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Support Group

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I want to brag on our community for a minute. We have a community made up of people who have experienced some of the most difficult circumstances you can imagine. Health issues, mental/physical/emotional/spiritual/sexual abuse, family rejection, financial hardship, etc. Some of us have been through stuff that would take an average person out entirely. But we have coped. More than that, we have maintained our humanity, our dignity, and our compassion for others. We have hardships in common but what makes us community is our care for each other.

Each Wednesday at 2pm we have Support Group. It’s an open forum where we can talk honestly about what’s going on in our lives, the challenges we are facing, the successes we are celebrating, the ways we are trying to cope, to thrive, to live. We also enjoy milk and cookies together because we’ve already had a good meal (our shared community meal is at 11:30am on Wednesday, you should come) and we just want a little something to snack on while we chat. It is one of my favorite moments of the week. I always hear something really encouraging in Support Group. I often get my heart broken too.

We’ve described homelessness as a series of losses. A similar way to say that is experiencing homelessness is like walking a path, one with unexpected turns and unforeseen difficulties. What happens in Support Group (and at other times too) is people who have walked this path take time and give care to help others navigate parts of the path they have already walked and learned to handle. Several of our most active community members are people who are no longer homeless and have a deep passion to help those who are going through the difficulties they know all too well.

I have seen community members help each other with: navigating the agencies that offer help, deciphering Raleigh’s tricky bus system, finding and maintaining campsites, getting affordable housing, landing and keeping a job while homeless, handling relationship stress, etc. People who are just starting on the path often come to the office with lots of questions. I have learned the best thing I can do is invite them to Support Group and introduce them to some of our regulars. Experiencing homelessness is like anything else, you start out not knowing how to do it, and you don’t even know all that you don’t know.

Here at the Love Wins CEC, we have seasoned practitioners who will kindly and gladly teach you how to be homeless, how to walk the path before you all the way to its end. It’s not a path you choose when you have better options and that is precisely the reason it is good not to have to walk it alone. We walk the path together because the way through the experience of homelessness, the way past it, the opposite of it, is community.

A Safe Place To Be

pexels-photoI met Joey a while back and like most people I’ve met at the CEC, it took a while before he would say more than two words at a time to me. The other day I apparently crossed some threshold of trust and he opened up and shared quite a bit of his story. He gave me permission to share this with you (with his name changed of course) in the hope that knowing people’s stories helps us have compassion on them and others in similar circumstances. Like Joey, everyone I’ve met who is experiencing homelessness has a story that breaks your heart once you know it.

Joey lived with his mom and dad until he was 14. From the age of 5 until the state intervened, Joey spent a lot of his childhood locked in a dark closet by his dad. Joey doesn’t know exactly what changed when he was 5, but it seems like alcohol (and possibly drug) abuse was involved. Joey’s dad didn’t beat him but he did have to listen through that locked closet door as his mom was repeatedly abused by his dad. Sometimes Joey would sneak a book and a flashlight into the closet ahead of time, anticipating the confinement that was surely coming. More than once he got caught when the light betrayed him through the crack of the door but he learned to read with a finger on the switch and an ear perked for the sound of approaching footsteps. The distraction helped as he spent hours upon hours trying to ignore hunger, thirst, the need to go to the bathroom, and fear for his mom.

That was Joey’s existence for nearly 10 years – perhaps the most critical years of childhood development. He never went to school with visible marks of abuse (he learned that resisting going into the closet or banging on the door made things much worse for his mom) and he almost never went with any homework done. The school system managed to keep passing him up to the next grade but it did not graduate him or send him forth in any way prepared to succeed. Things changed a bit once the state took him away from his parents but he bounced from foster home to foster home (7 in all with gaps in between). At least he wasn’t locked in a closet anymore. Once he turned 18, Joey was on his own with no family, no support, no education, and a deep mistrust for pretty much everyone and especially for dark or confined spaces.

Joey didn’t choose to tell me what he did to wind up in prison and I didn’t press my luck on this new found trust. However he wound up there, prison was not a good experience for him. Not long into his sentence, Joey was raped by another inmate. He reported the assault to a guard who in turn called the police. Joey told me two police officers came all the way into his cell and escorted him all the way out – past many of his fellow inmates – into a room to take his statement. Afterward, the guards decided Joey wasn’t safe to leave with the rest of the inmates, so he spent the rest of his sentence in “protective custody,” which practically amounts to the same thing as solitary confinement – 23 hours a day alone in a 10×10 cell, with one hour per day to walk alone around a small courtyard. After nearly 10 years being locked in a closet, Joey was back in essentially the same situation again.

Joey told me all this to explain why he wanted a sleeping bag but not a tent and why he only stays at the CEC for short periods of time. He literally cannot stand to be inside. I think he suffers from extreme PTSD. He seems quite anxious all the time, furtively looking over his shoulder every few seconds. After hearing all this, it amazed me that he felt safe enough with me and at the CEC to share his story. I can’t image trusting anyone or anywhere after all he’s been through.

But that is the core of our mission here and the fullest expression of what we mean to be: a safe place to be. For many of our folks, a genuinely safe place is a rare find.

Our Morning Coffee

by Clelia Sweeney

Every afternoon at closing, I make a 100-cup pot of coffee and set it on a timer to brew at 8 am the next morning. If I falter or am forgeIMG_8705tful at any point in the process – if the timer isn’t set correctly, the pot isn’t switched on, the filter isn’t cleaned out – then I have to tell a crowd of tired, cold, and hungry community members that it will be another 45 minutes until they can have their first cup of coffee. It also means that I will have to stumble around until then, getting hygiene kits and putting away donations in a bleary haze. Coffee is very important.

In many ways, coffee is the great equalizer. A senator needs his morning Starbucks with the same ardor and intensity as the person on the sidewalk outside the Starbucks waiting for his spare change. It’s the first requirement for an office, an A.A. meeting, a church reception, a soup kitchen, a diner, a college dining hall, and for Love Wins. When I meet somebody who is visiting us for the first time, I always offer them a cup of coffee from the kitchen. It’s an invitation to relax, stay a while, and partake of our community in a small but significant way. The warmth of the cup in your hands imparts a feeling of comfort and stillness while the subtle lift of caffeine makes staying awake a little easier.

There’s cultural meaning encoded in a cup of coffee. It’s what you drink when you need to wake up, focus, and get things done. I have a cup of coffee beside me as I write this. It helps you to face the challenges of the day, to feel like a functioning adult. Your coffee can also tell a lot about your class and attitudes. We use powder creamer for our coffee, and pour sugar from a plastic jug. Carrying a latte in a white paper cup gives a much different impression than holding a ceramic mug filled with drip coffee. At Love Wins, we all drink from the same pot and pick from the same gallimaufry of donated mugs.

Since the function of our space is primarily a place to be during the day, we don’t promise to have a great many amenities. We will always have a public agender bathroom, space to take a nap, books to read, a community phone; and we will always have coffee, creamer, sugar, peanut butter, jelly, and bread. These are the building blocks of hospitality, from which we can make Love Wins an open and welcoming place for all.

We’ve Got Your Back

794c1f49a697166ed8626e9732b3317d95dd2d93cbf8e6c0e0581821e0f6f910I was telling someone what we do at the CEC and one question the person had was why do people experience homelessness. I offered some of the common causes – lack of affordable housing, mental illness, drug addiction, criminal records, and tried to explain the series of losses that make up the process. My acquaintance thought for a moment and then said, “Sounds like some of them just need some support.” That’s good insight. Many of us at Love Wins have gone through a lot of turmoil and challenges with little or no support from family or community. Some of us have no family. I’ll never forget when Jane told me she had grown up in foster care. “I lived with 12 families in 10 years,” she said, “I was raised by strangers.” Some of us have been utterly rejected by our families, either because they can’t handle our mental or physical limitations, or for not fitting often narrowly constructed identity expectations… okay, we’re gay.

The kind of support we’re talking about, what my new friend intuitively thought of, isn’t something that comes only through programs, systems, or institutions. It’s more personal, more adaptive, more situational than that. In other words, it’s the kind of support you only get in community, when you know there are people who have your back when things go well, and especially when things go sideways (like they tend to do). Since our primary mission is to build community, we wind up doing a lot of unplanned things that lend support just when and where it’s needed. I noticed this dynamic at work in a number of recent happenings here at the CEC.

Martin and David got new jobs last week. We rooted for them. Gave each a pep talk before their interviews. Made sure they looked their best. Watched their stuff while they went (showing up to an interview with all your possessions doesn’t make a great impression). And then celebrated with them when they got the jobs and talked through the logistics of getting to work and succeeding in these new endeavors. If you’ve ever called your dad, mom, sibling, friend, or partner before and after a big job interview, you’ve gotten this same kind of support. You knew they had your back win or lose. Even them saying all the things you already knew helped (all great pep talks are obvious and redundant and no less great for it). You heard their love and care in what they said and how excited for you they were.

We did the same sort of thing with Bree last week, except she’s taking her custom blended oils to market as an entrepreneur. Bree designed and hand drew her own business card and was in the process of making many hand copies to give out. We figured out the cost of printing a bunch of them was $15 and then (unasked for) a collection went around the CEC and we as a community paid for them to help get her business rolling. (We change all names to protect our community members, but if you’re in the market for the best custom blended oils, contact us, we’ll connect you with Bree.)

We found out last week that there was a warrant out for James for failure to appear in court. We also learned that on the date James failed to appear, he was in jail in Wake County. Since all that trouble, James has gotten his life together. He sleeps inside now. He volunteers at the CEC. He is doing well all the way around and the very last thing he needs right now is another stint in jail (especially for no good reason). When James came to me with this situation last week, all the calm he had been building for months vanished. He was anxious, nervous, scared. From his perspective, interactions with our justice have never been fair to him; no one has had his back. So I thew out a call on my Facebook feed and a kind lawyer (a friend of a friend) went to bat for James and is working to clear it up. It’s not resolved yet and I still have a pit in my stomach about it but James seems totally relaxed about it. He knows we’ve got his back, and even though that’s a new feeling for James, he’s taken to it like a duck to water. It feels good, right, and natural knowing come what may, you have friends who will stick up for you, advocate for you, keep their promises, and have your back.

Sleepwalking

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I shared about how we’re using our space at Trinity United Methodist in this previous post. That post explained that a pivotal consideration has been setting aside space for folks to sleep but it didn’t explain why we need such a space, why some of us sleep for part of the day. It has nothing to do with the stereotypical lie that people experiencing homelessness are lazy. There are a number of legitimate reasons why some of our folks sleep during the day, here are some of the most common ones.

Have you ever worked third shift? Some of us do. Makes for a tired morning. At least a third of the people who come to Love Wins have jobs. They are housing and/or food insecure despite the fact that they work. They have a job, earn a regular paycheck, but not enough to afford consistent food and shelter. Some of us work second shift and can’t stay at homeless shelters because our work schedules conflict with the curfews set by the shelters. We have community members who work until 11pm or later and then have nowhere to sleep until we open the next morning.

Have you ever gone camping? Some of us sleep outside, either in a tent in a wooded area or tucked into some nook or cranny in the downtown core. Sleeping outside is not all that restful.  You never really get comfortable, never feel secure, and the routine yet erratic noises and lights (especially camping in the city) keep you from getting into a deep sleep. Plus you’re subject to the elements and are often genuinely not safe. It makes sense that those of us who sleep outside are tired the next day. We’ve all had the experience of not getting a good night’s sleep. Maybe you’ve strung a number of these together (if you’ve had a health condition or a new baby). Pretty soon, you feel run down, exhausted. Now imagine months and months of this, night after night of not sleeping well. You’d nap the next morning too.

You might wonder why anyone would choose to sleep outside. There are homeless shelters in Raleigh. Aren’t those better than sleeping outside? Yes they are, for some people. But, as we said, some of us can’t take advantage of the shelters because our work schedules conflict with the shelters’ curfew policies. Some of us can’t handle the shelter environment, which offers a lot of smells, much loud snoring, and even people screaming with night terrors. We’ve posted before about the challenges of sleeping at the shelters and we do not mean to throw shade on any of the work our colleagues are doing. It is very hard work and we know our partners at the shelters do the very best they can in continually difficult circumstances. That’s the only point here, those circumstances are too difficult for some, so some of us choose to sleep outside because the shelters aren’t a viable choice.

Do you have allergies, asthma, or spend a lot of your day walking? Many of us spend a lot of time outside, walking, waiting for the bus, etc. Many of us have allergies and/or asthma which gets triggered being outside so much and from so much physical exertion (all the walking with a loaded backpack). We help fill as many prescriptions as we can because going without allergy medicine or an inhaler makes you feel run down quick. Also, some of us have injuries that make regular walking painful. Raleigh isn’t pedestrian friendly outside the core. Getting around and getting things done is enough to make anyone extra tired.

There is one other reason why some of us sleep during the day. Some members of our community, mostly younger, smaller, and some LGBT, do not feel safe either at the shelters or sleeping outside. It’s not that we’re paranoid. Experience has taught some of us that we are legitimately not safe. We are regular targets of violence. So we walk. All night. We’re the sleepwalkers. We leave here at 5pm when the CEC closes and walk around until 9am when it opens again. Sometimes we stop in places that are open until we’re told to move along but most of all we just keep moving because that is the surest way to stay awake and keep safe. How tired would you would be if you walked around all night constantly looking over your shoulder, worried about being attacked (again)? The sleepwalkers are among the most vulnerable members of our community, and some of our dearest friends.

So when you come visit us (and we hope you will) and see people sleeping, we hope this helps you understand why.

Beaten Down

I got to the CEC half an hour early this morning. Thursday mornings are usually quiet but before I could even get out of my car, Lee was standing there talking to me. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but it was obvious something was very wrong. His face was badly bruised and he had a look of fear and despair in his eyes. After I got out and had him start over, Lee told me a short story with many words and kept trying to hand me a wad of blood splattered papers. He was attacked last night, punched and kicked in the face and torso, and robbed of everything he had (which wasn’t much). The papers were his discharge papers from the ER. Someone likely called 911 because an ambulance took Lee to the hospital. The papers said Lee has a concussion, broken nose, and fractured orbital bone. They included prescriptions for antibiotics, nausea, and pain.
Lee looks like he’s been through hell. The ER released him as he was when they were done making sure his condition wasn’t life threatening. He was able to take a bus part of the way but he also had to walk quite a ways. He didn’t know where else to go, so he came here, where he knew he could use the phone to call his case worker and make a sandwich. He was in too much pain to actually eat but he sat in the quiet of the office and I was able to get ahold of his case worker who picked him up here a little while later. Lee has a case worker because he has an intellectual disability. He is one of the most vulnerable members of our community, a nice guy who isn’t really capable of taking care of himself. It was heartbreaking to see him after he was beaten down and then shown the door. I am glad he knew he could come here. Hugh often says we’re a place of “last resort,” a catch all for the most vulnerable and hurting folks in Raleigh, a place to be even after – especially after – you’ve been beaten down.
Update: Lee spent part of the day with his case worker and got his prescriptions filled. Another member of our community messaged me in the afternoon. She had read this and figured out who it was (despite the pseudonym). She saw Lee in Moore Square and bought him a hot dog. Even though she is facing eviction and is in serious need herself, she took care of Lee because that’s what community does. Last I heard, Lee didn’t want to go to the shelter and was going to sleep outside last night, even though the temperature was near freezing and he really needed to rest with his elevated because of his fractured face.

Notes From A Southern Sojourn

Our JVC intern Clelia Sweeney checks in with us on her experience of the South: 

It snowed in Raleigh and I missed it. I was up in Vermont, visiting family for the holidays and catching up on sleep. I read more and drank less coffee. I was getting chilling reports of black ice and freezing temperatures from my friends back in Raleigh and getting so worried for the land without snowplows and tires. I dug through boxes of storage in my mom’s house to find my winter coat in order to survive winter in New England and the South. Of course, since I’ve had it here with me we have had 40-60° weather. Such is life.

As I was going around Vermont catching up with friends and former co-workers, the one question everyone kept asking me was, “Raleigh! What is that like?” The first thing I always say is that the food is better in Raleigh. We Northerners still haven’t gotten down the delicate art of deep-frying things (although we do try) and there’s always the irritating Puritanical strain of health-conscious asceticism that is blessedly absent from the South. I can’t describe my delight at coming to the Love Wins Wednesday lunch and hearing men encouraging women to eat more. There seems to be comparatively more tolerance for fat here, which makes my heart glad.

Since living here I have tried fried okra, frozen custard (shout out to Goodberry’s), North Carolina BBQ (both Eastern and Western), pimento cheese, collard greens, and fresh Krispy Kreme. The savory aroma of Bojangles fried chicken biscuits greets me on the morning of our weekly staff meeting, bleeding grease from a paper bag. While working here I have also become reacquainted with the dependable, essential goodness of peanut butter and jelly. I can’t afford to go out to eat much at all, so whatever gastronomic adventures I’ve had have been someone else’s treat or an irresponsible splurge. I often fall back on PB& J, apples, and coffee.

Language was the main difference I expected when moving to the South. I was not wrong about that. I still occasionally struggle to understand the mellifluous, smooth regional accent with its dropped suffixes and meandering vowels. I’ve also learned that a “toboggan” is a winter hat, rather than an old-timey sled and have caught myself saying, “Get you some of that.” Honey, sugar, sweetie, and baby are pervasive and not worth getting indignant about. I also hear them used interchangeably between genders, which makes me feel a bit better. My favorite thing is a bumper sticker our director Hugh has on his car that reads, “Y’all means all.” It’s a protest of the absurd HB2 transgender bathroom law, but has a greater message of equality. “Y’all” is far superior and gender-inclusive than the inadequate “you guys” I learned to say while growing up.

In Vermont, you will see a white guy in a camo jacket with salt-stained boots, dragging on a cigarette as he walks by you without making eye contact. At most, you will get a brief, tight smile. In North Carolina you will see the same thing but there’s a higher likelihood the guy will be non-white, the boots will have mud instead of salt, and you might get a deferential nod in your direction. People actually smile at each other on the street here; it still freaks me out. But I also like it. If somebody doesn’t hear me, they will say, “Ma’am?” in a way that makes me feel like a schoolmarm. It’s a whole different world of mannerisms here.

Hospitality is another thing that I have become extremely conscious of. There’s still hospitality in the North, like at the Crossroads diner in White River Junction where my 5-year-old sister has called one of the servers Aunt Julie since she was a baby. I wouldn’t say that people in New England are ungracious, but definitely more aloof. The word “hospitality” is not used much, but people are people and relationships will always matter. However, practicing hospitality in everything you do is a distinctly Southern thing, and a principle that informs the social service agencies I have come into contact with here. Maintaining relationships, remembering someone’s name, putting out plenty of coffee and food, and doing little extra things to make people feel comfortable in your space goes such a long way for us at Love Wins. I’m beginning to think that it’s one of the best basic human practices to cultivate.

Happy MLK Day

Community GatheringHappy Martin Luther King Day! We are still riding on the joy from our Contributors Gathering this past Saturday. We will be posting video of it soon (thanks to our friend Cynthia Viola). We had a great turnout and 17 people signed up to become regular volunteers. Thanks to everyone who came out.

If you’re looking for a way to engage on this holiday honoring Dr. King and the work of community engagement, here are a few ideas:

  1. Watch the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. Like a great song or book, this gets better each time.
  2. Read – slowly – Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” So much of what he taught and practiced is encapsulated in this amazing letter. You will probably see memes pulled from this around today but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  3. If you’re in Raleigh, pay a visit to the MLK Park. It’s been renovated and the statue is moving.
  4. Commit to volunteering on a regular basis. This is a day many devote to various service projects. As great as that is, we have a strong preference for making long-term relationships. Spend some time today looking at about your weekly schedule and cruising the internet for organizations in your immediate area – think about how often, when, and where, you can commit to engaging your community. Make a 6-month commitment to show up the same time and place every week (or month) and develop relationships. Those will prove more important than whatever tasks you wind up performing.

If you’re interested in getting involved regularly here at the Love Wins Community Engagement Center, send Laura an email. We’ll have another volunteer training event late spring/early summer and we can also convey the needed content to you individually.

The Resting Room

The Resting Room as seen from the front door

If you enter the Love Wins Community Engagement Center by the front door, you’ll likely walk into a darkened room filled with people sleeping on the floor and plastic Adirondack chairs. It’s not our favorite. Showing hospitality is a really important part of what we do and we realize that front doors don’t open into bedrooms for reasons. We’ve worked hard to optimize the space we rent from Trinity United Methodist and, so far, the front room is the best place for sleeping, the front door notwithstanding.

The Kitchen
The Kitchen

We have five rooms to work with. The kitchen gets the most traffic and adheres to its natural function. We also have an office that is a hub of visitors, phone calls, and activity (and also has a set function). That leaves us three rooms we get to determine how to use. One room we have set aside as a conference room. Unlike the other rooms, it stands empty some of the time. We use it for playing bingo, support group, staff and board meetings, and both scheduled and unscheduled meetings. We’ve found it is important to have a space set aside for activities. It makes events feel more special, and creates privacy which encourages trust. And practically speaking, having the conference room means we don’t have to kick people out of a room in order to use it for an event or meeting (hospitality and kicking people out don’t go well together).

The Hang Out Room
The Hang Out Room

Of the two remaining rooms, one is just off the kitchen. We tried designating that as the resting room but the traffic in and out of the kitchen made that impractical. We also have the community phone in that room because that’s where the phone jack is and phone ringing and calls don’t go well with resting. So we have a desk (with the phone on it), two tables with chairs, and two wooden pews in that room. All the seating makes it a great place to hang out. In fact, the office is so busy it’s not a great place for thinking or writing, so I’m writing this at one of the tables in this room. It has all the ambient noise and hub of a coffee shop, which can be conducive for concentrating. We also have a keyboard in this room. Several community members play very well. The fancy department stores are right – ambient live piano music makes everything better.

The Office
The Office

So that leaves only one room that can function as a resting room, the one with the front door. I will follow up next week with a post explaining why folks experiencing homelessness spend part of the day sleeping (there are reasons you will agree are legitimate). But for now, please know that we’ve made the best choices we could with the space we have, and when you come in the front door, you are most welcome to be here, even if it’s dark and filled with the sounds of snoring.

Joy (by committee)

Our Director of Operations Laura Foley preached this sermon for the third week of Advent in our Wednesday Prayer Service.

Have you heard the phrase or originally a psalm: “joy comes in the morning” or “joy comes with the morning?”

Well, boy. Do some of us know that? I don’t mean the kind of “morning person” vs. “NOT morning person” but rather that sense, you can almost smell it, the color outside is very specific. It’s morning and whether behind clouds or shining straight into your eyes – the sun has risen. Despite all doubts, despite all well lived fears in the night, despite all the tears, or pain, or cold – the sun does rise – and somehow, like out of nowhere, joy comes in the morning.

4956928626_03970beeba_z2009 was a really tough year for me. I was “in between” in a lot of ways. I was dealing with my first heartbreak. And I mean I was broken. Totally lost, somehow in my own life. And to make things worse I had just moved to a new city by myself. Living by myself, trying to figure out this new school program by myself. And I got really depressed. I felt like I didn’t know who I was or maybe I should say who I’d become. I didn’t know what I was doing.

To top things off, the school program I was in, it was almost like it was intentionally designed to prove that every thing I thought I knew was wrong. It just compounded the free-fall that had been that year.

I had found and rented this little efficiency apartment. I was working and paying for it (it was $325 a month – which at the time was steep – but would be killer now). It was sort of set up like you’d walk in facing left with this decent size living space that included an unbelievably loud print love-seat and a tv with a screen smaller than the average laptop. Behind that was one of those kitchens that is half open space between the sink and cabinets and opened up to the living room. Then back around more to the left was a big bathroom and closet and place for a bed. And I spent a lot of time just laying in that empty space – almost like waiting.

At the time I couldn’t tell you what exactly I was waiting for. I probably had lots of ideas but none seemed to get at it. Yes, I was waiting to be happy again, waiting for my life to feel good again, waiting for everything – really anything – to make sense. At times waiting, HOPING for the ex to come back – that surprise knock that NEVER happens. Darn those romantic movies that weasel their way into our psyche.

I’m not sure at what point I started to notice it but I had this enormous window in the main living room and I was on the second floor and somehow it was just right angle or season or something that the sun peaked nearly perfectly in the center every morning and would flood, I mean flood light into that dark empty, fears, tears and doubt filled apartment. It happened morning after morning after morning. And it started to become the only thing I felt like I could count on. The smell of coffee from my little 4 cup Mr. Coffee maker and the sun rising became my joy. And from then on something about mornings get me. I even have a tattoo of a Native American sun surrounding the Native American symbol for sadness. Encompassing it, including it.

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;

the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

Guatemala is a country in Central America.  For 36 years, from 1960 to 1996, a vicious civil war took place in Guatemala between the government of Guatemala and some citizens of the country who felt the government was oppressive and abusive.  Many of the citizens who opposed the government were members of the ancient native tribes of Guatemala, the Maya.  The government forces of Guatemala, driven by the Guatemalan military, decided that anyone who was Mayan was a potential member of the “rebels,” as the citizens fighting the government were called.  So, the government military forces decided to get rid of any potential “rebels.”  

This meant that they tried to kill as many people in Guatemala who were Mayan as they possibly could.  Most of the killing took place from 1981-1983, when the Guatemalan army carried out a campaign of “scorched earth” that leveled hundreds of villages in the Mayan highlands.  It is estimated that 200,000 people were killed during the course of the civil war.  The violence provoked the displacement of more than a million people.  Many of them fled into the fields and forests around their destroyed homes, sometimes hiding for months on end. They would be forced to leave everything they had in an attempt to get away before they might be killed.  If people tried to return to their villages, they would find them burned and anyone left in the village would be dead.  This violence caused thousands of Guatemalans to have to leave their homes and journey to refugee camps in southern Mexico.

The story goes that as they traveled, they would organize themselves into groups to take care of the necessary tasks along the way.  There was a food committee and a shelter committee and a water committee.  In addition, there was a “comité de alegría,” or joy committee.  Their job was to make sure that they celebrated life and created moments of joy in the midst of their painful dislocation.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help,” the psalm tells us. “The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow, executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry.”

Whether joy finds us or we designate a committee – it’s necessary. The darkness of that apartment and that year, the horrific suffering of the Mayan people – our humanness requires joy.

And so in this Advent season, in this church holiday, we wait. We wait the long night. Because what’s coming, is something so profound, it’s so profound that the story describes it like a validation of our humanity. That the pain and the suffering and the death but also the joy and the hope and resurrection IS WHO WE ARE! That our humanness is so good, that not only are we made in the image of God but that God would choose to live among us.