Words by Benjamin Johnson
Co-Founder and Director of The Free Store
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
- Lilla Watson
I am an average white middle-class kid from the suburbs.
And by average I mostly mean privileged. I had a supportive family which I largely took for granted during my awkward teenage 'emo' phase (they just didn't understand me). I went to a high-decile school but had a safety net so wide that I could afford to play the class clown and get suspended a handful of times. I played soccer on the weekend but was naturally talented enough to show up high and still score a few goals. I didn't study as much as I should have but passed NCEA Level 3 and received my University Entrance certificate. Food was always on the table when I got home but I was often satiated from humungous bowls of fries that our clique’s daily haunt served up.
My life was on cruise control. My vision was narrow. My life was about me. An average kid from the suburbs.
My friends were like me. Misunderstood kids from the suburbs who thought they knew what suffering meant. What hardship meant. We reinforced each other's delusion and dysfunction. We were oh-so individual, expressing our individuality at all costs. But in hindsight we were just the same.
I have spent a large chunk of my life surrounded by people that look, think and speak like me.
We tend to gravitate towards people that reflect us. There is a sense of comfort in the familiar and there is safety in relationships that entrench our currently-held beliefs, perspectives and identity. Exclusive, fleshly echo chambers.
Yet these days, as a millennial living in an increasingly connected and enlightened world, inclusivity is one of our highest pursuits.
If you're not inclusive you're a bigot.
But do we really know what this word means? Do we truly live out authentic inclusivity or do we simply tolerate? Inclusion means to actively welcome the stranger into your sphere of existence. To open and to share your life, to receive that which is different to you. And to give as much of yourself as you receive. This is dangerous and this is costly. Because it is not primarily about manufacturing another echo-chamber, but rather, bursting open the box.
There is an illusion of inclusivity that we can all too easily hide behind safely. We can sign the 'right' petitions; demanding the refugee quota be increased and affordable social housing be built to eradicate homelessness. We can read and share the 'right' articles from Vice and the Wireless; offering utopian visions of rehabilitative criminal justice system reform and rage-against-the-machine provocations directed at an unjust epochal zeitgeist that fails to treat severe addiction as a health problem. We can position ourselves on the 'right' side of the conversation as progressive, social justice warriors yet all the while never open our life to those that look, think and speak differently to us.
Do we share meals with the refugee family that just moved into our neighbourhood? Do we open our homes to those who are struggling to put a roof over their head? Do we invite our sister begging on the street for coffee to learn her story and acknowledge that we see her? Do we visit our brother in prison to show that there is a supportive community worth returning to? Do we walk the messy, meandering road alongside those struggling to break free from addiction?
Do we know these people at all much less show hospitality to them?
The Safe & the Vulnerable Paths
When we position ourselves on the right side of the conversation we become visible bystanders. We receive social capital because we 'care about all the right things'. Our identity is bolstered. We receive acclaim from our peers and we feel like we've done our part. Our contribution is neatly resolved.
But when we position ourselves in relationship with the broken and suffering we become invisible participants. Most of the time no one will, or frankly should, see the costly work of building relationships. These are private endeavours not played out in the public eye. And they remain unresolved, because that's just what relationships do.
Do we know the person or just the idea of the person?
We stand at a distance, talking about the ‘problems’. Reducing complex people to mere 2D caricatures of their actual self.
Even if we have the best intentions – we truly do care! – we perpetuate perspectives that over-identify people with that ‘thing’ that makes them vulnerable.
We want a better society. But maybe we want someone else to make that happen. Central Government, our Councils, social service agencies. Forgetting all along that all the structural and macro-political change in the world can’t bring people from all walks of life around a dinner table.
As long as the vulnerable and marginalised are problems to solve rather than friends to know, Aotearoa will always remain divided.
We can solve all the ‘problems’, all the while keeping the most vulnerable at arm's length. Our communities still remain fractured. Dare I say it, segregated.
We continue to surround ourselves with people that look, think and speak like us.
From Problems to Friends
When we founded The Free Store ‘solving the problems’ was at the forefront of our team’s mind. There was the problem of food waste; perfectly edible nutritious food being thrown in the bin every single day. And there was the problem of hunger; in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse the rate of unemployment and cost of living rose significantly.
We saw an opportunity for one of these problems to solve the other. It just made sense.
At that point I literally didn’t know a single person that we would eventually serve. I didn’t know anyone living on our streets. I didn’t know anyone struggling with addiction issues. I certainly didn’t know that one of our largest demographics would be the elderly.
I was a naïve, green 21-year old university student out to save the world. Well, at least this corner of it.
Everything changed when Jerry* came to live with my wife and I for a week or so. Jerry showed up at The Free Store one bitterly blustery night. His six-inch beard and weathered bare feet suggested that he was a man married to the wild. We learned that he was indeed without a home, sleeping under the forest canopy nearby. If I’m completely honest with myself, a bunch of assumptions and fears swiftly rose to the surface. This unknown ‘homeless man’ stood before me. Nevertheless, we talked for an hour. Well, I mainly listened. Jerry told stories of sleeping amongst lush remote farmland miles from any road, bathing in untouched streams under starlight, wandering down byways to take the very long route down the North Island. He had an oozing gentle nature; the sort of man you’d imagine as your grandfather, who would sit you down on his lap to tell stories of old as he gently puffs away on his pipe. He was rather odd and intriguing.
That moment we did something silly. We invited him home.
The next week I learned that Jerry was nothing like I had first imagined. He was extremely generous and hospitable, always making us cups of tea. He was extremely knowledgeable, spending hours each day at the public library diligently ingesting information. He was extremely capable, fixing and rewiring appliances. He was extremely funny, a wordplay wizard who could spin a good yarn. He was extremely respectful, understanding completely that he leave the house with us at 8am in the morning until we reconnected in the evening. He was extremely insightful, writing a ten-page manuscript on how The Free Store could be better.
I encountered Jerry that week. Not just a homeless man.
Today I bumped into Jerry for the first time in a long while. It was bizarrely serendipitous. We caught up; chatting about the medicinal benefits of herbs which are erroneously defined as weeds and an awakening he recently had to the artistic value of tagging. I asked his permission to share this story to which he consented. For the record though, Jerry - the very man I had unfounded preconceived notions about when we first met - starkly exclaimed "not all strangers are safe though". He meant this with sincerity. And that's very true. The fact of the matter is that some people are unsafe, whether they are similar or different to us. But in my experience we err immeasurably on the side of Safety which is actually a pseudonym for Fear.
In the Arms of Love
Over the last 7 years the thing that makes my chest swell is not the number of food items redistributed or the number of people we have served or the number of eateries we rescue food from or the total retail value of this rescued food. The thing that I delight in the most is the quality of relationships in this beautiful, diverse, inclusive community.
Like the way this community courageously surrounded our good friend Paul^ when he was recently admitted to Te Whare o Matairangi; the acute mental health ward (#27) at Wellington Hospital.
Paul first came to The Free Store as a customer in need of food. He was quickly welcomed into the whānau and became a core volunteer, helping to serve tea and coffee for the punters while they waited for the store to open. We knew Paul to be nothing but friendly, hard-working, compassionate, a good laugh and incredibly humble. No task was below Paul.
One evening at the store I learned that Paul had been compulsory admitted. He spent the next six weeks in Ward 27. But he wasn’t lonely. Friends from The Free Store visited him on a daily basis, often bringing his favourite treats (custard square and a berry smoothie). The staff allowed him leave in the evening to see his friends and volunteer at The Free Store. A crew of half-a-dozen visited his flat while he was away to clean it top to bottom; replacing his bed, furniture and chattels for a fresh start upon return. One of our amazing volunteers purchased a whole new wardrobe of clothes for Paul. I personally became his ‘next of kin’ in the mental health system which allowed me to advocate for him in critical meetings with his psychiatrist, community mental health support team, ward nurses and lawyer.
When the clinicians spouted on about Paul’s ‘condition’ with great trepidation concerning ‘relapse’ I was able to say “that’s not the Paul we know”. The DSM-5 doesn’t tell Paul's full story. We know him to be so much more than his diagnosis.
His doctor finally conceded to Paul’s preferred course of medication - in spite of the psychiatrist's resoluteness to not allow oral administration - partly because Paul was so well supported by a strong, caring, present community that agreed joyfully to hold him on track when he transitioned back into ‘normal life’.
Paul is back now. The day he came home we celebrated by sharing lunch with another Free Store friend, then went straight to the store for another normal day redistributing food to those in need. Paul serves diligently every day, bringing abundant life with him. And we are richer because of him.
Paul has been in the mental health system for twenty years but has never had the type of support he received this year. But for us, this wasn’t our ‘job’ and he wasn’t our ‘client’. Paul is our friend and that’s just what friends do.
Today I visited Paul at his housing complex. The team there were celebrating his birthday; a cake shaped like a Naval Officers cap (Paul served in the RNZN) had been made and one of the residents played the oh-so-familiar tune on a piano while 20 others sung in resounding chorus. One of the older men, a former Navy man to boot, yelled out "stay on your meds Paul, because you're a good man." The room erupted. Paul took the friendly jab with a large dose of humour. We reflected on the last month since he has been home and he assured me that he was diligently keeping his flat in tip-top shape. He intently looked me in the eyes and said "The Free Store family is the best thing I have ever experienced. I'd still be in hospital, fighting with my psychiatrist, if you hadn't supported me the way you did."
The Free Store makes it a little easier for seemingly antithetical personalities and stories to overlap. We create spaces to discover mutual middle ground.
The homeless, university students, elderly, Māori, unemployed and underemployed, backpacking travellers, pākehā, the sick, refugee and immigrant families.
It’s hard to escape categorisation, but you get the point. Our community is rich and colourful. The vibrant mix of people from all walks of life constantly blows me away.
And it’s not token. These aren’t charitable acts. We don’t go over ‘there’ to offer ‘them’ help. Lives have become overlapped. Stories are woven together.
We also celebrate birthdays together. We share meals regularly in each others’ homes. We go to the movies together. We teach each other Te Reo Māori. We help each other find jobs. We provide safe spaces for friends coming off substances. We visit each other when we’re sick. We notice when someone hasn’t been around in a while.
This is community not charity. This is not an ‘organisation’ providing ‘services’, these are average people caring for one another.
I am just an average middle-class white kid from the suburbs. But my life is now full of people that are very different to me.
The better future we long for won’t be enacted in the halls of Parliament. This future is lived out every single day by dedicated, average people doing incredible things for one another.
Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher and my inter-aeon penpal, wrote:
“A bold venture is not a boisterous proclamation but a quiet dedication that receives nothing in advance yet stakes everything.”
And this bold venture is the humble, devoted oft-unseen work of inclusion. An endeavour that will cost us our homogeneous huddles but will open our lives to a richness and beauty we all desperately yearn for deep down.
Our own liberty is bound up with those that don't look, think or speak like us.
We have just as much to receive as we have to give.
* Jerry is not his real name. This has been changed at his request.
^ Paul was more than happy to use his real name.
Read: Streeties #1: From Prison to Pavement by Toby Morris and Jonathan Foster
Watch: Street Smart by Loading Docs
Do: No matter which community you find yourself in I guarantee there are safe spaces to make initial connections with people that are different to you. See which community groups exist. Just use Google. Put yourself out there. It may be a little awkward, a little out of your comfort zone, but it gets easier. Trust me.