Late last fall, Becky and I thought it would be a good idea to take folks out to the movies. People spend so much time stuck in Waltham, we thought, how great it could be to have a field trip out of the city. Excited by our idea, Becky and I chose a date and time, selected a movie, and picked a cinema. We had a clear and well-organized plan. But much to our surprise and disappointment, only five people came. Thus, we wondered – Why did so few people want to go with us? We realized that we had made this whole plan without actually consulting with the very people we were trying to support. And, at least for me, I saw how much this lack of consultation reflected a way in which people living in poverty and homelessness are not seen as capable of making good or healthy decisions about their own lives.
This lack of trust has a profound impact on the lives of people deprived of housing. Too many aspects of life on the streets or in shelters are dictated by the polices, rules, and timings of others; the shelter tells its “guests” when they have to leave the shelter, when they have to return for the night (and, if you miss curfew, you can be barred from the shelter), which day they can do laundry, and when they can go outside for a cigarette. The soup kitchen tells people what they will eat for dinner, what time the food will be served, the order of who eats (military veterans, women, and then men), and when it is ok to get an extra helping. Even at Chaplains on the Way, we chaplains create a set of service offerings – meditation on Wednesday mornings, Spiritual Arts evenings on Tuesday, etc. – that are largely dictated by our own sense of when and what could be meaningful for folks in our communities.
I do not mean to suggest here that the shelters, soup kitchen, or COTW are bad-intentioned or cruel organizations. So many of the people doing this work are doing it out of a deep sense of care and a desire to support folks living in homelessness. However, the service organizations rarely look for input from the “guests” themselves, and this, I believe, is connected to a deeply held mentality that poor folks, and perhaps particularly those who are deprived of housing, cannot be trusted to make good choices. And then, because we assume that folks cannot be trusted, it is up to the staff to create and maintain all the rules and regulations. This ethic is so embedded in the way we have learned to think about poverty and homelessness that Becky and I didn’t even consider consulting anyone about what they might want for their own field trip (or even if a field trip made any sense).
At the same time, despite being deeply embedded in a culture that dehumanizes poverty, one of the beautiful things that I appreciate about Chaplains on the Way is that our ministry asks us to see and reflect back the beauty and goodness of people our communities. As such, we spend our days constantly witnessing the strength, wisdom, and creativity of people deprived of housing in Waltham. And so, as Becky and I reflected on the movie field trip experience, we started to imagine what it would be if we pushed back against this deep-seated mistrust and placed more faith in our communities. We began by asking people what spiritual practices they might enjoy, which led us to offer our first community yoga class. And, as an even bigger step, we started talking with people about creating a new Community Leadership Group for folks experiencing homelessness in Waltham. This group is intended to help build a sense of community and collective strength, and for people in our communities to work towards goals that they deem important. To help with this new initiative we applied for, and received, a Jean Wood Preston Foundation transformative innovation grant from First Parish Lincoln, and we held our first community meeting in April.
We are tremendously excited about this work and in finding ways to honor and raise up the voices, wisdom, strengths, and full humanity of people deprived of housing. People have so many great ideas about the needs of folks on the street, and there is much energy and interest in the new leadership group. And as chaplains our roles are to hold the space, facilitate the meetings, and accompany and companion the group with love and compassion. It is a new and somewhat scary venture; we have very little idea about what the group will want to work on, or what direction the whole thing will take. And this is the point. We are placing our trust and faith in folks we love. We hold the space with care. And we accompany them as they go on their way.
Thank you for placing your faith in this ministry and these communities.
Come visit us some day!
Development Director & Chaplain