I thought it would be a good idea to post an update on my efforts, chronicled earlier on this blog, to work up close and personally with people experiencing homelessness. My downtown Portland meditation group is on a hiatus as I go back to the drawing board to create something more in line with my passion and with unmet need. Part of me hates to quit anything and worries that I’m flaky, but actually I think the last couple months were very informative (and enjoyable) to me and helped me clarify how I most want to serve.
To catch you up in case you didn’t read earlier posts: in November of 2014 I started a weekly meditation group in downtown Portland that was advertised with a “special invitation to anyone experiencing homelessness” but stating clearly that all were welcome. I located the group in a church that also hosts a monthly food pantry, a number of free meals every week, and several other programs serving people on very low incomes. With the help of Rev. Paul Davis, the director of the Clay Street Table food pantry and meals program, we held a number of sweet meetings before the holiday break. Almost all the people who came were personally invited by Paul and part of the community that has sprung up around Clay Street Table – some of them were experiencing homelessness, some were living in subsidized housing, and others were volunteers with the pantry or meals program.
Unfortunately we lost some momentum over the holidays: We met on Wednesday evenings, and in 2014 both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fell on Wednesdays, so we didn’t meet for two weeks in a row. Then, when we started up again in January, circumstances led us to move the group to another location a couple blocks away from the church. It was a quieter and more private space, and a very nice meditation group could have developed there over time.
However, I noticed that the warm collaboration between myself and Paul was running into some roadblocks as we tried to create something that involved my passion (sharing meditation and Zen) and his passion (creating community around meals). We brainstormed scenarios where people gathered to cook a meal before or after meditation, and we thought about times that meditation could happen before or after a meal that was already part of the program. Finally we just couldn’t come up with the right time, location, and combination of circumstances to create a sustainable and vital program.I also learned something very important about homelessness: Many people who outsiders might lump in with the homeless – people living on extremely low incomes in subsidized housing, who rely on free meals and food pantries – still look down on and try to avoid “the homeless.” Not all, of course; some housed people have been homeless in the past and have sympathy for those living outside or in shelters. But for the most part, if you want to reach out to the homeless in particular, you need to commit to that effort and give up trying to make your offering attractive to anyone else. The situation of homelessness presents a unique combination of challenges and constraints that have to be taken into account in any program meant to involve or serve people experiencing it.
Furthermore, I realized it is exactly those folks at the bottom of the social barrel I want to connect with: Those people who are aware that they make just about everyone uncomfortable as they make their way through the streets, shelters, and social service centers. People who struggle to find a place to shower, and whose day is structured around where and when they can get a meal and how they are going to find a relatively safe place to sleep. People who are often traumatized, struggling, rugged, colorful, and fascinating. People with buddha-nature just like everyone else, but who rarely get that buddha-nature mirrored back to them.
So… once I’m through this incredibly busy couple months of my life, I intend to go back to downtown Portland with a new clarity about what I want to do. I’ll probably have to locate the meditation group smack-dab in the middle of territory inhabited by many homeless folks, and maybe even hold it outside. One homeless fellow explained to me that most homeless folks find it impossible to live according to any kind of schedule, simply taking it a day at a time. I have to go to them, not wait for them to come to me in a comfortable location at a convenient time of the week. We’ll see.
Oh, and I think I will, after all, call it “Zen Meditation for the Homeless and their Friends.” Anyone who is put off by the possibility of being perceived as homeless, or by being around folks who are, are welcome to find another place to meditate.