A map of the spirit
by Stephanie Piper
The pumpkins are still on the porch, but the season of lights and bells and holly is upon us. For those who work among the needy, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Midway through my second year at a shelter for the poor and homeless, I study my spiritual roadmap and struggle to get my bearings.
Here is what I used to be: selectively, seasonally generous. I wanted to be good. I wanted to put faith into action. I wanted to be a channel of peace. I wanted these things at convenient intervals, preferably in the month of December. I wanted my poor people in small, manageable doses. And of course, I wanted them clean and sober.
Here is where I am: sitting in my office, listening to a woman in the lobby screaming like a banshee. She is drunk. She has fallen and hit her head. The police are summoned, and eventually they wheel her away, her shrieks winding down like a fading siren.
Here is what I used to think: that all noisy, intoxicated people were dangerous. Now I believe that some noisy, intoxicated people are dangerous. Some are full of sound and fury, signifying not much of anything. Some are medicating serious mental illness with Mad Dog 20/20 or whatever mood-altering substance they can find to shut off the voices in their heads.
Some are going to get better. Some are going to get worse. Some are going to stumble along, day after weary day, without much visible change.
Here is what I used to think: that homeless people chose their lot, that their own feckless behavior landed them under the bridge or on the street. I mumbled there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I on cue, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Now I believe that some homeless people chose their lot, and continue to choose it every day. Some had no choice at all. They got laid off and had no savings. They got sick and lost their jobs and ran out of money. Some simply cannot imagine a way out of despair and want.
Some, with help, are going to do better. Some are going to do worse. Some are going to stay where they are, stuck, by choice or by chance.
The holidays are full of paradox at the place where I work. The gap between the comfortable and the destitute seems to widen, despite the generous outpouring of gifts and money. We feed people and give them warm clothes and try to find them a way home. There are the shining moments when someone gets an apartment or a job or a bus ticket back to a family who has agreed, one more time, to give them one more chance. There are queues of shoppers at our Holiday Store who wash windows and empty trash to earn a baseball glove or a Barbie, and there are people who pull up in Escalades to drop off trunk loads of new toys, new jackets, new bikes.
And then there are nights when I walk to my car in the early winter darkness and pass a man who was sober and working last week and now slouches in a doorway with a half-pint of Relska. There are days when the woman screaming in the lobby is no longer my fellow pilgrim on the journey, but simply a loud drunk.
Here is where I find myself: on a road marked with detours, ambiguous signs, occasional smooth stretches. In us, the good is something under construction, Flannery O’Connor wrote. As with all construction projects, the process is messy. The cost is always higher than planned. The equipment falters, breaks down, is patched back together. I study the map for an alternate route, but none is evident. The good is under construction. In us. In all of us.