"God knows why"

Last night we found out one of our guests has had alcohol problems, when she got some bad news about her kids and had too much to drink (after a month of sobriety). Heather and I ended up driving her to her sister's place, because she wanted to get out of the house, and it was raining and dark and we were worried she would go out walking alone.

On the hour-long drive she started singing softly. A favorite of hers, by Kid Rock. These words caught my ear:

People don't know about the things I say and do
They don't understand about the shit I've been through
Its been so long since I've been home
I've been gone, I've been gone way too long
Maybe I've forgotten all the things I miss
Oh, somehow I know there is more to life than this

...So I think I'll keep a walking with my head held high
I'll keep moving on and only God knows why
Only God, Only God,
Only God knows why


Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,
and into them enters suffering in order
that they may have existence.
-Leon Bloy


the weak response

Sunday we went to church at New Covenant Fellowship again. And during the song "We Exalt Thee" I started crying. I didn't know why, and that scared me; was I getting overwhelmed already, after only a month?

Later I thought over some of the scenes from this past week:

Hearing that the couple that just moved out of here, who we congratulated and rejoiced with, is now doing drugs in their new apartment.

Talking with the woman with two children and finding out her sister had pushed them out of the grandmother's home onto the street, and seemed to be trying to get custody of the kids.

Bringing out some food and blankets for Dan and his dog, and listening while he explained how his van (his only home, with all his belongings) had been towed in a random sweep to discourage football fans from parking in a McDonald's parking lot during games.

Seeing Willy again, who had been injured in a fight on our porch, now in a neck brace with ugly red scrapes on his face, sitting in our kitchen after receiving food and blankets again--and calmly saying he might try to sue us.
How do you respond to this? I've heard some volunteers say, "It's no big deal, I've seen this again and again; you better get used to it." That's said easily, but I think the path to that answer is a hard and sad one. Then there's the tendency to just slam the door. Another volunteer spoke of that. When there's just too many people asking for things, too many hard-luck stories, too many to keep the door open because they just keep coming in. But how often can we slam the door before we just keep it shut?

Then there's the weak response. Tears. I think they scare me because in situations with so much need, tears feel like giving in to helplessness. They feel like a collapse. And if we're crying, who's answering the door?

But after pondering that all day yesterday, I believe that tears may be exactly what is needed. Because it's not us who are responsible for holding things together. It's God. What we're asked to do is try. And to care. And weep with those who weep. Even if we trust God completely so that we do not despair but fully believe that all things work together for good, we can still cry for the suffering and confusion of those we meet. If we really love them, we will cry.

I shouldn't be afraid of facing the next person because I might cry. I should be confident that I can face the next person because I might cry.


"I Want You"

The pizza was good last night, then for entertainment we chased a squirrel out of Mary's room.

Squirrels can be pretty scary when cornered, I found out.

Later a woman called, trying to find a place to stay for a woman with two young kids. I said we didn't have a room available. Then she got agitated, because she had called several places and they all said they were full. What was this woman to do, she demanded. Why wouldn't anyone help? I said we had couches available, but that wasn't a good place for children long-term, with all the people that came here for the soup kitchen. The woman became impatient and indignant, she even threatened to "write the editor."

That's when I started to get irritated. "Your indignation won't get you anywhere," I said. "I just can't believe that no one will help," she persisted. "Why don't you take her in," I asked. She paused then said, more quietly, "I don't know her."

I don't accept the idea that it is the "job" of charitable organizations to take care of people in need. Maybe people can take that attitude with social service organizations, run by government employees with tax money, but not with places like this, where everyone is volunteers and the money comes from personal donations. And Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that caring for people in need is not something to be delegated but should be done by us personally, when we encounter the need. This woman seemed to think that she was doing her part by giving money to charities (and demanding services for the mother and children). But what was needed last night was not money or anger but a place to sleep.

The woman's "righteous" indignation drained away when I pointed this out and we began to talk about a way to help. We finally agreed to let the mom and kids sleep on the pull-out couch last night and then try to find another place for them today. The woman seemed relieved and grateful.

And, after a pancake breakfast this morning, we did find another place. Those kids were beautiful, with bright smiles and curly hair. And they warmed up to us quickly. When we dropped them off, the little boy asked Heather, "Can you come with us?"


don't forget the cheese

Tonight I'm making homemade pizza, like I used to do every Friday night back at Reba Place. I found a huge cache of pepperoni in a freezer, green peppers and mushrooms came in the grocery donation yesterday, and this morning a volunteer happened to show up with a big bag of cheese. Our hope is in you, Father, who richly provide all things for us to enjoy.


Heather's day

Here's something Heather just wrote, a description of a day last week. I wrote about some of these incidents already (and this is pretty long), but I like Heather's perspective...

My alarm wakes me up at about 6:15; I hit the snooze once, and the second time it goes off I scramble out of bed and into my clothes in the dark; my roommate Katie (who's moving out tomorrow) is still asleep. I make it out the door just a little after 6:30, when Paul was supposed to meet me in the living room, but he's not there.

Paul sleeps in "the Big House," where the guests live. (These are the homeless folks staying with us; we call them guests as part of our ethos--that this is hospitality in the biblical sense rather than an efficient social service.) I sleep in the little Annex, where only volunteers live. They're on different streets connected by a shared, unfenced backyard and just to be safe we've decided Paul would come get me in the mornings instead of my walking alone.

I wait for Paul, and do the Annex dishes while I wait. He hasn't come and it's about seven, so I decide that just this once I might as well go ahead;. Turns out Paul was there at 6:30 but left again; he thought & hoped I'd slept through my alarm, thinks I needed it. We sit down on the couch in the office, where he sleeps, and have a shortened devotions together; I'm tired so I just listen to him chant a psalm & then read the Gospel reading out loud, then we chant the Magnificat together. Hoefully tomorrow there'll be time for more prayer. By this time the guests are stirring: I say good morning to Jeanine, off to her new temp job very early, and it's seven thirty, time to wake up Heather who's sleeping on the living room couch. I wake her up, ask her a few questions about how things are going; she's fairly new. She's a more middle-class type about my age, fallen on crazy problems involving a pot-smoking roommate who aggravates her asthma & can't be made to respect her needs; she just needs a temporary bed until she can get it worked out. She has a concern from yesterday; she was in the living room in the morning and one of the volunteers who come in to cook for soup kitchen was watching her like a hawk, making her uncomfortable. (She's not used to being a Homeless Person; any of the other guests would have known what that was about, though they'd have felt no less disrespected.) Sorry about that, I tell her, it's just that sometimes people are scared when they don't know who someone is; next time try introducing yourself and explaining your situation.

I go back into the kitchen to make my breakfast, say good morning to Tyette who's passing through, chat a little with Darcy as we get coffee: how did she sleep? Better than she had in days, with the cooler weather. But her husband Robert, who sleeps at the Salvation Army shelter and just got a roofing job, wasn't able to work yesterday because of the rain. Robert and Darcy came here from Indianapolis; they felt they needed to leave town because the relatives they were living with were getting involved with drugs. They are very determined to get on their feet.

I make oatmeal and sit down with Paul to eat it; the doorbell rings. It's a man wearing a look I know well; it's a look that says, "I just need this one thing. Please, please help me get it. If I can't get help I don't know what I'm going to do." We see that look around here plenty, and having worn it before myself, I tend to move into quick action mode at the sight of it. He needs a bus ticket to Danville; they've changed his court date, he just found out today, and if he can't get there they'll issue a warrant for his arrest. He doesn't know where else to go to get the money for the bus ticket; please. I call over to the Annex, since I'm not yet a signer on the Emergency Assistance account, and Florence informs me that a ticket to Danville only costs about $10 and yes, she thinks we can provide that. I run over and after a little confusion, we end up waking Andy (since Florence isn't a signer either) and getting him to sign a check. I leave my oatmeal in the fridge so that it's out of the way of the soup kitchen volunteers, as Paul and I walk with our new friend Charles down to the bus station; we talk about Jesus some--Charles tells us how he thinks ministers should come out and talk to the people where they're at instead of just telling them to come to church; sometimes they don't even have the transportation to get there. (As we well know.) Jesus, he says, went to where the people were, he walked around everywhere and didn't wait for them to come to him. We agree. Later we get on the topic of money. All these people, says Charles, gesturing around at the street, are just "chasing the dollar bill"; you talk to them about Jesus they won't listen, but you talk to them about money and they're all ears. He used to be like that, but he's trying to get straightened out. We get to the station and buy him a ticket with the check, and he thanks us; his bus leaves at four so he says he'd like to come back to the soup kitchen around noon when we're there (we eat at the soup kitchen too, and chat with the guests; over seventy of them, mostly men from other shelters, eat there daily) and maybe pray with us before he leaves. Yes, we'd like that.

We get home and I grab my oatmeal and take it over to the annex to eat it out of the bustle of soup kitchen preparation. A different team of volunteers comes in every day; on Fridays it's us live-in volunteers. Other days we might pitch in if they're short-handed, but otherwise we get out of their way. I sit down in the living room with the Jacques Ellul reading we've been handed out by Katie, who's organizing an all-volunteer discussion about it this afternoon. It's nice to sit down. I'm learning to use the hours that are normally work-hours for rest, writing, or personal errands--since most of my actual work seems to cluster around mealtimes and evenings. Another thing I'm learning is that I need to keep some reserve energy for the emotional work--communication, peacemaking, being able to summon the right reactions when a guest starts bad-mouthing another volunteer to me or when I hear that a guest has been stolen from.

I walk down to the bank before lunch to deposit a check. I've made a miscalculation & overdrawn my account. I walk home stressing; the fee is going to eat a large chunk of the monthly stipend I share with Paul, and if I'm going to lose money I'd rather give it to someone who needs it, not BankOne. I run into Robert and Darcy in front of the house and chat, and when they ask me where I've been I tell them the whole thing because it's weighing on my mind, and they're sympathetic. I walk away meditating on how it really does feel right, somehow, for us not to have that much more money than them. This is part of the ethos as well; this is voluntary poverty.

Paul and I hang around on the porch with the men waiting for their lunch; we check inside once or twice to see how long the line is, and to see if Charles is there. The line is really long, and he isn't. We chat with the people on the porch a little; how's the food today, etc. Finally we decide it's too crowded today and we don't want to take someone' spot, so we go back to the Annex and put together some leftovers, then come back for soup-kitchen closing time--we try to always be there since an unpleasant incident between a guest & a volunteer; we're there as a buffer, basically, because the guys know us better.

Paul tells me, as we walk back, that one of the regulars, Grace, an older Korean lady rumored not to be quite "all there," had her lost purse returned to her and counted its considerable financial contents in front of everybody. One of the guests told him people were watching that money like a hawk and maybe someone should walk her home. I agree heartily; there she goes, let's follow her. I run in and grab an umbrella (did I mention it's raining?) and we follow her down Springfield Avenue, "shadowing," feeling like a couple of spies. We're not sure how she would take it if we said, "Mind if we walk you home?" But we do catch up with her eventually, offer her room under the umbrella, and walk her within a few blocks of home.

We go home. I sit down in the Annex living room and finish the reading (almost) and then we have our discussion. It's an interesting discussion, stimulating; it's also a good point of entry to talk about faith with my co-workers, who are all Christians in one sense or another (and whatever the "sense," do take their faith in Christ seriously) but with whom I'm still feeling out to know how much common ground we have. (Incidentally, our current guests are all Christians & Paul and I may end up going to church with Robert and Darcy.) The reading is about "the sacred," a word Ellul uses in a social sense: what is this society organized around, what cannot be questioned? What is the idol that holds the tribe together? (He does include religions under this--as organizing principles for societies--but he sets Christianity apart, as something people have sometimes made into a "religion" but which isn't supposed to be, being true.) He sees technology (or "technique," the technical ability to manipulate matter in general) as one of the chief things our society (Western society) holds sacred. As a new idol, in fact. Interesting.

We get done with the discussion and it's 4:30, the time the Big House opens again. (We close it from 1:30 to 4:30 & everybody leaves.) Paul and I are "on the House" tonight: it's our job to cook supper, take care of whatever comes up, answer phone & door & requests, and close up at 9:30. Actually someone else is coming over to cook supper; how lucky we are.

Paul reads in the office; I sit in the living room with my mending, a donated down coat with a rip in it, and chat with the guests about their day. They're in a good mood today, much better than I expected; they tease each other and laugh. Darcy offers around a box of Runts and a box of Nerds she bought today; I say, "I like Nerds" and she cracks, "Yeah Heather, we noticed that already." We all laugh. Melvin, Tyette's husband, says that whoever gets that coat I'm mending better appreciate it. We start talking about what we're doing after supper and Tyette coughs into her hand "TV! TV!" We decided in the last house meeting that on weeknights we'd watch movies (borrowed from the local library) only if the idea had general consent.

Then Peter Woods, friend of the House, shows up to cook dinner just as we were discussing whether he really existed, declines any help, and twenty minutes later calls us all in for spaghetti. We eat, ask him about himself (all the volunteers that know him are somehow absent), then discuss the night's activities ("TV! TV!" Tyette coughs again) and settle on a movie called "The Glass House." I start the dishes with a guest, Vickie; she's a recent arrival and so shy (she's just come out of a hard situation) we haven't even had a chance to brief her about the house yet. She seems more expansive tonight so I start explaining a few things as we wash, then Florence comes over from the Annex and takes her into the office for a longer chat, along with her four kids for whom she provides toys that were stashed under the desk.

The dishes are taking too long. Paul and I are in the kitchen doing them and I'm supposed to be out there, it's pulling at me, I feel like a hostess who needs to entertain her guests, keep the atmosphere pleasant. Paul doesn't want me to leave him with all the dishes. Finally I just go to check on the guests and they're sitting in front of a dead TV; Melvin says, "Hey, are you guys coming or what? We're waitin' on you." "We're not done with the dishes yet." Shock. They had no idea we'd been stuck with them, they thought Vickie was helping; Melvin and Robert jump up and come back with me to the kitchen, and polish those pots off in no time flat. Paul is glad.

We start the movie, but immediately there's another problem: Sidney and Kris, Vickie's seven- and ten-year-olds, have settled down on a blanket on the living room floor, but The Glass House appears to be a fairly disturbing movie. I go to the office and ask Vickie whether she has preferences about what her kids watch. To my great relief, she says she's "kind of picky" about their movie viewing and comes out to call them away--and they come without protest. I breathe a thank-you prayer; I've really been worried about the kids & movie situation. Florence pulls out some games and sets them up on the dining-room table and shuts the door to the living-room: perfect. Looks like it's not movie night for me tonight. I spend the next hour playing with the kids, and in my mind laying plans to somewhere find a board game more appropriate for poor kids than Monopoly.

It's done; it's over; Kris helps me put away the game without even being asked (Glory! Hallelujah!) although the four-year-old has a hard time relinquishing the little silver Monopoly car he's been playing with for the past hour. I go back in and watch the end of the movie, in which good triumphs over evil and the young woman runs over the bad guy with a police car (hmm...) and we briefly discuss whether another movie is a good idea. I stress a little and emphasize that we need to be closed (which means husbands out) by 9:30, so we'd better start it now. They start it and I go back and forth from the TV to the clock in the office a few times, and finally calculate that it might be about quarter to ten when it's done; I stress, but the rules aren't inflexible, it's our call when we're on the house, and we decide to see how it goes. I never, as I've told the guests, watch two movies in a row, so I sit on the office couch with Paul, reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. After a long while things get really quiet. It's 9:30 by the clock; Paul says he thinks he'll just go close the door now at least. He returns with the news that the movie is off, and everyone's clearing out; Melvin's already sacked out on the porch, Robert's off home to the Salvation Army, and everyone's getting ready for bed.


We sit and hug for a minute and are glad together. It's been a long day, but a good day. Better than most, even a lot better; there's been a lot of conflict in the house lately, and an evening like this is a blessing from God. Paul walks me home, says goodnight at the door, and "Sleep well." "I will," I say with conviction.

But of course, Song of Solomon is so good that I sabotage my next morning by reading it until midnight.

Good night.


"for us to enjoy"

Heather and I went with Andy to some local grocery stores this morning, to pick up their day-old bakery items and other food that they were going to discard. Those things we couldn't use we then took to another soup kitchen (that makes soup with their leftovers and gives some back to us). And a big food bank delivery came in today as well. So the pantry is overflowing.

It made me think of this prayer for meal times, inspired by 1 Timothy 6.17:

Our hope is in you, Father,
Who richly provide all things
for us to enjoy. Amen.


in the cracks

The night before last there were a couple of guys that showed up on the porch late, very drunk, asking for some blankets and pillows. As I went to get them, one of the guys opened the door and came into the house and I had a hard time getting him to leave; he was ungrateful and angry and aggressive. But I finally left them outside with bedding and locked the door again.

Just I was getting into bed, one of the women started yelling that there was a fight. I hurried to dress and went out. And the belligerent guy was lying in the driveway beside the house, unconscious and bleeding from the head. He had apparently been thrown over the side of the porch by the other guy and fallen about ten feet to the pavement. Someone called 911.

Paramedics came quickly, and also the police. There were sirens and flashlights in our faces and many questions; the police were suspicious of everyone, including me. Then the injured man, Willy, was taken to the hospital and the other man, Kenny, was taken by the police. Everyone was shaken by the experience.

The next morning, Heather and I took a walk, trying to work out some of the tension of the previous day. We climbed a tree in the park and sat together. Heather cried.

Then I said I thought our love was especially important here. I said it was like a flower that grows up between the cracks in the sidewalk in a rundown neighborhood. That flower is precious. It is a sign of hope. Heather said she loved seeing flowers growing in the cracks.

I meant our love of each other, but also the love that comes from God for everyone we meet. It's really a tender and fragile thing. Easily crushed, if we let it be. And often overlooked because of the harshness and brokenness all around. But it is life. An inspiration to anyone who notices it, a gift of God to remind us that he can reach us anywhere.

To tend that precious, tender, fragile flower in the cracks. That is my most important task here, I think.

I have to remember to call the hospital again today to check on Willy.



John was sleeping out in the back yard when I got up yesterday morning. His power wheelchair was plugged in, recharging, as it often is when he's here.

The first thing you notice about John is that his legs are missing, just below the knees. He has prosthetic legs that he can walk on, in a kind of lurching way that seems uncomfortable for him. I don't know John's story, but I've seen him here often, helping out at the soup kitchen, cleaning up and mopping. Friday he was clearing the table while I ate. But he didn't have his legs on. He was moving around the table on his knees, taking people's plates when they were done and wiping the place clean for the next person. Quietly, on his knees.

How's that for servanthood?



I've been reading and liking The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. It's about the crazy family of a minor league pitching coach. Here's an interesting piece from the book (slightly edited):

K (kā) verb, K'ed, K'ing. 1. baseball: to strike out. 2. to fail, to flunk, to fizzle, or 3. to fall short, fall apart, fall flat, fall by the wayside, or on deaf ears, or hard times, or into disrepute or disrepair, or 4. to come unglued, come to grief, come to nothing, or 5. to blow your cover, blow your chances, blow your cool, buy the farm, bite the dust, only 6. to recollect an oddball notion you first heard as a crimeless and un-K'ed child but found so nonsensically paradoxical that you had to ignore it or defy it or betray it for decades before you could begin to believe that it might possibly be true, which is that 7. to lose your money, your virginity, your teeth, health or hair, 8. to lose your home, your balance, your friends, 9. to lose your happiness, your hopes, your leisure, your looks, and, yea, even your memories, your vision, your mind, your way,

10. in short (and as Jesus K. Rist once so uncompromisingly put it) to lose your very self,

11. for the sake of another, is

12. sweet irony, the only way you're ever going to save it.

Though, actually, Jesus didn't say "for the sake of another," but "for my sake" (Lk 9.24). A significant difference, I think...


love inspiring love

Some good memories from the last couple days:

Enjoying breakfast sandwiches (egg and Canadian bacon on fresh-baked biscuits) and coffee with guests out on the front porch, warmed by the sun after a cold night.

Not being able to hear while I was talking on the phone, because all the people at dinner were laughing so loudly.

Heather playing a board game with the four boys in the dining room (and trying to keep the 2-year-old from stealing the pieces), while the other guests ate popcorn and watched a movie in the living room.

A soup kitchen guest happily firing up the grill out back to cook some steaks he had gleaned from somewhere.

Hearing a young woman start crying with relief when she heard she could stay on our couch (she is trying to move away from an alcoholic husband, and four other places had just turned her away).

Watching Heather carefully sew a torn down-filled jacket so we could give it to one of the guests.

Inviting a (surprised) homeless couple in for pizza when they knocked on the door just as we were sitting down to dinner.

Hearing a guest offer to come back and volunteer when he and his wife move into their new apartment (he has also cooked for us, washed dishes, and scrubbed the porch, where he has been sleeping).

Yesterday I read Luke's story of the woman who washed Jesus' feet at dinner in a Pharisee's house. It ends this way:
Turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.

"Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little."
It's truly a generous mercy that can inspire such gratitude, such generous love. That's the kind of mercy we have received. And that's the kind of mercy we must offer. Not just the minimum, enough to scrape by, what we think the person deserves. But much more than they deserve. An overwhelming kindness that surprises them with its generosity and fills them so they want to turn and give to others. That's love inspiring love.


"Go to the people"

This morning as we were eating breakfast, a man I hadn't seen before came into the house looking nervous. He said he had a court date in the next town and needed a bus ticket. When Heather went to see if we had money for that, he asked for food so I warmed up some macaroni and cheese and brought him a cup of coffee.

As we were walking with him to the bus station, the conversation somehow turned to religion. And Charles said, "They always tell people to come to the church. But Jesus went right out to the people, he walked in their neighborhoods, their homes. That's what the pastors should do. Go to the people." I agree. We all should do that.


the "new monasticism"

Last week I noticed Christianity Today in the magazine rack in the library, with a familiar face on the cover (Shane Claiborne from the simple way). So I read the article. It was very favorable, talking not just about the simple way and Camden house (who were both at the camp meeting last month), but also Rutba house, and even mentioning Reba Place Fellowship.

It was so favorable, actually, that I wondered. How do these radical groups come off sounding so good in this mainstream Christian magazine?

The beginning of the monastic movement (i.e. the desert fathers) was very critical of society, including its religion, and their complete withdrawal was a strong statement of that critique. Other monastic "revolutions" (the Trappists breaking away from the Cistercians, which broke away from the Benedictines, for instance) were also a reaction against what they saw as the dilution and laxness of discipleship in their religious orders. So there was definitely criticism of mainstream religion there.

But in every case, the movement is eventually assimilated and given a place and role in the social and religious structure of the time. Its critique is quieted and the tension relaxes. So "monasticism" loses its radical challenge.

I assume the new monasticism also springs out of a strong critique of society and the church, and that their different way of living and serving others is meant as a prophetic challenge to the church. I guess I see signs of that in the article's complaint about "shaming messages" (to other Christians):

In intentional community movements, one sometimes senses an element of guilt that is used to manipulate suburban youths into giving their lives to work with the poor. “And the flip side of that [guilt] tends to be self-righteousness projected on everyone else,” says Jenell Williams Paris, who lived in community during college and graduate school from 1991 to 1999 and now teaches anthropology at Bethel University in Minnesota. “When I went to Philadelphia, I heard people like Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, give these, what they called, prophetic messages, and what I now understand as a lot of shaming messages to white, middle-class evangelicals.”
But I didn't hear those messages in the article, except perhaps vaguely. I'm not sure why that is (edited out, maybe?). But shouldn't the prophetic challenge be there?

This part of the article pretty well describes the prophetic role (my italics):
A group of "monks" could help American Christians better stand against the pervasive consumerism and individualism of pop culture by providing an ideal of unworldly living. As CT wrote in 1988, such a remonasticization "would look to the biblical antecedents for a select group of holy persons set apart to call all persons to holiness, such as the Old Testament Nazirites … and Jesus' calling of disciples to train and teach with the goal of drawing all Israel to the same discipleship."
But why does this sound so acceptable? Where is the opposition to the prophet?

Maybe it's because it's not clear that they are calling all Christians to the same "ideal" discipleship. Isn't that what is usually offensive? Jesus said, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [the standards of religious morality of the time], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 5.20) And he preached "Woe to you!" and "Hypocrites!" He was clear that the discipleship of the majority (even of the most respected religious leaders) was not good enough. So they hated him and saw him as threatening to the religious and social structure. But isn't that how people always reacted to the prophets?

And isn't that how people should see us as well? "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you... They will put you out of the synagogues..." (Jn 15.20, 16.2)


I'm not a Catholic Worker

Heather and I enjoyed the weekend away. In Iowa I saw friends from the Catholic Worker houses in Cleveland and South Bend, and met some interesting folk from St. Louis as well. The landscape there is beautiful rolling farm land. And worship Sunday morning was joyful and fun.

But I was also reminded of the things that I really don't like in the Catholic Worker culture. Like the emphasis on political activism, especially "arrestable actions," the Bush-bashing (even the kids were doing it), and the hyper-sensitivity to gender language ("Amen... and A-woman!"). The main point of the priest's message Sunday morning was "Whee!"--I'm not joking. But he also opened it up for others to make comments about the readings and there were some good ones, like about forgiving others, including politicial leaders and those who oppress us. I liked that. But the other stuff, which I find very hard to respect, is enough to remind me why I veered away from the Catholic Worker movement years ago, and still feel a little uncomfortable, like an outsider, at gatherings like that.

On the way back we stopped at Plow Creek farm and spent the night. We saw old friends (and new baby Elaina), were welcomed warmly, and Heather and Miranda even got to ride the horses. Then yesterday morning I sat outside as the sun was rising and listened. It was very quiet. Only the wind was moving, and as it stirred the trees it felt very familiar and comforting to me. I don't know if it was the feeling of God in nature, or the symbolism of the Spirit, but I rejoiced in it and at the same time respected it deeply. And I thought, this is the source of my identity and at-home-ness much more than any human organization or culture.

And I thought that there is wind in the trees here in Champaign as well. And that the Spirit "blows where it pleases," also among people that seem at times misguided or silly to me. There is much I respect in how the Spirit works through people here and at other houses of hospitality across the country. So I'm glad to be here. But it's clear to me that I'm not a Catholic Worker.

[Today after lunch in the soup kitchen, I went and sat by the cross outside St. Mary's. And listened to the wind rushing through the pines.]


"I'm blessed"

Mary, our grandmotherly guest, collapsed while out for a walk the day before yesterday. But she seemed okay when we visited her in the hospital last night. When I asked how she was, she replied with her usual, "I'm blessed, baby."

And then, shortly after we got back, a mother and her four boys (ages 3-10) moved in, so we have a full house now. With lots of pitter-pattering of big and little feet.

It seems like good timing for our weekend away in the country. Most of us are going to a farm in Iowa for a gathering of people from Catholic Worker houses in the midwest. I think at least a hundred people should be there. But I'm mostly looking forward to seeing some of the people I met this summer on my walk. (Then we're stopping at Plow Creek farm on our way back, so we'll be able to see our new friends from there as well.)


in the midst of the storm

The night before last, a woman called and asked to come just as I was about to lock the door. So I waited for her to show up (and got together some things for her to sleep on the couch). And a guy wanted to sleep on the porch, so I got a blanket and pillow for him. It was pretty late when I got to bed.

And volunteers start arriving here fairly early, to make lunch for 50-70 people. So it's busy all morning and very crowded until almost 2pm. Then there's a break for a few hours, but by about 4pm people are making dinner and the house is busy again.

And I've caught myself becoming part of the busyness. It's easy to do. There's so much going on and it's for a good cause. But I'm finding it tiring in more than just a physical way. I'm feeling a bit scattered and unfocused, not able to pay attention to what I'm supposed to be doing here (or at any particular moment). So I'm trying to find some space to quiet down and listen to God, to clear my head and focus.

I've started taking a walk after lunch at the soup kitchen. To St. Mary's church, about a mile's walk through town. There a big cross there, outside, with several tall pines framing it and a huge, old maple tree that provides a shady spot to sit in the grass. And it's quiet. I think the walk and some prayer there will help me.

I guess I feel a little like Mary there, sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening.

But I'd also like to learn to rest and be calm and focused in the midst of the action. It makes me think of this story:

Leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat... And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?"

And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" (Mk 4.36-40)
I like how Jesus was relaxed while everyone else was panicking and trying to control the situation themselves. He trusts that things are in God's hands. Then gets up and proves it with a word. I'd like to have that assurance, and be able to say or do the precise thing needed in any situation.

If only I could learn to sleep while everyone else is bustling around...


labor day

Going on a little farther, Jesus saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him. (Mk 1.19-20)
Yesterday we had a cook out for Labor Day, with lots of people gathered around the grill, talking and laughing. Ribs and chicken and brats. A feast for the poor.

Most of us unemployed, too. Actually, Labor Day was not mentioned. It was mentioned at mass though, when the priest reminded us that Jesus was a carpenter and connected his work with the work of the burdened laborers throughout the world, who have to work like slaves just to survive.

But should we assume Jesus worked like that? Was he dependent on his carpentry for his survival? I think it's worth noticing that he walked away from his carpentry, just as James and John walked away from their nets (and the other "hired servants"). They were not dependent on that income or slaves to their trade. And later Jesus even preached, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you." (Jn 6.27) Both he and his disciples showed what this looked like, and how God supported them in this work.

Yesterday I also thought of a scene from The Passion of the Christ. Mary comes out while Jesus is making a table and asks him about its unusual design. "It's for a rich man," Jesus (the actor) replies. I'm not sure if there was a bit of mockery in his voice, or resignation. But in either case I find it hard to imagine Jesus actually working in that way.

Jesus did serve the rich during his ministry, but it was always serving them with a warning: "Woe to you who are rich!" (Lk 6.24) What would suggest that Jesus would sell his labor to the wealthy so that they could better adorn their homes? The rest of the world bows to those with money and obeys the will of the one paying the bills. But when did Jesus ever do or teach that? His relationship to the wealthy was one of rebuke, calling them to change the way they live.

I was disappointed to hear that several of the former volunteers here are now employees of the wealthy, manicuring their lawns or teaching their children. And I objected at Reba Place when they opened an Amish furniture store which sold items only the rich could afford (the store is now closing).

How do we choose who we labor for? Is it for those who can pay us the best wage? Or those who need our help the most?


trying to help

Saturday night we watched the movie A River Runs Through It, and I noticed this conversation:

"I thought we were supposed to help him."

"How the hell do you help that son of a bitch?"

"By taking him fishing."

"He doesn't like fishing. He doesn't like Montana and he sure as hell doesn't like me."

"...Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him."

In the office, which now doubles as my bedroom, there's a framed collection of things that belonged to a former guest who died of alcoholism. Childhood pictures, his cap, a worn ticket stub and a religious medal he used to carry in his pocket. And the date he died. I'm sure there are many others who visit here who will not be helped out of their biggest problems (like Nathaniel a couple days ago). That can be very discouraging.

But maybe love doesn't necessarily mean being successful in fixing people's problems, but trying to help them. And not giving up on them, even when they don't accept our help.

I'm reminded of these words by Thomas Merton:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

Jesus taught us to love others as he loved us. And, from his perspective looking down from the cross, his work probably seemed pretty unsuccessful and useless. But the appearance of such love is always of infinite worth.


so far, so good

The last couple days have been pretty busy and exciting. With the help of a few other volunteers, Eric, Miranda, Heather, and I cooked and served lunch yesterday at the soup kitchen. We made spaghetti sauce from fresh tomatoes, with basil and oregano from the garden, and polish sausage. Also collard greens from the garden.

Then last night we welcomed four women to live in the house. Two are married, with husbands staying at the Salvation Army men's shelter (they should be able to have dinner with us here most days). And one is a grandma. A good group, who seem to get along well and are happy about their new home. There is one more room available, but that's being saved for a family.

And a man showed up at the door after we locked up last night. He was drunk and shirtless. Asking for food and clothes and a blanket, which I brought out to him (with a pillow too). He slept on the porch. This morning he thanked me when I opened the house and brought him out some coffee, then he left. His name is Nathaniel.

So far, so good. Though I've had that nervous-excited feeling that comes when you're doing something that pushes you further than you've gone before. But I like the atmosphere and work here so far.

The only thing I'm hesitant about is being in charge of the emergency fund, which can be used when people come asking for money for something (bus tickets, bills, ID cards, etc). I don't think I want to do that. Someone today was already asking if I was able to sign checks. And I don't want to be looked at that way, like a rich benefactor. I understand that people can be helped in many more ways if we have that money to spend, but I'm not sure I want to help people that way. Dependence on money is not something I want to promote. And it's such a temptation for people to be dishonest in their requests; it's not the same way when we're giving out food or clothes. Then there's the personal tempations that come when we take the power of money into our own hands. I've stepped away from the problem of money in my personal life and I don't think I want to step back into it here.

The good news is that there's lots of other ways to help people. Jesus showed us that.


"What then shall we do?"

This morning I was reading in Luke and came across this:

John said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him... "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

And the multitudes asked him, "What then shall we do?"

And he answered them, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." (Lk 3.7-11)
A good passage to keep in mind today as we make plans to take in guests tomorrow. A few women (including Darcy) have already asked to stay here.