Shared Brokenness: A Reflection on “Nourish” and the One Night Count

FEBRUARY-NOURISH-CALENDARThis academic year, we at the School of Theology and Ministry are taking time each month to reflect on a theme as a learning community. Every month, a faculty or staff member offers up a personal reflection, exploring how that month’s theme applies to their life and work. (See here for an overview of these themes, which will also be highlighted in each month’s school e-newsletter.)→

The theme for our school community this February 2016 is “Nourish.” We choose to unite. We choose to nourish body, mind and spirit.

When I was invited to offer a reflection on this theme, I felt compelled to share my recent experience with the One Night Count in King County, and reflect on the personal and systemic implications of human brokenness, connection and compassion.


By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, School of Theology and Ministry (Originally published 2/2/16 on the School of Theology and Ministry website)

Last Friday morning, around 4:00am, my flashlight roved over the park grounds and rested briefly on a human figure bundled up on the ground beneath a picnic shelter. I stared for a moment before turning out my light, and the image burned behind my eyes. A sharp pit gnawed at my stomach as we made a note and moved on.

It was the 2016 One Night Count of homeless people in King County, and our team had already seen and counted several people sleeping in their cars in grocery store parking lots and next to auto-repair shops (an all-too-common sight in neighborhoods like Ballard, SODO, and along sections of Aurora, where folks try to find a place to park where they won’t be harassed, disturbed, or ticketed).

One Night Count 2016 - 3

January 29, 2016, One Night Count in King County. Photo credit: Susan Fried, The Skanner News Group.

But it was the individual in the park who jarred and haunted me. There was something about that lonely figure in the still, silent night that magnified anew the raw human tragedy of homelessness. There – a fellow human being, totally alone, isolated and vulnerable on the cold hard ground of a deserted park in the wee hours of the morning.

It was overwhelming.

Where was his mother? Is she out there somewhere worrying about her son? Does this person in the sleeping bag have friends to share her dreams and fears with, laugh with, and call on when she needs help? What gets him or her up in the morning and through each day? And what must it be like to try to find rest and safety alone in the open air on a cold January night?

When the numbers were announced a few hours later, I found out that he or she was one of 4,505 people sleeping out of doors in our county (a 19% increase from last year’s count).

Now, a few days later, I continue to reflect on what it says about our society, our communities and our neighborhoods that we allow our neighbors – siblings, parents, children, grandparents – to sleep in their cars, on the street, under bridges, in shelters, and in places where they can’t find the peace, safety and stability of “home.”

Homelessness is not just about a lack of housing and resources, or about bad choices or tough luck. I believe it’s a symptom of many layers of brokenness – the brokenness of a society that doesn’t ensure and provide for the wellbeing of all of its people, the brokenness among different groups and communities who don’t communicate with or adequately support one another, the brokenness of modern life that simultaneously connects us yet stymies and weakens social bonds, and the brokenness in each of us that prevents us from living fully into our humanness and compassion for each other.

One Night Count 2016 - 2

Photo Credit: Susan Fried, The Skanner News Group.

Nourishing and Flourishing

When I was invited to reflect on the word “nourish,” this pervasive brokenness that allows for social ills like homelessness came immediately to mind. The way I see it, homelessness is a symptom of various forms of malnourishment – and we humans need nourishing well beyond the biological.

I like to think of “nourishing” and the concept of “flourishing” together. These words conjure up a vision of the “good life,” speaking to the things that sustain human life and make it meaningful and whole.

We are, after all, social, relational, material and spiritual beings who can only truly flourish if we nourish mind, body, and spirit–in ourselves and in others.

I was reminded recently of the analogy of the oxygen mask in the airplane to explain the concept of self-care. The idea is that you need to make sure you’ve taken care of yourself before you can successfully take care of others.

14722582177_00c6efc96b_o

For my part, I’ve been working a lot more on self-care this year and I’ve noticed it slowly transforming my ability and capacity to be present to others and to seek and do more of what I find meaningful in this world. I’m about halfway through a nine-month long Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life retreat – nine months of making time and space for spiritual nourishment each day and actively seeking and finding God in all things. By taking this time for myself and for my relationship with God, I’ve opened up new spaces in myself for others.

One of the places I find God most often is in the faces, words and actions of the people in my life – in my fiancé, friends, family, the people I work with and the people I meet on the street. Ironically, I’m holed away in my office while writing this, but it’s true that my days are most enriched and light-filled when I’m intentional about making more time to nurture the relationships in my life, from a conversation with a coworker about their child to a couple of extra minutes talking about weather and politics with a Real Change vendor.

I think if we all took a little more time to nourish ourselves and our relationships with others, we just might be able to acknowledge, move beyond and maybe even heal some of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world.

I saw a thought-provoking video recently on YouTube called “Everything We Think We Know About Addiction is Wrong.” (You can also watch the original TED Talk on the topic, here.) The video reviews many of the things I’ve already mentioned–that we are innately social beings who crave relationships and interaction with one another and are most fulfilled when we are nourishing healthy connections with others. The narrator explains that when we are deprived of these connections because we are “traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life” we turn to other things to fill the void – it might be drugs or alcohol, or it might be our smartphone, video games, or gambling. Hence, the video’s moral: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

We are all broken in our own ways. In spite of and because of this, we all need connection, and are deserving of love, mercy, and justice.

JustMercy_BookCover.pngI just finished reading, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, and his are the words that sparked my ruminations on brokenness. I want to leave you with his words now:

I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (Stevenson, p. 289)

HH_HHAD2015.jpgIf we’re going to bring about a more just and humane world and end homelessness, we need to embrace and engage the brokenness at its root. Then, together, and from a place of compassion and love, we can go on to nourish and build the healing relationships and systems that will transform the world.

If you’re interested in learning and doing more, watch this great video by All Home and be part of the community (our community) that’s working to end homelessness!

All Home Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness School of Theology & Ministry

Is Today the Day?

By Lisa Gustaveson, Program Manager, Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry

On the first Tuesday of every month you will find a handful of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry faculty, staff and students at the Emergency Family Shelter. We finish up our work day, grab our families if they are joining us, and meet down at the Belltown shelter with a prepared meal. Sometimes we bring homemade sauce, meatballs and pasta, other times we pull together something easy like a taco bar.

The food we bring is greatly appreciated – the families love the variety and recognize the time and money it takes to organize these monthly visits.

STM faculty, staff and grad students at EFS (August 2015)

School of Theology and Ministry graduate students, staff, faculty and their families at the Emergency Family Shelter.

The best – and most needed – part of our visit happens after we dish up the meal. That’s when we join the families at the tables and share stories about our day. We complain, or rejoice, about the weather and the joys and challenges of parenting. We laugh at the antics of children showing off for the visitors. We open our hearts to hear stories of heartbreak and frustration from mothers who just want to find a better life for their children.

The last time I was at the shelter I met Mary (not her real name). When I asked if I could join her she smiled brightly and welcomed me. There was something about her smile that put me at ease. I felt the stress of my day melting away, and I let myself relax.

“How are things going for you?” I asked. Over the years I’ve asked this question of people experiencing homelessness hundreds of times. Sometimes people shrug and say, “o.k.” This lets me know today is not the day for them to share their story with me.

More often than not the question is met with a smile and “good, and you?” This opens the door to a more personal exchange.

This time, Mary and I quickly connected and found ourselves laughing about the funny things that happened to us that day. Her two-year-old daughter took advantage of her distracted mom to eat a couple packets of butter (at least one with the wrapper still on) before we noticed. We laughed some more about how much trouble kids get into when Mom is focusing her attention elsewhere.

In a short time I learned that Mary was the daughter of a very young mother, and was placed in foster care at age 11. She bounced around from foster home to foster home until she turned 18 when she “aged out.” That means, at an age where many kids are still relying on their parents for support, Mary was left to support herself.

Without a supportive community to rely on, she fell into a crowd that wasn’t always on the right track. Somehow, Mary managed to stay out of big trouble. She told me she didn’t have her daughter until her 20’s because she knew how hard it was for her mom to raise her alone.

Firesteel-Blog - ACE Score and Relation to Adult Homelessness (Infographic)

Infographic created by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness.

Like so many of the homeless women I’ve met, there was a man who came into her life that didn’t treat her well. She didn’t go into the details and, frankly, she didn’t have to for me to understand how instability, trauma and violence led her to the place she is today.

At this point in the conversation I asked her how her housing search was going. Mary was quick to tell me that the first thing she does every day is check the Capitol Hill Housing website to see if there’s an open unit that meets the requirements of her Section 8 voucher.

Like all homeless families, receiving that housing voucher was a big deal for Mary. For almost a year she’s held onto that voucher – bouncing between couches and shelters – searching, searching for that one break that will change everything. She told me that all she wants is a place to call her own where she can rest and play with her daughter after a long day of work.

One thing became crystal clear to me: Mary really wants to break the generational cycle of poverty. “If I had a job I would be so grateful. Even if it’s at McDonalds I would treat it like it was a 5 star restaurant.”

Suddenly, it was time to clean up for the Therapeutic Play program run by volunteers from Ballard Church on the first Tuesday of the month. (Watch for an upcoming post about this important program.)

I walked out to my car with Mary’s words running through my mind: if I had a job….

But I know the deck has been stacked against Mary since she was a child. She didn’t get a great education – each move meant she fell further and further behind in school. Bouncing from place to place made difficult to build trusting relationships, especially with caring adults. It’s never going to be easy for Mary.

What is so incredible to me is that Mary gets up every day, turns on her phone and looks to see if today is the day she gets a break. Is today the day everything changes?


THINGS YOU CAN DO:

  1. Watch All Home’s “I Am” video about local community responses to homelessness and visit allhomekc.org/get-involved/ to learn how you can use your passions and gifts to help your neighbors.
  2. Sign up to volunteer/serve a meal at the Emergency Family Shelter (as an individual or as a group) and get to know the families there, sharing stories, forming relationships and offering support and much needed respite childcare for stressed and exhausted moms.
  3. Read blog posts on Firesteel about homelessness, poverty and the brain – how toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect outcomes for children as they grow up.
  4. Learn about the One Home campaign and invite friends and acquaintances who are property owners/landlords to consider modifying their rental criteria to help families move out of homelessness. Consider hosting a Landlord Coffee Hour to reach out to landlords in your faith community. (Contact us to find out more.)
  5. Do something to help homeless individuals and families RIGHT NOW:
    1. Volunteer with one of Union Gospel Mission’s many shelters or meal programs – there are special opportunities for Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.
    2. Volunteer with or donate to Mary’s Place, which serves homeless families through rotating and permanent shelter and a day center.
    3. Donate your time and resources to one of Seattle’s sanctioned encampments, two of which are opening at new locations this week – Tent City 5 in Interbay and Nickelsville in Ballard; or to one of the other many encampments in the greater Seattle area: Tent City 3 (currently at Bryn Mawr UMC in Skyway), Tent City 4 (currently at Hans Jensen campground in Issaquah), and Camp Unity (currently at Bear Creek UMC in Woodinville). All of these communities list their specific priority needs on their websites, so please check them out!
    4. Firesteel has other great ideas here (see the list at the end of the post).
All Home Faith and Family Homelessness Homeless Families School of Theology & Ministry Women