For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

There she was in the alley.  Pushing a shopping cart.  She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee.  Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked.  She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path.  I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.

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Ann Livingston, Al Etmanski, John McKnight and Michael Mather (Photo by Travis Lupick, The Georgian Straight Magazine)

I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU.  We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.  VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users.  They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others.  Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.”  She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver. 

Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers.  She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer.  Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power.  She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver. 

When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace.  As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.  

With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared.  In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites.  This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe.  The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement.  To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.

LEARNING

Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn.  (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.)  I am helped by new learning occasions.  Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places.  Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.

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photo by Travis Lupick

Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face.  When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections.  There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone,  Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose.  When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”

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Ann Livingston and John McKnight, photo by Travis Lupick

My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis.  It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight.  John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing.  It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities.  This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits.  This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing.  Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.

LOATHING

As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States.  Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT.  It simple doesn’t work.  Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed. 

This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years.  It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology.   Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers.  The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin.  Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes.  Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.”  It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish.  In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.

LOVING

Can there be a turn from loathing to loving?  Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.”  No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.

By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries?  Why was Ann carrying strawberries?”  It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site.  When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

September 6, 2016

An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week.  Unexpected.  And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep.  Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California.  Elaine and I were in Sacramento. 

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The “Safe” — an empty pork and beans can

Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising.  It was a grassy and green stretch.  On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California.  Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government.  On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees.  Beyond them an empty field.  The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels.  No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.

About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass.  It gyrated across my path.  The light beckoned me come.   I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment.  Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious.  Only the trees for cover.  I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish.  They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor.  With no response, I looked more closely.  There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans.   Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents.  Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.

Who lived here?  For how long?  Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks?  The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me.   How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation?  Bad luck?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us?  Our bad luck?  Our ideological addictions?  Our mental illness? 

A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can.  Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it.  I returned.  Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude.  Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can. 

I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way.  I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light.  I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years.  Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks.  Yes, I prayed for our nation and world.  More, I prayed for myself.  My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating.  So many live on the edge.  It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do.  How many homeless in the U.S.?  Eleven million?  Or, as some say, thirty million? 

I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value.  Should I call a church or social workers?  NO!  Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary.  Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero.  Nor were my motives heroic.  There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims.  Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.

I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child?  Might that child be undocumented?  Might that child be a refugee?  A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago?  Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?

IMG_1645Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light.   Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key.  My first thought was to carry it back to the camp.  Leave it there with the rosary in the can.  Then I realized the key might be for me.  I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins.  I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all.  Now — here is the real surprise for me.  In that moment there was JOY.  The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling.  The JOY of having another key to my identity.  Lost and found — Joy.  Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.”  I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.

Yes, I was so privileged.  I had work to do.  In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.

I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments:  ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

I brought the key home with me.