I am thinking with some nostalgia about how great it felt to wholeheartedly leap into a new idea, new project, or new service with unabashed joy. It is both the blessing and the curse of learning to be able to, or even be forced to, by habit and strong mentoring, discern the dual possibilities of good things and bad things, and, of course, in-between things that might come from a particular measure.
Take, for example, a new initiative held up with great excitement by my faith community. My Quaker meeting has been debating the commitment to join an initiative where four families who are homeless are invited to spend a week housed in our Meetinghouse. The commitment involves doing this 4 times a year. At first blush,the benefits and rationales are obvious and seem unequivocable.
1.Homeless shelters are often awful.
Shelters are usually even more awful for families.
2. Our meetinghouse stands empty for much of the time. It is big, and warm, and has a great kitchen downstairs.
What is not to love about this idea? It was, indeed, instantly loved by mostly all, at least in theory, and talk quickly turned to “the how”. Could we recruit enough volunteers from our small congregation to cook, sleep over, monitor the families, and organize the effort? Do we need to install showers in the Meetinghouse? Should men and women be asked to sleep in separate rooms? How do we keep people from eating and drinking in the upstairs of the meetinghouse? Do we allow people to sleep in our beloved library?
And here is the curse and the blessing. Wolfensberger’s formulation of Model Coherency lives deep in my thinking structure. Even when I don’t WANT to think that way, I can’t seem to help it.
First comes a series of questions into my mind,”Who are the people we intend to serve, and what do they need?”
A brief look at the common experiences of people who are living in poverty (or made poor, as the Sisters of Notre Dame prefer to term it) show us that, almost without exception, people who are poor are subjected to continuous discontinuities, including those of place. People move, or are moved, again and again and again. It has a huge de-stabilizing effect on people and their lives. This has got to be factored into any scheme for making things better, and efforts probably should be made to avoid doing more of it. At least, we should acknowledge the potential problems. Moving into a church building for a week, and then a series of other church buildings, constitutes some serious moving about. The additional complication that, typically, within our culture, people simply don’t live in churches (they worship there, meet there, etc., but don’t live there) tells us this is a culturally alien practice, and so we should be wary of it.
A second question rises in my mind, kind of unbidden, and I wonder where these families would live absent the availability of rotating churches one week at a time. The answer, once asked, was a motel, paid for by the government. Is a motel necessarily and by definition worse than temporary beds and borrowed blankets in church sunday school play rooms? How about when you factor in that a family will be sharing that church with three other families they may or may not be able to get along with? How about when you factor in that they are minded by church representatives at all times, and factor in what that does to people’s effectiveness at the parenting role? I am not certain of the answers to those questions, but I do know that they have to be asked.
And so here come the deeper justifications, ones that are less likely to generate enthusiasm and a joy in service, but are real, practical considerations. One is, the families must use the office of the sponsoring organization as their address, so that their children can stay in the same school regardless of what motel or church they are currently housed in, and two, a bus comes and picks up all the families to deliver them to a day program where they work on gaining housing and employment. Having them all in a few churches to transport them makes this convenient. And the final justification for this is that this initiative costs less than government funds to house people in motels. The jury is probably out on that one. No question, in the short run they will rely on the voluntary work of many people, thus saving money. In the long haul, though, is it possible that the people “screened” and approved for this program are those likely to have the best outomes anyway, no matter what? Could equal effort applied directly to helping people to get a real home of their own, not a stepping stone discontinuity which could actually throw the family a curve ball into into deeper disarray?
The question must be asked…is this project about the people served? Or is it about the servers? That is a hard question to ask people who are genuinely trying to do something good, to be of service to others. People who are filled with joy at the thought of offering something to others. Speaking out to simply get the hard questions on the table can be an alienating experience. For those readers familiar with PASSING assessments, I have a good colleague who often says that a PASSING level 3 is the most we can expect, and is good enough,sometimes. We need to be careful that we look hard, though, and truly know what we are sacrificing. Even when it hurts.