This Little Light of Mine pt. 3
Following up first two encounters that I wrote about, which were clearly opportunities from God, invitations into a deeper listening and response, we are left with an obvious question: what is a Quaker community to do? So like all good Quakers, we looked in the instructions and it said, “Start a committee!” So we did. In response to both Kim’s prompting and Betty’s visitation, we formed a “homeless task force”—task force sounds better than committee for this kind of thing, don’t you think?—consisting of people from Camas Friends and the Episcopal church just one town over. That was where Kim was from and when she heard the story about Betty’s visit, she was ready to jump into action.
The role of the task force was mostly investigative and educational. We felt that we didn’t know the main issues relating to poverty in Clark County so we began asking questions, taking field trips, inviting people to our meetings to teach us about what was happening in our community.
We had three main questions that kept us motivated:
- What are the main problems that people in our community face when it pertains to poverty?
- What is being done and who has the best reputation at helping.
- What is not being done, what are the gaps and cracks that need filled?
These questions led us into all kinds of adventures over about a year’s time. Sometimes those adventures were amazing, sometimes they were downright depressing, while other times maddening. We met with people from the Homeless Council of Clark County—we didn’t even know there was one—and asked them lots of questions. They asked us to helps with the annual homeless count in Camas and Washougal, which was how we learned that the count hadn’t been done here for years (if ever), and that our police department “sweeps” the homeless into Vancouver a day or two before the count so that it looks as if “Camas has no homeless.” A line we heard from the PD and other high up officials. It was really sad to find [http://www.flickr.
We also began visiting homeless shelters and learning about the (Winter Hospitality Overflow)[http://whoprogram.
I learned at least two really valuable lessons through this whole process.
First, probably the biggest thing I learned was the importance of listening, and who you listen to. For instance, one of the task force questions was “who has the best reputation in the community for helping?” Well, it matters who you ask. One organization in town has a really good reputation by all of those good-intentioned folks who donate regularly to it. But if you visit there, if you ask the people who go to that place for help, it’s a very different story. I have seen people belittled and turned away from help for petty things. People go there because they have to, not because it helps make them feel more human. The other organization I mentioned above doesn’t have the popularity of the other group, but it turns out they are very loving and caring there. Their goal is to never turn people away and to do something to help, if they can. They operate with little to no “filters,” which I highly value.
Another thing I learned through this process, that has transformed my perspective on just about everything, is that the people you feel led to help need to be a part of the decision-making of whatever you do, they need to be on that task force as well, their voices should be lifted up, they need to be trusted to know what is best for them and what they need from you or anyone else. No amount of bigheartedness, compassion, or sympathy can free us from the fact that there is a certain way of helping that only continues to build our own reputation on the backs of others. The kind of “look at us” approach is smarmy and it’s not Christ-centered. We are all susceptible to Messiah complexes, charities can perpetuate cycles of poverty as much as they can empower people to break those cycles, helping the poor is not about making us feel good, look good or getting our name in lights. Let others tell their stories and follow their lead.
What happened as a prompting from one woman, and a delightful “Quaker” song by another has become for us a signpost in the history of our meeting that reminds us God is moving and our work is to be faithful to those who come into our lives. Our role as the church is to listen, and listen to the right people: the people whose voices are disregarded, neglected and silenced. And in those voices look for, learn from, and support Jesus’ work to care for all people.
Contributed by C. Wess Daniels, pastor, Camas Friends