“Better together” is not just a nice sentiment. Now the science is pouring in. Being connected, being neighborly, is presently linked to staying healthy, happy, and even living longer! It turns out that sharing the warmth, warms us, too. Wise King Solomon wrote, “How can one be warm alone?” Indeed. Or as the group Volunteer Match, of New York City, puts it, “Help yourself by helping others.” At Hope House’s Family Support Center, we are run by the neighborhood we serve, with a little help from others who cheer us on. We ourselves don’t even get how amazing a feat this is most of the time! So come on a journey with us to explore the tremendous odds we are beating at our center. Let’s take a look at the actual science behind sharing…just so we can all see what miracles are happening on a regular basis at 91 College Street in downtown Lewiston!
Every single one of us has a human need to experience community…to share our lives and have people to look after. Positive face-to-face social interactions create biological responses in us. These can amazingly calm inflammation and stress levels that have now been linked to illness. Pain, depression, sleep difficulty and anxiety can all subside when feel-good hormones are released, just by our sharing in friendship with others!
On a recent Wednesday morning “Market Day” at our center, out of the 50+ families who attended or helped run the various help-services, you would have found these heart-tugging and inspiring stories behind their faces…we had 3 different families who had experienced recent home displacements due to fires, yet each were there to volunteer and help others…many who showed up in spite of tremendous physical challenges and disabilities…many skilled people, including teens, choosing to give their morning to doing some good for their community, instead of working for much-needed pay…a roomful of brave people still recovering from traumas caused by abuse, war trauma, and domestic violence…a young mother whose newborn son had just died that week, but whose little girl’s special needs drew her to come, in spite of her weariness, to get a few things from the center…some new residents, struggling with knowing just a few words in English and still reeling from culture shock, but so grateful for the chance to build a life here in our town…a brave 15 yr. old who came for her first ultrasound and prenatal care, but ended up needing to leave before her turn, overwhelmed by the crowd ( later returning, to get to see her little one wave at her!). In each case, the odds were against them being there. Each one’s presence was a special privilege for us to see and treasure, and a rare opportunity to pray with and encourage them in the challenges they faced.
There are other parents who show up each week towards the end of Wednesday morning, to avoid the hustle and bustle of the busiest shopping time. And while many parents come early and participate in our opening sharing and our prayer time, some end up leaving before their shopping number is called, or waiting even outside in the cold, because they feel claustrophobic around others. The lively music playing, the snack shop, the L A Cafe setting puts many at ease, but not all. Our hearts go out to those who struggle, and we know that it may be a symptom of the widespread epidemic in our town -- loneliness -- because “disconnection”, some researchers believe, produces a pain as real as any caused by a physical injury. It is now known that disconnection and loneliness actually activate our white blood cells to be in a state of high alert, as if we’re being assaulted by a bacterial infection or disease. It turns out that NOT sharing makes us more vulnerable to heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, and even the common cold. Neuroscientists point to community activities like volunteering and helping others as a great step in the right direction for health. Our bodies reward us for “loving our neighbor”. It seems we are wired for that. But it’s a choice some must muster up courage to make.
Interestingly, faith communities teach that the benefits of sharing are even greater if the sharing happens across divides, if we reach out to connect positively with those who are seen as “the other”. Like an exciting adventure, the more social risks we take in order to share, the greater the rewards. But it seems that social adventures are difficult unless we are truly convinced that our own needs will be met in the process. It’s hard for someone who has had trust betrayed, or has not found people who care, to reach out with courage and self-sacrifice.
Recent studies point to some modern challenges that tend to suck the energy right out of us when it comes to social adventuring. Census data shows there has been an increase in the number of people living alone, a decrease in marriage rates, and fewer people having children. Our culture now has a lot of independent people not necessarily finding fulfillment in traditional relationships within the “village”. Add to that the scars of trauma or abuse --at least 1 in 4 of us-- and it paints a picture of many people challenged with finding a place at the community table, so to speak…with knowing just if, and how, and who to trust…with knowing where a good table is…with struggling to be motivated and courageous enough to find the time and energy to show up. And once someone has been somewhat isolated for a period of time, geneticist Steve Cole explains the vicious cycle that they get stuck in: their “loneliness stimulates that white blood cell inflammatory response, the response feeds back to the brain and makes it irritable, suspicious, prone to negative emotions, and fearful of meeting new people and making new friends.”
We ourselves can sabotage what we need the most. In many people struggling to connect in relationship with others, a duel between the body and brain is what ensues, observes Stephanie Cacioppo, director of Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. The body longs to be with people, but the modern lonely brain, under the influence of the inflammatory response and heightened stress levels, senses a threat when it encounters others. “You put someone who is lonely into a room alone and every person who comes there will be perceived as a threat. The body wants to approach others, but the lonely brain sees more foes than friends,” notes Cacioppo. That unconscious sense of threat can misread others’ social signals, send out signals of aloofness by standing apart or preferring distance from others, cause sleep loss from a heightened sense of alarm, and generally leave one feeling drained. All these sensations can make it tough to be up for the adventure of socializing! And it makes it hard for those we encounter to even get close to us.
There is a story Jesus told about a man who threw a big dinner party. This man, in his desire to share his great feast, urged his workers to go out and invite anyone and everyone to come! They did, but there was still room. So he told the workers to go further out of town, to invite those along the highways, and to include even those people who were perhaps not as visible… those finding shelter behind the hedges! “Compel them to come in, that my house may be filled!” he said (Luke 14:23). This assignment was no doubt challenging, as the workers tried to reassure skeptical people that it was indeed a good thing to come on in to the party, and join the feast. Jesus used this story to show that God wants workers who are willing to make sacrifices to include even overlooked people. It requires sincerity, gentleness, and perseverance. But once God’s big heart of love for all is clearly seen, there is an excitement about letting people know they have a seat at the table too! And there is no need to fear anyone, even those who might initially treat us as a threat. Before long, they will get the idea that coming to the party is a good thing, and that by coming together, we all get to share God’s bountiful feast.
This last winter, our center was featured on a cable show, “Beyond the Pines”. Enjoy seeing a clip from it! It highlights some of the volunteers who man our center each week. Some speak of helping because they enjoy it so much! Some have given back for years, after being helped by the center when they were needing a hand. Many who volunteer are still appreciative of a helping hand, but are quick to share what they receive with other neighbors. Most have overcome incredible challenges, some are still overcoming a lot, and all exhibit impressive personal growth in their roles overseeing areas of the center. Each one is a special gift to our town.
Our summer activities gave a great chance to stretch out of our center’s inside spaces, and it again drew many families to enjoy the weekly backyard Farmer’s Market and children’s play yard. We hosted a July 4th BBQ, which included a Citizenship Game, and then a group walk into town to see the fireworks over Great Falls. A field trip to the Portland Headlight was also a highlight of the year, as Hudson Bus Lines again enabled several busloads of Lewiston families to enjoy a day at the beach. The summer events could not have happened without help from our Boston friends.
Our center’s Hope for the Holidays outreach lasted 5 weeks this year, drew packed houses to each event, and attracted many new families. Groups from around Maine and beyond enabled our longer outreach this year, and we were able to better establish new friendships built, as well as strengthen ongoing ties with area families who have been coming. See our website’s home page for a listing of the helpful agencies and churches that made our outreach possible, and take a few minutes to view Sun Journal photographer and reporter Russ Dillingham’s video of our Kids’ Coat & Toy Fair, manned by local volunteers and help from the Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston.
The Family Support Center was recently described by a young mom who brought her little girl to our Kids’ Coat & Toy Fair. She said it’s “the little gem in the city”. She discovered it upon moving here, when she was pregnant with her daughter. She was having a hard time getting prenatal care, and related that she was so relieved to have gotten that, along with her first ultrasound of her baby, at our Free Women’s Health Clinic. She beamed as she pointed to her now-toddler-age daughter, saying, “This is that baby!” She went on to get lots more help at the center, and speaks enthusiastically about it. While she has her hands full right now, we hope she ends up joining our volunteer ranks someday. She, and parents just like her, are the true treasure in our city! They create quite a shining gem, as they courageously come together to love their neighbors, to lend a little hope to the struggling, and most importantly, just to be willing to show up…and share the warmth.
WHAT ABOUT WHEN SHARING’S A STRETCH?
This last year brought challenges that enabled us to journey together towards greater reliance on God and greater sacrifice for each other. The teachings of Jesus sum up the Jewish laws with just 2: love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). Our Muslim neighbors read a similar exortation in the Hadith, Number 45, “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”
Loving your neighbor is made really simple when you remember that you must love them “as yourself”. As John the Baptist put it, “he who has two coats, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3: 8:11). Or as the Prophet Mohammed said, “Any Muslim who gives a Muslim a garment to wear will be in Allah’s safekeeping as long as a shred of it remains on him” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi). In the early days of Hope House, we had to buy clothing and baby furnishings from thrift stores and yard sales. Now, 34 years later, we rarely come to the center without finding donations of clothing, furnishings, housewares, and children’s items on our enclosed porch. Many in town are now regularly sharing their “2nd coat”, and that’s a great thing to see. We are grateful, and we see it as a hopeful sign of growing compassion in town.
For many families in Lewiston, the recession never ended. And so many are brand new in town, struggling to get one coat, let alone one to share. During a recent Wed. am sharing time, we were talking about the principle taught in all the Abrahamic faiths, that when you give, you receive. A boyfriend of one mom who attends called out, “That’s not true!” He no doubt reflected the crunch many in Lewiston feel to just make ends meet. But they may just be missing the bigger picture.
The last day of our holiday outreach drew out almost 100 families, many of whom poured in early and were there for our sharing and prayer time. Mogaza, Mkundo’s husband, opened the center and rallied all to participate in turning our hearts toward God at the start of the day. Bruce challenged us to recall the many ways that God miraculously met needs throughout the year. We were reminded that we had very few coats to start our coat-give-away season with, and we recalled how they had started trickling in, slowly at first… then pouring in! We remembered how some of our center’s families had donated some coats to begin with, then came some boxes from Aid for Kids, then a big van-full from Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston, reaching a climax from Channel 6’s Coat’s for Kids (thanks, Pam, for reaching out!). Before it did, though, God had led us to go ahead and put out flyers about our Kids’ Coat & Toy Fair, and to advertise coats being available throughout our 5-week outreach, trusting Him to bring in more coats (many families did not get the sizes needed by all their children on the day of the fair). God certainly did bring the needed coats in! But the giving had to start with us. It was a teachable moment…it IS true that when we give, we receive.
Sometimes God asks us to share our extra coat, and sometimes He wants to stretch our faith even more. Jessica is still recovering from serious smoke inhalation from her house fire, but she was found back at the center helping others during our center's busy fall season. And volunteer Mkundo also shares regularly, even when it's a stretch... she and her daughter Khadija generously delighted our Boston team of 32 with huge pans of sambusa, so the team could have a great lunch before the Kids' Coat & Toy Fair. This last year, many of us felt the “stretching”, as our center’s families’ homes, and cars, and health were allowed to be shaken. At the center and at our 2 host homes, we faced multiple repairs from frozen pipes, leaking roofs, and broken appliances. Much-needed volunteers were taken out-of-commission for a time through serious health issues and traumatic events. The Hope House van required a major repair, and Bruce and Jan needed physical repairs as well, facing a close call when cancer loomed, and feeling helpless for a time in the face of persistent health difficulties.
BUT God met, and is still meeting, each need! Gifts are continuing to come in from faithful supporters, repair work is being accessed or donated, health is being restored …but not without a season of patience, or continuing to serve in our weakness, and trusting God to get us through. Now we have awesome stories to tell…but there were many nights when fear banged at our doors, and we humbly fell on our faces before God and clung to His Word that He would deliver us and provide all our needs. Yet, we are learning that it is often by our sharing, even when we are the ones in deep need, that the windows of heaven open wide to pour down blessing that touches many. "'Prove Me now', says the Lord, 'and see if I will not open to you the windows of heaven, and pour out to you a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it' "(Malachi 3:10).
Just a quick update on Bruce and Jan’s family…their oldest, Rachel, and her husband, Norbert, are now living back in Hungary and feel they are back home. They continue to serve Christian leaders with encouraging retreats, a growing ministry for which they have been faithfully providing leadership. You can follow their work at: http://balaamsdonkey.com Their son, Joshua, is an assistant pastor in England. Their daughter, Anna, and her husband, Shiloh, as well as Josiah, and his wife, Julia, live in LA. Bruce and Jan got to meet their first great-grandchild, little Aubrieanne, when they were last in LA...she likes that her daddy (Josiah) works at Disneyland! Bruce's mom generously opens her LA home up to family as needed, and stays active and serving others still, at age 91!
Bruce and Jan’s oldest son, Zac, and his wife, Selina, and their family stay involved in the work of Hope House, helping out a lot. They live in a house overlooking Martin’s Point in Sabattus, and stay busy with their large, multi-talented family of 5 awesome children, ranging from 18yrs. to almost 2yrs.: Lilly, Emily, Zac, Olivia, Maddox…and of course, Ruby the puppy. Bruce's mom from LA visited with the Maine gang in the fall,and represented Hope House, along with Bruce and grandkids, at the MRLC convention. (Thanks, MRLC, for the award, we love you guys too!)
Bruce and Jan’s son, Noah, and his wife, Bora, and their two children, Jubilee, 9yrs., and Jinha, 6yrs., serve with Youth With a Mission in Seoul, South Korea. They are excited to have returned to Asia, where God had originally called them to serve, and to see all He is at work doing there especially among students from many countries. The cost of living for them will soon increase as their older neighborhood is being demolished and they will have to relocate. But they have a firm faith that God, who led them back, will provide as He always has.
Bruce and Jan’s daughter, Sarah, lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, and recently God brought her into new adventures…a new place to live, in a new city (she moved from Salem), new workplaces, and new special friends -- Daniel, and his great family. Bruce and Jan got to meet Daniel in LA recently, and he became a dear friend to them now as well. They can’t wait to see what God is up to with all the new things He is leading her into!
Our hearts are full with the goodness of God, and we at Hope House pray that 2020 is a year in which we all are able to share the warmth of His love with many!
Go out and share!
Bruce and Jan, and Hope House
SHARING THE WARMTH
Warmth of Sharing
“How can one be warm alone?” Eccl. 4:11
Come on in to the warmth of sharing,
Come on in and warm up your soul.
We all win if there’s more sharing!
How can one be warm alone?
Come on in from the storm,
Come on in to the warmth.
(C)2019 Jan Willson
“God puts the lonely in families.”
“We are no more strangers and foreigners,
but part of the household of God.”
We ourselves can sabotage what we need the most.
“Love your neighbor as yourself…
If a brother or sister need clothes or food, and one of you says ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you don’t give them what is needed, what good is that?
…You believe there is one God, and you do well to believe that;
but do you also know that faith without works is dead?”
James 2:8, 15&16, 19&20
Many in town are now regularly sharing their "2nd coat"
By our sharing, even in our need, windows open wide!
BRUCE & JAN'S FAMILY UPDATE
Jan's mom went home to be with the Lord this last year. We will always be grateful for her years of help and support to Hope House, and her legacy of caring for others. Because of God's love and mercy, we can look forward to seeing her again. (This is not goodbye, Mom, it's only "see you later"!)