Folks who have ever heard us talk about the six principles of hospitality have heard us say that the first thing to go when a person becomes homeless is agency: the right to exert power in their own lives. People lose options of choosing where they sleep, where they spend their time, where they take showers or brush their teeth, what they wear and what they eat.
There is always one well-meaning soul who says “Well, I guess if I was hungry I’d eat whatever was served to me.” I always explain that we give choices because it gives dignity for what could otherwise be an undignified situation. People who are homeless are a swath of humanity just like any population; they have allergies, they don’t like things they were forced to eat as children, there are texture issues- they’re exactly like having a potluck at your office.
When agency is granted, people’s attitudes change and they gain confidence and ability. When you give a person the choice to also volunteer and choose what tasks they’d like to do, you further their agency and increase their ability TO DO. Love Wins loves with a radical sort of love, so I’ve heard. Our guests get to take agency to the next level and not only choose what they eat, but they choose how it’s prepared and cook it themselves and then go a step further and serve one another. This leads to ownership and empowerment.
Our friend Dana* has taken her agency to the next level, and her story, like ripples in a pond, has had effects on the entire community. Dana is a very small woman, the tiniest woman who comes to the center. She has a tiny voice and a big, beautiful smile. When our guests sort donations, they make a pile of the tiniest things to offer to Dana and our co-worker, Alyssa, who wear the same size clothes and shoes. Our people are always trying to look out for us, even when we tell them that “leaders eat last”.
When Dana first came to the center, we noticed that even among her peers, she didn’t have very high standing. This was, unfortunately, because of a bias- Dana is trans: She was assigned male at birth but is currently transitioning to confirm her identity. Looking at her, she’s so slight and so obviously female, it’s hard to imagine her any other way, but people are afraid of what they don’t understand, so there is still a lot of teaching and guiding ahead for us.
However, agency is steering the boat.
Dana is an amazing cook. She was shy at first- she would just visit the kitchen to see what we were doing. Then she started asking if there was anything that needed to be done. Then she had ideas as she saw produce or meat come in. Our guests started to take notice of how tasty the food was. Dana started getting high-fives and fist bumps. One day after lunch her friends said “Wow, you really can cook!” and one of our other kitchen team members, Rob*, gave her a fist bump and exclaimed “Kitchen Team!” Her smile made my entire day.
Dana is now a full-fledged volunteer. She comes in early when she can to prep breakfast, sometimes before we even open. Yesterday she helped our volunteer crew coordinate big lunch. She knows where all of the kitchen things live, how sweet to make the tea, what needs to go out and where, and often serves with the volunteer groups; she’s not standing in line anymore, she’s being a leader, and we’re all so proud of her. Her standing among her peers has improved tremendously, and it’s changed hearts.
The quickest way to change a heart is for a person to care about the well-being of another. Agency allows people to shine and show their gifts to the world. The world looks at them differently, the world starts to love them. That’s when Love Wins with a radical love. Dana would like to get a job working professionally in a kitchen and is building her resume’ here. If you know anyone who would welcome her to their kitchen with open arms, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*As always, we change the names of guests in order to protect their privacy.