Growing into the fullness of our humanity means that we become co-authors of the rules by which we will agree to have our lives judged. Sam KeenIn recent weeks, a long overdue development has been percolating at the DI, a client advisory group. Because of the well placed, and timed, and spoken, rantings and musings and complaints of one particular battle-hardened veteran of the school of hard knocks, we're getting there. I'll get to that, but first, a story. It's one I heard from Utah Phillips, an American folksinger and storyteller, about his having to grow up when he came back to the U.S. after fighting as a soldier in the Korean War.
"When I got back from Korea, I was so mad at what I'd seen and done, I wasn't sure I could ever live in the country again. I got on the freight trains up in Everett, north of Seattle, and kind of cruised the country for two years; making up songs, but I was drunk most of the time and forgot most of those... I'd heard that there was a house in Salt Lake City by the Roper Yards where there was a clothing barrel and free food. So I got off the train there, I was headed for Salt Lake anyway, and I found that house, right where they said it was, but most of all I found this wiry old man, 69 years old, tougher than nails, heart of gold, fellow by the name of Ammon Hennacy. Anyone know that name, Ammon Hennacy?
He was one of Dorothy Day's people, the Catholic Workers; during the '30s, they started Houses of Hospitality all over the country, there's about 80 of them now. Ammon Hennacy was one of those, he'd come west to start the Joe Hill House of Hospitality. Ammon was a Catholic, anarchist, pacifist, draft dodger of two World Wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America; I think that about covers it. He had to reach out and grapple with the violence, but he did that with all the people around him... Second World War vets, you know, on medical disabilities and all drunked up... the house was filled with violence which Ammon, this pacifist, dealt with every moment of every day of his life.
He said, 'You've gotta be a pacifist.' I said 'Why?' He said 'It'll save your life.' My behaviour was very violent then... So I'd say 'What is it?' He said, 'Well, I can't give you a book by Gandhi, you wouldn't understand it; I can't give you a list of rules that, if you sign it, you're a pacifist. You look at it like booze. You know, alcohol will kill somebody, until they finally get the courage to sit in a circle of people like that and put their hand up in the air and say "Hi, my name is Utah, and I'm an alcoholic," and then you can begin to deal with the behaviour, see, and have the people define it for you whose lives you've destroyed. He said it's the same with violence, you know... You've gotta be able to put your hand in the air and acknowledge your capacity for violence, and then deal with the behaviour, and have the people whose lives you've messed with, define that behaviour for you, see... And it's not going to go away, you're going to be dealing with it every moment, in every situation, for the rest of your life.' And I said 'Okay, I'll try that,' but Ammon said, 'That's not enough.' And I said, 'Oh.'
He said 'You were born a white man in mid-20th century industrial America, you came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege; racial privilege, sexual privilege, economic privilege. You want to be a pacifist, it's not just giving up guns and knives and clubs and fists and angry words, but giving up the weapons of privilege, and going into the world completely naked. Try that.'
That old man has been gone now 20 years, and I'm still at it. But I figure that if there's a worthwhile struggle in my own life, that'd be the one..."
Born and raised Catholic myself, I began in my late 20s to rebel against the rules and assumptions that had been handed to me, believing instead that I have my own conscience and my own relationship with God, and I can live my own truth. During upwards of 11 years attending a couple of 12 Step groups, I held to and was supported in this same idea of choosing my own beliefs, my own definitions, of myself and the world. So when I heard Utah's tale for the first time it fairly rattled my cage; what of this business of allowing my behaviour to be defined by others; by those people whose lives I've messed with? As Utah said so poignantly, "Oh."
Here at the DI, we the staff run the show, at least visibly. We have much control and influence over the lives of our clients; where they'll sleep, for instance, or whether they can come here at all. We try to be fair and reasonable, and for many years under the remarkable and rare leadership of Dermot Baldwin, we have done a pretty good job. But other than complaint forms or else ad hoc one-on-one conversations and confrontations, usually in response to a particular incident, there has never been a formal invitation, or avenue of access, for the insight and perspective of "those whose lives we mess with."
What would they say is the impact when we bar them from services? What would they say is the impact when we don't bar someone whose behaviour may deserve it? Never having been a client at the DI, never having been homeless at all, I can't imagine some of the things they might say to us. But if we give them a forum to think patiently and speak confidently, knowing their insight is respected, I believe we will all be the better for it. Doing our work with more open-mindedness, and open-heartedness, can only make us more compassionate, and probably more effective.
Written by: Roger G. Night Supervisor