The Power of Storytelling

Boston Health Care for the Homeless, 2020 

Written by Roxana van Kraus, a volunteer with our program

We meet in the Conference room, a large, luminous space on the second floor assigned to our writers' group by Dan Maloney, the Manager of Service Programs.

“Come at two, when everybody is still around, and you can talk to them.”

I arrive half an hour early and walk into a room full of chairs, people, loose papers, and loud numbers. It’s the Bingo hour. I’ve never played this game, and I find the entire process exhilarating. Dan is in the front writing numbers on the blackboard while the room goes into a frenzy. I sit in the back, next to a patient wearing a Patriots T-shirt and a Veteran’s cap.

“How does this work?” I ask. The man leans over and explains the rules of fate and numbers. Somehow, they have to match. And when they do, I win a black pen in a golden box that I hand over to him. He’s so happy I feel embarrassed by the humility of the gift. I wish I could do more.

“Why don’t you stay over for the writing class?”

“I’m no writer.”

“Everybody has a story to tell. And I love to listen.”

We move over to the round table in the corner, and soon other Bingo players join us. A handful, three men, four women. Some are in wheelchairs. Others trail metal walkers and canes. Dan brings down a stack of yellow pads and pens and distributes them around. I open a bag of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies, and somebody from the kitchen rolls in a large pot of coffee, a plastic creamer, and a stack of Styrofoam cups. We are ready.

Ten years ago, I started a writing workshop for veterans, after my son, a Boston College philosopher, joined the Marines. I tried to understand.

“Why, Brian? Why did you join?”

“This country did so much for us, we have to pay back, mama.”

“But I’m the immigrant, not you. I have to pay back, not you.”

And I did. Fifteen years of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan left their mark. And the Agape workshop proved to be a blessing both for me and the participants.

“Guys, what you are telling me I’ve never heard from my son.”

“Ma’am, what we are telling you, we’ve never told our family.”

We shared life stories and tried to control the uncontrollable. Nothing had to be explained or justified in this group. But while the veterans knew their purpose and meaning, I didn’t.

And, one evening, I met doctor Jim O’Connell, a humble man who fought his own war. At the Athenaeum, he introduced his book “Stories from the Shadows. Reflections of a Street Doctor.” He talked about homelessness in Boston, a world utterly unknown to me. I wanted to help, and one month later, I was teaching his patients in the Bingo room.

The audience was different somehow. There were some Veterans among them, but not many. Some patients spoke only Spanish or Portuguese, and a few were illiterate. The stories were diverse, but one feature was constant – the gratitude for this center that treated them as human beings, as people in need, who could be trusted and acknowledged.

I asked them to tell me a story of happiness. A blond woman with a tattoo on her right-hand wrote: “My happy day was when my son was born. I enjoy being a mom.”

A young man in a black T-shirt surprised us all with his story of a beautiful place.

“When I find my way, wherever, whenever, it will look beautiful. A place filled with colors, shapes, and designs. When I get there, the people are the people I love. They are happy, proud of me, and of themselves. When I finally make it to this place, it means I’ve succeeded, and the haters who try to savage me have failed. They stay behind angry, as I move forward, happy. This is my future. This is my destiny.”

How I wish we could all make it to his beautiful place. But the pandemic closed the workshop and silenced our stories. But their unconditional love, the Agape, had changed me. When I walked into the Homeless center, I expected sadness and despair, but I found happiness and hope. I expected bitterness and resentment, and I found appreciation and gratitude.

This winter is not an easy time for us who are locked in.

But it’s worse, much worse, for those who are locked out.  

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