Students. Prisoners. The Homeless. Vulnerability is a commonality in their lives. Ministers tell stories of how the needs of some of those in these three diverse groups are being served.
Learning to Be Adults
by Alice Connor
College students are learning to be adults. There’s bill-paying. There’s learning to argue without yelling and throwing insults. But it’s more than that. They try on different personalities, take different classes, and explore different activities to see what fits. They are experimental. They’re asking constantly, “Who am I and who do I want to be?” Of course, they’re not all aware this is what they’re doing. Campus ministries (and the university faculty and staff, if they’re honest) help students become aware.
At the Edge House, the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Cincinnati, we work on self-awareness and empathy with several tools. The primary tool is called a discipleship huddle. We meet weekly with a small handful of students committed to being vulnerable with each other. We spend time reading early church writings and current blog posts. We use our time together to develop honesty and accountability. We learn about the Enneagram, a personal development tool that draws upon the world’s mystical traditions, offering specific, practical methods for psychological and spiritual growth for each of nine personality types.
The Enneagram is actually our second major tool. It helps us to articulate the patterns we each fall into and to see that we have access to another way of being. The details of each personality type are helpful, but it’s mostly about intentional exploration of the self. Does that sound boring? It’s really, really not. It’s made a huge difference in how we interact with each other at the Edge House and the larger university community. And it’s not too big a claim to say it’s made a huge difference in how students interact with their futures.
You might be asking where Jesus is in all of this. Many of my students come from church experiences where they felt rejected or their questions were not appreciated. Others feel confident and loved in their faith. At the Edge, we speak of God’s presence and action rather like C.S. Lewis did: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We know God holds us in both our certainty and our doubt. This complex understanding allows all students to feel welcome and has brought some students back to their faith.
Spending time with college students and listening to their dreams and challenges gives me hope for both the Church and the human race. Things are not falling apart any more than they ever have—these students are working to change the world. When they fall down, they pick themselves back up. Every day. I take comfort in that.
Alice Connor, an Episcopal priest, is director of The Edge House, a campus ministry of the University of Cincinnati.
by Jackie Burns
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This eleventh verse of Chapter 29 in Jeremiah is a scripture verse that many incarcerated persons memorize and hold close to the heart for encouragement and hope, but not Alice.
Alice’s eyes will travel down the chapter until they rest on the twenty-eighth verse: “For he has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, ‘It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Alice understands the Babylonian exile more intimately than most, with a life sentence that defies reason. Yet, this is the verse that inspires her to live a life worth living by investing in the environment around her, as she makes her house a welcome home for all. She is planting seeds in the minds of those who believe their fallow hearts are no more than dirt with “no good purpose.” But Alice sees this dirt as rich soil, and plants new seeds of hope and inspiration. She helps her fellow inmates pull the weeds from the soil of their hearts, so new sprouts can emerge, and their tender minds begin to see the beauty of life. It is a beauty they cling to. In time, these inmates learn that they can tend to their own gardens. They see how they can choose to contribute beauty to the community. Weeds do not overcome them. Because of Alice, lives once considered having “no good purpose” are re-purposed for good again and again. Who would have thought this would be possible in a prison of all places!
It was not always so. Alice came into the institution devoid of emotion, bitter at a God she no longer believed in. It was the result of a Kairos weekend over twenty years ago that Alice found restored faith in the God she believed had abandoned her. The fifty-plus Kairos volunteers showered the prisoners that weekend with agape love, not judging, not questioning. They simply loved the persons who stood before them.
When it comes to “building houses,” Alice steadfastly makes a significant difference in the environment of the prison and the lives of those she encounters. Yet she is not an independent contractor. Alice will tell you that the beloved community she envisions relies on the Christian community. Its presence inside the prison walls speaks truth to power, more than words can ever say. It validates someone who feels worthless, alone, and rejected by society.
Repurposed lives are happening every day inside the prisons, and it is my prayer that these lives will be recognized for their inherent worth to God, self, and others.
To God be the glory. Amen.
Jackie Burns serves as a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, Ohio, and is an oblate of St. Benedict.
Housing Needed Pure and Simple
by Douglas Argue
Providing services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness has been a passion and mission of mine for over two decades. During that time, I have been privileged to meet a wide range of people who have suffered from a variety of circumstances that have resulted in their homelessness. I learned to see not the “other” but Jesus in each and every one of their faces. Together we forge a helping relationship that serves their needs.
Through my years of ministry, my understanding and compassion have evolved to the point where I now both advocate for those in need, as well as educate the wider community about the homeless. This education includes what it is like to face unstable housing and what can be done to end homelessness in our lifetime.
I am a deacon, and a calling to the diaconate is a calling to serve. I serve here by sharing my understandings of what it is like to experience homelessness and what we can do in response.
First, no one ever chooses to be homeless. People end up in a homeless situation for many, many reasons—loss of job and income, medical frailty, emotional and mental health issues that prevent adequate decision-making, and a host of other causes. The only choice in the matter is how people choose to deal with the homelessness thrust upon them.
Second, while there is not one model of serving households in a homeless situation, there is one thing that every person who is homeless needs, and that is housing. The various programs that exist in our communities approach the provision of housing from different perspectives. Some simply offer temporary, overnight shelter—a bed and a meal. Most offer more by presenting supportive services that an individual or family can use to achieve stability—counseling, employment recommendations, transportation, case management, and medical services are typical supportive services that many agencies offer. Other programs go further by offering supportive housing, which is permanent and long-term, combined with supportive services to maintain stability. And still others provide long-term housing without expectation of participation in services through a model called Housing First.
Housing First has become the premier model in the nation for addressing and solving homelessness. The program is based on the position that all that people need is housing—pure and simple. Affordable housing for low- to no-income households is the single most common barrier to families getting out of a homeless situation.
This is hard work, and there are no easy answers, either politically or financially. But my hope that we can solve this issue is found in the teachings of Jesus. If we follow Jesus’ commands in their truest form, we would be building housing to give away. A radical idea, no doubt. And, I believe, that’s what Jesus’ teachings are all about—radical and simple solutions without caveats.
Douglas Argue is managing director for the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio and an ordained deacon.