Here’s the radio show that first aired Oct. 14, 2016.
Here’s the radio show that first aired Oct. 14, 2016.
You might think that the way to end poverty is to give someone money, the way to end homelessness, to give someone a home. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly that quick or that easy.
At Triune Mercy Center, the church that I pastor, our case managers were getting discouraged: They’d work hard to help someone obtain housing only to see him lose it a few months later. Our social worker Robin Barton told me, “So many of our folks think getting a place to stay will solve all their problems. But after they get a place and get caught up on sleep, they wake up to find they still have problems and still have mountains of work ahead of them. It can be a scary moment. Some crack under that pressure and turn to addictions, or allow their mental health issues to flare up, or self-sabotage so they won’t have to deal with the problems that were under the surface while they were homeless.”
To address the problem, she and case manager Kathy Sharp created a monthly Welcome Home support group for newly housed parishioners. Together they talk over the issues — the isolation that comes once they’ve left the streets, bill paying, budgeting, the unexpected quiet.
Participants choose the topic for each meeting: This summer, they requested a cooking lesson. Robin and Kathy taught a simple rice dish, and gave out pots and pans to take home.
“They discuss things like ‘Now I see why the Rescue Mission made us go to bed early,’ or ‘I miss the accountability at the shelter,’ ” Robin reports. “They speak of not wanting to turn the lights on for too long as they worry about their power bill.”
Through lively discussions, participants share as much with each other as the professionals share with them.
Our partners at United Ministries’ Place of Hope have joined us. In fact, they’ve been so pleased with the results that they now require Welcome Home for anyone they help to house.
“Our participants have been very happy for the support,” said Robin. “I tell them every time we meet that we dream for everyone to have a place to stay. Their success gives us joy and hope for others to also get housing.”
Robert is one of our most faithful parishioners at the Triune Mercy Center — both in church and in the art room. He was living on the street when we met, but he’s been housed since 2012 — when our first social worker recognized a condition that could get him qualified for disability. He’s been doing beautifully ever since, keeping an immaculate house and participating actively in the art room.
At last spring’s art auction at the Hyatt Regency, he and professional artist Judy Zeimer contributed a vinyl floor mat with a stunning painting of fish. It sold for several hundred dollars.
But beyond his paintings, Robert contributes wisdom. We call his pronouncements “Robert-isms,” and our volunteers keep a running commentary taped to the art room door.
Here are a few:
* You think backwards, you go backwards.
* It doesn’t get done looking at it.
* God takes a bad situation and makes it into a message.
* A half truth is a whole lie.
* Listen with your eyes and see with your ears.
* If you stay ready, you’re always ready.
* People with money have got no time. People with no money have got nothing but time.
* If it starts with a lie, it ends with a lie.
* You learn a lot by just being quiet.
Robert doesn’t talk to me a lot. He ducks his head and politely murmurs “Pastor Deb” when we pass.
So I was surprised when, on the night of the auction, he stopped me and made a point of speaking. “I just want you know how glad I am to have Triune to come to,” he said.
Then he bowed his head, and walked off.
Occasionally, I learn a lot by just being quiet.
My seminary dean once told me that divinity school is a lot like the counseling profession. Troubled people become therapists, he said. Folks hurt by religion enroll in seminary.
“So what we do,” he said, “is graduate a lot of educated, broken people.”
I’m not sure a memoirist is much different: We explore difficult or hurtful areas of our lives in search of … something. Meaning, maybe. Clarity. Direction.
In my case, I wrote The Weight of Mercy because the memories of the most traumatic three years of my life were fading. I was glad to see them go, but I wanted those memories to teach me something. And so I wrote.
The book is about my landing, fresh out of seminary, as pastor of a mission church to the homeless. As a longtime writer for The Greenville News and an occasional contributor to the Greenville Journal, I thought I knew Greenville. I thought I knew its issues. I thought I knew its poverty. I was mistaken.
The Triune Mercy Center flattened me. I was like one of those bop-a-clowns with sand in the bottom. Punch it and it bounces back upright. That was me – until I got to Triune.
My experiences among the homeless and drug addicted and alcoholic and mentally ill and mentally challenged staggered me. This was a population I scarcely knew existed, hidden under bridges and in abandoned buildings and in the woods. The surreal combination of everyday niceties and casual violence, of generosity and endless begging, of surprising compassion and shocking abuse upended my balance. As I explored my horror and distaste, my nightmares punctuated by lightning bolts of grace, I bargained with God: One year, I prayed. You can’t ask more of me than one year.
Well, actually he could. And did. Along the way, I met some of his more intriguing children. One child-like man began burping so loudly during a morning service that I had to halt the sermon and ask him to stop. “But Pastor,” he called from the front pew, “I swallowed some wind.”
Another man traveled the country, hopping trains from soup kitchen to soup kitchen. Smelling of cheap whiskey, he came into Triune one rainy Saturday, passed out, woke up and spied me. Leaping to his feet, he sent a metal chair clattering into a wall, and shrieked, “You BITCH! Don’t you know you’re not even supposed to BE here? Paul said women aren’t supposed to preach!”
And that was before the sermon.
When people find out what I do, they inevitably say, “That must be so rewarding,” or “You must love your work.” Dispensing mercy at a place with mercy in its title – what could be better?
But mercy can have an underside, a heaviness, a weight. “I would rather smoke crack than live in a house,” one man told me. I pass him sometimes on my way to work, panhandling in the median of six-lane Pleasantburg Drive. Sometimes I roll down my window and remind him we’re still there, still feeding, still worshiping, still offering access to drug treatment. I never give him money. He knows better than to ask.
I struggle constantly with the line between empowering and enabling, helping and hurting. This book is the story of that struggle.
It is also the story of a dying church’s struggle to redefine itself in the face of a changing neighborhood. Police call our section of Greenville “the homeless triangle,” and every city has one. The question for a church in such a place is pretty basic: Do we become a forum or a fortress?
In choosing “forum” at Triune, we’ve done some counterintuitive things to bring housed and homeless people together. So in addition to things you might expect – hot meals, clothes, groceries, laundry services – we offer some things you might not – gardening, art, volunteerism, opera.
I hope this book will show people in other cities what can happen when a church opens its doors to the homeless, when it allows ministry to flourish not to them but alongside them. I hope it launches conversations about the complexity of life among the homeless.
I hope it encourages others to take on the weight of mercy.