Tell me why you choose to live in community with the poor? I was a computer science student at the University of St. Louis. Fellow students introduced me to a different world to what I had grown up with, the blighted neighborhood of North Grand. It was just a bike ride away from where I lived to where heavy spring rains had broken through the door of an old lady’s cellar and flooded it with mud. It wasn’t a safe environment for her and her grandkids. We spent a day cleaning it out and helping Nuns to remove her moulded possessions and life memories. It was a small cellar with no lights and we kept bumping our heads on the floor boards of the kitchen above us! We put on a temporary plywood door with the goal of returning the next week to put on a solid door. When we returned we found ourselves ankle deep in raw sewage just 6 feet below the kitchen where this old lady cooked and fed her grandkids. A deluge of rains had swollen the old bi-system that served the city’s sewage and street drainage and it had backed up into her cellar several days earlier. We had to leave immediately. It wasn’t safe and we weren’t equipped to deal with it. 

What haunts me still to this day was that we could leave but the old lady and her kids could not. They had already been there several days with no help. We had a choice, but they had no choice. It was shocking. This was my introduction to systemic poverty and homelessness and the experience opened up for me issues of injustice in the world. I was aware of cliche lines and images that appealed for impoverished children in Africa, but I was totally unaware of the poverty going on in my own city.

How did this experience effect you? I knew I had to work in social justice. In my final year friends were going to career fairs for places like NASA and Google. I chose AmeriCorps and lived and worked in community in North Grand for a year.

How did you come to Kansas City? A friend that I was at university with had moved to Troost and 31st and he had told me about a staff position at a community house just down the road from where RS is located. I moved in to the position in the Spring of 2010. We serve 7 meals a week and take in families who are in difficulty and need transitional shelter.

You qualified in Computer Science how do you use your degree training? I did take a year out of community to work full time a year or so ago. I work on a free-lance basis now and use my skills for voluntary work. It’s more life giving for me to to step back from that work and be a part of the work I do in my community home. 

How do you cope with the tension that you can still move away, but people here have no choice? It’s not a tension for me. I value living in community. Don’t get me wrong when I come down in the morning to make a cup of tea and find 30 people in the living room, it’s not what I want to see when I’m just waking up! This is where I want to be though. I’ve developed reciprocal relationships here. One day I might be providing services, like basic toiletries, the next day people in the community are supporting and encouraging me in my struggles. I wouldn’t have this level of community if I lived in the suburbs. I’d have to work hard to seek it out. When I did move out of the community for a year and worked a regular job I would just come home and veg out on the couch all night. 

Is there anything wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with it in moderation, but I found it too easy to develop the habit of switching off. I stopped caring about the issues and injustices of the world and that bothered me. I want to keep myself in a position where I’m not able to ignore the injustices in my city. I have friends here who are important to me, who are facing poverty and experiencing difficulties with the most basic things in life everyday. I can choose to walk away or to not talk to some people who can be difficult. I can choose to ignore it all and build my life around those choices if I want to, but I’d rather stay connected because I don’t want to forget.

Do you think others might see poverty differently if they lived in community like you do? They might, but they might not, it’s not for everyone and that’s ok. On the other hand I think a willingness to engage with poverty in some way, to be open and to learn, even though it can be an uncomfortable process, is all that’s necessary to begin to see things differently. For me personally, living in community is my choice and I choose it because it’s mutually reciprocal and it’s meaningful.

Do you intentionally bring friends into the neighborhood to raise awareness? Yes I do, I’m grateful for being introduced to social injustice as a student. The opportunity to work in the blighted area of St. Louis changed me and my outlook on life. It was a rich experience.

Tell me about your path to RS? I was brought up orthodox and I was excited to discover St. Mary’s Orthodox Church and the work of RS. RS was founded and is still operated by orthodox priests who intentionally live and work in this neighborhood. The priests serve at St. Mary’s, where I’ve been going to church for 6 years. I volunteer at the RS cafe and I come here to hang out decompress, and enjoy community. 

What are your hopes and dreams? I’m very connected to and involved with the work of RS in our community. So, I’m excited about Deacon Turbo’s vision for the RS cafe to be a space where people can come together from different parts of the city and enjoy good food, good coffee, free wifi and a great atmosphere. The cafe is already a cool place where people from diverse backgrounds are building relationship, having dialogue and making change together. The reality of keeping the cafe open every day for our neighborhood is not far away. On a personal level I would like to raise a family!

What would you want to share with others about what you’ve learned from working with those in poverty? I’ve learnt to receive from the people I serve. I’m the type who tries to do it all and I tend to take on responsibility for everything around me. Things eventually break down, I get stressed and fall apart at the seams. Then someone in my community, who is supposedly in poverty, checks in on me and cares for me. We might make a nice dinner together or sit and have a cup of coffee. Masks disappear and we are two people in need. Both of us are vulnerable and we receive help and support from each other. That’s when connections happen and relationships become two way.

I’ve learned that relationship breaks down stereotypes. I can petition and participate in rallies; I can attempt to affect legislation at a state level with regard to minimum wage or interest rates on pay day loans. However, I've discovered when together we develop mutual respect and relationship, change can and does take place. For me relationships are the reason why political action matters. As I have gotten to know my neighbor and people in my community I have come to see they are not the lazy stereotypes that are often portrayed. I've learned that poverty is not the result of laziness, it’s mostly related to systemic issues. If I were to see people as stereotypes and lazy why would I care? If I have relationship and see them working and struggling with real issues, it causes me to want to act to see laws changed. I want to give them a hand up instead of standing back with criticism and judgment. 

Read more stories of courage from Troost
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Story: Lyn Morse-Brown
Photos: Tom Morse-Brown