Nashville, TN – I got the call that I was needed and I should come to the clinic immediately. The clinic sat on an especially impoverished stretch of Murfreesboro Road that would never be featured on any list of tourist attractions. The tiny space was constantly filled with people, most of whom had no insurance, no way to pay, and many who were currently experiencing homelessness in the area.
Walking through the waiting room that day is a blur in my memory but I found the room they had Megan* in easily–I could hear her sobs from the moment I stepped in the front door.
We had been waiting on tests and they came back positive with a life changing diagnosis no one wanted to hear. When I got into the room, the doctor was leaning in close to Meg on his rolling chair and the others in the room parted so that I could get to her.
When she saw me, she collapsed into my lap and sobbed. We had walked many hard roads together, and her utter fear and helplessness in the face of her new reality broke my heart into pieces. As I cried with her, the doctor scolded me for “not being the strong one” and keeping myself together.
I quickly countered that being able to sit and cry with her so she was not alone in her fear and grief was a great feat of strength and one I was quite proud of.
Tender care that day looked like not keeping my emotions in a box, not being the stoic separate service provider; it looked like acknowledging with her that this was going to be a long scary road but that she would not have to walk it alone.
Years earlier, when I first met Megan, she totally, completely, and without any discernible reason on my part, hated my guts. She never passed up an opportunity to remind me how much she despised me and got very creative in her insults and tirades, none of which were PG-rated enough to share.
Meg was in a horrifically abusive relationship, living on the street, and drinking herself into a stupor every day to escape the pain that was ever present in her soul and body. At first, her anger terrified me; it came out in hateful outbursts meant to push me away, and it almost worked.
But I am so very thankful that it didn’t. The shift came over time, and eventually I decided I wasn’t scared of her and she realized she couldn’t scream me away. Little by little, consistently showing up day by day and letting her know that she mattered, she turned out to be one of my favorite humans.
Meg and I worked for years to break her out of the cycle of abuse that was her relationship with her partner and her relationship with vodka. The demons of her past haunted her anytime she went more than a few hours without a drink. It was in those times that her panic, normally drowned under several pints, rose to the surface.
She had begged the other case worker to call me; they didn’t know what to do in the face of her hysteria and she told them to try me since I knew her “magic words.” I knew that the key to pulling her back into herself was to make her laugh and reorient her to her surroundings and out of the fear that had a grip on her mind and her lungs.
I’d speak over her panic: “Listen Meg, listen to me, tell me where you are and who you’re talking to. Come on goofball, you can get through this, you know it doesn’t last forever.” I said these words over and over until she answered me and giggled, and as quickly as the panic had taken over, it was lifted. This knowledge came from the effort I had put forth to see her as an individual, as a human, as more than her addiction or diagnosis or any other label easily slapped on her.
I’ve seen over and over again the power of being specifically sought out, being remembered, being known as an individual. Some of the moments that have most shifted my relationships with folks are the times that I remember which flavors of the Ensure protein drinks I keep on hand that they prefer.
Or, when I slip them a $5.00 McDonald’s card and tell them they are my favorite but not to tell anyone else. Or when I recognize that the cough I’m hearing has been around a while: “Why don’t we make an appointment and get that checked out?”
Little things from remembering the foot injury and following up with clean bandages to having a candy bar for them on their birthday, these small things add up. They acknowledge the shared humanity we have with our siblings on the street.
Whenever I’m asked to explain what an outreach worker is, I never seem to answer the same way. There doesn’t really seem to be any “normal” day on the street, and I find that my own definition and understanding of it is ever changing.
Most people attempt to relate my job to case management, and in some portions of my job that seems to kind of fit. At Open Table Nashville (OTN), it’s the relational piece that we hold so dear and that doesn’t fit into a box that I struggle to explain. It’s kind of a chaplain, kind of a therapist, kind of a nurse, kind of just being a friend and holding the hard stuff with people who are trying to live their lives on the streets.
Part of our mission at Open Table, Nashville is to be a community that journeys with the marginalized. We believe that people are not cases to be managed nor problems to be solved.
So what does that look like in practice? It means that we must learn to provide care not just to those who are regularly in our church’s pews but also those who are sleeping on the front steps. It means putting into action the belief that our friends on the street deserve unconditional positive regard, a healthy community, and compassionate care and kindness.
Stepping into this kind of care is rarely within our comfort zones and almost definitely requires us to revisit some of our deeply held beliefs about what it means to be in community. For Meg and me, it has meant moving into a place of heartbreaking vulnerability, and it has created a friendship that has forever altered the way that I walk through the world.
*Name has been changed to protect her privacy.