Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Trinity Sunday June 12, 2022. St Peter’s Episcopal Church Hebron, CT
Come, Holy Trinity, fill our hearts, and kindle in us the FIRE of your love.
Good morning friends! My am Deacon Ron Steed and I serve at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison. Ron Kolanowski and I know each other well, having served together with your cousins down the road at St. James in Preston, and he had asked me if I would come and talk to you about homelessness.
I know a little about homelessness because I have worked at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center for over 12 years. I’ve learned some things: some of them with my head, and others with my heart. So I’m offering on this Trinity Sunday to pass on to you a little head knowledge and heart wisdom about our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. Of course, what I’m REALLY going to talk about is the difference between the head and the heart, and what it might look like to have those two ways-of-knowing in right relationship.
Homelessness is an experience of deep and profound poverty that sucks the life out of those who must live into that experience. We try not to refer to such people as "the homeless" or "homeless people" because that labels them… it makes them into something they are not. Rather, they are neighbors, just like all of you, and they have all the problems, joys, and heartbreak that all of you have, except that they have one big problem; they are experiencing homelessness… they don’t have a home.
Home is so important to us. Our home can be a place of respite, a place of centering and of comfort. A person I know is suffering dementia, and during a recent phone call to her daughter she said "I just want to go home, but I can’t remember where home is". It was so poignant, but it reminded me that, even with her memory in shreds and tattlers, the desire to be at home is really fundamental, and she has not forgotten what that feels like to her… she ACHES for home and can’t have it. And so do our neighbors experiencing homelessness.
There is a whole system of supports built around the homelessness, and HHC is a part of that. Our aim is to make the experience of homelessness rare, short, and non-recurring. We serve over 750 people annually in Southeast Connecticut, almost all of whom are connected to this region; they were raised here, or they came to be with family, or they moved to this region for work. More than half our guests are with us for less than two weeks. All they need is a little rejiggering, they get a new job and a new apartment and they are gone… we never see them again. The rest need a bit more help; some of it financial, some of it motivational. A few will need intensive help to get housed and to stay housed. Some of these have been guests with us more than once over the years. It is not uncommon for our guests, like many of their housed neighbors, to be experiencing mental health challenges and to be self-medicating with substances which complicates their experience.
The guiding principle of this system is called "housing first". Housing first says that, while our guests might have many problems or challenges, it is the lack of a home that is the BIG problem. And so, our primary work is to get guests out of shelter and into homes all over the region. We will house them even if they do not have any income, and we work with landlords who are willing to take that risk if we provide some financial supports while guests seek employment or other income. The reason this risk is worth taking is that having a home provides a level of stability like nothing else. From the stability of home, other problems like income, mental health, and self-medication are orders-of-magnitude more manageable than living in a shelter, living in a car, or living under a highway bridge.
The second principle is that we are "person centered". Being person-centered reminds us that we are working with neighbors; living breathing human beings who have agency over their own lives. And it is our job to remember their agency throughout the whole process; THEY get to decide, not us, even if they decide to do things that would not be our own choices or our desires for them. The temptation to substitute my judgement for theirs is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn.
And third, we remember to be a place of hospitality… its in our middle name. We try to create as close as possible, a home-like situation for our guests, and we call them guests. That’s not easy sometimes, but hospitality is what sets HHC apart from other, similar organizations.
So these three principles are a little of the head-knowledge that I wanted to pass on to you.
One of the traps I would fall into from time-to-time, was seeing homelessness as a problem-to-be-solved. That idea, a problem-to-be-solved, is like rich velvety chocolate cake to my head. I LOVE the sugar-high of problem solving. Problem-solving draws on my expertise… it make ME the person other people come to for solutions to their problems, and nothing inflates my head more than this. One of the things I experienced as a submarine skipper was that there was no greater feeling of accomplishment than to be the one others come to with their problems. And… playing God turns out to be fertile soil for self-righteous judging arrogance.
Over time, I felt frustration, anger, and rage at the problem, its intractability, its injustice. And sometimes, I regarded the people experiencing this problem as a problem themselves. My language changed: "you should do this" or "you need to do that". Homelessness as a problem-to-be-solved became de-humanizing to them… and to me. Putting my head FIRST made me less human, and burnout was not far behind. I was forced to learn a different way of being.
I began to see homelessness more as a de-humanizing spiritual force in the world and a mystery to be entered into… more as a work-of-the-heart rather than the head. And since it IS a mystery, I have to enter into it WITH the person who is experiencing it. To see it as THEY see it… to respond to it in the ways that THEY want to respond. I have to let go of my solutions for them… let go of my "expertise"… let go of outcomes. Rather, the heart-work is to scatter seeds… to be a midwife… to EVOKE change in them that was already there ready to be awakened, but lacked the words they needed to help them give birth to a new life with new possibilities. There are completely different emotions that come with heart-work: empathy, heart-break, hope, contemplation… joy. These are some of the cross-shaped emotions of coming alongside. And I don’t do heart work alone: I invite the Spirit into the heart-space… ask her to be with us… invite Jesus in as well, asking for his healing power to be brought to bear.
One of our Community Navigators was telling me about her heart-break as a guest described the INDIGNITY of homelessness to her… of having to ask for help, and then having to ask again, over and over. She has begun to see her work, not so much as finding a house and employment for them, but as restoring their dignity, as an act of resistance against a malign spiritual force. What this Navigator found was a RIGHT relationship between the heart and the head. I learned, that when I put my head in the service of my heart… when I became heart-centered instead of head-centered, I became MORE human. And, when I am more human, a guest might find healing and restored dignity as a result. Together, we can get them housed.
So, these are the lessons of the heart: putting the heart in charge instead of the head. The head has important work to do; it is not the enemy. But it needs to work in the service of the heart, or arrogance and burnout will be the result. And putting the heart in charge means some things that the head will find disturbing:
- Giving up the need to be right. Actually, I’ve given up the whole idea that I even know the difference between right and wrong in most situations… the best we can do is experiment; try something on to see what works.
- Giving up on outcomes.
- Giving up my judgment so that the guest’s judgement can prevail, even if I foresee nasty natural consequences flowing their decisions.
- Inviting interruptions to my day, because the Spirit is often present in the disruption; a lesson I learned from Ron.
- Saying yes when my head wants to say no (another lesson from Ron here).
- Setting aside my "expertise" in deference to the expertise of the one who is actually living through the experience of homelessness and knows a million things I will never know.
- Seeing hope as a very present emotion instead of some far off future day that will be better than this one. Seeing hope as the very present expectation that, at any moment, I might encounter Jesus in the person I am working alongside. And THAT form of hope, has not disappointed me.
Why does this work? Why does the heart need to be in charge instead of the head? It works because the Holy Spirit dwells in our heart space; literally and spiritually. There is a kind of direct knowing-of-the-heart that comes when we still our minds and open our hearts to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. We do not have to go in search of God, God is already in us and always has been… the trick is to clear away the head-clouds that obscure this reality from us.
Whatever the Holy Trinity is, and I don’t have any better ideas than you do… The Trinity seems to be a being who is heart-centered. Each part pours itself out in love into the other two. And part of the good news of Jesus, is that the Trinity made room for us to join in that self-giving circle of love. For me, working with neighbors who are experiencing homelessness has kindled the fire of self-giving love. My prayer for all of you is that you will find your own heart-centered path into that fire. Amen. (Collect for purity)