Thursday, December 21, 2006

Anarchy for the Common Person

I got off the bus and hitchhiked from Yelm out to the Bald Hills the other day to pick up the car I had left at my parents’ house (I usually drive a '71 Ford Country Squire that I inherited from my grandmother and donated to Bread & Roses). It had been far too long since I’ve hitchhiked anywhere, or really since I’ve done anything to remind myself of my utter dependence on my community.

I only waited for about two minutes before a fellow driving a big pickup truck stopped to offer a ride. He was only going about four miles up the road, but he went out of his way to drive me the whole fifteen miles to the Bald Hills.

We talked a bit on the way about the big windstorm that had come through and knocked out the power across western Washington, about how the developers had really done Yelm in, and about Bread & Roses. The driver worked for Intercity Transit as a bus driver, and knew a lot of the folks we serve. He said, “It’s a good thing that you people are doing, helping all the homeless folks rather than waiting for the government to do it.”

It is good to hear people like him talk like anarchists.

"Holy Eucharist" -Catholic Worker Style

People often come by the Bread & Roses house with food donations. As they drop their beautiful gifts into my hands, they frequently thank me for my “hard work feeding all the hungry people.”

Aside from the fact that the thanking ought to go the other direction (I live on the same charity as our guests), I regularly find myself inviting the donors to stay and eat. The invitation is awkward, with an exchange of funny looks and the unspoken question, “But why am I invited if I don’t need food?”

No one starves in Olympia. If someone does, they probably need some kind of help other than food (like someone to guide them to the local soup kitchen), because there is an extraordinary amount of food here. This is one of the reasons why Bread & Roses no longer operates a soup kitchen.

Yet we still need gifts of food at our home, but not to feed our bellies. We need food because we do something special here at B&R: we eat together. Worker and guest, donor and recipient join together at the table in a spirit of fellowship, violating the social and economic norms that separate the rich from the poor.

It has often been noted that the poor in America live better than the middle class in developing countries. Yet Mahatma Gandhi and Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, looking westward, both found that we have our own unique kind of poverty, a kind of poverty that may even be more horrible than that found in India. The name of our poverty is “loneliness”.

Poverty itself is primarily a social phenomenon in western society. I have very little, yet few would identify me as a “poor person”. Why? What separates me from the huddled masses?

I have a good education, they say. But so do many of the homeless. Well, maybe it’s that I haven’t always been poor, I was once middle class. But the same is true of many of the guests in our women’s shelter. Could it be that I chose my poverty, as opposed to the many who did not? It is certainly true that I chose to be poor, but if this is what separates me from the poor then why are they reviled and I am not? Monks and nuns are praised and respected for choosing poverty, but the word “choice” is hurled at the poor as an insult.

The poor are defined more truly by their relationship to the rest of society than by their economic status. And the relationship that defines the poor and the homeless is one of alienation, isolation, and marginalization. I am not poor because I am not alienated from society. But many are.

As a community member at Bread & Roses, I see a lot of the people who are hit with the stereotype of the homeless “transient”. They are the end-stage drug addicts, the schizophrenics who frighten many people, the folks with the fine tuned survival skills that drive them to root through trash and to hold cardboard signs at street corners.

There are a lot of people, in fact I think this is true of most people, who do not see beyond the surface... beyond what can be noticed about a person with a momentary glance. They see someone dumpster diving. They see someone in poor health holding a sign asking for money. They see someone yelling obscenities at no one in particular or muttering paranoid delusions to themselves.

And, since they do not create the opportunities for themselves to get to know the homeless, they might never discover that the fellow in the dumpster has a college education, or that the person panhandling on the corner loves Dizzy Gillespie, or that the shirtless person muttering obscenities isn’t wearing a shirt because he gave it to someone who needed it more than he.

We have invited a whole lot of the homeless to come and stay with us, not just in our shelters, but actually in our home. Many of them have moved on to their own apartments or to adult family homes. Many of them went back on the spiral and are on the streets, in jail, or at Western State. Many of them cycle back and forth, making a little more progress each time they stay with us.

For people who are really ill, the process of healing takes a very long time. And this time can be very difficult. But they are our responsibility, because they are with us for better or for worse. We can have them in our community as a drain on our jails, hospitals, and public resources, rejected by society and left to live out their illnesses alone, or we can have them in our community as neighbors that we support and nurture back to health. Either way the poor are with us, and their lives affect ours. The choice of how to deal with that fact is ours to make.

We often think it easier to dismiss them as pariahs… as such the homeless become less visible, less necessarily a part of our lives. But this comes with its own cost, which we are seeing both in our decaying downtown as well as in our overcrowded jails. If we take them as neighbors, our lives suddenly seem to become much more difficult. It can take months to work through the system far enough to acquire medications for a mentally ill person, and I have spent countless nights staying up entirely too late dealing with the paranoid tantrums of a person in need of medications. Likewise I have spent too much time holding the hands of someone withdrawing from drug addiction.

But I am also aware that I am only one person, that there are some 40,000 people in Olympia, and that only some 700 are homeless. If it wasn’t just one household (Bread & Roses), but one hundred households, we could make a significant change in our community. In reality, the personal resources of 1.75% of the population of Olympia could house ALL of the homeless in Olympia, with little strain on our public resources.

This requires our personal commitment, which is far more difficult than just paying taxes and cutting the occasional check to Bread & Roses. But the truth is that a personal commitment carries a value that no amount of money can account for. The homeless are, for the most part, aware of the amount of money that is spent on them. They are aware that this amount of money could probably build them each their own personal Taj Mahal. This money is insufficient, because most of the homeless are also aware that most people would prefer to throw money at them (via services or via prisons) than to sit down for a cup of coffee with them.

While services are vital, it takes something far greater than social services to end homelessness. It takes a willingness to risk on our part. The homeless will be with us so long as we are willing to exclude them from our lives. But if we take a risk, make ourselves vulnerable, we just might make an impact.

This is why we eat together at Bread & Roses. There is something special about table fellowship. We find it ritualized in the Holy Eucharist, when Christians gather to take Communion together. Shared food brings us closer together. It makes us one community, one Body, and it heals the wounds inflicted by the class system.

So please continue to bring us your gifts of food. The small gifts you bring are used to mend souls and to restore personalities. But please know also that you have a much bigger gift to offer than food: yourself.

We have a weekly open potluck dinner at the Bread & Roses house. It is on Friday nights at 6:00 PM. (Our address is 1320 8th Ave SE near downtown Olympia.) Please join us for dinner!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Time to Dig Trenches

The sidewalk ordinance passed. Albeit with some alterations...

Beginning in February, it will be illegal to sit, lie down, or panhandle within 6 feet of the edge of a building downtown. This law, however, will only be in effect between 7 AM and 10 PM, allowing the homeless to seek shelter under the awnings at night. People will also be allowed to obtain permits for busking within the 6 foot zone.

So the law isn't as bad as it could have been. It doesn't ban necessary survival functions for the homeless. But that doesn't make it good.

My good friend and fellow Bread & Roses community member, Rob, offered this explaination of what makes the new law bad:
The city is STILL taking the sidewalk away, and telling homeless people that they can rent parts of it if they can play an instrument, and that they can use it after all the normal people are tucked away in their beds. That's telling someone they can't be a part of the community if they don't have something to offer. That's wrong.
The law is still segregationist. It still limits the poor, who as a class are defined by social marginalization, from participation in community.

We need to stop this law from going into effect. There are a number of organizers who are now looking into the possibility of dragging the new law through the referendum process. We'll be looking at opportunities for litigation.

Mostly, though, we've got to work even harder at empowering and enfranchising the homeless.

For more information on anti-homeless laws around the nation, visit the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Problem with Social Services

In July of 2001, I started volunteering regularly at the Bread & Roses soup kitchen. I loved the pace of work in the kitchen. The mass quantities of food and dishes required us to work briskly, but there were always good conversations and smiles as we worked. Most of the faith communities in the area took rotations for meals, so that on Monday there might be a Buddhist group cooking, and on Tuesday a Catholic team. The guests always helped with the dishes.

The staff of Bread & Roses lived together at the house on 8th Ave. The staff was made up of a handful of young people who offered one year commitments through Brethren Volunteer Services, Selena, a middle aged woman who had left the Carmelite order for the Catholic Worker, and a handful of people who had moved from homelessness to volunteer positions with Bread & Roses.

The “administrator” for Bread & Roses was one of the latter, an impassioned man named Gordy Ebner. Gordy was an odd looking fellow with a long face and thin grey hair pulled back in a pony tail that reached the middle of his back. He wore a long beard and his hooked nose supported a pair of wire framed spectacles. Gordy could be picked out of a crowd by the ridiculous “M.C. Hammer” pants he wore, usually decorated by florescent green geckos or tie-die. Gordy could speak eloquently about our obligations to fight poverty and injustice. He had a powerful charisma that was, no doubt, what landed him in the position of Bread & Roses’ leader. Many of the guests followed Gordy like ducklings lining up behind their mother.

Unfortunately, Gordy was also terribly irresponsible as an administrator. He was abrasive toward those who disagreed with him. He mismanaged Bread & Roses’ funds horribly. His burning desire to help all of the poor exceeded his judgment, and he committed Bread & Roses to projects it was incapable of operating. Many of the guests that he brought on staff were active, violent addicts.

The atmosphere at the soup kitchen reflected Gordy’s influence. It had a definite charm about it, and there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew each other. It was also deeply marked by illness and depravity. Drug dealing was rampant. Fights were frequent. Ambulances had to be called regularly, and the cops circled the block like vultures scoping out their prey. The cops even wandered through the kitchen, uninvited, from time to time. They wouldn’t speak with anyone, not even the staff who approached them, but just walked around, staring people down.

The atmosphere at the soup kitchen was the inevitable result of providing a very large scale service in a non-authoritarian atmosphere. The large scale of the work required a kind of factory style, impersonal feeding system. Guests formed a line one hundred people deep for a plate of food served across a counter. There was usually only two staff on duty to keep the peace. The volunteers and staff were good hearted, kind people who genuinely cared about the people they were serving.

Unfortunately, caring isn’t enough. The care one feels for another must be communicated for it to make an impact, and it stretches from difficult to impossible to shower authentic compassion on one hundred people at once. The hardships of street life and the hurts of the guests overwhelmed the abilities of the staff, so that the culture of the soup kitchen community became ill.

Many social service agencies would respond to this illness with a set of hard-nosed rules in an attempt to maintain the law and order necessary for effective provision of services. The staff of Bread & Roses, however, had too much heart to degrade the guests with such authoritarian measures. I don’t think it was well understood yet, though, that the factory style, large scale system of the kitchen had undermined the personalist approach of Bread & Roses and degraded the guests in just the way that the staff were attempting to avoid.

It’s too bad, really. It is hard to describe how ambivalent I felt about the old kitchen. On the one hand, the acceptance and openness of the staff to anyone in need was the closest thing to real social justice I had ever seen. I also loved the guests, and delighted in the joys of their community. But the attempt by Bread & Roses to serve beyond its own capacity was taking a toll.

Many of the social services across the country are operated in this way. The overwhelming need for food, shelter, clothing, and health care pushes the people who care to attempt almost heroic feats of charity, to shoulder an unrealistic burden that ought to be spread out across a broader portion of the population. The failure of these heroic attempts to make any real change has become a target of those who hate the poor. The culture at our soup kitchen was the kind of thing that conservatives could point at as the licentiousness caused by liberal, bleeding heart, do-gooderism. And the business community of Olympia did just that.

First Day at Bread & Roses

I had an urge one day in mid-July of 2001 to walk down to the local soup kitchen and offer a hand. It was hot outside, not quite sweltering, but the midsummer Puget Sound kind of hot that brings out the life in things. I invited a roommate, Jesse, to walk downtown with me, and strolled out the door.

I had never been inside of Bread & Roses. I ran a few 9-1-1 calls there when I was working for the ambulance company, but we always did our work there on the sidewalk outside. It struck me as a run-down kind of place, with lifeless grey concrete walls and big tinted windows. There were no signs on the outside, nothing to identify the purpose of the building but the milling crowds of the poor smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk.

When Jesse and I first stepped through the door, we were confronted with a writhing sea of people. A little girl squealed as her brother chased her down an aisle. A tall, thin black man wearing a beret, a corduroy vest, and a badge emblazoned “sheriff” stood squarely off against the flatware tray, yelling obscenities and threats at the silverware. A line of hungry people stood behind him rolling their eyes and urging him to move along.

There were about 25 or 30 tables in the room, with four or five seats per table. Beyond the dining room, at the back of the building, a long counter cut the room. There were heaping trays of food along the counter, and a number of little old church women wearing white aprons and food handler’s gloves stood behind it armed with serving spoons and cutting knives.

I walked to the back to help serve the food. The line moved quickly and it was very busy for about 20 minutes, and then things began to slow down. A kindly looking middle aged fellow with glasses and a knitted wool sweater approached me, and introduced himself. His name was Phil Tenkhoff. He encouraged me to take a plate of food and to go sit and eat among the guests. I was surprised and delighted at this suggestion and I took him up on it.

I have always been shy around people I don’t know, particularly in crowds. In the last couple years I have gotten much better at being outgoing, but I still often find my tongue to be confounded when I’m in unusual settings. I sat silently, uncomfortably, and ate my food, then scurried back to the kitchen to help wash dishes and escape my discomfort.

I set up in front of a dual utility sink where the dishes were being washed and rinsed by a Hispanic man in his 30’s, and he made room for me to offer a hand. He sang a bit in Spanish as we worked, and then began trying to tell me some jokes. He spoke no English, however, and I spoke no Spanish, but I could tell that the jokes were good, dirty ones gauging from his hand gestures.

As the cleaning was wrapping up and Jesse and I were wiping down tables, a wise, stern looking middle aged woman with salt and pepper hair wearing an apron walked up to us. She tilted her head back a little and sized us up through the bottoms of her spectacles.

“Do you need your paperwork signed?” She asked.


“Yes. You’re doing community service, right?”

I was dumbfounded for a moment. “Well, I suppose we are… is there some kind of paperwork we need to do to volunteer here?”

A light turned on in her eyes, and she grinned for a moment. “Oh, well, you’re just doing this out of the goodness of your hearts! God bless you! I thought you must have had court orders.”

I blushed a little when I realized that most people my age don’t volunteer much in soup kitchens… unless ordered by a court to atone for a crime. The funny thing is that a couple of years later, when I was coordinating the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center, I was court ordered to do community service for an act of civil disobedience. This woman, Selena, ended up getting to sign my papers after all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In Memoriam - Brooks

Another of our guests at Bread & Roses died this week. His name was Brooks. I only met him a few times, but he seemed like a nice fellow. We'll be holding a memorial service for him this Monday at the Advocacy Center at 1:00.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


This is beautiful... really just perfect. Meta got a postcard advertisement from the Capital Playhouse today: Jeff Kingsbury is SCROOGE, The Musical.

That's right people, believe it. Even as he uses his city council position to hurt homeless people, Jeff Kingsbury plays Scrooge onstage at his job. I wonder if he finds any irony in this?

The play will be showing Nov 30th @7:30PM, Dec 1,6,7,8,13-15 @7:30PM, Dec 2,9,16,20,&21@2:00 & 7:30PM, Dec 3 & 10 @2:00PM and 7:00PM.

I'm thinking of a picket... can you guess the time?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Highlander's "The Young and the Restless" Campaign

The Highlander Research and Education Center has been working with youth for a number of years through "The Young and the Restless" program.

From their website: "The founding principle and guiding philosophy of Highlander is that the answers to the problems facing society lie in the experiences of ordinary people. Those experiences, so often belittled and denigrated in our society, are the keys to grassroots power.

"Highlander serves Appalachia and the South with programs designed to build strong and successful social-change activism and community organizing led by the people who suffer most from the injustices of society."

Founded by Miles Horton, the Highlander has had the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Woody Guthrie as students. The Highlander's programs were the engine behind the CIO union sweep of the South, particularly in the coal mines, as well as for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.

Of course, if you want to see popular education at work with youth, you don't have to go all they way to the South. Just check out Partners in Prevention Education right here in Olympia.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stop Olympia Anti-Homeless Ordinances!

The Olympia City Council is considering new laws that will effectively criminalize homelessness. Included among the new laws is an ordinance that will create a 6 foot buffer zone from buildings in which it will be illegal to sit on the sidewalk. This will push the homeless out from under the awnings and into the gutter, effectively criminalizing their presence in public.

Tell the City Council to stop hurting the poor! Contact the council at or come to the public hearing on Nov 21st at City Hall: 800 Plum Street SE.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Responsibility and Nonviolence

The first bombs began falling on Iraq three days after Rachel died. Will was still in Rafah, in harm’s way. We assumed that the Israeli government would use the conflict in Iraq as a smokescreen to intensify their incursions into Gaza, and to kill more internationals. We were correct.

Emotions were running high for local activists, my self included. I hastily joined an affinity group with a handful of other peace activists, and we began planning an action. I can remember feeling desperate to make some kind, any kind, of difference. The urgent need to stop the war pressed down on us, and we rushed our decision making process.

We decided to target the state legislature. We wanted them to issue a statement condemning the war, and to divest from the military industry (to effectively boycott Boeing, Microsoft, Caterpillar, etc.). We did not use the common channels. We didn’t contact our representatives, write a proposal, or try to find a legislator to introduce a bill. Instead, we sat down in front of the doors as the Senate was about to go into session, locked our necks together with bicycle “U” locks, and issued a terse, one page statement for the press.

There was a rally of about 80 to 100 activists there to support us. There were about a dozen journalists present, representing newsprint, radio stations, and television. There was a small army of State Patrol officers, who marched up in step with one another, forming a wall around us. The rally participants danced, played games, and taunted the police.

The atmosphere was dramatic, and we were certainly getting a lot of attention. At one point, a great big State Patrol officer (Sgt. Dahl, I believe), took a water bottle from one of my fellow affinity group members. She struggle with him for a moment over the bottle, before the top of the bottle popped off, spraying water all over. The press rushed in with their cameras, capturing this dramatic little moment for posterity. Immediately a cry went out among the crowd, and they began yelling and chanting slogans about “human rights”. Some of the other members of the affinity group chanted with them, and protested the officer’s actions. All for a water bottle.

In the end, the police cut our “U” locks and arrested us. I tried to shift the tone of the event a little by openly, loudly, and cheerfully thanking and praising the officer who arrested me.

I don’t regret participating in civil disobedience. But in hindsight, there is a lot that I would have done differently. We didn’t follow the standard nonviolent (read: mature) model for dialogue, negotiation, contemplation, self-criticism, and action. We rushed in prematurely. Even our choice to target the state government is pretty hard to justify. And, as the event unfolded, our lack of circumspection became evident through our behavior.

I see a lot of similar problems running through our local peace movement. There are a lot of unnecessary confrontations with the police. There is a lot of unnecessary attention seeking behavior. There is a lot of unnecessary and counterproductive defiance, agitation, and inappropriate behavior. And when the police react to this behavior, there is a lot of complaining.

The recent protest at the Port of Olympia serves as a good example. Activists were chanting, “Port of Olympia… tear it down!” They shook the fence ferociously, broke through the fence, resisted arrest, and then got angry that the police used pepper spray.

Some of the behaviors at the Unity in the Community festival last Monday also offer a good example. The gathering, which took place in Sylvester Park, was organized in response to a neo-Nazi rally to be held on the steps of the Capitol building the next day.

The festival was a lot of fun. There were speakers from a variety of social justice organizations and faith communities, as well as belly dancers, bands, and poets. Booths were set up around the edge of the park addressing issues that ranged from immigrants’ rights to workers’ rights and women’s rights to choose. Children played games through the facilitation of the YMCA. There were youth, couples, children, elderly people, activists, imams, food vendors, rabbis and priests.

In the midst of the festivities, at around four o’clock, two young women took the stage to play their rap music. I had left the park to run an errand and was just returning as this band was half way through their first song. The chorus line of the song was “What the fucking shit!”

I was shocked and embarrassed to hear, as I walked down the street to the park, amplified obscenities echoing off the walls of downtown Olympia.

Just as I entered the park a State Patrol officer cut the power to the band. Several of the parents there looked relieved. But a small contingent of angry festival participants descended on the officer, badgering him about their “first amendment rights”. I even overheard one person say, “You mean you’re going to let the Nazi’s speak tomorrow, but you won’t let us play this music?!”

When the Olympian printed an article on our festival a couple days ago, someone wrote on the comments page: “We note that in all the times the Nazis have demonstrated locally they have been peaceful and complied with the law. Protestors at the Port of Olympia were violent and damaged property.”

Our own misbehavior undermines our work as activists. It misdirects our energy into unproductive conflicts, fuels the complaints of our ideological opponents, alienates people who agree with us, and even occasionally gets someone hurt.

If we are to be effective, if we are to earn the respect of the people whose minds we would change, we must expand our capacity for circumspection and self-criticism.

To misbehave at a rally, and then to complain about “double standards”, begs the question of who is setting the standards. It certainly isn’t us.

Edward J Harris

[From my journal]

On the first night of my first road trip – I like to take annual road trips hitchhiking along the West Coast – I made it as far as Wilsonville, a little town just south of Portland. I had done very little urban camping, had never really been so far from home on my own, and had no idea of where to sleep. My traveling partner and I checked out a freeway overpass. It was well lit, and the cops would probably chase us out. I imagined we wouldn’t be very welcome as unannounced visitors in someone’s back yard. I shrugged my shoulders and suggested we go to Denny’s to slug down some bad coffee and smoke cigarettes. I was growing uneasy; it seemed a long way from home, and San Francisco, our destination, seemed very far off. The vast expanse of road stretched out before us, threatening and luring at once.

As we began to make our way towards coffee and relative comfort, a man approached us. He was older, maybe in his fifties or sixties, and his greasy clothes hung loosely from his body. An oversized thrift store coat hung on his slouched shoulders, baggy jeans covered worn sneakers, and his knitted cap pushed down a mat of long grey tangled hair. There was no part to differentiate his hair from his beard, which hung from his face like a curtain of tree moss.

“You boys are travelin?” he asked. “It’s gettin late an yull be needin a place ta sleep… I got a squat jus over that-a-way. I don’t stay there no more. Ya can have it ta yerselves.” His breath smelled of stale beer, and his teeth were sparse and yellow and brown in color.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, unsure of how to react.

Luke, my partner on the trip, grinned. “Hey, that sounds great!”

The man, who introduced himself as Edward J. Harris, led us across a mist veiled field to a little grove of fir trees about fifty yards off the freeway ramp.

“I figgur I’m about the only homeless man in Wilsonville,” he said. “The cops all know me, but they mostly leave me alone, cause I mostly keep outta sight.”

He swept his arm out at the scene of the squat. “There she is,” he said. “It ain’t a house, but it keeps the rain offa yer head and the wind offa yer face. It’s purdy comfy, actually, an it’s got a view.”

The building he was gesturing at had tarps for a roof and for three walls. It was open at the front, and the floor was made of pallets covered with a dumpstered carpet. It had a big telephone cable spool for a table, a couch and a recliner chair, and a burn barrel out front to keep warm by on cold nights. A plastic skeleton was nailed to a tree just in front of the little shelter.

“I call im Morty,” Edward said. “He keeps me compny.”

My eyes were wide open, and I smiled a little. It was a wonderful little place! It was tidy, clean, and well built. I relaxed a bit as it began to dawn on me that this fellow was offering us something really special.

He started a fire in the burn barrel. “The Fire Department’s come a couple times ta make me put er out. But if ya keep it burnin real low, no-one’ll bother ya none.”

After a good bed of hot coals had developed in the barrel, Edward joined us at his makeshift table, and began sharing his story with us. He loved his mama. She was an invalid, and when Edward’s stepfather died he moved in to help care for her. The shelter was now a place for him to get away, to obtain a little solitude for contemplation and to read the Gospels. He loved Jesus and the scriptures, and told us of how his life had gotten better since he started reading the Bible.

After talking for a while, Luke and I laid out our bedrolls. Edward bid us goodnight and walked out into the fog and the darkness.

I laid my head down on my rolled up jacket and thanked God for this blessing of kindness from such an unexpected place. Then I fell quickly to sleep.

On Begging

[Written in a moment of frustration – from my journal 10/14/05]

I’ve been thinking a lot about begging lately, contemplating its meaning and thinking of doing it a little myself.

I can remember begging as a teenager, when I was a runaway. A couple years ago I wrote about it for the Voice:

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I think I am beginning to understand the difference between my experiences of panhandling and hitchhiking. When I hitchhike, I intentionally place myself at the mercy of others. As a result, when I hitchhike I am filled with the experience of being on a pilgrimage, of stepping into a great adventure. The hardships make me a better person; the good times and lucky occasions come as little miracles to lift my spirits. I discovered great things about poverty and good fellowship as a hitchhiker. I was taken under wing by homeless people, gifted money by rich people, and offered grand stories by fellow travelers, all given honestly and with a spirit of generosity and encouragement. I asked for rides, for directions, for advice on good places to camp. I was often given what I asked and a good deal more.

When I was homeless, I wasn’t panhandling to place myself upon the mercy of others (although many offered it generously, and I only felt more ashamed). Though I asked for money, what I was begging for was independence. So my actions and my intentions were alienated from one another, and I resented my situation. Maybe that is why work, when it first became available to me, seemed like such a blessing.

I try to imagine what it would be like now to go and beg for money downtown. Aside from the dirty remarks that are to be expected, I think people will question my purpose. Don’t you have a job? You look like you are able to work. Why don’t you work for money? The staff at Bread & Roses might be embarrassed and try to increase my stipend. What would people think of Bread & Roses? Don’t they pay their people enough? How can they presume to help the poor when they must beg for themselves?

There would be condescension as well. I give my money to the Salvation Army. Here, take a resource brochure, do something useful with yourself. You’ll just spend it on booze. (I might well, I do like a beer occasionally, and a good deal of my stipend is spent at my favorite bar.) I’m reminded a bit of the evangelicals who “work for the poor”. I once heard a man from [a faith base social service agency] speak at an Associated Ministries meeting.

“Don’t give them money!” he exclaimed. “They’ll just spend it on BOOOOZE! Give them the 12 steps, but for God’s sake, don’t give them money! God helps those who help themselves, and we should help the ones who are choosing to clean up their lives,” he says. I was boiling hot with anger.

In fact, it is convenient that Ben Franklin first coined the phrase “God helps those who help themselves”, because I say that it is Caesar who helps those who help themselves, and God who helps the helpless, as we should! Let the government care for the avaricious, we should seek a different way for ourselves.

When I think back on it, I would like to have invited this man to step outside onto the streets to panhandle with me. We could’ve spanged money for a cup of coffee, and discussed the experience together.

I want to beg now because I am done with independence. I want hope. I want to know that people are still kind, and that I can count on my brother to be my keeper.

Confessions of a Teenage "Bum"

[From my submission to the Voice of Olympia]

Sometimes I am struck by the nostalgia I feel for the way that French fries wore themselves into the carpet at the Denny’s in Parkland. I distinctly remember the sickly smell of cheap food, battered and deep fat fried, and how my empty stomach was comforted by the repugnance my nose felt for the slop. Denny’s, noisy and filthy as it was, was my safe haven for the nine months that I was homeless. Whenever I didn’t have a couch to crash on, and when the weather was too miserable to sleep outside, I’d panhandle enough money for a bottomless, gut-burning cup of coffee and stay up all night writing and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

I first ran away from home when I was fifteen. I had started using drugs, fighting – sometimes violently – with my parents, and skipping school. As I became more rebellious, my parents became stricter, and our arguments escalated.

One night I finally got fed up, packed a backpack, and climbed out my bedroom window. Things had been particularly ugly at home, and my parents, foreseeing the possibility that I might run away, had taken my shoes. I walked barefoot for several miles to a bonfire party that a friend was throwing in the woods. I got drunk and slept outside. Two days later, a friend in Yelm took me into her home and let me stay for a month and two weeks.

My parents tracked me down, took me to court, and had me placed on the “Youth-At-Risk” program. The judge ordered me to return home, obey a curfew, speak respectfully to adults, keep my grades up in school, avoid certain friends… The list of rules was lengthy, and failure to obey would result in being charged with “contempt of court”, a misdemeanor.

As my term in the “Youth-At-Risk” program came to an end, my parents motioned the court to renew my participation. I had already racked up two counts of contempt for breaking the rules, and the tension between my parents and I had grown thick. I decided that I would not tolerate living at home any longer. I packed a small backpack and a gym bag, snuck out my window again, and hitchhiked to Tacoma.

I was aware that I couldn’t go back after leaving. I was still court ordered to remain at home, and if I had returned my parents would have reported me to the police.

At first I was overwhelmed by the sense of finality, and loneliness. My safety net had fallen away and I felt as though I was suspended mid-air, grasping tightly to a thin line of fraying yarn that prevented me from falling. Anxiety pushed stiffly outward from within my chest, hampering the flow of air into my lungs. I was on my own, and the noisy, sinister world and an uncertain future loomed overhead, shrouded in the cold Pacific rain.

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I was lucky to have a number of friends in the Tacoma area, and usually had places to stay for one or two nights at a time. Most of my friends put me up out of pity, rather than out of any sense that I would get my life together. I was for them a likeable but rather stupid pot-head teenager who had little potential. Occasionally a person that I would crash with for the night would try to talk sense into me. What were my plans? They would ask. How was I going to start making something of myself? The conversations were generally more embarrassing and guilt ridden than productive for me, and I would talk my way around the questions. From a distance of fifty miles, and without having spoken to them in months, I could feel my parents’ disappointment tugging at my gut.

On my seventeenth birthday, a friend took me out to stay at his cabin on Anderson Island. His father was building a house on the far end of the island, and Scott offered me a day’s work at five bucks an hour to do some pick and shovel work and to clean up around the construction site. It was good, hard work, and he paid me forty dollars at the end of the day. This was the most money I had held at one time in my nine months of homelessness, and I was elated. We stopped at the island market on the way back to Scott’s house and bought fresh tomatoes, herbs, and sausage, as well as a package of pasta to make spaghetti for my birthday. Scott made me the best spaghetti dinner I’ve ever eaten.

I had never bought my own groceries before. Everything I had was unearned, a gift from someone like my parents or the people who gave me change when I panhandled. The spaghetti was good, made from scratch with fresh tomatoes and herbs, but the experience of having earned it was far better.

A month later, my buddy Jeremy let me move into his camper out in the woods on the outskirts of Yelm. I started getting a lot of work splitting firewood and digging ditches. I had quit smoking pot, and was starting to get my energy back. I made enough money to start renting, and I got my first full time job three days before my eighteenth birthday.

In the time since I was homeless, I've worked two years as an EMT for an ambulance company, graduated from the WA State Fire Training Academy, spent three years as a volunteer firefighter (and I nearly got hired on a professional department), and owned a home that I later sold to pay for college. I've spent the last three years as a live-in staff person at the Bread & Roses Catholic Worker Community.

The greatest gift that anyone has ever offered me was the gift of work, the gift of pride in work and the beauty of hard earned food. I was once homeless, hungry, and depressed. I had alienated my family and relegated myself to what I once thought to be the lowest class of society. There were few people who saw any value in me, but their contributions to my life made a tremendous impact on me, and through me impacted the lives of the patients I served as an EMT and the people I serve now at Bread & Roses. I've lost touch with most of the people who put me up as a teenager. If I could visit any of them now, particularly Scott, I'd immediately drag them to downtown Olympia to see the work I do at Bread & Roses. They can take credit for it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Support Your Troops

In the last three years since the start of the Iraq War, it has become common to see anti-war protesters standing on opposing street corners from pro-war activists. Sometimes there are visible differences of clothing and hairstyles. Generally the differing worldviews, above and beyond opinions on the war, are strong enough that you can taste them.

Both sides, however, have latched onto one common slogan: “Support Our Troops!”

This slogan is bandied about on either side of the street as though the other side somehow doesn’t get it. In spite of their fervor many of the rally attendees have, no doubt, stepped over the bodies of disabled veterans while walking to the rallies.

I got a call the other day from the Ranger newspaper asking if Bread & Roses had seen any veterans from the Iraq War yet. We haven't. I had to be honest with the reporter. I told her that it takes time for troops' families to give up on them.

People come home from war totally mangled in mind, body, and spirit. In spite of all the sloganeering out there, the responsibility for the welfare of veterans ultimately falls on their families. Many, many families are unable to shoulder the responsibility. This doesn't make them bad or irresponsible, nor does it mean that they don't love their veteran. It DOES mean that taking care of a person who doesn't sleep at night, who suffers from flashbacks, who turns to alcohol for solace, and who becomes sorely irritable, even prone to fits of rage, is EXTREMELY difficult and should not fall on family alone. But it does fall on family alone, because everyone else is too busy sloganeering.

With time, the families give up. I know this because we at Bread & Roses have fed, sheltered, comforted, and advocated for veterans of every war from World War II to the Persian Gulf War. And we are criticized for it.

Veterans who suffer from PTSD often turn to alcohol or drugs to ward off bad memories, as well as to blunt their emotional response to being alienated from society. Imagine enduring the horrors of war for your nation, and then being left to rot in the gutter as a reward. You’d start drinking too.

Homeless veterans experience not only homelessness, but also the stigma of being considered the “undeserving” poor because of their addictions and “anti-social” behaviors. Pedestrians yell at them, spit on them, call them names, and tell them to “get a job”.

This will be the fate of many of the troops that everyone wants to “Support!” when “support” means waving a sign.

I'm frankly sick of all this "Support Our Troops" bantering on both sides of the war debate. We should all stop yelling this mantra and start doing it.

On God and Gays

[Co-written with Mindy from St. John's]

St. John's Episcopal Church in Olympia recently experienced the blessings of standing with our gay brothers and sisters.

At Capitol City Pride Day on June 17, the Rev. Canon David James, rector of the church, and several parishioners gathered at the church's booth in Sylvester Park to offer blessings to all who stopped by, as well as information on Integrity, the Episcopal Church's ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Those church members who participated later talked about how they felt people's tiredness, hurt and stress fall away, if only for a moment or two. Reactions from the blessed ranged from tears to drawn-out sighs of relief, knowing that they were among Christians who didn't judge them and who carried a message of God's unconditional love for all.

Some people might be shocked at the fact that a Christian church would openly and freely bless gays. In spite of the Gospels, in which the central message is God’s love for us, the most common stories we hear that involve the words “God” and “gay” also involve Fred Phelps, who picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay victim of a hate crime. Or Pat Robertson, who blamed Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11th, and the Iraqi insurgency all on the sexual orientation of Ellen Degeneres. Robertson was even quoted as saying, “America is waiting for her to apologize for the death and destruction that her sexual deviance has brought onto this great nation.”

Armed with their Bibles, conservative Christians are waging a crusade against gays all across America. They are fighting to stop anti-discrimination laws, to stop gay marriage, and to defend good ol’ fashioned “family values”. Interestingly, their Bibles won’t serve them well in this crusade. This is because the bible has nothing at all to say about homosexuality!

In spite of this, there are a number of passages that conservatives use to try and justify their views. I’ll go through them one by one.

“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”-

Many people refer to the opening chapters of Genesis as a suggestion that heterosexuality is the only natural form of sexuality. This is flawed logic. Genesis pairs Adam and Eve, but does not condemn homosexual relationships. The Adam and Eve story is silent on the matter.

Sodom & Gomorrah-

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used to condemn gays. In this story, God tells Abraham that he has condemned these cities for their wickedness. God sends two angels in to test the city. Lot invites them home, and the townspeople try to attack them. The nature of the attack can probably be assumed to be sexual in nature. The angels save Lot and his family, who are sent out of town while God burns the city.

Hospitality to strangers was one of the most important values of old times. The desert is harsh and dangerous; to withhold your hand from strangers could have spelled death for them. The sin of Sodom was hard-heartedness. And the scriptures refer to this numerous times. The book of Ezekiel (16:48-49) condemns the behavior of Sodom: “Fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hands of the poor and the needy.” Jesus, in Matthew 10:14-15, instructs his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Maybe we should rethink how Olympia treats its homeless.) In all the references to Sodom throughout the bible, homosexuality is not mentioned once.

The Holiness Codes of Leviticus-

Leviticus 18:22 reads: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the clearest the bible gets on homosexuality. It ONLY refers to male-male sexual partnerships.

There are a number of things to note about this. First, there are two sets of codes in the Old Testament. The first set regards ethics or morals. We see these in the Ten Commandments. The second are the “Holiness Codes”, which are a set of social norms for Jews of ancient times.

The Holiness Codes were designed to separate the nation of Israel from the Canaanite peoples; it is a set of nationalistic rules. They may have had their place at the time. The Israelites were in foreign land and their religion was inseparable from their way of life. Maintaining their faith depended on maintaining their identity as a nation. Though the nationalistic norms may have been necessary to them, they are certainly not binding on Christians. It should also be understood that the Holiness Codes had nothing to do with morals. They included the kosher laws, how to sew garments, and a lot of stuff that amounted to: “Don’t mix your peas with your mashed potatoes.” They set religious purity standards, not a code of ethics.

The passage from Leviticus was just one of the Holiness Codes. It was not a moral commandment. It was intended to prevent Jews from participating in Canaanite practices, which included the exploitation of male prostitutes in the Canaanite temples.

Romans 1:26-27, Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1-10 -

One of the rather beautiful aspects of the Gospel message is the union it promotes among people, even people of very different backgrounds. Jesus first challenged nationalistic separations through his willingness to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman. Later, while preaching love of neighbor, Jesus is asked, “Who is our neighbor?” To this He replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus teaches that differences in nationality and culture are not to be a barrier to love.

In his letters, Paul writes in the same thread. Division and acrimony had arisen within the Church; the Gentile Christians were not being circumcised and were violating kosher laws. As a result, many Jewish Christians refused to eat or otherwise commune with the Gentiles. In an attempt to breed tolerance, Paul writes to the Roman Christians a long, and now famous, argument that salvation is not gained by strict adherence to outward religious codes such as circumcision and kosher guidelines. Salvation comes by faith, a faith shared by Jewish and Gentile Christians alike.

The passage used by some to condemn gays is near the beginning of this letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by wickedness suppress the truth. …though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking… Therefore God gave them up to the lust of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves… Their women exchanged customary intercourse for uncustomary, and in the same way also the men…”(Romans 1: 18-27)

Paul here is criticizing the Roman pagans for idolatry. Following the sin of idolatry, they made themselves more important than God (“they did not honor him as God”), and concurrently made themselves more important than their neighbors. Therefore God gave them over to impurity, and following after their idolatrous fashion, they “were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, [and] malice.” (Romans 1:29)

There are a couple important things to note here. First, Paul’s criticism of the Romans is a hook for the Jewish Christians. The first sentence of the next chapter reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others…” He turns the argument of idolatry against the Jewish Christians! Apparently they were in error when they placed their personal customs at a higher priority than Christian communion.

Secondly, this passage does NOT refer to monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships. Paul is criticizing idolatry, and the selfish, lustful, and gluttonous behaviors that accompany idolatry. The excesses of ancient Rome are remembered to this day. You may have heard stories of “vomitoriums” built to enable the gluttony of a people gone mad with power. The stories you may not have heard are those of the pre-pubescent boys sold into slavery as male prostitutes. Sexual exploitation at the time was highly prevalent and horrific. The Church stood against it then as it does now.

Paul was not talking about loving, long term homosexual relationships. He was criticizing debauchery and sexual exploitation. These are hardly the words to describe the love that two people feel for one another when they wish to be married.

In Corinthians and Timothy, Paul gives a couple brief lists of the sins of “wrongdoers”. “Sodomites” are mentioned, but here he is talking about male prostitutes, not homosexual relationships. He also, again, criticizes at length the sins of idolatry and sexual exploitation.

Conservatives, when debating gay marriage, often like to throw around the terms “unnatural”, “unclean”, and “abomination”. Yet, for all their quoting of Paul, it is Paul who refutes them when he writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

There are a great number of homosexuals who are now striving to be allowed to marry. They courageously wage their campaign for marriage on the battlefields of the courts and legislatures of the land. Marriage is a holy sacrament. It teaches us, through our spouse’s love, the love that God holds for us. It also teaches us, through our love for our spouse, how to love God.

By condemning gays as “unclean”, conservatives make themselves vulnerable to Paul’s accusation of idolatry. They would allow personal customs and preferences to stand in the way of the revelation of God’s love through marriage.

By offering blessings to gays, and even on occasion to gay marriages, the Episcopal Church is indeed breaking from traditional norms. But the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) were never intended to be normative in effect; rather they were intended to be transformative.

Our common faith is one of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The central message of the Gospel is God’s undying love for us. The central command of the Gospel is that we are to love one another as God loves us. It is high time we stop telling gays that God hates them.

Here is what Fr. James wrote to Integrity about St. John's "Blessing Chair":

"That morning, as I was getting ready to go to the parade it occurred to me as a straight priest, how unsafe the church has been, and is being to this day, to LGBT folk. So, I went into the church and got one of our 'Bishop's chairs' and took it to the booth. I made a sign that designated the chair as the 'Blessing Chair.'

"Throughout the course of the day people would come by and ask 'what's a blessing chair?' Our response was 'the Episcopal Church in Olympia wants to let you know how much God loves you, just as you are.' One passerby called it the 'the Episcopal Church and God doesn't hate you booth.' We offered the opportunity for anyone, gay or straight, to sit in the chair have at least five of us lay hands on them, anoint them with oil and pray God's blessing upon them telling them how much God loves them.”

Just imagine, after years of “faith” based persecution, and after being alienated from the faith community you were raised in, being welcomed back with open arms and a blessing. Imagine being told, for the first time, that Jesus and His Church don’t hate you. This is Christ’s message made personal.

The behaviors of us Christians have been extraordinarily hurtful to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. In spite of this, many of them still love the Church. They have often shown a more Christ-like patience for us than we could muster for them. It is time for repentance and reconciliation.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lazarus at the Gate

I did something this week for which I become deeply angry when others do the same. I cleared the brush in my back yard to prevent homeless people from camping there.

My wife and I live in the new Bread & Roses house on 4th Ave. This house is open to the street community about 45 hours per week. Volunteer advocates gather at our home to help homeless individuals to gain access to services such as drug treatment, disability benefits, and housing. We offer a beautiful, home-centered atmosphere in which this work can take place. But unfortunately we are renters.

When we first moved in, our landlord was excited to be able to support Bread & Roses, but nervous about how we would work out as renters. Our neighbors, who rent from the same landlord as us, were very nervous about our presence.

Neither the landlord nor the neighbors are bad people. In fact, the landlord recently sat for lunch with me and a good friend of mine who lives with serious schizophrenia. The two of them got along fabulously. If this friend of mine were to camp in my back yard, though, it would cause a problem. It could scare off the neighbor’s customers.

And there has been a problem. There have been at least one or two people camping in the back yard each night for the last couple of weeks. The neighbors have commented to us on the situation a few times now. I have gone out each night at odd hours to, in the kindest fashion I could muster, ask them to leave. And finally a few days ago I cleared out the brush to eliminate discreet places for people to sleep.

As I cleared brush, I meditated on how screwed up this situation is. Homeless people need to sleep more than other people need to use credit unions. They need to sleep more than other people need to practice yoga, or get haircuts, or buy office supplies. And the truth is that sleeping homeless people do nothing to prevent people from practicing yoga or stopping in at the credit union. It is the fear of homeless people that stops them.

Sleep is not a choice. It is not a privilege, nor a luxury. It is a necessity. People have to sleep somewhere. There are more than 1200 homeless people in Thurston County (census numbers: ca 600, additional numbers sent from Thurston Co. Schools: over 600), and less than 200 shelter beds. This spells a lot of people sleeping in public spaces, where they are vulnerable to police harassment, or sleeping on private property and breaking the law. There is simply no place for them.

As I worked, I thought about the scriptural story of Lazarus at the gate of the Rich Man. I thought about Matthew 25, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me.” I thought of Jesus violating the laws and customs of his day to help the Canaanite woman. I recited the Magificat to myself and meditated on the Beatitudes. My faith, my politics, my worldview, and my commitment to others stand in direct opposition to the actions I was taking.

I hate our system. I hate it because it forces us to choose between evils. Because I either have to forbid camping in my yard or get shut down, to commit an injustice now or face a greater injustice later. What do I do?

"Nature produced common property. Robbery made private property." -St. Ambrose

Solidarity against Hate

As you may have read in the daily Olympian, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a neo-nazi group, have been stepping up their activities in the Puget Sound area. Unity in Community ( formed as a community coalition in response to the Nazi activities. Several local anti-hate activists have now been listed on the Nazi's website as "anti-white traitors". We'd like to pack their list! Please email Nazi leader Jim Ramm at and request to be added to their "anti-white traitor" list.

The following is text from an email I sent to Mr. Ramm:

My dear friend Jim,
I, sir, am a christian anarchist and a card carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "wobblies"). I think that qualifies me as a proud "filthy commie scum", and an enemy of hate. I would be greatly honored if you would list me with Jade, Sarah, and others on your website. Thank you and blessings on your day.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


(Reprinted from my submission to the Voice of Olympia–Nov 2004)

I can’t quite remember the exact moment in which I met Stephan. I do remember, though, that he had recently stepped off a bus from the prison in Shelton, and that he at first used the soft, slightly subservient tone common among men who’ve just been released from prison and who think you’re a part of the system.

Stephan was a middle-aged black man with big hair, pointed cheek bones, and a lower lip that curved out and down a little at the center like an old shoe horn. He had a beautiful smile that lifted his eyebrows and cut deep, chevron shaped wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. When Stephan walked, he stuck his rear out and leaned over a bit, taking short steps because of a back injury. His ankles were swollen and he had a big, round, distended belly that made me think of Somali children starving in the desert.

Stephan had joined the military as a young man, most likely to stay out of trouble or to pay his way into school. He served in the Navy through the late ‘seventies, spending most of his time traveling around the Pacific. The Navy, or more accurately, all the Armed Forces, suffered from an extraordinarily low morale at the time, and drug use was prevalent. Stephan’s ship was chock full of drugs collected at the various seaports of Southeastern Asia. “Hong-Kong had THE BEST heroin,” he once told me. Stephan, like many other veterans of his day, returned from the Navy with an honorable discharge and a drug habit.

After two and a half decades of hopping from job to job and from town to town nurturing his addiction, Stephan was arrested and incarcerated. He hated prison. He told me about having to listen to people scream at night as he tried to sleep. Once, he said, a guy hung himself in his cell and the guards marched all the inmates past him to get a good look before morning breakfast.

One day Stephan was particularly ill and needed to go to the hospital, but was being stubborn. Nick, one of our advocates, went running after Stephan to give him his home phone number in case Stephan changed his mind. Realizing he was lacking a pen, Nick went into the nearest establishment, a bar, to borrow one. Unfortunately Nick was under age, and, after being chased out of the bar and around the block by an angry and violent bartender, had earned from Stephan the title of ‘Damned Cool Caseworker’. Stephan had stood back giggling at the whole spectacle.

People often have funny notions about who drug addicts are. Most people imagine that drug addicts are universally desperate, dishonest, irrational, and dangerous. They rarely notice that cigarette smokers who don’t have cigarettes often behave the same as the stereotypical drug addict, and that we are all surrounded by cigarette smokers. At any rate, we miss out on the personality and character of people when we dismiss them as “junkies”.

As Stephan and I got closer, his courage became increasingly visible to me. Stephan’s probation officer had been relatively easy on him. He had known that Stephan was still using heroin, but continued to give him chances in light of Stephan’s thirty-year addiction. Then one day, most likely under pressure from his boss, the P.O. suddenly requested a clean urinalysis, within the week. Stephan dropped his habit cold turkey, and Meta and I went with him to the emergency room as he kicked. He vomited, yelled, groaned, defecated, panted, and vomited again. Sometimes his eyes would roll back as he held his belly. Rivulets of sweat rolled down his nose and cheeks, mixing with his tears. He’d holler at the nurses, then catch himself and apologized and crack a joke to make them smile before another cramp hit his stomach and he’d yell again. He stuck it out, though- the whole night.

Every winter, pneumonia becomes an epidemic among the homeless. It seems as though everyone in sight is coughing, hacking, and sweating. A few months ago, Stephan came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Under normal circumstances, Stephan should have recovered after a couple weeks and been back on the streets and in our lives. But Hepatitis C, gotten from a dirty needle, had been eating away at his liver, and causing fluids to back up in his lungs, belly, and ankles. Instead of steadily getting better, Stephan’s condition crashed as his liver gave out.

Meta and I went to visit him the day before he died. When I walked into Stephan’s hospital room I was startled to find a ghost of a man, emaciated but with a strangely bulging belly. His wild and lonely yellow eyes peered out from an orange tinged face, and a huge, matted tuft of hair stuck straight up from his head like a messed-up lion’s crown. I had known that he was ill before I came, but I was now certain that he was dying. I talked with Stephan’s nurse for a moment, then sat down on the edge of his bed, took his hand, and started to cry.

“Well, it looks like this is it, buddy,” I said to him, shaking a little. Stephan squeezed my hand, held it up against his cheek, smiled for a moment, and said, “The last couple weeks have opened my eyes...” And then his voice became too weak to understand.

Nick, Selena, and I visited him the next day. We held his hands and read Psalms to him as he died.

In life, Stephan was a friend to many, a guest and a brother to us at Bread & Roses, and a junkie to most of the rest of society. He was imperfect, addicted, and afflicted with illness. In the very moment of his death, though, the man that Stephan was, his very existence, the memory of him was rarefied and transformed in my mind. As he died, I thought of how he had stuck it out in the emergency room as he kicked heroin, and of his extraordinary courage. I looked over at Nick as he held Stephan’s limp hand. At this moment I realized that it was Stephan who trained Nick and who trained me and inspired me to be who I am today. And he became for me like an angel sent from heaven to make us good.

I know that this is all a simplification, that I am mystifying an imperfect and mortal man, yet I also know that he was all of these things in his imperfect and difficult life. I also know that we all embody such a beautiful nature, and that it is imperfectly expressed through the filter of our own fallibility.

You see, the memory of a person changes for us when they die so that we might have a chance to recognize real human value for once, to see it anew because we can’t take it for granted anymore.

Life looks different to me since Stephan died. I had an intense commitment to his health and sobriety, and failed. But in this failure I discovered the real contribution I had made to him, and that he had made to me. The job of Catholic Workers, of the volunteers and staff at Bread & Roses, is to be a family for the people on the streets. The only authentic commitment one human being can make to another is the commitment to love. Meta, Nick, Selena, myself, and a whole lot of other people loved Stephan, and served as his family when he died. This is all that matters.

The Rock

[Note: Though I carefully remove names of Bread & Roses' guests to protect their confidentiality, we at Bread & Roses try hard to share the names and stories of the dead in order to honor their memory. So I have not removed names in this post.]

Three months after I joined the staff at Bread & Roses a man came to our door in desperate need. Terry Seibert was one of the long-time homeless, nicknamed “Crusty”. He was an alcoholic with a pocked face and bulbous nose, a scratchy voice and a permanent scowl.

He arrived at the Transit Center one day, having just been released from the hospital with a severe case of congestive heart failure. The bus drivers wouldn’t allow him to board because he had soiled himself so badly. He could barely walk. The Transit Center staff called the Advocacy Center and asked us if we could help him, so I walked over and invited him to come over.

I am ashamed to say that I recoiled a bit at his odor, and asked him to stand outside a few minutes while we arranged a shower and a change of clothes. One of the other volunteers gave me a severe look and invited him to come in and sit in our bathroom. Terry was pale, short of breath, and dizzy.

We got him showered and cleaned up, and I arranged a bed for him in our shelter. The next day, Selena rented Terry a hotel room. A struggle ensued to place him in a nursing home, lasting two weeks. No-one would take him.

Selena visited Terry daily. They had been friends when Selena worked in the soup kitchen. Terry and Selena shared a great fondness for good literature, and had spent hours at the old kitchen discussing poetry and trading books. On her last visit with Terry, Selena came into his room and asked Terry how he was doing. He replied, “Where is the life that we have lost in the living?”

It was a line from “The Rock”, by T.S. Eliot. Terry died the next day.

Advent at Bread & Roses 2003

Though Bread & Roses has never (at least in my term of service) been so openly and explicitly filled with spirituality as the Tacoma Worker, it has had an impressive history, spirituality and culture. When I moved in, the house was decorated with photos and paintings of Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, and Woody Guthrie. Posters and flyers quoting the great leaders for social justice adorned the walls. Our dining room, ringed with a painted border of wheat stalks and roses at the tops of the walls, served as an office and was cluttered with desks, notepads, photocopiers, and file cabinets. Selena, a former nun and devout Catholic (at the time –she has since left the Roman Catholic church and become a Unitarian, no less devoted to God) exerted a profound influence over the household, though. She emanated a “nunly” energy, and could say the most extraordinary things! She seemed a pillar of wisdom, marked with an occasional dirty joke or scandalous remark just to keep us on our toes. I had shown an interest in the spirituality of the Catholic Worker, and she fed me great books and innumerable stories.

One day in December, four candles, three purple and one pink, appeared on a table in our living room, along with some flowers. A couple of guests asked me what the candles were for, and we speculated in whispers amongst ourselves before I approached Selena to ask her their meaning. She explained to me that it was Advent, the celebration of the coming birth of Christ.

For the next four weeks before Christmas, we gathered in the living room to read scripture and discuss the meaning of the birth of God’s Son among humanity. The gatherings were required of no-one, but there was a strong interest among guest and staff alike, and our living room was crowded with quiet worshipers. Selena explained to us that the Advent candles, one for each of the four weeks before Christmas, were instituted by a Roman Catholic monk, and with a little smile on her face she declared the monk a rascal. The three purple candles were a proper expression of the asceticism in monastic life, solemn lights to guide the faithful. The fourth pink candle, added to stir things up, represented joy and reminded us that God is love and to never forget to be happy and to love one another. The candles burned pure in our home and all were still for a while.

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