Homefulness

Every once in a blue moon, I stumble upon a community of like-minded people who feel like lifelong friends from the moment we meet. That’s how I felt when I attended the Revolutionary Change Session hosted by POOR Magazine in San Francisco this past June. The weekend was truly transformative, and I’ve been blessed to continue building the relationships that started over that powerful weekend.

I’m writing this as a member of the Solidarity Family that’s committed to supporting POOR’s efforts. We converge by way of a conference call each month, email regularly, and I have Skyped several times with a longer-term member of the Solidarity Family who has served as something of a mentor to me.

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In the course of our conversations, we’ve talked about how to get out the word about POOR’s innovative efforts to create an alternative to the poverty reduction models that treat poor people as if they have no wisdom and expertise about how to overcome their own challenges. It’s a difficult subject, but even the words “overcome their own challenges” hint at a paternalistic philanthropic attitude of “Here, if you’d only do things my way, you’d be so much better off.”

That sort of approach is elitist and often misses the point about why some people struggle with long-term poverty. The thing is, I’ve lived in poverty. Short-term situational poverty, but full of struggles nonetheless. My dearly departed mother often worked three or more jobs to make ends meet, and even then, there were times when our electricity got cut off. It’s hard to talk about even now because we closely guarded our financial situation from our surrounding community.

One thing I learned is that poverty can be incredibly isolating. People judge you all the time when you’re poor. They look at you as if you’re somehow less virtuous, as if you deserve your situation because you have failed. It’s incredibly humiliating. And it often happens in the places where people go to seek help, such as soup kitchens, welfare lines, and homeless shelters.

POOR Magazine's current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing "gentrification," which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations.

POOR Magazine’s current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing “gentrification,” which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations in order to make room for wealthier folks.

I’m fortunate to live in a town where the local soup kitchen is incredibly welcoming and non-judgmental, but I’ve been in a receiving line where the volunteers “serving” looked at me with condescending pity. If you’ve ever experienced that look, you know what I’m talking about: the “I’m so thankful I’m not you” look. The “I’m doing this so that I can be reminded that my life isn’t as bad as I thought” look. The “It’s a good thing I get to go home after this” look.

POOR challenges all of that because it’s led by people in poverty who are often busy worrying about how to get through the day and how to help others who are in a similar situation. It’s really powerful stuff. With every email message and phone call, I learn more about my own attitudes and limitations as I hear about the struggles that others are currently facing.

It’s because of those dialogs that I’m super-excited about a project called Homefulness that POOR has launched. Homefulness is a viable solution to the problem of homelessness, and although the current project is based in Oakland, California, I honestly believe that this model has the potential to transform communities all across the country. The thing that makes it work is that people in poverty are making decisions about what works for them, rather than having social service agencies tell them how to do things.

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Homefulness sounds so appealing that I’m actually a bit envious that I won’t be living in that amazingly supportive and equality-centered community myself. The land has already been purchased, and pro bono architects and engineers have jumped onboard because of how exciting the project is. In other words, highly skilled experts have agreed to work for free because they believe in the power of this movement. The City of Oakland has been incredibly cooperative as the project has moved forward, and construction should start this next year. Even now, the land (which has already been purchased in full) is growing vegetables for a community-based garden. Really cool stuff.

I’d like to invite everyone who reads this to contribute to the fundraising effort that will bring Homefulness to fruition. There’s currently a challenge grant that will match dollar-for-dollar ever donation up to $35,000, and over $6,000 has already been raised. If you give $10, it will immediately multiply to become $20 thanks to the challenge grant.

You can support Homefulness through POOR Magazine’s website (if contributing via PayPal or check, be sure to put “Homefulness” in the memo in order to count toward the challenge grant) or with this Indiegogo campaign.

Oh, and I should mention that this project will be eco-conscious. In addition to renovating the existing structures on the property, several eco-friendly adobe homes will be constructed on-site, as well as a cafe, school, and office space. The goal is to use an alternative energy source for electricity, and the garden will make Homefulness even more self-sufficient.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will tend to it.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will help tend to it.

If you believe in contributing to a project that will help people in poverty become less dependent on government and charitable assistance, now is the time to make a donation. Contrary to what the media tells us, the vast majority of people would prefer not to have to stand in line for food stamps and welfare. Homefulness is a model of how that can start to work, and I believe that other communities can learn from what POOR is doing.

The other thing that I value from POOR’s structure is the way that those of us with race and/or class privilege are reminded that we don’t have a monopoly on how to do things. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the realities that most of the world is struggling to survive, and then when we do “help,” we want it to be on our own terms. POOR Magazine is also indeed an alternative media source, and the news reports aren’t always warm and fuzzy.

I’ve been thinking about how to present this fundraising initiative to family members, and I realize that some of the word choices and topics might make relatives feel uncomfortable. I think it’s good to feel uncomfortable because that’s how we grow. If we constantly live in a sheltered, protective state, we don’t have the opportunity to stretch our hearts and minds. This includes looking closely at the reality that many people are barely surviving, and considering how this impacts them. Not everything is going to be wrapped up in a pretty package and presented with a glossy-sheen, but that’s a good thing.

So I encourage you to check out POOR’s Homefulness campaign and support it. Also take the time to read and listen to the powerful stories of those who are involved in this movement. If we all join in together, recognizing that we have far more in common than we have differences, we can make this world a better place. And Homefulness is a great place to start.

Shelter from the storm

Yesterday I shared on Facebook that I spent several hours on Christmas night hanging out with folks in an emergency shelter. When I talk about this aspect of my life–the cultivation of community among people who are marginalized or downright ignored by society–I find that friends often respond by praising me for doing a “good deed.”

I don’t want to minimize these compliments because I do truly value the encouragement. At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with lavish compliments for things that seem to be a natural progression of where I’ve found myself in life. Going to the emergency shelter wasn’t some sort of noble act of sacrifice, but rather, an opportunity to spend time with some really cool people. I recognized two faces right away, and by the time I left, I had enjoyed conversations with several more.

I’m thankful that the shelter was open last night because the temperature was way too cold, and the accumulated snow meant that those sleeping outdoors had to deal with freezing wet clothes and puddles on the ground. That’s no way to spend Christmas night…or any other night.

I’m also thankful for the community that shared space in the shelter last night. After dinner, some people went upstairs to watch movies while others played cards. Then a number of us visited, talking about our past experiences (good and bad) with the holiday and random stuff.

It’s hard to convey to those who have not spent much time around folks who are unhoused, but we all have far more in common than we have differences. I feel that they are my brothers and sisters, and I honestly believe that more people would feel the same way if we stopped focusing on our differences.

Unfortunately, the biggest difference is that those who find themselves on the streets don’t have a support network to help out when the going gets tough. I think back to times when I’ve needed financial assistance, and I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to turn to friends and family. Not everyone has those same resources. That doesn’t make me better than others–it means that we need to make greater efforts to take care of one another.

One of my biggest hopes is that we can work together to improve the living conditions of every single person in this world. That starts with treating everyone with dignity and respect instead of using dehumanizing language and pretending like the problem of homelessness doesn’t exist. It’s real, and it causes immense and intense pain for lots of people. They deserve to be treated better.

What I’d like to challenge us to do is to take tangible steps to reduce poverty in the US and around the world. Think about one thing you can do in the near future to reach out to those in your community who are living in poverty. Maybe spend time at a soup kitchen or in another environment where those who are struggling congregate.

If you choose to help out at a non-profit, please consider one other thing. So often, serving lines are clearly divided into the “servers” and the “recipients.” I think that I’ve written elsewhere that there’s a tendency to demarcate which side of the table the “volunteers” are on, and for the table (or even an imaginary barrier) to separate the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Those barriers might make the servers feel safer and more comfortable, but we should start working to remove the structures and ideas that keep us apart. We’re not going to make real progress as long as we’re remaining in those designated areas. It’s when we reach beyond our comfort zone that we begin to understand what others are going through. One new friend I talked with last night agreed with me when I mentioned the awkward looks of pity that I’ve received when others assume that I’m “needy.” It’s a common response, but it can make those who are in the receiving line feel even more isolated and alone.

I don’t have all the answers, and I’m still learning how to relate to others in this world. What I have concluded at this point is that I don’t want to spend my life insulating myself from the challenges that others face. Those of us who are working for a better world shouldn’t be the exceptions, the outliers, the “saints.” We should be the norm. The only way this will happen is if more people commit to joining us. I’ll be writing some more thoughts on how we can achieve this goal, so stay tuned.

And back to last night, I probably received a lot more than I gave of myself. I truly enjoyed the time that I spent at the emergency shelter. I feel blessed to have been welcomed into that community of folks who had nowhere else to go, even though I’m also aware that I had the luxury of driving home and sleeping in my own bed. The shelter is where I needed to be at that moment–it did indeed shelter me from the storm–and the shared community was a gift. For that, I’m thankful.

All that you can’t leave behind

I was angry. Very angry. One day when Mom was still alive, a very fidgety and anxious nurse broke several objects in Mom’s room. The nurse couldn’t sit still for very long, and she decided to keep herself busy by dusting, even though I had repeatedly asked her not to. In her nervousness, she knocked over some things that she shouldn’t have even been touching, and those things came crashing to the floor.

When I arrived home from work, she confessed to what had happened. She was obviously distraught, but all I could feel was anger. I had felt for some time that I was a guest in my own home, which in my mind had become Ground Zero of “Occupy Cynthia,” a place where others often seemed to dictate where I went and what I did. And I disliked that feeling. It was uncomfortable and frustrating. The fractured keepsakes symbolized my growing discontent.

Among the broken objects was a coffee mug that belonged to my grandfather. I was very proud of that mug. I had gazed upon it as a child, knowing that it meant my grandfather had accomplished something noteworthy. The mug duplicated a story from the Houston Post (a now-defunct daily newspaper) announcing my grandfather’s retirement from his senior vice-presidency at a large and prominent Houston bank.

As a child, I didn’t really understand what my grandfather did, but his modest demeanor always encouraged awe and respect. Thanks to my grandmother, the mug remained on the desk in his home office long after he passed away, and I proudly displayed it in Mom’s room after my grandmother’s own death.

I was able to receive financial compensation for the other objects that the nurse broke, but there was no way to put a monetary value on the mug. I bought a special glue to fix the mug, but somehow I never got around to the repair. It currently rests on top of a kitchen storage cabinet, with the handle awkwardly detached from the mug.

How is it that such a small object could have so much power? In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle talks about the way that we allow material possessions to play a major role in identity formation. The latest gadget can define us as “early adopters,” while antiques represent the desire to preserve traditions. Yet, these things are just things and nothing more.

My essential be-ing would not be diminished without the mug. In fact, there might be some value in letting it go. The mug can’t begin to summarize the value of my grandfather’s presence and influence in my life, and he was certainly much more than a banker. In fact, my fondest memories of him have nothing to do with his career.

Maybe I’ll repair the mug one of these days, but for now I am going to let it sit there in its brokenness. It serves as a reminder that I should continue to work on detaching my ego from stuff and from the pride of ownership that goes along with that stuff. At some point, I should probably consider giving away the mug to a relative. That would be the ultimate release from its power, but I’m not quite there yet. This journey that I’m on–this thing called life–is one of transformation, and I will wait until I am ready to let go of the mug.

I think that those who are dying can teach us this lesson of release from possessions. When Mom transitioned out of this earthly realm, the mug had no meaning for her. It ceased to be important to her long before her death. What she treasured most was spending time with my sister and me, and no mug or other material items could compete with the value of the time that we had together.

I’m striving to reduce the amount of stuff that stands between me and the calling I feel to work towards a better world for all people. Part of helping others involves caring for myself, and I would rather spend my time creating music and art, dancing, doing yoga, cooking, gardening, and doing a host of other activities that don’t involve being a curator of things.

As I’m looking back over this reflection, I am amused by a certain irony in the story of the mug. Yes, I was proud of my grandfather’s accomplishments, but I’ve also had a tendency not to share with others what he did for a living. I’m not embarrassed about his work as a banker–he was one of the most ethical people I’ve ever known–but a part of me has shied away from talking about his career. I was raised not to talk about social status or prestige, and there has always been a little voice in my head encouraging me to downplay anything that might come across as social privilege.

Perhaps that type of conditioning becomes an object in its own right, and it’s time to let that go as well. I’d like to encourage others to join me in releasing whatever holds you back from being authentic. If desired, fix what’s broken, but don’t let material possessions or ego-centered attitudes interfere with what really matters. We can’t take that stuff with us when we die, so why let it control us in the world of the living?

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Really bad things happen to good people. Even to innocent young children. In the aftermath, we’re left to wonder why there’s so much violence and destruction in this world. And there are no easy answers.

I’m incredibly disturbed by the way some people are reacting to this latest violent shooting. It’s disheartening.

I’ve seen disrespectful and downright racist remarks made about President Obama, who, most people can agree regardless of their political beliefs, has shown incredible leadership and compassion for those who are most affected by this tragedy. I’m very moved by his statements, and I’m appalled that some people can’t step back from their divisive and hateful rhetoric long enough to honor those who were murdered.

I’ve also seen the irrational argument that every kindergarten teacher should be required to carry a gun in the classroom, even when this could endanger students. This isn’t the place to get into a debate about the second amendment, but let’s face it: from what we’ve learned about Friday’s shooting, a concealed weapon would not have been a solution in this particular instance.

The cruelest comments have come from a certain faction of Christian leaders, however. These preachers have argued that God is punishing our nation by allowing innocent schoolchildren to be murdered because the Supreme Court has upheld the Constitution’s religious freedom clause. They seem to have the convoluted and theologically unsound belief that God is present only when public prayer is mandatory, and they ignore the fact that plenty of children of diverse faiths (including different denominations of Christianity) pray and talk about God in school every day.

But let’s be clear about something. God is everywhere. God is here–maybe especially here–even in times of tragedy. God cries with us when we grieve the loss of lives cut short way too soon. To say otherwise is to ignore the reality that good people die every day. I’ve watched a lot of friends mourn the loss of loved ones recently, and can’t imagine suggesting that their suffering is some sort of punishment.

At times like this, I think of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” It’s hard to rejoice in the midst of tragedy, and yet Cohen reminds us that there are times when “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

The thing is, we live in a broken world. Scaring, intimidating, and bullying people into religion isn’t going to fix the brokenness because that’s not where the brokenness lies. When I look around, I see so much that goes against what Jesus advocated for his followers to strive for. Jesus wasn’t a fan of materialism, yet a number of churches have elevated worldly possessions to the status of near-idolatry. Instead of worshiping money and condemning those who live on the margins of society, we should be working to eliminate poverty and homelessness. [Edited: And we need to do a better job of providing treatments for mental illness.]

And more than anything, we should be practicing authentic, radical love for all people. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve mastered this commandment, but I’ve made it my mission in life to improve in this department. It drives and inspires just about everything that I do on a daily basis.

The biggest challenge is to show love for those who do us harm. To that end, I’m praying for peace for those who commit acts of violence. My basic primal instinct is to be angry and judge those who hurt others, but this reminds me that I need to make a greater effort.

It’s hard to make sense of the brokenness in our world, and there are times when I’m filled with doubt and questions about how these horrible things can happen. I believe that’s natural, but I’m not going to cower away from or deny my doubts. This only gives the darkness more power. Leaning into it–acknowledging the complexities of the human experience–allows me to move on and get back to the work of trying to advocate for those who have been discriminated against and treated badly by society.

I’m not sure that we’ll ever reach a point where God’s kingdom manifests here on earth in the way that Jesus encouraged, but I’m not going to give up. Now is a time to grieve, but at some point we’ll rejoice again. In the meantime, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallulujah. But God is still here among us, weeping with us.

Reconciling the Holidays

I originally intended to write this blog for Thanksgiving, but that didn’t happen. Rather than wait another year, I’m going forward with it now and extending the ideas to include other holidays and observances as well.

One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is how to celebrate holidays that are meaningful for my own family upbringing while staying mindful and respectful of those whose experiences are different. I want to honor my cultural traditions, but I’m also aware that the very events I’m celebrating can be painful for those who have been marginalized, discriminated against, and abused by the predominant cultural powers-that-be. 

Ironically, those who have the most cultural privilege can at times be the ones speaking out the loudest about how they are somehow being oppressed. Take the “War on Christmas” for example. Christmas is everywhere, almost all year round, and yet when religious minorities ask for public representation and inclusion, it’s somehow turned into an assault by the “secular left” that allegedly wants to turn our nation into a bunch of godless heathens

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon an article that points out an important but inconvenient truth: Christians (including those who feel they are being oppressed and victimized when some person innocently says “Happy Holidays”) have had a lot to do with the secularization of the Christmas season. 

Think about what Thanksgiving used to be like. It was a day for family to gather together, try not to argue for several hours, eat a big meal, and maybe watch some football. But due to ever-increasing consumer demands to get a jumpstart on seeking out stuff that we don’t really need, retail stores have started opening on Thanksgiving in order to stretch out Black Friday like a belly that’s had too much turkey and dressing. 

Reports about this year’s “Black Thursday” frenzy were disheartening. In one Texas store, a man actually pulled out a gun. Even if he perceived it as self-defense, innocent others could have been killed if he’d actually fired the weapon.

This is a far cry from the nativity story in which Jesus was born not in a luxurious home with a big-screen TV and gaming console but in a place that sounds more like a homeless encampment. So if we’re going to talk about a War on Christmas, let’s look at ourselves before pointing fingers at others. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to consumerism and the secularization of holidays. 

All of that aside, I am excited when someone wishes me a “Happy Chanukah” or a “Festivus for the Rest of Us.” I don’t take it as an insult or a means for others to impose their spiritual practices onto me, but rather, as a reminder that not everyone is exactly like me. And that’s a good thing. Trust me on that one.

Furthermore, I could technically choose to get offended if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas before December 25th. After all, we’re currently in the season of Advent, a time of anticipation. How dare we pretend like Christmas is already here when, from a spiritual standpoint, we should be practicing rituals of solemn preparation. “Happy Holidays” is indeed appropriate right now because it’s not yet Christmas. We might also do well to reflect upon the way that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” 

Rather than alienate those around me by demanding that they adhere to my interpretation of various holidays, I find that it’s more beneficial to celebrate with others regardless of the different ways that we choose to do so. If I’m at an event and a friend tells me that another tradition is personally significant, I’d like to honor that tradition. I enjoy learning about other cultures. It’s fun and often deepens my understanding of my own heritage. This year I attended a party for the Muslim festival Eid. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be celebrating after a month of fasting during Ramadan, and food tasted better than it would have otherwise.

That brings me back to Thanksgiving. You see, not everyone experiences Thanksgiving as a positive day. Some find it painful because it brings up memories of dysfunctional family dynamics, while others can recall specific sad experiences. I almost lost my mother on Thanksgiving in 2007, and while I could go on to celebrate the fact that I was able to resuscitate her, I spent the remaining holidays during her lifetime worrying that another crisis would occur on a supposedly festive day and haunt me for years to come.

Then there are those who see Thanksgiving as an annual reminder that their own cultural heritage is not being respected or valued. Indigenous peoples are subjected to comments that basically send a message of “Native Americans should just accept that we [of European heritage] won.” “Deal with it.” “They should be more like us.” Rarely are those actual words uttered, but the implicit attitude is still present, sometimes preceded by “I’m not a racist, but…” (Note: When someone feels the need to qualify a statement in that way, it indicates at least a slight awareness that the following remarks might indeed be racially insensitive.) 

For a long time, a part of me felt guilty for continuing to celebrate holidays that caused pain for friends (and complete strangers) whom I love. But as I’ve continued to mull on this notion of cultural privilege, I’ve found that guilt doesn’t serve me well. It causes me to respond not from a place of sensitivity but one of obligation. And that’s not where I ultimately want to be. Yes, I do feel certain obligations toward others, but those duties are consciously and freely chosen.

I still celebrate Thanksgiving with my family but try to do so in a mindful and humble way. I don’t sit down at the dinner table and launch into a rant about oppression, but I might mention it at other times if it feels appropriate and non-confrontational. I’m not always successful in my efforts to be graceful in how I frame discussions, but I’ll keep working on it.

And yes, I’ll celebrate Christmas. I might even do a little shopping, although I’m trying to make more gifts myself and spend my money at locally owned small businesses instead of corporate mega-stores where employees are coerced and intimidated into working for minimum wage on holidays.

I think that the secret to observing holidays in an intentional way is to recognize the “both/and” places in between instead of automatically dividing the world into “this-or-that.” I can celebrate Christmas and yet still pay tribute to other religious and cultural traditions. There is room for all of us, if we are willing to make the effort. It’s worth the effort. Love is not finite, and when we expand our horizons, we’ll find that the holy-days can be a time to honor the many traditions that people observe in this world.

At the end of this, if anyone is thinking, “That would be great but only if people would stop trying to destroy Christmas,” I have one request. Please stop making yourself a victim. The only way you are going to lose Christmas is if you personally choose to focus on the consumerism of the holiday season and ignore the spiritual aspects of this time of the year, when the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and we have more hours to contemplate our relationship with the world around us. Let’s honor the miracle of an impoverished baby born in a stable (no crib for a bed) who went on to share a message of love and humility. That’s what Christmas should be about, and that love is worth sharing with others in whatever guise it appears. 

Happy Chanukah! 
Festivus for the Rest of Us!
Merry Christmas!
Happy Kwanzaa!
Seasons Greetings!
Peace on Earth!