Sunday, March 21, 2010

A gift of perfume, a packet of soap and a chocolate bar

Got a present today. I run the prayer space every second Sunday night in Credo - 15 minutes of sacred quiet before the rush of dinner, where we light a few candles and say a few prayers. You have to be pretty on the ball - if everybody comes in and grabs a hot drink, for example, it can take a long time to settle the mood again. So I have volunteers strategically placed to gently guide people towards the lit candle on the stage area, where we always do our prayers.

Anyways, I'd opened the doors and all these people flooded in, and I was about to gather everybody around the candle, when this person said to me, "Excuse me miss." It was one of those people who you can't figure whether it's a man or a woman - possibly it was neither or both. Since 'it' is a horrible term to use for a person, I will use the gender-neutral pronoun 'ze', mainly because I've always wanted to use it in a piece of writing and now's the perfect opportunity.

Ze clutched at a small plastic bag. "I brought you a present."
"For me?" I'd only met this person once before.
"Well this other little lady somewhere else has helped me so much with clothes and food and this and that but I couldn't find her today so I thought I know you and I thought I could give it to you instead." The voice was deep and the chin wagged at a furious rate, seemingly even faster than the words being spoken.

My eyes darted sideways at all the people spreading out throughout Credo. How would I ever get them back again? "Thanks!" I said.

One by one, ze pulled out a collection of gifts. A bent card and an accompanying envelope ("Here's a card I'm sorry I didn't have a pen."), a chocolate bar, a packet of soap, a muffin, a banana and an orange in a paper bag ("I like fruit and fruit's very good for you, isn't it, it is isn't it?"). I raked my fingers on one hand through my hair, waiting as each gift slowly revealed itself.

Ze kept talking about something I couldn't quite understand. Finally I said, "Thankyou so much for your gifts - but I have to get things started."
"Ok, ok, that's ok, that's fine." And it was, and I gathered everybody together for prayers.

I realised later that it was a bit like the story we'd read in church that night, about the woman who poured ridiculously expensive perfume on Jesus' feet and mopped it up with her let-down hair. It was worth a year's wages, that little bottle, and people critised her for the waste ("You should have sold it and given the money to the poor!"). But Jesus felt honoured by the gift.

Made me think that sometimes you just have to honour a gift, especially if it is from a person who is marginalised. Some people say that the woman who poured the perfume in the gospels stories was probably a prostitute (although not in John - it is Mary there, of Mary and Martha fame), because she was so bold and had the perfume in the first place. What if Jesus were to have said, "Woman! What a waste! You should have sold that perfume and given it to the poor!" The woman would have felt so rejected. Poverty is about more than just money; it's also about acceptance. In accepting such an intimate gift from a prostitute who the religious people would not so much as look at, Jesus was being truly loving.

I felt like if I'd said to the person in Credo, "Can you wait til after and give it to me?" it might have been a rejection. Even though I had more people to worry about than just that one non-gender-specific person. Sometimes to be loving you have to honour the individual over everybody else.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Paid to be friends

James and I were having coffee when I said I had to go to see a friend, who was staying in emergency accommodation. I mentioned a little of her story, and how she had ended up on the streets.
"Did you say she's your friend?"
"Yes, that's right..."
"Isn't that sort of blurring the boundaries of your relationship?"

And it was a fair comment because, in any other professional setting where you are working with homeless or otherwise marginalised people, to become 'friends' with your clients is at best blurring the lines between your personal and professional life and at worst just plain unprofessional.

But of course, at Urban Seed, these blurred lines go to the very nature of our work. We aim to build relationships with people on the margins - not in a professional capacity, but one that is very personal. There are no 'nine to five' relationships at Urban Seed; people come and go as if they are, well, friends.

I have always struggled walking the blurred line. When I was a resident at Urban Seed, my job was to build relationships with people. But what kind of relationships were they? If it's my 'job', then there is a sort of contractual obligation to hang out with people. I was never paid in money, but had my rent and bills taken care of on the proviso that I would do this 'work'. I often felt as though the relationships I had with the homeless people around me somehow justified my living in the building.

Additionally, there is a real professional aspect to the work. We see ourselves as 'non-professionals' but we are also an institution, providing free meals and helping people sort out housing issues and the like. We are not just an ad hoc bunch of Christian hanging out in our neighbourhood, making friends with the people in our midst.

The occasional unease of our work reveals itself in the 'job' versus 'mob' tension, that is spoken a lot of in Urban Seed. Many of us have jobs attached to this kind of work - whether it be the nebulous role of a resident, or the strategic role of an executive officer. But it's more than a job - many of us are deeply committed to our work in a way that goes far, far beyond a contractual agreement. We are also a 'mob' made up of informal, personal relationships.

In other words, there are contractual aspects to the relationships we have around Urban Seed, and there are personal aspects as well. Holding the two together requires some skill!

I think that one reason I am happy living away from Credo is that I never really mastered this skill. Now, all my relationships with people who come into Credo are personal, because there is no longer any contractual imperative. I no longer feel like I have to justify my rent, but can spend time with people, cook with people and write with people (in the Credo creative writing group) because I want to.

It's not just at Urban Seed that the tension between the personal and the contractual is felt. James is studying to be a teacher, and talks about how some teachers go above and beyond their contractual duty to teach to a satisfactory standard, because they care so passionately about their students and their job. The problem is, says James, that this can so easily turn into exploitation. I can see how professional boundaries can be quite necessary at times.

I think that for any job to be fulfilling, the tension must exist. If you teach only to fulfill a contractual obligation, then teaching will only ever be a somewhat satisfactory means to a pay check. But if you are personally invested in your work, and you can believe in your work - well, I suppose that's called 'vocation'.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Profound Truth

Yeah so anyway I got engaged on the weekend. I changed my relationship status on Facebook to 'Engaged', and was waiting to be inundated with messages from all my excited Facebook Friends, but so far the only person who has commented is David (who I'm engaged TO). I have had to remind myself that there's a world out there beyond the social media realm, and that in fact the people I have spoken to in real life are in fact very happy. It's important that other people are happy...the whole point of getting married (as opposed to having a long-term live-in monogamous relationship) is to get the blessing and support of the people around you. Mum's happy so we're 75 percent of the way there. And Mum's not, as far as I know, on Facebook.

Most people haven't been that concerned about the ring but want to know "how it happened". I really want to show off the ring but I suppose it's good my friends aren't as materialistic as me.

By the time my sister called and wanted to know "how it happened", I had enlarged the story to apocalyptic proportions - justifying the augmentation to David by explaining that I was attempting to convey a 'profound truth' as opposed to a 'historical truth' (or perhaps it was just: if you're going to tell a story, it might as well be a good one).

"We were watching Cats the musical when we heard a roar and realised it wasn't a cat, but was coming from outside the theatre. Before we knew it the whole stage was flooded and the cats had scattered. When we left the theatre an eerie still hovered over Collins Street. Chunks of ice littered the gutters and the leaves had been stripped from the trees and were plastered to pock-marked cars and under smashed windscreens. Part of the road had been ripped up with the torrents of rain that had rendered the storm water system completely inadequate. Then, amidst the chaos, we went to a wine bar and he got down on one knee and proposed."

Which is all sort of historically true, just as the gospels are all sort of historically true, but we give all stories a spin to emphasise a truth that is greater than the details of what actually happened. "Be with me though the weather is stormy and chaos abides all around," is my 'profound truth' - which is WAY better than "...and so he got down on one knee but I didn't really notice because we were sitting down anyway and, you know, David's pretty tall."

So now I am engaged to my lovely David and VERY excited about all our future adventures - wonderfully marked with unpredictable Melbourne weather and a warm nook in which to shelter.