Nurturing Curiosity

In my attempt to cultivate the virtue of curiosity, I decided to have a chat with a friend of mine—we’ll call him Christopher. This might seem like a strange way to nurture my curiosity, particularly when I have been friends with Christopher for almost my entire life. What could I be curious about? I know practically everything about him. However, the one thing that we don’t talk about is politics; or at least politics broadly defined. So, I thought it’d be intriguing to ask him about his views on how the government should be run, and how individuals should operate within this economic system, specifically concerning people experiencing homelessness.

I was initially wary entering into this conversation as it was never territory into which we had ventured together. However, I trusted our built-up stores of goodwill towards each other and found that my trust was well placed. Additionally, as I was entering into this conversation with the intent to explore and grow in curiosity, I knew that I would not bring up any alternative positions. Thus, I truly was interested in his answers (even though I suspected they would, in many ways, differ from mine) and the process of how he came to hold those beliefs and convictions.

The actual conversation was refreshing. While there were times that I found myself biting my tongue so as to not share my own opinions, on the whole, I felt able to let myself be curious. In doing so, any moment where I may have felt myself wanting to provide a counterpoint instead resulted in a question that helped me understand more of the underlying framework for his response. Asking questions like, “Did you grow up believing that?”, “Were these topics of conversation at home/around the dinner table?” “How have your parents shaped your view on this topic?” or “Has anything happened to shape or change that view recently?” helped more fully flesh out the picture of Christopher that was being painted in this conversation. This last question in particular yielded the most insightful and interesting (for me) story that Christopher shared.

Immediately after graduating from college, Christopher worked at a Starbucks. At this specific Starbucks, he mentioned that there weren’t any employees who shared his beliefs both on a political-social level and on a philosophical-religious level. He knew this because everyone would speak openly about their beliefs through the headset intercom. This was the first time that Christopher had ever been exposed to such divergent views than his own and, in a sense, he was forced to listen. He said he wouldn’t ever share his own thoughts through the intercom, but through the process of listening to people share, began to understand why these people—people with whom he had never associated—think and act the way that they do. For Christopher, this helped soften his own beliefs and helped him empathize with people with whom he often finds himself disagreeing.

We can’t all sit down and have hour-long conversations (or have a headset strapped to our ear) with people who think about an issue differently than we do. But even just doing it once has helped nurture my sense of curiosity. This conversation helped me settle with the fact that having something you believe in—something you might have strong convictions about—problematized isn’t always a bad thing. Most of us have heard of the dangers of groupthink and the importance of the lone dissenter. But in our day-to-day lives, how often do we actually think about the ways that we surround ourselves with like-minded people. I currently find myself in a situation where almost all of the people I interact with have similar thoughts about most social issues. After my conversation with Christopher, however, I now feel galvanized to start seeking out more people in my life that will challenge my beliefs so that I might, if nothing else, grow in empathy and curiosity.

How Gratitude Sparks Humility

Humility is an elusive virtue. As the adage goes: as soon as you think you have it, you’ve lost it. But, just like any virtue, it is something that must be cultivated. It must be practiced. So how do you cultivate humility without losing it? This is something that I’ve been thinking through during my work with Housing For New Hope.

It’s funny, in the process of creating and sending out this survey on the lay-person’s perception of homelessness, before even receiving any responses, I am predicting the frustrating “close-minded” answers of people who I am predicting aren’t being charitable enough to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. How dare these imaginary people neglect to consider the external and uncontrollable factors that have led to a person’s unfortunate circumstances? How dare they chalk the cause of homelessness exclusively up to poor decision-making and sheer lack of will? Don’t they understand the systemic problems underlying the housing crisis? I am now contriving imaginary situations about which to be frustrated. My criticism knows no bounds.

Here’s a more realistic event of my arrogance. The other day, I was driving and came to a stoplight. I looked to my right and was immediately filled with frustration. How can it be, that a simple bumper sticker could so drastically knock me from my Bon Iver induced state of bliss? It just so happens that my kryptonite (or one of them) is the punisher slogan with a blue line for one of the skull’s dripping teeth. (For a very brief history of this slogan, visit this link). My initial reaction was to roll my eyes and consider all of the ways this person embodied the ideology of this bumper sticker: How dare he blur the lines between law enforcement and vigilante justice? How does this person treat strangers at the grocery store? Could I be driving next to a neo-nazi? (Remember my boundless criticism.) However, in a brief moment of repose, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to this person, at all. I wasn’t taking any time to think about the place from where this kind of speech may have originated. In the same way that I would want my imaginary survey participants to consider the external factors leading to homelessness, why wouldn’t I do the same concerning this man’s bumper sticker? The impetus for placing such a divisive bumper sticker on your vehicle comes from a much more complex set of experiences and backgrounds than I considered in that fleeting moment of frustration. I realized then, that I would never be able to truly enter into a positive and constructive relationship with this person if I was exclusively critical of them based on a singular outward expression. I needed to humbly consider this person’s humanity—their limits and particularities.

I believe it was Cicero that once said, “Gratitude is the mother of all virtues.” How, then, might gratitude spark the cultivation of humility? Perhaps it is gratitude for things that don’t seem, at first, beneficial—that seem limiting. Like the small, mono-racial town you might have grown up in, or the limited exposure to diverse opinions, that helps one become humble. Perhaps it is through a recognition of our limits that we learn what being a human is really about. If we neglect to be grateful for these limits, and the limits of those around us, we can tend to move forward in a dehumanizing fashion, forgetting to consider the humanity of those around us; those who might knock us from our Bon Iver induced states of bliss.

In this seasonal time of reentering the worlds from which we may have moved away, and as we gather around family and friend’s dinner tables—whether you think your uncle and sister-in-law is too “woke” or not “woke” enough—may we all seize opportunities to be grateful for our own experiences, and the experiences of those that sit across the table from us. And may we remember to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and show grace before we honk our horn…I mean, spew the unconsidered quip to our uncle’s comment about COVID.

Now, this is not to say that I don’t believe in human agency. I do believe that people should be responsible for their actions, even in light of the environments in which they have been formed. But if we are to hold firm to that principle, it should be tempered with an equally, if not more important consideration for that person’s limits and humanity. I’ll end this time of reflection with a question posed by author and activist, bell hooks, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time, remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” As humans living amongst other humans, it seems this is the tension into which we are called to dwell. I hope this reflection helps me to be less critical, and more charitable, of the future responses that I may encounter in this survey. May my gratitude lead to humility, and my humility, to compassion.


Ending Homelessness with Housing for New Hope

As of February 2021, there were 391 people experiencing HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) defined homelessness in Durham County. One might think this number to be low, but this is based on a count done on (historically) the coldest night of the year. As of February, 391 people had nowhere else to go—and thus had to sleep outside—on the coldest night of the year. Housing for New Hope (HNH) is one of the leading agencies in Durham with the ambitious goal of ending homelessness, one valuable person at a time. Their aim is that someday, everyone in Durham will not just have a place to stay on the coldest night of the year, but that everyone will have a place to call home.

As ambitious as this sounds, HNH recognizes that many causes contribute to homelessness; the spectrum from the first night living unhoused to finding stable and permanent housing is long and complicated. And while many great agencies and shelters provide help at both ends of the spectrum, Housing for New Hope distinguishes itself as a transitional housing agency, affordable housing operator, and community case management organization.

As a graduate student in theology and ministry with a background in organizational leadership, I was drawn to Housing for New Hope’s commitment to data-informed decisions undergirded by the motivation to provide a basic right to our disadvantaged neighbors. I have always been committed to the idea that everyone deserves basic human rights. Working with Housing for New Hope is a way for me to put that commitment into action. Through Duke Engage, I will be working to strengthen current—and establish more—partnerships between Housing for New Hope and communities of faith in Durham. In my time working with these partnerships, one of my main projects will be to gain a better understanding of the Lay Person’s perception of homelessness. It often seems the case that those with the resources to assist their economically disadvantaged neighbors may not have a full picture of the dynamics and issues surrounding homelessness. To fully understand these perceptions, I will be creating a survey and working with different communities of faith that are currently involved with HNH’s work. The survey will include questions surrounding members’ perceptions concerning what they believe typically causes homelessness; what current barriers to homelessness might be; whether or not they believe that homelessness is a cause with a cure, and others. The survey and subsequent analysis will assess and explain an aspect of the current ways that church members are involved in and perceive the housing crisis in Durham and those who are most affected by it.

My hope is that this project, and working with various communities of faith, will help Housing for New Hope in its mission to end homelessness in Durham. Homelessness is a communal issue and it takes a community to solve it. In this work, I expect to further cultivate my own communal economic justice sensibilities. Growing up in the church, I bring my own set of experiences and perceptions of what economic justice looks like. This project will hopefully provide a framework for myself and other community members to start working towards a common goal and a unified vision of housing stability for all.