Herding Butterflies

A few weeks ago, a little boy who is a faithful supporter of everything that goes on at Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table arrived in our living room and handed out three envelopes. Inside were several little white pieces of paper that had been cut and stapled together. One piece of paper was left unstapled, and he had written on it " and I love you too" in his large, uneven, first-grade print. He gave it to us with such an expression of joy on his face. What a great gift.

This treasure will remain on my desk for a long while. I want it there as a constant reminder that the best work is being done among the community of the poor when those who are poor begin to realize what their riches are and how they can use their resources to help others. Everyone brings resources and gifts to the table. Sure, there are times when it's not as easy to discern what the gifts are, and at times it's not clear how they are to be used. But I've found that holding onto the belief that everyone has resources of some kind helps guard against burnout. It also guards against feelings of "them" and "us" that can become part of the attitude we hold toward those who need our help.

Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table is a family resource center located in a Macon, Georgia-area public housing complex with severe gang problems, a high crime rate, and a large concentration of poverty. We began with a five-bedroom apartment and donated furniture, and-after we were in the community for six months-we obtained a three-bedroom apartment next door. The Macon Housing Authority said we surely had "special connections" to get approval so quickly.

Our special connection is to the people that we share life with in our center. We're attempting to faithfully respond to the grace God has given us and to the call to share our riches with those who have less. It's critical for us to find ways to make good connections with the community so that our work becomes a collaborative partnership. If we can keep this focus, the possibility of healing becomes much higher for those who are being helped and those who are helping. As the late Henri Nouwen said, "We are sharing our bandages." We must remember that we are wounded as much as our neighbors. Perhaps the manifestation of that woundedness is very different, but nonetheless we are wounded. We have come to this place to share our gifts because we are called to it and because we seek healing.

THE HOUSING COMPLEX holds a typical collection of folks with too little access to resources. There are 274 families-and more than 500 children-living here. There are 12 two-parent families and 50 senior citizens. The average income is $8,600 per year. The complex is located in one of Macon's historically black communities, and the economic level is mixed. The area, called Unionville, once thrived, but it now has few old and stable middle-class families and many highly mobile poor families. The poverty pockets in Unionville remind me of some who live in scandalous poverty in other parts of the world. This is one reason many of our visitors are surprised about the oasis we're creating at Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table.

We intend to make space for something other than crime, poverty, and despair to grow in Unionville. We have a fantastic garden in our back yard, and this fall we have 12 children involved. One of the boys is a large child who has many obstacles to overcome; he is a prime candidate for gang membership, if he is not diverted from that path. He loves gardening. He also is a regular in the after-school program, a member of the camera club, and he'll be joining the youth entrepreneur project when it starts. He helps younger children with their homework when he's finished his and helps with the chores of the after-school program. He also draws and wants to be an artist. And a few days ago we found a mentor for him when one of our neighbors brought an artist friend of hers to the community lunch we hold every Thursday.

We made space for this connection to occur by being in this place and by establishing this community lunch, a time when a diverse group of people gather around our table to share simple food and good fellowship. We've had as few as five people and as many as 50-gang members, college presidents, Housing Authority maintenance people, residents from the complex, students from the local colleges, and many others from across the city.

THERE IS MUCH conversation these days about the "poor" and the "homeless." While we must be concerned and act to make life better for everyone, we'd better be careful not "to do to the poor" but rather "to do with" those we would dare try and help. The difference might be a subtle one in theory, but in practice it turns out to be the difference between empowering someone and continuing to support them in being un-empowered. The spirit I'm talking about requires us to interrogate ourselves about our agendas and to stay open to the possibility that we might have to change them as we develop relationships with our neighbors and learn what they need, what they want, and what they can help to achieve.

One evening we took a group of children to a Wesleyan College event; every time we got some of the children seated, someone else needed to get water, go to the bathroom, or get up for some reason. It occurred to me that managing our little group was like managing a "herd" of butterflies. If we deal with butterflies in a calm and tender manner, we might be able to get one to sit on our shoulder or at least stay around and allow us to observe its incredible beauty. If we handle our neighbors and their children with calm and tenderness, if we share our wealth with the care that's necessary for "herding butterflies," we might be better able to create a world where communion can occur and community can be born.

Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table recently was given the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Community Partnership Award for excellence. We competed with 40 other programs in Georgia to win the award. People spoke about the spirit that exists in our place. We pray to God that whenever people speak about us, they will concentrate on the spirit of our center, and that we will remember it is the spirit of sharing and receiving we have to offer, and that all of us, those with many material resources and those with fewer material resources, share this spirit in common. Thanks be to God.

Catherine Meeks, a Sojourners contributing editor, is Clara Carter Acree Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Wesleyan College and executive director of Aunt Maggie's Kitchen Table.

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"Herding Butterflies"
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