Come and get a sausage from us on your way to the voting booths on the 23rd of March at St Johns Anglican Church. We will be serving sausages and bacon and egg sandwiches as well as a vegetarian option and looking to put a smile on as many faces as possible. All proceeds will be going to Rough Edges so your eating a delicious sausage for a great corse.
I sit in the middle of Rough Edges looking at the people surrounding me, some are homeless, others recently housed, and others that have been housed for some time but are in search of community. I have a slight sense of anxiety welling inside of me. They all look at me with a hint of excitement in their eyes and one of the patrons I’m closest with counts them in.
“1… 2… 3…” She says with a cheeky grin on her face. She knows how awkward this is making me feel.
“Happy Birthday too you” they start to sing I look around the room as more people who are at the service begin to join in on the song while others, more withheld sit back and smile at the amusement going on. The song seems to take forever, I want to disappear and suddenly I can’t find a way to sit that seems natural. Despite all of this, there is a large undeniable part of me that is really enjoying it.
As much as I feel awkward, an overwhelming feeling of belonging floods my mind as I see that these amazing people with all the troubles and tribulations they have experienced are so hell bent on celebrating me. They sing until the words run out and a few people come past and pat my shoulders as a sign of appreciation. I smile now not because I feel awkward but because I feel something different about this place.
I feel a part of it.
I have been celebrated by it and therefore I find myself with a strong sense of attachment to the people in this place. I am one of them and they have me.
What makes a good community, what is it that draws people together? Why is it that our human nature is to form groups and, in those groups, what is it that makes us feel like we are some how attached to each other?
The funny thing is that it is not simply the celebration happening for me that makes me feel connected here but the celebration I have held for others that makes me feel all the more a member of this community.
You see friends I have seen reason to celebrate the people here. I have yelled and jumped in to a big man hug to the excitement of a patron avoiding a prison sentence, I have solemnly high fived a lady who had been on there way to breaking an addiction. I have laughed along with patrons as they deliver side-splitting stories of past experiences. These times are the ones where I can honestly look around and say “I belong here.”
It is in these celebrations that make me feel like I have shared something. We have built something, a connection here that is not easily broken. I have spoken about empathy being the ability to suffer along with someone but that would leave out one of the best parts of empathy. The ability to celebrate with someone. To experience their joy as they achieve even if it is just another year gone.
I can see from where I stand the amazing thing that happens when you share excitement for someone else. When we can say to a person that the good things you have, the things you count as success are worthy of my excitement. I see a reason to shout and scream and jump around and it is what you have achieved for yourself.
Psalm 139:14 says “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; My soul knows it well.”
I believe the same God that made me, made you, made those that serve at Rough Edges and those that receive there. I believe that not only are they made by one God we were made with joy and excitement by a God who fearfully put us together piece by piece in a wonderful process. I believe this is worth celebration.
So indeed, I can celebrate for them and they can celebrate for us, and it is place like that, where no one will know which is which.
I see her run back to the chair where her bag sits and relieved she takes it in both hands and holds it tight. We all know better than to leave our belongings sitting around at Rough Edges with the present company. She is flustered and I can tell that this is not a good day for her. I know this woman enough to know that she had been recently sleeping rough in various locations around our area.
I wander over and for a brief moment I prepare myself. I have not spoken to this women properly before although we know each others names. In this second I know I need to do something that I have trained many to do in the past.
I need to listen.
I sit down next to her and I say the words that I know are going to keep me in the one spot for some time. Hey Rhonda (made up name) are you ok??? You seem upset.”
Rhonda begins to unload and for the next 20 minutes I don’t dare say a word. I don’t speak, I don’t look at my phone or let my mind wonder. I do whatever I can to make Rhonda know that I am paying attention.
There is only one thing you can do to let people know that you are in fact paying attention.
You need to pay attention.
I sit and I listen, simply listen, and I watch as Rhonda tells me everything that has happened to lead her to this mood that she is in.
I see her move through emotions, from tears pouring down her face as she explains the desperate situation of sleeping rough as a woman in Sydney, to rage as she tells me the betrayal she feels of the people who have let her down. She speaks about frustration of dealing with services like housing and the relief she feels when people genuinely understand her and assist her. She shows me determination as she talks about the month it’s been since she had been on ice.
I sit and I do my best to empathise. I resist every natural inclination that my mind throws at me. Certain sentences that we all think of when people tell us their issues. Things that start with phrases like “you know what you should do…” or “At least you don’t have…” these phrases that are very rarely needed and never solve an issue. In my experience they tend to drive a wedge through true connection.
I steer clear of advice because I know there isn’t much I can say that is genuinely going to help Rhonda, how would any advice I give help her, she has lived this experience that I have only heard about.
I allow only certain types of communication to be output from my mind. I hold her hand when she cries and I shake my head when she is angry. I laugh when she jokes and I smile when she tells me of good times.
Rhonda speaks until she feels better, we stand and she makes a joke as we part ways and I can tell you that that moment right there was the most satisfied I have felt in my career.
You see friends in the past and since this occasion I have constantly got this wrong. I have tried to tell the person my thoughts on the matter despite them being uninvited and unrequired. But on this occasion, I can confidently say “I got it right.”
Why is it so hard for us to just listen? Why is it so hard to think that maybe all the person really needs is to simply be heard, be understood, so when they confront their battles they do so with the confidence that some one is on their side. When we train volunteers to be ready for rough edges we train them in the use of empathy. The ability that humans have to feel with some one rather than for someone. The ability to not just mentally consider their point of view but emotionally take part in their suffering.
We all have the experience of receiving advice we don’t need when we tell people our issues, yet we don’t seem to learn from this. I don’t need to know what to do next all I want is that someone understand my frustration. I can work this through on my own but knowing you see my struggle and knowing you know my pain somehow gives me the resilience to take the steps.
Proverbs 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
How often do we do this, answer a question that was never asked of us. Yet if we simply sit and listen we don’t only provide someone with emotional support we leave them with the power to create their own solution.
I am not saying don’t give advice to anyone. There are relationships where this is necessary, where you’d be letting the person down if you didn’t. Or better still when someone asks you for advice, with our pride in play, what a beautiful moment. I am simply saying as proverbs suggests be slow to give your advice and make sure you have heard them into a place where they can receive it.
So friends, pray for the Rough Edges community that this be a place where we can listen to each other, we can build each other up through the connections we foster. Pray friends that this is a place where understanding is valued above judgement and everyone is welcome.
Rhonda visits us regularly, she still struggles with her addiction but is now housed thanks to the great work of several services in the area as well as rough edges and she is focused on recovery. I listen to her whenever I can.
St John's Community Services
Usually in the case of an incident at rough edges I try to make sure everyone is heard and given appropriate time to explain their actions. So, this incident wouldn’t be any different right. So what if I had been warned about this patron in particular since the moment I had arrived at rough edges.
I see him standing in the room at roughies talking to another patron. Finally, he is here I can speak to him and get this whole thing sorted out. Given how transient people can be when they are experiencing homelessness it’s hard to get them in a room when I’m there, which is frustrating for times like these.
So he’s here, I better nip it in the bud. I have never been great at confrontation but I must say I’m getting better here. I take a deep breath and walk over to where he is. He’s not facing me and currently in conversation with another patron. I need to get him alone so we can talk in a place that’s safe for both of us.
“David!” (made up name) I say loud enough to hear but not to loud that he thinks I’m trying to confront him about something he’s done, which is exactly what I am doing. He turns and looks at me, his face gives a lot away about the life he leads. He is gaunt and it is apparent he has spent the night on the street.
“I need to talk to you about what happened the other night.” I say as gently as I can, somewhat expectant that he will not respond in a civil manner.
“NO!” He says and walks outside.
“Dam it” I think to myself. You may imagine that a peaceful and respectful culture at rough edges is one of the most important things we can provide in order to achieve a lounge room for those who have no usual home. There are two ways to set culture. Step 1, set values, step 2 enforce those values. This means that this conversation needs to take place no matter how uncomfortable I am about it.
I try again “David” I say again as I get to him.
“What do you want!!” he says abruptly. He’s agitated now this is what I didn’t what,
“We need to talk about the other night.”
“No!!” he repeats himself louder this time.
“If we don’t talk than I’m afraid you cannot stay here.” I say with some hesitance in my voice. It’s then that it happens and pay attention because this is my prayer point. He goes straight to anger. Expletives come pouring out of his mouth as he gets up and strides off. He’s in a rage.
All I wanted to do was talk to him and hear his point of view. What is that guys problem. Why would he not want to talk, at the very least he can make his complaint about the other member of the incident. But then I realised, his anger is not an attack on me, it’s a defence against me. And then the question came into my mind that made my heart break for the guy.
What has happened to David?
What has happened to David to make him so angry. How has it come to be that his first reaction is that we’re against him, no question. Has he been so pushed aside, so devalued and so let down that the request for conversation is straight away met with a feeling of injustice. What has happened in this man’s life that means he cannot trust anyone to hear his point of view, to take his side or to be in his corner in the fight.
Admittedly, reflecting on the conversation, I could have handled it better, been clearer about wanting to hear his side of the story but to be honest this is exactly what I expected him to do.
This is not the only person who reacts like this and while I sit on the surface with these reactions and argue my point, I feel alright. But when I stop to consider the pain that must have been experienced by some of our patrons to feel a need to fight like this every time, it’s then that I see why they end up in the place they are in.
This man has been hurt.
Not on a single occasion but repeatedly, throughout his life and now living on the street with every person who walks past him and does not recognise his needs and does not hear his cry, he feels it again. The idea he was taught to believe is cemented in his mind.
I am nothing, I am No one!!
The words seem so cheap to you and I. But imagine if you actually believed those words. Imagine if you woke in the morning and that was your attitude towards yourself. When you fall asleep you doze off believing your own worthlessness.
Now take that to a relationship. Go and find a job. Try to break an addiction or beat a mental illness. Do we know what we ask people to do as they experience what definitely is the worst moments of their lives.
By the way I am no hero at this. I constantly forget this idea and simply think about what they are saying to me. How do their words affect me and how do they make me feel? For selfcare it’s important I take some time to consider this but in reality, this is really my focus in the altercations I have. I am holding on to my own worth more than I want to give him his.
So, friends this is my prayer today. Please pray for our patrons, pray they see how Much worth God has given them before they took their first shot from a needle and after they spent their first night on the street. Please pray they feel Gods love before they feel the usual things they have to deal with, rejection and all.
As a final request can I ask that when you give to rough edges, give out of an attitude of understanding. That these are not people that just haven’t done life well but instead, know that life just hasn’t done so well by them.