Working at Network Coffeehouse, the goal is to be friendly. Christians being friendly; that’s what Network is. That’s what we do.
Sounds pretty simple, but oddly this makes answering questions about what you do a little challenging. The never-ending question that follows after I’ve explained this is, “Do you have success getting people off the street?” or “What do you do to help people get off the street?” or “How many people get off the street there?”
People want to hear about goals and a narrative of meeting those goals. Numbers tell a surface-level story that is easily accessed, digested, and understood.[^1] Goals and mission statements are a narrative about what an organization will do. It’s a pitch. We then act within that story to conform to the pre-constructed narrative.
But Network is about encounter. Narrative—our attempt to construct meaning—only occurs after encounter has already taken place.[^2] John Hicks, the guy who founded Network, says, “We are friends with real-life poor people.” Friendship takes encountering another person and opening yourself up enough to be encountered by someone else.
The second part, opening your heart to another, is the really hard part. Ryan Taylor, the co-director of Network, has been saying for a few months that a major part of coming to Network as staff or a volunteer is encountering the beggar within you. When you serve the poor, especially at a place like Network where the distracting varnish of goals and pre-set narrative is nonexistent, you will encounter parts of yourself you otherwise try to ignore: racism, prejudice, anger, sadness, loss, loneliness. Every shift I run at Network I meet myself at my very best and my most callous, passionless worst—sometimes in the exact same interaction.
In a nutshell, I found myself saying this at a professional networking event last night. Let me tell you, people looked at me like I was a crazy person. This, too, reveals our poverty. Our unwillingness or inability to encounter a person beyond a narrow narrative constrained by success and failure is a kind of societal violence we participate in without even thinking about it. We minimize each other and ourselves when we fail to encounter each other fully.
Pay attention. It’s the only currency that matters.
- [^1]: Kierkegaard calls this “glittering externality.”
- [^2]: Narrative often (always?) functions as a way to gain power over our experiences or the experiences and actions of others.