I am now over half way through my time with the ECS Downtown Safe Haven and I’ve got to know many of the residents there. On a Thursday night and Saturday daytime I show up, share a meal, conversation, go fishing – all ways in which to build relationships. Last Saturday I was pottering around the kitchen and dining room when Paul* came in and said “so I hear that you are training to become a priest”, we had met and exchanged a few words before but never really engaged in conversation. “Yes I am” I replied. “Then why are you here?” Paul asked. Now this may sound like a straight forward question when you read it here but at the time it was a little tricky to answer on the spot. “Well I’m here for a summer placement but actually I really want to be here as much as I can, I want to spend time outside of the church and experience God in all of the world”. “mmmm so you going to be a Catholic priest?” “Well not quite, Episcopal – but if you are used to the Catholic faith you would find that we do a lot of things in the same way, and we all believe in the same God” From the little that I knew of Paul I knew that he had a strong faith and attended a church on a regular basis “where do you worship?” I asked. “oh it’s a bible church that meets a few blocks from here, I’m new to the faith but I’m learning everything that the bible has to teach me. Let me ask you a question, why do you pray to Mary?”
The conversation continued as I tried (stumbling at times) to explain that the Episcopal tradition was different to the Catholic tradition but doing my best to convey Catholic theology in a clear and easy to understand way. We ended up talking for over an hour. I was clear that Paul had a desire to learn about my faith and it was also clear that we held differing views on some aspects of our faith. Despite this we found a common ground with Jesus at the center (exactly where he should be). I was keen to learn from his experience of faith and was humbled by the missional application of his living out of his faith in the world around him. As I was reflecting later on, we had differences in what we do inside of our churches and in some of our interpretations but we were united in the need to take Jesus out into the world and our to our call to servant hood.
As the conversation came towards a natural end I asked Paul if he would like to pray together. He wanted to, and so we sat with joined hands and the middle of the dining room and prayed. I felt blessed to have been able to join in Holy conversation with Paul and asked him to lead the prayers. The spirit was truly with us.
Jesus calls us into relationship with others. The Gospels are full of Jesus himself interacting with those around him. Calling strangers by name, engaging with all, with no one excluded. This is the model that we should follow. At times this will lead to direct questions about our faith, it can be scary to think that we don’t have the answer to every question but if we put our faith in Jesus then the answer will come, maybe not in the way we had hoped for but it will come one way or another.
Blake Barrow in his book Stories from the Shelter recalls a story of a man that came into his office at the homeless mission that he was running. The man had never really heard of Jesus and clutching a New King James bible asked Blake if this particular version of the bible told the stories about Jesus. He had heard that there were many different versions of the bible. Blake started off by giving him a bit of a history lesson about the King James translation but quickly realized that the man did not was an academic lesson on the finer aspects of a particular translation. Blake stopped what he was saying and sat down with the man and turned to the Gospel of Luke. “Lets start here with Luke, Luke tells the story of Jesus starting with his birth…….”. Sometimes, indeed often, we need to leave the classroom behind and just find Jesus. Thank you Paul for sharing how Jesus is so active in your life, I am proud and honored to be able to share in your journey of faith in the world in which we live in.
* Name changed
On Tuesday evenings I am spending time at ECS’s ACCORD DUI program. The program strives to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence and the negative impact of this behavior on families, residents and the wider community. Last week I sat in two different discussion groups. There are so many different things I could write about but in this post I want to reflect on a comment that one of the staff made to me. At the end of the evening I was talking about my experiences that evening with a small group of the staff. I noted how the clients seemed to fall into three broad categories: those who accepted that their actions led to the DUI; those who accepted the seriousness of the DUI but did not accept, in part or fully, their own role in it (relying on excuses to explain away cause); and finally those who seemed to have not accepted the importance of the DUI itself. One of the staff reminded me that everyone in the program works at their own speed. Some will learn from the program faster, some slower, some will get it whilst they are in the program, some will get it after they have left and some will not get it at all. As I drove home I started to think how we come to expect instant results. Society teaches us to measure our success as a function of time. We live in a McDonald’s world where our expectation is immediate service and anything less is unacceptable.
After getting home I settled down to read some more of Blake Barrow’s book “Stories from the Shelter” (see my last post for more about this book). Chapter thirteen “John” is the story of a resident that came into Blake’s homeless mission, entered into their recovery program for alcoholism and settled into a new life and job at the mission. All was going well until Blake tried to push John a little harder and faster. John was not ready to move at Blake’s pace and ultimately broke his sobriety. In Blake’s own words
Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his, HUD’s one-step, housing first solution for the homelessness doesn’t fit everyone’s needs. For John, the shelter setting was healthier by far than having his own place…….He went home each day to isolation without any human interaction or supervision, and ten years of sobriety was destroyed in thirty days.
“Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his” again, even with the best intentions, we can feed the desire for the quick result. We can also see this sense of urgency in the Gospels as well
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:19-21)
It would be easy to conclude that our God is a fully paid up member of the McDonald brigade. The sign of a good Christian/disciple is to instantly follow Jesus. I don’t think that that is the case though. The immediacy of action in Matthew’s calling of the disciples had more to do with demonstrating the awesomeness of Jesus that the disciples immediately felt. Of course it is not only calls to immediate action that we find in Holy Scripture we also find many reminders of patience.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Many of our churches invite the congregation to share in the Holy meal with the words “wherever you are on your journey of faith you are welcome to participate at everything we do at the table”. My own reflections and prayers this week have been that we extend that same invitation to all that we do. God is patient. Whether it is activities in church, working with people attending ECS’s DUI program, walking along side one of our brothers or sisters struggling with homelessness, mental health illness, addiction or their recovery we need to move at God’s pace. And God’s pace will be unique for each and every situation and person. Sometimes we will get that pace right, sometimes we will move to fast and at others too slow.
The lesson of the week for me was to start to learn to read the road signs that God shows us in life so that we know what pace He wants us to go.
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.