“You are more awesome than the Grand Canyon” is written in Sharpie on the hand mirror. We pass it around the circle and gaze at ourselves. Some of us can barely take in the thought that we are “tolerable” let alone “awesome.” Others stare and stare, willing it, daring it to be true that he or she truly is that awesome.
And some may wonder exactly what “the Grand Canyon” even is… because everyone in this group, besides me (the lone woman), is a man living in a homeless shelter where I am, technically, their teacher. Some of the men have not traveled more than a couple of miles beyond the heart of Washington, DC, where we meet. Others have traveled the world, whether in the military or because they once “had it all,” as we fallaciously say of those who seem to soar above.
Man in the Mirror is the name of the class I teach at Central Union Mission. It’s the supreme privilege of my life. Named for the Michael Jackson song, the class has as its focus this line: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” And this teacher has as her assumption that she has as much to learn as the supposed students do. We are all giving, receiving, teaching, and learning as we look at our life stories together with the lens of the gospel, believing that when God said, “It is good,” he meant each of us too.
Mutuality is what I’ve most learned over many years of hanging out at this shelter, a place I entered only reluctantly and for reasons that can only be understood, mostly in hindsight, as God knowing better than I do what is good for me – imagine! I went in kicking and screaming, and now I show up there practically skipping, almost always coming to know and love myself more with each visit, as I see myself reflected back in the eyes and faces of men with whom I journey.
Some months back I went to an event for ministry leaders in my city. I thought I might connect with other like-minded folks. The speaker was a local pastor with a huge platform, speaking about his latest book, the subject of which was connecting with one another. Between morning and afternoon sessions, we participants ate lunch together. I had come alone, and I could not find a single person who would welcome me into their little lunch circle – in spite of the fact that I can talk to a brick wall and am quite smiley and don’t have horns.
At the end of the day when the event ended, as I stepped onto the sidewalk, I burst into tears, realizing how deeply I had hoped to make new connections. I rushed to my car to cry privately. Before I knew it, my little car had practically driven itself to the Mission, and I was bounding up the steps to the place where I knew someone would quickly say, “There you are! I love it when you come!” I love it too because, among folks that many would shun, I have felt uniquely known and loved.
We know ourselves best as we see ourselves in the face of another, of what we call “the other” even. Most folks don’t go looking for friends in homeless shelters. Most people assume they’ll find camaraderie only with folks like themselves. I used to think so too. The upside-down kingdom of God, however, is where we truly live; in that realm those distinctions just don’t hold up.
I have been able to be most myself among people who cannot for one minute admit that life is going well (whereas folks outside the doors can fake it better). Simply living in a shelter, whether briefly or longer-term, is an admission that everything isn’t perfect, that there’s room to grow. The men who are (mostly voluntarily) submitting to life under the authority of a program with rules, curfews, and a motley crew of others in close proximity, are heroes to me because they are dealing with their “stuff” in a way that most people aren’t. And they allow my junk to show up. In the wake of my father’s recent, violent death, the men at the Mission cared for me in very specific and tangible ways. When I’m down, I say so. When one of them is struggling, we take time and space for him too.
Yes, the Mission is a place where I can show my worst. But for me and the men in Man in the Mirror, we experience something even more rare together—a place to be glorious, to be seen as the amazing, awesome creatures that we are, far beyond all those societal labels of “felon,” “homeless,” or simply “unable to get it together,” which of course applies just as much to me as to the men. Yes, I’m aware that some people have histories of drug-dealing, violence, murder even. So what? None of us need to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done. None. Not me. Not them. Thank God.
We share our talents with each other—whether they are artistic creations or fine-dining table setting, suggestive selling, original songs, poetry or raps. For every “open mic,” I (offer to) teach the men to do that old 70’s standard line dance, “The Hustle.” (I haven’t had a lot of takers for some reason.) But where else could I find a judgment-free zone to risk doing that, awkward mover that I am?
What these guys most give me, perhaps, is to offer me their trust and their vulnerability. And some suspend judgment, doubt, and many bad experiences with people of my race and socioeconomic level and give me the benefit of the doubt, even risking letting me into their lives a little bit as their assumptions are challenged, and we find common ground.
Tuesdays are my regular night for serving dinner at the Mission to the whole population, my own class members, but also one-time overnight guests. My short frame hidden behind the steam trays, I’m simply a smiling white face with a mop of gray hair amidst the dozens of homeless men, mostly black, who file by hoping that we’ll have something to offer besides the usual canned green beans with the meat and starch.
On a particular night, one man in the endlessly snaking dinner line caught my attention. I could feel his anger even before it was his turn to approach the food window. I summoned up a silent prayer, asking God how to meet his icy glare in our upcoming encounter over the rice and gravy. As he stepped in front of me, I said rather haltingly, “Have you had a rough day?” Even as it came out of my mouth, I knew it sounded inane and condescending, hardly a logical or inviting conversational gambit for a seething stranger.
He looked at me with what felt like disdain and said, “No, not particularly. What I’m having is a shitty life. Here I stand in this line to get food and there you stand on the other side of this counter with a perfect life, heading into—I’m sure—a ‘happy holiday’ (his dark, muscular arms punching the space between us with air quotes). That’s what I’m thinking.”
I inhaled and prayed wordlessly, wondering what response would come out of my sucker-punched little self. Unexpected tears began to escape my eyes, which soon stung with mascara as I said, “You’re right. I have absolutely no idea how to make sense of the fact that I’m on this side of the counter and you’re on that side. But yes, it’s shitty.”
He laughed. I laughed. Neither of us had expected that encounter to go that way. And on life marched. I’d served up gravy and rice; the Mission had served up another moment of cognitive dissonance where everything the world tells me about “up and down,” “in and out,” “valuable and less so” was thrown under the bus.
There is an inherent imbalance between teacher and student, and there’s an inherent imbalance across the counter of a food line. I’m not pretending that doesn’t exist, that this is some sort of perfect, kumbaya zone.
I do maintain that mutuality is where it’s at, that “us and them” is an ugly construct, and that thinking I’m the one who has something to give to a category of people who are “human receiving receptacles” just isn’t my experience.
And I’ll forever maintain that I would never have begun to imagine that I’m more awesome than the Grand Canyon if it weren’t for the guys in the Man in the Mirror class who challenge me to see myself as they see me, even as they allow themselves to believe that they are the awesome gifts of God that I see in front of me every week.
This article contains one scene excerpted from Cary’s spiritual memoir, Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel (much of which takes place at the Central Union Mission).