“Where there is no vision the people are naked, but he who keeps Torah is blessed.” – Proverbs 29:18
It’s no secret that I am not a fan of a consumer culture which I observe to be oppressive. My observations and critiques have the potential to be read or heard as complaints. Therefore, it is my hope that this epilogue will make clear my thoughts on hospitality, my brief time seeking understanding, and my encouragement to others working for justice so that together we can create an alternative vision.
To guide us, an excerpt from Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics:
“The Biblical prophets were never just complaining; they were imaging a newer world! We must never be satisfied with protest or complaint… Rather we must do the harder, more creative, and ultimately more prophetic work of finding and offering alternatives.”
Today, can we commit to imaging a newer world is possible?
Will you commit to bring that new world, the world to come, into reality?
If so, critiques, protests, and complaints are not enough; neither are they prophetic.
Truly prophetic vision always offers a better alternative.
We need a prophetic vision that provides practical direction for us to move forward.
Does such a vision exist? It does.
Do we have an example to look toward? We do.
In it will means matter? Yes.
Below I highlight a Portland, OR based non-profit involved in building relationships with one of Portland’s most vulnerable communities; individuals and families who are houseless. I believe this particular non-profit provides the best existing model for loving and valuing all people.
If means matter, we must value everyone equally. That is, all employees and all community members, including all volunteers, matter equally!
We will focus on the Sisters Of The Road (SOTR) 501(c)3 organization and their Dining with Dignity Manual.
1) All Employees –
SOTR, to my knowledge, operates in an unparalleled manner compared to both for-profits and non-profits. I believe they embody a movement in which means do matter.
The non-profit organization operates with pay equity. As it was defined to me, everybody, regardless of position and duty starts out with the same income level. Regardless of position or duty everyone receives the same pay rate increase every year of employment. Their Board of Directors saw an inconsistency with their ideology of pay equity and previous affairs. To remedy that inconsistency, the Board removed salaried positions to ensure that everyone is paid for the time they work. As a result, everyone, regardless of position or duty, is paid hourly. Practically, that looks like every new hire starting at $16/hour; which, with a 40/hour work week, comes to $33,280 a year. It does not stop there. Every pay period their employees accrue vacation time, personal days, and sick leave. The pay rate and time off accrued increase with tenure. This is a built in way to focus on retention of employees in a non-profit sector fraught with high turn-over.
In addition, this non-profit organization provides all of it’s employees health benefits. That is, every employee is provided medical, dental, and vision insurance (currently through Kaiser).
Now get this, regardless of position or duty within the organization everybody spends 5% of their work week in the Cafe! That is brilliant! This creates a constant reminder that you are not just in charge of the budget for the budget’s sake, nor are you just out fund-raising for fund-raising’s sake, but every role within the organization is what keeps the houseless community fed and able to enjoy a safe, respectful space. I would go as far as to say it is a constant opportunity to build and maintain relationships with the community they are serving, because, as I have said before, true transformation comes through creating rest and relationships, not bandaids.
Because their primary space for engaging their community with rest and relationship is a cafe… everyone on staff gets a free meal daily. Each day offers hearty and nutritious choices. They cater to omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike.
As if the aforementioned organizational components of this non-profit were not providing enough of a better alternative, there is this… the entire organization is managed as a collective. This means, every employee is not merely staff, but a co-manager. Which means, all decision-making is based on a consensus model. This model has its challenges, because few of us are trained in how to effectively participate in a consensus structure. As such, SOTR provides training for new staff to better understand how to use their voice effectively.
I believe they get it. Means matter and people matter, all people. They are committed to providing their employees the resources needed to keep attention on the works of justice. Their organizational policies align well with the work they do. SOTR provides and advocates for the houseless community on a individual and systemic level. I am encouraged by SOTR, because they believe that both their houseless community members and their employees deserve affordable access to nutritious food, shelter, livable wages, and health care.
2) All Community Members –
Moving onward to the means by which Sisters of the Road Cafe serves its community… For 37 years they have operated under their mission:
“to build authentic relationships and alleviate the hunger of isolation in an atmosphere of nonviolence and gentle personalism that nurtures the whole individual, while seeking systemic solutions that reach the roots of homelessness and poverty to end them forever.”
In order to live out that mission daily in the Cafe, the founders Genevieve ‘Genny’ Nelson and Sandy Gooch created the Dining with Dignity Manual. Dining with Dignity practically manifests in a few ways:
Empowerment is dignifying; thus, SOTR Cafe supports empowerment by asking customers to pay for their meals in one fashion or another. The cafe accepts cash, barter work, food stamps (SNAP EBT), and meal coupons as payment. In fact, it was SOTR that worked with then Senator Mark Hatfield to introduce and successfully amend the U.S. Food Stamp Act to include Homeless Meal Provider language allowing, for the first time, people other than seniors to use food stamps for the purchase of prepared meals. Moreover, community members can work barter jobs in exchange for credit toward food and drink. One 15 minute barter shift funds a full plate of food and a drink (a $1.50 value).
Choice is dignifying; thus, SOTR Cafe provides choice by offering a menu of options daily. Since inception, SOTR Cafe continues to offer a large plate of rice, beans, and corn beard. In addition to the staple menu item a daily special is offered ranging from NW style stuffed peppers, veggies with bacon or mushrooms, green salad, and BBQ potato salad to a summer pesto pasta with garlic bread and broccoli slaw salad. Furthermore, sides like hard boiled eggs, extra salad, slice of corn bread, bowl of beans, and a bowl of rice can be added to the order. A cup of coffee or a glass of milk can be purchased for 25 cents.
Lines are undignified; thus, SOTR Cafe disbanded waiting in lines by implementing a time-slot reservation system in 2009. Through self-reflection and community involvement SOTR Cafe realized that waiting an hour long for a meal was not in support of their mission to “build authentic relationships” and “nurture the whole individual.” The new system removes the stigma of waiting for a hand-out and creates a safer, slower pace for building relationships and alleviating isolation. In fact, a group of high-school students my wife led around Portland aptly noticed the stark contrast between the cold, product oriented environment of a popular Portland donut spot and the warm, welcoming community environment of SOTR Cafe.
Classification is undignified; thus, SOTR Cafe blurs the visibly distinguishable lines between staff, volunteer, and community member by allowing everyone in their community to be both server and served. I believe, in building authentic relationships, it is important to be both the giver and receiver of hospitality, or as Craig Greenfield might say, “an alongsider”.
Rights are dignified; thus, SOTR Cafe honors and respects the rights of their community by obtaining written permission for release of any photo or video containing their community members. Homeless-tourism and voluntourism are new and abstract ideas to me, but at SOTR the staff are constantly aware of these practices. SOTR safeguards their community members by placing community member wishes first, above all other agendas including their own.
Engagement is dignified; thus, SOTR Cafe operates as a community organizing model by seeking input and surveying their community members’ needs. In 2001, SOTR conducted 600 one-to-one interviews to amplify the voices of people experiencing homelessness and made their qualitative data publicly available. SOTR actively recruits community members to sit on their Board of Directors. Also, it was through community forums that SOTR Cafe was asked to change their schedule from M-F to T-S to create access to nutritious meals on Saturdays.
3) All Volunteers –
SOTR shows no distinction between their community members and their volunteer base. That is, regardless of your reason for being in the Cafe, if you work a barter shift you are eligible to receive the proper barter credit compensation. Volunteers can then decide to donate those barter cards back to the Cafe, personally pay for another person’s meal, pay for their own meal, and/or redeem the barter cards for Portland Farmer’s Market tokens. What’s more, just like any barter shift worker, if a volunteer works any two hour period in a day they receive a free meal on top of their earned barter cards.
SOTR is currently living an alternative vision for how we can go about displaying to the world that all people matter!
PS. Alternatives may never be ‘perfect’, however, Sisters of the Road Cafe provides a clearer vision for us to consider.