When Julia Tilley knocked on the door of a client’s apartment, in the lower story of a duplex near South 13th Street, in Allison Hill, it seemed for a moment that there might be no one home.
If so, it would be somewhat awkward. On the porch with Tilley, holding laundry baskets and a bag of detergents, were four volunteers who were eager to serve. They had just left the nearby First Church of the Brethren, where they’d eaten breakfast with some 200 other volunteers, at tables plastered with inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d even heard a welcome speech by Rob Teplitz, the freshman state senator from Dauphin County, who offered another King quote to help kick things off: “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”
Tilley, a licensed clinical social worker, lives Uptown with her husband, Ron Tilley, a church chaplain and the program director for Brethren Community Ministries. When they first moved into their home, there were crack dealers and shootings in their neighborhood. But they felt it was important to live in the community they served, and they stuck it out. “Now there’s an Italian bakery on our block,” Tilley said.
This past Monday, the First Church of the Brethren served as the launch-off point for Harrisburg’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, a combined effort of six local non-profits that drew volunteers from across the region to help with various projects throughout the day. They would pick up litter, clean out a shed, participate in a youth poetry workshop and help prepare meals. Tilley’s morning, though, had a narrower focus. In a few short hours, she hoped to make some progress with a family living in poverty a few blocks away.
The family had come to the Tilleys’ attention last year, when a neighbor applied on behalf of their Aunt Donna (her name, like other names in the family, has been changed) for the ministry’s emergency food service. At the time, Donna lived with her husband, who was terminally ill. She couldn’t make it to the church herself—partly because she doesn’t “like people to see” her, partly because she was debilitated by tumors in her arms and legs—so Ron Tilley began delivering food to her home. Over time, they became friends. When her sister and niece became sick, they moved in with her, as did her niece’s daughter, who was pregnant with her third child. “They try to keep an eye out for each other,” Ron told me.
Tilley stood on the porch, waiting. She looked around: she was fairly sure she was at the right place, but Ron usually made the visits. Then one of the volunteers strode forward and gave the door a loud rap. “It’s early,” he said, shrugging. The volunteers chuckled.
A few seconds passed, and then the knob turned and Donna’s sister, Brenda, swung open the door. A tall white woman with short, uncombed gray hair and lavender pajamas, she greeted the volunteers one at a time as they entered. The group piled up in the living room, unsure where to go. The lights were off, and dark curtains had been stapled to the window frames. Brenda flipped a switch, and an exposed bulb fixed to the wall cast a faint glow over the room, illuminating a couch heaped with clothing, a mattress, and a hardcover Bible on the floor.
Donna sat at a table in the kitchen, towards the back of the house. When the group shuffled in, a pet Chihuahua started yapping, and a kitten leapt up onto a shelf and ate from a bowl. Though the front room had been a bit cold, this room pulsed with heat. The oven door was open, and the coils on the stove were orange—a way of making up for the landlord’s refusal to turn on the furnace.
“Is this only a one-time thing, the laundry?” Donna said. “I have a bottle of Clorox, never been opened, if you want that.”
Donna, like her sister, is broad and tall, with short hair and skin that hangs slackly from her arms, mottled in several places with dark bruises. As the volunteers loaded dirty laundry into their baskets, she told them about her tumors. The one in her arm had come back, she said, and had gotten so bad she could no longer hold a fork. There were others in her back, and a lump behind her knee. “It’s getting to where I can’t put my pants on by myself.” She blinked hard, then locked eyes with the volunteer nearest to her. “I know when I go I’m going to heaven, because I believe. And God will only give you as much pain as you can bear.”
Tilley escorted the volunteers outside and saw them into their cars. Then she turned back to the house, stooping to pick up an unwound wire hanger and throw it behind a trash can, and went inside.
Brenda’s daughter, Denise, was waiting in the living room. She wore black pajamas and pink flip-flops, and had dark hair tied in a ponytail and jet-black eyes. She was suffering from stage-four brain cancer, though she showed no outward signs of pain. “There’s a couple things I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.
“Sure,” Tilley said. She took off her coat and sat in a chair. Denise lit a cigarette and sat on the couch, a few feet away.
“My daughter just got infected with chlamydia,” she began. Her daughter, Annie, 19 years old, was due in the spring. Denise removed a calendar of appointments, which she kept in a slender pink notebook, from a nearby dresser. She didn’t especially want to discuss the pregnancy or the illness, which she seemed to have under control. (She always accompanies her daughter to the doctor, she said, “to make sure she tells them everything.”) What she really wanted was help providing her daughter with some structure. She hoped Tilley could recommend a church program where Annie could volunteer. “She needs God in her life,” she said.
The other thing Denise wanted to discuss was housing. The apartment was really her Aunt Donna’s, and the close living quarters were beginning to be a strain. She had found a lead on a new apartment, but she wanted help broaching the subject with her aunt and mother. She was also anxious about calling potential landlords. “I’m not good at talking to people,” she said.
Tilley listened, now and then entering a date in her phone. She offered the occasional sound of sympathy, but otherwise made few comments. “I follow the client model of social work,” she told me later. “We take the view that, ultimately, these are adults who need to make their own decisions. But I can try to point out contradictions, or show them options they didn’t know existed.” In place of directives, she will offer suggestions, ask questions and, where she can, weigh in with a bit of perspective. At one point, while Denise was talking about her daughter, Tilley volunteered, “Our brains don’t finish growing until we’re in our mid-20s.”
“25, yeah,” Denise said.
“So we make some interesting decisions in our teens and early 20s.”
Tilley and Denise returned to the kitchen, passing Donna, who lay on her side under a blanket in a middle room. “Can I get you something to drink?” Denise asked. She filled a glass of water and handed it to Tilley.
Denise had written the address and the phone number for the potential new apartment on the back of an envelope. Tilley took out her phone. “Let’s call and leave a message,” she said. “Can I tell them to call—”
“You!” Brenda and Denise said in unison.
“Me?” Tilley said. “Why me?”
“Please,” Denise said. “I don’t know how to talk to people.”
Most people who have spent some amount of time in a modern American city have a set of images they associate with urban poverty. They’ve seen decaying properties, or seedy corner stores, or streets and yards piled with garbage. They may have observed signs of poor health, or wound up in line at a grocery store behind someone on public assistance. Individually, each of these images reflects a problem that, on the surface, appears eminently solvable: pick up the trash, go to a doctor, get a job.
But combine them all under one roof, and these problems can become intractable. Tilley, after we had left, pointed out that the family had revisited the same issues “over and over and over”: for the person in the middle, facing everything at once, each problem swirls into the next. Ron Tilley calls this “swimming in the chaos of poverty.” “It’s tough to know exactly what to tackle first,” he said.
In earlier visits, the Tilleys had prioritized medical care. Donna hadn’t been to a doctor for years; now she was receiving treatment for the cancer she had long suspected was there. With regular visits to the doctor established, they hoped to move on to housing. Unfortunately, despite a negligent landlord and peeling paint, Donna was reluctant to move. “She’s scared about not being able to find a place she can afford, and she has anxiety issues,” Ron told me. “So we’re trying to get her used to the idea of moving.”
Tilley called the number for the rental, leaving an email where she could be reached, and led the family through a conversation about what sort of rent they could afford. It was progress, even if it was minimal progress. Then, with more than an hour until the laundry arrived, Tilley did something she often doesn’t have time for with clients—she talked to them about nothing in particular, as if they were old friends. They took out their phones and shared pictures: Tilley’s son (“Aw! He looks like his dad,” Brenda said), Annie’s daughter, a drawing Annie had done in permanent marker, of a sun beaming over the water.
This conversation may have been as valuable as any technical assistance Tilley could give. At one point, Donna, sitting by the window, began reflecting on the people she’d lost. “I blame myself for a lot of deaths,” she said. Some years ago, her nephew had committed suicide; Donna had found him hanging from an electrical cord in his bedroom. “I blame myself for my nephew, because I could have cut him down. I blame myself for my son, because if I’d had more money, maybe he wouldn’t have had his drug problem. I blame myself for my husband, because if I hadn’t left him for the shelter, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so sick.”
She was crying. A tear broke free and rolled down her cheek. Her cigarette burned over the ashtray.
“You’re hard on yourself,” Tilley said.
“You’re forgiving of other people, but you’re hard on yourself.”
“We do try to create a pathway to prosperity,” Ron Tilley told me later. “You can provide a map, but they’ve got to take their own steps on the pathway.” Given the enormity of even a single family’s challenges, I wondered how he saw his ministry’s role: as an advisor? a friend? When I asked him, he thought for a moment, and then he said, “We’re trying to provide her with hope so she doesn’t give up.”
To learn more about Brethren Community Ministries, follow them on Facebook or Twitter (@bcmPEACE) or visit www.bcm-pa.org.