catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 11 :: 2011.06.10 — 2011.06.23


Finding good words in bad breath

Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed in consideration of privacy.

Mark comes in for at least one “sample” cup of coffee each day our store is open.  Lately, he’s been bringing Grant along, too — a friend from the nearby group home where they both live.  On some days, Mark is quite coherent.  On others, well…we’ve suggested more than once that a “Shit Mark Says” Twitter feed might be a strong draw for a certain kind of follower.  When Mark’s world is foggy, he rambles constantly and things like Snickers bars, sugar and refrigerators tend to take on very human, and often insidious, qualities.  But there’s a certain poetic quality to his rambling as well — rhythm, creativity and innovation that make you sit forward a little bit to make out the words.  A friend who volunteers in the store recently recorded this wisdom from Mark: “I got bad breath, but there’s a lot of goodness in bad breath, a lot of good words in bad breath.”

Mark’s presence in our lives challenges a lot of assumptions — that a retail store is a place only for those who have money to buy; that those who wander the streets because of addiction or mental illness (or both) are dangerous or have nothing to give; that prosecution is the only way to solve the petty theft of coffee donations (switching to a lidded jar that’s harder to access works just as well).  I feel good about participating in a project that is hospitable for folks like Mark.

But Mark’s presence also raises a whole host of tangled questions.  If he were white and came from a wealthy family, would he have access to medication that would allow him to lead a “normal” life?  Why are there so many spaces where he feels like he’s not welcome?  Is it enough to offer a place to sit, a cup of coffee and a listening ear?  Is it irresponsible not to set more strict boundaries?  These are good questions, I think, but the answers will vary widely based on the foundation from which they emerge. 

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a neighborhood tour in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that included a college art gallery and studio space, an arts-based ministry to marginalized people and an independent record store.  Located on Division Avenue, a rapidly changing district near the city center, each entity had a different perspective on whether the changes represented progress or challenges.  More upscale renovated condos means more business appeal, but fewer rent-controlled housing units for participants in the ministry and rising costs that threaten to push out the record store.  A new annual art competition attended by thousands of people means more exposure for the ministry’s “outsider” artists, but supports an expanding restaurant culture where those same artists could never afford to eat.  A new park provides hospitable outdoor space for people who live in cramped units, but the subsequent gatherings disturb those who can afford their own outdoor balconies overlooking the park.

The challenges in our small town of Three Rivers are parallel in many ways.  We seek to sustain ourselves as a struggling rural, midwestern town by being a tourist destination and center of manufacturing, but there are a lot of people who call this place home who fall outside of the embrace of such efforts.  I talked with a local business person several years ago who proclaimed that our little city would be a lot better off without a “certain class of people,” by which he means the tasteless poor and the mentally ill who wander our streets.  Their presence doesn’t attract businesses or tourists and reinforces a backwater reputation.  And I confess that sometimes I get caught up in a sanitized vision for the city that’s driven by hipster priorities, and implicitly assumes that people like Mark are the weeds that will grow up between the cracks of whatever we put in place to serve our (revenue-generating) needs, rather than asking what people like Mark need and starting there.

Heartside Ministries, located on Division Avenue, is one institution I look to as a model for the attitude I desire to have and the kind of culture I hope to make.  Working in solidarity with their neighbors (not “clients”), Heartside extends “in-contingent welcoming of people as they are,” according to their director, Rev. Charlotte Ellison.  Because of such radical hospitality, Heartside attracts those at the narrow ends of the bell curve, particularly those with dual diagnoses of addiction and mental illness.  There’s a running joke on the streets that it’s nearly impossible to get kicked out of Heartside, which considers itself a ministry of belonging, rather than a social service agency, and at that, “not a place where piety is the leading cultural indicator.”  In addition to Sunday services, Heartside fills local service gaps with art spaces, GED tutoring, legal advice, prescription assistance, and more — all toward the goals of literally interpreting the biblical call to radical hospitality and restoring and affirming people’s essential dignity.  As a result, neighbors develop a sense of self-worth as artists and as human beings capable of generosity, even in the midst of their own extreme need.

Heartside’s example is inspiring as an intentional group of us here in Three Rivers attempt community development through the Imagining Space at Huss School.  I hope we can create a place of radical welcome for rich and poor, old and young, privileged and underprivileged, lucid and deluded, mentally and physically well and ill, able and disabled — where one of the only excluding factors is one’s belief that he or she is too good to mingle with “a certain class of people.”  And for people like Mark, I hope it can be a respite from suspicion, a source of mutual help and a catalyst for the illumination of latent gifts.  In his own words, Mark may have “bad breath, but there’s a lot of goodness in bad breath, a lot of good words in bad breath.” 

Essayist Michael Perry writes of his growing up years in a home that was filled with dozens of foster children, many of whom had severe mental and physical disabilities,

I think my siblings would mostly agree that our full house seasoned us to accept the unusual as usual.  We were often perplexed by people who were uncomfortable or even fearful in the presence of an obviously mentally disabled individual, since we had learned to assume that if someone was barking at their macaroni, they always barked at their macaroni.  

May we all grow up with such a capacity for loving acceptance, and may Heartside, the Imagining Space and many, many other places be agents of such radical, biblical hospitality for all of God’s children.  Some might call us crazy for trying, but I hope I’m willing to bet the farm on the hard, life-giving company of broken people, rather than striving for some exclusive vision of the good life built on privilege and competition.

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