Dave Eggers has long been one of my favorite American writers. His innovative, funny and moving memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer. His first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, was about an attempt to give money to deserving people around the globe. His second novel – What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng – was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. He wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are. He’s founded magazines in print and on-line, chronicled injustice in nonfiction, and even founded scholarship programs.
I’m not writing about any that.
Instead, I’m focusing on two paragraphs of a preface Eggers wrote on behalf of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, for their latest book, Beyond the Possible. Williams and Mirikitani have appeared in this blog recently; the couple have been at the helm of Glide in San Francisco, blending their spiritual conviction and artistic talent with inspired leadership and social outreach. Glide is legendary not only for its Sunday morning celebrations, but for its extensive outreach among the homeless and others on a wide variety of fronts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. If you visit glide.org, you’ll see that two of the key phrases for Glide are “radical inclusiveness” and, even more daunting, “love unconditionally.”
In the preface, titled “Unconditional Love,” Eggers springboards off a Glide sermon to pose the question, “If a church can keep its doors open and lights on, accepting all at all times, could we? Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”
Eggers’ answer? “It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. For some, there are Republicans. There are white people, brown people, black people, Asians. There is always someone who is in our way or whose ancestors oppressed our ancestors, or stands for something we don’t like, or seems to be standing in the path of progress. The wealthy. The homeless. Tourists. Industrialists. Real estate developers. Hippies. It doesn’t matter, but you know what I mean. Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”
I came to Glide after almost three months on the road, much of it a journey not only across America, but at least a little deeper into efforts to help those in poverty. In that limited voluntourist way, I’d worked with the homeless in Tucson and Santa Barbara before I even got to San Francisco. Just whistle stops, but enough to make an impression. In all that time, working alongside veterans, I got marginally more at ease with relating to the homeless moving through the food line; I could joke and make conversation matter-of-factly.
Yet as I cracked open Beyond The Possible, I knew I was still just working on the homeless part. And here Eggers was, reminding me that once I got past all the fears waiting to ambush me from somewhere in my white middle-class subconscious, once I got past the popular prejudices that the homeless are all mentally ill drug addicts and/or alcoholics who reek of the streets, once I got past the fact that the particular person I was handing a food tray to might be all of those things, and nonetheless still worthy of respect and kindness, once I got past ALL of that – well, then, I was going to have to turn around and love an insensitive, entitled person who hadn’t learned any of those lessons and didn’t care to learn any of them, and who, seemingly secure in their willful ignorance, would happily slash funding for the programs where I volunteered.
Eggers is right. Unconditional love is a tall order. I don’t think anyone I know would say they’ve even come close, even for a single day.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try? For, Eggers concludes, “there is Glide, with its dozens of empowerment programs, its doors open and its lights on. There is Glide, built by Cecil and Janice and nurtured into the future by the Marks and the pastors, by the staff, by the young people, and by the thousands of members who are poor and rich, black and white and brown, well-fed and hungry, clean and unclean, on their way up and on their way down, devout or full of doubt – all welcome, all equally necessary, all equally valid, all offered Unconditional Love. It’s a radical idea, but the only one that makes any sense at all.”