The Glass Jar City

In the summer of 2014, I graduated Fairfield University’s MFA Program.  I remember getting home from the final residency and thinking about the future.  I had a thesis novel in hand and stood at a crossroads.

What if I could tell a story that made a difference?

The question kept me up at night. One day the second part of the equation fell into place.

In 2011, the city of Reading, Pennsylvania was named the poorest in the United States.  This city was five minutes down the road.  What if I could tell the story, conduct some interviews, and find the pulse of the place fighting to find new life?

The journey started at Hope Rescue Mission on a hot August morning. Executive director Robert Turchi and Assistant Director Frank Grill opened the doors and provided the first glimpse of what it meant to be homeless. Their connections served as a guide to future emails and contacts.

Now, almost two years later, The Glass Jar City is a week away from arrival.

Matthew Shaner

The title came from a conversation with CEO Peter Barbey.  Barbey currently runs The Reading Eagle media organization.  His investment company recently purchased The Village Voice out of New York City. We were in his office, rain pounding against the windows, talking about the current state of the city. He said:

“It is like Reading turned a glass jar over on itself, on all the problems and issues, and said ‘okay now deal with it’.”

The story is one of inspiration, of heroes on the front lines and businessmen moving on higher levels. It is a conflict of personal interest and economic stability, the hands of history reaching deep into the present and those struggling hard to move into a new future.

I spoke with Vaughn Spencer, the mayor of the city at the time, and the lead Berks County Commissioner in Christian Leinbach. I met with Sheriff Eric Weaknecht and Deputy Warden of Treatment Stephanie Smith at Berks County Prison.

I was inspired by Craig Poole (manager of the DoubleTree hotel on Penn Street) and Dan Clouser (founder of the BIG Vision Foundation), two men leading their perspective businesses with an eye towards changing lives and making a positive future.

My interview with Sherry Camelleri, guiding Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center from its office on 5th Street, helped to deepen my faith and show that the smallest acts and donations can make a difference.

Stay tuned this week as I’ll post more important updates and get ready to join me on this journey through what it means to hit the bottom, shatter expectations, and find your way back to life.

~Matt

The Gift of Showing Up

This week I’ve been praying for God to show up.  Not in a Christmas story, angels in the sky kind of way.  Just in a moment or two where the divine breaks through the atmosphere and you can feel it.

This time of year it is way too easy to phone it in. We pack our weeks with activities, shopping, preparation, and stress.  The push is on to get that last gift, stock up on the required groceries, and finish remaining deadlines before the new year.

As a writer, and a dad, I tend to live in my head.  The internal conversation started when I was young, growing up an only child, and helped me tap into the words that became short stories, novellas, and finally novels.  Stephen Gaghan, writer of the movie Traffic, said that everyone who wants to write has a desire to explain themselves to the world.  I rehearsed this inside my head for decades.

Because the truth can be scary. Emotions can scar. Fear can paralyze. Moments of genuine experience hit like hammers and leave us euphoric or reeling in the aftermath.

They light the fire of our souls.

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God has shown up this week and answered my prayers in multiple ways. Yesterday, I met more than one person struggling to make it this month, but held up and hanging on by their faith. Last night and today Carter had the chance to play with good friends and practice the sports he loves.

I was honored to have someone witness to me today. We talked about faith and they told me to lean on Jesus every day because we need it, every day, to survive.

The Gift of Showing Up works on two levels.  First, make the effort to slow down and be present these next two weeks. Enjoy the quiet moments. Reflect on what has happened, the fact that you’ve survived, and the hope of the future. Play with your kids. Talk to your spouse. Make it count.

Second, you’ll be surprised where and when God will arrive.  Tonight I met with my friend Sherry, director of Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center.  I updated her on the progress of my current book project.  We talked about family and friends, the daily process of an outreach organization, and the courage to keep coming back.

She shared stories of clients surviving in the journey of parenting, education, and escaping the web of poverty. She is a woman of hope, one that has shown me God every time we’ve met.

Find people like this and be sure to spend time with them.  They will equip you to go out and shine the light of hope to others.

You’ll truly understand the power and gift of showing up.

~Matt

 

Feel Good Friday 9/12/2004

On August 25th, at a shooting range in Arizona, instructor Charles Vacca was accidentally shot and killed by a young girl operating an Uzi. The girl’s mother caught the shooting on her cell phone as she was recording her daughter at the time. Vacca’s four children have penned a letter to the girl and it includes thoughts like this:

“We think about you. We are worried about you. We pray for you, and we wish you peace. Our dad would want the same thing.”

Imagine both sides of this story.  The children on will live with it for the rest of their lives.  I’m curious about the idea that kids as young as nine are allowed to shoot an automatic weapon at a range but, the sentiments of the victim’s kids are what should shine at this moment.  How many of us could say or do the same if we had lost a loved one?

I’ve said before that children are the future of this country and, when I read this, I believe it just may be true.  You can find the story here.

 

Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center

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Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center is located across from the Reading Main Library on 5th Street in the city of Reading.  I met with the director, Sherry Camelleri, on a hot summer afternoon in late July.  Mercy opened in 1990. It offers parental education courses, pregnancy tests, information on adoption and medical services, liquid formula, shoes, and clothing for children.  The staff consists of Camelleri, her assistant, and a crew of volunteers.  They receive no funding from the government and every item of supplies is donated.

When we toured the clothing room, most of the bins and racks had a good selection of various sizes.  One bin stood empty and waiting for new donations of socks.

“Winter coats are gold here,” she told me, “we had a family of four sending only one child to school each day in the winter because they had one coat to pass around.  The three other kids stayed home.”

Mercy serves wide range of ages, from teenagers dealing with pregnancy to those later on in life. The doors are also open to men facing unplanned pregnancies who have the desire to better themselves as fathers.  Camelleri’s passion is to meet people where they are, earn their trust, and make their lives better.

Her drive is for the children and, if your are looking to support a valuable outreach, please consider donating here. You can check the main page of Mercy’s website for available services, hours, and contact information.

~Matt

Soundtrack Inspiration: A great song to start the weekend

The House on Fire

Today I spent almost two hours at the Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center in the city of Reading.  Mercy is located directly across from the main branch of the Reading library system.  I’ve been in the library many times and never noticed the buildings across the street. They are set of old row homes and one of them is the entrance of Mercy.  I met with Sherry, the executive director, and had an amazing experience.

The building was the former residence of a doctor and has a place on the registry of historic homes. She took me on a tour of the floors, meeting rooms, and supply areas.  Mercy handles 1200 client visits a year and takes in no outside funding. They provide classes on life skills and parenting, clothes, supplies, and pregnancy tests. All of this with two full-time employees, a staff of volunteers, and money from donors.

Their focus is on helping the entire person, whether a young lady expecting her first child or a single father not knowing what to do. They present the Gospel, and a listening ear and their referrals are all by word of mouth.  They have generations of family members using their services to help get a solid foundation.  Sherry and her staff care for their clients like family.

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As I was sitting in the waiting room speaking with her, I felt an impression clear as day.  This is what I am supposed to be doing. These are stories I need to tell. These are people I need to help.  I’m not overly sensitive to the Spirit but, it was a Field of Dreams moment, the voice saying “if you write it, they will come.”

“I tell my volunteers, we are all comfortable with the front door gospel,” Sherry said, “Here we are the house on fire. We need to be like firemen, able to go through the basement windows and claw through the smoke and help put out the flames.”

As you go through this week, try to find the fires around you. They can be friends or family, coworkers or neighbors. When you move to serve, great things can happen.

~Matt