Monday, October 11, 2010

Out of the Comfort Zone

The priests were not protesting at Planned Parenthood on Sunday morning. I drove past them, thinking I might be too early.

Instead, I drove downtown. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I knew I would know it when I saw it.

I did, in an empty city block across from St. Louis City Library. The magnificent library is closed for renovation. Chained link fencing and orange plastic fencing encloses the work site. Streets are closed off. The grassy block, which probably somebody thought would double as a park, has a few trees and a lot of people at night, fewer during the day. They live there.

I admit this is WAY outside my comfort zone. Most of the people in the "park" were men. They were rolling bedding, stowing their belongings, preparing themselves for another day. As I parked the car, I saw one woman, and farther away, a young child with a man.
Jacqueline, ©2010 Jeane Vogel

Two people on a bench nearby watched as I got out of the car, flung a couple of cameras over my shoulder and made my way into a public space that was home to a dozen or more people.

Was I a little nervous? Sure? I'm a middle-aged spongy white woman armed with two professional cameras in a park of a dozen or more homeless people ... and I wanted something from them.

But I learned a lot time ago: people are people first. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and honesty. Is there evil in the world? Are there criminal sociopaths? Sure. But most people are not. And the people in this park were people first. I waited a respectful distant from one group until I was invited in.

Jacqueline was very happy to talk to me about the project. She apologized for still being in bed. She was moving slowly this morning.

She didn't want to talk about God. She did want to talk about being grateful for a warm October. She doesn't want to have to move into the shelter yet.

Keith, ©2010 Jeane Vogel
I talked to Jacqueline and her friend for a while. I opened a pack a crackers that four-year-old Jordan was having trouble with. Keith and I talked about the prospects for the project, where is was going and when it would be exhibited.

I had $6 in my wallet. They said they could get some lunch with that.

Homelessness is a disgrace. But people who are homeless are not. I'm grateful for welcome I got. And I know I will have to answer to some people: Are you crazy? they will ask. Did you have a gun? my mother will want to know. How could you do that? You could have been hurt! 

If one of my major principles for this project is that all people are people of faith, then all people have to be in the project. Not just people I'm comfortable with. Not just people who will pose for me in the studio. Not just people who live pretty, interesting lives.  But all people.

Homelessness is at epidemic proportions. People have lost their homes, their jobs, their safety nets. They have not lost their humanity.

While thousands of faces of God were found in churches early Sunday morning, they were also in that grassy city block that masquerades as a park, hoping the weather holds warm and dry for a few more weeks.

It was time well spent out of my comfort zone.


  1. Beautiful. Thanks for your courage ... and faith.

  2. "All people"....... A homeless person is grateful the weather is warm and dry. Makes me really think about the importance of some of the items on my gratitude list. This is important work you are doing here. Thank you Jeane!

  3. Thanks, Dianne and Renata. Someone commented to me privately after reading this: "A lot of them like to live on the street, you know." I thought that it was sad that we're willing to dismiss people so easily.

    Homelessness as a lifestyle choice? No. I don't buy it. This is too complicated to dismiss as a choice. This isn't lifestyle... it's survival.

    That comment confirmed my motivation for pursuing this project: is too easy not to see people we are uncomfortable with.

  4. I find it a pity that so many people are so quick to judge those who are homeless. It is truly unfortunate how many people won't acknowledge them or look them in the eye. It is good that you overcame your fears and spoke with some of the people in the park.

    I really appreciate what Artica has done to connect with the communities down by the riverfront, as it helps to raise cultural awareness. It was an honor to meet Jeremiah the Amish Hobo at HoBo University during Artica 2009.