Yesterday was the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight. Others refer to it as the longest night of the year. Regardless of your preference, to me, December 21 is about blankets. But not just any blankets – blankets that carry a ton of meaning and significance.
As with each year, we never know how many blankets we will have, who is going to show up to help out, or what the weather will be like. And each year more blankets than we guess show up, volunteers come out of the woodwork, and the weather is amazing.
Here’s some lessons that I took away from this year.
Lesson 1 – This just keeps growing each year, which is amazing. It takes on a life of its own and that’s a good thing. The first year we had over 200 blankets for an event that was pretty local in focus. Last year we made the leap to a national stage at the US Capitol, and we were not disappointed. There were 1174 blankets from 42 states. This year, we brought the installation back to PA, but worked in conjunction with partners in Akron, OH, who also had an installation of blankets and together we had over 1200 blankets.
Lesson 2 – This was the first year that those who were without a house or shelter were right there at the event. People sleep within sight of the PA Capitol and we were able to give out blankets, gloves, and socks to people during the event. We had the honor of interviewing one of these folks for our podcast so he could share his lived experience. Another woman wandered in to the event wearing just a shirt. It looked as though she had just been released from some kind of medical facility, but we didn’t know for sure. We did know that without a blanket and some direction to the local shelter, she would not have survived the night. These instances and interactions put human faces and names on what poverty and homelessness is about. It’s not some abstract issue. It’s about real lives and real people. If only we saw the humanity in all of our public policy debates and conversations – I wonder how this would change what we do.
Lesson 3 – I’m always amazed at the folks who come out to the event. These folks give me a sense of hope. The same is true for the people who make the blankets and send them in – not knowing who is going to receive a blanket that they spent untold hours working on. I have stated many times before that I have very little faith in humanity as a whole. But I have faith in individuals because I can see in them something wonderful – care, concern, love, selflessness, mercy, grace, peace, listening, telling stories, and more. We had random strangers who were walking by or visiting the Capitol come and talk with us about the project and homelessness, talk about their efforts to help neighbors, tell stories about their own past experiences with homelessness, help lay out blankets and pick them up, help transport blankets, and so much more. The world has a way of battering you down – especially when you hear and see so many stories that are suck the life out of a person. But having individuals and families and their friends come and help and share stories is a shot of good news that goes a long way.
Lesson 4 – Symbolism and substance. Both are important and have a purpose. Using the blankets as an ant installation is an act of symbolism. It conveys a clear visual message that cannot be ignored when it is seen. Each blanket will have someone wrapping it around them very soon, if not already. That’s over 700 people just in the Harrisburg area alone. And that’s a small fraction of a fraction of the fullness of this challenge. So when you see it, the question is now what? What do you do? When you see over 700 blankets laying out on the steps of the people’s house (State Capitol building), and realize that the people who will receive them do not have a house, it forces you to deal with an unpleasant reality. And that’s the point. Our pre-occupation with our own comfort allows things like homelessness to persist. We’d rather not deal with uncomfortable and inconvenient questions. But they have to be asked. Here’s a short list of these questions:
How is it that the richest nation in human history has a homelessness problem?
How can we claim to be a Commonwealth (This is what Pennsylvania actually is), which is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good, when we have people who are almost invisible.
How do we define homelessness and if we really expanded it to better capture the real situation, would we be willing invest the funds necessary to actually try to improve the situation?
The substance of the evening is when the blankets get distributed. They will literally get into the hands of people who are unhoused. And while this is a good and worthy thing to do, it shouldn’t be necessary at all. Lately I’ve struggled with the reality of doing things and writing things that should never have had to be done or written in the first place. But here we are. They do need to be done and the words need to be written. And my hope is that the efforts help people and that my words force society to be uncomfortable enough and inconvenienced enough to make necessary changes that actually improve the common good.
Lesson 5 – I was exhausted after being out in the cold all day yesterday. Not only exhausted, but also sore in a variety of ways. And that is with the benefit of sleeping on a bed in a warm house. Standing on concrete all day, even with good shoes took a toll on me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be out in the cold day after day after day, or to sleep on slabs of concrete, even with some blankets. There’s a statistic that essentially says that homelessness cuts the lifespan of a person by 30 years. I can believe that. It’s not an exaggeration.
Lesson 6 – I’m grateful for the news coverage of the event. WGAL covered us on two days – the day before and the day of the event. And CBS 21 covered the event at the Capitol. The Spark did an interview also. The reports invested time and talked with lots of people. They did some incredible footage to show what it was about. And they produced stories that told the message we were trying to convey. We don’t make any money on this project – it’s really just an act of love and advocacy. And to have news coverage helps spread the word in invaluable ways. I’m grateful for the coverage.
Lesson 7 – I’m grateful to a variety of folks who throw themselves into projects like this. It helps me know I’m not alone. We might be considered crazy because of what we do, but it’s only because the world has this tendency to be blind to the humanity of people. We’re interested in seeing the humanity of those around us and doing what we can to shine a light on it. We need it so we can also see our own humanity too. And having people like Pat, Max, Chris, Diane, Marsha, David, and far too many more to name here (but you know who you are) helps me to have faith in what people can do and a core goodness that I am surrounded by. These people are amazing. If I could give them each a million dollars I would without hesitation and that wouldn’t be enough. And mostly because what they do is priceless. Their value isn’t tied to what they produce. Their value is based in who they are.
Lesson 8 – the work will never be done. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. That wasn’t Jesus making some excuse for us to ignore the poor and not do anything. It was saying that civilization is always going to have people who are marginalized because the systems of any given society are not perfect at best and are abusive at worst. And people are going to fall through the cracks, or be shoved over the edge. Every society will have the poor. It’s our responsibility to see the humanity of those in poverty and on the margins and in so doing, to see ourselves in them. And to see the value and worth they bring to a society. And to hear their voice and their stories so that we can make adjustments so that others don’t fall into poverty. The poor will always be with us. And part of that is seeing our own poverty as well.
The Memorial Blanket Project is impactful. It is meaningful. It is symbolic. It is inconvenient. It is eye opening. It is affirming. It is humanity.