Friday, January 30, 2015

The Story Behind My Novel, 'What Saved Grace?'

Every story has a backstory. Here's the story that sparked my journey toward writing this novel 

Several years ago, I was elected President of the Homeless Network of Indianapolis. HNI was a rather raucous, unfunded consortium of homeless advocates, service providers and government
agency staffers. We came together to raise awareness of the growing issue of homelessness and to try to better address it. The Homeless Network eventually morphed into a fully staffed intermediary organization and was renamed CHIP -- the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention.

I was pretty young and naive when I started participating in the Homeless Network. I joined in because the church and ministry I served was reaching out to homeless folks with a daily lunch program and winter contingency shelter. When I attended my first few Homeless Network meetings, I was deeply impressed by the capacity of the people in the room and the range of compassionate organizations at the table. Granted, we were diverse and our approaches were different, but we were committed. Given this capacity and commitment, I was sure we could help our city max the issue of homelessness in no time.

But the more I participated in the Homeless Network--the more I watched different service providers operate, the more I listened to different advocates articulate--the more I realized we were not at all on the same page. In fact, our approaches to addressing and ending homelessness were all over the map--even conflicting, competing and counterproductive.

At that time, the leadership of two faith-based shelters would not even talk to each other. Some outreach workers offered help to homeless people in order to preach to them and convert them, convinced that only a spiritual change would end their homelessness. Other outreach workers tangled with the preachers, asserting that such Jesus stuff distracted from the real issues. Some of our Homeless Network participants focused on advocacy--changing bad policies and protesting for fair treatment.

While our Homeless Network agreed on helping homeless neighbors, at times that was about all we could agree on. Our approaches to compassion, care, healing and change seemed irreconcilably disparate. This realization was initially disillusioning to me. How could people who claimed to care so much be so far apart in the ways we cared? I had been trained by Parker J. Palmer to learn from disillusionment (to be dis-illusioned, to see reality as it is, he says, is a good thing). So I tried to do that.

The more I understood about each advocate, caregiver, outreach worker and organization, the more clearly their particular approaches to compassion emerged. Some tended to approach homelessness as rescuers. They saw the primary issue as internal--as spiritual brokenness or mental illness. They provided shelter, recovery programs, and short-term relief. Others tended to approach homelessness as service providers and advocates. Instead of focusing on personal issues, they focused on what was right or wrong with the system--with policies, the government, institutions, or the community at large. Still others, I noticed, focused on less direct--but still effective--interventions, like transitional, supported and long-term housing, food co-ops and access to healthcare.

As I learned about each homeless advocate or service or housing provider, I reflected on my own understanding of compassion. What did I think constituted a valid, holistic approach to changed lives, a changed system, and a changed community? While I was proud of what I was engaged in and what my church was doing in response to the homelessness of some, I recognized its limits and pitfalls. I was also drawn to other dimensions of care and expressions of hope I observed. So, I eventually realized that I was not only an actor in this range of care, but one who was being challenged and changed by it.

It seemed to me that while there were real downsides, there was a degree of validity in each approach to addressing homelessness. Was there one comprehensive approach? I could imagine that, but others could or would not. What prevented a rescuer from appreciating the work of a service provider--and vice versa? How could profound differences and divisions be bridged, if at all? What more did I need to know to better understand the problem and work toward a common solution?

This was the creative mix that opened my heart and mind to explore the beauty and complexity of compassion. I brought this "problem" into my studies in a doctoral program I entered. The reading, conversations and guidance I enjoyed during that period helped me better understand and frame what I was experiencing. I decided to shine a light on the assumptions and underpinnings of compassion in hopes of becoming more responsible in my own actions. I also decided to lift up my own journey in compassion to others in the hope that others would learn, grow and contribute to ever more responsible and redemptive social actions.

That's the backstory of the fiction narrative I crafted. 'What Saved Grace?' is now available in all ebook formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, iTunes and Smashwords. I hope you'll read it. I think it will challenge--if not change--the way you view compassion and act in caring response to others.

  • Get 'What Saved Grace?' via Smashwords - all ebook formats (Kindle, Nook, etc.)
  • Get 'What Saved Grace?' via Amazon - for Kindle and Kindle apps for smartphones, tablets, PCs and MACs
  • Get 'What Saved Grace?' via Barnes & Noble online - for Nook
  • Get 'What Saved Grace?' for iBooks at the iTunes Store
  • Sorry, 'What Saved Grace?' is not available in print (we'll first see how ebook sales go.)

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Fierce Urgency of Now

Deep into the Vietnam quagmire, Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a fresh way forward. It still beckons us today. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. always connected the civil rights of blacks with the civil rights of poor and oppressed people wherever they lived. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that he did not hesitate to speak into the Vietnam quagmire the deeper and more costly in lives, resources, and moral capital it became.  

Speaking at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, King outlined principles and way forward for America in relationship to its approach to Vietnam.  Below is the conclusion of that speech, titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."  To me, it contains some of the most poignant and prophetic challenges that transcend the occasion, time, issue and culture. To me, they speak profoundly to our global challenges and choices today. At the end of the excerpt are links to the full text and 52-minute recording of King's speech.  By the way, I listened to this for the first time on my way to Vietnam in 2011.

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late.' There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: 'The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.'

"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might with-out morality, and strength without sight.

"Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of history.

"And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Read the full speech at this link.
Download and/or listen to the recording of "Beyond Vietnam " at this link.

John Franklin Hay

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gifts of Winter

Parker J. Palmer says winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them. 

I've been going over Parker J. Palmer's little book, Let Your Life Speak. It's about vocation and calling. I don't know how many copies I've given away--I gave away the copy I was currently reading to a wait staff at City Cafe recently after she inquired about it and its title and content seemed to speak to her. It's that kind of book.  

As I took a long bicycle ride north of Indianapolis over the weekend, I remembered something of this fuller quote. I'm grateful to Parker for sharing his own story and offering insights like what follows.  They help me in small and large ways.  Maybe they'll speak to you, too.

WINTER GIFTS.  “Winter in the Upper Midwest is a demanding season—and not everyone appreciates the discipline.  It is a season when death’s victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy.  And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts.”

DEEP REST.  “One gift is beauty.  I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow.  Another gift is the reminder that times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things.”

UTTER CLARITY.  “But for me, winter has an even greater gift to give.  It is the gift of utter clarity.  In winter, one can walk into the woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground they are rooted in.  Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.”

GET OUT MORE.  “Our outward winters take many forms—failure, betrayal, depression, death.  But every one of them…yields to the same advice: ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’  Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives.”

TRUSTWORTHY.  “But when we walk directly into them—protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship and inner discipline or spiritual guidance—we can learn what they have to teach us.  Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.”

From Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, Jossey-Bass, 2000.