It’s 16 degrees here in Portland, Oregon. I got so chilled yesterday walking just half a mile that I felt sick — and that was even wearing a good parka and gloves so thick I looked like an astronaut.
A part of me goes crazy with anger when it’s this flipping cold and people are living outdoors, homeless. Roughly 2,000 men, women and children are homeless at any given time here in Portland, Oregon. They sleep in doorways, under bridges, and in their cars. I buy copies of Street Roots from some of them in front of Powells Books. The shelters can’t begin to hold all of the homeless on sub-freezing nights.
For every 1,000 people in the U.S., two are homeless. This is a form of darkness in our culture.
I’m outraged at this darkness, this homelessness, when our society is overflowing with abundance. And underneath my anger I feel wrenching grief. The suffering of homelessness is not inevitable.
In the 1970′s there were very few homeless people. Historically, people with little money simply lived in places that didn’t cost a lot, i.e., low-income housing.
But with every decade since the 70′s, more low-income housing units have disappeared. Low-income housing is not profitable, in a culture that’s obsessed with profit. Our culture is currently defining riches only by dollars, and not by other things that matter, like everyone having a place to live.
Obsession with profit is a form of darkness. It’s a corporate closing of our hearts. It leaves people out in the freezing cold.
I was dollar-poor for much of my life, though never homeless, nor close to it. Today, I’m not dollar-poor at all. But at all different income levels, I’ve generally been rich in what matters — loving relationships, work I like and believe in, connection to God and nature. We’re the same people, whatever our income level. And I’m grateful that I’m rich in what matters.
But when other people are homeless in sub-freezing cold, my being rich in what matters is hollow. It’s not complete at all.
On a deep level, when other people are freezing, I am also freezing.
And yet, it’s also easy for me to close my heart, and turn away from suffering. It’s easy to be really busy. and not live from that deep part of myself.
But I want to live from that deep part of myself. I’m convinced that’s the path to being the richest in what matters.
So. My minister Tim and I have started a small spiritual-growth group called BELLS. Each letter in BELLS stands for a habit we want to develop. The second L is for learning, as in reading things that lift us up or improve us. Linda B. just gave me a book to read for BELLS called “Radical Hospitality” :
“Little acts push at the great big darkness, the darkness that is so huge we feel helpless and so we do nothing and try to make ourselves feel good about it. This is a heart problem … You can’t fix the problem of world hunger. Well no, of course you can’t. Where did you ever get the idea you were supposed to? But you can help the single mother feed her kids,and you canhelp the old guy whose Social Security check won’t come for another week.
You and I, we can help the one in our path. That is enough. Try to get this straight, that really is enough.”
Later today Thor and I are throwing our 10th annual Christmas open house. This time, we’re asking everyone to bring two cans of protein, for the Backpack Project at Rosewood, a local community center. A 15 year old named Caitlin Morrison started the Backpack Project, to feed kids who don’t have enough food on weekends.
Caitlin is helping the ones in her path. She is keeping her heart open, and pushing back against the darkness.
And this Friday Thor and I will again be helping to serve a community dinner for low-income folks. (I don’t like to use the word poor, because anyone can be rich in what matters.) These dinners are cheerful affair, and sometimes the best part of my week. I’m realizing that my love of meeting people, bantering and socializing is the value-add I’m bringing to this gig, not my labor, per se. People need to be seen and heard. They need my heart.
I’m working to keep my heart open. Working to push back against the darkness.