by Deacon Chick Carroll
St. Paul’s, Brunswick
The Gathering Place volunteer
Have you ever been in a place that didn’t feel right? Perhaps not safe, maybe unfriendly. Or possibly it was okay, but you felt unwelcome? Like it was a little “off” for you. Or how about someplace where you felt you just didn’t know the rules? What was expected of you?
If you’re homeless or deeply poor, almost every place can feel that way. When you’re carrying everything you own in a backpack, you can stick out like a snowball in July. It’s impossible to feel safe– or even comfortable. Even in a town like mine. Where people can be afraid of you because you don’t look quite “right.”
How do I know this? Am I desperately poor or homeless?
No. But lots of my friends are. How do I know what it feels like to to be turned away, or turned down, or to have people in church or the grocery store look away, ask if they can help me- when what they really mean is how can they help me out of there, away from them.
Well, I have learned to listen. I can listen to and learn from my friends, my friends who are deeply poor, friends who are homeless, or were last month, or will be next week. Because they just received notice from the landlord. I can see what they live through when they don’t get the job for the tenth time in a row. Or when they just can’t keep the one job they got, at $7.50 an hour, because they have to get up every morning at 3 am in order to walk the four miles to work – -and they just can’t do it any more.
Do I know personally what it’s like to finally get a place to live even though it’s drafty and loud, and costs a pile to keep it warm? Or what it’s like to have an adult schizophrenic son that has to live with me– or die. But because he’s there I can’t work, because he can’t be left alone? No, I don’t. I don’t know personally. Because I’ve been lucky in life. No, I didn’t earn my luck; it happened to me. Sure, I’ve done my part, but good fortune has been a huge factor in my life. But not for many of my friends.
And I listen to what they talk about, the stories they tell, the insults they endure, the endless lines they stand in. I squirm when someone tells me tell how she was treated when she tried to buy something at the store that’s so friendly to me, but not to her. How people give him a wide berth as he walks along Main Street, as if he were contagious. When the doctor doesn’t give him the attention he needs, or that she gives me, because he doesn’t have insurance anymore, because Maine Care decided to cancel him. I fume when I hear what has happened to her food stamp allowance, even though she is disabled, when what she gets for a month wouldn’t feed me for more than a couple of days.
Where do I hear about all this? Where is a place in town where folks feel comfortable enough to tell these stories? Where no one like me is going to give them a big load of well meaning advice that’s supposed to turn their life around? Where is a place they think of as their own? It’s called The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s daytime drop-in center. It’s been around for going on five years, just off Union Street.
I have volunteered there since the beginning. So have a lot of other folks like me. We’re coming to learn about what life is like if you’re desperately poor, if you can’t work because you got badly hurt on the last job you were able to get- ten years ago. What life is like when your husband went broke and left you all at the same time, and your monthly social security’s a few hundred dollars. What happens when your husband breaks his back just before summer, when he would have been able to earn enough from odd jobs to keep you all from becoming homeless. And so you come to The Gathering Place because you can’t stay alone all day, and there will be friends there- friends whose lives are like yours, or maybe not, but who will listen and understand anyway. And you come because it’s one place in town where you’re really welcome to stay a few hours.
I also have friends on the “right” side of the tracks. Good people. Many of them really get it. And some don’t. Many understand that their town is just the friendliest place for them, but not for the desperately poor. And some don’t get that at all! And for a long time, many years, I didn’t either. Maybe ten or 12 years ago, the light went on for me. I began to see I was among the lucky ones– not the smarter or the better ones. Just the fortunate. Why, why me, God? Who knows?
But I began to understand I could be of help. Could I change the world? No. Could I light a lamp for someone? Yes, sometimes, and sometimes the lamp just wouldn’t stay lit, and sometimes the person I lit it for turned out to be me. And sometimes the person I thought needed my help was the one I needed, instead.