June 22, 2008
In a reflection on the work of N Street Village, one of my co-worker’s shared a quote. Famously attributed to Nelson Mandela, the quote by author Marianne Williamson went as follows: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I share this quote with you as an opening, because I think it gets to the heart of the mission and ministry of N Street Village, to empower people to live up to their own greatest potential and in doing that, lifting up others along the way.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I bring you greetings from N Street Village, a community organization offering a continuum of programs and services for homeless and low-income women. For those of you who are not familiar with me, my name is Kjersten Priddy and I am the Manager of Volunteer and In-Kind Services at N Street, at least for the next four weeks, at which point I will be leaving N Street to begin studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. I have visited Seekers before, so when Sandra approached me about coming out to share with you today I was excited for the opportunity. That is, until I sat down and really begin to wrestle with the text, at which point it was really too late for me to back out. Because it was then that I realized that I usually go into church visits with a very clear objective. Recruit volunteers, encourage people to register for the walkathon, ask for money, the goal and purpose of my visit are clear. With less than four weeks left in my time on staff and N Street, the goal and purpose for this one seemed less clear. But, like I mentioned it was way too late by this point to call Sandra and tell her sorry, I’m not interested, so I had to come up with something to say to you all. So I sat with the liturgy for a while longer and realized your theme for this season really spoke to me. With such a short time left, I was able to take a really reflective look at my time at N Street. So bear with me if I talk more about myself than I would normally do in a presentation like this, but what I would like to share with you today is specifically how N Street Village changed my life, and generally how getting involved in mission and ministry is transformational, not just for the served but oftentimes most especially for those serving. And as a brief disclaimer, I will be around after the service if you want to talk to me specifically about how you can get involved at N Street Village. I have my card and some volunteer brochures I can share with you. Only the name of the person picking up the phone will be changing, everything else will stay the same.
N Street Village is a shelter for homeless and low-income women in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. Every day of the year over 150 women come to the village to access a comprehensive listing of services that include a day center, a night shelter, addiction recovery programming, mental health services, a Wellness Center, and various employment services. N Street Village was born out of the vision of Pastor John Steinbruck. Set against the backdrop of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill with the closure of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the 1950s and the DC riots of 1968, and in the middle of the harsh winter of 1972, Pastor Steinbruck envisioned a place where the biblical mandate of hospitality and welcoming the stranger was played out in downtown DC, and N Street Village was born. For inspiration Pastor Steinbruck drew from a slightly earlier story in Genesis then the one we read today, Genesis 18, where Abraham showed radical welcome to three strangers who turned out to be angels of God and promised he and Sarah would bear a son. And so N Street Village became a place focused on “show[ing] hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.”
It was into this rich tradition that I came three years ago as a Lutheran Volunteer. I came, fresh out of college, clutching a super useful undergraduate degree in history, with a dull notion that I might go to seminary one day, but with no real understanding of what that someday might look like. Really, I came to “help people.” There I was, 22 years old, white, upper-middle class, with a college education I hadn’t paid for, and privilege I wasn’t aware of, and I was going to help people. I didn’t know how I was going to help, I didn’t even know who the people were, all I knew was some vague understanding that LVC worked with issues of social justice, and so that was what I had come to do. It did not take long for me to realize I was in over my head. Three weeks into my time at N Street, one of my co-workers asked me to take some of the ladies on a field trip to the Supreme Court. It seemed like an easy enough outing, so even though I had only been in DC a very short time and still often got lost walking home, I agreed to help out. On the day of the trip I gathered up my appointed clients, doled out the Smart Trip cards, and we headed out for our adventure. We made it as far as the courtyard when another one of my co-workers hurried out after me. “Kjersten, where are you going?” she asked. I explained that I was covering a field trip for Ann, and we were going to the Supreme Court, I had the Smart Trips, I knew the rules, etc. “OK,” she said to me, not sounding all that confident, “just be aware that the Supreme Court is a pretty heated place for some of the women, and sometimes it can be a trigger for people with paranoia, so be ready for that just in case.” I left with this warning ringing in my ears, and as I sat on the metro, the women around me all muttering softly under their breath, I realized I had taken on way more than I had bargained for. Not only did the women of N Street Village, mostly middle aged, African-American, and long-time DC residents, have vastly different life experiences from my 22 years in small-town, Southern California, but for some of them, their entire basis of reality was different than mine. I didn’t really know how to move within the confines of the complex cultural differences, adding the additional layer of mental illness was just another example of how totally unprepared I was, completely unable to make any sort of a difference. And now I was alone, on the metro, half way to the Supreme Court, and scared out of my mind.
I am pleased to report that the trip to the Supreme Court went very well. We learned a lot about the American justice system, explored the courtroom, found a secret staircase and generally had a very good time. More importantly, the four women from the trip became the first clients at N Street to accept me into the community, and even today they remain some of the clients I am closest to. With them I let down this idea that I was going to ldquo;help” people, and in dropping that barrier the real transformational work began.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus hits pretty hard on the ideas that keep us from him. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace,” he said. “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” One of the commentaries I was reading on this passage points out, and I agree, that Jesus was not saying you need to blindly turn against your family to follow him. The message is more that you need to figure out what specifically is separating you, and give up that thing, even if that thing is your mother or father, or brother, or son. For me that thing was this blind idea that I was going to “help people.” By letting go of this idea of “helping” I was able to enter fully into the community as an equal, and let the community work through me.“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” There are many incredibly complicated verses in the Bible, but I really feel this is one of the classics. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Sit with that for a second, “whoever loses his life, for my sake, will find it.” N Street Village is a place of great joy, as we watch women who have been so beaten down by the world find themselves again. It is a place of great joy, but this joy is often paired with deep sadness. Because there is death in this rebirth. The women have to let go of their old lives, their old patterns, and their old supports, in order to accept this new life. Oftentimes especially the women battling addiction have to face a lot of pain and death. Many of our women are trauma survivors, often at the hands of their family, and all too often at a very young age. Drugs and alcohol have become a way to protect themselves from that pain. As they begin to let go of the drugs, they have to face up to that initial pain, and then on top of that a string of broken or strained relationships with their families, and often with their children, that have come out of their struggles with addiction. So they go through this difficult and painful process, they deal with the demons of their past, they realize the future they dreamed for themselves will never be there, and they forge new paths into the future. And who is there to meet them in this dark place? Me. Just me, and many other staff members like me. Young, privileged, naïve, we have come to N Street with this vague idea of being helpful, and have met with more pain than we bargained for. This is where the transformational power of N Street Village’s hospitality takes over. As the clients are walking through the tough road to recovery, as staff and volunteers we are also walking down a different dark path. For us, we must lose the privilege that keeps us in a false sense of security. We must recognize that our privilege is oppressive of others, and is also hindering our own ability to fully grasp our power. Radical hospitality, functioning as the hands and feet and voice of Christ, takes you out of your comfort zone of “helping” and moves you to a place where you can truly stand side-by-side with the oppressed, blurring the lines between server and served, and moving everyone forward towards their greatest potential.
So, there you go, I guess. What it comes down to, what it always seems to come down to, is hospitality. Radical, transformational, life-changing hospitality. In letting go of our control and our ideas of what is right perish, and truly walking hand-in-hand with our neighbor, we find ourselves open to the salvific power of our Lord and Savior. It is in this place that everyone is moved forward to greatness. Amen.