The heart of the wilderness

by Anne Stick

Anyone who does outreach work in Baltimore has been shaken by the wilderness of the city. I travel into the heart of this wilderness on Monday nights, to run an art program called Art with Anne for shelter residents at the House of Ruth. There I help women, children and youth regain their sense of hope after trauma and heartbreak. The shelter residents have fled situations of abuse and are homeless, wearing their only possessions. Not only have they been violated, they are adrift in the world.

I had an art therapy graduate student shadowing me last year, who asked me more than once, “how do you do this?” with a pained expression on her face. I urged her to stay as long as possible, hoping she would see what could happen during a session. Something happens in the wilderness that rarely happens elsewhere. The human soul is laid bare. To the very same degree it is open to fear and doubt, it is wonderfully open to hope and love.

Acting on the responsibility to meet such exposed souls with absolute love has always been a joy for me, an experience of freedom. It is perhaps a glimpse of paradise. This is not something I experience alone. By the end of the night we are often having so much fun the head social workers have joined us. Art with Anne is an event that begins around 6:00 pm and runs as long as the residents want, usually until midnight. Mothers with infants, toddlers, teenage boys, grandmothers, and immigrants come together trying to find some human connection and make some sense of the world so they can heal and imagine a future.

 The wilderness is the space of imagination rather than fulfillment. I have found that inviting residents to dream about their futures and talk about them, while providing materials to bring their dreams into existence in an artistic form, is such a powerful symbol of the desire for their future success, that they do not fail to recognize the love that has brought me to the shelter. By the end of the night we are often singing. The children are dancing. Many tearful stories have been told and many prayers have been prayed together. I shall know the residents for some months by name, but they will move away to new states, and I shall never see them again.

My experience with needy and fragmented families has helped me regard my work in Children’s and Youth Formation at the Cathedral as precious. I want to give families a stable foundation in the church that lasts throughout their lives. The Cathedral should be a safe haven from the wilderness, full of love and laughter.

Anne Stick is Director of Children’s and Youth Formation and Bookkeeper at the Cathedral.

Cathedral of the Incarnation