When Edd Conboy took over orchestrating the Breaking Bread meals at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, he focused on developing as many ways as possible to counteract the constant messages about scarcity that their guests encounter each and every day. Like having to stand in line. The constant lining up for this service or that program is one of the most powerful reinforcers of the scarcity mindset. Lines also are a symbol of political imbalance — the wealthy do not wait in line; they have reserved first-class seats and priority access. Having to stand in line symbolizes helplessness, hopelessness and the constant concern that there is not enough … and that it will run out just before it is my turn. Edd did something about that.
At one point in her book Daring Greatly Brené Brown says, “The opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance or ‘more than you could ever imagine.’ The opposite of scarcity is enough, or what I call Wholeheartedness” [p. 29]. It’s noteworthy the messages we want to give to Broad Street Ministry’s guests is that “there is enough” — enough food, enough hygiene stuff, enough time, you name it.
It wasn’t always so. When I first took over the meal program there were always about 30 to 40 people standing in the front of the church — in some cases for as long as three hours before the doors would open. Well, “standing” is not quite accurate. They were pressing against the doors to try to get as close to the front of the queue as possible in order to get a number that would allow them to go to our Clothing Closet. Once there they could choose a pair of pants, a jacket and a shirt. It was just awful to see people racing up the stairs — literally stepping over other guests — in their desperation to get some clean clothes. In time I was able to introduce a lottery that removed the “first come, first served” pressure. Instead, everyone would have a chance to win a trip to the closet.
This marked the first phase of what my staff began calling “Edd’s De-lineafication Program.” Proud moment that it was (well, not really — it’s hard to be proud of making a humiliating situation less humiliating, but it isn’t nothing either), there were still more lines to conquer. And one by one I took them on.
Now, after more than two years, almost all the lines at Broad Street Ministry are gone. The last one is the one line that I just may leave alone and see what occurs over time because it is the one line that is allowing me to see my world a little differently, a little more fully. You see, even though there is no urgency about getting into the dining room first, and even though we now open our doors an hour before the dining room opens so that folks can see our nurses, or get their mail, or just sit in our big room downstairs, even with all that, some of our guests still get in line about five minutes before the dining room opens. There is still that possibility that there won’t be a place for them at the table — even though there has been a place for them at every meal, every week, for more than two years. Such is the power of scarcity.
What Am I Not Seeing?
A few years ago my dad had cataracts removed from his eyes. The cataracts had developed slowly over the years, decades probably. When I asked him how he was doing afterwards, he said, I can see blue now. I had forgotten all about blue. The cataracts had happened so gradually that he hadn’t noticed that the color blue was making a quiet exit from his life. On some level, though, I suppose he had been aware that his life was diminished, even if he couldn’t put his finger on the reason why …
So, the other day I was in problem-solving mode watching the line develop once again five minutes before the dining room opened. I noticed how the men (it is mostly men in this line) actually changed the way they walked. As I looked closer, I got the sense that they were shuffling, rather than walking. It was as if they were in prison and their legs were shackled. Of course, I thought, most of them probably were in a prison of sorts, and some had been in an actual one not so long ago. They are just so used to lining up that they now do it automatically.
It seemed at the time to be an important insight. At another time in my life I would have stopped there. An important insight. Another problem to be solved. Another way I can be helpful, and in so doing I would be disconnected. For some reason I decided to stay where I was. To keep looking. Just noticing and allowing whatever was there in front of me to emerge. And that’s when I thought of my dad and his color blue.
What is my cataract? What has slowly distorted and diminished my view of the world so gradually and so completely that it has become just like the yellow filter that my dad became accustomed to? What has altered my view so much so that, like my dad’s, the diminished world has become real and seemingly whole for a long time?
As I sat there, I began to wonder about that line forming in front of me in a different way. I asked myself: What am I not seeing, and what is keeping me from seeing whatever it is that I am not seeing? A word immediately came to mind. It hit me like a ton of blue. The word was “cynicism.” I was sitting there holding a cynical view of the world and of those men in that line. The cynical view that says, Nothing will change … except maybe the color scheme of the prison cell …. In that moment my perception shifted ever so slightly, and in that shift I saw the whole room for the first time. I saw the room with an open heart. Brené Brown might say wholeheartedly.
What did I see in that moment that was so different from before? From one vantage point it was a small thing, but from the vantage point of wholeheartedness the shift was immense. I saw all the other people in the room. The folks (also mostly men) who were not in line. The ones who were trusting that there would be enough. And I noticed that some of them sitting casually at a table were the same ones who a few months ago were in that line. I saw a room full of men and women without shackles who trusted in enough. In a way I saw a room full of people who were trusting me and my team, trusting that we would connect with them wholeheartedly.
I began to see my own color blue. A hopeful color. A color of possibility. Of connection.
I then realized that I didn’t have to do anything about this line for the dining room. I could just sit with it, hold each person standing there with compassion and an open heart. I could acknowledge for the first time how much in a way I am like each of them. How easy it is for me to live in diminishment and scarcity, to become disconnected and ashamed. How easy it is for me to live in a world without blue.
And then I witnessed something that I had seen countless times before without noticing it. It was time for the dining room to open and the line began to move as it snaked up toward the stairs. From my vantage point the line just disappeared. It just dissolved right before my eyes. I don’t expect to see that line ever again without seeing a little bit of blue in it.
And for the first time I began to trust in the possibility that the line will just dissolve over time. Or not. And it doesn’t matter.
- A Place at the Table (Conboy/McKnight/Block conversation transcription)
- A Place at the Table (audio)
- Giving In to Joy (Masterson/McKnight/Conboy)
- Worms Everywhere (McKnight video)