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).

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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.

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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.

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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

Moving From Fear to “Us”

Meet Luke! Luke is doing a year of service through Serve Seattle and is currently interning with the Faith & Family Homelessness team at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. In the piece below, he shares about the evolution of his perspectives on homelessness and the journey that brought him to Seattle and to us at the School of Theology and Ministry!


Luke headshot

By Luke Hoffmaster, Serve Seattle Intern

I remember walking through downtown Chicago with my parents when I was young. Covering my mouth and nose to avoid the smell of smoke, I was deathly afraid we’d be mugged or hurt. Walking past people slumped against buildings holding signs I thought to myself, Those signs must be lies. I thought they were lying in wait for us to notice them so that they could spring up and steal whatever we had.

I was afraid. I didn’t understand.

That was my first experience with homelessness, and I don’t think my reaction was unique. My thoughts and fears were a product of the culture  we live in, where the homeless are so often demonized and simply ignored. One could perhaps make the argument that I was a very ‘jumpy’ child, or that the fear of the unknown that accompanies youth was to blame; but it was more than that. My reaction was emblematic of the way much of American society fears that which it does not understand.

It wasn’t until the summer of my junior year in high school that I was exposed to a differing — and ultimately more accurate — viewpoint. I had the opportunity to go on an urban mission trip to Los Angeles with the youth group at my church. I wasn’t very involved in my church at the time, but my parents pushed me to go and the trip ended up being transformative.

The moment when my walls were ripped down and the veil was torn away was profound. We were doing a brief outreach/scavenger hunt activity in groups of four or five, and the first thing my group did was talk to someone sitting on a bench in a plaza. Until then, I had never taken the time to dialogue with someone experiencing homelessness. I was afraid. To my surprise, he was just like you or me. He had his own passions, interests, and beliefs. He wasn’t going to lunge at us to hurt us or rob us. He was just a person. He was human.

Being afraid was appropriate, but I realize now I should have been afraid for a very different reason. The realization was a harrowing one, because the implications were immense. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. Humans were sleeping outside – humans with opinions, passions, ambitions… And yet, society walked by without so much as a cursory glance. Where was the humanity in that?

The L.A. experience was amazing, but after coming down off of the ‘mission high’ I was left without a clear direction for what to do about these newfound truths, and such concerns were quickly buried by matters of college plans and my future as I began my senior year. Ultimately, I decided to shelve college until I was ready, and, without any real plans for this year, I felt lost.

But then, over this past summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a six week program called Serve Seattle. I had signed up for it because I had no plans for the summer, and I figured it would be a great first step into independence — seeing as how it was a long ways away from my home of Wisconsin, and I had never been away from home for more than a week. I had no idea what I was really getting into, and no idea how much that decision would alter the course of the path I was on.

Serve Seattle House

The Serve Seattle House in Capitol Hill. Photo Credit: Rae Love

Serve Seattle’s summer intensive was a six week program focusing on intentional community, biblical discipleship, and selfless service. Over the course of the program I was able to directly serve with the homeless population of Seattle, and it was a chance to deepen my understanding of the issue and those affected by it. The program was transformative for me, so much so that I decided to sign up and commit to the year-long program offered by Serve Seattle.

The opportunity to engage with the issue head-on, while also living in a welcoming and unique environment in a city half a country away from where I call home was one that I couldn’t pass up.

Not only is it a rare experience, but it’s a meaningful one. In a world that so often turns a blind eye, I am able to be immersed in a community fully pledged to meeting eyes and joining hands with the ignored, broken, and lost — because we acknowledge the truth that we are all broken in our own ways and we could easily be the ones slumped against that building or sleeping under that bridge. I was told over the summer by a guest at the Union Gospel Mission’s kitchen, “It’s not about me, it’s not about you — it’s about us.

It really is about us: us as a people. As brothers and sisters, the ones with and the ones without, it’s really just a matter of recognizing that there is no us and them. There is only us.


Luke just graduated from Waunakee High School in the state of Wisconsin. Living in Seattle for a year of service, he’s passionate about writing, helping others, and petting cats. He aspires to a degree in communications, and dreams of being a journalist and author. He is currently interning at the School of Theology and Ministry, working with the School’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project team.

Faith and Family Homelessness School of Theology & Ministry Social Justice Stereotypes

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

Dean Mark Markuly: Seattle can solve the homeless puzzle by learning from other cities

In case you missed it, we’re reposting School of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark Markuly‘s recent Seattle Times Op Ed.  He asks some important questions about what it will take for our city and region to solve the problem of homelessness and speaks to the need to make the crisis more personal for all of us.  Something to ponder: what would you do if one of the 32,000 homeless students in WA State was your niece or nephew?


By Mark Markuly, originally published by the Seattle Times on 2/19/15

The 35th annual One Night Count of homeless people in King County last month demonstrated that one of the wealthiest, most literate, gifted and altruistic cities in the country is also hosting one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan homeless populations in the nation. Given the significant number of people, organizations and resources our region dedicates to the issue, the 21 percent increase of homeless people should haunt us.

Why is the problem of homelessness so vexing for Seattle?

In my view, we have not mustered the political will and right combination of contextual responses. Other cities have. According to NationSwell.com, the state of Utah discovered it is $5,670 a year less expensive to provide an apartment and a social worker to a homeless person than it is having society bear the cost of emergency-room visits, law-enforcement interventions and jail.

By putting a roof over the head of the homeless and providing a trained coach or mentor, Utah has reduced homelessness by 74 percent since 2005, and saved money as well.

New Orleans announced last month that it was the first city in the nation to end one demographic of homelessness: veterans. Through a coalition of nonprofits, homeless-service providers, U.S. service members, veterans and federal, state and local agencies, the city has permanently housed 227 homeless veterans. Phoenix has also made significant improvements in veterans’ homelessness.

Many cities have found solutions to homelessness by galvanizing inspiration, citizen involvement, agency coordination and political determination through participation in programs like the 100,000 Homes campaign.

Nashville, Tenn., placed an average of 19 homeless people per month into permanent housing in 2013, but is now housing 47 monthly. Since 2011, Jacksonville, Fla., has lowered its homeless population by one-third, and its chronic homeless population by two-thirds.

In many cities, including Seattle, religious traditions are an essential ingredient in the recipe, often providing space for “cross-sector” collaboration.

In Shreveport, La., an ecumenical group of churches called FaithWorks brought together 32 organizations serving the homeless to discuss a collaboration that is beginning to move the needle on the issue.

In Seattle, the Road to Housing program, a collaborative venture between the city and faith-based organizations, provides safe places to park for those living in automobiles and access to essential services such as bathrooms, meals and clean clothing.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center is a similar state-church partnership, begun in 1979 between the Greater Seattle Council of Churches, the City of Seattle and Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill. Plymouth Church’s Commitment to Social Justice’s Housing Group, and Healing Communities are two other highly effective faith-based responses to homelessness.

So, why are Seattle’s homeless numbers going up while those in other cities are going down?

We’re still trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube of issues. We certainly lack the housing stock of Utah, continue to struggle with coordinating our service providers (unlike Nashville and Jacksonville), and cannot muster the political will to dramatically impact the issue (as in New Orleans).

Because homelessness is so complicated, with a blinding array of intersecting causes, we also have failed to integrate the right resources from government, industry, nonprofit agencies, private citizens and religious traditions in the correct intensity and chronology.

However, I think our biggest challenge to this problem is something more fundamental: For most of us, homelessness isn’t personal enough.

As part of its interfaith Faith & Family Homelessness Project, the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University conducts workshops in schools and congregations that allow participants to experience a small taste of the challenges that homeless people face every day.

By role-playing scenarios that represent the common setbacks in the lives of very poor people, participants experience the frustration and Catch-22s that suck the motivation, creativity and hope from people on the verge of homelessness. The workshop makes the issue of homelessness more personal, and instills in participants the human values, virtues and resolve needed to go the distance with this stubborn social problem.

Ending homelessness in a nation as wealthy as ours is not impossible, but it is apparently more difficult than the kinds of problems our highly gifted region is conditioned to solving. The One Night Count should frustrate and anger us and it should invite real humility in our past efforts. It should also drive us back to reassessing the nature of the problem and our collaborations to fix it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t convince us to give up on the problem. As a community, we’re better than that.

Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Media Alert Moral budget School of Theology & Ministry Seattle U Social Justice
Cupped Hands, Sea water - Give me Water to Drink

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By Mark Taylor, Ph.D., Professor and Director of Worship, Seattle University School ofTheology and Ministry

For over a century now, Christians around the world have set aside January 18 to 25 as a week of special gatherings and prayers that the God-given unity of the church become more visible. Collaborating with the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Archdiocese of Seattle, and its Protestant and Anglican partners, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry celebrates the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with special morning services on campus, daily written reflections posted to the Worship and Liturgy blog, and a grand region-wide worship service (this year at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle from 7:00-8:30pm on Thursday, January 22).

The unity of the Christian churches is sometimes most apparent when they work together for peace, justice, and human dignity. At the same time, the needs of the poor and marginalized around the world call out urgently to Christians of every sort. So, the Week of Prayer comes as an annual challenge to us to put our faith into action, together as children of one God.

Resources for the 2015 Week of Prayer were created by the churches of Brazil acting together.  They chose the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 as a focus. Recall that story:  Jesus is a foreigner in Samaria who arrives tired and thirsty.  He needs help and asks for water. The Samaritan woman is in her own land; the well belongs to her people, to her tradition. She owns the bucket and she is the one who has access to the water. But she is also thirsty. They meet and their encounter offers an unexpected opportunity for both of them. Jesus does not cease to be Jewish because he drinks from the water offered by the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan woman remains who she is while embracing Jesus’ way. Even today, when we recognize that all people have reciprocal needs, our lives become richer and more generous.

This story and its key line: “Give me water to drink,” calls us to ethical action – because we need each other!

School of Theology & Ministry Seattle U Social Justice
Jaime Yslas - Paradox and Flaw, Accompanying Those in the Margins

Paradox and Flaw: The Challenge of Accompanying those on the Margins

From one day to the next, all of us strive to live out our values. Sometimes the gap between the “talk” and the “walk” is larger than at other times, and we might feel shame or frustration at our failings. But these instances are also opportunities for growth. Below, Jaime Yslas, a Navy Veteran and recent graduate of Seattle U’s School of Theology and Ministry, reflects on the grace and understanding that comes from embracing one’s own flawed humanity.

Accompanying Those in the Margins - Faces of the HomelessJaime is a passionate advocate for veterans in our region and is on the leadership team of One Less Mountain, a non-profit that puts on the Seattle Stand Down, an event  where homeless and at-risk veterans are supported and served (this year, on December 11th and 12th, at Seattle Central College; click here for more info). Recently, Jaime attended a workshop on accompanying those in the margins facilitated by Kae Eaton called “The Way of Companionship: a way of approaching each other as human beings and souls of infinite worth and value.” Kae is Chaplain for Mental Health Chaplaincy, an ecumenical ministry providing companioning presence, spiritual support and education to the vulnerable in our community.

Kae will be leading a workgroup called “Companionship: Practicing Active Listening and Presence” at our upcoming December 7th event: “Faith-Based Solutions to Family Homelessness: What’s next?” Register today and learn more on December 7th!


Jaime Yslas, STM graduate and Veteran

By Jaime Yslas

It was a Saturday and I was on my way to a workshop to learn about accompanying those on the margins. The subject was apropos because I am currently involved in efforts to support the homeless in Seattle. I did not eat breakfast at home, but stopped at a local fast food franchise on Capital Hill to grab something before the workshop.

The restaurant was crowded and I was annoyed because many of the people appeared to be homeless and they were slowing down the line with their fumbling for money and talking loudly among themselves. Some were poking around in the trash receptacles, looking for coffee cups since the restaurant provided free refills with a cup. I felt like my precious quiet breakfast was being sullied…

As I climbed into my car, I was overwhelmed with shame at my reaction – especially because of where I was going, to a workshop on accompanying those very people. I felt that I had been in their midst and I had failed. I did not greet a single person. I did not offer to buy breakfast for anyone. I don’t think I even looked anyone in the eye. I recoiled because my actions did not match my ideals.

And how did the workshop go? I learned that companionship is a response to suffering and isolation. I heard that accompaniment is a human relationship which supports recovery and maximum wellness. I learned this must be a public relationship. Most of all, I realized how even a flawed vessel such as I, a person who becomes annoyed when his precious bubble of privilege is threatened, can still be of use in this work. In fact, it is seeing our own flaws that may allow us to accompany those in the margins. We are not so different.


Jaime Yslas is a graduate (MA in Transformational Leadership, ’14) of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. He is an AmeriCorps volunteer serving with Washington Vet Corps at Seattle University. A Navy Veteran, he is also on the leadership team of One Less Mountain, a non-profit which puts on the Seattle Stand Down, an event  where homeless and at-risk Veterans are supported and served.

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JustFaith-Poverty-Workshop---Mortgage-and-Utilities

Walking In Their Footsteps: A poverty simulation’s call to solidarity

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Two participants assess their family’s resources and try to plan next steps. When pushed into “survival mode”, people living in poverty often experience a toxic stress that can lead to poor decision-making,

Participating in a Poverty Simulation Workshop can be emotionally draining and surprisingly stressful. Living a simulated month in poverty means experiencing the feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that come from not being able to provide for your family, secure necessary resources and services, or cope with and plan for life’s challenges. Justin Almeida, a student in the chaplaincy track of the School of Theology & Ministry’s M.Div program, recently encountered some of these troubling feelings and experiences from “the other side of the table” as a volunteer in a poverty workshop for JustFaith graduates. He reflects on the experience below.

SU’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project team has to date facilitated or helped facilitate 8 Poverty Simulation Workshops with such various partners as the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Tacoma Housing Authority, Puyallup Church of the Nazarene, and many more. (For more information about what the workshop consists of, read the “About” section at the end of this post.)

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Waiting in line… People in poverty often spend a good portion of their time shuttling from agency to agency, trying to get services and resources that may or may not be available.


By Justin Almeida

I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.

Eviction notice - poverty simulation

Some families are evicted from their homes over the course of the simulation.

Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.

I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.

Justin Almeida, who played the role of a childcare provider, shares reflections on his experience with the rest of the participants at the JustFaith Poverty Immersion Workshop

Justin Almeida, who played the role of a childcare provider, shares reflections on his experience with the rest of the participants at the JustFaith Poverty Immersion Workshop

Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.

Justin AlmeidaJustin Almeida is a Unitarian Universalist graduate student studying chaplaincy at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. He is the Operations Manager for the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center (www.ipjc.org), a Seattle-based human and environmental rights non-profit. In his spare time, you can find him blogging about faith, spirituality, peace & justice, and life in Seattle at whatsmyage.wordpress.com


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Families wait in line for services at the JustFaith Poverty Simulation.

About the Poverty Immersion Workshop

The Poverty Simulation (or Poverty Immersion Workshop) developed by Missouri’sAssociation for Community Action, typically involves up to 88 participants who assume the roles of 26 different families facing poverty, and 20 volunteer “staffers” who fill the roles of community agencies and organizations who serve them (e.g. bank, DSHS, supermarket, pawnshop, police officer, homeless shelter, etc.) The families represent a variety of experience: some are newly unemployed or recently deserted by the “breadwinner,” others are homeless, recipients of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families),  senior citizens receiving Disability or Retirement, or grandparents raising their grandchildren. The task of the “families” is to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.” Throughout the simulation and during a post-simulation reflection and group-share, participants and volunteers are called on to examine their preconceptions and understanding of poverty in America and then reflect on how their experience during the simulation has impacted their views and future actions.

If you’re interested in hosting or participating in a Poverty Immersion Workshop, Contact Us for more information!

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