The Company You Keep

Back when we lived in Tallahassee, I attended one of those Ladies' Day Out events that churches like to hold. From among scenes that surely involved scones and scrapbooking, I remember just one activity: we ladies were administered a personality test, after which we gathered in four groups according to our test results and now clearly-defined dispositions.

Roughly 80% of the women filled one of the four circles--the one for extroverted, nurturing types. Most of the others sat in two of the remaining groups.

In the final circle sat a friend and I--the only opinionated introverts, apparently. We joked about how special we were, ha ha, until she took a second look at her test results.

"Oh," she said, glancing toward another group. "I'm actually supposed to be over there." She walked off to join the others, leaving a circle of Amy. Alone.

Yep. I don't always fit in.

Not often. With women, especially.

So it was with great surprise I noticed, three months into leading theatre sessions at a women's shelter, that I had chosen to spend time with women. And that we get along. And that no one's inviting me to candle parties.

Our lives and circumstances differ greatly, of course. Last week I arrived on the scene of Nat lying spread-eagle on the floor demonstrating how, the day before, a woman they all knew had been found, murdered. This week, a woman was suspended mid-conversation with me for not taking a shower, among other violations. Taking a shower is rule #1 at the shelter because, as the director puts it, many of the women have been hopping in and out of cars all night, and the shelter will stink if they don't clean themselves.

Yes, very different circumstances. Yet these homeless women are on my mind as often as the other important people in my life. I spend hours each week preparing for or debriefing from my time with them. But when I leave them I go home, where no one kicks me out for neglecting to take a shower.

Can sincere relationships exist across lines of privilege and power? Can friends live on such unequal terms?

When we first moved to Grand Rapids, we lived in a rental community for three years, as our house in Iowa took a long time to sell and we couldn't afford a new one. For a time while living there, I found myself arguing against owning property (okay, doing theatre under a framed Manifesto in the East Village had something to do with it, too). There I saw that only by living up close and personal, in the same circumstances, was I able to relate to, be trusted by, and help my neighbors.

All of us together faced discrimination by school zoning, because, as one official told me, renters are typically unreliable. Few of us could afford to purchase a house, and could commiserate over hearing each others' business through the walls. We shared joys, as well--a swimming pool, someone to shovel the walkway, free emergency repairs in the wee hours of the night.

But the living became difficult. This transient population lived by a different set of rules than we do, and we found ourselves among the only responsible adults on the block for a multitude of children. I gave out the band-aids. Greg saved the toddler playing in the drainhole in the middle of the parking lot. I cleaned blood off a girl who had been punched while waiting for the bus to school. We were glad to do it, but we burned out. The basketballs bouncing off the side of our building and therefore living room, the constant doorbell ringing, our three-year-old son getting punched on the patio when stepping out for fresh air--we couldn't continue like that.

And so we moved to the suburbs. Bought us some property. Life is more peaceful here, and we can find the rest we need in order to go out and serve others. Having scaled the walls of the private property issue and come down the other side, I'm confident that this choice is best for us, as long as I make an effort to be with those who can't have the life I do.

The poor we will always have with us, yes, but as Shane Claiborne says in The Irresistible Revolution, that's not Jesus telling us to take class structure for granted. It's him saying we are to have the poor with us. Be among them. He was in the home of an outcast leper when he said this.

But among and amidst never feels like enough to me. I hate knowing that I have more power and privilege than people I'd like to call friends. I like the women at the shelter. We enjoy our time together, and in many ways I fit in there better than I ever did with the Floridians.

More to the point, this isn't mere acceptance but a give and take kind of good.

When I was leaving the shelter on Monday night, I heard singing.

Earlier, as part of a fun exercise, I had asked the women to sing their lines as an opera star would. Now, as they gathered the common laundry and headed toward their sleeping bags, they called to each other with high operatic drama, happy laughs punctuating every couple notes. They made me smile, even as I crossed the urine-stained, bolt-locked threshold of The Open Door, and left for home.


  1. Thanks, Lisa. I had forgotten to point you just to the beginning of the post, as per our other conversation, so thanks for reading all the way through.


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