The Common Good
December 2004

Words To Live By

by Elizabeth Maxwell | December 2004

In telling their stories, guests at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen feast on divine mystery.

What has the writers workshop meant for you?

What has the writers workshop meant for you?" I asked Joe. He has been a guest, and then a volunteer, at our soup kitchen for several years. He’s been involved in the writing program for the last two. "Has it been a safe space?"

"Much more than a safe place!" Joe replied with some passion. "It has been more like a cauldron!"

This image of a cauldron - magician’s brew, or maybe just a humble soup pot - strikes me as weirdly, wonderfully apt for a writing program in a soup kitchen. The participants bring to it their hunger to tell their stories, to find their voices, to learn a craft, to be heard. The stew of poetry and prose, honesty and courage, nourishes them as they share their work and hear and support their colleagues. In the mix, there can be alchemy, though like all alchemy it is impossible to say exactly how it happens or where its magic resides. People touch a place within them where something new comes into being, and, maybe, they change. Sometimes the world changes too. In any case, the world is richer for the stories that have come into it.

The workshop takes place at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, the major outreach program of the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Episcopal parish in the Chelsea section of New York City. We’re the largest emergency feeding program in Manhattan and in the Episcopal church nationally. We serve between 1,100 and 1,400 guests every weekday, mostly men but also women and children from infancy to 80 and beyond; African American, white, Latino; bike messengers; ex-offenders; guys in suits; long-term homeless, and folks who never imagined they’d stand on a soup kitchen line. They may be addicted or mentally ill, they may have had a catastrophic illness, a divorce, or just been unable to find a job over a long time. Whoever they are, we try - sometimes more successfully than others – to offer them hospitality in Christ’s name, and to see Christ in them.

Ten years ago, the writer Ian Frazier came to me with the idea of starting a writers workshop for our guests. That first day, sitting at a table near the church’s exit door, he got more than 50 takers, each of whom told him about a story they wanted to write. A much smaller number actually showed up for the workshop, but somewhere between nine and 13 people sat together and wrote for about 40 minutes, and then read their writing to each other. Ian and co-teacher Bob Blaisdell wrote too. They proposed topics: shoes, how I came to New York, my first love, my worst day. Each week the writing was collected and typed, and at the end of the 10-week workshop, we produced an anthology. The workshop concluded with a public reading, and each participant read his or her favorite work. It was a resounding success.

The workshop has followed the same format every spring since, with other wonderful teachers getting involved along the way. Through the years a core group of writers has developed, and the stories they tell are heartfelt and often deeply moving. To their great, amazed delight, Seabury Press published Food for the Soul, a collection of their writings - one writer described seeing her work in print as "better than the best sex you’ve ever had." Anticipating publication, participant John Cabello penned a poem with these lines: "Let us meet next/Autumn at least at the park, in front of the building/When our book will be produced, as if to say/We are important, our lives a mystery that counts!"

FOR ME, THE workshop has been a revelation of that mystery. Initially I wasn’t convinced our guests would commit to something as intangible as a writing program. I thought they would be too focused on their basic needs to be interested. What I learned, though, is that writing is a basic human need. It includes the need to count, to express oneself and be heard, to make sense of the life one has lived, to use one’s imagination and language to make something new. Or, as Peter Nkruma put it in a piece called "Ten Rules for Living," "Create. How else will anyone know that you have been a part of life?"

In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks the world into existence. God speaks wild words - galaxies, rivers, mountains, pine trees, whales, giraffes, hummingbirds - and is delighted with the result. By the time God gets around to creating humankind in God’s own image, we have a picture of the divine as a profligate, playful artist of the word. Maybe one way human beings participate, not only in the community of creation but also in the divine mystery, is by creating as truly, skillfully, and passionately as we can. These writers bring order to chaos, name their experience, redeem loss and suffering through language, play with words, and delight in the realization that their work is good. Maybe the experience of creating has healing power in part because it opens us to the flow of the deep source of life within and joins us to something God is doing in the world. John Cabello’s poem touches on this idea: "Whatever may happen - either beauty,/Ugliness or many times something undefined,/I see all of us, sharing verbs, words, the real/Root of God’s spirit in us, longing to make work/Of high value."

The stories are unique and deeply universal at the same time. Some, raw and painful, seem particularly important because I don’t hear them in many other places. One writer tells of being pulled out of the East River after an alcohol-driven suicide attempt. Another describes losing his job, falling behind in his rent, and moving to a homeless shelter - a bewildering place where mice crawled on his bed, a man died of an overdose in the bathroom down the hall, and the tables in the dining hall were too dirty to touch. A third writes of being raped in childhood and then reads his words aloud - the first time he’s told the story to anyone. A woman tells about caring for her seriously ill son, and ultimately watching him die. Such stories, hard to bear, have stretched my heart and changed my understanding of the world I live in. I hope they change the way I live.

But many of the stories are also hilariously funny, deeply celebratory, or just plain quirky. They too are important. The talent in the writing is sometimes stunning, the courage even more so. I discover the challenges and struggles that poor people face in New York City, I realize the writers are so like me and utterly themselves, and I get a glimpse of the mystery that counts. The workshop’s alchemy has revealed a richer, more complex human community than I had known about, a community in which we all participate, whether we know it or not, because we are connected in that mystery.

When I ask participants what this project has meant for them, they say community has been a central part of the experience. They value the feeling that everyone - teachers included - shares the struggles and thrills of getting their thoughts down on paper. Perhaps because writing is hard, risky work, a foundational sense of good will has prevailed. Joe tells me the workshop also has been spiritual for him - it has given him the discipline of writing every day, a practice he says "gets the junk out." Tory says writing "purges the pain and coalesces things, so then I can deal with them." Similarly, for Joe, the workshop challenged him to write the truth and then offered the possibility of having it heard - "you have to read what you might never tell anybody." Having done that, he says, you have to stand by your truth. It changes you.

Carol, a red-haired Southern woman who says that when she came to the workshop seven years ago she was "desperately hungry and creatively bankrupt," credits the writing program with helping her find hope. It also reawakened a dream she laid aside in high school, when a teacher told her, "I have other students who write much better than you do." After that, she never bothered to write again, until she saw a flyer for this workshop. Eventually Carol began to volunteer at the soup kitchen and met people who could tell her where to get other help she needed. "I found medical attention, both physical and mental. I was able to deal with some long-standing issues.... It has been a long process, and I have not yet come full circle, but I’m almost there."

Many writers speak of "finding a voice" through the workshop - a voice that may be both creative and political. Joe, who had a serious heart attack several years ago, wrote about difficulties with his pharmacy. "When you get your feelings out, you learn you don’t have to put up with things. This gave me a step up." He has begun to advocate for himself. Carol says she has begun to speak out on behalf of others too. "The workshop has made me speak out about [former NYC mayor Rudy] Giuliani and the soup kitchen, about political people and the poor. It has caused me to reflect and speak out on the Iraq war. What I think, now I have the voice to say it."

Elizabeth Maxwell has been associate rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles and program director of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for 15 years.

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