Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Serving, uh...Homeless?


Hannah getting donations at Franciscan House
Since starting my year of volunteer service, I always falter when explaining to others what I do.  Not because I'm embarrassed or afraid of judgement from others, but because using the term "the homeless" unsettles me.  Homelessness and poverty are issues that we cannot ignore, but when we start grouping people together and identifying them by their state or lack, it can be very disempowering.  I sense a barrier going up when I use terms like "the homeless" and "the poor" - a defining line between those who have what they need and those who desperately need help.  I fear that rather than helping the situation, this divisive terminology actually feeds into the power imbalances that perpetuate poverty and homelessness.

The disturbing reality of these barriers and power imbalances is what led me to commit to this year of service.  I wanted to form deeper relationships with people than what a three-hour-a-week volunteer commitment could give.  I wanted to learn how to respond to issues of poverty and inequality in our society from the people who are most affected by these issues.  Upon starting this position, however, I realized I walked into a whole new set of barriers between me and the guests we serve at the shelter.

Sara, Hannah, Sassi, Sara, & Kelly at the Chef Event fundraiser
I now see the women at the shelter multiple times a week, and I've had the opportunity to form deep relationships with some of them, but I have this opportunity because I serve as an overnight volunteer at the shelter.  I immediately walked into a position of authority over them - me, a 22-year-old, who just graduated college, and had never been to the shelter before this year.  This inevitably affects my relationships with them, and it has caused me to question "why?"  Why has life put me in a position of authority over them when I'm so much younger and less experienced than they are?  It doesn't seem fair or right, and while I'm very grateful for this position, it also wearies me because I'm constantly reminded of the inequalities and injustices in our society.  Inequalities and injustices that seem inescapable. For even if I had chosen a different volunteer program, I would still be the inexperienced, young adult coming in to a new place, yet trusted with more responsibility and freedom than the people being served.

Throughout all this I'm learning that, as much as I don't like it, this inequality and injustice will always affect my relationships with people.  The natural workings of our society do not often lead people of different races and classes to become friends or neighbors.  As I'm forced to acknowledge this, I'm learning that I can't let fear or guilt stop me from trying to cross these relational barriers that exist.  I come from a different cultural background from a lot of the guests, and my life experiences have been very different from theirs, so sometimes I worry I'll say or do the wrong thing.  But uncertainty, confusion, and risk exist in any relationship.  As I'm getting to know some of the women better, I've learned that making mistakes and misunderstanding people doesn't ruin relationships.  In fact, they move relationships further in a way because they give us a chance to learn from each other.  On the other hand, what stagnates relationships is remaining silent because of fear.
Community night life-size Clue game

One of the ways this has become especially clear to me is through a few theater workshops I've started hosting at the shelter.  These workshops started as an idea, but I felt unprepared and incompetent to actually put them together.  I also wasn't sure if any of the women would want to come, but I decided to take a risk and offer what I could.  Looking back, I'm so glad I did.  I've had four workshops so far.  Each one has been different, all of them have been small, none of them went as I expected, but I've left all of them smiling and inspired.

One of my favorite aspects of the workshops is that I can't do them on my own.  They depend on the community effort and collaboration of all of us.  I'll bring the simplest activities or ideas, but with the group participation, they come alive.  They take risk, trust, creativity, and imagination on everyone's part.  They lead to laughter, surprise, and meaningful shared experiences.  To give you just a glimpse of what I'm talking about, this past workshop we were improvising skits on the spot, and two women were up as NFL quarterbacks.  Here is what I can remember of the dialogue they had:

Quarterback 1:  Why don't you help out more on the team?  I'm having to catch all the passes.

QB2: Because I hate football.

QB1: What? You hate football?! How can you hate football?  You're one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL!
Hannah & Sara helping out at the soup kitchen

QB2:  I hate football.

QB1: But why?

QB2: Because I'm an old woman!  I'm 75 years old!

None of us saw that coming, and in the context of the scene, it was hilarious.

Another woman always brings in a question for us to end on.  She's asked us, "What is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen or the happiest you've ever been?" "If you could have a conversation with one person, who would it be?" and "If you could have any job, what would you do?" After the lighthearted silliness of most of the activities, these questions give us the opportunity to sit quietly and listen as everyone shares things that really matter to them.  In moments like these, the relationships between me and the women aren't so harshly defined by our differences.  The barriers between us blur and fade, while at the same time we see each person's individuality and uniqueness.

Unfortunately, as I leave the workshops to go home, I see the women going back to their beds and the shelter - a reminder once again of the inequality between us.  It's important to have those reminders, so we continue to live to change things.  But I'm also so grateful for the times when they're not as present, and we can enjoy just being together.