Saturday, November 2


Experience marginality and
replenish the reservoir of compassion. 
-- Henri Nouwen

I arrived at the east entrance bewildered to see the metal detectors, armed guards.
     "I think I'm at the wrong entrance."
     "Where you headed?"
     "Employment First?"
     "This is the place.  Bag in the tray.  Empty your pockets."
I passed through the detector and sighed at the beep.
     "What you got in there?" he said with a sly smile, grabbing the wand, remembering all the others.
     "Buckles on my boots."
     "Oh, yes."

In these first moments of the exercise, one I tasked myself, deemed as spiritual - that of moving myself into the margins, I wanted to turn around, forget it.  But my name was on a list somewhere and I had to trade my presence for help.  Just like everyone.

In the room: name signed, cold plastic chair, forms read, expectations announced.  The girl to my left, bracelets rattling, blond hair attractive, moved here for a job that didn't last long enough -- rug pulled out from under her.  The women on my right, red plaid shirt, dark sad eyes, badly mumbled what little she said.  I wanted to find out more stories to connect the paths that brought us together. All of us image of God and human flesh.  But this room persisted in silence and sighs.


Last month I signed our family up for food stamps.  It was an afterthought, a "let's give it a try" moment. While I filled out the application for a different state aid program I simply checked that box too.   

Just a few days later, a warm and unexpected efficiency, the phone call came for an intake interview.  It seemed like an afterthought when she said, "Because you are underemployed you qualify for Employment First.  It's attached to your food assistance.  Can you come to the orientation?"
     "We'll go over job interview skills, resumes, workplace training."
     "Uh, ok."
     "Great.  See you then."

When the form arrived in the mail it said something about "attending all meetings."  Something else about a case manager.  I felt trapped.  I have a calling; I don't need a job.  I struggled with pride.  With guilt.  With shame. I tried to breathe in the greater good.

In the room: together we filled in our blanks, signed the yellow page, made a choice from the list.

"Eight hours of volunteer work before next week."
"Another meeting on Wednesday."
"Bring twelve employer contacts with you."
"Volunteering starts now.  Color a bag for Project Angelheart.  No 'God Bless You' statements."

Our table was tasked with collating forms before we drew autumn scenes on the brown bags that would carry meals to the threatened lives.  I stuffed hard the pride that wanted to roll the eyes. The sad-eyed woman seemed grateful to do what she needed to.  At least she wasn't needing the meal her bag would carry to the dying.  I followed her response and picked up my crayon.
"In a state of reverence we stand in the full presence of another, while being fully present ourselves. There is deep acceptance and love in this state, as we encounter the image of God in each other." L.L. Barkat
I wanted to do this as a spiritual exercise.  I wanted to grow in hospitality as a fundamental expression of the gospel. I wanted be a more hospitable host, one that anticipated the kingdom, one that welcomed the margins.  Hospitality isn't just a momentary kindness, or as the social services model, a well-managed give and take that labeled me according to my need and maintained my isolation. I didn't need another job. I didn't need to volunteer at a thrift store to learn skills.  I needed to eat and I needed to be seen.

But I also needed to be a stranger; to be pressed to the margins again.  I can already say I've been homeless.  I can say I've endured a long season of unemployment. But if I'm going to open myself up to a ministry for anyone, then I needed to know what these brothers and sisters have to do to be helped.  I needed to know in a first-hand way and to move into their suffering and build a house there.
"The most transformative hosts are 'bridge people'."  Christine Pohl
At the three-hours end, I felt too many barriers to move forward with this experiment. My new friends were going to have to work hard and show up and get signed off and keep returning just to eat.  I had tasted the same smokey air, waited in the same line, chose from the same lists of workplaces, sat in the same abashed silence.  I took my name off the list.  I would eat another way.

I'm not a stranger. I'm loved and known by friends who see me.  Whose children pick corn right from the stalk and pile it into bags and offer it to me to take home.  Today my community fed me.  And I would do the same for them or for anybody.  Because caring for others is caring for Jesus.  And when my new brothers and sisters come around I can say to their story, "I know what those first steps are like.  Come in."