A Seattle-based photographer, Andrew Waits, has done a documentary project, focusing upon people who live in motorhomes, vans, buses, cars. Some of these folks are homeless, some have abandoned the stress of a career or a huge mortgage and bills, some are retired, some are disabled. Some are on the road and some are not. Some are in urban areas, some out in the desert.
Waits’ project, “Boondocks,” is a photo essay on the NPR website, ultimately to be a book. As I clicked through Waits’ pictures and his subjects’ comments, one of Waits’ observations about his encounters with people really caught my attention: “One of the most surprising things was people’s willingness to talk,” says Waits, “to really open up to a complete stranger. Once they realized I wanted to listen, it shocked me how personal people would get. No one turned me away.”
While some of Waits’ subjects are clearly loners (one of them commented that if he could see someone else’s camper, they were too close), there was also an obvious need for some kind of community–even in a transient living situation. As human beings, we need community. If you have ever studied Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, LOVE is one of those needs. And even people who are a bit eccentric or who are avowed loners (not only Waits’ subjects but people who have lived as hermits–even within convents or monasteries) for whatever reason sometimes need the contact of another human being.
Recently, I attended a workshop, and one thing that a speaker noted is that people used to come to church for God, and found community. At some point in time, this flipped. Now a lot of people come to church for community, and in doing so, find God. Folks are in high stress jobs. Young adults finish graduate school, heavily burdened by debt. Some families are separated by work situations, including military deployment. Few of us live close to our families of origin–and sometimes that is deliberate!
A church community becomes, for some people, a place where, as one of our parishioners has noted, “You can choose your family.” While that remark drew chuckles, the laughter was not entirely light-hearted. Most of us knew what this means. We have not all experienced a good situation with our families–perhaps the environment out of which we came was abusive, or not nurturing, or anxiety filled. Maybe the family dynamics take too much energy to be worthwhile. So perhaps some folks come through out doors with some trepidation. Will we put too much pressure on them to “get involved”? Will we have a place for them–whatever place they want? Will we even speak to them–especially if they do not fit our personal ideas of what an Episcopalian looks like (whatever that is)? Will they look stupid if they sit down when we stand up or if we kneel and they don’t know to do that? What if they don’t LIKE this particular church family? Yet something drives them to connect–somehow, somewhere–and sometimes they end up at St. Philip’s.
Many years ago, when I was in radio advertising sales, I began to be aware that some clients would open up to me in a way that was astounding. I would walk out of some people’s offices thinking, “Wow, why did he share that with me? I was just there to do business, and by the time I left, I knew all about his mother in a nursing home.” I began to realize just how little we, as human beings, REALLY listen to each other. Our noisy culture has made us think we have to talk all the time. Yet when we truly are present to someone, when we truly open our hearts to listen, people will tell us what is in their hearts. As Waits noted, people would get very personal about sharing their lives.
Yet if we are to be open to others, we must practice the presence of being with people. We must pay attention to who, in the room, needs us to walk over and sit down, to begin a conversation. That is not something that comes naturally to the introverts among us–no doubt about that. But it doesn’t take much. In the next few weeks, as you come to church, pay attention. Notice someone with whom you have not had a conversation–perhaps a complete stranger (yes, maybe they are strangers because they attend “the other service.”) Take cup of coffee, or a soft drink (if you come to our picnic), walk over and introduce yourself. Ask a question or two, then just pay attention and listen. Be present to that person. See what unfolds in your conversation with, your connection with, another one of God’s children.
I am convinced that one reason Jesus was such a powerful person was that he was completely PRESENT to people with whom he came in contact. I can imagine him with the disciples at days’ end, sitting beside a fire in the dark, leaning forward and looking directly into a person’s face, intent as he listened. I can imagine that when one of those with him posed a question, Jesus was thoughtful and reflective–turning over that question in his mind and heart, not immediately answering with some quick, pat answer. If you and I follow such a Master, perhaps we could think about how we might learn, how we might be better at paying attention, listening, and opening our hearts to “the other” who is with us–whether that person is homeless, a traveler on the way, or someone who has camped for a while among us.
In such encounters, we can allow ourselves to be made better, and deeper, human beings in the image of God. ~Sheila+