“Ten things I Have Learned in the Past Twenty Years…”
March 14, 2007, 10:31 pm
Filed under: From Taylor Field

From Taylor: 

Ten things I have learned in the past twenty years in working with the homeless in
New York City (quotes provide my historical support group)

1. “Every trouble in life is a joke compared to madness.”   Walter Bagehot, nineteenth century thinker whose mother suffered bouts of insanity.  

In many of the people I have encountered on the streets in the
Lower East Side
, some small bit of choice was involved in their situations.   Runaways, alcoholics, addicts, veterans, even the unemployed had often made some choices along the way, however small.   People with mental illness who live on the streets seemed to have the least choice in determining their situation.   They are the saddest cases to me.

2. “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”   Attributed to Philo of

A little bit of kindness in stressful situations can help cross all sorts of barriers, especially when you don’t know what battles have already been fought.

3. Be “sweet in the manner, firm in the thing.” Quoted by Father Alfred Boeddeker as he worked with the homeless in
San Francisco.

He usually quoted it in Latin, but this phrase has helped me as I have worked with people in tough situations.   I cannot always give people what they ask for, but I can be kind and firm in presenting the options.   Often people in poverty see themselves as having no options.   Helping them sort out their options rather than just saying yes or no can be helpful.

4. “There are no emergencies but blood and fire” Sister Sheila, who worked with the homeless for thirty years.

Often in an urban environment of need, every person portrays the immediate need in an emergency context, and the helper tends to get overwhelmed or burned out rather quickly.   This phrase, from a seasoned worker, helped me to proceed with the problem in a non-frantic manner.   After working in the
Lower East Side
and seeing so many people bleeding with cuts and wounds who refuse to go to the hospital, I am not sure blood is always such an emergency.   I might replace “blood” with “people asking for toilet paper in the restroom.”

5. “The bigger the city, the more personal we must become.”   Ray Bakke, Christian Urban Strategist.

Of course, a big city tends to set up systems that can dehumanize people in their deepest need.   Our goal is to bring back the personal.

6. “We are all looking for that golden person who knows our name.” This is a phrase from a book by Elizabeth O’Conner in her ministry at Church of the Saviour.   I don’t know where I read it.

Knowing someone’s name is perhaps more important than giving someone what they ask for.   Also looking them in the eye is nice…

7. “Sometimes you have to harden your heart in order to serve.”   Mother of a co-worker who had done community service all her life.

Every community worker knows the heartache of wanting to help people, but instead being the one who holds people back when there is no more shelter, no more food, no more blankets.   Sometimes you have to just tuck in your boots and slog through it.

8. “Please thy maker and be merry and give not for this world a cherry.”   Scottish poet William Dunbar, fifteenth century.  

If you don’t laugh sometimes, it will get to you.  

9. “Man is magnificent even in ruin.” Francis Schaeffer  

I have never seen an ugly face.   Even the person in the toughest situation has such dignity.

10. “When you have a party, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind, because they cannot repay you.”   Jesus (Luke 14:13).  

It’s not about reciprocity.


Winter Reflections on Writing Squat- by Taylor Field
February 28, 2007, 3:27 am
Filed under: From Taylor Field, Squat News

From Taylortaylor.gif:

Winter is the best time to remember summer. I wrote the novel Squat on cold Saturday mornings, when no one else was in the office, when silence would put its arms out and eak in its own thin way. I wanted to be quiet enough for the buildings themselves to speak. With a little attentiveness, the bricks, the tenements, the “squats” on my block would remember the sweating hopes and fears of those who once slept there. Many of those who slumbered in these once-humid rooms in abandoned buildings have already died. They seem to be almost completely forgotten now. Somehow it is easier for me to remember their voices when it is snowing outside my window. “When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters,” the pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s recent novel writes. When I am at my job as a pastor in the city, and I am dealing with the bric-a-brac of doing “community service,” it is sometimes more difficult to remember the larger story. In a sense, the main character, Squid, a squatter, is listening for some story that will give meaning to his compulsive, lonely life.The novel, Squat, takes place within twenty-four hours. At one point, an older alcoholic named Unc proclaims Miles Davis, musical improviser and occasional boxer, to be the patron saint of the day. Squid’s day is not like a symphony. It is like jazz. The day is not a pre-planned march. It is a sparring match. Anything could happen.

The novel is a specific retelling of a biblical story, perhaps my favorite story in the Bible. It is not an exact retelling. It is more like a piece of music, where a musical idea is taken up and developed, but every note is not the same as the notes in the original tune. Of course one wonders if Squid will make it through the day and survive the rancor of a small-time drug dealer. But on another level, the book is a question about Squid himself. Will he remain a bundle of squalid randomness, or become a part of some wider, truer story?

Squid’s dilemma is my dilemma. Will I get trapped in my own sordid little story of may own making, or will I find myself swept up in a grander drama, a real drama, beyond my imagining? The answer lies in Squid’s name.