Support Circles

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2005

A professor of mine once tried to make a case for arranged marriage, arguing that it was the ultimate test of love: to come to care deeply for a complete stranger. All these years (and experience) later, his argument now makes more sense. Romantic love, filial love, the love of like-minded friends, these relationships do not require us to challenge the depth of our compassion. It is important for us to come to understand another, to care what happens in their day, to worry about their absence, to demonstrate loving concern for someone you have not chosen, but who has been placed in your path.

When people cross our paths we are not always obliged to build and sustain long term relationships with them; but we are, I believe, always required to show goodwill toward them. A smile, a nod, just a word can mean all the difference in someone else’s day.

Social activist Jean Vanier has said that we direct goodwill towards another when we look long enough to “see something in them”, some inner beauty or strength, something precious. Goodwill costs nothing, requires very little time but can deliver so much. It does not require providing weekly meals for someone to demonstrate goodwill. It is simply demonstrated concern for a fellow human being. No matter how our community thrives in economic terms we will never have a healthy or “rich” community without goodwill.

But often today it is counter-cultural to expect goodwill. Millions of people are absorbed with the current inundation of “survivor” style TV shows, with the chief goal to divide and eliminate. The rest of us reading or watching the news are hit with a similar reality on the global stage as nations seem intent upon searching for the enemy, all of which is a far cry from building community.

At St. John’s Kitchen we see the face of loneliness as often as we see the face of hunger, a reflection of our world weariness in a society that doesn’t encourage community building. Those who arrive at St. John’s Kitchen are often in crisis. Over the past few years support circles have been developing among an inter-agency collaboration of outreach workers in downtown Kitchener, all of whom work together to circle, support and advocate for people in crisis until their lives have some stability. This ensures that the person is accompanied to appointments, to get clothing, to the hospital, the pharmacy, or to interviews for housing.

Likewise, at Mary’s Place, an emergency shelter where women often return because of loneliness, a formal program called Circle of Friends is offered, whereby a group of volunteers is matched with a woman who has a limited network of support. The Circle of Friends program is long term, offering sustained support to enable a woman to live independently with a circle of support on which she can rely. The model of care they have built is non-hierarchical, allowing each person to contribute in her own capacity. The hope is that women will no longer need to use emergency shelters as a means to community living.

Building community was what a police officer, Rob Davis, had in mind when he recently spoke to a group of high school students at St. John’s Kitchen. When asked how often he had been called to St. John’s Kitchen he replied, “Never”. He further told them that the sidearm he carries is not nearly as powerful as the words used to calm a situation. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu has said that her weapon was to learn the language of her oppressors. Words lead to community; community leads to understanding.

When people are willing to show good will, the door is open to compassion and there is much compassion at St. John’s Kitchen. Often, even before the outreach workers need to intercede, the community takes care of itself. Compassion, in the true sense of the word, is not simply being kind but entering into another’s suffering. Compassion then, says Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, is radical. Many speak of the face of God being present at St. John’s Kitchen where the origin of the word compassion is represented by “walking with someone else through their suffering.” A young man with an elaborately pierced body and multicolored hair, leans down to tie the shoes of an old woman; a woman struggling with her own mental health issues, suddenly has a moment of absolute lucidity and defuses an eruption of tempers and sends both parties on their separate ways; the homeless guy sits with his hand on the shoulder of another having a bad day and shepherds the fellow back to his apartment. I once was asked to cl ose my eyes; when I did, I was sprayed with perfume. He had purchased the perfume so he could relive, through the essence of her perfume, a time when he was with his partner…a time when life was happier and easier. Many useful things could have been purchased with that perfume money, but the need for spiritual food was greater.

In this setting, where there is little opportunity for economic gain, there are fewer hidden agendas and, therefore, more occasion for direct expression and meaningful connection. Against this backdrop, people clearly see and comment on seeing the face of God in others. Outside of the economy, people can realize their giftedness and the fact that they have something to give. Henri Noewen distinguishes a “fruitful life” from a “successful life”; fruitfulness being, in a sense, the opposite of success. When we live a fruitful life, we give to another. Noewen speaks of caring, not curing. We do not need to be searching always for solutions. Living through suffering is experiencing life to the fullest.

When people ask me to describe St. John’s Kitchen, I feel more than anything that it is a place of hope. People cannot know hope until they know despair. Noewen states that strong bonds grow when people are willing to go where life is fragile and hidden. It’s as if he wrote about St. John’s Kitchen. For many, it is a healing place, a place filled with people of hope.

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