This weekend I helped chaperone an overnight teen retreat, sponsored by the three churches in our community. In a small town, it’s hard for a church youth group to round up very many kids, and so we combined forces for this event, which was a great success. Some of the teens from my church brought some friends, and the unexpected numbers, just over 15 kids total, really added to the fun. Little did I know, when the weekend began, that I would experience something that I will never forget as long as I live.
Much of the weekend was filled with things teens enjoy: games, hilarity, pizza, and the live music of some of the boys who have a band. There were two scheduled speakers; the first, on Friday evening, was a pastor who told us about his work in a community just outside Boston where most of the population consists of single women raising children alone in difficult circumstances.
Bedtime Friday night came late – it was after midnight when the girls trekked across the parking lot to hunker down in our church sanctuary, and the boys camped out upstairs in our parish house classroom area. There was definitely something enchanting about sleeping in the church. I expected the girls to giggle and talk for a long time, as girl friends do, but they didn’t. There was some soft conversation, and when the lights dimmed everything was quiet; we were each left with our own thoughts. Our church building is over 200 years old, and it seemed to be talking to us, I thought, as I listened to it creaking a bit under the weight of some new snow and winter wind; I wondered, as my mind drifted, what were the stories of this place. It’s been a long time since I’ve slept on a floor, and it took me awhile to fall asleep; during the drifting off time, some of my own memories began to dance in my head, and I dreamed some strange dreams. Even though I did not sleep comfortably, I somehow slept comforted, and when morning came, softly, and we each awoke quietly, I think we were all aware that we had experienced something memorable, each in her own way. But the most memorable of all was still to come. I have only now, as I write this, realized the connection between our own experience of sleeping in a church, and the experience of the homeless people in Concord who sleep in a church there. Maybe that has been part of the power of the presentation we heard on Saturday morning.
After breakfast of homemade waffles and pancakes, and a game of “Minute to Win It,” we settled down to hear from the second guest speaker, Rev. David Keller, pastor of a church in our state capital. This church runs an emergency shelter for homeless people, and I am still processing and absorbing all that he had to say. He started by showing us slides of some of the people who stay at the shelter; for each of the first few slides he asked the group, “Does this look like a homeless person?” Often the answer was a resounding, “No.”
I know as a teacher that connecting a human face to a huge and tragic situation or event is about the most powerful way to teach those difficult concepts, because it brings the humanity into focus, and makes the experience personal for the learner. I taught about the Vietnam war for many years, using similar strategies, and it was that universal human, personal connection that made the unit so powerful. This pastor did the same thing with these photos; we heard the stories of these people, we learned that they laugh, and love, and sometimes even find the strength to give back. No, they aren’t perfect and many (but not all) of them fight against illness, addiction, and abuse; there are many different reasons why each of them lost their homes and so we were able to move past the stereotype. We all learned that these homeless people are PEOPLE, and we might know them, and we might even be them.
As the talk continued, Rev. Keller explained about the continuum of care for people who are homeless, ranging from long-term planning and placement services all the way down to the very basic, which is what his church does: keep these people alive for this night. In New Hampshire, temperatures in winter often hover in the single digits, dipping below zero frequently enough that it’s not unusual. Being homeless in that kind of environment can be fatal, and this pastor’s church is open from December to March specifically to keep people alive. There is also an overflow shelter at a second church.
The two churches received recognition from the New Hampshire chapter of the American Red Cross in 2010 for giving selflessly to the community. Here is a video about their work.
It is certainly unnecessary to note that our whole country is experiencing economic hardship, but Pastor Keller emphasized that in looking for ways to spend less, the legislature in New Hampshire is considering the elimination of funding to help homeless people. He indicated that the belief seems to be, “If we don’t give them any more money, then the problem will go away.” Statistics show that more and more people become homeless each year, and now the need is greater than ever before. His shelter and the overflow shelter in Concord are run totally by volunteers, and receive minimal funding to cover costs of heat and electricity for the buildings.
Now comes the part where I don’t know what to write next, because I haven’t yet figured out what I can do, how I can help our local teens figure out what they can do, to put a plan together to make a difference. After Rev. Keller answered questions, the weekend was pretty much over. Lunch was served, and everyone went on their way. I wish we could have arranged the program a bit differently so that there could have been some follow-up conversation and brainstorming about how the teens might respond to what we all learned. But it is what it is, and I still need some time to think about it.
Maybe we all do, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to adjourn right away, be apart to think. Perhaps it will be better if we can meet again with clear heads in order to make some good decisions about how we can help. This is an issue that won’t go away, with or without funding, and meanwhile, as one of the other chaperones remarked, I can’t help but remember the words to Joan Baez’ song, There But For Fortune:
“Show me the alley, show me the train
Show me the hobo, who sleeps out in the rain
And I’ll show you, young man,
With so many reasons why
there but for fortune, go you or I.”