Blessed to Be Bearing Witness

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3.12.2021

I recently heard an interview with Rabbi Ariel Burger and he intertwined the idea of being blessed and being a witness. Rabbi Burger was a student and later a partner in teaching with the late Elie Wiesel who spent his life not letting our world forget about the Holocaust that he bore witness to. An oversimplified recapping of the Rabbi’s main point in the interview is that being blessed is both a joy but also a burden in that you must find a way to pay that blessing forward.

As I think about my role at Beyond Housing, it is clearly a blessing to be able to have the same job for almost 28 years and still love coming to work because your organization makes a difference in so many lives each and every day. This blessing certainly fuels my drive to have us do more to meet the needs of everyone who reaches out to us. It fuels my drive to have us constantly evolve and be innovative at solving the problems that historic racism and poverty have brought to so many.

For me, driving for more effective mission delivery at scale is not a burden but rather a reality that I embrace with passion. Passion because I know behind every metric of data we use to show effectiveness is a real person, a family, a community. I am allowed to bear witness to the great successes and the great challenges the families we serve face on a daily basis. Here are three stories that we have been blessed to bear witness to:

Ms. M

“My name is Ms. M. I’m a single parent of five. I've been with Beyond Housing for over a year now, and they have been such a miracle in my family's life ever since I became a tenant.

“I’ve always been a hard-working single parent, but once this pandemic hit, my life took a traumatic turn. My kids weren’t able to go to school. I had to go on furlough to stay home and take care of my younger kids. My father became ill, and my family tested positive for COVID. Unexpected circumstances caused me a financial hardship. I’m so blessed to be a resident of Beyond Housing, especially at a crucial time like this. They have provided such great resources and have gone above and beyond to make sure everyone was getting the proper resources and help they needed.

“I lost my father one month ago. I can go on and on about how Beyond Housing has been more than just a landlord. Beyond Housing has such great people that work for them. I have never run into one who doesn’t seem to care. Mrs. Johnson, who is also affiliated with Beyond Housing and my son’s school at Normandy Early Childhood Learning Center, has also been a blessing in my son’s life, providing him with such an awesome school and amazing teachers. Mrs. Johnson learned that I lost my father and prayed for me over the phone. That call was right on time. I was very heartbroken at that time. Once we got off the call, my day seemed so much better.

“Beyond Housing always keeps us updated with newsletters and reaches out to let us know about what’s going on around the neighborhood and resources that are available.

“As I struggled to catch up on my rent, Beyond Housing reached out and let me know about resources to help with rent assistance. I was two months behind. I instantly followed through and completed the application, and my rent is now completely paid up! I thank God for placing me with such an amazing neighborhood, awesome schools for my children, and a caring landlord who has brought nothing but tears of joy since I became a tenant of theirs. Thank you all so much. We are forever grateful.”

Mr. E

Mr. E is a single father of two, ages 7 and 3. He was laid off in March due to the pandemic. He struggled to find employment while also caring for his children. He was ineligible for unemployment due to a previous overpayment.

Mr. E was the first resident who submitted for state housing assistance. He was recently approved for the full six months of rent ($4,194), plus an additional four months from Beyond Housing ($2,656), bringing his account to zero at the end of January.

Mr. E recently started a new position in January and was able to make his February rent payment on time.

Ms. P

Early in 2020, Ms. P had taken a leave of absence from work due to surgery and a long recovery. During this leave, she received a reduced portion of her income and fell behind on her rent. Just shortly after returning to work, the pandemic shut down the community. Once again, Ms. P lost a significant portion of her income and was later furloughed from her job, falling further behind on her rent and utilities.

Our Housing Resource Coordinator’s calls went unanswered. Ms. P finally responded and explained she was suffering severe depression caused by the pandemic and financial hardships. Together, they were able to locate over $5,000 in assistance to get Ms. P caught up on her rent and utilities, removing her from eviction status and ultimately keeping her stably housed. Not only was Ms. P caught up on housing expenses, she was also connected to local food pantries and selected by United Way’s 100 Neediest Cases program to receive additional holiday blessings for her family after the difficult year they experienced.

Surprisingly, Ms. P later sent flowers to the Housing Resource Coordinator and a message expressing her gratitude:

“Thank you for your servant heart and help with my family. I could not have made it through this summer without all the help I have received because of your persistence in reaching out to me. Even when I didn’t return or answer your emails, texts, and calls, you kept reaching out. To tell you the truth, I was depressed about my situation and I thank you for the push—I needed it. I appreciate you. May God continue to bless you in your work and all you do.”

       

The strength and resilience that these three families showed is just remarkable. We see this in our work every day. We bear witness to the hardships, the trauma, and the pain that life can bring. We also bear witness to the grace and dignity that so many we serve exhibit in the face of such difficult circumstances.

The other important facet to bearing witness to the challenges and successes of those we so proudly serve is telling their story to all those who might be able to lend a hand. Bearing witness can certainly impact one’s own view of the world and how we navigate it.

For me, it also allows me to share these stories and successes as a way to have people see past the headlines and truly understand the weight that so many have to carry on their shoulders every day and, more importantly, how we can collectively ease that burden. Even better, with the region’s help we can eliminate these burdens all together. We can go from crisis intervention to something more aspirational for those we serve. In my mind, bearing witness obligates me to share their stories to find support for a particular family and also for the thousands of others that have the same challenges.

Our work and the work of our partners is all about driving outcomes and, hopefully, outcomes at scale. Together, we really can strengthen families and transform communities to create a stronger, more equitable, and prosperous St. Louis for all.

Please join us.

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About Chris

I’ve been working in community development in the St. Louis area for 25 years, and I’ve been the CEO of Beyond Housing since 1993. While I’m proud of our accomplishments, I don’t claim to be an expert. At Beyond Housing, the experts we listen to are the voices of the community members we serve. I’ll be raising issues here that I believe matter to our community. I hope you’ll join the conversation. We do reserve the right not to post comments containing offensive language. To paraphrase Dr. King, we can disagree without being disagreeable. 

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