I am searching for the “face of the divine” in the strangers circling me. I am searching to see them as more than the mob they have coalesced into. I am searching for the essence of our humanity, for the same kind of different we each share. And I am blind.
Fear does that.
It blinds me to seeing, as St. Benedict counselled, ‘the face of the divine’ in every stranger at the door.
My fear is not-ill placed.
I am at an open house for an apartment building the Foundation I work for is considering building. Some community members have already been clear they do not want this 28 unit apartment building for formerly homeless individuals in their community.
The challenge is, we are not there to talk about the people who will be housed. As I told one man, each person we house has the same right to live in community as you and I do.
But the people who have come to this open house do not want to talk about the merits of the development. Does it comply with zoning? Can we decrease the density? Can we change the facade?
They are there to tell us they do not want ‘those people’, or as one man called them the week before, ‘this litter’ in their community.
And my heart is heavy.
But I am not afraid. I believe in the power of our human capacity to connect, to ‘see’ beyond the labels and into the heart of what is the right thing to do.
And then suddenly, fear awakens.
Where the room is filled with small circles of people standing by the renderings we have on display of what the building will look like, talking to my co-workers at the various stations, it suddenly becomes a full blown mob.
All it takes is one woman yelling into the centre of the room “Gather round people. We gotta talk. I’m not liking what I’m hearing.”
And the crowd circles around her. Their murmuring becomes a roar. They turn to face me and start chanting in response to a man’s calling out, “Do we want them here?”
“No! No! No!” And as a mob they raise one arm into the air, fists clenched and keep shouting and glaring at me and pumping their fists into the air.
They are between me and the exit. My back is up against the wall.
“What’s it going to take for you to hear us Louise? We Don’t Want You Here?” the woman who incited the mob yells out.
I take a breath.
“We hear you,” I tell her. A co-worker has come to stand beside me. I turn to her. “What should we do?” she asks. “I think we need to pack up and leave,” I reply.
I turn back to the crowd. “We hear you and so we are going to pack up our display and leave.”
Their anger rises. “No! No! No!” they scream as one voice.
The woman calls out again. “Tell us what we have to do to get you to hear us! We don’t want you!”
I breathe again. Fear grows with each breath as the mob circles closer around me.
“We hear you. We are leaving so you can meet and talk about your next steps.”
The woman screams. “No! Tell us what to do.”
I keep breathing, willing the tears, the shaking in my body to not rise up and take over. “We cannot tell you what to do. Good night and thank you for coming.”
And my co-worker and I turn our backs on the crowd and begin to pack up our information.
With no foci, the mob energy deflates. Someone turns on the lights at the far side of the room and the crowd moves as a wave to take seats where a microphone was already set up for a town hall meeting.
A woman approaches as I am pulling the panels of the display pieces together. “I really came here tonight to learn more about the project,” she tells me.
“I appreciate that,” I reply. “What would you like to know?”
And we talk for ten minutes about the project as the mob settles into chairs on the other side of the room and begin to discuss how to block our bringing those people into their community.
“Why can’t you tell us who will live here?” she asks.
“We have,” I reply. “They are individuals with a history of long term homelessness who need housing and supports in order to end their homelessness. We cannot be more specific than that.”
And therein lies the challenge.
The community wants certainty. They want names of those will live there, histories. To give them what they want would violate the human rights of those we serve. The people we serve deserve better than that.
It is not the ‘who’ the community really wants to know. They want to know the crime that already scares them will end. They want to know their future is secure.
We can tell them our experience in our over 20 buildings in the city does not show increased crime around our buildings. We can show them the evidence from crime data and maps, findings of property values.
They cannot hear us because ultimately, it is not about the merits of the development nor the evidence in other communities. It is about their fear of the world around them today and their fear of what their world will look like in the future.
And I cannot change their fear.
I faced a mob the other night. I was scared. I felt unsafe. Upset. Exposed.
I am writing about it because I am still shaken, still struggling to see ‘the divine’ in the ugly face of the mob. Yet I know, it is the path to finding our humanity beyond our fear of one another.
And so I continue to seek the divine in every face and in that journey, my fear abates.