Waiting For Change

Waiting Room Chairs Dying Plant Door

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a community member at the psychiatric hospital. I didn’t know what to expect. Most of my experience is something I’m still trying to process. The emotional pull I’ve been feeling since then is hard to put into words and the immensity of the experience is hard to express.

It took me a week to get all the information I needed (i.e. ID numbers, full names, times of visitation) but I finally got it all together. Which is how, on a Thursday night, I found myself in a waiting room, watching Entertainment Tonight, and questioning the logic behind watching an episode on school shooters mental state from an unreliable source in a space whose sole purpose is to provide help during psychological crisis.

I watched the array of family members come in to visit their loved ones. The emotions ranged from sadness to anger, love to hate, and ambivalence to extreme concern. The receptionist was monotone, repetitive, and appeared to be going through the motions. I felt a deep sense of sadness for her, watching how distant she was from everything around her, and was wondering who she had to be in this space when a man I did not know, but later learned was James, walked in.

He was extremely anxious and pacing, muttering under his breath, and kept politely telling the receptionist he just needs his medicine. A therapist had come in with him and was explaining how James had walked into her clinic earlier. She was angry James had been let out with no place to go, and no stability. The personal effects James had brought in weren’t given back, including his medicines. A bunch of phone calls made to “the people in charge” and a woman came in to usher the therapist into a private meeting room, leaving James unattended in the waiting room.

James had to be told several times to sit down. With the therapist out of his room, anxiety riddled his face. I got up and asked James if I could sit across from him. I introduced myself and told him they were going to figure it out.

I shut up and listened.

James had been checked in for a week at this facility. He doesn’t sleep without his medicine regime and thus, hadn’t slept in four days. The sign on the door of the therapist office had said “safe space” so he walked in. James didn’t have anywhere to stay permanently and all his family was gone. He just wanted to sleep. Without his medicine, the noises were just too loud and he just wanted some silence. Over and over, he repeated how he didn’t want to go back inside. All he needed to do was sleep and he was doing his best to be respectful. He apologized to me for being so jumpy and I told him he didn’t need to.

His therapist walked out, called to James, and James left with her to “figure everything out”. After they left, I sat in the waiting room dumbfounded. I knew our mental health care system was broken, I knew there were tons of stigmas surrounding mental illness; however, I didn’t realize there was a hidden layer of disregard to those without resources.

Before shifting gears to community development, I wanted to be a therapist. I wanted to see the people behind the illness and be an ally of support. My assumptions came from the belief that mental illness was misunderstood, which I still believe, but didn’t take into account the repercussions of after-care for the poor.

There are written protocols that individuals who come in for mental care will be found a place to go for further treatment after their release. How many people are forgotten or disregarded? James was. James was put out, without his things, for reasons I don’t know but I could guess. In a time of crisis, no one should be left or disposed.

Hell, for that matter, no one should be seen as disposable. It says plenty that I am programmed to justify why a person shouldn’t be left. Which has left me wondering: what kind of world are we living in? It was asking questions like that that led me to work at Love Wins.

At Love Wins, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have all the resources. I know that no agency nor safe place does. However, I’m proud to work in a place where James could walk in and be heard and he would be loved. A place where everyone in our community works together, connects together, and talks together to try to create a safe space for new people: no matter what that safe space looks like. Here, we provide choices. Some are bountiful, some are limited and some are non-existent. We can’t do it all but we can provide a safe space for a couple of hours.

Sometimes that doesn’t feel like enough. But for someone like James, it is more than he has now.

It’s Not Enough

Banksy in Boston: Overview of the NO LOITRIN piece on Essex St in Central Square, Cambridge

A few weeks ago now, I spent the night in the hospital with two small children. Their mother, being homeless, decided she no longer wanted to care for them and CPS decided it was not important enough to come that night. That meant that these two children, Massey age 2 and Dawson, age 1, would be at the hospital all night by themselves. Abandoned and alone.

It was obvious they hadn’t been fed in couple days and hadn’t showered in weeks. I’ve never held a baby that smelled so bad. They were so happy and completely loving, though. You never could have guessed that the doctors found suspicious bruising on their small bodies – evidence of violence. They were just children.

It was a hard night. I felt like the doctors didn’t care, their mother didn’t care, and CPS didn’t care.  I felt the weight of the world telling me to give up on them too. Especially when 3 am hit and I had gotten no sleep and was holding a baby that had just been stuck with an IV. We made the best of it, though; playing with hospital toys and throwing tissues in the air. We even had some M&M’s that lead to many giggles and lots of squealing.

The next morning CPS came and in so many words said “You have to leave now, the kids are going to a foster family.” And that’s all we could know. Then just like that they were gone. The long night and the tears and the laughter were gone.

Their life from now on with be spent in the system – running from foster family to foster family, no home to call their own. Those big smiles and warm hearts will be forced into a harder life, and one that opens them up to a larger possibility of turning into the broken hearts and forgotten souls that fill our living room at Love Wins in 20 years.

I grew up in a two story house and I was taught how to care for others and what it took to have a solid work ethic. I was taught how to talk, walk and play by four very loving, working parents and step parents. They sent me to camp in the summers and cheered me on when I played sports. They never had to consider giving me up nor did they make me go days without food or a shower.

The only difference between me and Massey and Dawson was that I got lucky. I did nothing to deserve my parents. I didn’t have control over my life, just like Massey and Dawson didn’t. I am not better than them simply because I could shower daily. I am not worth more because I was taught how to work. I am not better than they are – I am just better off.

I don’t know what will happen to these children. I don’t know where they will be in 20 years. All I do know is that for one night, they were loved the way I was loved and taught to love. I know it isn’t much, but it’s what I could do. It isn’t enough. it isn’t near enough. But it is what I could do.


The Rich Get Richer…

Again and again, we see poverty is about lack of choice.

A new study reveals that the employees that make the least amount of money are often cheated even out of that.

The study found that 26 percent of the workers had been paid less than the minimum wage the week before being surveyed and that one in seven had worked off the clock the previous week. In addition, 76 percent of those who had worked overtime the week before were not paid their proper overtime, the researchers found.

It is apparently not enough that you get a job – then you have to watch the people who are paying you. Of course, the thing is, these people are people who need the job the most and are thus least likely to raise too much stink with their boss, who might just decide he needs someone who will complain less. In other words, they have no choice but to accept being cheated.

Not Better, Just Better Off

When I am asked to speak, I like to hold a Q&A afterward if at all possible. Inevitably, I get asked a slew of questions that imply that the people I am helping do not deserve my help. And I have to be honest here: That line of thinking really makes me angry. Implicit in that line of thinking is that we do deserve the life we got. I intend to write about this a lot more, but to give you something to chew on for now, I give you this excerpt from a talk I gave at the Baptist Student Union at Campbell University several weeks ago.

* * * * *

Why did I grow up in a house with parents who loved me, who passed on a work ethic and taught me how to dream, how to set goals, how to love? I had nothing to do with it – it just happened. I was in the right place at the right time.

Why did my friend Jimmy* grow up in a house where his mamma’s boyfriend beat him with a fan belt, where mom had to sell her body to survive after Daddy went to jail and where the only male role model in his life was the local pimp? He did not pick that life. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

If you are going to work with broken people, the first thing you have to realize is that you are not better than the people you will be working with- you are not smarter, you are not more in God’s favor, you are not morally superior. You are not better, you are just better off.

How would your life have turned out if you had to steal food in order for your little sister to eat? If you had to go to school three days in a row in the same clothes? If you had to sit on the porch in the cold while your momma is ‘entertaining’ men for money so you can eat tonight? How would you have turned out if your momma had a crack addiction, or if the only time you saw your daddy was on visiting day at the prison, or if you were raped regularly from the ages of 7 to 16?

If you are going to work with broken people, you have to understand that there are all kind of reasons that people are broken, and it often has nothing to do with their salvation, or their walk with God, or their eternal destiny after their death or whether they said some prayer.

Some of you are resisting… Hugh,  Do you mean that the relative wealth I enjoy (and if you live on  more than $2.50 a day, you are wealthier than half of the planet) is not God’s gift to me, but luck, or circumstance or the result of my race and culture inheriting the wealth produced by enslaved people on stolen land? Yup. That is what I mean. You were born into the right place, at the right time.

You are not better – just better off.

* I often change my friend’s names in order to protect their privacy.

What It Means To Be Poor

For the record, being poor sucks.

No one has ever captured it as well for me as John Scalzi, a writer of some note. Scalzi wrote this in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when there was a lot of folks dissing the poor for not leaving New Orleans in advance of the storm.

Being Poor

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have to make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.

Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.

Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.

Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is running in place.

Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.

Go read the original, especially the comments. It is eye opening.

On Being a Teenage Mom

As a writer, I am a huge fan of Ariel Gore, who, in addition to being an awesome writer, is also a single mom, who had her first child as a very young teenager.  A young reader of her blog wrote an open letter, which Ariel posted on her blog, about the “joys” of being a teenage mom.

I am not Jamie Spears. I am not a millionaire fake celeb. I am not Bristol Palin. Do you think either of these girls will walk into their local welfare office and wait hours, just for that extra $100 a month in food stamps? Will they ever spend week after week on the phone with operators hired by a privatized Medicaid system, trying to find a doctor who will actually see their asthmatic child? Will they spend years fighting the Attorney General’s office for child support, waiting a year just to get to court? Will they ever try to pay for their generic can of beans with WIC coupons and be treated like a leper? Have someone roll their eyes as they buy food with food stamps after they just got off an eight-hour shift standing on their feet, cutting nasty hair?

Have you ever heard your child scream for you as you left for work–the seventh day in a row? Have you ever had someone look at you like you were a piece of shit simply because you had a child as a teenager, stuck around, raised them alone–not because of your religion, not because of your stance as a Dem or a Republican, not because of your education, not because of your beliefs about abortion, not because of anything the media or a pastor or a rabbi or your parents or your teachers or your friends or your baby’s father told you to do, not because of what they think the right “choice” is.

I did not have my kids because of any of these reasons. I had them because they were wanted, and they are loved.

Online Social Justice Bible Study

bibleBy some counts, there are over 2000 verses in the Christian Bible that discuss how we are to deal with the poor and the oppressed. There are so many that some have claimed that it is the largest single theme in the scriptures.

I relayed this to some friends the other day, and they doubted both pieces of information. So, I thought I would investigate.

While I do not intend to tackle all 2000 verses (was that a sigh of relief I heard out there?), I am planning to take many of the major, plain teachings of scripture on the issues that today we would call Social Justice and blog about them, one passage at a time.

The Social Justice Bible Study will go up twice a week, on Tuesdays and on Thursdays, so we can study and digest them together.  This way we (myself included) can consider them together and discuss it, calmly, in the comment box following each post.

NOTE: If you want to be sure you get to see each post in this Bible Study, you may want to sign up to read our blog posts in your email inbox. When we update the blog, you will receive the text of the post in your inbox automatically!

Photo Credit: Josh Self

The Lord’s Prayer, Remixed

In one of his books, Brian McLaren talks about how he often prays the Lord’s Prayer. but will try to put it in different words, in order to not merely recite by rote.

Recently I was looking at Eugene Peterson‘s translation of the Bible (The Message) and seeing those familiar words in a completely unusual way really shook me up… in a good way. I was captured by the awe, the beauty and the simplicity of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best— as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

Has something similar ever happened to you, where seeing something in a new setting changed the way you viewed it?