Archive for January, 2011

Checked Boxes and Slippery Slopes…

Posted: 29 January 2011 in Uncategorized

I am interested in how institutions–especially “mission-focused” non-profits–are born, evolve, devolve and either die (rarely) or hang on, making their own survival their end while completely losing sight of the end (the mission) for which they were established in the first place. I am interested because I have had a front-row seat to the devolution and “hanging on” of a number of non-profits over the years. It is not a pretty thing to watch but the whole process gets pretty predictable.

In my town there is a pretty cool institution–cool both because of what it does and because it has tried hard NOT to act like other institutions. And yet, now in its fourth year I can see the same old story repeating itself. Well maybe. I hope not. But I am not really hopeful.

This organization brings various faith groups together (church and temple–no mosques yet) to provide shelter to homeless folks in the winter (rainy) season. It provides a framework–scheduling, training, guidelines– and the faith groups provide everything else–buildings, food, and, most importantly, volunteers to staff the actual night-to-night running of the thing. At least that is how it started out. Now it has always been the case that the organization provided some people to guide the process, make decisions and set general policies and rules. All important jobs. All critical jobs. It also provides interns from the local university to create continuity from day to day.

But the actual engagement with homeless folks–the real “raison-d’etre” of the organization was always in the hands of the faith groups. They were the ones that did the hard work of being with people.

Now, it seems that things are starting to change. I am not part of any of the faith groups that do the mission critical work but these past two years I have volunteered to fill in, in case of emergency, to stay overnight and make sure everything was okay at the site. I am committed to this work and to this model so filling in a couple of times if a volunteer gets sick or there is a mix-up with the volunteer registration system is no big deal for me. I know lots of the guests and like them a great deal.

But a funny thing has happened. I started getting calls to see if I could fill in–not because there was an actual “emergency” but because the faith group in question did not get enough people to sign up for the “graveyard” shift. It happened the first time in one of the smaller groups and so I thought “No problem. They have a small congregation. Lots of old people. It is around the holidays…” But then I got called again (bigger church, no holiday) and again and again. The last bothered me the most. Biggest church in town; wealthiest too. They have three “services” (interesting word) on Sunday morning and one Sunday night. They must pull in over 600 on a typical Sunday. Their budget is in the hundreds of thousands per year. And they can’t get two volunteers, per night? I was called not once, but twice to this church and it turns out they only covered about half their night shifts.

What is going on here? Well, first off we have an institution in full “evolution”. From organizing service to actually providing service is a big evolutionary step. And make no mistake–even though I am not paid (nor are the other volunteers who have spent the night with me), I DO represent the institution. The institution as in “Oh, no problem, if the churches can’t do it the ‘institution’ will step up and take care of it.” The first night there was a volunteer from the faith group with me. The second night the same thing. These last two? Nothing. Neither volunteer from the church at all.

So, again, what is going on here? The institutional evolution is no surprise. People who work in non-profits are the “true believers.” We are the hard core. We really want people to get shelter and are glad to help make it happen. That is our gift. But, as I have come to see, every gift has a dark side and our dark side is that we will “take over” if the people who should be stepping up don’t. In that way we are enablers of some pretty bad behavior. I don’t like it but I am co-dependent. What we should do is simply say “You need to get X volunteers from your church each night if you are going to commit to this. If you don’t, we close down the shelter. Period.” We could say that but we won’t. After all, our names, our reputations are kind of associated with this institution. We have trapped ourselves. We get on that slippery slope and we can’t stop. I often think we are as “addicted” as some of the guests who come our way. Their addictions destroy them. Ours garner us “volunteer of the year” awards.

The faith groups are the real “winners” here. They get to feel pretty good about themselves. They get to check that “do good to the poor” box on their “Duty to God” list and it really does not cost a whole lot. You might say that that is unfair. After all, they open their buildings and they usually get people to make a meal… I don’t think I am being unfair. We can find other buildings. Hell, if we have to we can sleep people in the train station, the gym at the high school or somewhere on the campus of our university. And trust me on this–the first time a homeless person dies of “exposure” in this town people will move mountains to find a place for homeless people to sleep. What we need–and I think what the faith groups really CAN offer is a relationship, an ear, a conversation. They can offer a place where the dehumanizing forces that drive people to the streets and keep them there can be challenged (if not overcome) by a kind word, an empathetic ear, a new perspective gained after listening to the stories of the poor and a friendship started. We don’t need your building. We need you.

Our slippery slope will bring us to a place in which our institution will be the “homeless ministry” that cares for the needs of the outcast while the faith groups happily check the need to do something about homelessness off their list.

From the Train: Southbound Central Valley

Posted: 20 January 2011 in Uncategorized
Tule (fog) hugs the contours while contrails etch the sky.
Dried blood sun slides in and out of the mist on its way up to kiss the dome
(It will crest orange before returning to ochre on its way back down)
Further along sun retreats
Conquered by Tule


Draped over the sprawl of another valley town that swallowed the earth
And spit out postage stamp size plots of pipe, concrete and pressed wood
From boreal forests far away
Back yards digesting the detritus of lives
No green to hide it
“Round up ready” orchards and fields
That grow only “on demand”
Forced to bind up the nutrition in the dirt
So we can “feed the world” and
Throw away nearly half of what we grow.


Below the Delta all is yellow
As the Tule/sun battle continues
Sun will win come summer but tule holds sway in this season
Until noon or until all the tomorrows of winter have ended their reign


Fenced pens of beasts
Who elsewhere might be bovine
But here are shit-caked parts of the machine
That we hide here
Even as the TV tells us how happy these machine parts are.
Can a replacement part be “happy”
Strictly speaking?


And then faux clouds (Tule playing at being real “weather”)
Break down and the land begins to be revealed
For what we have imposed upon it.


Twine- and wire-bound-bumper-cars
Create traffic jams on field edge
Signs in Spanish
Reveal the origin of the drivers
Longing to go back
Unable to go back
Bound by the dream-turned-nightmare
That the fields and orchards and pens devise.
The drivers also part of the machine


Sun, now bone white
Stands behind Tule
A final warning that his time is almost up
Soon enough sun
Will win and
Will pound this earth
(The hammer of heaven, once again, pounding the anvil of summer earth)


We, meanwhile, wait for redemption of the whole scene
Seen from the train.


the Reuters news item asked. Mentally ill, marginalized, increasingly cut off from his community–he scared people the media has told us. A vicious downward spiral of detachment, anger, threats, further exclusion, more anger, more threats, greater marginalization… A story we know (though it may not always end in violence against others).

In my own town we have people who are walking a razor’s edge–hanging onto sanity or slipping into delusions of various durations. Violence sometimes surges. More often there is simply an ongoing conversation with voices only they can hear as the shuffle down the street. Occasionally one of these folks steps in front of a train or hangs himself (usually a “he”). Most times they simply move through a seeming parallel universe–drifting past us. We, not sure what to do.

I asked a local service provider who works with marginalized individuals if there is a role for the faith community in dealing with issues of mental health given that our state and county basically no longer have anything to offer. He paused, but not for long.

Yes… people of faith can take a long view because their faith can sustain them. They can commit to connecting with these people. They can be there with them on a regular basis. Checking in with them. Walking with them rather than away from them. And then, at times when these desperately ill people have a “moment of lucidity”, they will be there to take their hand and help them begin a path of healing.

The point here is that the moments of lucidity are few and far between. The moments of lucidity are not predictable. This is why we need people who will commit to walking for a long time. A long, and mostly fruitless walk…

Waiting for that moment of lucidity. Present when it happens.

Could he have been stopped?

Maybe.  But only via the long walk.

Let’s start walking…