Friday, November 28, 2014

And So Are We

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.   ~The Bible (King James version), Matthew 25:40

I have more things for which to be thankful than can be innumerated, not the least of which being our school community, the children, their families, and their extended families; our incredibly supportive "landlords," the Fremont Baptist Church, and especially Pastor Gay; our dedicated partners at North Seattle College, and our parent educators in particular; and the Fremont neighborhood, the center of the universe, an inspiring, artful place into which we've fit like a hand in a glove. 

On this day after Thanksgiving, however, I want to write about a part of our community that I've not written about too often, but for which I'm likewise thankful.

We're an urban school, serving a population of families who have chosen to raise their children in the city, and part of that choice is living among people who have fallen through the cracks. They're everywhere, of course, those for whom modern society, for whatever reason, is too many and too much, but in the city they are more visible, forming a shadow society of street people. Whether it's a cause or effect of their situation, many are clearly mentally ill. Many are addicts. Most of the ones we see around Fremont are men.

Pastor Gay calls them "my men." Our outdoor classroom is on a slope and there is a raised walkway that passes overhead, accessing the church offices. On a typical day a half dozen of these guys pass that way as they seek the pastor: to ask her for money, to ask her for work, to ask her for help, to ask her for prayers. As they pass that way, some of them stop to watch us play, leaning over the railing, usually smiling. In the summer, when we have circle time outdoors, some of them sing along. I can't tell you how many times, after the children have left, that one of Pastor Gay's men has approached me as I'm tidying up to pat me on the shoulder and say something like, "You're doing good work." It's a complement that means more to me than most. It touches me so deeply that these men, who have a right to anger and despair, take the time to express gratitude for the work I do.

When we first moved into this place, it made some parents nervous, these new members of our community, so much more prominent than they had been in the past, less in the shadows. We had issues with street people up on Phinney Ridge as well, but they didn't tend to be around during the day when we were there, so mainly we just dealt with their refuse, but here they exist as fully formed humans with names, faces, personalities and histories.

I come across them in the morning sometimes, occasionally having to serve as an alarm for someone who has taken shelter there for the night. I try to be kind, but firm, upon advice from the pastor, telling them, speaking informatively as I would to a child, "You can't sleep here," then asking them to take their garbage with them, pointing out that there is a dumpster in the parking lot. Usually, they aren't there the next day and they always take their garbage. I discovered a guy one morning dozing amidst malt liquor cans and cigarette butts. I said, "I don't want to clean up your garbage." Not only did he take care of his mess, but he also hauled away garbage the kids had left behind from the day before. In fact, for a week or so thereafter, I could find no evidence of anyone having slept there, but definite signs that someone had been there after hours to tidy up, caring for our place.

Others have come indoors, to take part in the early morning AA group that meets in the church before school starts. Some of them actually sit in the meeting and share, but most are there for the coffee and the restrooms. We nod at one another when we meet in the hallways. Some of them have learned my name and I've learn some of theirs. Other than their scruffy attire, it reminds me of my early mornings as an office worker, groggily greeting the other early risers.

Willie, a man who, among other challenges, appears to be on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, comes around sometimes, always muttering to himself, seeming preoccupied. The last time we spoke, he was obsessed with his watch and what time it was. He kept tapping the face of his watch, repeating, "It's time for the meeting. It's time for the meeting." I said, "Willie, it's daylight savings time. You need to re-set your watch." We repeated the dialog several times before he finally held his watch in my face, stating firmly, "It's time for the meeting! You have to keep the doors unlocked. It's the fire code!"

I said, "The meeting's over, Willie." He let me reset his watch for him, then he repeated, "You have to keep the doors unlocked. It's the fire code." I thanked him for thinking of my safety and he said, "You're welcome," while studying the face of his watch. Pastor Gay recently informed me that Willie is related to the new Pope . . . according to Willie.

Recently, the public elementary school just up the hill went into a brief lock-down for fear of a "homeless looking man" hanging around the campus. From the description, I'm pretty sure it was Willie. Poor guy, he was probably just there to remind them about the fire code.

In most cases, people, even wicked people, are far more naive and simple-hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I reckon some of you reading this are thinking something along the lines of, "But how can you let these people near the kids? Aren't they dangerous?" After all, among them are scofflaws and thieves, addicts and desperadoes. And it's true, there is always an element of danger in living among other people: even clean-cut middle class people. It's also true that Pastor Gay's men steer a wide birth around the children themselves, rarely seeking to interact with them. Indeed, most avoid eye contact with any of us, hanging their heads, shuffling past, hoping, or perhaps expecting, to be invisible. But the greatest truth is that we simply cannot avoid them: we've chosen to live here in the city. They are members of our community whether we like it or not. Learning to live together is not optional; living in fear is not a life-affirming choice.

We're cautious, of course, but by now most of us know which of these guys "belong" to us and which are strangers who need to be watched, to be engaged, to be understood, to be treated with kind firmness. What I am discovering by embracing these men as members of my community is that they are as sweet and worthy as anyone. And perhaps a few of them pose a danger, just as some of those men in pressed shirts and ties are dangerous: indeed, I assert, the "bad guys" live among us in equal measure, whatever our station.

I'm thankful for these people, Pastor Gay's men, our men. Their presence is a blessing even if their lives seem to us to be cursed. I worry sometimes about what we teach our children when we bow are heads and hurry past the panhandlers, when we call the cops because someone is mumbling to themselves too close to a school, when we look the other way when we see feet protruding from under a cardboard blanket. I'm not sure that making donations to our churches or food banks or other charities, while useful in the big picture, do much to counter the lessons we teach when we ignore these members of our community.

The families of Woodland Park, whether we want to or not, are having regular discussions with their children about our men: about both caution and compassion. A couple of our families keep care packages of food and toiletries in their cars to give to our men. Others try to always giving something, even if it's only a few pennies, when our panhandlers ask. And most make a point of at least nodding in greeting, making eye contact, acknowledging their belonging in our family of man.

I'm thankful for what we learn from every member of our community: and this morning I'm particularly thankful for Pastor Gay's men.

There but for the grace of God, go I.  ~John Bradford

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Jenny said...

As one who has always lived in the suburbs, I struggle with how to interact with homeless people I meet in the city. I struggle with what to model for my daughters. I am grateful to you, and others, who gently and kindly show me to treat them as people. It's a lesson I am working on truly learning.

A teacher in Canada started a project with her high school students called Beyond Hello. You might enjoy her short talk about it,

Amber said...

When I was preschool/kindergarten aged, I remember walking through "camps" of homeless people with my mother, searching for my grandmother to try to bring her home with us.

I remember a lot about it, the sights, smells, etc, but what I don't remember is being afraid. Because I wasn't. The fear is taught. I remember many, years later, long after my granny had passed, my mom would make omelets in the morning and pass them out with a gatorade, and a few dollars, on her way to work everyday. I once said to her that she shouldn't do that it's dangerous. She said, "I see some small part of my mom in everyone of them. How can I not do something?"

I've never forgotten that. But it is a hard road to walk. To teach our children compassion and caution without making them fearful of the world around them.

Great post!