We seldom receive phone calls from London here at the Urban Ministry Center, but that’s what happened one day a few weeks ago. She said her name was Sayo Ayodele and she was with Leaders’ Quest, an international leadership development organization based in London, New York and Singapore. She said she had been reading about us and wanted to visit our campus with a group of executives from Google who were participating in a Leaders’ Quest event. How do you respond to that request except to say, “come on”.
I asked Danielle Arthur, who directs our art studio, to create an experience for our visitors which would help them understand the people with whom we work, the challenges they face being homeless and what it takes to escape homelessness.
When someone visits the UMC for the first time, I like to ask them how they felt coming on to our campus and how it felt getting out of their car and entering one of our buildings. I asked our guests from Silicon Valley the same question. The answers included, “a little anxious”, “not sure what to expect”, “surprised by how many people are homeless”, “out of my comfort zone”. All honest answers because our campus is not like any other place most of us spend our time.
I explained to them our neighbors who are homeless have many of those same feelings the first time they come here. This means we have to create an atmosphere which is safe, welcoming, and hospitable. All the same things we expect when we visit someplace new.
To drive home this emphasis on our common humanity and common needs, Danielle and her artists created an experience to share called Contour Drawing. The way it works is we paired a homeless artist with a Google exec and the two of them then looked into the other’s eyes and drew portraits of one another. The challenge is one must not look down at their paper, but must maintain eye contact throughout the exercise. Sound uncomfortable? You bet.
During the 10 minutes of drawing there was much chatter, laughter, and expressions of encouragement.
Afterward I asked what happened, what did it mean to them, and what were they going to do now as a result of this experience? The answers were very revealing. “It’s hard to look at someone that long, but almost harder to be seen”. “I felt vulnerable, but decided to trust my partner”. One of our artists shared how she was intimidated by the thought of Google executives coming here, but ended up feeling proud to have been their host.
Time and again here at the Urban Ministry Center we are reminded that we are all in this life together. The well-being of the poorest among us and the well-being of the richest among us are inextricably tied together, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
Thank you Google; thank you artists for teaching us this lesson one more time.