Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Catching up with Chris (part 2)

(This is part 2 of a two-part post catching up with Canon Chris Harris and his experiences this summer during his field study at Episcopal Community Services as he continues his journey as a postulant and student at the School for Ministry…You can read part 1 here.)

After more than a few all-nighters at Lestat's Coffee House in University Heights, myself and the rest of the inaugural class of The School for Ministry made it through finals in May.  Needless to say we were all ready for some time off to catch up on our lives.  However, that would have to wait as we would soon embark on our summer field study.  Similar to an internship, a field study is an opportunity to gain some experience and explore our pastoral style in ministry settings that are outside of our ordinary context (and to varying degrees, our comfort zone!).  My placement, along with fellow postulant Richard Lee would be at Episcopal Community Services (or ECS).

ECS has numerous programs throughout San Diego, many of which reach out to homeless/mentally ill in our community.   Studies vary, but most homeless advocates and services agencies will tell you that between 20-40% of the "homeless" are suffering from some kind of mental illness. Having served on the board of San Diego’s Alpha Project for the Homeless for more than 10 years, I can tell you I would definitely agree with that assessment. Moreover, many of those people also struggle with substance abuse issues (so-called dual diagnosis).  As difficult as it is to overcome drug or alcohol addiction,
just imagine how much more difficult it is when you are trying to manage chronic depression, or schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disease.  This already overwhelming challenge is then exacerbated by the daily struggle to survive life on the streets in a society that choose not to provide basic shelter for those in need.  As a result, I am trying to wean myself off of the term “homeless” because it’s just too broad term that doesn’t really describe the presenting case but rather articulates a side effect. For the chronically homeless, their lack of shelter is actually more of a symptom than a primary condition. (You and I for instance, would be more accurately described as relatively healthy and well functioning, rather than as “the housed.”)  In any event, while the term is too broad, I haven't found a satisfying substitute as yet.  ("The untreated?") And while we're on the subject, I am trying to come up with a term for the wealthiest country in the world, that can't seem to afford the basic guarantee of shelter to its most suffering citizens.  (But that's the subject of another blog all together!)

My summer schedule has looked something like this:
  • Friend to Friend (Mondays) – This is a club house on El Cajon Blvd. that helps to connect mentally ill homeless with housing, services, counseling, benefits, treatment, or whatever other help they need. We have a computer lab that is open every day as well as classes through the week such as an excellent class on the use of music to affect and improve your mood. At F2F (as it is known) I have been staffing the front desk and interacting with members as well as connecting new referrals to the wonderful and hardworking staff. (The staff all of ECS’s programs is just phenomenal. They are patient, knowledgeable, dedicated and have a positive, hopeful attitude.) 

  • Uptown Safe Haven (Tuesdays/Thursdays) - This is transitional housing program located just a block north of the Cathedral on 5th Ave.  Here homeless folks who suffer from varying degrees of mental illness have a safe place to live, three meals a day and help with everything from psychiatric care, to developing critical living skills, to finding permanent housing assistance.  This is a group home that houses up to 19 individuals - up to two per room.  Here, I function as a kind of informal chaplain.  I spend my time visiting with residents, getting to know them, and listening to their stories and sharing some of my own. We pray together, laugh and offer support, advice and help where possible.

  • East County Accord (Fridays) - Accord is a DUI education program for people who have been arrested under suspicion of drunk driving.  Its purpose is to reduce the incidence of drunk driving in the community through education as well as to offer a connection to alcohol recovery programs for those who need/desire it.  Again, I serve here as a kind of chaplain to a group of about 20-25 who meet each Friday morning.  Although it is a secular program, our group discussions are often spiritual in nature, touching on questions of purpose and calling.  I led a class recently that was essentially a version of a spiritual gifts course we have done at the Cathedral in the past and it was very well received.  In fact, I would say this little group of ours, has had some of the most heartfelt, and spiritually deep discussions that I have been privileged to be a part of.  I also make myself available for those who want to talk or pray before and after class.

In future blogs, I will be sharing some of my experiences at these different agencies and offering some of my reflections, challenges and moments of hope.  Although not always mentioned by name, God is working through the ministry of ECS in profound ways that I found to be both unexpected and personally transformative.  I hope to share some of that journey in the future posts.

Read the whole series here

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook

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