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From the Haywood Street Congregation: A Reflection on Dignity and Homelessness

This reflection was originally published in the newsletter of the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC. It is republished here with permission.

In 2006, my son gave me a camera as a Christmas gift.  I opened it.  And then I closed it. Certain that I could never figure out how to use it, the camera quickly inhabited a space in my closet. Unbeknownst to me—my greatest gift, my most splendid joy sat right there waiting for several years.

Can you look back on your life and recall a time when everything changed?  Maybe it was when you started a business, got divorced, lost someone close to you, or experienced an illness.

For me, it was in 2009. I was fired from my social work job and then lost my sister and my mother.  With the shame of losing my job and the grief of losing two family members, my inner demons took this opportunity and started having a hey day. Messages from my childhood were blaring:  Be scared. Don’t stand out. Who do you think you are? Don’t ask for help. You’re not the creative one in the family and for goodness sakes—don’t tell anyone about your life.

I lived in that shut down, shut out, closed up space for most of my life. Maybe it was luck, or more likely grace, but for the first time, among those demon voices, I also heard this: “Whatever scares you, Say Yes! Whatever scares you, “Say YES!!”

Here’s what I did. I took photography lessons. I traveled alone for the first time to New Orleans to take photographs.  I allowed people to see my photos. I allowed myself to hear their praise. I performed my personal story at the DWT with CCP. I gave my first gallery show!  I sought advice and counseling from Duane Adams at AB Tech Small Business Center. And because of his ongoing support, I had the courage and opportunity to share my story at the Western Women’s Business Center Conference.

Today, I can proudly say, I am a photographer. It is my gift and my joy. What most sustains me is the photography that has more to do with others than with myself.

Most of us have photos framed of our children, our parents, and friends displayed in our homes or on our phones. For the homeless, they hardly ever see themselves in the mirror…and rarely if ever have a photo of themselves or people they know and love.

Now just about every Wednesday at the Haywood Street Congregation, I photograph homeless people. The following Wednesday I return with prints and lay them out on the table. I wait. It happens every week. They walk to the table, look at their friends, their family…they smile and point and talk to each other and to me. By the end of the morning, the prints are gone. They send them to their friends, their moms, sisters, and children.

A few months ago, I took a photo of two brothers from Ukraine…Michael and Wesley. They were inseparable. The following week, I walked up to Wesley and handed him the photo…He sat there, staring at the photo. The group at the table sat in silence too.

You see, Wesley’s brother, Michael had died and the photo was what he had left of his brother. It was a holy, holy moment.

There are some aboriginal tribes who believe taking a photograph of them is equal to taking their soul.

I believe the photographs I take of the homeless people actually returns a piece of their soul to them. For the first time in a very long time—they are seen. The personal connection is not lost for me. I recognize since others did not see me I learned not to see myself.

Through my photography, featuring the unseen, I am able to return a piece of humanity to them and shine my light into the world.

With gratitude and love,

Maureen

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Maureen Simon

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.