car looked toward the blue tarp and collapsed crying and screaming on the ground.  As I entered my building the lights flickered twice and then went completely out, the woman, the onlookers and even my building were left powerless.

When I went into my building, I saw the Homeward staff gathered under the emergency lights in the hallway as Julie my teammate came running down the hall screaming MICE!  Our building has no windows and other than the one dim emergency light in the hall there were no other lights, leaving the side offices in utter darkness.  Darkness means mice and mice equals panic in an office of all women.  We found Joe outside but sadly learned that he is more terrified of mice than Julie!  So we abandoned the building and left it in darkness.

When I arrived in Fairfield I learned that my teammate Sara Rhoten’s  grandmother died this morning, she learned of her death in the parking lot in Fairfield and this evening a second team member Jamie Mitchell learned that her grandfather died this afternoon.  Today it seems I was surrounded by death.

During  our Fairfield meeting, one of our teammates shared that his application to volunteer with a local youth program had been denied because of his criminal history.  He has had no trouble with the law for more than 20 years and all his convictions were drug charges; no violent or sexual offenses. He had wanted to volunteer with young boys to tell them his story in hopes that they would choose a different path than he had chosen.  He tried to find out why he was denied but no one would listen to him.  Like me, he was voiceless.  Tomorrow, I will wake and my voice will return but my Fairfield friend, whom the world will continue to see as a felon will still be voiceless.  Unable to vote, unable to volunteer, unable to get a job, all because of mistakes he made as a young man.  He is truly voiceless.

Another Fairfield friend shared that her son went to visit his aunt in a nearby public housing community and was charged with trespassing.  I learned today that the streets and sidewalks in public housing complexes were “privatized” which apparently means that if you are caught in those communities and are not a resident, you can be charged with trespassing simply by walking down the street.  Apparently her son is a bit stubborn, as most teen age boys are.  He got caught in that community and charged with trespassing three times.  I learned something else today.  If you are caught and charged with the same misdemeanor three times, the judge can compound the charges and charge you with a felony on the third offence.  This means that her son now has a felony conviction which has resulted in his inability to get a job simply because he went to visit his friend and family in a neighboring community.  Like me this mom feels helpless .  My helplessness was the result of ice on the steps but hers the result of an unjust law.  My daughter suffered no long term harm, but her son will pay for his felony conviction the rest of his life.  He is truly helpless.

I proceeded form Fairfield to Hillside Court only to find that the power outage that shut my building down also resulted in a power outage in Hillside court.  As my teammates and I stood in the parking lot trying to figure out what to do, a woman approached us.  I did not know her but the residents who are a part of my team did.  She proceeded to share that she needed prayer and invited us into her home.  As all eight of us crowded into her tiny apartment, she introduced us to her “mate”, a quiet young girl who shyly stood in the corner.  I suspected something was wrong with our hostess because she kept losing her balance but I was trying not to jump to conclusions as she proceeded to tell us how she loved the Lord and began quoting scriptures.  In the midst of her own preaching I watched as she nodded off and I realized the woman was stoned on heroin.  I looked to Rudy who confirmed my suspicion.  We did what we came to do; we gathered in a circle and we prayed for her.  Of course as the prayer ended she proceeded to share a sob story about needing money for school and again shared that she went to church regularly  and studied the bible.  I may be naive but I am not stupid.  I knew her tuition money was running through her veins and I had no interest in investing in that.  As we drove away, I realized that this woman had the knowledge, she knew the scriptures, professed to know the Lord, said she attended church regularly but still she was powerless against her addiction. 

I now sit in my nice warm lit bedroom in the suburbs reflecting on this day.  It is now dark outside and in Fairfield and Hillside, this is the time when the “rats” come out to devour anyone they can find.  I sit in light but my friends sit surrounded by darkness.

The image of that body laying under that blue tarp still haunts me.  It was lying there for hours which according to my friend Rudy is “normal”.  Sadly dead bodies laying on the side of the road is not an uncommon sight to for my urban friends who are all too familiar with death.

Today I experienced temporary voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and briefly felt the impact of death on those around me.  Sadly for many of my friends voicelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, darkness and encounters with death are everyday occurances; a reality of life.

Tonight I am grieving many things.  I am grieving the lose of the life of the driver. I am grieving the pain of Sara and Jamie for the loss of their loved ones.   I am grieving the injustice that makes my friends feel voiceless and helpless.  I am grieving the darkness that surrounds people trapped in poverty and leaves them feeling powerless and I am grieving the fact that death is common place and not even grieved in some communities.

However, I am also hopeful because today my team brought light into the darkness simply by being present and standing in solidarity with our urban friends.  Did we change anything?  Did we overcome injustice, bring freedom to the oppressed,  sight to the blind, raise the dead?  No, but we were faithful and that is all God asks of us.  On my way home tonight I was behind a minivan with the license plate “HZ LORD” and in spite of today’s circumstances I choose to believe He Is still Lord.  I don’t understand why today happened the way it did.  I am writing this post so I remember when I get to heaven to ask God to explain the events of February 4, 2010, the weirdest day ever.  I am sure somehow, someway, someday, this will all make sense but tonight I am at peace simply knowing it is not for me to know.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry