Friendship Changes You

I stumbled across this piece of art today that was put together inspired by Mumford and Sons song, After the Storm.

Whenever we get an opportunity to see as brave and living and human, those who are regularly dehumanized, let's take it!

There are storms in the life of everyone. Sometimes it is just easier to see that someone has been through, or is in the midst of storms in their life. Some mental health issues manifest themselves in a way that can't always be hidden (nor should they have to be). Addictions can take hold of one's life and effect family and jobs and everything... some stay hidden forever (at least to the eyes of the public).  Homelessness can also stay hidden; I see it with youth who bounce from friend’s house to friend’s house, from couch to couch and perhaps never end up on the street with a blanket and a sign.

Yet again, a principle is established that if you can hide your brokenness society will love you and accept you, but if your pain, if your storms burst out onto the surface of your life then people just don't know what to do with you.

This video is another opportunity to see life and courage in places we don't often look.

When I was younger, the first song that did this for me was a rap song by the group Arrested Development called Mr. Wendal.


In the first place, the name of the song is perfect; MR. Wendal.  The title of 'Mister' not only immediately humanizes this man who calls the streets his home, but dignifies him; it is a term of respect.

The song immediately launches into how Mr. Wendal has become a teacher for the singer and all the wisdom he has to share. It talks about how Mr. Wendal has a freedom that we don't have, unconcerned by the things that we worry so much about. "What is truly uncivilized?" the song asks, "To eat from a garbage can or to participate in a society that so easily wastes that which can sustain another’s life?"

Finally the song pushes back that perhaps we are the uncivilized ones. We walk on those like Mr. Wendal; we don't even see them as human.

Treating all people with love, dignity and respect ultimately requires that I don't see myself as superior to Mr. Wendal, or to anyone who, for one reason or another, has found themselves without an address. The person struggling with addiction is my equal. The person wrestling with mental health issues has no less value or worth than I have.

One final piece of art that is relatively recent that I felt did a good job of helping to show the process of developing empathy for those who are so often overlooked is the film The Soloist. While, unfortunately it is the story of a successful white man and a homeless black man, it is a true story, so I hope we can forgive what is often a racial stereotype in terms of which colour of skin is often considered in the position of power.

The other reason that we might be able to forgive this film is because it flips this paradigm on its head.

The first thing that happens towards seeing humanity in what we have tended to fear  is to find the beauty there. This is easy for Steve Lopez to do when he meet Nathaniel Ayers Jr. because Nathaniel is a brilliantly gifted musician performing in a park. It is not always so simple to see the giftedness, passion or talent in those we meet... they might not even know it is there, but it is... if we want to tear down the divisions between us we must find the beauty in those who we have avoided (whatever the reason).

Secondarily, we must step down from our position of power. Steve Lopez can't be a friend to Nathaniel until he let's go of the urge to help him or fix him. The best thing that Steve can do for Nathaniel is be his friend, and he can't do that if he is always trying to impose his ideas of what is best for Nathaniel. He has to let go of that. Nathaniel's mental health issues might never improve, he may always be homeless... can you just be his friend if nothing ever changes? My challenge is that if you can't, you were never a friend at all. If your relationship with somebody is dependent upon your agenda for change in their life, you are not a friend.

The most beautiful thing is this movie to me is to see how Steve Lopez begins viewing the whole homeless community differently. His first visit to the organization "The Lamp" he is afraid, everyone looks frightening or strange and definitely threatening. However, as his visits continue so does his process towards his own humanity. You see, it's not the people in the community who have changed, it is Steve himself. He starts to become part of the community, his walls come down. What was once frightening and threatening has become familiar. There is an equality that has taken place... and it doesn't end there.

There is a scene in the film where the people at the Lamp are dancing. Some with addictions, some with mental health concerns, some with both... but something has changed. Steve's perspective has shifted, it is not just a kinship or an equality that we see in this scene; it is beauty. There is a freedom and beauty in the dancing and the way it is filmed leads us to only one way of viewing the people in this community; with LOVE! Again, these are the same people who were viewed with fear at one point in the film, now they are transformed... but it is not them who have changed, it is Steve Lopez. Even better, when art is at its best, it is not only Steve who is changed, but me!

Here's a quote from the film;

A year ago, I met a man who was down on his luck and thought I might be able to help him. I don't know that I have. Yes, my friend Mr. Ayers now sleeps inside. He has a key. He has a bed. But his mental state and his well-being are as precarious now as they were the day we met. There are people who tell me I've helped him. Mental health experts, who say that the simple act of being someone's friend can change his brain chemistry, improve his functioning in the world. I can't speak for Mr. Ayers in that regard. Maybe our friendship has helped him. But maybe not. I can, however, speak for myself. I can tell you that by witnessing Mr. Ayers's courage, his humility, his faith in the power of his art, I've learned the dignity of being loyal to something you believe in; of holding onto it, above all else. Of believing, without question, that it will carry you home.

I can speak for myself... I've learned.

This too is one of my most prominent messages from my time working with youth in my community. Perhaps I've done some good, perhaps I've helped some people, perhaps there are young adults today who were influence for the better because I was part of their life. However, that is their story to tell, I can only speak for myself. My experiences with poverty and homelessness have changed me. My opportunities to build relationships with people who look, sound, dress and think differently from me have changed me. Perhaps most of all, my time working with youth, hearing their stories, spending time with them, building friendships, has changed me.

A group of teenagers in so many communities is viewed with suspicion and fear; much like our homeless population or the woman talking to herself as she plods through the plaza. Perspective has dehumanized and stigmatized rather than seeing beauty and opportunity and humanity.

It is troubling not only that our society is so quick to judge visible brokenness and steer clear of it whenever possible; we really do the same with anything that we view as being just too different from us. Race, age, religion, clothing, money, housing, the health of one's mind or body; these are not the things that ought to decide whether or not we treat someone with humanity, with dignity, with respect, WITH LOVE! When these things alone cause a feeling of suspicion or fear to creep up the back of our neck, it is likely us who needs to change, not them.

A friend of mine left this

A friend of mine left this comment for me on facebook;

Fu$*ing Bravo Ken! Not only beautifully written but amazing how when we all look into our hearts & souls we realise how true your statements are.

It is unfortunate that there are some people in this world have caused many of us to fear, but why judge all people of different ethenic backgrounds or social status because of the few bad apples that we've heard stories of?

It is amazing how you can feel when you take a minute out of believing you are God's gift and see that maybe in fact the others we turn our noses up at may actually be his real gift. More often than not these people are not victims of their own choices, but rather were born in difficult situations that you and I can not even fathom and have made choices based on their circumstances. Instead of thinking that many of these people chose their life paths through drugs or alcohol or not choosing to work, maybe we should give the benefit of the doubt that for some of these people the streets were actually more safe than the homes they came from? That possibly they were affected by the economy as many of us were but didn't have a friend or family to turn to as many of us are fortunate enough to have.
I hope that people who haven't been affected by the sometimes cruel world we live in read your blog and next time they pass a homeless person or someone with mental or visually apparent physical illness/disability that instead of judging they will say hello, how are you Mr. or Ms.?
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