By: Drew Bonner
As a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, getting involved in the world outside of school was important. For someone who spends most of the week in the books and in my head, getting out and actually talking to people has become incredibly important for me. I came to Mercy as a part of Columbia’s Community Engagement Fellowship, a program which places students in communities or organizations for 8-10 hours per week. The goal of the program is for seminarians to get involved in the communities and issues around them while in seminary so that they will continue to do so when they move into their own congregations or other jobs.
At Mercy, I have found much more than a place to get out of the books. I have found a community of faith which can be brutally honest, something I was desperately needing in the midst of a theological education. I have found a place where I feel like I can belong. I have found a place where not only am I becoming involved, but I am learning and growing thanks to an incredible community of people with a vast array of knowledge. And I have found friends. The sights, sounds, and people at Mercy have become a welcome sight to me: from Tom’s explications on The Big Three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), to Dave’s awesome laugh, from Jennaro’s ever-present banter to Lance coming into the clothes closet just to chat with me, and from Terry’s daily handshakes to Craig’s wacky stories, I have found the amazing gift of being part of a diverse and wonderful community.
My time at Mercy is certainly not my first experience working with homelessness, but it is one of my first sustained experiences. For me, there is certainly a great difference between meeting someone once to serve a meal and getting to know someone over the course of a whole year. During my time at Mercy I have developed relationships which have taught me about life on the streets, about the issues which perpetuate our struggles with housing and food, about the ways in which organizations are helping or hurting the members of our community who have no shelter over their head—all things which I could not have learned from simply reading about them in the paper or online. To truly understand, I needed to learn about the challenges and hardships of the streets from those who experience them every day. I have come to understand more and more about addiction, recovery, looking for work, and issues of safety. Walking out and taking food to Catch-Out Corner and seeing the blankets and “spots” in the surrounding parks have helped me to connect the parts of their lives that I hear people talking about to the sights and actions of the streets. Through Bible study and Sunday morning church, I have learned to read scripture through a new lens, through the perspective of our community. The stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness or in exile take on a truer and more vivid meaning when reading with our community members for whom exile is a daily experience. Above all, I have learned compassion. I have learned that second and third and fourth chances do not always mean being a push-over, sometimes they are a part of a process toward healing. We must view each other with fresh eyes each day, because we have no idea what the night before held for the other.
I have learned about forgiveness, grace, and mercy. And God knows we all need more of each of these than we get. As I walk the streets of Poncey-Highlands these days, I don’t simply see homeless people. Instead, I see my community. I see people with faces and names and stories that are life-changing and life-giving. I see a people who care deeply about one another, are not afraid to speak bluntly with one another, and are able to forgive one another. I see God’s church enacting itself in new and beautiful ways.