Friday, July 18, 2014

The End of the Road



May 7, 2014, was not my last visit to Tent City. It was actually July 3, the day police evicted the last resident of the camp.

I came back because although it was never my physical home, my heart remained there amid the tall pines and makeshift shanties. Even as we move forward, a part of it always will.

The air felt heavy; the storm clouds stirred. Journalists snapped photos; the group of volunteers assisting Minister Steve with the move bustled about. Noel and his crew rounded up chickens for transport to the animal sanctuary. The men fumbled with the hitch for the big generator. Odds and ends were packed onto the bus and onto the Winnebago-turned-flatbed.

Just before eight o'clock, three Lakewood police officers arrived and informed all of us that it was time to vacate the premises or else receive summonses. 

We piled into our respective vehicles and followed Minister Steve as he first pulled the old Winnebago onto Clover Street, which faced the camp. The bus would be next.

I parked across the street, got out of my car, walked with others to the end of the road, reminding myself it wasn't time to mourn. Not yet. Despite my misgivings, I walked back into camp one last time.

I said good-bye to a longtime resident, Hollywood Jon. We hugged and he said, "I've met a lot of good people here. And you're one of them."

I tried my best to smile. "So are you, my friend."

In those moments, the familiar roar of the engine was a death knell. Following close behind, I took my last trek down the dirt road. The rain started falling not long after. Steve, Jack, and a few others covered the items on the Winnebago with heavy tarps. I left in a daze.

The following day, as the rain fell in torrents, so did the tears.

A week later, I received a text with a video attachment. I couldn't believe my eyes.

The entire camp, save for a single cross from a miniature shrine built only weeks before, was completely gone. Empty. Not one structure left standing.

Though it was already dark by the time I received the video, something within me stirred. I had to see it for myself. I drove from my home in Freehold to Lakewood, bearing little mind to the potential of police presence, to the intersection of Cedar Bridge and Clover. Just like I'd done almost exactly eight months to the day - only this time, to confirm that it was really gone.

I pulled a few feet in, turned on my high beams, wondering if maybe it was all a bad dream. That I'd see the bus parked in its usual spot. That I'd see the gray cat run out from under the chapel. That Frances would come to my window. That I'd hear the roosters crowing and the hum of the generator. That someone would be there to guide me in a K-turn so I'd avoid hitting the trees, or to dig me out when my tires got stuck in the mounds of sugar sand.

But save for a few garbage bins, and of course, the cross, Tent City was no more.

I opened and closed my eyes a few times and just waited. It took a few minutes for it all to sink in.

And when it did, I realized just how alone I was. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

I Have Heard (Reprise)

This isn't the poem that opened this blog many months ago. It's the speech I made to the Lakewood Township Committee on behalf of Tent City, which is now in the final stages of being dismantled. The title comes from hoping THEY are the ones who heard.

Over the course of the past year, as I became involved in Tent City, Lakewood has become sort of a second home to me. For as they say, "home is where the heart is..." But I grew up only a few towns over from here. And there are some very noteworthy things about Lakewood. 
The first is a true sense of community – the “unity” being the biggest part of that. The second is the sense of identity and culture: the glue that binds the community together. Also admirable is the value placed upon knowledge, and the value placed upon family. 
But I’d like you to imagine, if you will, what you would do if you had to live without all that. If for whatever reason, you found yourself cast out, ostracized, and disconnected. Whether it happened as the result of a choice you made, or because of circumstances beyond your control. Or perhaps others’ perception that you were no longer worthy to be a part of your family, your neighborhood, or your society. 
If you have not, then you are among the rare and highly fortunate few. But again, try for just a moment to imagine your life without the people and things that define you. How painful and isolating that must be. 
No matter our background, culture, or beliefs, I believe our common thread as human beings is our need to connect to one another. To have a sense of belonging, and a sense of community. 
Those of us who support the homeless, were somehow able to reach beyond our own comfort zones and connect with people who have little. And by doing so, we ourselves have been blessed in so many ways. Most of all realizing that even though we’re coming from many different directions, races, creeds, and situations, we’re not that different at all. 
The notions of “home” and “neighbor” are so much more than just having a roof over one’s head. That is why watching Tent City, a community of the disenfranchised, being scattered to the four winds, rends my heart on a profound level. 
Because I believe every person in this room has, at some point in their lives, felt a sense of loneliness so powerful that it rocks the foundation of who we are. It makes us question and doubt ourselves and our very identity. After spending a good deal of time with the residents, I know that is what the people of Tent City are feeling right now. 
That is why I call upon every person here to look deeply into your hearts, find it within yourselves step outside your respective comfort zones. And after you look deeply into your own hearts, raise your eyes, and without fear or reservation, look into the hearts of others. 
I call upon you to think not of the past, but the future. And whether you will help us build upon the lessons of Tent City, and work with us build something better. More sustainable. More comprehensive. A community of individuals that, like Tent City strove to be, regardless of their differences, turned into a neighborhood. And a community that you can proudly say are YOUR neighbors. 
I believe it can be done, and that it SHOULD be done. 
Thank you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Moving Forward

Today - just over seven months after my first visit - was my last time in Tent City of Lakewood, NJ. I said the good-byes I needed to say, hugged a tree or two (and consequently got covered in MORE SAP), and drove off.

And as I sit here right now and type this, I feel a complete sense of peace. It wasn't an easy decision, but for me, it was the right one.

This truly is something I've been praying and thinking on for quite a while. And let me make it clear that I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever about the time I've spent there. Quite the opposite - I'm taking so much with me. Friendships. Faith. Memories. Countless life lessons. An entirely new perspective, a renewed sense of purpose, and a more confident sense of direction. But where there once stood a place of hope in the wilderness, there now stands little more than desolation. I have put forth my best efforts helping those in need, but by now I truly believe those who remain have made a conscious choice to do so. It saddens me a bit, as I'm not sure whether it's out of fear, a false sense of comfort, or perhaps just having given up on themselves. Or, perhaps they're just too broken to let the light in. And if that's the case, there comes a point when you need to accept that you've done all you can do - that if someone isn't willing to help themselves, you can't force it.

Today, just like every day from the moment this journey started, I woke up and knew I had a choice. And just like I've been doing every day since the first, I chose love.

But a big (albeit difficult) part of love is knowing when it's time to let go.

To those who have shared the journey with me, I thank you all for everything you've done and continue to do for the people of Tent City. To all those who have supported me on this journey, know that I am still dedicated to serving the poor and the needy, and that my leap of faith was not in vain.

To all those who, like me, are moving forward and "being the change," you know where to find me. Here's to what's waiting for us on the other side of the bridge.

Peace and love to you all!

:-) Lisa

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Graduation Day



Over the course of these past few months working in Tent City, I had the tremendous fortune of encountering a student whose passion for helping the less fortunate knows no bounds.

Like thousands across the country and beyond this time of year, he is about to graduate and take the plunge into the so-called "real world." His experience - the dizzying sensation of stepping out of a four-year-old chrysalis and looking ahead into the great unknown - is both unique and universal. Although my own was almost twenty years ago to the day, its lessons and emotions are still vivid.

The first word that comes to mind when I think of my own college graduation? Trapped. Not optimistic, not hopeful, not any of that. Just, trapped. My father passed away when I was a freshman, and I'd bought a house with the inheritance money he'd left to me. Which meant I was tethered to the responsibilities it entailed. My mother already had a job lined up for me - as a receptionist at her friend's exterminating company. I knew I'd be moving back home, and I envied friends who would be spending their summer as they themselves chose: backpacking across Europe, lounging on the beach, delaying their foray into reality at their leisure.  I felt like after four years of being in complete control of my life (or at least believing I was), I was about to lose every ounce of independence I'd fought to gain. And for a while, I did. I got it back eventually, but it was not without a good deal of struggle.

But seeing this soon-to-be graduate, full of promise and faith, I'm confident he'll do well. He's one of those contagiously optimistic people you just know will succeed at whatever he puts his hand to.

Sometimes, though, when I hear him talk about it, I get the sense that even though he might not show it, there's a little bit of fear behind those childlike eyes. Just like anyone faced with a significant life change, he is still not completely certain about what's to come. He'll speak of dreams - heading cross-country with family, for example - or he'll say he's not worried. But the truth is, leaving the familiar behind - even when you know in your heart the future holds something better - can be scary. Especially when that entails relinquishing whatever independence you believe you have.

And even if you ARE ready to move forward, perhaps there are people in your inner circle who aren't. Who, because of their own insecurities and fear, will do everything in their power to keep you chained to the old ways of thinking and behaving. Who, like the subject of the Bruce Springsteen song "Glory Days" prefer to reside in the past.

Whether or not those people choose to follow you across the bridge, when the time comes, there will be plenty more people waiting with open hearts and open arms, to serve as guides and co-navigators, ready to reveal all the beautiful possibilities that await. I think of the words of Isaiah 43:18-19: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Congratulations to him and all the "graduates" who stand at the proverbial bridge, ready to make their way to a new destiny. Let it begin. Amen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Scattered




Every time I go to Tent City, the place feels slightly more empty, a little less neighborly. There are fewer and fewer familiar faces greeting me, hugging me, joking with me about the time I locked my keys in the car or got stuck on an ice-covered hill. 
Our little village is being scattered to the four winds. But hope still "springs" eternal.

The good news is, there are so many kindhearted, passionate people working to ensure that Tent City's former residents have what they need as they take their first steps back into society. Food, furnishings, clothes, transportation to and from jobs and Social Services. And prayers. Lots of prayers, that the rest of the transition will be a smooth one.

So we gather, we toil, we pray and uplift one another. And still, the cloud of uncertainty rolls in. Because we know it won't be an easy road. We know our society, by way of disinterested politicians, has stacked the odds against them.

There are many who have health issues that interfere with their ability to work, but they cannot obtain adequate healthcare or insurance. There are so few programs available to help those whose illnesses are exacerbated by a need to numb the pain - physical and/or mental - by self-medicating. The average cost of living in our fair state is over three times higher than the minimum wage, making it a struggle to stay out of debt.

There are those who had to sacrifice a beloved animal companion just so they could obtain housing.

And there are those who were offered vouchers in lieu of the year of free housing, and we can only hope that they will use them judiciously.

All of them were, or are currently being forced by a callous system to abandon the little community they called home.

Just the other day, a resident and I were talking about a self-care strategy she learned through Alcoholics Anonymous, known as "HALT." I'd heard of it many years ago when I was struggling with depression, as it applies not only to those in recovery, but to anyone in danger of succumbing to a state of despair.

HALT is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Dr. Gudrun Zomerland talks about this tool in detail on the Chinn Street Counseling website (found here). But for now, I'm going to focus on the "A" for Anger, and discuss why, at least for me, it's the hardest factor to address.

Because anger - unlike hunger, loneliness, and exhaustion - is not an easy thing to fix. The other things are easily satiated with tangibles like food, rest, community. But left unchecked, anger feeds on itself, growing to incapacitating proportions, resulting in the destruction of self or others, or mutating into other harmful emotions like fear, resentment, or self-pity. Which could then cloud our judgment and lead to poor choices.

But if you look carefully at this much-avoided emotion, you'll note that at the root of most anger is a pervasive sense of powerlessness.

We can, of course, turn it around and use it to our advantage - which most of us do. Because we know that through the Source of All Life, we are NOT powerless, and through us, neither are those whom we serve.

But sometimes - and rightfully so - we are still angry. Frustrated that we seem to be toiling for naught, as for each person we help, even more needy people are coming to us in need of assistance. While those in power turn a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a stony heart.

And with all the open-ended "why's" that come with each test, we continue to learn when it's time to use our anger, and when it's time to just let go and let God fill in the blanks.

Peace and love to you all!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Choice



In a short time, Tent City will be no more.

We are on a precipice, looking out into the unknown. Transition is scary, and it's a tremendous challenge. These past few weeks have called many, many things into question. 

And there is always the choice to say, this is too much for me. I've done all I can do.

In theory, I could listen to the naysayers who tell me I'm wasting my time. I am a being of free will. I could walk away right now, and I would be okay.

I would need some time to regroup and recalibrate, but in the long run, I would find my place once again, just like I did when I came to camp that autumn day.

And if I decide to move on, these are the things upon which I would reflect.

First off, in these past six months, I have learned a great deal about what it means to love unconditionally. Not loving because we expect to receive anything in return, but because in keeping an open heart and giving love freely, we are transformed.

Through my experience with Tent City, I’ve become a more balanced person physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because in order to make room for the things that were important to me, I had to learn how to be flexible and at the same time, not burn myself out.

And the payoff has been tremendous. I am thankful for the chance to grow in patience, strength, self-control, and the knowledge that I was able to use my gifts for the greater good. I gained the ability to just listen and exist within each perfect moment, having complete faith that everything would work itself out in the end.

In showing others that they had self-worth and dignity, I reconnected with my own. And as a result, I love the people in my life – my children, my mom and other family members, and my friends – more deeply.

I don’t always make good choices, but I am learning to be better at dealing with the consequences and making amends where necessary.

I’ve learned how to really meet people wherever they’re at, learn to speak the language of their respective hearts, and discovered that everyone has a story to tell and gifts to share in this world.

And yes, I’m learning how to tell the wildflowers from the weeds.

As for me, I am still (and will always be) a work in progress, but I am at complete peace knowing that I am exactly where I need to be, and all things are unfolding as they should.

I discovered just how alike we really are, no matter how different – because the light of the Divine lives inside every human being on this planet. 

Giving love for love’s sake is never a mistake. If someone is not ready or willing to receive it, that is on them. You are free at any moment to walk away without blame or bitterness, knowing you did what you could.

So if indeed I am mistaken in giving my all to something that may or may not have a future, I accept that. 

Because, just as 1 Corinthians 13:8 reminds us, love never fails. What you put out in life always, always comes back to you in some form, and in abundance.

Every day, when I wake up, I am free to choose.

And today, I choose love.

Friday, April 4, 2014

RIP Doug

Photo Courtesy of the Asbury Park Press
The call came during the Destiny's Bridge screening in Westfield tonight. Another resident of Tent City - Doug Hardman - had passed away.

Just yesterday, I was relaying stories about Doug to a friend. We'd had many conversations, shared a great deal of laughter, and sung many a duet together. Everyone who met Doug - myself included - was amazed by his intellect and depth of knowledge of multiple topics. His love for music manifested itself when he took turns at the Tent City piano. He left behind many notebooks filled with original compositions.

Doug was a long-term resident of Tent City, on and off for five years. He came to the woods in the middle of a snowstorm, on a cold January night.  Doug was a one time government contractor, handling multimillion dollar government contracts. After his wife passed away from cancer, he lost all motivation and lapsed into alcoholism - and it cost him his business. He then fell victim to shady dealings of a local social work program, which resulted in him being swindled out of his waterfront home:

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/10/12/anti-poverty-volunteer-keeps-profit-from-homeless-new-jersey-man-house-sale/

Doug had made many attempts to seek help and combat his alcoholism. Like others, he was awaiting his year of free housing, but after waiting for a year, he had still not been placed. For a time following his most recent stint in rehab, he was placed in a motel by Ocean County with no access to proper medical care. And then, when he was unable to single-handedly manage his illness, he was forcibly evicted from the motel where he was staying.

They didn't call a hospital or a counselor or anything. Just, "get out." To a man with an obvious sickness.

And after returning to Tent City around five days ago, he was found unresponsive and, even after multiple attempts to resuscitate him, lost his life.

Doug's brother James - a musician residing in California, whose talent was a topic of tremendous pride for Doug, and who also performed a live concert in Tent City back in November 2011 - received the news while vacationing with his wife for their anniversary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBVCNiSe09A

Doug's sons - one of whom lived in Tent City with Doug for a time - are now without a father. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiZPL2qF9Ws

And we who spent time with him at Tent City and knew of his gentle spirit and kind heart, lost a friend.

Doug, wherever you are now, I hope you've found the peace that your earthly life denied you. Know that you are loved, and you are missed.