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