conversations on the fringe


Voices Project

I Am A Mother

I am a mother. The quality of love that I have for my children is what best helps me understand the fierce love that God has for us. Nothing can shake that determined love. I may not always agree with, or like my children’s choices, but my commitment to them is unbreakable. They are my beloved children…longed for, received into my arms, blessed on their journeys and watched over with prayers and hope. I see them through the filter of love and am bone-deep certain of their worth.

My eldest daughter loves and is married to her wife of almost 3 years and my journey of acceptance and support of their relationship was not without personal pain. Let me be clear, my love for my daughter was never in question! The pain I experienced was being plunged into the “space in between”.

By this, I mean the space between my daughter and the Christian Community that largely doesn’t feel God can bless any marriage other than that of a man and woman.

When my daughter told me about her relationship, my grief was largely due to what I knew was coming. I feared that other Christians (and some family members) would stop seeing my daughter as God’s beloved and start seeing her first through the LGBTQIA filter.  I kept their relationship a secret from all but a few trusted friends. I needed time to come to grips with it myself. Foundational to my fears was the worry that God might see my daughter the way some Christians do…as less than.

Before I faced other people’s opinions, I needed to settle my soul, so I prayed, read, talked and listened to other people, followed discussions and grappled with what I learned. I listened to both sides of the theological spectrum…those who called homosexuality sin, those who said it was not sin if it wasn’t acted on, and those who felt God created a beautifully diverse world and that gender variation were part and parcel of creation and perhaps the “sin” was in not accepting God’s creation.

I talked to an Episcopalian friend of my daughter who surprisingly led me to a Mennonite theologian’s book on sexuality. The book came at the right time and helped me put together all that I had been learning in a way that felt like a key unlocking a door to the wall between my head and heart. Simply, the author explained how our view of scripture has been altered and refreshed throughout the ages because of our unfolding understanding of science. We’ve learned that the world is not flat and that we are not the center of the universe! We’ve learned that women, men, and people of different races carry nearly the same genetic material and that there is no biblical basis for patriarchy or slavery! All are equally valuable to God…and as such, to each other. He said that he believes that God created humans in all their beautiful variations, then called them good. Period. He said that those who claim the LGBTQIA classification were called to the same standards in relationships that heterosexuals were called to. We are all called to relationships that are committed, monogamous, show mutual respect, are non-violent, caring, etc.

I’m a part of the Mennonite Church and our denomination is grappling with where they stand on LGBTQIA issues and what constitutes a faithful interpretation of the bible.

Just writing the word “issues” makes me bristle and tells me how far I have traveled on this journey.  Those who are in the LGBTQIA community may have issues as all humans do, but they are not an issue! They are God’s beloved, created by God, called good by God, and seen through that lens!

I can be patient with other Christians who are still grappling over what they think God says about human sexuality. I have no patience for those who view their fellow sisters and brothers as less than, or even primarily through the sexuality lens rather than the “beloved lens”. I believe this emphasis is sinful and runs counter to God’s intention, harming both the giver and receiver.

I spoke with a couple in Europe who has a gay son. When the mother went to her pastor for support and guidance, he basically told her that her son was not welcome in their church anymore. He said he could still attend although he should no longer serve or use his gifts in the church….and should sit in the back!

Instead of comfort and encouragement, this mother was pushed into that “in between space”….the deep valley between the son she loved and her church community. She took a 3- year detour of grief and isolation that needn’t have happened. Her son was left without a community in which he had been loved and nurtured just a short time before. The parents have since found a new community that is welcoming to all and they bear their scars well. The last I’ve heard, their son still has not found a church community.

My daughter is not in a Christian community and that is hard for me to see. She and her wife attended a small Mennonite church for a time and felt at home at first, but soon came to see that the hospitality was half-hearted at best. They have found their community with other women who play Derby and though I am glad for the friends they have there, I feel it is a pale substitute for what Christian community could and should be. It should be a diverse community that sees each other through the lens of God’s beloved-ness AND sees each other through the hope of what God is calling us to become.

If I could say one thing to the Christian community I think I would say that you need to offer God’s love to ALL, with no strings attached. Telling yourself that you love the “sinner” but not the “sin”, is the same thing as telling that young man that he is welcome at church but needs to sit in the back. God’s hospitality is wholehearted, not conditional. Half-hearted hospitality is irrelevant.

If I could say one thing to the LGBTQIA community, I think I would say that I have come to see you as God does….beloved, created in God’s image and part of his amazing creation and I yearn for the day when the chasm between the two communities disappears.

Mary Kennell lives on a family farm in Central Illinois and is married to Roger. They are proud parents of four adult children. Mary was formerly on the pastoral team at Roanoke Mennonite Church where she and Roger still attend.

How To Say Goodbye (The Voices Project ep. 13)

How do you say goodbye?  It seems like such an existential question and yet it is one that has come up all too often for me as of late. It is one thing to have to say good-bye and move on from people who are your friends. But how do you say goodbye to clients? How do you say goodbye to the people who have trusted you in such an implicit way?

In this blog, I talk about giving a voice to the voiceless. I try to invite the reader in to understand the lives of some individuals who may never have the chance to tell you their stories from their own perspective. I have been privileged to be able to be a person in so many people’s lives who are given the gift of receiving those stories; to bear witness to their pain, their struggle, their hopes, their joys and to weave it all together into this story that is theirs uniquely and worthy of dignity.  And then to share it with all of you, in hopes that we can be more compassionate and more merciful to one another.

There is a sacred trust when someone comes in and starts to unpack their lives in front of you. When they pull out the snippets of sentences that will begin to form their stories, they often hand them to you a piece at a time with shaking fingers and trembling hearts, so accustomed are they to rejection.  And I, by no virtue of my own, other than this determination of my heart to use it in the service of others, was God able to use me to help provide them with that shred of dignity they so desperately needed.

But here is the crux of the issue. When you work in this field, there is high turnover, people get moved, people leave to further their education, whatever the case may be; they go. For ourselves, our clients are individual stories we are compiling which will make up the tapestry of our experiences. But for our clients, we are the dogged protagonist who plays the important role of creating an environment in which change begins to feel possible. We are not bit players, we are perhaps the only character in their story that is willing to see beyond their present circumstances, and we hold their hope in our hands, and then we say goodbye. Sometimes, as it was in a few of my situations, it is an abrupt goodbye. There was not the necessary time to prepare or to make a plan to transition them to someone else. Or to prepare their hearts and psyches for yet another change, another person who is walking away. When you work with the most vulnerable populations, leaving feels cruel, and yet it is at times, unavoidable.

So how do you leave?  How? In my case, I had one lunchtime. I had one hope that all the usual players would assemble and that I would be able to take a few minutes with each to tell them how blessed I was that they gave me their trust, that they shared their voice with me. To tell them that someone else would come behind me and pick up where I left off and that everything would be OK.  There were the ones who asked me why? Why could I not stay at least until……until the housing came through? Until they got their I.D. until they got their 3-month coin from AA they were so excited to show me. Until they found out about the job interview they had just gone on…until. But worst yet were the ones, who simply said, of course, you are leaving.

There are no answers and this blog post is never about a simple answer.

The answer to how you say goodbye, is that you simply can’t.

I carry them all with me. I carry Frank and Chelsea, and Greg, and Shannon, and John…and they become a part of how I will approach the next person, and the next. They have all taught me so much, and there is no way for me to just leave them behind. And so I incorporate their stories and I guard them. I tell people who are complaining about “those schizophrenics who hang out in the library”, what it was like to watch Greg get his first paycheck.  Or when people say that you can’t build trust with a person who has been so brutalized by past abuse, I tell them what it was like the first time Shannon came in and sat next to me in church. When people say that a pedophile can only be treated as the monsters that they are, I will tell them about my friend who found his first job after 29 years in prison, and to celebrate he distributed clean socks and hygiene products he purchased with his first paycheck, to the people living in their cars at the truck stop. I will tell people that we are all a sum total of our stories, and these stories are vast and wide and can’t be put into a category or boiled down to simple experience. I will tell them that saying goodbye means breaking my heart a little wider so that God can fill it more deeply.

In the job that I do, in the organization I work for, we are told that we don’t say goodbye, we say see you later. And so this is what I said on my last day there, see you later.  Because I will; I will see pieces of them in every client that I ever serve. Stories told with the human voice are so powerful, because they can be retold and passed on. It is a sacred trust, and one I don’t take lightly. Not Goodbye. See you later.  

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.

Ray’s Hands (The Voices Project ep. 12)

There are people you meet and you know that your life won’t be the same just from crossing paths with them.

I noticed him right away in our lunchroom. Even after just a couple months of being here, someone new stands out.

He was layered in coats and sweatshirts. His eyes were downturned. His hair so unruly and matted. His beard had decided to grow in its own directions. His skin was so weathered from the cold it looked sunburnt and sore.

I approached him with some caution. Not everyone who comes in welcomes a conversation and it is important to know the signs when they don’t. Many times people just want to eat and be done. He looked up as I approached and the desperation and sorrow in his eyes nearly buckled me at the knees. I smiled and in my smile was some secret weapon that unlocked his exterior defense and tears immediately cascaded down his cheeks.

I sat and all I could ask is: “What can I do?”

He tried to talk between his tears; “No one has smiled at me in a long time. I need shelter. Please. I can’t take the streets anymore. I am so lost.”

It was then that I noticed his hands. Dry skin can’t even touch the cracks and rough edges that were his hands. Blood was oozing from so many broken places and dried dirt and caked mud were everywhere. He saw me looking. “My hands.” he murmured.

“Yes,” I agreed. Nothing more needed to be said.

I went to the kitchen and filled a basin of hot water and soap and found the softest cloth I could find.

I carried it over and asked if I could wash his hands. He agreed.

As softly as I could I tried to clear the blood. His hands felt like the bark of a tree. He flinched in pain even with the softest touch of the warm water. His tears kept flowing freely.

“I am sorry I smell” he whispered.

“You are fine” I replied. He did in fact smell. A mixture of wood smoke, grain alcohol, and unwashed body.

“This is not who I am. I am a father. I have kids. I had a job. I was somebody.” He said this as if in a mantra he has sung many times before and it was as if he was begging me to hear him.

“I know” And I do know. I know that no one decides this is who they want to be.

“My daughter was the first baby I ever held.” He began to explain,  “I was only 19 when I had her. I wanted to give her the world. I worked so hard. I raised my kids. And I helped with my grandkids. I had money in the bank. How did this happen to me?” His eyes beg me for an answer.

“My kids are right here in town and I won’t bother them. They don’t need to be bothered by me. I am ashamed. I am sorry for my smell.” He repeats.

“I bet we can get you a shower. If you want to come back tomorrow I think we can bring you to the truck stop and get you showered. It doesn’t bother me, but I think you would feel so much better.” I offered

“Yes,” he replies. “Please.”

He keeps talking and telling me stories about his kids. We, at one point, laugh uproariously over a story he has just told me. As soon as he catches himself laughing, he stops and assesses me. I nod in encouragement and he laughs again as if somewhere along the line he forgot that he is allowed to laugh for the sake of joy.

Finally, I ask the question I have been waiting to ask. “Is it alcohol?”

“Yes,” he admits. “Been drinking my whole life. But how did this happen? I don’t know how this happened.”

I know he is not ready for anything more than this acknowledgment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has to be met in his life before we can do anything about what is at the root. He has polished off two trays of food while we talked.  He will need to get a shower in and some clean clothes. I find him a bottle of lotion for cracked and dried hands and I tell him how often he should apply it. Those hands. They tell me everything.

Tomorrow if he returns, I will take him to shower. I will continue to listen and hold his stories. I will pray for a way that he can get sober and rebuild his life. But the steps to get there are many.

Today Ray gave me a gift. He let me sit with him in his pain, and he let me wash his hands. Today he shared his humanity with me. He reminded me as so often happens in this work, that all of us are so broken and so wounded. Ray and I could have, at any moment, been interchangeable. If I would have chosen right instead of left then I could have been in his chair.

Ray’s broken hands in mine gave me a sense of God’s vast mercy and love. Gentle acceptance is sometimes all we need to crack open the door to hope.

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.

John (The Voices Project ep. 11)

Matted beard. I mean matted. He chews tobacco, and it drips into his beard and there it stays. He has not showered in weeks. He has not had water at his house for almost a full month. He is hard of hearing, so every conversation involves shouting. He has a mental illness, he is often nervous and is sure that the city government is in collusion with the water company.

The first time I met him I was running up and down the stairs to the food pantry, and when I came back into my office where he sat at my desk.

He is determined to get his water turned back on. He did not want to leave my desk chair because he was confused and scared.

Our volunteer was is an elderly woman and she was equally as nervous as him when she has to be around him. She was standing over him trying to get him out from behind my desk.

I tried to assure them both. It was equally frustrating and futile with both of them. Neither was being convinced to calm down. I knew quickly that the way the volunteer was standing over him was a bad idea. My fear was quickly confirmed as he let loose a stream of nervous urine in my chair.

This upset the volunteer so fully she threw up her hands and stormed out.

He looked at me with wide eyes, not acknowledging in any way what happened. But there it was in his eyes, he was waiting for me to respond.

I took a deep breath, fighting my own disgust. “Sir, I love that you are so comfortable in my office. And since you have planted yourself here, can I at least get your full name?”

“John” he responded.

“Well John, I have quite a line of people waiting to see me, how about a cup of coffee in our lunchroom?” I coaxed

“That would be perfect,” He agreed

I got him to sit in the lunchroom.

I got my chair cleaned.

I had to leave him to fill up food boxes for clients.

I watched as my supervisor sat and talked to him with so much patience and love.

He just wants his water on.

He just wants to be heard.

He has a story.

He was not always the unwashed, unkempt, hard of hearing man we see now. He used to be someone’s child, full of hope and promise and dreams. This is not, I am certain, where he saw himself.

I sat later and thought about my volunteer’s panic with him, how upset she was. I know it was a combination of his appearance and his smell. She was so intimidated by this man he has become. I understand. It is a challenge to me to find a way to always connect. But when I looked in his eyes that day I saw a fragility in his sky blue eyes. I saw a yearning to be heard. I saw his desperation, and I understood that. He just wants to be able to care for himself, and he has lost, for whatever reason, his ability to do that for himself.

I think when other people are confronted by his desperation it is scary for them. It reminds them that life is not always comfortable, pretty, or clean.

But he carries himself still with a nobility that goes beyond his circumstances.

He never takes more from us then what he needs. We offer him food from our pantry, free bread, and a meal. He takes exactly what he needs and nothing extra.

My supervisor and I have talked about how to get him help, how to help him get cleaned up, how to love him where he is.

There are no easy answers. But what I know is that we can give him dignity. The dignity that surpasses all his exterior appearances. Sometimes it does not feel like enough, and other times, especially with John, it feels like everything.

Ricky (The Voices Project ep. 7)

A Pittsburgh Steelers cap, a Steelers sweatshirt, even a Steelers coat.  I knew I had to give him a hard time.

“Did you not get the memo? We are in green and gold country?” I joked.

“Well you know I have to represent.”  He jokes back.

“Please tell me,” I shot back “That you have better taste in baseball teams.”
And so our conversation began.

He was one of the most honest and forthcoming people I had come across.

He had just moved here a month ago from Mississippi with his (much younger) wife and four children in tow. They came on the promise of a job, but when he arrived that job was no longer available. They had used all their money to get here. They could not go back, there were no jobs in Mississippi. I asked where they had been staying, and he looked me square in the eye.  “Four kids, in our car mam. I have nothing left to feed them. The gas is completely gone.  We can’t stay dry. I am a man who can’t provide for his family.” He was beaten.

We talked about what he was doing for a job search. We joked a little more about sports.  He made fun of me for Chicago’s football team. Finally, he said, “We just need some time to get dry and get some sleep.”

I was able to put him up in a motel room, but only for four days. That was our limit, and we were just about out of the ability to do even that.  Usually, these rooms are set aside for emergencies that are temporary in nature. These rooms are not to ever be used as a band-aid for a problem that has no solution. It sounds harsh, but it is the reality of the limits of the system.But I knew I had to give him this time to get warm and get some sleep so he would at least have a fighting chance. He was so thankful for this reprieve. I told him to make an appointment in the meantime with the job search agency and then to come back and check in with me.

Yesterday he came back in.  He had his pastor with him. He told me he wore his Steelers cap just for me. His sense of humor was still intact.  

We went down to the office.  

“How was the motel?” I asked

“It was so great. So great to have a bed. So great to be dry. So great to have some running water. The owner was a very nice man, very professional. I wanted you to know that we kept the room very clean. But now we are back on the streets. I don’t know what to do. I am going to the job place today. I don’t know what to tell the kids.”  

I decided right then, that I needed to keep it real with this man. He had been so honest and so earnest, and I  knew he could handle the reality of his situation.

“I am sorry Ricky, but we just have nothing else right now. I have gotten you on the waiting list for the only family shelter. And that is a waiting game.It is a transient population, and someone can move today or move in a week. We just don’t know. The resources in this town are just so limited for shelter. If you were in a bigger city, your family would have more of a chance at a shelter. I get what I am telling you. I get it does not sound full of hope. But I believe in a God of hope, and we are just going to ask Him to show up and show off for your family. You do all you can do, I will do all I can do and we will trust God to do the rest.

I have had nothing, Ricky. I know how that feels. But I also know that the God we serve is bigger than of this.  So trust him, and if you can continue to trust me.” I stopped.

“This woman believes in you” his pastor boomed.

“I do. But more than that I believe that God can.” I replied.

We came up with a loose plan of seeking shelters in Rockford, the closest “big city”.  He was going to go to the job center and see if there were any possibilities at all.

I felt as though I had given him nothing at all.

As he was leaving, he stopped and looked at me.“Other than having horrible taste in any major league teams, you are a good woman. You were straight with me. You didn’t judge me.  And you treated me with dignity. Living in a car, you have no dignity left. But you made me feel like I do. Thank you.”

After he left my heart was so heavy of all the things I could not do. Such a basic need to shelter and feed your family. To know that your kids are sleeping soundly, and peacefully without a care in their minds. I could not even offer him a safe place to land.

What I could do for him is to not just see his current situation, but the man that he was before it all fell apart. The man he was created to be; a human, worthy of all the dignity we can offer.  It is not a big thing, but to him, it was the thing. In him, I was reminded that we are all so “fearfully and wonderfully made” and all so inherently in need of someone recognizing the dignity in us. And we need this dignity right where we are, in whatever place we find ourselves. His situation seems hopeless, but he is not without hope. 

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.


Chelsea (The Voices Project ep. 6)

The door for social services normally gets locked around three, and we in our exhaustion of having seen so many that day forgot to lock it. We were doing a debrief and sitting for the first time when Chelsea walked in.  

She was an enigma to me from the start. She looked put together, nice outfit, hair done up in an old school chignon, but that all stopped when you got to her eyes.  She was exhausted.  

“I just got out of jail” she explained, “made some dumb decisions about drugs again.

Now I have no place to go. No one trusts me.  My grandma had to bail me out of jail,” she exclaimed. Self-reproach loud in her tone. “My grandma! Can you believe that?  
I don’t know where I am going to go.”  Grandma is not an option for obvious reasons.

I explained to her that all the motels we had vouchers for were full for that night. We had a particularly busy day with people needing a safe, dry place to sleep. There are only two shelters in our city, and one is men’s only. The other is for families, single women, and children, and so the waiting list is long.

Having delivered the news of no shelter for that night, she sighed and then her story came, as they always do. She was in a methadone program and decided to use once more.  She was “released” from the methadone program and in her anger, she decided to use even more. Which meant stealing from her boyfriend in order to get a fix.

I asked her how long she has been clean.  Two weeks was the answer.

“Detoxing”? I asked.

“Just the runs”. she replies.  
She assures me she is on the other side of the worst, and I trust her, she is the expert.

“The thing is”, she tells me, “I hate drugs, but I want to use. I want to use right now. And you know why? I don’t want to feel! I feel everything way too much. I keep using because I am too sensitive. I get hurt too easily. I feel everything and I want to just stop feeling.” I told her I get it, and I do.

I ask her about mental illness. “Bi-polar,” she tells me, “and off my meds for a long time. I hate those things,” she spits out after a long pause.

“Who brought you here”? I ask her. “My boyfriend. He still cares, he still wants me safe. He loves me, but I can’t stay with him. Because of me stealing from him, he could not pay his rent and was evicted. He is crashing on a friend’s floor.  Jesus”, she says, shaking her head. She puts her head down. “Sleeping on a floor, a grown man, because of me. And he still loves me. Doesn’t trust me though. Why should he?”

I ask her about family she could stay with. “My sister is in NA, she is recovering from meth. Even got her teeth back. That shit is working for her. But she can’t have me there, I am not a sure bet yet, you know?”

She starts looking through our rack of free bread. “Can I really take anything?” She asks. “Sure can,” I say, “take as much as you want.”  

“This is expensive shit! I love raisin bread. I am taking two if you don’t care.” I assure her we don’t.

Quietly, I hear her whisper, “I just want my mom.”

My heart is pierced through. Having lost my mom two years ago, I feel the weight of the longing in her words. “Sometimes,” I tell her, “we need them more than anything else.”

She looks at me with the harried look of a survivor, “ya well, mine is killing herself in California with meth.  She’s been doing that her whole life. What I want does not exist.”

With those words, I feel for a moment, the futility of the help I can offer her. For a moment I feel the full weight of the outlook of her life. I can’t stay there, it is literally my job to assure her that there is hope,  and that is my job even when I can’t quite see it yet.

As she fills up her bag with bread, I ask her if she will come back the next day to see me. I promise her that I will get her the places and times of NA meetings and that we can work on getting her into the shelter. I ask her to not use that night and she promises me she won’t. “I am done with that shit!” she spits out. And oh, how much I want to believe that is true.

She is with me on the drive home, as surely as if she was sitting there. She is with me as I try to sleep.

The resources are so few. Every day we see so many people like her, and it is literally like throwing bread to the seagulls on the beach. You throw out your crumbs and they swarm and then fly off, and there is nothing left for the ones that arrived a second too late. Chelsea was just so fragile, and I knew that she got put together to come in and see me, she did her hair and somehow got herself together and that act was her one courageous act of hope, and I sent her off with a bag of bread.

I think as long as I am here, I will pray she shows up again. I will pray she does not become another grim statistic. I have resources put together for her. I will be there with my crumbs of hope if she can make it back through my doors.

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.


The Kids (The Voices Project ep. 5 pt. 1)

They come in with all the energy of a day being spent pent up behind a desk. Coats and hats and gloves and boots go flying in all directions and with cheeks flushed and eyes flashing all voices are clamoring to tell me about their day. Kickballs are quickly grabbed and soon I am roped into a hardcore game of foursquare. The girls like to change the rules to suit what is happening in the moment. I have found that once we get into the rhythm of the game this is when they begin to share with me. Their exteriors are tough. All three girls are wearing matching Chuck Taylors. They like that they are the oldest in our afterschool program.  They like that I can use them to help me wrangle the younger kids to listen and that if they help me I let them choose the game for the evening. Over the weeks a trust has been established. As we begin to play one of the girls misses a shot she would never normally miss. Too low, she complains, that was below the knees. She stomps out and lets the girl waiting come in.

“Not like you to get so frustrated?” I challenge her.

“Sorry,” she says sheepishly, and I know she means it. She is one of those girls who exhausts herself acting as if she does not care. But she more than most truly craves the acceptance from the adults present in the room. I keep my eye on her as she sluggishly tries to reenter the game. Finally, at dinner time the story comes out. She is exhausted. She is living at her grandmas with seven other cousins. Both of her parents are now in jail.  Both for possession of drugs. She worries about her little brother. She wants to make sure he is eating enough. She worries he is being picked on at school. She said it is noisy in her grandma’s house with everyone there. Her aunts and uncles are also suffering the consequences of life choices and their children are paying for it by being dumped at Grandmas. She tells me all of this in a matter of fact, tired adult kind of way. And my heart breaks open. She is carrying the very weight of the world on her shoulders and she is 12. She knows far too much about felonies and mandatory sentences and exactly how much food her brother ate for dinner last night.  

After dinner, she helps me gather the kids in the chapel for devotions. I am proud of her as she reminds the younger kids that if they are good listeners she will make sure they get to play sharks and minnows. I am both captivated and saddened by her temerity.  She sounds much too adult, much too authoritative, and her eyes are too tired. I have no idea how to even begin to imagine all that she has heard and witnessed in her short 12 years. I have no idea the responsibilities she has had to shoulder at such a young age. I feel an aching desire for her to be clueless and to hear her joking about boys and twitter feeds and the gross food in her cafeteria. I look around at all the kids gathered for our afterschool program and I know their stories mimic hers, the narrative maybe just a bit different.

Running back to the gym, she quickly has the kids count off and assigns the “ones” to be sharks and the “twos” to be minnows. I watch her as she leads the sharks. She has suddenly transformed into a young girl again, she loses herself in the game.  She is suddenly focused on being a shark, she mercifully forgets that she herself is vulnerable and afraid, and for that moment I am profoundly grateful that she has these two hours to just be a girl, to just be 12. The minute she leaves this place I know that she will morph into a beleaguered adult, her destiny seemingly set into this cycle of poverty and incarceration; but for this moment, she is safe with us, and she is a shark, laughing and chasing all of those minnows.

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.


Shut Up, Don’t Speak Up (The Voices Project ep. 4)

It was her first rental house.  She had been couch surfing with friends and family longer then she was willing to think about, and she finally had her own house to rent.  She was working two jobs. One as a teacher’s aide and the other as a server in a fine dining restaurant, and she needed them both.  To be honest, it was the job as a server that truly paid the rent.  There is just no way you can make money like that anywhere else, and, she was good at it! She had always been good with people, and this job fed that social side of her.  The problem was that she felt intimidated by her boss.

She was the only female server.  The place was small, and there were only seven employees. Two chefs, a bartender, and four servers, and out of all of them she was the only woman there. This meant pretending not to be offended by the jokes they would tell around her, just waiting to see her reaction. It meant ignoring the backhanded remarks they would make about whether she could handle a tray that was too heavy.  But there were some things she began to see, that maybe she could not handle.

When bosses day came, and people were giving the owner cards, she felt awful she forgot.  “I am sorry”, she said, “I did not realize it was bosses day.”  

“That’s OK,” he said and winked at her.  “How about a blowjob in the closet instead? Much better than a card wouldn’t you agree?”

She tried to laugh it off, and she hurried away, but it left her rattled all day long.

This continued for weeks. Offhand comments, sexual innuendos, and compliments on her looks and her body.  She would go home feeling violated by his words, and she would beat herself up that she had not stood up to him.

She felt stuck.  She needed this job.  She could not go back to couch surfing. She had to make that money for the rent.  She would spend hours in the shower, unaware that there was no amount of water that would wash away his words. Maybe it was her fault.  Was she smiling at him too much?  Did she flirt without realizing it?  Should she not be meeting his eye?  Not be spending too much time talking to him?  

The problem was; it was about him, not her., and so it just kept happening no matter what she did.  Finally one night he did it in front of other staff, and she felt the humiliation in her bones. She slunk out the door at the end of the shift, feeling their eyes boring into her.  Her self-recrimination screamed in her ears, and she felt the unbearable weight of shame.  She knew she could not go back.  She knew she would need to do something else.  

And so she sent him a message, too afraid to see him in person,  and of course, he wanted to know why she was leaving.

And so she told him that his “jokes” made her uncomfortable.  She heaped the blame on herself.  “I guess I do not have thick enough skin to work in this environment.” And sadly, of course, he blamed her.

She scrambled and took whatever serving job she could find, the tips would never be as good as at that first place.  But she began to heal.

Then one night she was leaving a neighborhood bar and pizza place, one where many servers in that neighborhood would go after work.  She did not even think to worry that her former co-workers would be there.  As she walked to her car, some of them followed her out.  One of the girlfriends of her co-workers, emboldened by alcohol, spit ugly words out to her;

“Hey, you whore! Did you really think that he would hit on you? You are pathetic.”

She pleaded with them to leave her alone.  “Go home” She urged, “you are drunk, please just leave me alone.”

“Why would he want someone like you?  How dare you accuse him? He is a great man and you are nothing!” The girl continued to taunt her.

She made it to her car.  Tears were coming.  She got in and was trying to start her car when a hand reached in and grabbed her hair and pulled.  The pain was immediate and excruciating. 

“Maybe you just need a reminder to keep your slut mouth shut” a voice hissed, and then came the punches to the face.

She must have blacked out.  Suddenly no one was there.

Blame the victim.  Take responsibility for his behavior.  Don’t tell.  Don’t say anything. Take it.  Be a good girl.  Smile.  Turn the other way.  

Shut up.  Shut up. Shut up.

Years have passed.  Sometimes she still feels the fear of that hand reaching in without her seeing.  Sometimes she still sees him laughing at her.  Sometimes…

But now she watches in awe as women in every shape and size are showing up and speaking up.  She watched in silence and tears as everyone wore black to the Golden Globes’.  She does not even mind it is a Hollywood thing.  There is a judge who just sentenced a doctor to 175 years in prison for hurting women.  There are women keeping their jobs and bosses losing them.  She could be bitter that it had to be so hard for her, but she searches inside herself and instead, she finds profound gratitude that the world will be better for the next woman who is just trying to pay the rent.  “speak up” she whispers to the television set, “speak up.”

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.


Shannon: Part 2 (The Voices Project ep. 3)

It was the Sunday of my installation at church. I was so nervous.  I was being installed as a ministerial intern!  Me?  This broken girl, how in the world did I ever think God could use me?  My palms were sweating and I wished as I had so many times for God to show me His plan.  And then in she walked.  The door opened and Shannon was there.  She looked more nervous then I felt. I jumped up and I asked her if I could give her a hug?  She didn’t even answer, she just wrapped me up in a hug and I could feel her shaking.  “I came,” she whispered into my hair. “I am so glad” I told her, we can sit and be scared together.

Now she comes to church sometimes, and others she does not. When she does not come she always tells me when she sees me next, that she was just too scared that day to be around people. I always tell her that I understand and that so does God.  At Christmas, she came and she brought me a gift.  I will never forget the card.  It read simply; thank you for loving me.  I have not felt loved in a long time.

What if I had not kept trying?  What if I did not have these tattoos? What if I had allowed her silence to keep me away?  I sat in church that day of my installation and asked God to show me His plan, and then He did, in that card from Shannon.  I have not felt loved.  How many people walk through life feeling unloved and unlovable?  How small of a thing to allow someone to be seen.  What a gift that I am being given to show people the dignity of being loved as they are.

I love my time with her now. I love when she comes and sits in church with me. Or when I get the opportunity to carry my lunch tray over and sit with her.  She shares her life with me; the stories come rolling out in her soft, gentle voice. She tells me about her hopes and dreams.  She tells me about her family and her apartment that she loves.  She tells me when she is struggling and when things are going well.  And always now she meets my eye.  

Shannon has three sisters.  All three sisters have mental illness; Schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, and borderline personality.  She loves her sisters and she worries about how they will continue to make it. She carries a lot on her shoulders.  I have finally heard her laughter, and it is the sound of pure joy. She has confided in me that she loves to sing, and she dreams about feeling “well” enough to sing in the praise band at church; A simple, beautiful goal.

People are made up of so many pieces.  Their stories are vast and wide and they are bigger than the label of “mentally ill”.  That is not the beginning or the end of the story, it is merely a part.  And every human has the innate desire to feel loved; and to be loved where they are, as they are.  We are all so afraid of falling short; of not being enough.  We all have that voice inside of us that tells us we are unlovable; some peoples are merely louder than others.

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.


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