On harm reduction outreach

A big part of my job is staffing the drop-in legal clinic at the GLIDE Foundation in the Tenderloin. As part of this work, I try to integrate with the different services that GLIDE provides, with the goal of understanding the needs of GLIDE’s clients and staff. One of GLIDE’s services is its harm reduction outreach. The harm reduction team works to reduce people’s risk of HIV and Hepatitis C through needle exchanges and safe drug kits. The idea is that if people are going to engage in drug use and sexual activity, the team can provide resources to help them reduce the harm from these activities.

So last Friday, I went out to downtown San Francisco with the team for an outreach. We had a cart loaded with syringes, needle disposal containers, condoms, lube, and antiseptic wipes and other first aid gear. We also brought materials used for smoking crack, including Brillo scouring pads (used as a screen for a crack pipe). Many people came by the cart and were genuinely grateful for the supplies. The team encouraged folks to come to the GLIDE office to get more supplies, along with counseling and other support.

While I was out on the outreach, several people came to me to talk about their legal issues. The director of the outreach would introduce me to folks, saying that I was a lawyer that they could trust. People seemed willing to talk because the outreach team vouched for me.

I don’t know much about intravenous drug use. It’s not a world with which I am really familiar. I learned a lot during the outreach. There’s different needle lengths (longs, shorts, micros, bee stingers), used for injecting in different parts of the body. People become familiar with a particular syringe length and are less inclined to try something new. There’s even something called a booty bumper, which looks like a syringe without the needle. It’s used to inject drugs into the anal cavity, which is lined with numerous small blood vessels. Using a booty bumper is like snorting, only safer. I’ve heard that the rush is instantaneous.

I will confess that I felt some trepidation before joining the outreach. I’m not super comfortable with the idea of giving people supplies to do drugs. But I also recognize that my discomfort is a luxury of not living in that world. I’m not an addiction expert. I’m not a public health professional. I haven’t seen my best friends die from HIV or Hepatitis C through sharing needles. I just wanted to come along to learn more about the world in which my clients live. For that reason, I’m glad that I went, and hope to go again.

The Nativity Scene: Some background

A few days ago, I shared the story of my neighbor’s nativity scene that I told at my church’s Christmas Party. Now I’d like to share some background. A “behind the scenes” look, if you will.
 
When the party coordinator put out a call for performances, I started thinking about if I would share something. What would I have to share that would be Christmas themed? I started thinking about how 2016 has been a tough year for so many people. Soon, I started thinking about nativity scenes and the parts of the Christmas story that are missing. Within an hour, I had a structure. I started practicing it over and over, refining it until it was ready. I didn’t write it down; the most I wrote was a short 20-word outline.
 
I wanted to share something that would encourage those who are hurting. After all, tragedy does not stop for the holidays. For far too many people, this will be the first Christmas without a mother, the first winter without a sibling, the first New Year’s Day without a child. And the holidays can be lonely for those who are mourning. Those experiencing loss may feel uncomfortable sharing their pain with others during what is supposed to be a cheery and festive season. No one wants to be a downer.
I remember talking to a law school classmate after winter break. I asked her how the break was. “Good,” she replied. “Tell me more,” I said. She paused for a moment, then said, “Actually, it was tough. A friend of mine passed away.” She then apologized: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring the mood down.” I told her, “Don’t apologize. There’s no need. It must have been a really awful break for you. Thanks for being honest. I’m here if you need me.”
The holidays can be a beautiful and cozy time. For those who observe Christmas, it is a time of deep significance. But I shared my piece to remind all of us to not sanitize the story. For just as the angelic host and adoring shepherds are part of the Christmas tale, so is the killing of innocent children and the lament of grieving mothers.
So if you know someone who is hurting this holiday season, let them know that you care. And if you are hurting, reach out. Don’t feel like you have to hold onto it yourself so as to avoid “ruining the holidays”. Your pain is not a burden. You are not a burden. You are a human.

Criticism

Law school helped me learn how to respond to criticism. Criticism is not inherently a bad thing. Some criticism is good. Some criticism helped me grow as a person and as a writer.

I also learned that some criticism isn’t helpful. Even if I assume that people come with the best intentions (which I know isn’t always true), some criticism requires too much mental gymnastics to really digest.

So what would be a properly diplomatic, nearly passive-aggressive, response? Maybe something like this:

“Thanks for that comment. While I appreciate the generous spirit with which you undoubtedly present it, I will have to decline your unsolicited advice. Quite honestly, I’m happy with how I am handling the situation, and see no need to make the effort to change. Now, you may consider me an abject fool for not heeding your obviously wise advice. Please understand that it is my choice to make, not yours, and I am comfortable with my decision.

Also, if I may be so bold, let me say that your time may be better spent not telling me how I should change my life, but rather making improvements in your own. If you don’t know where to start, I have some suggestions. Actually, I have a lot of suggestions for how you could improve your quality as a person, but we can start with just a few. No pressure, though. Just trying to be helpful. I mean, who am I to tell another person how to run their life?”

The Nativity Scene

Last night, my church had its Christmas party. As part of the party, we had a time set aside for stories and performances. I put this piece together for the party. I didn’t write it down, I just practiced it over and over until it was ready to go. Enjoy:

Every year, my neighbor puts the same Nativity scene on his front lawn. The plastic shepherds with the plastic sheep, scampering on the grass. The angels glistening and glowing overhead. The wise men in their flowing robes and lavish gifts. And Father Joseph and Mother Mary, gazing lovingly on the little baby Jesus in the manger. It’s a beautiful scene, content and serene. You can almost hear “Silent Night” playing in the background.

It’s a beautiful scene. But it seems incomplete. Where is the rest of the Christmas story? Where are the other Nativity scenes?

Where is the scene of Mary suffering the scorn and shame of her neighbors, as they whisper behind her back, “She isn’t even married yet and already pregnant. She claims that it’s from God. How ridiculous. How dare she show her face in public, the slut!” Where is the scene of Mary holding her ever growing belly, the mark of her shame, the home of the savior?

Where is the scene of King Herod, the jealous and spiteful ruler, twisting with fear at the thought of one come to challenge his reign, his authority?

Where is the scene of the grieving mother Rachel, holding the body of her dead son, the victim of the king’s jealous rage? She cries out his name, but he will no longer answer.

These scenes are not on my neighbor’s lawn, so where are they? I’ll tell you where they are.

They’re in my neighbor’s house. And in the house of the neighbor next door. And the house of the neighbor down the street. And in my house. For these scenes are part of the same story. We might have changed the characters and altered the setting, but the script has remained the same: Shame, fear, and sorrow. This is the same story that we have been telling again, and again, and again, and this year is no different. The fire at the Ghost Ship Collective in Oakland. The shooting at the gay nightclub in Orlando. The devastation in Aleppo, Syria.

We may see these scenes and shut our eyes, say that they are too sad, too unbearably tragic, for us to see, especially during Christmas. But it’s precisely because it’s Christmas that we must remember them, for they are part of the story. But as we remember these tragedies, let us not forget that they, too, are not complete.

Christmas is the story of the coming of the perfect one into an imperfect world, and of this world deciding that this one was too beautiful, too wonderful, to allow to live.

For just as Jesus was born into a wooden manger, so he would one day be borne upon a different wooden structure. And as he hung on that cross, slowly suffocating to death, the one who breathed life itself into existence, he bore on his shoulders…his mother’s shame, King Herod’s fear, the grieving Rachel’s sorrow, the broken stories of all of my neighbors, and of me. And in that moment, the story that we have been telling since time immemorial finally changed. He wrote a new ending.

Every year, my neighbor puts the same Nativity scene on his front lawn. The scene is beautiful, but it’s not complete. And every year, all my neighbors hold their hidden stories of sadness, pain, and loss. Their stories are tragic, but they are not complete.

Our stories are made complete in one who came in his beautiful revelation, his tragic execution, and his glorious exaltation. Our stories are made complete in him. In him, it is finished, for in him, it is finished. He has written a new ending. He has given us a new beginning.

Hospitality

I was in the East Bay this morning to meet with some clients. My organization, along with a few others, are representing homeless clients on a matter. One of the clients had gathered the rest outside of her tent under the freeway. As cars zoomed past, we explained the matter and got them to sign paperwork.
 
A few minutes in, someone on a bike rolled up with grocery bags. He pulled out some soda, bags of chips, and a platter of cheese, crackers, and dried meat. He opened them up and invited us to partake.
 
We finished the paperwork and got ready to leave. We thanked our clients for their graciousness. The owner of the tent beamed and said, “I really believe in hospitality. You came to visit my home, and I wanted to make sure you felt welcome. Hope you enjoyed the snacks!”

Lawyer-Human Moment

I had a lawyer-human moment today.
 
I was at the drop-in legal clinic at GLIDE. Another attorney was meeting with a client. After the client left, the attorney told me about his case. He had a police brutality claim; he alleged that the police committed some truly awful acts, including physical abuse and getting him fired from the job. The attorney said, “He has a great set of facts to bring a claim. If it was up to me, I’d represent him and sue the living daylights out of the police.”
 
The lawyer side of me got excited hearing about his story. We could do something about it! We could fix it! We could use his story to challenge the horrible abuses of the police!
 
But I needed to remember the human side of me. What happened to this man, if true, is absolutely wretched. No one should experience what he has gone through. Whatever remedy he receives will not take away the pain and humiliation that he has experienced.
 
Today was another reminder that in a perfect world, my job would not exist. Yes, I am honestly excited to hear about injustice, because I am equipped to do something about it (as soon as I get sworn in as a lawyer). But I need to remember that real people are experiencing real harms, and that my excitement of taking on a new case cannot eclipse their experience of suffering.