Gifts of Transformation (Pt. 2)

From Pt. 1: I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?

These issues are complex, and my feelings of anger and powerlessness are real. But what’s also real is this: my four-year-old has a Christmas book called “Who Is Coming to Our House.” The story describes the many preparations that the animals undertake to prepare for the holy family’s coming: stacking hay, sweeping floors, and spinning beautiful webs to decorate the cowstall where Mary gives birth. It is a sweet retelling of the Nativity narrative, and it illuminates two important things for us: what we give, no matter how small, is necessary if it’s a help to our neighbor, and in the Christmas season, we are brought to see our Lord as a fragile baby, sleeping in a cowstall, his body the same as our bodies, our vulnerability shared with him.

Christ took on flesh, not out of duty or theological principle, but out of love. St. Athanasius writes that, in Christ’s incarnation, he “did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” What is this healing? What do we need Christ to teach us?

The answers to those questions, thankfully, are simple. What is healed is our separation from God and from each other, and what we need Christ to teach us is what he has already spoken: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” It is easy to see “the least of these” as abstractions, or as people suffering from issues that are distant from us. But what Carl’s story shows us is that privilege and status cannot protect us from brokenness. What happened to Carl could happen to you, or to me, for any number of reasons: poverty, anxiety, disability, a bounced check, a sudden illness, a lost job, a dying neighborhood. None of us is immune from suffering, and no single person is too far off to befriend and serve and love. As Carl says, we are all “brothers and sisters.” If we ourselves are so vulnerable, yet so connected, what does it mean for each of us to serve and love?

For me, and hopefully for you, it means giving more to the work of FOCUS North America. My financial gift, though small, can keep Carl serving food to many more people in the coming year. It can help FOCUS Detroit director Eric Shanburn hire plumbers for struggling Detroit families whose pipes have burst and whose paychecks don’t stretch far enough to cover cost. It can help the Renovation Angel project employ more at-risk youth to rehab kitchens; it can provide a Blessing Bag to a homeless neighbor on the street. But most importantly, it can connect me to FOCUS’s ongoing, life-giving work in the lives of men, women, and children whose struggles may be different than mine, but whose hearts are the same to God. If the animals in the stable could prepare a place for Christ, what more should we do when we see him in the faces of those whom FOCUS North America seeks to serve?

In this season of giving, it’s time we change the language. It’s time to see that, rather than donating, we are transforming lives and communities – and God willing, ourselves – through our financial contributions. It’s time to stop scrolling through news segments and start seeing, with clear eyes, the world that Christ came to heal. As you consider what you can give, know that me and my family are giving right alongside you, and that each dollar given is a step towards a transformed life, your own life included.

By Allison Backous Troy

Gifts of Transformation (Pt. 1)

“I try to change the language,” Carl says, his voice deep and direct. “These are our brothers and sisters…our citizens, our community.” At St. Herman House Cleveland, “changing the language” is key to the ongoing transformation that Carl Cook, head chef, sees in both his life and the lives of those who come to St. Herman’s for food, resources, and fellowship. He’s proud of the fact that, since 2012, over 70,000 hot meals have been served annually at St. Herman’s. But Carl also knows that words, like meals, have the power to nourish and restore.

How does Carl know this? And how does his ability to see the human face in a long dinner line speak to you, and me? He’s been in those lines himself. Twelve years sober, Carl has known homelessness, hunger, and addiction. His story of transformation is both honest and surprising, challenging and inspiring. For me, it both opens my eyes and encourages my heart, which is more prone to worry than to hope. And for FOCUS North America, it’s a living icon – in Carl’s story of change and renewal, we not only see a life transfigured, but a whole community transformed.

Carl’s journey to being St. Herman’s head chef starts in a surprising place – a middle class town, his father a politician and his mother a loving, doting presence. What plagued him was not a lack of privilege, but a learning disability. Carl was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, and its presence in his life brought him serious challenges and shame. His family “hired the best tutors…(and) my parents made sure I had the best education and the best tools,” but his confidence and sense of self took a very direct hit. The stress of his learning disability led him to secretly try a sip of alcohol at a family party, and by the age of twelve, he was sneaking alcohol into thermoses on camping trips; after culinary school, heroin and cocaine entered his life. He comments on how his journey into addiction came from a deeply personal, spiritual need. “Your only sickness,” he says, “is secrets. I hid it from my parents, I did different things my parents wanted me to do to make them happy. I kept (my addictions) secret from my parents for many, many years”

By 2005, Carl’s addictions were secrets no longer. After time in prison and alienation from his family, Carl found himself in an alley, drunk on wine, hoping that the police didn’t see him sneaking alcohol. He felt “comfortable, too comfortable” with his addictions and his isolation. And suddenly, he says “God just sent this clarity. My whole body froze. I could hear my (dead) father just talking to me…I had to make a very profound decision.”

That decision was sobriety. Ten months later, Carl was sober and working for a nonprofit’s hunger program, and in 2013, he took over as head chef for St. Herman’s Cleveland. His experiences on the street shaped his vision towards understanding homeless people as persons, not just statistics or passing faces.

“It starts with the name “the homeless,” he continues. “When we take away the word “homelessness” and look at a person, we may be open to see an individual. It starts with me and my team to look past homelessness and more at the individual and open the door to relationship.”

That word relationship is what strikes me as I look at myself and the work of FOCUS. I consider myself to be an educated advocate for the poor, the homeless, and the socially disenfranchised in America. I share impassioned posts on Facebook, I support FOCUS North America, and as part of a future clergy family, I wonder about the ways Orthodox Christians understand systemic poverty. I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?

To be continued.

By Allison Backous Troy