“See that man there? His name is John, I was talking to him for a while - I continue to come out here, constantly. Sometimes a listening ear is better. A lot of guys, myself sometimes, just want to get it off our chest, something is pulling them down. They want and need somebody to listen, not give them a negative response. Just comfort them in whatever way you can, help them through it. One or two words, maybe not saying anything - they can feel that.”
"Society has a way of pushing people back to their past, of punishing them over and over again for choices."
Tony shakes his head slightly, his face warm not only with compassion for those he describes, but a painfully real amount of empathy. We stand in the small but clean and busy space of the kitchen at Central Union Mission,*where Tony first came seeking help and now works as a staff member.
Might we all have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to act on behalf of those whose voices can easily go unheard. At least for her lunchtime operation, Susan said that the most popular meal, by a landslide, is fried chicken with macaroni and cheese. Who can object with those vittles? Susan treats the men of Central Union Mission like friends, or family members even, who are over for a home-cooked meal. The food is important, and she excels in that area, yes, but the dignified conversation and engaging personality that she offers is first-class as well.
He told me, “It’s been a little bit over a year. I came here absolutely destitute and broken.” Candid about the circumstances that landed him at Central Union Mission, Marc shared that he has 20-plus years’ experience working in mass communication, including being the coordinating research producer on a top television show. However, evidently, some years ago as the Internet quickly developed into an easily-accessible means for in-depth research of various kinds, Marc’s position was rendered expendable and he was left scrambling to find new income.
"You know, when it was snowy, everyone was all like, 'Get the homeless inside!' but days when the snow was melting? Those were gross days, it was terrible. They can sit on the ground right now, lay down if they want to." He gestured around him and we take in the scene for a moment; the thawed, dry ground; the nearly picnicking atmosphere of the park. "We can stand here and it's alright now but everything was just mud, lots of mud, and no one was saying, 'Let's get them in out of this mess.' It was too warm to think about that, there wasn't a snow or hypothermia emergency."
"I was saying," she mulls, running back over our conversation in her mind. "I thought that was enough, just giving money. But after I came out, I realised it was about more than just money. It's connecting. Just talking, hearing stories." She gestures around her at all the people sharing the park with us, talking with one another, resting, eating. "Helping someone in person, actually meeting them--not just sending money off somewhere and feeling like you've done something; it's different."
“We all a one-page act away from being right here,” Minister Moe said, gesturing around the park. “If we don’t give back, we’re living a lie.”
Their son ran up to Minister Moe and hugged his leg as we talked, and the two shared a smile and side-hug. “I’m trying to teach them young to give back, to be aware of life out here, and to love serving. We are teaching them to have compassion and especially, to see everyone.”
“I want my kids to see this,” Tyra said, shrugging lightly when I asked her about the choice to bring their children along with them. “I want them to understand what they have, to not be afraid like I was. They need to be thankful for what they have, and it helps them see that. They ask good questions, and they learn. They like being out here.”
People are often intrigued when I tell them that I'm doing a year of service; they ask about the organization, the work I do, and my service site. These are easy questions to answer. I tell them that I'm serving with Franciscan Mission Service in Brookland, that I work in our office as the development associate, and that I have the opportunity to paint watercolor with the women at Calvary Women's Services every Wednesday afternoon. Simple questions, simple answers. But then sometimes they ask me how I ended up here, and I get to decide if we're going to have a couple more minutes of chit chat, or a ten minute discussion on the deeper matters of faith, life and trust. Typically I go with the latter, because you never know where those conversations are going to go.
Lauren's motto in her personal and professional life is, "I want to love people well, and I want to be loved well. People should be loved for who they are, not what they do. People are in our lives because of their spirit and how they make us feel. I try to be consistent - I want to be the ear that hears things that nobody else has time to hear."
Catherine is a survivor. She was homeless on the streets of D.C. just a month ago. She slept in parks, rode the metro and buses all day and night, as long as she could, until they closed down. She was getting away from domestic violence and depression, but being on the streets made her feel alone. "When no one else was here for me, Calvary was here for me." When I ask her how she came to Calvary, she tells me that she found out about it online and just called. She was added to Calvary’s waiting list, but she ended up only waiting a few weeks before moving in.
"Oh, you know," he said, waving his hand at me and looking everywhere else--at the icy blue sky above; the stone, glass, and brick facades of the buildings around; the construction down the street; the strangers rushing by. "Make these people responsible--myself included. Mayor Bowser, Eleanor Holmes Norton, they can't do it all on their own." He broke off, then shrugged and added softly, pointedly, "You know; it takes a village."
I met Jerry outside of Union Station on a cold morning. He was asking passersby for change, but he didn't seem used to having to ask people for help. "I'm from Miami, and I'm here looking for work. I like working nine to five - all I want to do is work. I've worked everywhere - I helped set up the stage for Obama in Denver, I ran a daycare once. I like working with kids - helping them make their life better - if I could do anything I wanted, thats what I'd do."
We asked how she ended up in D.C., and she told us about how she had run away from her home state, Illinois, when she was a teenager. She told us stories of Chicago's runaway children. Many left home because of religious conflict in the family. They'd run with lovers or alone, and get on a bus with a $1 ticket. "Do they come home? They come home when they're ready," she smiled, "but only when they're ready."
"I'm here to be civil - trying to keep people accountable. My house got destroyed by roto-whipping, you know, the helicopter blades? They said it was my fault. I came here to Washington to report what happened, but they won't even let me into the building. They do whatever they want, the big banks, the government, but if you speak up there's no life for you. It's true for all Americans. They destroy your life and then you just have to go back to work. They tell me I need to be medicated, go to a shelter, go to St. Elizabeth's, but who's the crazy one here?
To every person walking by, he says, "God bless you, thank goodness its Friday, you have a blessed day weekend!" He reminds couples that they should remember Valentines day coming up, to enjoy the weekend, and that God loves them. He is always playing WGTS 91.9, the Christian radio station, and he is surrounded by supplies for the homeless: water, food, hygiene products and clothes for women, toilet paper, gloves and hats. I told him that I've met several homeless women who desperately needed sanitary pads and clothes around the city, and he agrees that the need is great. Many cannot get access to bathrooms when they need it, and he hands out rolls and rolls of toilet paper to help out. Many people around the city donate supplies so that he can help others experiencing homelessness.
In her Irrational Season Madeleine L'Engle writes about the importance of people being moved with compassion for people, not causes. Of course causes are important, but it is encounters with the leper, the homeless person, the refugee, the marginalized that move us with compassion that certainly can evolve into passion for a cause. It is encounters with people that move us toward causes, and rarely the other way around. My federal advocacy and event planning work at the National Alliance to End Homelessness is spurred and informed by knowing Leona, David, Roger, Tom, and many others.
On a morning so cold that no one wanted to step outside, we found Gizmo standing at an intersection near the Capitol. He held high a sign asking for work, the cardboard placard grasped tightly as possible between frozen fingers. He told us his full name and then asked if we would go by his nickname.
“I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting for someone to come over, say hello. Just smile,” he said, greeting us with a smile of his own.
In his tan jumpsuit and brown work boots Tom blared his music out of his blue tooth speaker. “Playing music is one of my gifts,” he said. Sometimes he plays current pop, other times he jams to romantic jazz tunes. He doesn’t have a preference and is happy to DJ to anything.
David came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1997. His wife at the time followed a year later. They met at a school in their home town where she worked as a teacher, and David in the Department of Education. He is seen as a wise father-figure to many of his friends.
“If I could tell the world anything about myself, it would be that I am blessed to have known all sorts of people. The good ones, and the not so good ones. They have made me who I am. They have made my life richer.”