trying…to love our neighbors
Hey John and Tina!
From: Tina Teng-Henson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, Apr 3, 2013 at 6:35 PM
Subject: HEY GUYS! AND…really insightful systems analysis re: homelessness
Hey you guys!
John and I both read your email + have had it on our list of emails-to-respond-to since we got it… 🙂
Thought to chime in and start the thread… though it’s kind of a smattering of different thoughts!! (sorry!) I’m sure John will have other insights.
I remember first moving to Harvard Square and feeling so awkwardly clueless about how to respond to homeless folk who would approach me for change. Mostly I went with the party-line I vaguely had been raised with, of “it’s hard to know the situation, giving money doesn’t change the problem, so don’t give anything.”
But that just didn’t sit right – (in the Sermon on the Mount: Matt 5.42 “give to the one who asks you…”) so I remember at some point freshman year giving someone w a sign (offering mini-recitals for $0.50…remember him?), the change in my plastic coin purse, but saying he didn’t have to perform. He got really mad at me for ‘just doing charity’ without allowing him the dignity of performing his chosen service. I remember going home all confused + not sure where-all things had gone wrong!
I think in the meantime, I eventually got involved at South End Neighborhood Church of Emmanuel (SENCE), started serving at the Harvard Sq Homeless Shelter, and feeling more at peace with politely saying “sorry, I don’t have spare change” when asked on the streets — with the sense that my relational involvements elsewhere were contributing more fruitfully than my spare change might.
But now, years later, as there are a lot of homeless folk we’ve continued to encounter here in San Jose — I definitely still have questions + your email reminds me of where I’ve been given pause over the course of time re: this matter.
I definitely resonate, Y, with wanting to live a less busy life so I can actually stop when approached + have a human/e interaction that feels authentic and has the capacity for kindness. For me, this feels like a pretty clear invitation from Jesus to possibly walk in the way of the Good Samaritan in how I live my daily life – and less in the way of the Levite or priest who are both just so busy/important…
and maybe this is somewhat like Peter and John in Acts 3 who, when asked for money, choose to heal the man in the name of Jesus in that moment, acknowledging that they actually don’t have gold or silver either!
So – a very few times, I’ve had the privilege of conversation and back-and-forth w whoever’s approached me – given them the card of our church – prayed with that person, mentioned Starlight (if in Boston), – and then, knowing I .do. have great wealth in comparison with that person – and also in absolute/global terms — given a few dollars.
I try to listen/sense what the Holy Spirit might nudge me to do/say as people come by. With some people, I don’t feel particularly led to any sort of action – for whatever reason. But with others, something catches me and I just feel compelled to share something I might have on me (generally opting for food/snacks over money). But I have to say there are definitely times I feel compelled but don’t end up doing anything (sometimes I waffle in indecision + think my way out of action) …because of a general sense of uncertainty surrounding all this for me.
I think John often seems to engage all this more simply + straightforwardly – usually giving something with a “God bless” – and I wish I was more like him.
But mostly I think God’s grown my heart – but also given me more questions to wrestle over – as I’ve sought to stay in + figure out relationship with homeless or formerly homeless folk because of our participation in the same community — and I’m mostly thinking of via SENCE.
<I think for John, SENCE and Starlight would mainly come to mind, as I know he had strong ties with Eddie G at SENCE and a guy named Ken thru Starlight. (the HSqHomelessShelter didn’t feel like a place (for me) where I as a volunteer had authentic mutuality and relationship with any of the shelter guests. My personal sense is that without a faith-basis, it was difficult for there to be a culture of genuine common ground around anything. It functionally felt like community service “we” do for “you”.>
I definitely feel like I learned the most going to church alongside a socio-economically diverse community that eventually became genuine friends. But I’ll share a story that reminds me that I still haven’t figured this out + don’t really know if I’ve made that much progress in knowing how to love those who are materially poor.
P, when I met her thru SENCE, was living in shelters + collecting change + often in some sort of trouble — alongside her boyfriend M. But she had a real honesty about her, a beautiful spirit when she would sing at church, and she kept surprising me with how she “did” friendship with me. One time I was driving through the South End from Roxbury, and I saw her standing, literally, in the middle of the road. She was like, “Tina! I see you! I have something for you…” and she gave me this little medallion that said “Tina” on it…! no clue where she found that! I think she picked it up from off the ground.
Over time, our friendship grew — and over the course of the time we overlapped at SENCE – it became the kind of thing where we’d connect at church, often pray together… and sometimes she’d call + we’d chat and pray.
One time early on she asked to borrow money – like a $1 or $2 – (this was the first time at church I’d ever been approached in many years of attendance), and I think I lent it to her out of curiosity (?) to see if she’d actually pay it back. Maybe kind of just to know what her word meant to her, what money and friendship meant to her. She paid me back the following week – and that was the end of that. Just made me see that she wasn’t out to get money from me in this relationship.
They eventually moved out of Boston to more easily get clean, find affordable housing, (also elude some charges against M? :P)… and all things considered, I was glad they were able to start over + M found work to sustain them.
When I’d drive up or down to NY (just a few times each year to see my family) – I’d usually pack some things I knew I wasn’t using/didn’t need – to give to them. They were always grateful, but not overly so. I think for P, it was about the friendship. She might drop a hint that things were needed, or even straight-up ask if we had things we didn’t need, if we could share them – but for me, it didn’t put me out much – and it felt fine.
[At some point they asked us to stand up as their maid of honor/best man when they got married! But when they eventually got married, we had already moved to California. But this just shows what the relationship meant to them. * as a point of contrast, we invited them to come to our wedding – but they said they weren’t able to make it up to Boston and pay for a hotel, etc]
I want to make sure it’s clear that for the most part – things felt like a more or less healthy relationship. Definitely different because of their economic reality, but otherwise, more or less okay. P had bi-polar + a number of ongoing/difficult health challenges – but was on meds + generally alright, although for sure moody, regularly emotionally needy and somewhat depressed. She had a range, but I was alright dealing w it, able to tell her when I could/couldn’t talk, etc.
At the same time – she was growing in faith – M came to faith came to faith at some point during this period – and was baptized! This was a big deal for both of them … she’d always said they were “living in sin” but now that he was baptized – they could get married. And I think they did. In general, I was glad they were plugged into a church where they lived, and were mostly on the up-and-up. Not much talk of drug use, etc… maybe Mark’s drinking from time to time, but on the whole – they seemed to be pretty financially and emotionally stable together.
When we moved to California, we stayed in touch. Cards, phone calls, etc – not all that different. I lowered the frequency because I couldn’t/didn’t want to talk as regularly as she would call, but the relationship mattered to me, so I’d keep up as I was able.
Sometime last spring, I forget exactly what happened – but some combination of P not doing well emotionally, making some really bad decisions, and calling me while sobbing hysterically on the phone. This happened a few times, and I know at one point, it was starting to affect me and I didn’t really know what to do. I was not a licensed counselor, not even in-state, she was not connecting well to her local church and it was just starting to be a lot. I think at some point I just told her straight out that I couldn’t talk as often or have her be as emotionally dependent on me – she needed to find a good psychiatrist to keep working with to help her w her meds.
In the fall, she asked me to send some money – and in a tough-love sort of way, I asked her to explain where all the money they generally got from the state/govt had been going in the past few months. She’d given some to her two children (not in her custody) – in a manner that she saw as loving, but I thought not very wise, given how apparently close they were to not making it thru the month financially.
I wondered whether we could/should give them a generous gift to try to help them out – or give a one-time CVS card gift to tide them over + pay for meds. At some point, I offered P a simple project to make some crafts for me to give others for Christmas presents – since I knew she had a lot of time on her hands (not being able to find work) – and so I could feel better giving her more money (as a wage, not as a gift). I myself was working hard that month, juggling two classes, part-time work at the church (for hourly pay), and in the first trimester of pregnancy. The justice streak in me knew I didn’t want to just give charitably when I knew she might be able to do something to earn money + perhaps feel better about what she was able to do with her life. (She had a hard time finding work) She was enthusiastic at first, then later said she couldn’t do it because her meds made her hands tremble.
But at some point – I think the tough-love tone from that earlier conversation upset her – and she decided to end the friendship. She wrote a letter saying we just couldn’t be friends because I couldn’t/didn’t understand her (eg: her giving money to her kids). She never acknowledged the CVS gift card we sent, and it was clear she was done w the relationship. Not unusual for someone with bipolar – a number of the friends I’ve had over the years with bipolar have had the same pattern w me – intense friendship that they decide to end for whatever reason in a few months/years. But still difficult.
Apologies, as I know this is a long story to share – even writing it, I’ve developed somewhat of a headache. It was a tough situation to sort out – and the length of my writing indicates I haven’t finished processing it.
At the end of the day, I mostly wished that we were friends in the context of a church community we were both still a part of. With the J situation you mentioned, Y, I think that Pastor N stepping in at some point ultimately helped the young adults feel freedom/permission/alright setting boundaries and limits and creating appropriate distance from him because of the intractable challenges he faced in life.
I also feel like I’ve learned a lesson in not being too involved with people whose mental and emotional and physical challenges require the care of a health care professional. For the most part, I operated as a ‘friend’ – but I know that the nature of my friendship definitely has strong aspects of counseling/psychological care and an incarnational dimension – but I probably should have kept more distance or been more careful about being ‘adopted’ as her closest friend to begin with.
Lastly, I’m passing along something that the EGC newsletter sent out about a month ago. It’s both a high-level and very focused analysis of the cycle that street-involved people get caught in – and the way in which the church + ministries like Starlight can + do play a major role in helping to bring that cycle to a place of restoration, healing, growth, relationship, and health. I don’t think I’m personally called to do street-ministry – but I’m glad there are others (Tim and Alice Colegrove with InnerChange/homeless youth, Sara with Starlight, etc) who ARE and do a great job.
So you’re on to the real challenges underneath the seemingly simple question of whether or not it’s ‘good’ to give change to the homeless when asked. I have no clue if this has been helpful – but it’s a cross-section of the evolution of my thinking over time.
We love you guys a lot. Thanks for writing, Y, and thanks for reading what may have been as much something for me to reflect upon – as something to share in response to your question…
Lots of love,
On Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 9:11 PM, Tina Teng-Henson <email@example.com> wrote:
Hey you guys,
Just thought to pass this on to you — I thought you three might appreciate seeing it. It’s a really comprehensive and insightful systems analysis re: homelessness + how churches can possibly intersect with the realities of those homeless/
“street-involved” (a new term i learned from looking this over).
See below for more context, but here’s the actual document if you’re curious. http://egc.org/sites/egc.org/files/SL%20System%20Diagram%20v-8.pdf
I know in lots of ways this is not a significant part of our Sunday service/community — but Kathy’s involvement with the Thursday morning community — and Jae’s recent question just made me think to pass it on…
All the best,
John’s thoughtful follow-up email, later on: