The Small Blessings

Over the course of my year as an intern at the OAC, the idea of meeting people where they are has taken on much more weight and meaning than before. It is no longer an attitude that I take lightly. It is a necessary mindset because every day presents new people and new challenges.

Often when people walk through the lobby door, they are in crisis. Some have just lost their housing, documentation, and contact with relatives. Others are fleeing violence and looking for a place that is stable and safe. Still more are worn down from spending years on the streets and weary from navigating the inhumane systems and institutions that surround them.

If I am not careful, I become overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their needs, but we all have limits, both individually and collectively. Learning to work within those boundaries to meet another’s need in a dignifying way is hard and holy work.

One thing the guests have consistently shown me is that even the smallest gestures can be meaningful blessings even in the midst of great need. Often times these moments of blessing manifest themselves in unexpected ways. As I was completing the intake paperwork with one elderly gentleman, I noticed his date of birth matched the calendar, so I excitedly said, “Happy Birthday, sir”. He replied in a pleasantly surprised tone, “You are the first to wish me a happy birthday.”  Even the smallest of sentiments can be dignifying.

Another guest who had been recently injured asked if we had a cane since his last one had been stolen. I unexpectedly found one in the donations, and he replied, “Well, God does provide”. As I listened to one mother of young children who was fleeing domestic violence, I respectfully held space for her pain, knowing that the shelter list and hotline numbers may not be sufficient.

 In situations like this I trust that the Spirit works within the smallest blessings and the space we create for each other as people of equal dignity. At the same time, we have to recognize the ways in which intersecting systems perpetuate homelessness and disproportionately affect those of vulnerable populations. The barriers run deeper than referrals for clothing and vouchers for IDs. However, doing what we can on the small scale can bring us closer to the vision of dignity, empowerment, and stability for each other.

The Mad Dweller’s Manifesto

**This poem serves as a reflection on my year so far and my hopes for the remainder of it. It is inspired by Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front (Wendell Berry, 1991). Enjoy!!

Love the difficult process, the slow climb, the hope left within that which is not finished

Want more of everything money can never buy

Want what only grows slowly in time

Be afraid to live in complacency and to stay silent

Then you will have a voice echoing from your soul

Not even your calling will be a mystery anymore

Your mind will be free to move and ready to receive someone else

When society wants you to gentrify something, they will call you

When they want you to die for reputation, they will let you know

So friends everyday do something that won’t fit into the societal structure.

Love the LORD. Love the world.

Struggle for no tangible reward.

Take all that you can spare and risk it for someone in chains

Love someone who does not reciprocate it.

Denounce the certainty of one answer and embrace the ambiguity of many questions

Ask the questions that no one else will ask

Hope to live in a world where everyone is fully embraced with dignity and equity

Raise a glass to all you cannot yet understand

Praise selflessness for whom you have not embraced you have not loved

Invest in God’s kingdom and strive to build bridges

Say that your main foundation is the grace you did not earn

It is the miraculous liberation that you may not see fulfilled

Say that the table is full when your siblings come empty handed

Call that abundance and prophesy such returns

Put your faith in intentional action to piece together a broken world

Listen closely to a neighbor and hear the perseverance of another in the struggle

Expect that things will not go as planned

Love all for love is immeasurable

Be joyful though you have witnessed the brokenness

So that people do not lose their inspiration, please idealists more than cynics

Ask yourself: will this satisfy someone whose struggle to live has been erased by society?

Will this disturb the sleep of those who live solely for personal gain?

Go with justice to the borderlands

Walk with neighbors along the tattered streets

Feel the fullness of life within the resistance

Embrace your sibling and empower each other

As soon as the politicians and the city planners can predict the patterns of your mind,  you must choose to break them

Leave them as signs to mark a false trail of the way you did not go

Be like the Phoenix who rises from the ashes stronger than before

Practice resurrection

A Litany of Gratitude

In this holiday season, it felt fitting to thank all of those who have impacted my journey in Atlanta these last four months. It has taken quite some time to adjust to life here. Often, it has been overwhelming and hard to navigate both logistically and emotionally, but I have learned from that. Here is homage to the kind friends, neighbors, and passersby who have made a new and difficult place feel welcoming. Let this be a litany of gratitude for the grace that each person has bestowed upon me on this journey so far. Even the smallest of gestures has helped me find a glimpse of home in Atlanta. So, let it begin:

To the housemate who had not previously known anyone with limited mobility very closely but immediately offered to wheel me through the chaos of the airport— Thank You.

To the percussionist in the legendary white toaster who introduced the Dwellers to the many rhythms of the city—— Thank You.

To the city official who accompanied me on my walk to workthat first day after a difficult 1.5 hour commute —- Thank You.

To the grandmothers and young urban professionals who walked into the street to stop the bus on my behalf— Thank You (but please proceed safely ).

To the bank teller who treated me with respect as I handed him a check for food while I was dripping wet after walking for five blocks ina surprise flash flood— Thank You.

To the man who offered to remove the blocks on my car in the rain—- Thank You.

To the parking lot manager who convinced his superior to waive the $60 fine on a $5 parking ticket due to inadequate accessible parking— Thank You.

To the neighbors jogging by early in the morning who advised me on how to move my car safely out of the way after a fender-bender— Thank You.

To the neighbor who was exceedingly understanding after I accidentally crunched her fender at 8 am. She genuinely wished that my day would improve for my sake—Thank You.

To the crossing guard who noticed I was missing from the traffic line and walked to my house in order to instruct me on turning the car out of the alley safely— Thank You.

To the fellow commuters who held the train door open with their bodies despite the friendly mob on the way home from the Pride Parade—-Thank You.

To the housemate who celebrated each of my exploratory adventures on MARTA and commiserated with me after many epic failures on MARTA-It’s an adjustment which she understands— Thank You

To the housemate who took the time to intentionally debrief the hardest parts of the week at our placements as he prepared dinner—Thank You

To the pick up truck owner who decided to trust my claim of a malfunctioning ramp when I was stranded at a gas station — Thank You.

To the neighbor and automobile mechanic who calmly removed my bumper from the road, assessed the damage to both of our cars, and gladly cooperated with me every step of the way as we settled the situation—- Thank You

To the college-aged man at West End Station who manually inserted the ramp after spotting my situation as he approached from the escalator—-Thank You.

To the fantastic Uber driver who gladly handled my luggage and walker and then walked me to check in —– Thank You.

To the Dwellers who share their calling to service, their joys and struggles, and a dinner table, making it more like home— Thank You

To the Purple House Pals who actively listen to myexperience navigating the many borderlands of this city and teach me something new from their journeys—Thank You.

To the site coordinator who passionately listens to us and empowers others through his enthusiasm— Thank You.

To an incredible boss who always understood my approach and dignified my intent while correcting my mistakes – She understood all that could happen while navigating downtown in the mornings. Her concern for my wellbeing always took precedent over procedures at the office. —-Thank You.

To the guests at the OAC for all they have taught me by being honest with their stories of not only loss, confusion, and vulnerability within their varied circumstances but also relief, joy, and appreciation in overcoming barriers. The process of living with or overcoming hurdles is never easy, simple or guaranteed for any of them. We must actively dignify and empower each person as they have taught me—Thank You

Introduction to Life at the OAC

In order to lay the groundwork for future posts, it seems fitting to begin with what I have learned and loved about my work placement at the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center. First, a here’s a little about the center itself. The mission of Central Outreach is to prevent and reduce homelessness through a multifaceted approach that addresses the needs of individuals as a whole. Most of the guests we see are experiencing chronic homelessness or transitioning from an institutional setting to independent, stable housing. Given this population, one of the primary services the center provides is helping guests obtain proper state identification. There are also ongoing programs to address other areas such as job readiness classes, eye clinics, and a self-sustaining food co-op.

Obtaining ID may seem simple and mundane at first, but it truly is neither. I learned that the process of getting an ID is often heavily convoluted and procedural. An ID or lack thereof often determines one’s access to resources ranging from emergency shelter, employment, transitional housing, to the basics of food and clothing. I was very unaware of how complex the process was until I started at the OAC. One of the hardest things I have become more aware of is that often one’s name is less respected and one’s story is not valid if one does not have the proper documentation to “prove it”. Therefore, having identification is not mundane because it dignifies the guests and enables them to empower themselves on their own journeys.

This relates to one of my favorite things about the OAC. One beautiful irony of the OAC is that the passionate staff and volunteers strive to find the humanity that is often lost in a dehumanizing system of procedures, regulations, qualifications, and tons of referrals. We cherish the full stories of each of our guests. We try to cultivate and maintain a sense of sacred ground within our office as a place where everyone is met exactly where they are in their vulnerabilities and innately respected as full human beings. It’s encouraging to see that some guests do truly feel welcomed and heard.

Conversely, the hardest part about working for me is that there must be boundaries and our own regulations for the center to function. We are limited. The number of people seen changes every day based on the number of trained volunteers. We are only allowed to pay for certain documents. For everyone’s safety, some struggling guests are asked to return on another day after waiting in the cold for hours. It is very hard to maintain a sense of sacredness and dignity while working with systems not designed for that, and the OAC as a human organization is not perfect.

I appreciate learning from the guests and sharing in their lives. Their reactions to their situations are as varied as their experiences. I hope the OAC continues to be a place where guests can express the range of their personalities when they are otherwise being reduced and categorized. The majority of the guests I have encountered so far have been patient and willing to persevere in a system that creates obstacles. It is not simply out of necessity. They feel they must do whatever they can for themselves. I feel there is wisdom in that sense of agency.

Lastly, working with IDs everyday, I learned to look at my own driver’s license and wallet differently than I used to. In my privilege, I once assumed that I would always have an ID on me, which is not guaranteed. It is never just paper cash and plastic cards or things your well-meaning guardian tells you never to leave home without. In the interlocking systems of our society, each of these grants me access and dignity that is not afforded to many. Even worse, large populations are disproportionately denied both. This is why I try to recognize my position and use it for the benefit of the most people. Often, I don’t always know the best way to practice that.

More updates, stories, and hopefully pictures to come…