What Casseroles Have To Do With Housing

Sausage and Egg Casserole -- Father's Day Food 6-21-09 4

Food is love.

I have known that since I was old enough to know anything. That the biscuits my grandmother stood in front of the counter and rolled out were made with pure love. That the tender pot roast after church on Sunday was as sincere a sign of my mother’s affection as she was capable of making. That I have never felt as at home in the world as I did all those years ago, in the basement of Emory Methodist Church, eating Miss Bessie’s chicken and dumplings.

If I were to make a list of the things I know for sure, food being love would be one of them.

I thought about this a lot last week. I was speaking this past weekend at the North Carolina Women’s Missionary Union Missions Extravaganza, and I needed a metaphor. See, I was talking about our unique approach to missions and outreach at Love Wins Ministries, and I wanted to communicate that the good things that happen at Love Wins – the people who become housed, the folks that find jobs, the weddings, the hope, the strength to go on – none of that is our primary goal. It is all just a side effect.

I explained that we believe that community was our primary value. That the opposite of homelessness is not housing, but community. That the good things that happen to us come about because of our relationships.

And then I knew. I just knew. I was describing the way love works. And food is love. So, I said something like this:

It is true that in the last 12 months, more than a dozen people have, through relationships with us, left homelessness behind and entered into stable housing. But it is also true that we did not plan for that to happen.

Rather we planned to build a community. And we are absolutely certain that, if you build a community, good things will happen.

I don’t know how it is in your church, but in the one I grew up in, if a family member died, you got a casserole. In fact, you got a lot of casserole.

But I submit that, never in the history of the world has someone ever said, ‘Mary, you should join our church, because Hank is getting up there in age, and when he dies, if you belong to our church, you will get a casserole.’

You don’t join a church to get a casserole, you join a church to be part of the community. And if the community works, then, when Hank does shuffle off this mortal coil, casseroles will appear out of thin air – not because the church is in the casserole business, but because it is in the love business, and the casserole is a side effect of that love.

Likewise, none of the people who found housing because of the Love Wins community in the last year did so as a result of our being in the housing business – because we are not in the housing business. We are in the love business, and housing for people who need it is a side effect of love – just like casseroles are.

Writing as a Means of Thinking

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” -  Flannery O’Connor

I told you a while back that writing was magic. That things are bottled up in your head, and you don’t know what you think until you write about them. In fact, I would argue that they are not really in your head – they are in the atmosphere, like water vapor, and they need you to sit at the keys in order for them to condense.

But it isn’t just magic – I think of it as my superpower. I am serious.

Example: I like to work in my yard. I also live in the inner-city. And people who live in the inner-city are not big landscapers or gardeners. I think my yard looks a mess, but all the neighbors talk about how good it looks. And, I guess, compared to theirs, it does. Most of theirs are various shades of green in the summer and brown the rest of the year.

So, I have been thinking about my yard, and the work I do in it, and how it is my hobby, and I have never had a hobby before and…

Obviously, I need to write about it. Because I don’t know what to think, or what I think. So, I sat down for 20 minutes and just started writing. This is very first draft, because most of the time, you don’t get to see this.

# # #

I have never had a hobby before.

There is an argument to be made that my copious reading is a hobby, but some of that is work related, but I enjoy it. Or, I really enjoy the act of bookbinding, but I learned that as part of my trade when I was a used and rare books dealer – and I haven’t attempted to bind anything in several years.

The  bookbinding feels more like it might have been a hobby, I think, than the reading does because it uses my hands. Any list of hobbies I can think of, the activities are all primarily physical – stamp collecting, running, hiking, knitting, scrapbooking, sailing, woodcarving.

The men I grew up around didn’t have hobbies. They had work and they had church and they had their families and that was a pretty full life. Yes, they had workshops and garages where they fixed broken shovel handles or they changed the oil on the family car, but that was economy, not a hobby.

The closest I think any of them came, and this was only a small set of them at that, was hunting. And even then, I think the hunting was less about the activity and more about the community that developed.

But barring hunting (something I found repugnant at an early age, thus calling my manhood into question before I even understood the concept of manhood), the idea or value of having a hobby was something never explained or modeled.

Which is a shame, really. Because, at the age of 41, I discovered a hobby that I enjoy, that I rush home to do, that provides me with relaxation and repose. I love to garden.

Yes, yes, I know – everyone in my childhood – every single family I can think of, had a garden out back of their house. But those were practical gardens. They were designed to provide a portion of the food the family ate for the year, thus reducing household costs.

Also, those gardens were very functional. They were designed for one thing – food production – and things like aesthetics and joy were secondary considerations at best.

But my garden, while still primarily comprised of edibles, has goals that are not just centered around production, but also include things like beauty, structure and integral cohesiveness.

In other words, I think for my forebears, a garden was a means to an end, and for me, it is a journey as well. This is, of course, a luxury I have, knowing my family will not starve if the sweet potato crop doesn’t come in.

# # #

And there it is. A hobby is a luxury. And my neighbors are stuck very much in survival mode, and mostly renters, so spending money on hobbies – especially hobbies that are tied to a given place, are just not on their radar.

Now, this might not be right, of course. But the thing is, I thought about it by writing about it. And it was in the atmosphere, just waiting to be condensed by my sitting at the keys. All I had to do was just show up.

In the last 48 hours at work:

  • I had a staff meeting to plan the Love Wins Ministries 7th birthday party.
  • Met with the police about a problem at the building.
  • Banned two people from the building
  • Planned a wedding
  • Met with the awesome Veda, video person par excellence, planning our video strategy for 2014
  • Planned a baptism
  • Met with a documentarian who wants to work with us here at Love Wins
  • Met with the worship planning team for the Love Wins Worshiping Community to plan out the near future
  • Planned the itinerary for two upcoming trips
  • Met with a church that wants to partner with us.
  • Met with my Associate Pastor regarding the roll-out of our new website for the Love Wins Chapel.
  • Met to plan the workday that is happening this weekend when a local church is helping us deep clean the building.
  • Dealt with the theft of a cell-phone in our building.
  • Counseled a congregant about his divorce.

The irony of all this is that I absolutely feel like I got nothing accomplished during that time.

Why I Pray


When I was four years old, I often played with my buddy Denise in the front yard of her great aunt’s house, who was my neighbor. I remember that once we made mud pies, and got in trouble for making a mess. I mean, it was a heck of a mess.

Fast forward some 37 or so years and Denise still lives on her family homestead, and I live 15 hours away in another state. And I haven’t seen her is four or five years, but we stay in touch by Facebook. After all, this is what Facebook is best at.

Her parents were much older than mine, so they are now at that age where things start to go wrong. Her Dad is in ICU right now. So when I saw that she had posted it on Facebook, I responded with a quick note, telling her I was praying for her dad, and her and her family. And that I loved them.

My praying always confuses some people. My faith often expresses itself in a humanistic way, so it is easy to forget that I am, after all, a Christian Humanist. My Humanist friends don’t get why I bother praying, and some of my Christian friends wonder why, given my Humanistic leanings, I would bother to pray at all.

I wrote about that in my occasional newsletter a few years ago. Here is what I said then:

In the small evangelical church of my youth, I heard a lot about the power of prayer.
Miss Bessie was sick with the cancer, so we were encouraged to pray for healing for her. We prayed our asses off, and I have to tell you, if anyone deserved to live, it was Miss Bessie.

The cancer still won.

We would pray before the potluck dinner, thanking God for this “bountiful meal”. But I always wondered why we didn’t thank Mrs. Stevens, Mrs. Sullivan and Mrs. St John, since they were the ones that cooked the food in the first place.

I wasn’t sure what God had to do with it.

I know a woman who had a heart transplant a number of years ago, and recently she said how the transplant “was an answer to her prayers.”

But what about the family of the woman who died in a horrible, senseless accident so the transplant could happen? What about their prayers?

The ironic thing is that, despite my reluctance to believe that prayer actually does anything, I’m a firm believer in praying.

In fact, most nights I end the day by laying in my bed, eyes closed, “giving my cares to God” as Mr. Gad, my childhood Sunday school teacher, would have said.  When my wife had emergency surgery a few years back, my fervent prayers were watered by the tears that came with them.  And when I look at the chaos that is our financial situation as a result of doing the work I do, I pray – a lot.

And sometimes, like when my wife had surgery, things get better. Sometimes, like our finances, things don’t. But I keep praying.

I just checked in on Facebook and saw that my nephew was hit in the face with a soccer ball at school, and as a result, his vision is blurry. My first instinct was to tell his mother that I am praying for them.

In fact, I did. Pray for them, that is.

Did it help his vision or reduce his pain? I have no idea.

But here is what it did do:

It gave me some sense of power in a situation where I felt powerless.

My sister-in-law knows that people love her and are thinking positively about her and her baby.

It increased the amount of good-will in the world.

And it told the God I choose to believe in that Jordan is important to me, and that I love him, and that it would mean a lot to me if his vision is OK.

And I have to think that, if there is a God, then that God would want to know those things, just like my parents wanted to know I wanted a pony for Christmas, even when there was no question of our being able to afford a pony.

Most days, for me, those things are enough. But even when it’s not, I still pray.

Obviously, I think about prayer a lot. Do you pray? If so, why?

The Gift of ADHD

Note: ADHD plays a big part in my life, and a lot of people have reached out to me because I have been so open about my own diagnosis. I am thinking of a series of posts around ADHD, and what it means to me, and how I ‘cope’ with it, and manage to still live a pretty full and creative life despite (I would say because of) it.

I have ADHD. I was originally diagnosed under the old guidelines, in the 70’s, when it was called ‘hyperkinetic reaction of childhood’, then later just ADD, and it has been my constant companion since the mid 70’s when I was first medicated for it.

School was both awesome and horrible for me. Depending on the year and the set of teachers I had, I would be placed in either the Talented and Gifted Students classes, or the Special Education classes. They did not know exactly what to do with me, but it was clear to them I was not “normal”.

I had something amazing happen to me when I was 14 or so.  I had just been placed in a special ed class. When you are 14, that is the worst time ever for that to happen – the social cost of being a special ed kid in rural Mississippi in the mid-eighties was too much to pay.

My neurologist and I were talking about it, and how the kids made fun of me and the teachers were frustrated with me. He then told me something that changed my life forever.

“You are different than they are. Not wrong, different. Like being left handed is different. There are ways that you are smarter than they are, more creative than they are, think faster than they do. And they don’t know what to do with that.

“It won’t always be like this. And it is important to remember that the only reason you are having problems right now is because they are in charge. The world is ran by people like them, and so they make the rules. When you make the rules, you do fine. However, right now, you don’t make the rules, so you take medicine to help you live in their world.’’

My life changed that day. I still struggled, and I still hated special ed classes, of course. But I no longer saw myself as broken or stupid – I was just in the wrong world, like a kid who grew up speaking Cantonese who somehow woke up in Toledo.

So, most of my adult life has been about my trying to get back to my own world. So, I started companies, worked on straight commission, wrote freelance, started nonprofits. It is about world creation, my trying to get back to a world where being me makes sense.

I still occasionally take medication, because I have to live with all of you people. But to the extent that I get to decide what world I live in, I am happier, more creative and all around healthier.

So, if you are struggling with ADHD, please believe me when I tell you it is a gift. You are special – not Special Ed special, but Special, like the good plates we only eat on at Christmas. And it won’t always be this way. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be.

Sobriety on Aisle 4, Next To The Pens

She had spiked hair, looking a  bit edgy for a woman in her late forties, but full of spunk and charisma. Her smile was contagious, and I needed to catch it. I was having a rough day – I had overslept, and woke up with a migraine. Then I arrived at work to be met by several frustrating emails and canceled appointments. It was looking like it was going to just be one of those days.

I was at the office supply store, picking up printer cartridges and post-it notes. I often volunteer to run to the office supply store – there is something about the rows of pens and notebooks and folders that speak to me – the static energy. all the potential for creativity just sitting on the shelves.

So, there I am, at the check out line. I make a pile on the counter – legal pads, pens, printer cartridges (can you tell we are an org ran by creatives?) – and Phyllis was acting like it was her mission in life to make sure I had a pleasant encounter. Being a natural Eeyore who was having a Terrible Rotten No Good Very Bad Day, I was resisting it with all of my powers.

She asked if I had a rewards card, and she pulled up our account by our phone number, because, of course, I had long since lost the card.

“Love Wins Ministries”… she mumbles to herself, as if dragging up a memory. I stiffen a bit, as not everyone  loves church folk, and our battle with the City last year made us lots of friends, and a few enemies.

She snaps her fingers and looks at me, “You are the biscuit people!”, she said, referring to our distributing food on Saturdays and Sundays in Moore Square – a project we have done for almost seven years now.

I nod. “Yes, that’s us,” I reply, expecting her to say she saw us on the news last year when the City tried to stop us from distributing food.

She looks left, and then right, as if to make sure the coast is clear. Then she said, ‘I lived in Moore Square for a year. I was homeless and high all the time. I dug food out of trash cans and ate your biscuits and drank your coffee. Some weeks, that is all that kept me going. I owe you guys so much. You are the best!”

I laughed and said, “It seems like things are better for you now.”

“This past January, I have been sober two years. Things are so much better when you are sober. Harder, but better.”

We chat a few more minutes, and then I take my change and go to leave. As I am walking out the door, she hollers, ‘Keep doing what you are doing!”

As I walk to the car, I say out loud through streaming tears, “I will, Phyllis. I will.”

Managing by Mistake

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We are working on an internal document at work, a sort of Love Wins 101 for new hires, and I thought I would share some it with you over the coming weeks. Keep in mind this is first draft, so expect tense errors, etc.

When people come to work at Love Wins, it can be a bit confusing at first. For one thing, we don’t hand you a lot of rules – instead, we talk about roles and responsibilities and community expectations. After all, we are pretty clear we are less an organization and more of a community, and while an organization aspires to efficiency, we operate on the basis of  affection.

One example of that is our very conscious decision to encourage you to make mistakes. In fact, you are more likely to be fired because you did not make enough mistakes than because you made one.

As an organization, we tackle homelessness by assuming people who are experiencing homelessness have agency – that people prefer to choose what they do with their life, and that the thing that keeps us from doing what we want with our life is often the resources and relationships available to us. So, we see our role to provide those relationships and resources. We don’t think you are any different.

The thing is, most of the places I have worked in my lifetime, I did not feel like I had agency. I had to dress a certain way, clock in at a certain time, do the forms a certain way, request permission to do the most inane things, file a form to request permission to spend money that I would then have to file another form to request to be reimbursed for… it is soul killing. Or, it was for me.

So when I began assembling the team at Love Wins, I was certain that respecting people’s agency was going to be important. So, instead of investing time on the front end, creating a soul-killing list of procedures and structures designed to remove the element of choice (and the possibility of magic), we instead expect and anticipate mistakes, and spend the time on the back end, discussing the mistake and learning from them as a community.*

In my twenties, I was a salesman. Early on, I bid a job that should have been over seven thousand dollars at two thousand. The client, far savvier than I was, jumped on it. And we had to honor it, and lost our shirts. I went to my boss, the founder of the company, and told him about the mistake. I then handed him my letter of resignation, because I fully expected to be fired. He laughed, and said he could not afford for me to leave, since he had just spent five thousand dollars educating me on how to bid a job.

That stuck with me. And I never lost money on a bid ever again.

But it is more than just good for the employee and their agency – it is good for the organization as well. When you have freedom to make choices and exercise your agency, miracles can happen. There are now many different possible paths to the goal, whereas if I hand you a prescribed procedure, there is only one, and it is one we had developed without your input. You now bring your creativity, your experience, your genius, in the old sense of the word, to bear.

But don’t think we are encouraging chaos, however. Instead, we are committed to the end-state – or, as Stephen Covey says, we begin with the end in mind. Practically, that means we tell you what the desired goal is, and then we make sure you understand the goal, and then we agree on the things we have committed to  – end dates, resources, etc.  And then we leave you alone.

It is your responsibility to state your needs – and ours to provide resources and relationships to enable you to keep your commitments. And, so, you will make mistakes. And that is ok. In fact, you had better make mistakes, or else you are not trying hard enough.

*Most mistakes are not fatal. Some, however, are, or could be. So for those very few situations, we do have strict rules – sexual harassment policies, employee safety procedures, etc. But they are few and far between. Generally, we agree with Thoreau, who said “that governs best which governs least.”