This Little Light of Mine

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This is a short-story about how two women helped to bring change in our community.

Shortly after I became the pastor at Camas Friends Church I was in my office when a knock came on the door. A ragged-looking woman was standing in the window. It was obvious she’d spent some time on the street, who knows for how long. She carried a tattered plastic grocery bag with some items of food in it. I welcomed her in, introduced myself and asked her if there was anything I could do for her. She said her name was Betty and she wanted to sing a Quaker song for me. Being a sucker for a good Quaker tune I easily obliged. She began to sing “This Little Light of Mine” in a very fragile, almost crooked voice. She was weak. Probably hungry, obviously dealing with some form of mental illness.

When the song came to an end, I thanked her and mentioned that I wasn’t sure Quakers could take the credit for “This Little Light of Mine” but that it was a beautiful rendition nonetheless. Then she began to tell me her story, and said she hadn’t been able to sleep in two days because she doesn’t feel safe sleep on the street at night. She asked if I would mind if she could take a nap on the office floor for a little while. I paused for a minute. This really caught me off-guard, not because I felt it was too much to ask, but because of how belittling it felt to say “sure sleep on my floor!” I was amazed at how simple the request was, how basic the need, and yet how ill-equipped I felt to respond. Can we have people sleep in our building? What about the Montessori school? Should I watch her sleep and make sure she doesn’t take anything. Many questions, not all in character with Jesus’ sheep in Matt. 25, ran through my head. Finally I said, “Of course you can’t sleep on the office floor, at least come and sleep on one of our pews” [in case you’re wondering if we have those good ol’ fashioned hard Quaker pews made for only the most faithful, most of ours are cushioned]. I led her into the sanctuary, helped her get situated and left her to sleep for the next four hours as I got a crash course in how to help a woman in her situation.

This was the first time I’d confronted this in Camas (I’d only been here a few months) and didn’t even know the first place or person to call. What started out as a personal education that afternoon turned into an opportunity for Camas Friends Church.

From NWYM: Part one

The day before our homeless friend Betty arrived on our doorstep looking for help, a different woman, older, more confident and housed, knocked on my office door. Her name was “Kim” and she was from one of the AA groups that meets in our meetinghouse. We had never met so I welcomed her in and we made the customary introductions.

She shared with me something that happened to her moments before. On her way to her usual lunchtime-meeting she felt an overwhelming concern to help women in crisis or homeless. She felt God was calling her to do something but she wasn’t sure what it was yet. She followed a prompting to come and speak with me and share the concern. We had a lovely conversation and had an instant kinship (over the course of the next couple years Kim became a very close friend and even a mentor to me) but neither of us knew exactly how to respond to her concern at that moment.

In Quaker parlance, Kim had an “Opportunity” and took it. God, softly spoken, nudged my friend in two ways and rather than shake it off, pretend it didn’t happen or pull a Jonah, she received the Opportunity and responded accordingly.

A capital ‘O’ Opportunity can be described as a sacred moment or an “occasion…for the Spirit of God to move among the gathered meeting” but there is no reason why that same thing can’t happen between two people. It is like when a door cracks open ever-so slightly and the invitation is to walk through. We don’t have to, but if we are attentive enough to notice and willing enough to respond God can turn an Opportunity into something beautiful.*

Fast forward 24 hours. Kim’s visit the day before set the backdrop and even the attitude with which we could receive Betty’s visit as a big ‘O’ Opportunity. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to recognize that clues of something bigger unfolding, but it does take a willingness to listen and respond.

Whatever it was that day, the Opportunity was there and would have been foolish not to receive it kindly. Yet, I do wonder if there are certain virtues, practices, theologies, and even  communities that help us be more prepared to receive than others?

While Betty slept on a pew in the sanctuary, I spent the next few hours surfing the waves of cyberspace and making countless phone calls, educating myself on the social programs available in our area and desperately trying to find Betty a pillow to lay her head on. That search produced very little fruit, but the education has proved worthwhile. I heard many things that afternoon: It is just too late in the day. All beds are full. There is no place to send her. Everyone is hurting these days. No aid at this time.

With my browser still pulsating and cursor blinking, I put out a request on Facebook to Camas Friends, I sent text messages to a handful of individuals I knew would receive this Opportunity and by 5pm ten of us were sitting around the table eating a home-cooked meal with Betty. Friends had brought warmer clothes, socks, gloves, a hat and waterproof coat. We gave her a backpack with some food and other necessities. If the first route taken proved fruitless, the second one was abundant in its generosity and quick in its response.

One thing this taught me was that our mission as Friends is not so much to have it all worked out in advance, or have every supply for every situation, but rather to be ready to receive  these opportunities, and to paraphrase something Lorraine Watson likes to say, “trust that God will give you what you need to fulfill what you are being asked to do at that time.”

What seemed to be one woman’s leading, preceded a concrete  Opportunity, and turned into a movement of open hands that has reshaped our entire community.

From NWYM: Part two.

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Following up first two encounters that I wrote about, which were clearly Opportunities from God, invitations into a deeper listening and response, we are left with an obvious question: what is a Quaker community to do? So like all good Quakers, we looked in the instructions and it said, “Start a committee!” So we did. In response to both ‘Kim’s’ prompting and Betty’s visitation, we formed a “homeless task force” – task force sounds better than committee for this kind of thing, don’t you think? – consisting of people from Camas Friends and the Episcopal church just one town over. That was where Kim was from and when she heard the story about Betty’s visit, she was ready to jump into action.

The role of the task force was mostly investigative and educational. We felt that we didn’t know the main issues relating to poverty in Clark County so we began asking questions, taking field trips, inviting people to our meetings to teach us about what was happening in our community.

We had three main questions that kept us motivated:

  1. What are the main problems that people in our community face when it pertains to poverty?
  2. What is being done and who has the best reputation at helping.
  3. What is not being done, what are the gaps and cracks that need filled?

These questions led us into all kinds of adventures over about a year’s time. Sometimes those adventures were amazing, sometimes they were downright depressing, while other times maddening. We met with people from the Homeless Council of Clark County – we didn’t even know there was one – and asked them lots of questions. They asked us to helps with the annual homeless count in Camas and Washougal, which was how we learned that the count hadn’t been done here for years (if ever), and that our police department “sweeps” the homeless into Vancouver a day or two before the count so that it looks as if “Camas has no homeless.” A line we heard from the PD and other high up officials. It was really sad to find, and yes photograph, abandoned sleeping bags and encampments under bridges when we did the count that first year.

We also began visiting homeless shelters and learning about the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter in Vancouver that has been a great service to people in our community. That is one of the relationships that has blossomed into a deeper connection for our church. We met with city officials in Camas and tried to get to the root of some of the systemic issues of poverty that our particular community deals with – yes, I showed the pictures. But, and this is important, this was something we did after about a year of learning what those issues were! Finally, we got connected to an organization in town that does amazing work to help people and have since tried to ally with them in their projects. This group was also instrumental in the birth of the Laundry Love Project that Camas Friends hosts twice a month (Here’s a video that Joel Bock made for the Spotlight about it if you’re interested.

I learned at least two really valuable lessons through this whole process.

First, probably the BIGGEST thing I learned was the importance of listening, and who you listen to. For instance, one of the task force questions was “who has the best reputation in the community for helping?” Well, it matters who you ask. One organization in town has a really good reputation by all of those good-intentioned folks who donate regularly to it. But if you visit there, if you ask the people who go to that place for help, it’s a very different story. I have seen people belittled and turned away from help for petty things. People go there because they have to, not because it helps make them feel more human. The other organization I mentioned above doesn’t have the popularity of the other group, but it turns out they are very loving and caring there. Their goal is to never turn people away and to do something to help, if they can. They operate with little to no “filters,” which I highly value.

Another thing I learned through this process, that has transformed my perspective on just about everything, is that the people you feel led to help need to be a part of the decision-making of whatever you do, they need to be on that task force as well, their voices should be lifted up, they need to be trusted to know what is best for them and what they need from you or anyone else. No amount of bigheartedness, compassion, or sympathy can free us from the fact that there is a certain way of helping that only continues to build our own reputation on the backs of others. The kind of “look at us” approach is smarmy and it’s not Christ-centered. We are all susceptible to Messiah complexes, charities can perpetuate cycles of poverty as much as they can empower people to break those cycles, helping the poor is not about making us feel good, look good or getting our name in lights. Let others tell their stories and follow their lead.

What happened as a prompting from one woman, and a delightful “Quaker” song by another has become for us a signpost in the history of our meeting that reminds us God is moving and our work is to be faithful to those who come into our lives. Our role as the church is to listen, and listen to the right people: the people whose voices are disregarded, neglected and silenced. And in those voices look for, learn from, and support Jesus’ work to care for all people.

*This is a series of posts that were first published on the NWYM peace and justice blog
**This idea of “Opportunity” is more fully developed in Brian Drayton’s “On Living With a Concern for Gospel Ministry.”