“If someone explodes because you set a boundary, then that boundary was important to be set in the first place.”
I am a chaplain in one of our city’s homeless shelter.
We were in the 2nd month of our new location. We were using a basement in a church for one of our shelters when we started seeing a crowd outside of our parking lot. First, it was a group of people setting up in encampments on the other side of the train tracks. Then, on one hot, spring day, we saw groups of two circling our building. Finally, there would be a large group of folks staring at our front door, two blocks away, waiting for something to happen (although I’m not sure what).
This crowd got me curious, so I started hanging out in the parking lotthat faced these crowds. At first, I thought of myself as a spy: studying the comings and goings of these crowds. However, I found out I couldn’t really lurk: our community members staying at the shelter would come find me and we’d start talking. I had some great conversations; learned nothing.
The local police came and, along with talking to some of our neighbourhood experts, we learned that the people who lounged around our shelter were from a gang local. They would wait for our people to leave for the day and try to sell them drugs. Some of our folks refused, but others were really tempted and gave in. One of our community members told me, “They are the devil! I tell them that! Devil!!!” A few weeks afterwards, he stayed sober and was housed. One of our community members purchased drugs and OD’ed in our parking lot, revived by our staff and his life was saved.
The tent encampments were a bit different. Some were for those who wanted to use (we’re a drug free zone and so they couldn’t in our space) and others just wanted to camp, be independent, and then visit their friends who were utilizing our services.
We then existed with this firm line drawn. We couldn’t do anything about the encampments or the wandering gang members because they were always off our property (they were firmly away of where we our authority ended and theirs began), but the moment folks crossed into our area, we could help: provide housing solutions, food, clothing, and so forth.
As well, we created a team that wandered the neighbourhood, handing out water and food and providing other resources for our street people.
But the boundary was there, firm and felt if not invisible: this is our shelter and this is the neighbourhood.
One morning when I saw the crowd gathering on the other side of the tracks, I quoted a line from one of my favourite movies to a 20-something shift leader: “The Mission”.
“I see your working above the falls now,” I said to the group two blocks away. They couldn’t hear me. “We intend to make Christians of these people!”
The 20-something leader had no idea that I was quoting Jeremy Irons in an exchange with Robert De Niro. In the film, Jesuit priests were forming missions in Latin America as havens for indigenous people from Portuguese slavers.
I tried explaining the quote, but it was lost on the fact that it was a 30-something year old movie.
Boundaries. We run three to five shelters. Most of them, anyone is welcomed inside as long as you follow certain rules (EX. No using while in the space, no violence, no gang colours, no threats, etc.). However, the one with all of the crowds is the one that is different. Our community members are promised a bed every night, they have their own space, and they are promised food and snacks and everything. However, we work to help them set goals and plans- eventually leading towards getting some kind of housing.
The church’s basement is the one with the most boundaries than any other shelter. Even the space looks different: rather than mats on the floor, there are small walls in a cubicle style for each space. Many community members decorate the walls with sayings, art, quotes, and/or phone numbers. The rule is we can talk to people outside of their space, but we don’t come in unless a life/death situation. This space, when respected, actually allows people to be way chattier than if they were just on mat.
And with this, there are those who remain on the outside. Like a force field from a space opera, there is a wall that is more felt than seen. Some have broken through this wall, only to be told one cannot come in for the safety of our guests. Some have made threats, thrown insults, and fled. Sometimes, we’ve had to call the police. Rarely, though.
The boundaries are felt: if one wishes to get off the streets, you can come in and enter into the world of boundaries. If you just want help, we’re do what we can.
“This is where I end and you begin.”
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend writes in their book “Boundaries”.
The simplest definition of boundaries is the image of a castle.
What happens inside the castle is up to the kings and queens and knights and barons and dragons and all of those who live within the castle. The walls are firm and empower those who are inside of the castle to respond to the forest and wilds outside of the walls.
They can respond to the outside world, but they are not responsible for the outside world. They, instead, have the rules and culture and structure so the castle can be a castle.
Without walls, the castle is no longer a castle; instead, it’s a set of ruins.
The rules can be adjusted and changed and re-configured, but it is up to the residents within the castle rather than those who live in the forest. Those in the forest can be helped by the castle and its good for the castle to help other people; but the castle is not ruled or governed by the forest.
This image of boundaries can be understood interpersonally (EX. “I am responsible for my actions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. I am not responsible for your actions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.”). It also can be something a parish or church can experience (EX. “We believe in God, the Father Almighty…”). Families can be castles (EX. “We don’t yell in this house.”).
Boundaries is like chalk lines on the sidewalk. Inside is me; outside is you.
“Those who say ‘no’ can give the strongest ‘yes’.”
Boundaries is a way of aiding in identity and, I argue, establishing a “home”.
This is best described by the “TARDIS” in the great show “Doctor Who” (sorry, but for those who have read my blog enough know that all roads lead back to Doctor Who).
In this, the blue-now defunct-police box is bigger inside than on the outside. One can enter and this police box will take them to any place, any time, and any dimension. The TARDIS is more than just a time machine, it is the Doctor’s home. The interior changes to match the Doctor’s personality and incarnation so it’s safe to say that as the pilot grows, so does the craft.
The Doctor has many, many companions. They can live within the TARDIS with the Doctor, but they must obey certain rules.
Here are some rules:
When one hears of “rules”, they think limits and yet the TARDIS, by all storytelling measurements, is limitless. The boundaries of the TARDIS actually allow the Doctor and the companions to travel, get into adventures, help others, go places, and be safe. By the “No” of refusing certain things within (IE. Daleks, Cybermen, supernovas, The Master, etc.), it is empowering for several moments of “yes” (IE. Saving planets, defending the weak, exposing exploitation, causing revolutions, etc.).
Plus, the TARDIS gives the show an identity. Everyone who has seen the show, knows what the sound it makes. What it looks like. And even, it’s unique shade of blue.
Back to our friends on the street.
Christine Pohl asserts in her book “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition”:
“Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place- to as space bounded by commitments, values, meanings…Boundaries are an important part of making a place physically and psychologically safe. Many needy strangers (e.g. refugees, homeless people abused women and children) come from living in chronic states of fear. A safe place gives them a chance to relax, heal, and reconnect their lives. If hospitality involves providing a safe place, where a person is protected and respected, then certain behaviours are precluded and certain pragmatic structures follow.”
I once heard a Christian leader bristle at the idea of hospitality. “I don’t believe we should worry about hospitality in our church. Now does that make me inhospitable?”
I really didn’t want to answer that question.
But hospitality is linked to care, linked to the “love one another” lines that keeps popping up in a pesky way around the Scripture. However, this care is rooted in the strength of identity. Of convictions. And of a firm sense of home.
When one has more and more of a home, then one has a shot at caring for their world. This is why, I think, the Hebrew Scripture uses the idea of home to describe health, wellness, and growth.
When we make home through boundaries, we empower care.
 Cloud, Dr. Henry. Townsend, Dr. John. Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1992. Pg. 29.
 Pohl, Christine. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, Pgs. 134, 140.