by Willa Keegan-Rodewald
For my year in the Quaker Voluntary Service, I’m working at New City Initiative, which aims to engage faith communities in ending the cycle of homelessness. In November, we organized the annual Day of Homelessness Awareness in downtown Portland. This year the event included a call to action, which asked Portland’s faith communities to write letters to their state representatives and senators and urge them to restore funding for emergency housing programs. On November 22nd, the Day of Homelessness Awareness started with a walk through downtown past agencies serving those living on the streets. It continued with a rally in Pioneer Square featuring speeches, songs, and prayers from diverse faith leaders. Finally a delegation of leaders carried the 613 letters to the State Capitol in Salem. Before delivering the letters, the leaders spoke before the Oregon legislature about why this restoration of funding was imperative. The day before the event, my boss asked me to be one of those speakers. How could I say no? These are the words I spoke:
My name is Willa Keegan-Rodewald. I’m 22 years old, and my whole life I’ve seen homelessness. It’s a fixture in my world. It makes me wonder, will there always be homeless people?
This year I’m working with New City Initiative as part of my time in the Quaker Voluntary Service. I was raised in the Quaker tradition, but this year I’m engaging my faith more deeply as I spend a year serving the community and practicing living my principles.
In my work with New City Initiative, I meet people every day who are homeless. We try to support people as they transition out of homelessness by helping them train for jobs, express themselves creatively, find rides to important appointments, and get involved with their communities. While these initiatives make a difference in the lives of the people we work with, the biggest need I’ve been made aware of is one of the most basic. There is a profound need for housing. We all need somewhere to rest our heads, physically and mentally. We all need somewhere to feel safe. We all need a space to go to that can be a foundation to build our lives upon. There aren’t enough of those spaces in Oregon, and restoring these housing programs will make a difference for thousands of people.
In working to end homelessness, I’m proud to be following in the long Quaker tradition of social activism. A common Quaker tenet is to let your life speak what you believe. Lucretia Mott, Jane Adams, and Bayard Rustin, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, are just a few of the many who have made their lives speak for others. They’ve worked through nonviolent means to ensure that every person has equal rights and opportunities. They are living the Quaker belief that there is something of the light or spirit in everyone. Every person needs a stable foundation where they can find and express what that something is to the world. Right now that means every Oregonian needs a place to call home.
One of my favorite bits of Quaker wisdom comes from George Fox. ‘Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.’ These letters and these voices today are the call for change, and it’s time for Oregon’s lawmakers to answer.
On March 7th, we received word that the Oregon Legislature voted to allocate an additional $2 million for emergency services for homeless families! The additional funding will make it possible for over 1,000 new families to receive shelter, deposits, and rent support.
This past weekend, as I prepared to speak at a forum at West Hills Friends, I enjoyed thinking about the different kinds of moments of my year in QVS. Speaking at the State Capitol was one of the big ones, surging with adrenaline and intensity. But my work has also been made rich by more ordinary moments with the homeless families I meet and volunteers I coach. Those moments don’t make the kind of difference that you can necessarily see in five or six months, but I see the light in them. So I like to think that sometimes, instead of focusing on how I can “let my life speak,” I should pay attention to how I can “let my moments speak,” big and small.