Of Life and Limb

One thing I learned over many years of leading Meeting Ground is the necessity to listen, I mean really LISTEN to the sincere voices of criticism from within and without. No one really likes criticism. Dissenting opinion can overwhelm sometimes, even feeling like a personal attack. It might not be pleasant, but the greatest asset any organization has, especially at its highest levels of decision making, is contrary opinion and the demand for details which challenges comfort zones; the open rebellion, if you will, both to group-think conventional wisdom and the status quo.

I have been impressed with a 2011 blog post, ”Lack of Criticism in Philanthropy Causing Failure,” by researcher Tony Wang on the website, www.tacticalphilanthropy.com. In it he cites, “feelings of institutional allegiance and desires to avoid conflict, especially with colleagues that we respect and work with every day” as key reasons why the tendency in organizations is to “make nice” when what is called for is plain truth achieved through the doubting of conventional thinking.  “Every sector,” he asserts, “including the nonprofit sector, needs transparency AND a healthy marketplace of ideas to combat corruption and inefficiency; transparency so that we can identify problems sooner and a marketplace of ideas to brainstorm solutions.  But as a myriad of corporate scandals demonstrate, the information marketplace, like any other market, is vulnerable to market failure.  What philanthropy and the nonprofit sector need are better policies to support critical discourse.”

Sloan Wilson’s 1950’s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is the personification of a corporate-business culture that has come to influence, if not to dominate, almost every phase of how we work together today. This “man” (or woman) has given up a critical, inner-directed world view focused on the needs of individual people and the love learned from family in favor of an other-directed mentality of conformity to the needs of things and public relations more than people.

In his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, former Nazi Cabinet Minister Albert Speer characterizes the group-think of the inner circles of his government as increasingly dominated by illusion rather than reality. “Every self-deception,” he notes, “was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world… no external factors disturbed the uniformity of hundreds of unchanging faces, all mine.”  In this closed world of private deliberations, there was no standard by which to measure truth or lie; the dissatisfied critic was nothing more than a gadfly, and a dangerous one at that. The naysayer was the enemy. Imagine that!  In its non-transparent world, an entire government was trapped in its own gullibility.

So it was in the United States in 2003 when it seemed everyone, from the distinguished Secretary of State Colin Powell, to the respected loyal opposition personified by Hillary Clinton, to even the overwhelming majority of the press, all “made nice” around a false proposition with murderous results. Thus we went to war in Iraq over the infamous WMD’s which never existed. It was all fabricated, and not just by those who made it up in the first place but by everyone who, by accepting it uncritically, added their approval and built the lie. Even the prestigious New York Times, touted as an epitome of truth seeking, devolved into this non-critical group-think for which it later meekly apologized in one of the classic ironic understatements of the era:  “we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims.”

I’ve thought about this a lot lately – the occasional need to stand firm and insist on the facts. People and their organizations are usually strong in lip service to their desire for openness and transparency, but it doesn’t come easily and it often stops with the lip service; in practice it’s neither welcome nor encouraged.  For this reason especially, for an individual to stand against the prevailing wind, even among friends,  takes some courage, especially since the truth can point in a direction we don’t like and we certainly don’t want our own vulnerability to be exposed. Yet, this integrity has become so important in our corporate-aping world that I’ve made a personal commitment to keep myself out on a limb as much as possible, even at the risk of being wrong or thought of as a self-aggrandizing spoiler and non-team player. To fail to say what we think is true, even at the risk of being perceived as not “making nice,” is to deny to others the thing that is most needed: life itself.

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EDITORIAL: Farm of hope

Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 4:00 am

Last month’s announcement that a Cecil County-based non-profit plans to close an Earleville farm that has housed homeless families for more than three decades came as a shock to many in our community.

Clairvaux Farm, a 20-acre community tucked away into the countryside off Veasey Cove Road, was home to several dozen people fighting to regain their place in society. Through the years, the farm’s success stories of individuals gaining employment and moving back into homes have been numerous and detailed in annual reports.

Meeting Ground, the farm’s owner, simply cannot afford to continue running the farm at an estimated cost of more than $650,000 a year when its occupants are far from support services. It hopes to move its focus closer to Elkton, where it already runs four programs fighting homelessness, and where the county and state offices are located along with public transportation.

For the Rev. Carl Mazza, retired founder of Meeting Ground and original purchaser of Clairvaux Farm, though, the announcement was shocking.

Homelessness is a problem that has plagued the county, both visibly and out of sight, for as long as the farm has operated. Citizens and business owners have often told officials that the presence of homeless individuals is an obstacle for growing businesses, especially in downtown centers.

So the question becomes, how to do we help to end homelessness?

The answer is neither simple nor conclusive, but we believe one would be hard-pressed to argue that the presence of programs like Clairvaux Farm don’t help to end some people’s homelessness.

While Meeting Ground today laments the distance from the farm to urban centers, Mazza told the Whig that was exactly why the farm was selected.

“The reason we opened Clairvaux Farm was for the families and children,” he said. “Our philosophy was that homeless people needed the same community and human interaction that we all do. We had been housing families at the Wayfarers’ House on Delaware Avenue in Elkton, but the farm allowed us to bring more people together and away from the stress of life.”

He added that the farm’s real focus was children, for whom homeless is particularly devastating in the developmental period of their lives. Without the proper community and support, homelessness can be especially damaging on a child’s self confidence.

“Homelessness can be very demoralizing for a child,” Mazza said. “They move from place to place, their parents are often focused on surviving and finding work, and school is difficult to concentrate on.”

The farm, however, allowed children to get away from society’s problems, enjoy communal meals and shelter and talk with each other about ways to cope with their homelessness, Mazza said.

“We want to continue to innovate ways to better serve our homeless children,” he added.

We agree and hope that Deep Roots, a mentoring group run by former Clairvaux Farm occupants, can step in to keep the farm in operation.

Homelessness is an awful scourge that can deflate and defeat individuals. We believe Cecil County will need every option available to continue fighting the problem amidst our still recovering economy.

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Clairvaux Farm Must Not Die, Part 2

I don’t want to interfere with or second guess the internal processes of Meeting Ground. I’ve been out of the loop for over a year and a half now, and I don’t know what compelled such an unfortunate decision as the one to close Clairvaux Farm. Even given Meeting Ground’s present financial crisis, which surely didn’t happen overnight, dissolving the only shelter for homeless families with children in the region is a tragedy. In announcing the closing, Meeting Ground says it has adopted a new philosophy – to end homelessness as opposed to simply “managing” it – a system into which, it says, Clairvaux Farm no longer fits. In a recent email to supporters they wrote: “Moving from Shelter to Home:  On March 1st, the Board of Directors announced the closing of Clairvaux Farm.  We want to do more than just shelter families.  We want to end homelessness, and move these families into a home.”

This is all fine. However, moving folks into their own home has always been Meeting Ground’s goal, and Clairvaux Farm has always been, from the very beginning, an indispensable part of that process, and I do mean indispensable. Closing Clairvaux Farm so suddenly and hastily, with plans underway to sell off the property, undoes years of effort to address the problem of homelessness in Cecil County, and threatens the viability of any program that would promise to “end homelessness” without offering the rapid re-housing which has been the purpose of Clairvaux Farm for over three decades.

Meeting Ground’s new emphasis on “Housing Now” / “Housing First” offers some fresh insights into ending homelessness, particularly in the lives of folks who have been homeless for a long time due to factors such as mental illness or substance abuse.  However, I fully cannot begin to understand how the closing of Clairvaux Farm helps accomplish this new mission, particularly for families with children, as Meeting Ground is saying. If there were homes readily available for anyone and all who are now or who will be homeless and money enough to purchase or rent these, then, yes, I might agree that we may no longer need communities like Clairvaux Farm. However, I suspect what is actually happening is that the leadership of Meeting Ground does not fully understand how the “Housing First” concept is meant to work, particularly in a rural setting like Cecil County. Nor, I suspect, do they understand how Meeting Ground itself has already historically implemented this concept, particularly at Clairvaux Farm.

A March 17, 2013 article in the Baltimore Sun, “Advocates say Baltimore’s plan to end homelessness is in disarray,” should be a wakeup call to what is happening in Cecil County.  The “Housing First” initiative there, known as “Journey Home,” began with high hopes in 2008. In each of the five years since, homelessness has increased dramatically in the city with individuals sleeping in shelters or on the streets numbering 4,000, up from 2,600 in 2008. Sister Helen Amos, chairwoman of the Journey Home’s Leadership Advisory Group, commented “We’ve been chipping away at the chronically homeless population through the ‘housing first’ concept, but all of that hasn’t gone as robustly as was originally envisioned, homelessness in Baltimore isn’t better today than it was five years ago.”

The nation’s capital faces a similar disappointment in its vaunted plans to “end homelessness.” In June, 2004 Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced with much fanfare the inauguration of “Homeless No More: A strategy for Ending Homelessness in Washington D.C. by 2014.” This program was based in the promise that a Continuum of Care, bringing all key service providers to the table to create a system that would end, rather than maintain, the social crisis of homelessness.

As this new initiative failed to curb unacceptable increases in homelessness in the nation’s capital, a new Mayor introduced “Housing First” in April, 2008 with the promise that bringing the homeless out of shelters and into housing where they could be provided comprehensive services to address the problems that led to their homelessness would now truly end homelessness in the nation’s capital.

Now, in 2013, after millions of dollars spent on these initiatives, homelessness, far from ending, has seen a dramatic rise in Washington. By May, 2012, the number of homeless families soared by 18% over the previous year, the third straight year of increase, while homelessness increased by 6% overall. The city’s infamous family shelter at D.C. General Hospital remains full to overflowing, crammed with 372 adults and nearly 600 children as of February, 2013.

This is not to say the either “Continuum of Care” or “Housing First” has failed.  Quite the contrary, they are important initiatives in the decades-long struggle on behalf of the homeless, based on the principle that decent, affordable housing is a right, not a privilege, as much as the right to be able to breathe. What these initiatives have failed to achieve in Baltimore, Washington and elsewhere indicates, not that they don’t work, but rather that homelessness has proven to be a larger, more deeply rooted and stubborn social problem – one that defies a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

“Homelessness can’t be ended by ending homelessness,” as Kevin Lindamood, director of Baltimore Health Care for the Homeless, stated in the Baltimore Sun article. “We cannot lose sight that homelessness is only a symptom of poverty… homeless individuals that may be housed today will be replaced with new men, women and children…” The fact is that neither “Housing First,” nor any similar plan addresses the root causes of homelessness in our society: the inadequate supply of decent affordable housing, the growing number of persons who work full time and multiple jobs but fail to earn a living wage – the “have-nots,” persons and families living on the margins and falling through the cracks of the vanishing safety net. Finally, there is the breakdown of simple human neighborhood, “community,” a society in which all are able to house themselves in dignity by their own means even if they are far behind in the race for the good life.

In a March 12, 2013 “Delaware Voice” article in the Wilmington News Journal, Ken Smith, Executive Director of the Delaware Housing Coalition, said, “We, as a community, are responsible for the rise of homelessness over many years. If we are to understand and to address this problem, we must take a broader approach.”

Meeting Ground has historically centered its mission on this “broader approach” recognition – that a problem as complex as homelessness, with myriad causes both individual and societal in nature, affecting everyone from newborn infants to the very old, is a problem with complex causes, requiring a comprehensive understanding.  In doing this, Meeting Ground from its beginning adopted the central philosophy of “housing first.” According to the main features of the Housing First Model, as defined by http://www.beyondshelter.org , which advocates for the “Housing First” model, the most important first step to ending homelessness, particularly in families, is crisis intervention and rapid stabilization: “This [first] phase includes helping families access emergency housing or short-term transitional housing to begin to address their crisis needs.” Clairvaux Farm was established precisely as this type of rapid re-housing for homeless families on this very principal. The immediate housing was always followed by needs assessment, connection to housing resources, and the joining of a partnership with the Meeting Ground community to move into more permanent housing as quickly as possible.

But Clairvaux Farm goes much further than just to offer shelter.  The Farm is an empowering community, offering the stability of home and friendship at a time when rapid stabilization of a family is essential. In an era when shelters were defined by their provision of only the basics of a bed and meals for a limited duration of 30 – 60 days maximum with the proviso that families must leave the premises in the morning and not to return until evening, Clairvaux Farm has never in its history had any such limitations. Moreover, the Farm emphasized the importance of community as indispensable to ending homelessness for families – homeless families helping each other to end homelessness among all. Rather than relying on an all-providing hierarchy of service providers to achieve and maintain a stable home, Clairvaux Farm emphasized the building of relationships to foster the power of individuals in community. As an example, two families with limited incomes might move into the same neighborhood and share such things as a car and child care, helping each other in much the same way neighbors help each other by loaning a cup of sugar when needed. The small nuances of human community may seem minor, but learned while in housing at the Farm they have over and over provided critical solutions to permanently ending homelessness for families, achieving their independence through the empowering inter-dependence of human community.

What is the current leadership of Meeting Ground thinking? Closing Clairvaux Farm will dramatically exacerbate homelessness in Cecil County, especially because no such facility will be available to assist in implementing “Housing First” among families. Further, not having such a facility here would be akin to closing Baltimore’s new 24-hour emergency shelter which was set up as part of their “Housing First” program, or shutting down the Family General Hospital Shelter in D.C. Both these transitional programs are seen as essential to their rapid re-housing process. Why anyone would close Clairvaux Farm, which is such a critical component of “Housing First” in Cecil County, is incomprehensible.

I know that everyone at Meeting Ground cares deeply about persons and families experiencing homelessness. It’s not a lack of care or compassion that has led to the closing of the Farm. However, even caring people make mistakes. I haven’t been privy to the workings of the organization so I don’t know why the financial crisis wasn’t foreseen or what the other options to solve it might be. I only know that it’s a tragedy to close Clairvaux Farm, for homeless families with children as well as the best hopes for Meeting Ground to successfully implement their new mission to end homelessness.

However, now that Meeting Ground has announced the closing, it would be a true catastrophe to sell the property on which Clairvaux Farm is located on the open market or to land or investment speculators. Thousands of dedicated, loving persons have worked so long and hard, donating their sweat and their personal resources to build Clairvaux Farm into the amazing facility it is today. Their sacrifice and investment of faith must be honored by doing all we can to keep the Farm alive. If Meeting Ground is no longer in a position to or willing to do this, there are many others who are.

Deep Roots is a group with which I am working which is mentoring children who are or have been homeless, seeking to break the cycle of generational homelessness that traps and destroys so many of their lives. Deep Roots has approached Meeting Ground and offered to take over the program at Clairvaux Farm and keep it going, focusing on these children and their families. I am working heart and soul with them to keep Clairvaux Farm alive. If Meeting Ground accepts Deep Roots’ offer, it would save their bottom line the full expenses of the Farm’s operation and help alleviate their financial crisis, so it would be  a win-win for both Meeting Ground and for the homeless families we all care about so much. Their Board is currently considering this offer. Please hope and pray with me that this negotiation is successful so that the only shelter for homeless families in the region may not just fade away. If Clairvaux Farm is lost, another like it may not pass this way again. It is no easy task to begin and grow such programs. The investment of love required is enormous.

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Clairvaux Farm Must Not Die

Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations. – Wendell Berry

In their letter announcing their planned closing of Clairvaux Farm, the Meeting Ground board wrote that they were “closing our residential program” there. There was no mention of the fact that the timing of the decision was driven by the urgent need for money. I have not been part of the decision-making process of Meeting Ground so I was dumbfounded by the sudden decision, and to say “disappointed” would not even begin to cover it. I had written to the Board last year on more than one occasion offering to meet with them to discuss how I might help in Meeting Ground’s support, but I was told the Board had no interest in such a meeting. Long-time supporters and community members were not consulted as the financial crisis deepened over the last year. We have been blindsided by the news of the decision to close and sell Clairvaux farm, which reached many of us via the newspaper.

Nor did the board letter mention the fact that Clairvaux Farm was launched 30 years ago as a faith-inspired community — a unique and beloved place of spiritual regeneration, which is essential in ending homelessness especially in the lives of families with children.  The community of Clairvaux Farm envisioned the transformation of Church and Society, by bring together thousands of housed volunteers who shared table with homeless residents. This vision made the Farm unique and extended Meeting Ground’s support nationwide as folks from all parts of the country (and overseas) lived there sharing table and ministry for a week, or months, or even years.

Testimonies from lives that have been changed over three decades have been coming to me since the announcement.  Abby Miller, one of the early residents and volunteers wrote:

The farm was never a shelter! We were a Community – an experiment in the Beloved Community where everyone was welcome at the table! No matter how far I have traveled,  how much time has passed, the farm has always been home. Knowing the farm was in the world, made the world a brighter, more hopeful place.  It was never business as usual. The farm was never about beds and meals although we provided shelter and food: it was about the space of healing, belonging and acceptance, and saving lives: ours and others!

No accounts have been more eloquent than those of the 35 family members who are currently living at Clairvaux Farm, being told to move.  John Harris is one of these:

Imagine with me, if you can, that life has thrown so many curve balls at you that you have nowhere to turn. Friends, family and loved ones are not in a position to offer any type of aid. You are in your darkest hour of need. Through misfortune, you have lost all of your financial resource. This ultimately led to the loss of your home and independent lifestyle. You are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted; where do you turn when all hope is gone? I know this is not a situation that you would want to imagine yourself or your family in under any circumstances.

Now, imagine that you, by the grace of God, were given an opportunity to rebuild your life with the support of an organization that provides you with nourishment, shelter, support and the tools and resources necessary to have some semblance of stability in the process of starting over again. This is what Clairvaux Farms has been to men, women and children since 1983.

If Meeting Ground is serious about ending homelessness in our society and not just managing the crisis, then merely offering easy access to “residential services” can’t be the defining nature of the mission. Offering the opportunity for a time to draw aside, learn the dynamics of human community and experience how faith is shared among people from very different economic and social backgrounds is what a faith community is all about. Meeting Ground must not move away from this vision to  offer only what might be given as four-walls-and-a roof. Our Home is with each other, in knowing who we are and how we are One as a people. This is the vibrant message of Clairvaux Farm which would now be so unceremoniously silenced.

If you want to make your voice heard, write the Meeting Ground board at info@meetingground.org, or call 410-275-2936 or send a letter to: PO Box 808, Elkton, MD 21921.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Patience left the hospital this morning where she has been for over three weeks under treatment for Congestive Heart Failure, Diabetes and other problems of extreme ill health. Her son had flown in from Nigeria to bring her home and following her discharge he took her to the airport where they boarded a plane for the twelve hour flight back to Lagos.

Last night I went to the hospital to say goodbye to her. Her face was puffy and her body was swollen. She wanted to stand up and get out of bed but a nurse intervened to remind her that she was not allowed to do that. They were afraid she was too weak and might fall.

I first met patience sometime around 1989, just after she had been released from another hospital after suffering a mental breakdown. She was in the prime of her life, just turning 40 and newly arrived in the US after fleeing Nigeria in fear of her life. She had left home to escape her husband. She said she was afraid because he had begun to practice Vodun, a form of Voodoo which he took up to make him a more powerful person. He became angry when she wouldn’t renounce Christianity to join his newly found religion. When he threatened to kill her she fled the country and came to the United States, forced to leave behind her children and a comfortable upper middle class life. Had she remained anywhere in Africa, she consistently declared, she was sure her husband would have hunted her down and killed her.

She came to Meeting Ground because she was homeless and she has been a resident of the community ever since, almost 24 years, until early January when she went back into the hospital. Patience was never shy about sharing her strong Christian faith with others. For many years she helped lead Sunday chapel services and Bible study groups at Clairvaux Farm, all the time struggling with ongoing illness, mental and physical, which got worse as she grew older. She didn’t have health insurance or Medicaid, and as a result her healthcare was spotty and inconsistent. She would often not be seen for treatment until she was gravely ill and medication was always unaffordable. Then there were the inevitable indignities which are the bane of those in this country who must beg for medical attention. Once, a doctor who had been treating her pro bono abruptly canceled his services and refused to see her when she came to his office for an appointment. On another occasion, en route to the emergency room in an ambulance when she couldn’t breathe, her driver was informed that the closest hospital wouldn’t accept her and she had to be taken to another state for treatment.

So it was that Patience was here alone, without family or help. She sometimes needed more support than others had the capacity, or the willingness, to give. As Dorothy Day once noted, the requirements of love are sometimes “harsh and dreadful,” and caring for others can become a burden in spite of our best intention to be compassionate. Many who tried to help her lost their own patience in the process. There were times when Clairvaux Farm could not live up to its calling as a village. Patience was not a saint either. Like all of us, she had her stubborn ways and many of the things she did, or didn’t do, compounded her health problems. Indeed she had her faults, but becoming angry or mean-spirited was never one of them.

A young mother who had been at Clairvaux Farm with Patience, and who has since moved on successfully with her life, called me last week to talk about her experience when she was newly homeless and in despair. “Patience was a rock for me then,” she said, “she was my mother, the strong African mother I never had, and she gave me the courage to get back up on my feet.” Many other younger women felt the same way and called her Miss Patience out of their respect for her. They also helped take care of her, bringing her meals when she was too sick to come to the dining hall, dispensing her medications and keeping company when she was bedridden. These were among the times of shared happiness and fulfillment when a “shelter” became a place of true human communion.

When I said good-bye to Patience, I remembered something important that her friendship over many years had taught me. The community of Meeting Ground has always had its faults and failings; there’s no doubt about that. But it has also had a remarkable strength. There is precious little place of refuge in this world for folks like Patience. And it wasn’t just for a few weeks or months, or even years. Meeting Ground was her home for decades. For decades it was the only place on earth where she felt she belonged. I don’t know of many other places where that could have happened for Patience, as it has for so many others, including me.

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The Slaughter of Innocents

Tis the season when we think about the visit of the Magi, more or less religious scientists back in that day, to the infant or toddler Jesus.  It’s hard to tell from the story in the Bible exactly where they found Jesus or when they found him. As it goes, they followed a star to somewhere but we don’t know exactly where. If it wasn’t Bethlehem, we are assured at least that they let King Herod think it was Bethlehem.

All that aside, the horrible conclusion to the story of the visit of the “Wise Men” was the political murder of an untold number of infants in the hope that one of them would be Jesus. In Christian history it’s called the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s a devastating conclusion to an otherwise pretty, almost romantic, story and it makes me ask if it would have been better if the wise men had never come at all. That way the children could have lived.

Anyway, my years of being close to many homeless families have taught me that the great tragedy in our country today is the mental, emotional, spiritual, and in some cases physical slaughter of many more innocents than in Bible times. Homelessness affects children in all the above disastrous ways.  In a country as rich as ours, the number of homeless children (and it is a rapidly growing number) could be the devastating conclusion to the story of a once great nation whose politics allowed this to go on. It shouldn’t be this way.

I often think it wouldn’t be nice (nice is not the right word, but…) if organized religion in the USA, as powerful and influential as it is, would take on the challenge of pronouncing the official end of this modern day slaughter of the innocents, and do all in its power to intervene in the lives of children being crushed by homelessness and its attendant cruelties. If organized religion would just do that one thing, if need be at the expense of new buildings and the like, it might be at the risk of its own survival. Maybe churches would go bankrupt trying to intervene in the slaughter of our innocents, and it would be the end of them; but it would be a great way to go.


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Controversy? Heaven?

Anyone who writes likes what they write to get some attention. Hopefully lots of attention. So I was happy when a reporter called to ask me for an interview on the new book. Who would not be happy about that? One of the questions she asked me was whether I thought my book would be controversial and why. While I wrote it to be inspirational, and as it took on a life of its own in the writing, I said that I thought it probably would be for two reasons:

1. Because I say that heaven is not a place in the sky or somewhere else where we go when we die. Rather, heaven is present with us now. It is among us as human beings here on earth. We enter heaven through our loving relationships in life, and these bonds of love last forever. I express it as, “a place in the heart is surely dearer to us than a place in the sky.” This is the “Spirituality of Meeting” that I define in the book. Heaven is not so much about finding love in the afterlife as it is to experience the eternal in the love that we live today. I wondered if people might object to this, thinking I was denying the time honored expectation that we simply continue living by moving on to another place after we die, like a perfected earth somewhere. I’m just not sold on that, but a person has a right to believe whatever comforts them, and far be it from me to disturb that. I do think it’s time to talk about heaven, the classic view and the meaning of it to our life together on earth. Historically, the emphasis on “some get in and others don’t” has defined the way we relate to each other and accept or  don’t accept each other as “equals.”  I do know that we have the opportunity now, in the present, to contribute to an ongoing and, for want of a better term, immortal love through our relationships. And that has a lot more appeal to me than the thought of entering an cushy, unchallenging, undemanding idle paradise forever. Of course, maybe I’m just seeing the traditional concept of heaven from the wrong perspective. If so, I would like to hear about it.

I do have difficulty with organized religion, the church in particular, when it acts like it has a monopoly on God and God’s work, then it fails to do God’s work; and when organized religion sees its mission primarily as doing things for people, like a charity, rather than being with people, coming to know them as persons apart from religion, as Jesus did, without preconditions or judgments. Religious institutions need to move outside their own religion, to put honest and loving relationships with people first, before anything else. Intimacy and affection are what make us human, not religious rules and institutional habits.  On this point, I’m certain, but always comments are welcome. As Oliver Cromwell famously said in a letter to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” We could all benefit from being shown wrong from time to time.

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“A Least Expected Heaven” (the book) now available on Amazon.com

And I wish it hadn’t taken me so long! Writing is one thing, editing and publishing another. The whole process has given me a huge appreciation for the travail of the detail. Information on getting a copy is on the book page, and here.

This book is my personal, I guess I would say, highly personal account of the spiritual journey that led to the founding of Meeting Ground and the progress of that adventure in my life. I didn’t intend so many biographical bits, but it became clear in the process that it was all necessary to explain what I meant—and I do hope it ties together for you!

I could only write about some of the remarkable people I’ve known over the years—believe me there are many more—and how sharing the chaos of homelessness with them has helped me come to a far different understanding of heaven. The writing of the book itself has been a further path of self-discovery for me, particularly in realizing the depth of my disappointment in organized religion. Earlier in my life I had high hopes for the institutional Church as a revolutionary catalyst for our world’s cold heart. Now it seems to me that the real spiritual change agents are mostly those who feel more like outsiders, who have learned to practice a spirituality which, more often than not, is alive outside institutional religion, what I’ve called, the Spirituality of Meeting. I’ve experienced this spirituality lavishly in my friendships and loves among those who have experienced homelessness.

Anyway, I’d be glad to know what you think, and I’d now like to use this blog to foster a dialogue around the topics in my book. Now that this book project is done, and I’ve actually started on another—a sequel I suppose—I’ll be blogging weekly here, and I hope you’ll feel welcome to join me.

Just a word, though, about posting:  I’ve been getting a ton of spam lately, and as a result now have to moderate the posts or the site would be overrun with ads for designer shoes in California.  You can rest assured I’ll approve your post quickly, and I ask your forbearance that it doesn’t get put up right away.

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Why Meeting Ground?

Sometime back around 1979 or 1980, as the country made the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, I talked with Marsha, my wife, about a plan I was hatching in my mind: a proposal to launch an idea called Meeting Ground. It was fundamental to my thinking that having an inspiration was not much good without a place: real people meeting real people. I had picked Proverbs 22:2 as a brief way to express what the place would be about and put it on our first stationery: Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all. Marsha, our two-year-old daughter Alessandra, and I literally pulled up stakes in Massachusetts, where I was pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Springfield, and relocated to Elkton, Maryland, the place we chose to begin.

It was all tough in those early days: not much came easily, but it was also so very exciting to be able to make a dream come true; we seemed to be living an imagination. There was no money. Marsha and I had just moved and were doing everything we could to keep body and soul together. There were lots of doubts and, from the very start, organized opposition: from churches, the neighborhood and the town. But always the biggest hurdle was keeping the integrity of the vision strong.

So followed the better part of three decades—30 years of one problem after another, and usually many more than one. We never had everything we needed. We never had a lot of money but we never had any debt either. There were plenty of heartbreaks. It all survived and hung together, God alone knows how, and every year we increased what we did as a community. Besides Meeting Ground there was Friendship House, The Border Outreach Project (the grandfather of BorderLinks), Settlement House, Elkton Community Kitchen, and my great love, Loaves and Fishes, Meeting Ground’s bi-monthly newspaper.

Marsha and I didn’t really start out as partners in the work. She was skeptical about its success in the beginning and especially sure it would be a short-lived flop if we would try to do it together. Well… Marsha and I had our problems (we were married, weren’t we?), but somewhere along the way we learned the secret of working together, and of everything that happened with Meeting Ground, I’m most of most proud of that. The promise we made to each other when we were married on June 10, 1973 that we would build a home in which no one would ever be a stranger. We did accomplish that, a little – with a huge amount of help.

To all those who believed the dream with us and endured our faults and stood by when things weren’t going so well, and understood when we didn’t – I owe a debt impossible to repay. Except to remember the many joys of those to whom, in some small way, we were a lamp, a bridge, and a shelter in the storm: even as they were the same to us. And to all who worked so hard with us to achieve the dream – paraphrasing the words of Theodore Roosevelt: It is not the critic who points out where the doers of deeds could have done better: the credit belongs to those actually in the arena, whose faces are marred with dust and sweat, who strive valiantly, who err and come up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming but who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spend themselves for a worthy cause; who, at the best, know, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if they fail, at least they fail while daring greatly…

Many have asked what I’m doing now. Am I retired? Well, I never intended to ‘retire’ from Meeting Ground. It has been, and the idea continues to be, my life. In 2010 I had the bright idea to save Meeting Ground money by taking my income from retirement sources rather than a salary. But like a lot of my brilliant schemes, it didn’t work out quite the way I planned. Once it was announced, people just assumed that I was indeed retired—but, sadly, that’s not what I intended and it turned out to be more of a self-fulfilling destiny.

Also, I never seemed to learn the important lesson that guiding the ideals and shepherding the integrity of a community is one thing; administering an institution is another. I’ve always approached all that naively, but I should have known better. Some lessons are just hard for me to learn and I’m not sure I’ve learned that one even yet. I always assumed that everyone would just work together like one big loving family. But enough people have been hurt over the years in the process of running that big happy family.  It’s sometimes like a showdown at the OK Corral: what is assumed to be sound administration versus the messy tumoil of an idea trying to be sincere and real. Meeting Ground has always been to me a crucible of relationships among people struggling to find themselves in the chaos of homelessness and, at the same time, all of us searching for the path to love each other in spite of everything… When the smoke cleared during the summer of 2011, I found myself in a place I never dreamed I’d be: outside my own beloved Meeting Ground.

That’s where I am now. But the ideal is also the story of my life and I will continue to pursue it especially now in writing – but, of course, I can never stop the doing: trying ways to make it real. Marsha knew that about both of us: it was impossible not to do. In the beginning I realized it too, but she always had a firmer grip on the reality of it all: a table, a powerful symbol of community, around which anyone and all would be welcome, and there rich and poor, homeless and housed, could meet together.  And that’s the reason why it was impossible for Meeting Ground not to be.

Thank you all, dear friends.

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