Names and Faces

SleepI see your face
I know it
I remember your name
and all the meetings we had across the desk in the back office
or over Tim Hortons
and the walks we took into town to do things like
renew your service card
and the walks back
Back to what?
You’re still here, on the street

I run into you on the sidewalk one day
You have a job!
You once told me that you had only two emotions:
happy
and
angry
But right now you seem joyous
even exuberant
You have your child back and a safe apartment to live in
I’m so glad you stopped me to tell me

I don’t remember your name
But I do remember your face
and I remember your story
How could I forget?
You trusted me with your trauma
and I hope that I was able to hold it for you
even for a little while
You’ve had a rough life
I pray that things have gotten better
but when I see you on the street I fear they haven’t

You popped into my new office
at the church
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been in a church before
and I am really sorry that I wasn’t there that day
I love catching up every time I run into you

I remember your name –
oh do I ever. We spent a lot of time talking –
and I remember your child’s name
I have seen the two of you walking downtown
(he has grown a lot!)
and so I wonder
how things are going now…
Are you back together?
Have you gotten clean like you wanted to?
How is school going?
But your eyes slide across my face without recognition
so I don’t stop you to ask

I see your faces
all of them
I wish I could remember all of your names –
though maybe that is more about me wishing I could do more
than remember
and pray
and hope

 

Faces

Their faces.

I don’t always remember their names but I often recognize their faces as I walk through downtown. Each familiar face reminds me of a story.

She was always really quiet in the shelter. She would get up early each morning to try her hand at getting a temporary day labor job. Some days she was successful, some days not.

The last time I saw him he had just been housed in his own home. Today he looks pretty good and so I have hope that he is still housed.

She used to spend all of her time trying to get her children back from foster care. There has been a child with her lately and I wonder if it is one of them?

Sometimes I am not sure if it is a familiar face or not. Faces weather a lot faster when you live on the street, often rendering them unrecognizable in just a few short years. Sometimes I am relieved to see a familiar face – it means they are not dead – and sometimes I am saddened when they do not look well. Regardless, I pass by with a quiet prayer.

 

The Story Behind the Essay

I shared, last year, my excitement at having an essay published in a book. You can find out more about that here: Publication!

I wrote a little more about the experience here: RevGals: A Book and Belonging

Here is the initial post that inspired the thoughts that became the essay: I get to go home. For those of you who have bought the book and read it, or found it in a library and read it, thank you!

First – a Person

Sunday was my very first Sunday as curate at St John the Divine. After the service ended, I stood by the pulpit and shook hands with what seemed like thousands of people. Though in reality, it was maybe only a hundred and twenty or so…

In the midst of all of the “thank you” and “great sermon” comments, one person stopped and made a point of thanking my very specifically for something in the sermon that had caught their notice. They thanked me for how I referred to people.

I hadn’t thought much of it when writing – it has become second nature for me to talk about a person who has or is dealing with something in their lives, rather than make the identity of the person entirely wrapped up in that one “feature.” For example, I will talk about a person experiencing homelessness rather than a homeless person. It is a small shift in language, but for this person, it made a difference.

This afternoon I was doing clean up and updating work on this site and I came across a post that I wrote a number of years ago while working at the shelter. It reminded me of that after-church conversation and thought it worthwhile to bring it to the front again.

So, here it is: There is Always a Story.

Publication!

I did some writing last summer, though not for school.

One piece that I wrote over the summer is getting published in a book this spring! Its a short essay I wrote that is, essentially, a theological reflection on the work I used to do in emergency shelters in BC. It will be published in the book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor which is set to come out mid April (though the amazon page says mid-May).

The book has come out of a community of women who’s wisdom I have appreciated, the Rev Gal Blog Pals. I’m looking forward to hopefully meeting some of them as we get closer to publication. I’m also really looking forward to reading everyone’s essays in the book!

You can see more about it on the Publisher’s page (Skylight Paths Publishing), or on Amazon.

I’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available about its publication date and so on.

Boxes

I’m in the process of boxing up my life to prepare to move. The process of going from the order of my lovely little home to the chaos of packing is a little unsettling and I’m looking forward to taking this chaos and unpacking it to order when I get to London.

All of my furniture has been sold or spoken for.  My dresser is gone and my clothes and linens are in two large totes on the floor in its place. My armchair is gone. The bookshelves went in a “bookshelves for boxes” trade with some friends who moved a few months ago but needed shelves for their books. My bed is gone and I’m camped out on my very comfy thermarest. The couch will go in two weeks and then I’ll have nothing left but boxes.

Spare moments are few and far between right now, with most of them taken outside of my house: partially because of the sunshine and partially because being at home seems to mean needing to pack.

***

I’m at the library right now. Well, I’m sitting right outside because I overheard staff talking about a fire drill at some point today and I thought I’d rather sit in the sunshine and use the wifi than have to pack up and move mid-way through something if the drill were to happen. There is a distinct odor of urine around me that I hope I haven’t sat on top of. I’ve seen a number of my clients walk by and passed even more on my way to the library. The way that they and I interact in public, while largely driven by them, is yet another set of boxes. Sometimes we exist in completely distinct worlds and frames and there is no acknowledgement of the other. Sometimes, like yesterday, we’ll run into each other downtown and walk a block together, talking and enjoying the day, before going our separate ways.

I get to go home

I ran into three of my past and current clients at the grocery store yesterday. The grocery store just blocks from my house.

On my way to church or to the pharmacy I pass by another church, one with a large overhanging porch. Every night there are people sitting there, all wrapped in sheets and blankets.

As I was walking home from the pharmacy this afternoon, I passed that place and reflected back to an exchange I had just before leaving work yesterday. I went to talk with someone, as they requested, minutes before I was due to leave. On realizing that our discussion was going to take longer than I had, I asked if I could defer it until the next day or if they would mind speaking with one of my co-workers. They got really upset, a “what good are you to me” kind of upset. But I have learned that if I do not set boundaries, I could very easily be there all day and all night working with people.

It hits me every day: I get to go home. I go to work, spend eight hours working with people to find housing, deal with past (and current) trauma, or overcome addictions, and then I get to go home to my warm home, cook a meal I want to eat, and then curl up in my bed. I get to go home.

There is Always a Story

It always amazes me that people are so intrigued by the work I do at the emergency shelter. I never really stop to think about what it is that I do – I just do it. When the job offer came, I didn’t stop and think about whether or not I would take the job, I just did. So I always feel a little uncomfortable when people express admiration for what I do: it has to be done, it is my job to do it, and I think I am good at it.

Sometimes people will ask me for advise on how to interact with the homeless or ask for stories about my job. Only once, today, have I been asked if I have met a specific person. To be clear, I cannot ever say (for legal/privacy reasons) if someone is or has been at the shelter unless they have signed a release of information for me to talk with that person/group. And so I did not confirm or deny the presence of an individual when asked today… but as my friend described her friend’s sister and what circumstance may have led to her being homeless, it brought home the fact that everyone I meet at the shelter has a back-story that I don’t always get to know. Everyone is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, son. There are people who love them, care about them, search for them or who have given up on them. There is always a story. It can be hard to look past the mental illness or drug addictions sometimes and see that. It can be hard, in the moment, to realize that an individual may once have behaved or existed in a completely different way to how they do right now.

So to my friend with whom I shared this short conversation today, thank you for the reminder that each person has that other side to their life, that they have a bigger story.

“The Irish Poet” attends Synod

Last night was the opening evening of this years synod for the Diocese of BC. I hadn’t intended to go to any of it except the registration time to staff a PWRDF information table, but I ended up going to the opening Eucharist. It was the usual collection of priests, deacons, bishops, and bunch of random lay-keeners… and the Irish Poet.

The Cathedral is a downtown church. We’re not as downtown as the churches that are right beside Our Place, but downtown we are. The south lawn of the Cathedral is a great place to hang out with shopping carts and buggies full of belongings and on cold days like the last few, people living on the street will come inside the church whenever it is open.

Last night was no exception. Mid-way through the service, a bent man in a long jacket carrying a bulky bag over his shoulder, long stringy hair falling in front of his face, walked in and sat down in one of the last pews in a side chapel. The words of the bishop chanting the liturgy were punctuated by loud words and curses from the man who had walked in. I sensed one of the priests sitting a the back head out to speak with a verger who came in to keep an eye on the situation and I hoped that would be all that was needed. I work with this population every day… can’t I have a church service to myself?

As he continued to speak, one of the deacons went over to sit and talk with him. I tried to focus on the words the bishop was saying… “You who sat with outcasts and sinners…” A chuckle escaped me. The irony. The timing. Am I supposed to have a different response than just sitting here and receiving from this service? I just want a break from working with folks like him. I don’t want to do this right now, God.  Can’t someone else just deal with this? But no one else really wants to “deal with this” – it is uncomfortable and a little scary. But there were the words of the liturgy… Do we actually get what we are supposed to be and do with the outcasts of our society?

Then it was time to go up for communion. I knelt, elbow to elbow with others – not outcasts – and received the bread and wine. As I walked back to my seat, the deacon who had been sitting with the man at the back of the church got up to take her turn for communion. So I walked over, “Can I sit here?” “Sure, I don’t care. You’re beautiful.” Yeah, how is that for an opener. I sat, we talked. He had an Irish accent and I think I recognized him as the one we call “The Irish Poet” at work. He ranted on about church and religion and how it is all full of bullshit. I agreed, after all, so much of the tradition and trappings associated with church really does seem like a load of bullshit. We talked some more. About smoking, the pope, Beethoven, and various other things.

Then he got agitated and got up, so I walked outside with him. Standing on the front steps, I was shivering in just my sweater, but he didn’t seem to notice the cold. We talked more. Then, just as quickly, the conversation was over. He said he had to pee and was going to pee on the church. I suggested he head around to the side of the building so he wouldn’t be in plain view and he said he didn’t care. “Well, it was nice to talk with you. Have a good evening.” No acknowledgement as he walked away.

Still shivering, I went back inside just as the recessional hymn was ending and all the priests in their fancy robes were congregating at the back of the church, oblivious to the conversations that had been going on out of their line of sight. Despite our best attempts at “reaching out” to the broader community we find ourselves in, I felt a strange disconnect in that 10 step walk from the front steps with the Poet to the back of the nave with the procession. How do we bridge that gap?

A Modern Christmas?

What do kicking someone out of their halfway house-type accommodation, calling emergency mental health services and then having someone forcibly removed from the premises by police, and finding a dead body have in common? Apparently they are all in a weeks work when you work at the largest emergency shelter in town.

But that isn’t what I came here to write about. I had wanted to write a story of happiness, of Christmas spirit and Christmas joy at work in the emergency shelters.

We are all familiar with the story of two young people travelling a long distance, one preggo, only to find there is no where for them to stay when they get to their destination. I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to think about whether or not they had money for a place even if there was one to be found, but like it or not, they were homeless.

How might that story translate to 2011?

It is Christmas Eve and this young family with three children under six finds themselves unable to sleep in their car as they have been for the last while: it is raining and the back window is broken. Not only that but they have no food. Alone and strangers in town, they make their way to the emergency shelter.

Sorry, we can’t take children. We are a 19+ shelter only.

But what about families? Where are families supposed to go?

We’ll call the Ministry and see what they suggest … They are closed until Tuesday, there is nothing we can do … We’ll check with the Housing workers at the Community Centre that administers our family units … Also on holidays … Well, we just happen to have one of our family units vacant at the moment. It isn’t large, in fact there is only 1 bedroom for the five of you, but it is warm and dry and you can leave your small car in the parking lot …

And so some staff members went grocery shopping and then shopping to get Christmas gifts for three youngsters who’s parents were afraid to tell them it was Christmas Eve for fear of disappointing them with another year of nothing.

While it isn’t much, it is five more people out of the cold with a dry roof over their heads and a stable floor below their feet. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.