I have become passionate about the power of small changes to make big differences in our lives. Shifting just one thing can ripple out over time and change the trajectory; alter a future. Change is so hard for most of us - I write about this a lot. I am fascinated by the question, "What is the thing that makes some people able to change and others not?"
When I sink, which I do from time to time, I know what to do now. I sunk last summer like a rock. But, for the first time in my life, I didn't run. I felt strong enough to sit with that horrible uncomfortableness and let it do its worst. And what I heard when I got still was, "serve."
So I prayed, "Show me how to use my talents to help this ailing world." I got nothing. For three months I prayed and got nothing as the country devolved into a polarized, political hell. But I waited. This is unlike me and a sign that growth in your forties is possible. I waited and I figured, "I will just do nothing until it is clear what I am supposed to do." I walked the dog.
Then it fell in my lap, clear as a bell on a cold day. Help fix the community center next to the housing projects where I used to volunteer with a bunch of moms.
"Too big!" I protested.
"Yes, for you, it is."
Too big for me, but not too big for God and a community of loving people. A community who stands up and says, "What happens in every neighborhood matters." That community was you. So, while the country was arguing over abortion and candidates who sold our country out to the banking world, we raised $28,000 to change a community.
Exceeding my abilities and expectations, the roof went up. Since that time, I have been working twenty hours a week at the community center teaching the same things we teach at The Homestead Center - health, wellness, and personal growth.
I braced myself. It had been a long time since I worked in poverty populations as a teacher in Jackson, Mississippi. I told myself I was not there to "fix" people but to walk alongside them. There are some really horrible things happening in those neighborhoods including babies sleeping in piles of dirty laundry, drugs, women being sold, and violence. Last week, a woman answered her door wearing a sheet wrapped around her.
I love what Sheila Cassidy writes about our understanding and our role in suffering:
"What then is the message from this dark, still point, from the eye of the hurricane? I believe it is this: suffering is, in the same way that life is, It is a fact; denying it or ignoring it will not make it go away. I do not know if it has a meaning. Deep in my heart, I believe it has but I don't really know. But I do know: more important than asking why, we should get in there, be alongside those who suffer. We must plunge in up to our necks in the icy water, the mud and the slurry to hold up the drowning child until he is rescued or dies in our arms."
The thing is, there are some really beautiful things happening in that neighborhood too that defy all stereotypes. Like the dozens of participants who would trade their disability checks - most of which are legitimate - for a job at Dollar General, if only they could get one. We write resumes, we become references once a participant has proven themselves reliable, and we fill out online applications. The problem is, there is no one to call. Everything is computerized. You can't find a person to talk to and say, "Hey, this guy is worth taking a chance on."
Like the laughter. When all expectations for things getting better are absent, laughter is a commodity. I watched with new eyes, as Mike and I sat outside eating lunch, a group of guys working on landscaping. They probably make minimum wage for a business owner who was able to build a new house. There is no possibility of moving up, but there they are - good looking sunglasses, laughing! They are enjoying the hell out of their jobs. How many of us can say that as "professionals?"
Like the community and acceptance. We have some crazy and down and out folks coming through the community center doors. Men who talk to invisible people as they try and concentrate on the cooking class. Women who need a bath. They are welcomed by the rest of the participants WITHOUT judgment. They are congratulated for small successes, "Girl, you got a job back at McDonald's? Well, that is All Right! Good for you!" When you are at the bottom of how the world measures success, and unlikely to ever leave, there is a peace and acceptance like I have NEVER encountered.
I am not romanticizing the situation. Most of the people I work with have a much higher tolerance for pain than I do. I would crack and crumble under the weight of doors that never open, under the stacks of reality piled on top of you from the minute you come into the world. But, the inability to change is exactly the same as it is for those of us who come to The Homestead Center. We get stuck. We battle addictions and physical and mental illnesses. We get tired and lazy. We don't believe we can do it. The difference is the size of our safety nets. When middle/upper-class people fall, we have the possibility of a soft landing, a dozen re-dos, a family or a community with connections that can help us.
There is something the participants understand that I don't, which absolutely astounds me. How to find happiness, joy even, in the middle of misery. I struggle to be okay and I have everything.
I am so thankful that when I heard, "Serve," I listened. I probably won't change the trajectory of many lives at the community center, but they have certainly changed mine.