Erica Wickstrom graduated from Valparaiso University with a degree in social work in May of 2013. She is currently completing a year of service through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and is serving Gethsemane Lutheran Church as neighborhood development intern.
I don’t know a lot about poverty and homelessness, but what little I do know is through my lived experiences, and especially my relationships with people. The story of my uncle is one that I feel compelled to share, but I want to explain first that when I began to write this blog post, I kept writing it in a way that wasn’t quite true. I wanted to make it neat, and I wanted it to have a clear message and a clear resolution, but I’m starting to figure out that life and death are more complicated than that. So this isn’t neat, and it’s not even very clear, but it’s true. And maybe sometimes all we can do is tell our truths, in the best ways we know how to do, and hope that by speaking them and by living them we can all be a little more human than we were before.
I moved to Seattle to be in community, both personally and professionally. I’d been working at Gethsemane for a few months when I found out that my uncle Jerry had died. The police had found his body, and they reported that he had been living homelessly for some time. He had died by suicide.
Gethsemane Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle. (Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider, © 2014, Olson Kundig Architects)
I have been a believer in relationship for as long as I can remember. More than a believer; I’ve always lived relationship, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I can feel myself coming alive when I feel deeply connected to someone. I consider myself an introvert, but there is little that I love more in this world than those quiet, subtle moments when trust builds and connection flows. My uncle Jerry was not someone I had the chance to enjoy those kinds of moments with. I had only met him once, when I was a child, and I knew very little about him. But when he died, I felt our connection more than I ever had when he was alive. I didn’t miss him, because I hardly knew him, but he was my uncle, my flesh and blood, and something deep inside of me began to stir after he died.
It wasn’t exactly an awakening, because it wasn’t new. It was more of a deepening. I had always felt a strong connection to people, especially the people I worked with in a social work setting. But after Jerry died, that sense of connection began to develop another dimension. Maybe it’s compassion, maybe it’s interconnectedness, maybe it’s something I can’t name yet. I don’t know. But I do know that after Jerry died, I started seeing him everywhere. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that I began to experience my connection to people as intimately, and as intensely, as one does with a close family member. I knew, more clearly than I had ever known before, that my life was entirely intertwined with everyone else’s. It was like finding out that the people I met at our Saturday meal program, Soup and Movies, had grown up in my hometown. I never doubted anyone’s full personhood, but suddenly their personhood felt so very personal. I carried a little more carefully the gift of people’s trust, and I respected a little more gently people’s aversion to me and my privilege. I held people more heavily. I looked at my own privilege a little more honestly.
Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider, © 2014, Olson Kundig Architects
It’s tempting to say that that newfound clarity changed my entire life, and that now I am doing something new and innovative and life-changing that will end homelessness forever. But the reality is that I’m still trying to understand how I can push back on my own privilege. I’m still trying to understand what it means to be my uncle’s niece, to have homelessness and suicidality run through my veins. I want to know why it is that my uncle’s homelessness made it that much more important to me to see other people’s humanity. I want to know what it will take for us, as a culture, to really open our eyes. Because for me, that’s the real problem of homelessness, more than anything else. It’s that we don’t know how to look at what is happening right in front of us. We use our privilege as an excuse to be blind, to be numb, and we ignore the fact that we’re losing our own ability to be human. We convince ourselves that homelessness is someone else’s problem, that we do not have the tools or the knowledge or the means to change anything.
If anything I write today is true, it’s this. We are so much more capable of impacting positive change than we realize. We don’t need college degrees, or research, or the loss of someone dear to us, to understand that we are all interconnected, and we are all capable of ending homelessness. After all, we already have the tools we need to change the world for the better. We already have our hearts. We already have our minds. We already have each other. We just need to give ourselves the freedom to live into our humanity, in all its painful, vulnerable, resilient beauty, and trust that together, we can do so much more than we can imagine.
Let’s be human together.