On Veteran’s Day

Police on the scene of the shooting, image from wcax.com

Yesterday afternoon, a 35-year-old veteran died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the middle of the Occupy Burlington encampment in City Park (read/view the stories from the local news and the AP).

While many have been quick to rush to judgements and political statements about the occupy movement, my colleague Mark reminds us not to demonize and to instead journey together, and lifts some powerful statistics and questions to ponder.

I’ve never been accused of being overly patriotic or wrapping myself in the flag. My position as a pacifist has in fact drawn criticism that I “don’t support troops” or am unpatriotic. The fact of the matter is that I don’t support wars, in part (albeit a small part in comparison to my overall objection to war because the purpose is to kill people) because we don’t take care of the people who fight in them. Both of my grandfathers were World War II veterans, and neither of them was known to talk about his experience. And that was a different war, in a different world in many ways. Veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter being where this individual had been deployed) find a far different reception to their service both at home and wherever they are stationed: crumbling hospitals and underfunded services, insufficient de-programming time and follow up mental health care, physical and mental illnesses that are often untreated or undiagnosed. Our veterans make up a significant portion of the population without housing (the shooting victim also being part of that demographic), and there is a very high rate of suicide among veterans.

Today, we remember and honor our veterans. I know because I sent my daughter (center, waving) to school in red, white, and blue so she could be in the town’s parade. But I feel that we have utterly failed to honor or remember our veterans, when so many are without housing, without mental health services, without support and care in the community, without jobs, without security, when one appears to have taken his own life in the midst of a conversation about the haves and the have nots, and he is only one of thousands of veterans who will fall victim to–let alone contemplate– this tragedy this year.

And so, prayers. Prayers of brokenness and confession and feeling we have failed one another. Prayers for healing and hope and justice. Prayers for the victim and his family and his community. Prayers for our veterans– the ones we celebrate and the ones we fail. Prayers for us all, with repentance, with thanksgiving, with hope.

Prayers.

(edited to add: news coverage after this posting have raised questions as to the victim’s military status and whether or not he was deployed in combat. Rather than changing my initial words, I just add here that the man may not have been a military veteran. I think the reflection about how we fail our veterans is valid, whether or not this particular man serves as an example.)

Pastors only work on Sundays, right?

Today was one of those days. One of those wonderful, glorious days when it may have looked like I did very little to edit a church bulletin or craft a brilliant sermon, but the church and the people of God were foremost on my mind.

I began the day with a meeting in Barre (next town over) with a couple dozen people who are looking into some sustainable and long-term means of providing housing and shelter for people who need it, both in emergency cases, and more importantly, in transitional and long-term independent settings. I may have mentioned that this is a burning passion of mine, and has been for most of my life. This group, while still in the very beginning stages, is looking at the intersection of emergency shelter needs, long-term housing goals, employment opportunities, and sustainable independent living for the approximately 250 persons without housing in Washington County (according to the Vermont Point In Time study conducted to count the homeless [~190] and precariously housed [~50] people as of January, 2010). Once again, it is wonderful to be with so proactive and empowering a group of people. We have a long way to go yet, looking at some big questions, to try to determine where to focus time and resources, assuming financial resources can be made available in these days of shrinking budgets all around. Still, to have a room full of people, some who provide food, some who provide shelter, some who provide job opportunities, some who provide state services, some who have been beneficiaries of some or all of the above, all committed to tackling these multi-faceted issues, it does my heart worlds of good. It may one day (soon we pray) do the community worlds and worlds of good.

I returned to church, to one such sustainable and empowering ministry (our community meal) already in progress, to take a lunch together with the directors of two other meal programs as we made progress in discussing ways to make our shared structures more efficient, accountable, and legally sound through seeking some sort of joint incorporation, all to ensure that people who need food get it, and maybe the systems by which foods are distributed can become more just and sustainable. Or at least, for the time being, the programs in place and function smoothly, effectively, and in ways that keep the IRS and the Secretary of State happy with us.

I thought about my sermon for a little bit.

I ended the evening with a half-hour finance meeting followed by a two-hour church council meeting (but, as we’re not meeting in July, it is my last until after maternity leave ends in October!). Over the course of these meetings, I witnessed incredible excitement (and only moderate frustration) about the vast number of programs Trinity is doing, and almost frenzied discussion of keeping all of the pieces in place amid the many events on the horizon. And I saw one congregation make a commitment to be gracious, generous, and deeply loving to another, beyond what I’d even hoped or imagined they might do. It literally brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t think it was just hormones.

There are days when ministry is frustrating, draining, pushing-a-rock-up-a-perpetual-mountain exhausting, when I end the day more frustrated and distant from God and my own sense of calling than when I started (yesterday was one of those days!). There are days when I not only fail to do good, but when I question whether I have actually done harm in my broken attempts to be who I am called to be. There are days when I am sure that I should chuck it all and go tend bar somewhere, because I can still lend a listening ear, but the drinks flow more freely and the tips are better, and no one is going to pester me about the color of the hymnals or the fingerprints on the banisters.

But then there are days like today. They are rare, to be sure, but they are special, and one of them can make up for months of the others. I live for days like today, days when I feel like I made a difference, days when I am surprised by grace and joy and the way God works in and through people in ways I didn’t anticipate because maybe it’s not all about me and whether or not I make it happen. These are the days I blog about, to remind me of why I do what I do, to tell you why you might consider doing it (or something like it) too, and to give thanks to the One who does make it happen, through and despite my best efforts.

I’ll sleep well tonight, thanks to some passionate people in Barre, some committed foodies in Montpelier, a congregation excited about its ministry and open to sharing its blessings, and the Spirit that spoke to me through all of them for the past fourteen hours.

Local Press, and Pressing Issues

photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, Times Argus

I recently attended a meeting in Montpelier that gained some local press attention. A group of team and agency members, local residents, and interested activists gathered to talk about the problem of lack of affordable housing in the Montpelier area, and the large and growing number of persons who are without housing, are marginally housed, or are in significant danger of losing their housing.

I left the meeting feeling more hopeful about addressing the housing problem than I think I ever have. Here was a group of people who had good and realistic ideas and who are willing to work with the programs that are in place and are working, and build new ones to fill the gaps, and willing to engage the problem from a variety of angles. And while most at the meeting write off the idea of Montpelier having its own emergency homeless shelter as unfeasible, they discussed many other ideas that signified their commitment to seeing solutions come to fruition in the long run, and having something in place to keep people from freezing to death by next winter. There was a lot of support for ideas like a day shelter with access to computers, telephones, laundry facilities, counseling, and resource connections possibly even with caseworkers or peer volunteers, and the need for long-term housing, whether in transitional housing, boarding housing, or ideally single-occupancy units at low cost, so that the emergency shelter could truly be used for emergencies.

No committee or team or round table or think tank is perfect, but some are more functional and less frustrating than others. This particular group of people came from a wide range of the Barre-Montpelier community, and represented social service agencies and organizations, program directors, city council members, housing task force members, at least one person who had actually lived without housing (a demographic almost always, tragically, missing from conversations about how to help homeless people– I dunno, you think we should *ask* them what they need?), and at least one representative of the faith community. Some, obviously, wanted more help for the existing programs (particularly those working in them), and others wanted to add new programs. Some wanted to concentrate efforts in Barre, where housing and public property space are less expensive and more available, while others were passionate that Montpelier needed its own separate methods of addressing homelessness and housing shortage. But all were committed to understanding and addressing homelessness as a complex issue involving employment, physical, emotional and psychological needs, mental health status, family status, addiction and coping strategies, and plain old real estate availability, while at the same time recognizing that the surface level problem is phenomenally simple: give people a place to take shelter already. My understanding leaving the meeting was that we agreed to get together again, and also to have a separate group gather just from those within Montpelier to talk about what that city in particular can do.

And, as always, members of Trinity UMC have been passionate about addressing this issue with compassion and with the input of those who are without housing or marginally housed. We’re not interested in any solution that doesn’t actually work for people who are homeless, that doesn’t help people who can be housed obtain and keep safe housing. We’re most certainly not interested in any solution that does not respect and value the persons who are in need of housing, because then justice seeking becomes patronizing and dehumanizing, and the whole point is lost. I’m proud of my church and my town, and hope that we can get enough political will and public activity to begin to find some true solutions and make some sweeping changes.

Here’s the sort of “list” of what’s needed from what I’ve gathered/discussed so far, in a sort of progressive order from band-aid to social justice. Please add or comment with your thoughts!

1. Emergency contingency plans. When the winter temperature drops to deadly levels, a process to open space simply so people don’t freeze to death.

2. Emergency overnight short term shelter for singles and families in a safe environment.

3. Communication and transportation to get people to the shelter/overflow site when they need it.

4. Day programs for people who utilize overnight shelters, for the purposes of having access to resources that might help them attain a more stable and sustainable situation.

5. Longer-term shelter (transitional/boarding housing) for those who are not yet in a sustainable enough place to afford their own housing, but need to stay some place longer than a couple of weeks.

6. Better communication, matching, and utilization of programs like home sharing, that help people be housed middle-term lengths of time.

7. Better communication, volunteerism, and paid staffing of programs (good luck in this economy!) that help people obtain access to assistance and navigate the bureaucracies surrounding housing, food access, utility assistance, recovery programs, and so on.

8. AFFORDABLE, SAFE, AVAILABLE HOUSING. We just don’t have it. Not for seniors. Not for middle-income families. Not for singles. Not for young professionals. So it’s no surprise that we don’t have it for people whose definition of affordable is very low indeed. But this is the problem, and the heart of the solution, and no one I know has enough access to the real estate market to be able to help me understand how we make it better.

9. A more just economy. Someday.

Sermon: Tidings for the Downtrodden

“Tidings for the Downtrodden”

(December 20, 2009) On Christmas we don’t celebrate only how Jesus was born, but who he was and is, and for that we can get no better source than his own mother. In the passage known as the Magnificat, Mary describe what Jesus means to her, an unwed peasant girl: salvation, deliverance, and good news for the poor and the lowly. If we are to celebrate Jesus, then, we must hear his coming as a call to action for us, to bring good news to the most poor and needy in our communities and in our world. I suggest that for our community in Central Vermont, this might be the time for a call to action around housing and shelter for those who are without such, but challenge you to find the greatest need wherever you are, that Christmas might truly come for everyone alive. (Luke 1:46-55)

What I’d have said

I was invited to speak at the dinner tonight at my church for the Central Vermont Community Land Trust. Unfortunately, I have had a minor medical problem (some follow-up stuff from my miscarriage that necessitated a trip to the hospital, but I’m out and home and fine now) and have been confined to my house for the remainder of the day.

But here’s what I wanted to highlight in my comments this evening, and what I hope to convey to the CVCLT and other who work with issues of poverty and housing particularly.

First, there are a bunch of people who work on issues of poverty and housing. We need to find ways to utilize one another’s skills and areas of influence. The faith community can and should be a tremendous resource (more than we are currently being utilized) for these efforts.

Second, when it comes to organization, we need to do a much better job helping people into and through the process of receiving assistance and moving toward sustainability. Too many people fall through the cracks or come to an entry point (like me!) who is under-informed about how to get them the services they need.

Third, the voices that we need to hear about this are the voices of folks who live without housing or on the verge of homelessness or inability to pay for rent/utilities. They know the ins and outs of the problem and they have ideas about what they might need. Ask those folks if we should have a homeless shelter in Montpelier. Ask those folks where affordable housing should be established and what type of units are needed. My suggestion (which I’m working on with the church eventually) is to have a dinner, monthly, that’s free to the public, where those who struggle with affording housing engage middle class folk, non-profit workers, and government/political folks in conversation about their goals and ideas about housing.

Affordable for who?

I attended a meeting last night about the future of housing in Montpelier. Montpelier has some interesting trends, which make housing a critical issue for the city. First, we have more jobs in the city than we have residents, which means that there’s work to be had here, and that there are a lot of people in both the private sector and in state government who work in the city but live outside it. Second, our infrastructure, our water and sewer systems, our schools, could hold more than their current capacity, which means that growth wouldn’t cost taxpayers additional money for built up infrastructure, and would actually reduce individual tax burden as more people share the same infrastructure costs. Finally, the city’s population has been in slow but steady decline for the past 20 years while the housing options stayed the same– there are fewer people living in the same number of houses and apartments. The average household size in the city of Montpelier is 1.87 residents. That means that a lot of singles and couples are living in homes that could accommodate larger families, were there some single-person units to move into.

All this makes Montpelier a dream location for a developer seeking to build condos, houses or apartment units for families, or senior citizen apartments. So the town is looking into incentive programs and growth strategies to help this happen, and to keep such housing affordable.

Let me say, I support this. I think affordable housing, particularly for seniors, is important. I think having more family-friendly homes and apartments will draw younger families to Montpelier, and help folks settle closer to downtown, cutting down on commuting, parking, and pollution caused by people driving in from outside.

But.

That’s not what I was talking about when I said I was interested in affordable housing. I’m interested in assuring there is housing that is affordable for someone living on minimum wage, or on disability, housing that is subsidized and promotes working toward sustainability either as a renter or an owner. I’m talking about safe, clean units that people would want to live in and could afford to not only pay for rent but for heat and electricity as well.I’m also talking about shelter available on an emergency basis, when it gets so cold that most of us shudder at the thought of our *pets* (in their fur coats) sleeping outside, and there are people who have to.

Developers aren’t as interested in this kind of thing. There’s not a lot of money in it, you see. Maybe, maybe, if people sell off their new units, and families move up into them and seniors move into a new apartment complex that caters to their needs and smaller rental units become available, maybe some of the lowest-cost housing will open up and could be redeveloped as housing for those currently without houses.

But do we really want to barter the safety and indeed, on cold winter nights, the lives of Montpelier’s houseless women and men against the odds of trickle-down housing economics?

Confession and Compassion

Hopefully not too much navel-gazing.

Maybe it’s the election, or the extraordinary ordination or talking with folks struggling to find or afford housing, but I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately. With the exception of the fact that I’m a woman, I am a member of every privileged majority group I can think of: white, straight, protestant, middle class, citizen of the United States.

I confess that although I like to consider myself an ally of folks who are disenfranchised, I have constantly run up against my own privilege and preconceptions. From really reflecting, years ago, about why I hit the power-lock on my car door (was it because the man outside the car was unfamiliar, or because his skin was black?), to realizing, weeks ago, the words that come out of my mouth (did I really invite the person in a wheelchair to “stand up and speak to the congregation”?), I’m on a constant journey of learning, and I can only hope that others are patient with me as I continue to stick my feet in my mouth and receive lessons in humility.

I think I have most significantly struggled to make sure that my advocacy for others does not become patronizing or paternalistic. It’s very easy to do for others in a way that appropriates them as a cause rather than respects them as persons. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in my desire to minister with folks who live in poverty here in the States and abroad. In Seminary, I met a wonderful man, Matthew, who was a phenomenal artist and a decent prophet and lived on the streets of Boston. My initial response was to try to save Matthew somehow or fix his problem, and he was the one who told me that what he needed more than anything else was for me to listen to his story and treat him with dignity. Matthew’s patience with me, especially when my overzealous attempts to ‘help’ were borderline offensive to him, taught me a great deal, and half a dozen years later his words shape a large part of how I interact with people in general, most particularly folks who might not be in the same position I am in one way or another.

This is why the Adopta Una Familia program I have participated in is so powerful. The program focuses on building community and relationship as primary, and houses as a secondary thing. Here are folks living in conditions that I had previously not been able to imagine, and yet after sharing a home, meals, laughter and tears for a week, I could not pity them or appropriate them as a cause. I could only love and respect them. From that place, when we worked side by side, we built not just houses but homes together, not because I could save or fix them, but because we care about each other and the community.

In some comments, Morgan, another wonderful man I’ve met recently, has been talking with me about the housing problem in Montpelier, and what he said really struck a chord with me, really tied together my past learning about not being paternalistic or appropriative and my experience in Ecuador with my current hopes about housing in Montpelier.

Morgan wrote:

I also may be able to help [...] with possibly helping to get interested citizens and fellow travelers on board maybe; as long as there will be both equal and mutual standing for all involved, with no one individual or group being a greater expert on these matters than anyone else, just fellow citizens coming together to raise a barn so-to-speak, each with their own expertize to help build a community project: i.e., community itself. The housing will end up being secondary, although crucial as it is in its own right. [...]

As far as the planning segment goes, actually my faith was not in the planning so much as what can sometimes happen when people come and then seriously pull together to problem solve and then end up building and creating community and from that help find ways to meet unmet needs of members of that community for the common good and betterment of everyone concerned.

That’s it exactly! Exactly what is needed wherever we seek to ‘help other people.’ Those who would want to help have to instead listen and learn and build community around the subject, getting to know the people involved as real people, not numbers or case studies or projects or causes. Listening to the folks involved will not only empower them (rather than making the ‘helpers’ feel good, which may be part of what we’re after when we’re honest), but, as Morgan points out, will have the added benefit of being more effective because listening allows for learning from another’s expertise. Suddenly, I imagine an approach to the crisis of housing in Montpelier not as a committee of church people and politicians and agencies, but as a series of gatherings with those who live without housing or on the brink of houselessness. Much more like the Ecuador program, what if we build respect and relationships and community first, and let the housing flow from that? Tough for this goal-oriented impatient person!

Even tougher: don’t let me go appropriating Morgan’s good idea.

See? Still learning.

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