8 May 2011
The Third Sunday of Easter
Happy Mother’s Day. I have lost my mother this spring, and no longer have young children to wake me at dawn and try to make breakfast, but I do have several spiritual mothers and sisters in my mission group and in former mission groups. I realized that being a spiritual mother was what I wanted to talk about today, in relation to my work at N Street Village.
Our scriptures today talk about Christ giving a remedial lesson to two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus, while they were gossiping about all the past events. Jesus took time to go over the prophesies that referred to his life and ministry, and to hammer home the lesson that his life was not meant to be long and finishing in a cloud of kingship, but given in nonviolence, while he was trying to form a religion of community which included everyone from high to low.
The disciples listened, but did not recognize Jesus, until he broke bread at dinner, and then disappeared. Our story in Acts describes a sermon by Peter on Pentecost, when Peter kept arguing and testifying, until 3000 persons were baptized that day. So just to be clear, this is exactly what I do not do at N Street Village to lead the women to a feeling of community in which they feel safe, accepted and can express the sacred inside them. But while they know I am a chaplain, and we begin and end with a ritual, I do not preach and try to keep the teaching or giving of advice to a minimum.
To start at the beginning, I want to talk about one place in my life where I truly feel called, and to let you hear some of the words the women of N Street Village have written this year so that you get to know a little of what it is like to be with them. I have worked at N Street for 10 years now, having begun by proposing a detailed course on Autobiography to Dixie Bosley-Smith, who was then the director of the Wellness Center, and then finding that I did not need as much structure in content, but rather had to provide a structure that involved mutual sharing, preparing challenging and varied topics, and welcoming women for either just one week if they were passing through the shelter, or for nine years, as two of my regular attendees have participated.
I open each class by lighting a candle, and saying, “I light this candle in honor of the fact that you have brought your life, your experiences, your emotions, your creativity and your spirituality here today to share, and that is from the deepest part of you, your soul. As the candle flame grows while we are here, I hope your soul will be replenished, and as we share, and create community by your sharing, God is here, and the candle represents God’s presence.” I try to bring topics from our early lives, younger years, present and future, and include happy, sad or even pedestrian topics. I point out that every week the topics bring a surprise, as we all react so differently to various topics, and that every single week, there will be a gift, a story or words that stay with us. I ask the women to give each other silence, and to wait to talk until the last pen is down. I could not do this in Seekers—some of you are so comfortable in silence, you might be able to write for three days, but our time typically wraps up in 25-30 minutes, and then we share. While sharing goes on, I try to stop comments or questions, just let a few “oh, wow!” or “that was amazing”s get through. And this provides the structure and safety that lets the women first get out their pain, and then get to their strengths over time.
When women first join the class, they do not trust that they might come back again, or know the difficulty of writing a very long piece. They often have trouble keeping silent during the writing, or criticize me—usually trying that first, and then perhaps others. They try to write down their whole lives on one piece of paper. I want you to hear about Nancy Valencia, read by Emmy Lu:
I am the oldest of seven children. I was their second mother until I was asked to leave the house when I was seventeen.
Starting a life with no support or knowhow was scary and fearful. I struggled so to put together a life for myself. I went to Business College since
I could type 70 words per minute on a manual typewriter. Little Rock was a small capital city in 1968. The school found me housing with a couple who owned 3 rooming houses. I was given room and board and in return, I assisted them by collecting rent, cleaning the common areas and vacant units. I went to school daily. The buildings they owned stood directly across the street from the governor’s mansion. I stood on their veranda many times looking or daydreaming about how my life may become and staring at the mansion with hope that someday I could work in politics. I was able to get my wish several years later after I arrived in DC.
I will be 60 years old in a couple weeks and here I am starting over on another path with the help of N Street Village. I must admit I could not have written my story of beginning again at this late date in my life. I thought I was settled. You just don’t know what will happen. You just keep journeying forward. Another 10 minutes, another hour, another day. Then you begin to see a plan forming. One step forward, half back. Keep going. Keep trying.
_ _ _
After Nancy’s first attendance, she wrote a couple of pieces about managing to raise her daughters, give them food, shelter and not use any violence on them, and the joy of having something to give them at Christmas. No matter the time of year, if I ask the women to write about things they are proud about in their lives, the theme of having something to give their children at Christmas is a very strong and universal sentiment. Some of you know that my husband is the Christmas elf himself, and our Christmases might be more like a tower of things for our children, and it has always pulled on my heartstrings when this is mentioned. Needless to say, I support the Junior League’s Christmas shop for our women’s children, where the women go and pick out two gifts for each of their children, and are helped to think of the current age and talents, while some of the women tend to think of their kids stuck in time at the age when they lost them. So the Junior League checks to make sure that records do not show any developmental or mental delays and helps the women to choose toys or gifts that will be appreciated and improve their Christmas visits with their children.
Once a woman tells some of her story, she tends to trust in telling about one aspect of her inner or outer life a week, and we settle into a journey of undefined length together. Women leave the class because they have relapsed and leave the shelter, because they have gotten a job and are no longer present during the day, or because they find something better to do, but I rarely know if someone will be with me a couple of weeks, or for years. But after the first session, the women begin to trust me, and start to interpret their lives. Elese will read for Barbara Dixon, whose sister came regularly to my class a couple of years ago, and died last year of high blood pressure, diabetes, and poor health care. Barbara wanted to reclaim her sister’s poetry notebook, and attended regularly for most of the fall and winter. She attended school up until 9th grade, and was shy at first about writing anything down. But after a couple of months, she began to write, and frequently wrote of strengths and blessings, and it was important for all around her who had seen her crumble when her only family member had died.
In the beginning, God created man and woman. I’m one of his creations. I’m 60 years old and I’m still getting around asking God to let me do his will and not mine. I’m a loving, caring woman. I’m a good listener and I try to help someone other than myself. I enjoy life and I live for the blessing God is going to give me, because God is good and I look forward to him for being my God.
– – —
It means a lot to me when the women are ready to talk about the pain of their lives beyond the current pain of addiction. It turns out that they have many places at the shelter to talk about addiction and the terrible effort to turn away from it, but do not have much time and silence to think about their lives before addiction. And, the others who are in the shelter due to poor health or old age and no family or support system in the world do not have places to reflect deeply on their lives. So I want you to hear some of the very poignant descriptions of how women feel about their lives. First, we will hear Elese read Vicki Grimbull’s metaphor for her life, called “Peace in the Storms of Life”:
Peace in the Storms of Life
I once saw pictures entered into a contest regarding the artists’ interpretation of peace. Some reflected placid pools of water, lazy days by the beach, and even family settings.
But the picture that won the prize was that of an oak tree in the middle of an orchard, bending almost to the ground because of an obvious storm. Because of strong, dangerous, hurricane-like winds, leaves were blowing everywhere, trees uprooted.
The rain painted in the picture was so heavy and thick that it looked like thick white yarn.
Then, in the middle of this nightmare climate chaos, was a mother bird in full wing span covering her babies in their nest. The title of this picture was simply called “Peace.”
I am working very hard to achieve the art of peace in these types of storms of my life, and not to hold the delusion that peace is only achieved when there aren’t any.
Next, a description by Nidia about dealing with despair, read by Jacqui Wallen:
Times of Despair
The whirlwind, all movement is not always good.
A messenger who delivers the message can sometimes be
a deliverer of evil.
A promise of what’s to come, when witnessed by an innocent
bystander—who can explain the message?
A sense of despair, something wrong is happening.
Who can explain?
Something unusual is happening.
All witnessed, it makes no sense at the time.
The messenger has spoken, the message received.
All on deaf ears. What to do?
You sense the urgency, but the message makes no sense.
All is a whirlwind. An no one understood.
A time to remove yourself from the desperate. A time to flee to safety.
A time for review.
A time for reflection.
A time for reporting.
A time for witnessing.
A time for safety.
A time for horror.
A time for making sense.
A time for recovering.
A time for mending those fences.
A time for relocating.
A time for healing.
A time for rest.
– – – –
Arlethia is a favorite of mine right now. In her twenties, younger than many of my usual attendees, she is dealing with a relapse after being drug-free for several months. When she relapsed, she wrote poetry which attacked her value, her appearance, and her basic goodness, and she asked me to take her name off all of her poems and to substitute her street name, which is a real sign of self-loathing. We have had several long talks about the fact that she is the same person, and can start over, and that we already know of her humor, intelligence and will value her as the same person, and I would not change the names on poems so that she knows that no matter how she feels just now, we know the real self when she is straight. Sandra Miller is going to read Arlethia’s writing on a good day:
I Am Somebody
I am Somebody
I hear what I want to hear
I see miraculous things
I am an intelligent human being
I am Somebody
I think on my own
I feel like I’m all alone
I am strong!
I am Somebody
I care for my recovery
I wish that others can see
That I am Somebody.
I am Somebody
I hope for the best
I know I’m not like the rest
I am alive and free
I am Somebody!!
One of the unique things I bring is the opportunity for women to write about their spirituality. There are currently art classes, crochet and knitting, a book group, a movie group—more classes than there have been during many years when I have been at N Street. But while there is a Bible study, there is little chance for women to talk about where they see God in their own lives. (They all need a Seekers Church.) I make sure to craft a writing topic that includes God every couple of months, but they bring God to their writing much more often. Sometimes it is in reflecting on their own lives—is there a plan in the world that includes homelessness? Here is writing by Alberta Scott, read by Kimberly Bates:
When I put things together, I have a time, wondering how they go. Is this right for here, or not? How does this red go with black or gold? What side does the fork for salad go on? I often wonder if God still has a plan for me. How long can I stay to find out what the plan is—He only knows!
What should she have said about the question she was asked? Should she have smiled or just left? How did God make the flowers and trees to be in such color? Did he have a plan on how to put things together, or did they just turn out that way? I tried to put together a perfect life and failed. Things just didn’t go the way I was putting things together!
Stop trying to put things together. It will usually just fall in place! The shoes go with the dress—you are not a colorful mess. So check yourself once and that is enough. By the time the world sees, it’s all put together and in place.
– — –
I currently have a woman who speaks like a black preacher. She is very quiet and unassuming, until she gets to write and then read what she wrote.
This is a “poem” by Kumina, who came and carefully edited it to be sure it appeared in this year’s poetry book the way she wanted it, but it sounds like a sermon on faith. Trish Nemore will read “God in My Soul”:
God in My Soul
For this I know, there is the truth, the light
that is the strength, that is the essence of right,
and insures that nothing can ever go wrong, my deep assurance
my love, my peace, God your are deeper than what anyone could know.
Your love is infinitely deep, passionate, you held my soul in your deep embrace.
You cleanse me, you wash me, you take care of me, and insure my soul will be yours forever.
For all the wickedness and evil that tries to speculate and invent the abominable,
for all the darkness that tries to consume the soul,
for all the potential evil that could exist,
God, I know your hand reaches out and uproots it, and brings in the power
that is love and joy.
You rescue weary souls, souls that would give up.
God, you bring the unexpected end, you are the great hand behind every story,
you make the plot tell the story, teach man God’s glory, and met in God is the
real truth, the light, the quintessence, the heat and is the worship of your existence.
This is our true state, in your loving embrace, worshiping you, loving you,
celebrating life, feeling the joy of you, Lord; me celebrating the meaning of every event you bring, God, I praise you because you are in my soul.
And God, I know that in the heart of hearts, you are greater than what anyone could imagine. And God, you are always on the move, moving in the midst of your children. Forbidding the wrong, the evil that would threaten us, when we would be seduced by darkness. God, you come and reveal true light, the truth, the reason why evil should never exist, and cause us to be born again, ad worship you, and fall more deeply in love with you, only to realize the purpose in life is to love you, and to be in love with you, and through you, will have glory to glory, and pain to pain.
God, you know you are in my soul, I know you are.
God, no matter what forces or powers, no matter what it seems like, I know, I know, you are the real power. No matter their strength, just what wisdom they perpetrate, I know, my God, you are the real power, and nothing can compare to your love or glory.
Some women express gratitude for the respite of N Street to get their lives back in order. Here is such a poem from Michelle Williams, read by Emmy Lu:
A Place of Privilege
I stood outside the door as I watched the many expressions of women’s faces. Faces of women that told the story of many places.
Disturbed, troubled, lonely, disoriented.
Excited to have a place to come in. Once in, wonder of what happens then.
I, like those women, felt a hue of what’s to be.
Must search my soul, could be a passage to my destiny.
Not knowing that outside the doors of N Street Village, that my passage in,
would actually become my privilege.
At first, I felt just like an ordinary stranger,
It didn’t take me long to realize that there is no danger.
For I am my sister and my sisters are me,
for our stories unfold like life’s mystery.
We know of each other’s heartache, we know of each other’s pain,
We know of the overcoming, we know of life’s gain.
Hold on, my sisters. Let’s make a pact to hold onto each other
Until God takes us back.
One important part of my class is mutuality. I do not make the women do anything I wouldn’t do. So I write and share poems or stories every week, and feel like I have two spiritual direction sessions each week. I selected poems of mine for the book which seem weighty and important enough so people won’t question my presence in the group, but I want to read one for fun, so that you all know that we often write just for the joy of it—on music, play, and in this case, nature. My Poem is Called “Icicles in the Sun”
Icicles in the Sun
Icicles seem miraculous,
they bring beauty to the bumper of a car,
or a window sill,
or bare branches.
They adorn places that, typically, we don’t see.
The sun shines on them, bringing refraction,
bits of multicolored light, as well as reflection,
of the colors around them—they are prisms in nature.
And the spotlight of the sun is also the source of their demise.
Icicles are beautiful while melting—
their drips that fall bring the colors within to motion,
and then the drips disappear.
There is beauty and impermanence,
but the icicles shine on,
beautiful and dying.
Sometimes the women like my poems, sometimes they seem to fall flat, but I point out that none of us is a professional poet, but we have grown closer by the effort to express ourselves and to listen deeply to each other.
Here is the one place I think I can connect my N Street story to the scripture for this week. The women sit down, sometimes they grumble if I don’t give out paper and pens quick enough, or if the room is crowded. Many are not used to being silent for long, and resent the effort. Then, they begin to read. The women who are shy are encouraged by the others. The ones who cry when they are reading are often comforted by the ones nearby. And everyone recognizes that Christ is present. When they scrape away some of the armor needed around their souls to get by in the streets, and take a chance to share from their depths, we all lean forward and are attracted to the God within, and Christ is there. Once we all know it, recognize the sacred moment, he disappears, as in the Emmaus dining room.