I stopped and stared at the former site of City Gospel Mission. The chapel had been preserved but a large portion of the building that once housed participants in CGM’s programs had been excavated. The gaping hole reminded me of how a writing circle for the men had sprouted in the space of the new building on Dalton, and not the now-flattened soil of the old there on Elm.
“We can’t put writing in the title,” I had told the programming director at City Gospel Mission when discussing the class, to be held at the new center. “Too intimidating.”
“Use something with words, journey in words. Short, to the point.”
Thus, the foundation of a writing circle for men in transition at City Gospel Mission was constructed. But, before the circle was formed, the idea had sprung from a need, my need, to connect and understand. A need to fill that now gaping hole with meaning.
Would a Monday morning be incentive enough to rouse the men into a room where the format of poetry interpretation and a means of communication had been as intimidating as the word write? What would I use to inhabit that space and time?
I look back on the themes we have discussed, the simplicity of the format of the class, and see how much the circle, with intention and care, has grown. Not by my guidance, but by the willingness of the men to share with me their past and future paths. By their demonstrating an earnestness for conversation, a vulnerability to ask, “what does disdain mean,” showing compassion to other men, and at times, as humans in uncomfortable situations are want to do, to yuck it up.
They don’t have need for writing compositions or interpreting poetry for a grade. They are mostly here for a hot meal, a warm bed and support as they transition to a world which seems so moderately-paced for the rest of us, but a world that sped up and left them behind.
But for an hour, every Monday, they are remembered, known.
I have loved them all, in each their own way. And I miss them when they transition out. I miss the learning each one offered. “We are each other’s mirror,” one participant said, and it is no more true than when we look into the eyes of one another, black and white and Hispanic, old and young, former felons, painters, electricians and cooks.
We discuss our days same as any friends about my mother’s care home and their families or appointments for the day. How are you progressing? How is the bike working? See you at the library. Have you read James Baldwin, do you like Wendell Berry, how about Mary Oliver? How do we talk about our animal selves? For an hour, they have a choice to reflect on the centrifugal force of the washer they have spun in throughout their lives, or they can leave that washer and place themselves squarely in the poem, in William Stafford’s shoes, in Terrance Hayes’ place.
Each week, I have snuck a few more practices of community building into their lives. Eventually, they even passed the stone and said not only their names but also one word to bring them into the day. Some made references to Revelations from Bible Study. One said, 666. One said, Joy. A word for where their mind was that day.
After we discuss the poems, the poet’s meaning and our interpretation, the men are given time to write. I always write. It’s the best model I can offer and in the depth of our shared time, I have penned pieces that would not come from my ordinary experiences. After ten minutes, I look up and realize that the men are all done, though sometimes I am surprised to find that one man might still be writing.
There is a competition for those to read first. Each week, six or seven men share what they wrote. Others add via their speaking and not writing voice, embarrassed by their composition skills. And still others nod their head. Their silence too is a voice.
Lately, I began asking for their work. If they wanted to be “heard” by my reading their words, later, out of class. If they wanted a wider audience to read their words, through the communications of City Gospel Mission in brochures, in flyers. There was a rush to submit words that had never been digested, or sentiments that had never seen the light of day, other than the reflection off white page staring back at them.
The men and I don’t have all the answers to homelessness, mental health challenges, poverty and crime, but for an hour each week, these men are willing to ask the question, to tell their truths and engage in what they might not understand.
While some might mourn the passing of the purpose of that former CGM site, I don’t. I see the excavation as a metaphor for a change in how society views those experiencing homeless, an inclination to dig below the surface. And I see the new structure as representation for the men’s lives and their readiness to recreate themselves. Writing, a journey in words, is simply giving shape to that fresh form.