First of an occasional series of long pieces, white papers, about pressing topics of ministerial concern.
From a ministerial perspective, the problem, on the ground, often comes as one of discernment. My proposal is to tailor traditional Christian spiritual discernment practices to help better inform decision making processes around this issue.
This white paper is designed for the people of the upper Pioneer Valley, principally those who live, work, or visit the communities of Greenfield, Montague and their surrounding communities. The paper is written for the general public, who might be interested in issues surrounding homelessness and poverty.
This paper is not just designed for experts in the field, who are already well versed in the problem facing the Valley. However, my perspective as a minister in the community, might offer some further light for a well-informed reader.
For many, the Pioneer Valley has been a home for generations. It is a place, which while the poorest in the state, has often felt like a refuge from the more urban problems associated with the Eastern half of the state. However, increasingly, the state’s homeless service providers are looking to place people from “away” into the Valley’s motels.
I don’t expect this trend to change, however, I do expect more local nonprofit agencies will become involved in caring for this population. Partnership is at the heart of the community response to homelessness, and, rightly will play an increasing role in helping these people.
This paper takes the issue of homelessness to be a “wicked problem,” one which no one group, agency, program, or individual can fully grasp. The problem of homelessness is simply too complex to be considered by anything smaller than an entire community or small region.
Currently, several state agencies and nonprofit groups are doing good work in this area, but are often limited to the various institutional silos they maintain. Partnerships and referrals between agencies happen, but not with enough scale.
Consider this, from an Oregon based study on leadership and runaway and homeless youth. The study is useful reading when considering this problem. The author’s point is that “every interaction is an opportunity for leadership.”
I use this study as example, because it studied a more rural area similar to the Pioneer Valley.
From a ministerial perspective, I have been trained to view each person as a whole person, not as a collective of symptoms, diagnosis, and associated problems. On paper, many of the area agencies have a similar stance, but often, in practice, the work on the ground is one of finding and meeting the presenting needs. I believe, long term, this does an injustice to the various people involved as it fails to adequately consider the whole person.
The working assumption seems to be similar to the Oregon perspective, which suggests “public policy problems cannot be definitely described in a pluralistic society… [since] there is no such thing as the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity.”
My suggestion is to make use of the various discernment processes that have supported people of faith for millennia. I believe these techniques, which are largely based on listening and creating space for change would work well in helping people make better decisions. I have often sat through client meetings, discussions, and lectures, which fail to make adequate room for discernment to take place.
My suggestion is a simple one, but one that requires the traditional boundaries in the helping processions to be crossed. I believe that something as simple as a listening circle, or a silence interspersed in discussion, or better discussion framing could make a huge impact on a host of outcomes.
Consider this adopting this simple technique:
Discernment Listening Guidelines
1. Take time to settle in.
2. Listen to others with your entire self (senses, feelings, intuition, imagination, and rational faculties.)
3. Do not interrupt.
4. Pause between speakers to absorb what has been said.
5. Do not formulate what you want to say while someone else is speaking.
6. Speak for yourself only, expressing your own thoughts and feelings, referring to your own experiences. Avoid being hypothetical. Steer away from broad generalizations.
7. Do not challenge what others say.
8. Listen to the group as a whole – to those who have not spoken aloud as well as to those who have.
9. Generally, leave space for anyone who may want to speak a first time before speaking a second time yourself.
10. Hold your desires and opinions – even your convictions – lightly.
The specifics of the technique matter less than the notion of listening first and problem solving second. Too often, behind the scenes at least, the particular client/participant/individual is seen as a problem to be solved and less as the whole person God created them to be.
Aristotle thought that everything we do aims at some good, or some goal. The choices each of us make help to define the identities we shape, the legacies we leave behind, and the shape of the world we collectively share. The reality is people are often not as good at determining those goals, especially when under the stress of something like homelessness.
Sadly, our society’s collective answer has been to leave these issues to be addressed by those in the helping professions. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is increasingly true, as one author notes, “the revolution will not be funded.”
Nonprofit mission and vision statements are filled with whole person language, but the reality, from my perspective, is the particulars become the problems to be solved.
If we are honest, this is how each of us, as citizens of the world, also faces the issue.
Do we put money in the cup on the streets of Northampton? Do we ignore the crowds in Greenfield’s public places? Do we see the collective Lazarus on our doorstep?
This is where a faith perspective, and a more intentional discernment process, could be helpful. There is nothing mystical in my method here, just an earnest desire, for each person to see in a new way.
Thanks for reading, Pastor Jeremiah
What are your thoughts? How do we tackle this collective ‘wicked problem’?