© Rev. Barbara F. Meyers 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
May 22, 2005

Many of you know that I spent my ministerial internship working half time at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, and half time at a near-by street ministry called the Faithful Fools located in the so-called Tenderloin. It was a richly rewarding learning experience for me, where I learned many lessons. Today, I am going to share some of those lessons with you as vignettes interspersed with the sound of the bell, a meditation bell similar to the bell that called us to a Zen meditation every morning of our day at the Faithful Fools.

Vignette 1: Laurie and the Homeless Shelter

One day shortly after I began my internship, I was alone in the Fools Court and a woman named Laurie came in, very distressed. She wanted someone to help her with a problem she was having at her homeless shelter. I didn't have any experience in doing this, but since I was the only one there, I said I would try. It seems that after several years in the shelter system, she had finally worked her way up to the best women's shelter, which was clean, quiet and orderly. She explained that she had diabetes and needed extra blankets on her bed to keep warm at night and get a good night's sleep. That morning, one of the workers at the shelter told her that she couldn't have more blankets than anyone else and told her to remove the blankets so they could be given to someone else. She tried to explain the situation, but the worker wouldn't listen, and took the blankets away. She was very upset that her health would be threatened, but if she complained, she would be kicked out of the shelter she had worked so long to get into. She started crying and asked me to write a letter to the shelter, demanding that she get her blankets back. I sat down with her and began to compose a letter, going over all the facts of the case in as rational a way as I could. Just then, Parisa, an experienced Faithful Fool, came in and I asked her advice about how to handle this situation. Parisa, said we didn't usually write letters, but preferred to visit in person to explain a problem. So, I told Laurie that if she came back the next day, I would go with her to the shelter and we would talk together to the person in charge.

The next day, she didn't come back, and I wondered, worrying about her situation. The following Monday, Laurie came into the Fools Court all excited and happy. She rushed up to me and asked, "What did you do? You must have called them. After I got back to the shelter from talking to you, they gave me back my blankets!" Apparently, the fact that I had listened to her for over an hour, taken her situation seriously, and been willing to go to bat for her, gave her the presence of mind to be able to request her blankets in a calm and reasoned way so that others could hear her.

The lesson I learned: Sometimes just listening to someone can give them courage.

Vignette 2: All Work has Value

One of the truths I learned a number of years ago from my psychiatrist was that all forms of work are honorable and valuable when they are done with love. I had come to see him, full of resentment that I was asked to do some "lowly task" at work. I thought this was an insult and that I should only do those things that had status among my peers. He responded by telling me that when he visits a special ashram in India, he sweeps the floor. And he does it with love. He wants the place to look good so he gladly does the lowliest task himself out of love for the ashram and the people there, even though he is a doctor and a psychiatrist. This was quite a revelation to me. Right away, I saw what he said was "truth," and it has changed the way that I respond to requests for my involvement.

At the Faithful Fools and at the San Francisco Church, I had many chances to put this philosophy into action. For example, I have washed dishes, straightened up the large room, and written thank you letters to donors. The job to be done is the one that presents itself to you when you get there. And sometimes it will be a rather mundane task. But when one does it with love, it is just as valuable as the other more noticeable things that we do as Fools.

These days when I find myself doing some mundane task, I reflect on how much I love what I am doing with my life and that right now this task is an important part of it. This attitude makes all the difference.

Vignette 3: Theology of Knitting Socks

A few weeks ago I was given a pair of hand-knit socks that were very special to a person who often came to the Faithful Fools building. They had been worn so much that most of the heels and toes were now completely worn away. They wanted to know if I could fix them since I knew how to knit. I wanted very much to do this because fiber-work of various kinds is part of my spiritual practice and I love using my fiber skills for others. However, I had never knit or darned socks before.

So I set about finding sock knitting and darning directions so I could figure out how to repair these special socks. I decided to master the technique of doing heels and toes. Using a complementary color, I created a heel for a sock, and then I created a toe. I was pleased at how they came out and sewed them onto one of the socks. The owner said that she was impressed that I had actually looked at the problem and what would make the socks more sturdy in their weak areas, and that I had done the job thoroughly, not just any old way. And, she could see that I prepared them with love. For my part, I am glad that I learned how to knit socks, a new skill for me.

Spiritual lessons I learned from this:

Vignette 4: Street People and Church People

Because I was working in an internship which was spent half-time at the church and half time at the Faithful Fools, I had been asked whether I saw a dichotomy between the work that I did in the two places; whether I had trouble moving from one site to the next. To tell the truth, before I started on the internship, I was concerned that this might be a problem for me.

I am happy to report that this wasn't a problem at all. Some of the reason is that many of the people I saw at the Faithful Fools also attended church and participate in the programs of the church in some meaningful way. This I knew about before I started.

What I didn't know about before I started was that the grief and the depression support groups that I was leading would have people both from the street and from the church. These were people who came together at a place of shared vulnerability. They learned how to share part of their broken-ness with each other, and in the process helped both to heal.

Because some of the people came from very different economic backgrounds, this place of shared vulnerability allowed them to see "the other" as human. People from the more privileged backgrounds could see the challenges that those from the street lived with - their lack of choice in housing, medical care, safety, and other things often taken for granted. People from the street could see that more privileged people weren't automatically happy because they had access to things that street people didn't have. They could be broken inside, too. I saw numerous instances of "aha" moments from both sides when they finally got at the truth of what the other was living. This was one of the best parts of my internship, unexpected as it was.

So, the answer to the question about whether I saw a dichotomy between the church and the street, is "No." What I saw in both places was people trying courageously to come to terms with their lives, willing to risk being vulnerable, and helping to heal each other.

Vignette 5: The Importance of Welcoming

One day, I spent the afternoon at the Welcome Center at Old First Presbyterian Church. There were 6-7 volunteers there and we welcomed about 30 homeless people with food, companionship, clothing, mail and, for some, a place to sleep.

One of the people I spoke to was Norman. He told me that he was so grateful for the ministry provided there: for the mail because he didn't have any way to get mail since he was homeless; for the food and clothing; for the conversation; and for the non-judgmental atmosphere. I invited Norman to attend the Bible study group at the Faithful Fools on the following Thursday, and he came.

After Bible study, he mentioned to me that he had been trying to remember where he saw me before, and now he remembered. It was at the winter shelter program at the Unitarian Church. I had welcomed him and shook his hand when he came in. This had so impressed him that he had remembered me.

In reflecting on this, and remembering my experience on the 4-day retreat (described next), I can see what a difference it can make to someone who rarely feels welcome anywhere to be welcomed with a smile, the availability of necessities and without condition. It is a profoundly spiritual act that can be a balm to the soul of both the welcomed person and the one welcoming. God is found in acts of welcome such as these.

Vignette 6: The 4-Day Street Retreat

One of the more significant events in the yearly life of the Faithful Fools is an extended 4-day street retreat. This means that a group of people goes out onto the street without money for 4 days and nights to live with people who are homeless, bearing witness to their lives. I found that my participation in this retreat validated in several ways my call to ministry in support of mental health issues.

In preparation for the retreat, we held a meeting talking about our anticipation, our reasons for participating, and our fears. That night, I had a dream that very unambiguously told me "Do not do this. It will be harmful to you." I've learned to pay attention to my dreams, and I realized this one was telling me that I would not be able to sleep overnight on the street and get the rest that I need to support my own good mental health. I was upset because I wanted to participate; after all this was part of my internship. I strongly feel that one of the things that I can do in my mental health ministry is to model good self-care. So, it would have been detrimental not only to me but also to my ministry to sleep on the street and risk becoming over-tired and trigger a depressive episode.

The next day, when I told my internship supervisor Rev. Kay Jorgensen that I couldn't stay all night on the streets, she didn't miss a beat. She suggested that I spend the days outside, and the evenings sleeping on the couch in the Faithful Fools building, keeping a prayerful vigil for those out on the street. What a beautiful idea! I collected everyone's favorite prayer, getting a beautiful collection of their treasures, and read them each evening during the retreat.

In being out on the streets for four days, with no money, I learned how one can become grateful for things that most of us take for granted, and that the expression of this gratitude can provide a balm for the soul. This insight came at a meal at St. Anthony's dining room after a day when I hadn't had gotten a full meal all day, with the tears that came involuntarily to my eyes when I realized that I was going to have a good meal. Learning how it feels to give authentic heart-felt thanks for things such as a meal, a shower, or a warm place to sleep helps put other worries in one's life into a truer perspective.

I learned that amid the pain and fractured support system for the homeless, there are many wonderful people and organizations. It is possible to get good food from a number of places, if one is willing to wait for it. It is possible to express oneself creatively and artistically at a community art studio. It is possible to have meaningful conversations with many people who are dismissed by society as those who don't matter. I could also listen with compassion to the pain felt by my fellow retreaters. Since my own spirituality embraces the divine within each person, I couldn't have had a stronger validation of it than many of these exchanges.

At the final group reflection, I noticed the heightened emotional state that many of the participants were in, and pointed out that there are many people who are in this state, and more extreme states, all the time, and can't get relief from it. I also learned that this state can bring us both great pain and great insights. After the reflection, one of the retreaters, Alex Darr came up to me and said that he had heard a homeless person that morning say, "There is no emotional support here." As I reflected on Alex's comment, I realized that the twice-daily reflections that we had were places where we received emotional support from all the others on retreat, and that many people, homed and not homed, didn't get this kind of support. To me, this strongly validated my call to ministry to others needing emotional support, and the necessity of finding a way to making this happen as part of my ministry.

Vignette 7: Ministry is about Depth

On day I had the insight that part of being a minister is about being able to see hidden spiritual meaning in everyday activities. When I mentioned this to Kurt Kuhwald, he said that someone once told him that "Ministry is about depth." Here are some examples from my internship experience:

I am grateful that this insight has made its presence known to me. Just the fact that I see this will increase the awareness and opportunities for the future.

The Final Vignette 8: Changes in my Theology

Finally, I have found that this experience gave me the chance to reexamine my own theology. Using terms from systematic theology, here are more details of this transformation.

We will end this set of vignettes with a silent meditation modeled after the Zen meditation we practiced every day at the Faithful Fools. Follow the sound of the bell into the silence.

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