The latest edition of News from HOME, the Project HOME newsletter, has arrived in the mail. Below is a reprint of our lead story, a 25th anniversary reflection on one of our core themes -- community. If you are not currently receiving News from HOME, contact Michael Gainer at [email protected] or subscribe here.
On a recent Saturday at our 1515 Fairmount Avenue residence, we were holding one of our occasional potlatch parties, an informal community arts festival with music, poetry, art, and food. About sixty persons were there, a motley blend of residents, staff, volunteers, and friends. Over the course of the afternoon, folks came up to the open mike for impromptu performances, while others drew and painted at the arts table.
We had some new visitors that Saturday, a crew of girls from a suburban Catholic grade school. At one point, one of our residents, George, came to the mike to sing. An elderly gentleman who has lived for years in one of our residences for persons with mental health issues, George is high-spirited and loves to sing in his raspy, bluesy voice. He invited the girls to come up with him, and together they began belting out The Temptations’ “My Girl,” George on lead vocal and the girls an enthusiastic choir.
It was a remarkable moment. Profound social divides were bridged as George and the girls sang together. The labels melted away, the differences melded into an unlikely but beautiful bond.
As we celebrate our 25th anniversary throughout 2014, we are highlighting certain themes that have been core to Project HOME’s history and mission – Dignity, Community, and Transformation. For twenty-five years, we have experienced the magnificent and healing gift of community.
We live in a fiercely individualistic culture. Individualism is a deeply rooted social paradigm, so deep that we are not always aware how powerfully it shapes us and informs our behavior and interactions. On the positive side, individualism as a cultural value is linked to our historical commitment to personal liberties and civil rights – no person should be denied the chance to flourish or to pursue his or her own dreams.
But the dark side of extreme individualism is how it frays the bonds of relationship and community, and how it often strands a person to make it on his or her own. Hyper-individualism can create distance between us. It can give rise to social attitudes and public policies that divide us and minimize social supports. We are taught to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We get the subtle message that I am not my brother’s or sister’s keeper. We don’t want “our” tax dollars supporting “those” people.
Project HOME was born in relationships. Our earliest efforts of street outreach and our first shelters and residences grew out of relationships, friendships, deep bonds of connection that formed between and among persons who were normally occupying very different sides of profound social divisions.
We learned some powerful lessons in those early years. We touched a deep truth that we all share a common humanity, despite our differences. Whatever gifts or struggles each individual person has, we come to the fullness of our humanity when we share our lives and our experiences. As the African proverb puts it, “One is only human because of others, with others, and for others.”
Residents will frequently share that, in addition to the housing and services, it is the community spirit at Project HOME that empowers them in their recovery and rebuilding of their lives. Staff and volunteers likewise frequently express the importance of the sense of relationships and community that infuses our daily life at Project HOME.
In our mission statement, we write, “We believe that the ultimate answer to the degradation of homelessness and poverty is in the building of relationships and community.” But we believe all persons in our society are ultimately enriched when we free ourselves from the bonds of hyper-individualism and recognize the common humanity we all share. We also believe, at a political level, meaningful and effective public policies will only be possible when we foster a social ethos rooted in the notion of the common good.
One of our most powerful influences over the years has been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our great national prophet of the common good. King frequently spoke of “the Beloved Community,” his beautiful image of a just society that has transcended racial wounds and economic divisions. A few years ago, when our Resident Advisory Council was officially formed, the residents chose as their motto the words of Dr. King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The beautiful harmonies of George and the grade-school girls are an invitation to all of us to experience that common destiny, the Beloved Community.