The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Reflecting Upon ‘Freedom in Exile’ October 27, 2008

Filed under: Buddhism,healing,inspiration,Leadership,peace — Karen Shafer @ 8:49 pm

Monday, October 27, 2008

Reflecting Upon ‘Freedom In Exile’

I’m a little behind the times.  I am only just completing reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile, which came out in 1990.  I think it should be required reading for anyone interested in modern history and human rights, which ideally would be all of us.  Some things occurred to me in reflecting upon this powerful book:


~~The brutality of the Chinese Communists towards the Tibetan people, all the way back to the 1950’s, is staggering, and, while I knew there were abuses, I had no idea of the extent of them, which amounts to a holocaust.

~~Western ‘enlightened’ democracies, including the United States, turned their heads away from the problem decade after decade and allowed the decimation of the Tibetan countryside and the genocide against the Tibetan people to continue unabated.

~~While there has been some media coverage of the Tibetan situation, particularly the protests around the Olympics, I am frankly shocked that it has not been more comprehensive and urgent.

~~The United States Constitution advocates freedom of religion for all peoples, not just for Christians.

~~The People’s Republic of China is the increasingly powerful country which holds most of our national debt, and which is swiftly buying up interests in Africa.

~~Perhaps the most astonishing and moving thing of all in reading this powerful book is the extraordinary peacefulness and love towards the Chinese with which this Tibetan monk, the 14th Dalai Lama, writes of the atrocities committed against his fellow countrywomen and men.  Where does he get this ‘peace that passeth all understanding’?   How deep within must he go, with what rigorous religious training and practice, is he able to achieve this?  With what exceptional Grace (though I’m not sure this is a Buddhist term!) does he come to this exceptional place of peace and love within himself?


I think of my own struggles with judging other human beings.  For some reason, while I find it relatively easy to feel unconditional love for a friend who lives on the street and struggles with a crack addiction, I find it virtually impossible to feel this same love for a prosperous Dallasite who tells a racist joke at a cocktail party.  But, as a friend reminds me, the latter is also a virulent kind of poverty of the spirit.  And who am I to judge that as a worse sin than my own?

When I read passages like the following, I realize what an extraordinary human being the 14th Dalai Lama is.  I hope and pray that I will never be tempted to the hatred which he could so easily employ, but doesn’t.  From his Tibetan Government in Exile in India, he continues to put forth an agenda of nonviolence and what would seem to be an extremely optimistic Five Point Peace Plan for reconciliation between Tibet and the Chinese (first presented to the U.S. Congress in 1987.)

“Chairman Mao once said that political power comes from the barrel of a gun.  He was only partly right:  power that comes from the barrel of a gun can be effective only for a short time.  In the end, people’s love for truth, justice, freedom and democracy will triumph.  No matter what governments do, the human spirit will always prevail.”  

                                                    ~~(p. 263, Chapter 15, ‘Universal Responsibility and the Good Heart,’                                                         Freedom In Exile, The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama.)





Looking for, and Finding, Good Things October 20, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008


Looking For, and Finding, Good Things


As he came through the food line at the Bridge last week, Max (not his real name) leaned in to whisper in my ear when I handed him his plate, “I need to talk to you outside after dinner.”  “Sure,” I said, “Meet you out there.”


The service in the Second Chance Cafe was flawless as always.  We had three acapella singers with excellent voices serenade us in succession as over 700 people filed through to eat, then Pops arrived to play piano.  A few times during the meal, Edward St. John, Operations Director for the Stewpot meal services at the Bridge, came on the sound system and gave a weather forecast for the upcoming days.  “So prepare yourselves to stay warm if you’re sleeping outside,” he said with concern, “It’s going to be 52 degrees tomorrow night.”


After the meal, I stayed around to talk to Edward for a few minutes — we hadn’t worked the same meal shift for a couple of months.  When we’d gotten caught up on the news, he said, “We are really enjoying this [referring to fulfilling the meal service contract for the Bridge.]  It’s a big challenge, but we love it.”  I was glad to hear it, because the numbers of guests have been much higher at the Bridge than anyone predicted since it opened in May of this year, and the Stewpot has stepped up magnificently to the challenge of feeding them.  “It’s all about the [homeless] people,” he continued.  “Some good things are happening here at the Bridge.”  “The love shows in the way all of you are doing things,” I told him.  I had watched him greet people warmly all night when they came through the door.  I could tell our homeless friends were ‘under his skin,’ that his heart was genuinely open to them.


As I started to leave the cafe, I saw Max motioning to me through the glass door.  He pointed to a small courtyard off the dining room, mouthing “Meet me there.”  “I’m on my way,” I said.


I exited into the courtyard and walked slowly along the curving sidewalk, waiting for Max.  I was also looking for another friend who has been in the Residents’ Program inside the Bridge.  He was happy that he was about to ‘graduate’ and move into permanent supportive housing, having been steadily employed through the Bridge’s job placement program for many weeks.  I wanted to hear his story, but couldn’t find him in the clusters of homeless guests talking outside.  I noticed how quiet, clean and organized things were in the small courtyard where I was walking.  The activity there seemed purposeful.  It was just after sunset, and some of the women I know were already bedded down under the dining hall eaves, protecting themselves from the chill of the night air.  


I had noticed during the food service that many people had come through the line with blankets wrapped around them, and the rest were wearing coats.  The thing that was different from autumns past with the homeless in Dallas was that everyone was protected from the elements by some kind of covering, and the blankets and coats they had on were clean.  With the Bridge providing washers and dryers that the guests can sign up for, and twelve showers each for men and women, it’s now possible for people to clean up.  It’s quite a noticeable change. 


Every winter (since 2003) that I’ve seen our friends on the street, there have always been a number of people who had no protection from the weather whatsoever, neither blanket nor coat:  perhaps they had just become homeless in the past few days and had been unable to bring possessions with them, or perhaps their belongings had been stolen.  There may have been people without coats or blankets among the 700+ people we saw that night, but, if so, I didn’t see them.  This amounts to a revolution in my experience.  Yes, Edward is right, some good things are happening at the Bridge.


I looked up to see Max working his way towards me through a crowd of people in the courtyard who were waiting to enter a meeting room.  He gave me a bear hug and kiss on the cheek, as he always does.  “Hi, Mama,” he said, using the nickname he’s given me.


“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked him.  He leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “I’ve been off ______ [a street drug] for ______ weeks!”  Truth be told, I hadn’t known he was addicted, but I hugged him back and offered him congratulations.  “Are you going to meetings [twelve step]?  This is fantastic.  You look great, so clear and calm.”  “I feel great.  It’s because of this man,” and he introduced me to his mentor at the Bridge.  We three talked for a few more minutes, and I exited the courtyard and went to my car, feeling as if I were walking on air.  


I looked back at the beautiful facility that the voters of Dallas, with their compassionate hearts, provided for the homeless through a $23 million bond a few years back.  Warm light bathed the courtyard of the complex and poured from the windows.  It had been an unexpected joy to see Max doing well, on his path, waiting for a place in a rehabilitation center, but already into his sobriety.


Maybe you have to know first hand exactly how rocky things were in winters past to fully understand the radical change that has taken place in our city for our homeless friends, but, yes indeed, some very good things are happening at the Bridge.  We have to keep supporting the cooperative vision of Mike Faenza, Mike Rawlings, Bruce Buchanan, Joe Clifford, Mayor Tom Leppert and many others who, through thick and sometimes very thin, are making this happen.  Thank you, Dallas.




Practices for Mindful Living October 13, 2008

Filed under: Buddhism,healing,inspiration,Leadership,peace,Vietnam — Karen Shafer @ 3:56 pm

Monday, October 13, 2008


A few of Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggested practices for mindful living in our contemporary world:


“~~  Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.  Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world.  Find ways to be with those who are suffering, by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, and sound.  By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.


~~  Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry.  Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure.  Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.


~~  Do not maintain anger or hatred.  Learn to penetrate and transform them while they are still seeds in your consciousness.  As soon as anger or hatred arises, turn your attention to your breathing in order to see and understand the nature of your anger or hatred and the nature of the persons who have caused your anger or hatred.


~~  Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings.  Practice mindful breathing in order to come back to what is happening in the present moment.  Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing, both inside and around yourself.  Plant the seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.


~~  Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break.  Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.


~~  Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people.  Do not utter words that cause division and hatred.  Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain.  Do not criticize or condemn things that you are not sure of.  Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”


                                                                                        ~~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step


Reggie’s Story October 6, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

       Reggie Crawford, with whom I’m privileged to work when I volunteer at The Bridge homeless assistance center,  is one of the most inspiring and compassionate individuals I’ve met in a while.  I appreciate that Reggie and Street Zine have given me permission to reprint his story here.  KS


STEP Transformed Plan A & B Into G For Me

By Reggie Crawford


Like most people, I just wanted to live a normal life expecting nothing flashy, extravagant or extraordinary. 


My life started out very simple; I guess you could call me a military brat. My father was in the military for over thirty years, and my mother taught high school and did most of the kid raising of myself and six siblings. My mom was a very determined and strong woman who I think was my greatest influence because she always believed in me.


I went to college majoring in music education and business marketing. Upon graduation I quickly found a job as a music teacher which I hated. I was not mentally prepared for this work and I had no patience which is something you really need when you teach middle school kids. The bad notes were killing me! 


I quickly found that I needed another plan so I resorted to plan B, which was to join the military. There have been times in my life when I made some brilliant decisions and this was one of them.  While in college, I was in ROTC and already had a four year commitment. At that time, the Army had a one year delay entry program and I looked forward to and could not wait to enter the military.


I loved the Army, as a brand new second lieutenant; I was on my way up. Both of my parents were very proud; I had a new car, new house, lots of new friends, and a new attitude that spelled super arrogant. Some called it cocky, conceited, or even egotistic; but I will call it for what it really was, bone head.  In my mind, I really thought I was an icon, my family thought I was crazy, which was not far from the truth. 


My drive helped me get promotions and medals but after several years in the service I decided to give civilian life another try.  You have to remember that up to this point all I had known was military life. I was scared to death, but I still had plan B so if things did not work out in civilian life I could always return back to military life.


I went to work as a sales representative with a major company and continued to move up to a management position. After several years in sales I changed careers again and went to work as a loan manager at a major bank. I loved my civilian jobs and I loved my life. I guess you could say that I had the American dream; married with two great kids, a nice house and a dog named Human who I suspected hated me. 


I remember an unknown author who said “the only sure thing we know about life is that change will happen, be it good or bad.” Needless to say my change was really, really bad. My eighteen year marriage fell apart, I had several bad investments, and finally a job lay off.


The good life as I had known it was gone and I had helped the process by abusing drugs and alcohol which pretty much guarantees a meltdown in life. Here I was, without a wife, kids and job which presented me with the abnormal life of homelessness.  The self-centered, smug, and stuck up self was replaced by shame, embarrassment and guilt. Here I was sleeping on the streets, standing in line for meals, and hoping I could get myself out of this situation before I got myself killed.  Oh yeah, remember plan B? Now, I am too old to return to the military.


After one year and five months of living a homeless life, I realized that I really needed help. I’ll call it a ‘lifeline’ because I was drowning mentally and spiritually.  I decided to enter a program at The Stewpot called STEP (Stewpot Transitional Employment Program). This program was God sent for me; the people actually cared about my well being. Some of the people I met while in the STEP program have become true friends.  It is also while participating in this program that I learned about another plan.  I will call it plan G, God’s plan. 


Plan G is the reason I decided to write my story. I truly believe that God orchestrated this path for me, not because I am a bad person, but because I needed to be humbled.  I now understand that life is full of ups and downs, twist and turns and things that don’t always go as planned, but through God’s grace and faith nothing is too big to overcome. This journey has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.


Today, I am working as the dining room coordinator at the Second Chance Café, located at The Bridge. This gives me the opportunity to work with some of the best volunteers in the City of Dallas. My job is to make sure that the dining room runs smoothly while the meals are being served to the homeless population accessing services at The Bridge.


I thank everyone who has helped me along the way, but first and foremost, I thank God for his/her grace and understanding.


Reprinted from the October 2008 issue of Street Zine [].