Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Confession

I have a confession to make. No, not that one. This one: Sometimes I come across a homeless person and I am frightened. There, I've said it. It's out in the open.

Late in the evening I often find myself walking home from a downtown restaurant or meeting place. It's dark. Maybe rainy. I turn the corner and Pow! there's a homeless man rolled up in newspapers asleep on the sidewalk at my feet, or curled in the doorway of a building. I step around him and move on, but my heart is racing and I'm suddenly clutching my purse a little tighter and pulling my husband--if he's available--a little closer. This reaction seems instinctive, protective, understandable.

I bring this up because folks have been asking me about fear ever since we started talking about this book club. Fear seems to be a common initial reaction to homeless people.

This fear is multifaceted and probably a little different for every one of us, but in me I can identify at least two components. First there's the fear for my safety, which is self explanatory. Second, there is the fear of God. What I mean by this is that I am very aware that God sees me walking by this homeless person, and he knows what is going on in my heart. Usually it's turmoil. The problem seems overwhelming and the answers hard to find. I wonder what I'm supposed to do to help this particular homeless person. And that one sitting on the park bench. And the one on the corner asking for money. And the family with children who was just turned away by the Salvation Army because the shelter was already full...

One recent night, the Salvation Army had to turn away forty people including women with children. Those folks had nowhere to go but back out onto the streets of Madison. In our present economy, this is an increasingly common occurrence. Depressing, huh?

So imagine my surprise and delight upon walking into church today to the sounds of laughter and chatter emanating from the Good Shepherd Chapel. The Homeless Spiritual Support Group was just breaking up. You'd never guess that just an hour earlier a couple dozen folks with fears of their own had walked in and plopped down wondering: Where will I sleep tonight? Will I get any dinner? Will I ever find a job, a home, a family to call my own? How will I pay for my medications this month? The work that Pastor Laura, Arlan and Mark do with this group is truly transformational.

Fortunately for those of us who participated in the Homeless Book Club, which met right after the Homeless Spiritual Support Group, the good vibe continued. The four homeless men and women who stayed seemed happy with the book selection. Norv guided the discussion so that we covered the prologue and first two chapters in fairly good order but still had time for the open exchange of ideas and personal stories.

That Norv. What a good memory! He drew the group along in such a way that those who didn't get all the reading done, or couldn't remember every bit they read, could participate fully. Two members seemed shy but were readily drawn out with questions. The other two were very eager to contribute and, at times, to entertain. It proved to be a wonderful mix. The range of reading skills and literary interest was wide but nobody got snooty or defensive. How refreshing is that? I tell you, it was a downright good discussion. Furthermore, without us laying down any particular rules, everyone took turns and showed genuine interest in what others had to say.

As troubling as the opening events of Water for Elephants can be, this proved to be a fun and uplifting meeting. As a physician I attended many meetings, mostly with other physicians and health care administrators. Quit frankly, I'd rather meet with the homeless. There, I said it. It's out in the open.


Reading along with us? Read chapters 3 & 4 for next week.

Photo of Jenny the Elephant of the Carson & Barnes Circus by Rod Melotte, 2008. www.melottephotoimagery.com

1 comment:

Dan said...

There is fear of someone that has nothing to lose. What bad could happen to them? A night in jail=3 hots and a cot? I am not saying to fear the homeless, but to respect the unknown.

The average age of a homeless person in Madison is 9 years old.