My first academic year at the School for Ministry has finished, the final paper written and the last exam completed. I’ve said a sad goodbye to the good folk of St. Timothy’s where I spent my first Spring Field Placement. Now it is time for the summer and that means two hundred hours volunteering with my summer placement agency and for me that is Episcopal Community Services (ECS). Over the next eleven weeks I plan to share, on this blog, my own reflections, stories that touched me and hopefully signs of growth in my emerging ministry skills.
On a Tuesday night I’m going to be with the ACCORD program (ECS’ ACCORD Driving Under the Influence Program (DUIP) strives to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence and the negative impact of this behavior on our families, residents and community*). On a Thursday night and Saturday daytime I’m going to be with the Downtown Safe Haven Transitional Housing (DTSH) program (The Safe Havens are transitional housing residences serving mentally ill, chronically homeless single adults in the metro San Diego area**).
To help my own reflection process, I’m also reading “Stories from the Shelter” by Blake W. Barrow. Blake answered the call of God to leave a successful career as a trial lawyer and run the Rescue Mission of El Paso, a Christian shelter for homeless men, women, and children. The book not only tells the stories of the people who call the shelter home but also it chronicles Blake’s own spiritual journey.
In Blake’s second chapter of his book he describes his early day’s as the shelter’s manager. He describes the first time that he had to preach and give a sermon to the residents and visitors. Without any time for preparation he found himself thrust into the pulpit. He reflects on the experience:
I was like the little kid approaching the cold swimming pool and thinking about dipping one toe into the water. Then Pappy came along and just picked me up and threw me directly into the deep end – swim or sink and adjust very quickly to the temperature of the water.
On Thursday night I walked into the Safe Haven house and immediately bumped into ChrisH, another of the postulants who had been there for the past few hours. He took me to the office so that I could introduce myself top the staff. I was told go be with the residents, build relationships. Chris showed me around, we had dinner with everyone and sat through a house meeting. Then it was time for Chris to leave, and suddenly I was alone. I walked into the room where people were sitting and watching TV, sat down and tried to strike up a conversation. It was a bit forced, folk wanted to watch the basketball and not talk to the newbie volunteer. In those first few minutes I discovered that relationship building in that place at that time consisted mainly of sitting and making dumb British comments based on my lack of knowledge of American sports. I noticed a middle aged man, who I later found out was called George** who seemed shy and almost dismissive. The evening continued and I learnt quite a bit about basketball.
During one of the longer commercial breaks most of the residents headed to the garden to smoke, George and I were left. To be honest I can’t even remember how the conversation started but it did. Soon everyone came back for the next installment of the playoffs – Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, George offered to show me around the garden. The tour was’t too extensive as George sat down as soon as we were outside in the cooler evening air. Then he began to talk, he talked a lot, he described his life, his depression cycles, his past, his hopes for the future, his fears. It just kept coming out. In class we had practiced role playing. Role playing always felt false because getting them started seemed to be so artificial. But here in real life, it was like the start of a role play – this guys life just came out. I hadn’t thought about how I would handle a situation like this. Luckily I didn’t have to do much talking I mainly just listened. I felt truly thrown in at the deep end but it was a hot night and so God had pre-warmed the water. This was ministry in action and I felt, even if slightly uncomfortable, that I was exactly where God wanted me to be.
Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
I know that my time with ECS will not be just another task that I have to do as part of my formation. It will, and is, a sacred time to be blessed by building relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ that find themselves with particular challenges in their lives. It is an honor to be given a chance to build those relationships. I’m glad that George threw me in at the deep-end. Maybe next week I will come with my swimming trunks.
** All resident and staff names have been changed.