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Tag: ending homelessness

Like a Hawk

You see, I’d just held a fundraiser for Outreach, Housing, and Community, the organization June Averyt founded to end homelessness. She also founded Door of Hope, which is where I met her when we started Door of Hope Writing Group. She died. I’ve told you about it here. Wanting to do something in her memory, I held my first popup to sell Thumb Prayers and donate the proceeds to OHC.

It was fun. I got to see a lot of folks I care deeply about. Friends came and we visited. We remembered June. Her impact on the community. The gaping hole left since she’s been gone. I sold Thumb Prayers. Tomorrow I will be able to take a check to OHC.

When it was all over, I untied the balloon I’d used to direct people to the sale location. Actually, I’d bought eight balloons. I put one inside and the other seven I tied onto the railing outside. When folks kept texting me about where the hell we were, I kept responding, “Look for the balloons.” Then I happened to glance outside. The balloons were gone. Whether the wind had wiggled them free or someone had stolen them, I can’t say. But they were gone. So I took the lone remaining balloon and retied it outside as the marker, and when it came tie to wrap things up, I untied the scraggly green balloon and stuffed it inside my car.

But before I could get the door closed, the wind reached inside and sucked the balloon from the car so quickly I didn’t have time to grab the string. In a split second, it was free, flying into the air. I craned my neck, watching the balloon sail past the trees then over the building and up, up, up into the sky.

Yes, it had helium. Yet it soared not like a balloon but like hawk catching the updraft. In less time than it took for me to get in my car, the balloon was sailing into the next quadrant of Memphis air space—I could tell you it was over the Target but unless you know Memphis, this means nothing to you.

It was so rivetingly quick, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It became less balloon and more soaring explorer. A brave soloist taking off on an adventure. Free. On its way.

I stayed in the parking lot until I couldn’t see the balloon any longer. Then I too left. It’s never a good idea to stay when the main act has left the stage.

The balloons before they flew away
The balloons before they flew away

Spiritual Bottleneck

Early Wednesday morning, the man who’d spent the night on the streets walked the hallway at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He stopped at my table, lingering. He did not look happy.

I think of this church hallway as the “neck” between Sister’s Chapel, where we hold the church service attended mostly by those living on the streets, and Martyrs Hall, where breakfast is served. Those who’ve attended church line up for breakfast and pass through the hall—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For several years I stood in a niche in the hallway at a folding table, encouraging passers-by to engage in small art projects. This morning, for the first time, I was offering the congregants “church to go,” pocket reminders of the Spirit.

The man was in earshot when I cast my net of explanation over the line of waiting folks. He drew nearer as I explained, “Thumb Prayers, I call them. Just small things for you to take with you to remind you of church this morning.”

“Say again?” he asked.

So I did, adding to it. “You can run your thumb across them to remind you of God’s presence in the world.”

“That’s not God,” he said, pointing.

“No, it’s just a reminder,” I repeated, my cache of words depleted by his unhappiness.

“That’s of the devil,” he insisted. “Fetishes.”

“Well, it may not be for you,” I said, and he willingly moved along.

It’s really hard to do anything involving religion that doesn’t offend someone. One time, I had a man tell me our church being named St. Mary’s was a blasphemy because the only focus should be on Jesus. Another time I had a man object to the crosses we were making from chip bags collected from the neighborhood. I don’t think the problem was our using trash to make a cross, the most sacred symbol of Christianity—the colors were all wrong.

I’m okay with this. My view is none of us knows the truth (a view I realize many also find blasphemous—we do know the truth; it’s what my church teaches) so who’s to argue?

For me, much of the difficulty lies in trying to explain the unexplainable, to translate the non-analytic with analysis. Trying, maybe, to traverse the neck between heart and head, body and soul, knowing and unknowing, without getting clogged up in the process.

In the end, I can only do the best I can do and hope that, as I once told a friend when she asked about cremation destroying the body that was supposed to rise again, God won’t let us make an irreversible mistake.

Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. All proceeds will go to Outreach, Housing, and Community, a Memphis organization working to end homelessness. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.

 

Transparent Thumb Prayers
Transparent Thumb Prayers
Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

Many years ago, when I was letting the Spirit lead me around by the nose, I went to Door of Hope and asked if I could start a writing group for men and women living on the street. Dr. June Mann Averyt, the founder and then Executive Director of Door of Hope, watched me toddle through the door in my high heels and said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Well, not exactly. But kind of exactly. Because June is not a sentimental person.

For years, every Wednesday, unless I was out of town or something else created an actual physical impossibility, I was at Door of Hope facilitating writing group. Every time I slunk into June’s office with another bright idea—why don’t we have a public reading? why don’t we make notecards? why not ask for a grant so we can hold Community Writers Retreats where the housed and unhoused write together? can we do an e-zine?—she said, “What the hell—go for it.”

Maybe not in so many words. But in that tone. Because June is not a sentimental person.

None of these endeavors was easy. They required hours at her dining room table wrestling with grant applications. Or appearing before grant boards. Or all of us—me, June, a VISTA volunteer—learning what it really meant to put out an e-zine. June never complained about this side activity—writing? for the homeless? are you sure? the grant board asked—when her basic mission already required so much of her. She supported me in what my mother would call a flat-mouth way. Direct. Unvarnished. June’s way.

When life changed for June, she left Door of Hope and started Outreach, Housing and Community, where she continued her work to help people get and stay housed. She never gave up on Writing Group—her program offerings at OHC were not scheduled at 1:00 on Wednesdays because she wouldn’t interfere with writing group time—and when Writing Our Way Home came out, her name was all the way through it. In tributes, in stories, in thanks, in dedications. She even added a Special Note for us to include in the book. A simple, to-the-point note because June is not a sentimental person.

When life changed for me, I began co-facilitating writing group, sharing duties with the amazing Germantown United Methodist Church, and, when the wheel turned again, I continued as simply a member of writing group, where now every Wednesday when I’m in town, I go to Door of Hope and do writing group.

That’s a total of nine years.

Then, last spring, I was playing with paper clay and something told me to roll it out, make it thin, almost like porcelain. As I was gently rolling, it came to me: you are making a gift for June. I thought, well that makes sense. I had never fully thanked June for saying yes to writing group, thereby setting my life on a certain trajectory. June wouldn’t mind if my desire exceeded my talents. She would accept my gift as offered.

So I fashioned a house from the rolled paper clay. Using found objects, I created a door. Above the house I positioned an angel. I mounted the house and angel on paper I’d made by whirling scraps in a blender. I took the creation to a framer, and we picked out a really nice frame, me hoping the frame would turn my work into something more than my abilities could create.

While I was waiting on the framer to finish my surprise gift, I got word: June had been diagnosed with cancer. An aggressive lung cancer. Of course, I heard the news from one of the folks June had helped get off the streets. She said the diagnosis was serious.

I called June. I said, “I have something for you. It has nothing to do with your diagnosis,” I hastened to add. Because June is not a sentimental person.

I left the gift on her front porch.

She called. She said she’d hung the piece in her bedroom. She’d positioned it next to a painting by an actual Memphis artist. That painting had an angel too. June said she saw the angels every day. Each time we spoke, she reminded me of her angels watching over her.

When I created the gift, in my mind, June was the angel. She was the one who watched over those on the street and helped them into houses. Of course, June would never think of herself as an angel. Because June is not a sentimental person.

But in the short time it took to get from the conception of the gift to its receipt, life had changed. June became the one who needed the watching care of an angel.

I have a peculiar definition of grace. It is when God gives you the chance to do what is right before you know you have a dog in the fight. Before you know you have a personal connection to whatever it is that you are being called to do. Before your motives can become potentially muddled.

So, for example, I was given the opportunity to chair the annual fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation . . . years before I gave up both my God-given hips to arthritis.

In the same way, the Spirit whispered in my ear to make a gift for a friend in thanksgiving for the impact she’d on my life . . . before I knew she was dying of cancer.

That was a gift to me, the Spirit nudging me to make that gift. It was also a gift to June.

You see, she wouldn’t have liked it if I’d given her something in reaction to her dying.

Because June was not a sentimental person.

June requested that donations in her honor be made to Outreach, Housing and Community, 135 N Cleveland St, Memphis, TN 38104. To read more about June’s life and the impact she had on the city of Memphis, click here

 

Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness (Triton Press, 2014)- 7 years of writing. 2 years in the making. A lifetime in the living. Edited by Ellen Morris Prewitt, available on Amazon.com

 

What Can I Do?

I’m starting a new series here. I’m announcing this new series so you can skip over my followup posts if you want, ’cause I’m a polite Southern woman, and I sure don’t want to impose. But some of you want these posts. I know you do because I’ve been reading your comments and the question you’ve been asking as a result of the terrible murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. is, “What can I do?”

I don’t know what you can do. Well, that’s a confidence-inspiring beginning, isn’t it? But hang in there. What I do know is that some of the best news of the Good News is that we aren’t all feet. Or heads. Or ears. We each get to discern our own role in being God’s body on earth. I’m not gonna cite the Bible because, Lord, that gives me the willies, but it’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Sr. Simone Campbell on Krista Tippett‘s show On Being revealed herself to be stomach acid.) Paul’s “body of God” analogy is worth finding because—of all things—it has Paul, the king of interminable yadda, yadda, yadda, being funny.

So. You will need to figure out what you can do. But, if you’re like me and you love nothing more than being in community, MORE GOOD NEWS! You don’t have to figure it out alone. Nor, if you’re like me, do you have to discern correctly right out of the box. In fact, who’s to say I ever discern correctly? I may never know the true value of what I do. That’s okay. I do the best I can, and I trust others are doing the best they can. I duck my head and focus on my own little God wagon. And when I look up, I see the community that is supporting me in my trying. There’s a lot of comfort in that.

In this series, I’m gonna share names of groups, speakers, essays, events, columns, memoirs, paintings, classes, tweeters, pages, and other opportunities that have in function helped me answer the question: what can I do to fight racism?

I say “in function” because I did not begin this journey wondering how I could help combat racism. My feet first hit this path when I left my Mississippi home and moved to Memphis and, like Lot’s wife, I paused and looked over my shoulder. I, too, turned to salt. I stood transfixed by my ignorance. Ignorance of my state’s history. Of the country’s history. Of racial history. I read and read and read and read. Then, in one of those evolutionary dog-legs where sudden change occurs, my husband asked Evelyn Baker, what is this Memphis School of Servant Leadership I hear you speak of? He and I began taking classes, one of which was Racism to Reconciliation. I began facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, a group whose members have experienced homelessness and who published its first book last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. And I kept reading.

Major disclaimer here: I’m still not sure I’m doing anything to end racism. If this confuses you, refer to paragraph 3 above.

With that out of the way, here’s my kick-off organization. Drum roll, please: the Memphis School of Servant Leadership!!! I know. If you were paying attention, you already guessed. It’s a dynamic organization. Things are happening all the time. Follow them on the FaceBook page. Or if you prefer a group, you can join here. The current inspiration asks us to create and post signs with the hashtag DontBurnOurBlackChurches. Here’s how MSSL arrived at that action:

Today we met at the table to discuss Racism to Reconciliation.
We met Black, White, young, old, weary, fresh, seeking and knowing—- all Beloved.
In the tension and in the tender moments we listened to each other, shared thoughts and frustrations and then we strategized.
We’re not finished but we ask you to join us.
White Brothers and Sisters please post a picture of yourself with a sign saying {{{Don’t Burn Our Black Churches}}} using the hashtag #DontBurnOurBlackChurches. OUR STATEMENT: 
Seven Black Churches have burned since Charleston. We, white people, stand in solidarity with the Black Christian community. Arsons are intended to intimidate, silence and disembody Black people.Not in our name, Community Friends of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership

Obviously, you can join this movement even if you’re not in Memphis. Or—this is so very important—this activity might not be for you. I’m making a big commitment here, but I truly promise to keep going and post about other avenues I’ve used in my path of discerning. Maybe a later post will strike a chord with you. Until then, I’ll throw out a few more options:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow, David M. Oshinsky. Because one day at Square Books in Oxford, during the time of my life when I automatically went first to the African American section of bookstores, I spied this book, unaware it would send me on a journey of discovery about my family’s racist past.

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer. Because listening is a vital skill to bring with you on this path and, while I’m not altogether certain this is the best Parker Palmer book to learn his listening techniques, it will have to do.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh. Because when I read on the list in this foundational essay the fact that “flesh tone” bandages match my skin, I mused, hunh–I already thought of that, and it always makes me feel smart to have my own observations confirmed.

Wendi C. Thomas‘s Facebook page. She’s a journalist who this fall will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Better jump on her bandwagon now. Seriously, she does so much of the work for you; all you have to do is read.

The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman. Because he spoke to me so completely, and he might to you too. Besides, I need something of beauty on this list.

 

No one owes you anything in this world. Everything anyone does for you is a gift. Some gifts—the gift of love or forgiveness or a trust fund enabling you to graduate law school and make your way in this world for a while—are pretty damn big gifts. Others may seem small, but those gifts are the ones that often bring tears to my eyes.

Chapter 16.org is a service of Humanities Tennessee that creates and strengthens community by talking about books, authors, and ideas. Stepping into an ever-widening gap, Chapter 16 publishes a newsletter offering in-depth (!) book reviews. The organization then provides the reviews to local newspapers. Today, a review of WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS was featured in the Sunday Commercial Appeal, thanks to Chapter 16.

The reviews given by Chapter 16 are precious, in the old-fashioned sense of referring to a limited quantity. Small staff, small budget. Lots of books requesting—and deserving—review. Yet they gave a review to a book written by fifteen formerly-homeless authors who have little to offer in return—no celebrity, no political pull, no fund-raising assistance, no cache—other than the power of their words.

And it wasn’t just “a review.” The book was assigned to a reviewer who himself has written about homelessness. Thus, when the reviewer analyzes, for example, the suitability of the book’s structure for telling the authors’ stories, he knows what he’s talking about. The book received a top-drawer, professional, thorough review. Not the “nickel-tour,” as one of the authors calls the free, truncated tours given by local nonprofits on charity days.

Many of the authors in the book have been writing for years. Before they were authors, they were writers. Every week, they walked from wherever they were staying to the Door of Hope support center to join writing group, writing and sharing their words. Most of the time, folks want to focus on the homeless part of “formerly-homeless writers.” Chapter 16 focused on the writer part. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.

p.s. he liked the book!

 

© 2017 - Ellen Morris Prewitt | EllenMorrisPrewitt.com