On the first Tuesday of March I sat down to a simple dinner with about 50 others at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in East Liberty. It was very like the covered-dish suppers (never “pot luck” in our proper Southern Presbyterian congregation) I loved when I was growing up: all I could eat, with plenty of dessert. And lots of easy conversation, though about half of us in the room knew almost no one there. The welcome was genuine enough and the sense of camaraderie palpable enough that it was hard to tell this was a program aimed at poverty in Pittsburgh’s East End. Yet this was the annual orientation session for a new cohort of leaders and allies in Open Hand Ministries’ Circles program.
Every Tuesday since has been similar. The good cheer established during the meal extends through the sessions that follow. For the first 5 months, I and about 2/3 of my cohort are in training to become allies; the others are learning to be leaders. After training, each leader is paired with 2 allies in a circle, and we spend the next year listening to and advising each other. The terminology may seem strange, but it’s important. The leader wants to improve his or her situation, to get out of poverty: “leader” means this person has to set the goals and make the decisions. “Allies” come alongside; their sole qualification is that they care. I wouldn’t have signed up if they were going to call me a mentor, because “mentor” implies you know something–or something more, and I don’t.
After 6 sessions I begin to see how much I have to learn. A scenario-based exercise last Tuesday gave a taste of the difficult choices a family might face in the course of a month. As we went around the table, each person was asked to make the next choice (get the car inspected for $150 or risk a fine? pay $15 for your daughter’s school field trip or say she can’t go?). We all seemed to largely agree on the individual choices as they came up one by one; it was hard to tell who was leader and who was ally.
An attraction of Open Hand’s approach is how ordinary they make these topics seem. They address difficult matters of race, lifestyle and spending with enough candor, straight talk and good intention that you want to come back to hear more (and even say something). It’s clear they’re always and only looking to help, and they manage to establish trust across wide differences of class, education and life experience. I should expect to be more challenged during my next 15 months with Circles, but the friendly grace that pervades the group makes that prospect not too scary.