Understanding the Effects of Trauma

Laura:                      Suzanne Burns, is the founder and executive director of Foundation House Ministries. A faith-based maternity home and training program for pregnant and parenting women in critical situations. She also trains ministry leaders to understand the effects of trauma and addiction. Suzanne has a Master’s of Science in Marriage and Family Studies from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. She is also a certified family trauma professional. I hope you enjoy my interview with Suzanne. Suzanne, it’s really good to have you here today.

Suzanne:                Thanks.

Laura:                      Tell me a little bit about yourself and where you’re from.

Suzanne:                I am the executive director of Foundation House Ministries located in Cleveland, Tennessee. I grew up several different States, mostly in Illinois and then Michigan and then Colorado. And then I came here in 1994 to go to Lee University. And pretty much just been here ever since.

Laura:                      Yeah. So what brought you to Cleveland after you graduated from Lee?

Suzanne:                Well, I actually didn’t graduate from Lee the first go-round. I got pregnant in my junior year in college and actually, I did move home and had my son there. But his father was here in Tennessee and I didn’t want to be the reason that my son didn’t know his dad or didn’t have a good relationship with his dad. So I decided to move back to Tennessee, and it’s since become home and my parents have moved out here and now we all live right here in this area. So it’s definitely home for me.

Laura:                      And you started a ministry called the Foundation House. How did you get the idea to start that ministry?

Suzanne:                So as I mentioned, I was pregnant at a young age and had a lot of struggles and difficulties because of that. I had some job skills, I had some college, I had good family support, but the reality was is that it was still really difficult. So as I began to kind of grow and mature and my son got older and I had experienced a brief tumultuous marriage and divorce. And so then I am remarrying and having another son and really just kind of stabilizing, I guess is the best word for it. I began volunteering at a local pregnancy help center. I felt like I had lived it and so I could help other girls who were living it themselves. And so from there, I was there for seven years as a volunteer. And that was really where I began seeing the great need for housing, for wraparound services, for kind of a holistic approach, a 24/7 kind of approach. So many of these girls that would come in, they were not just afraid they were pregnant and what do I do? But it was also, where do I sleep? How am I going to survive? How am I going to eat? If I have this baby, I’m going to be kicked out or my drug-addicted boyfriend could murder me, could harm my baby. And so as I began allowing my perspective to be broadened and expanded to the vast need, the more I knew that I needed to have a place for these women to be able to come to. Where they could get the care and support. Where they could get the training. Where they could get emotional support and at the same time get real and tangible support. Physically have someplace safe to sleep, have transportation to doctor’s appointments, have nutritious foods, get obtain jobs skills and financial literacy, be able to safely go back to high school and finish your education or have a safe place to leave your baby so you can go to work because you don’t have daycare. Kind of the whole all-encompassing picture of how do I help these young women be effective, stable, single moms.

Laura:                      Do you feel like that volunteer position was the first time you feel like you were starting to walk in a relationship with people experiencing that on a daily basis?

Suzanne:                Yeah, very much so. I had done various things over the years, mission trips overseas and vacation Bible studies in low-income areas. And so I had kind of been exposed to the greater needs of the general population and those living in poverty and so I had my eyes open. But this was my first experience of consistently seeing it. It’s one thing to go to a small town in Mexico for a week and be blown away by the abject poverty or the great need. It’s another thing to get up and drive across town and see it weekend and week out, day after day. It was really eyeopening to me that, oh, it’s not just somewhere else. It’s not just the other.

Laura:                      Somewhere far away.

Suzanne:                Exactly, it’s right here. It’s my neighbor. And of course, I had lived it as well to a certain degree.

Laura:                      Yeah.

Suzanne:                I’d been in poverty for sure. I’d been on food stamps. I’d been a single mom. I had been struggling to pay bills. And so, I felt like I had some awareness. But man, the depth of need, I was blown away.

Laura:                      Yeah. So what kind of programs do you offer at Foundation House?

Suzanne:                We are a maternity home, and so we provide housing for women who are pregnant and homeless. We also provide housing based on availability to women who either are or aren’t pregnant but they have older children living with them and are homeless. So that’s kind of a comprehensive 24/7 care for those families. We offer food trips to the doctor, safe places to live, trauma-informed care and counseling, training classes, case management, court advocacy, kind of the whole gamut of how do I help you stand on your own two feet. And then we also have a nonresidential program, where we work with women who are in a similar situation, but maybe they just don’t need housing. Or maybe they’re still living with mom or grandma or something that the housing piece is not the most pressing need, but the other components that we offer are. So for them, we offer the same classes in case management, we offer training, we offer transportation sometimes, access to jobs and employment opportunities. What we want to do is, really develop a family. So I think part of our best gift to all of our clients whether in the house or not is, that our goal is to kind of welcome you into our family. Whether you still have one or whether your family of origin is not present or is not favorable. We’ve had some that have come out of foster care. We’ve had some that their abusers were their family. So regardless of what your family of origin looks like, we can be your family. We can be your sense of support. We can be the place you come to for advice, for encouragement, a shoulder to cry on. As much a real and tangible place as it is an emotional support place too. And between the clients too. There’s a lot of networking available for them too to build those friendships that have nothing to do with drug culture or jail culture but have to do with stability and commiserating as being a young single mom.

Laura:                      Yeah. And so, you have clients that come in that have a wide range of different traumatic experiences.

Suzanne:                Yeah.

Laura:                      About how long do you feel like it takes to begin to build trust between those clients?

Suzanne:                It really is just a case by case basis. We work really hard to prove ourselves trustworthy. So, it’s two pieces. It’s how can I show that I am worthy of your trust? And then it’s her side of things. How can she trust me? How can she take a chance and trust me? So, I can only be responsible for my side of things. And give her every opportunity to place her trust in me and to prove that it’s going to be safe. But I can do things like showing up on time. When I say I’m going to call you, I do. When I make a promise or commitment, I fulfill it to the best of my abilities. And if I can’t, then I communicate that as quickly as possible. Though, it’s those things that prove our trustworthiness. I can’t guarantee that she will choose to trust me. But what I can do is, give her opportunities and show her evidence that I am trustworthy. And so we take that very, very seriously around here. And it is a graduated thing.

And so we understand that a girl coming into the house, the first week or so, we kind of call that the honeymoon phase. When she is just happy to not be on the streets. She’s testing the waters as a general rule. This is the time when she’s at her fakest. This is when she’s presenting to us what she thinks we want to see. And so we kind of enjoy it. And eventually the real her will start to come out, warts and all. But that is the time that we know that she is beginning to trust us.

The more unattractively you’re behaving, the more I know that it is because you trust me and you know that it is safe to do that and to kind of express your true feelings, your true thoughts. And so the honeymoon phase is a lot of fun, but at the same time, we know that it’s only just the very, very beginning. So as she grows, as she moves along the process, we have the opportunity to continue to prove ourselves trustworthy, to continue to prove ourselves faithful.

And in so doing, she lowers those barriers inch by inch, moment by moment. And then we can start having a real conversation. We can start having a real connection that is not based on this false front of what you think I want to see. That real relationship is when I like you in spite of the things that I’m not so crazy about.

Laura:                      Yeah. I think that’s good for churches and nonprofits when they are working with someone who is below the poverty line is that you shouldn’t have a timeframe in your mind that, okay, they should trust me after a month of working with them.

Suzanne:                Exactly. Yeah. By 2:30 this afternoon, we’re going to have a deep connection. It just doesn’t work that way.

Laura:                      Yeah. But yeah. The opportunity to become trustworthy I think is a very good way to look at the ministry.

Suzanne:                Yeah.

Laura:                      Talk about, some books you’ve read. Describe how’s that helped you think about poverty and what it means?

Suzanne:                Yeah. So actually, I came across, Toxic Charity first. And we had been open for about six months. So very, very fledgling ministry at the time. And then from that book, I was really intrigued. But of course, it deals more with the community mindset. And that wasn’t quite what I was doing. I was working at an individual level. And so as I began to explore. First of all, I was like, “What? This is completely outside of everything I’ve ever been taught.” And then I stumbled on When Helping Hurts. I was like, “Oh, here. These are my people. This is preaching to the choir. Okay, this is what we need.”

And it happened at just the right time in the infancy of our ministry. We had just been dealing with our very first client. She had come from an inner-city project, and we were flabbergasted by how much stuff this homeless girl had. And out of ignorance, the more I began to learn about poverty mindset and how money is used for entertainment and how is not saved, it’s not invested, no real purpose to it except than the momentary fun, the immediacy of the moment.

The more I began to learn all of that from the When Helping Hurts book, the more I could look back at that first client and say, “Oh, this is why things went so horribly, horribly wrong.” That entitlement phase. It just painted such a clear picture where we had had the visual and we couldn’t understand it. Now we had kind of interpretation. And now it just made so much more sense.

And so since then, it has absolutely permeated everything that we’ve done. Every volunteer training, every new staff. I can’t tell you how many of those books I have given out over the years to key volunteers, to potential donors because it is just so transformational when you’re dealing with it on a day to day basis. A lot of times you don’t understand where they’re coming from. Especially if you’ve never actually been in their shoes before.

And so having this different perspective that it’s like, “Oh, that’s why things are going like they are.” Now we can shift. And now I can speak a different language. I can communicate in a different way. And now you can hear me differently. And so where before she might have presented with a front of who she thinks I want her to be. Now it’s more a matter of, this is who I am. Are you going to accept it or are you not? And I can demonstrate that I’m willing to accept her for who she is because I understand it.

Laura:                      I think that book definitely opened up for me knowing that poverty isn’t just a lack of things. It’s really about broken relationships that I have on a daily basis. And also someone experienced poverty has on a daily basis.

Suzanne:                Yeah. Exactly. And I think just the idea that this is kind of a world view. That to me has really been foundational. That this is the way in which I envision everything about the world through these kind of poverty lenses, has really helped me to understand why sometimes they make the crazy decisions that they do. The seemingly ridiculous choices that from their perspective do make perfectly good sense. I have to pay $30 to get this window fixed, which was my bus money so that I could get to work on time. So I’m going to end up getting fired and end up losing my apartment. But, I got my window fixed. It really does help you understand a bigger picture of why they do the things they do. And that’s always a good thing.

Laura:                      You offer coaching to churches and nonprofits to help them understand poverty, trauma and addiction. Can you describe your professional background and how it has helped inform the way you minister to people below the poverty line?

Suzanne:                Yeah. So I started a coaching and consulting business that I started on the side called Be Charity Wise. It’s becharitywise.com. I do offer coaching and consulting to really help people understand why. I think a lot of churches want to help. They want to support people in poverty. They want to kind of be the hands and feet of Jesus. They want to be a blessing. But the reality is that they don’t have any idea how. And just like the title of the book suggests, When Helping Hurts. Sometimes helping can hurt. And so a lot of our churches are acting out of ignorance with the right motives, but they’re doing it in the wrong way. And so they’re actually doing more harm than good.

So for me, it’s not so much a matter of you have to do things this way. It’s more matter of, boy, there’s a lot of information out here. The knowledge base in the poverty mindset and trauma-informed care community is so vast that if you’re not a practitioner though, a lot of churches a lot of individuals aren’t even aware that it’s a thing. I wasn’t aware that the poverty mindset was a thing until I read these books. So for me it’s about awareness and about education and then helping them to do good well.

And so over the seven years that we’ve been working through Foundation House, we’ve been open five. And learning more about poverty mindset and attending trainings and I’m also a certified family trauma professional through the International Association of Trauma Professionals. Through training and training and training and books and getting my master’s in Marriage and Family Studies and really just trying to figure out how can I best help the person sitting across the table from me.

Kind of all of this knowledge that I’ve had to use and had to gain for the benefit of Foundation House. It’s like now I can share it with other people. Now I can share it with the Sunday school teacher or the youth pastor who can’t understand why his kids are so crazy. Or the senior pastor who really wants to start an outreach ministry or a jail ministry, but is so afraid that his congregation is going to get in over their head or is going to get frustrated. And that’s a reality. If you’re doing things wrong, then you are going to be frustrated much more quickly, much more easily, and you are going to set yourself up for potential problems for manipulation. We’ve had churches that have taken up love offerings to help somebody avoid eviction or getting car repairs fixed or things like that. Take up a good size love offering. A small church that raises $1,200. That’s significant. And then they give it to the person that they’re trying to help and they come back a week later and say, “That was great. Now I need money for this.”

And, and so, from the poverty mindset understanding that makes perfect sense. But when you’re just a little country church, and you just want to help people and you just want to be Jesus to the world, you’re going to feel taken advantage of. You’re going to feel manipulated. And you’re going to feel angry. And you’re probably not going to be very likely to do it again for the next person that comes through your doors. And so what I want to do is help people understand the why behind those behaviors and how you can respond more usefully.

Suzanne:                And so that’s kind of the whole gist behind Be Charity Wise. And it is an extension of my training here at Foundation House of having done it the wrong way several times. And now you can learn from my mistakes and you don’t have to make them yourself.

Laura:                      Yeah. So say a church comes to you and they want to become a welcoming church to the homeless. So if someone walks in their door, they want to be welcoming to him, but don’t know the first step. What would be kind of a starting point for them when you’re trying to coach a church?

Suzanne:                Yeah. So definitely training is the most important thing. First, It’s awareness. And then it’s understanding. And then its application. So first we got to get everybody that is going to be beneficial to the conversation needs to first be aware of the issues. Your greeting team, the pastors, even the worship team. Whoever’s going to be there, kind of in the lobby and likely to be the person that a homeless person might come into and see. They need to be trained in, what to look for and how to respond, and what to say and what not to say.

What do you do if someone comes in who is obviously drunk or you fear that they are actively high? What do you do if someone comes in and they smell really bad? What do you do and how do you intervene in a way that keeps you and your congregation safe while also ministering to this individual? All those things need to be explored.

And the church has to come up with a plan of action together. And it’ll look a little bit different for every organization. But that’s the importance of becoming aware of trauma and poverty mindset and addiction.

And then you move to understanding. And now we can talk about how can we apply this training? How does this impact the preaching? How does this impact the songs we sing? How does this impact the lights show or the fog machine or whatever that could be triggering to somebody who may be coming down off of cocaine high or heroin. It’s those kinds of things that you have to take into consideration.

Even just simple things like, how obvious is it, where to go and what to do. That if someone doesn’t immediately kind of catch this person and be their buddy through the service. How obvious is it going to be, where the bathroom is? Or when do you stand up and when do you sit down? How do you help this person feel comfortable?

And sometimes safety for that individual means not getting their feelings hurt because somebody else three rows back said, “Good Lord, what is that smell?” That’s hurtful. And that’s real too. And it’s probably likely to come from a kindergartener perspective.

Laura:                      Yeah.

Suzanne:                But it’s real and it’s hurtful and it’s going to be yet another barrier that Satan can use to prevent this person from becoming a Christian.

So how do we get everybody talking the same language and being welcoming? It’s the physical. It’s making sure that things are clearly marked. Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the exit? Where’s the water fountain? It’s making sure they know that, “we’re thrilled you came, but we’re not going to give you any money. But we are super thrilled you came.” It’s making sure that you’re setting those boundaries early on. And those don’t even have to be actual words that are said. You can build that into the environment, just there in the lobby.

And so you go from trauma awareness to understanding and then to application. And this is where once we’ve made decisions about how this congregation is going to respond, as people in this situation come to us, this is our response and this is how we’re going to be able to show Jesus.

And this is where we say, “We don’t give money away.” Or “We do give money away but only one time.” Or “Only to this limit” Or whatever. Or “We don’t give rides.” Or “This is how we choose to sow into the single mom family.” I’m not talking about financially at that point. “This is how we choose to sow into the children coming in on our bus. This is how we choose to sow into the individuals that we most want to minister to.”

It’s so difficult to say just the one thing because, every congregation is going to be a little bit different. Because we all have unique gifts and talents and a unique perspective and unique people are going to be coming to us with unique needs.

Laura:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Suzanne:                And so how do I be prepared to minister the right way?

Laura:                      Yeah. And it’s a good time to kind of look through your congregation because there might be someone who was a single mom or someone who has a real heart for widows and orphans.

Suzanne:                Exactly.

Laura:                      So just kind of seeing what assets your congregation already has.

Suzanne:                Yeah. Exactly. That’s a great point. Yeah. And so through the preparation, how do I get people plugged in? How do I help strangers, new people to the congregation not stay strangers? How do I help them feel like family? How do I incorporate them and their kids and their chaos?… because kids are always chaos… into my family, into this church family where they feel welcomed and they feel supported and they feel safe. But they’re also always being encouraged and pushed and admonished into a deeper relationship with Jesus.

Laura:                      How does trauma affect decision making when you’re in poverty?

Suzanne:                Trauma is so pervasive. It’s so difficult to mitigate. The interesting thing about trauma is, it really kind of depends on when the trauma occurred. Whether it began as a child or whether it was kind of uniquely adulthood. That really determines how quickly and how effectively they can grow beyond it.

There’s a great 10 question survey called the ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, that asks questions in 10 different categories to find out what kind of personal traumas did you experience as a child. So from birth to 18, what kind of physical, emotional, sexual abuse did you suffer? Physical or emotional neglect? Were you born in a household where there was a domestic violence? Or there was addiction? Was somebody incarcerated? Was there divorce? And then there’s a 10th question that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

So out of that, once you’ve answered those 10 questions, that gives you your ACE score on a zero to 10 range. And the interesting thing about ACEs is, through the various studies that they’ve done over the last 20-25 years, we have seen a direct correlation to physical outcomes related to your ACE score.

So in other words, if you have an ACE score of four or more, you are more likely to use drugs. You’re more likely to become an alcoholic. You’re more likely to exhibit risky behaviors. You’re 1200% more likely to attempt suicide. You’re more likely to have depression. You’re more likely for heart disease, for cancer, for all sorts of chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia.

It’s unbelievable how your experiences impact your physical body and your mind. So the earlier these things happen, kind of think like human development on a trajectory. So on a normal human being, it kind of moves in a similar arc. But when you experience early trauma, that arc shifts and what should have been developing, typically doesn’t.

For a lot of people staying in that survival mode from infancy onward and sometimes in utero onward is so damaging, that their brains don’t really ever fully develop. Their executive functioning and their prefrontal cortex, which is what develops in your late teens and early 20s. That’s kind of your last spurt of growth before you get to adulthood. That gets pushed back further and further.

And this is evidence. Sometimes you might talk with a homeless man in his 70s and in the course of the conversation, you just really kind of feel like he’s about 15 years old. That’s indicative of having a delayed or damaged development of your prefrontal cortex. That’s where reasoning and logic and planning and decision making and understanding the consequences of your actions, that’s where all of that is developed.

That’s why late teenagers are so insane and dangerous. As a mom of one… because their prefrontal cortex is not completed. So the more trauma that they’ve experienced, the more that development arc gets delayed further and further and further back.

And so at the point life stabilizes. And my body can get back to developing typically. Then, all those things start coming in line and I will develop my prefrontal cortex. It might not be till my late 20s as opposed to my early 20s or my early 30s depending my life trajectory of trauma.

But if I don’t ever reach a point where my body and my brain come to a place of stasis, a place of calm and peace, then my prefrontal cortex is not ever going to have the freedom and the permission to develop. My system is full on survival. And so things like planning ahead, planning for the future, decision making skills none of that is important to my survival today. So that’s why that gets pushed back further and further. And so I find that that stuff’s super fascinating.

Laura:                      Yeah.

Suzanne:                I love talking about all of that. And so, one of the things we do in Foundation House and also what I teach when I’m coaching is, helping people understand how do you help the folks process that trauma and begin to kind of plug in to getting that prefrontal cortex to develop typically. And really that’s mindfulness. It’s focus, it’s intentionality.

So we do a lot of yoga, we do a lot of meditation. And that can be scary words to a church community, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing Eastern mysticism about it. It’s all about teaching yourself to tune out the negative and the bad. And training yourself to focus. And to be intentional. And to listen to the right things. And to tune out the wrong.

A lot of what we talk about here is what Paul says, to take every thought captive to Christ. And that’s really what we’re doing. Is all these thoughts, all these words, all these fears floating around me? I need to first get them out and then I can begin to look at them one by one and see what needs to be kept and what needs to be discarded. And that’s what will help build that executive functioning and that reasoning capacity.

Laura:                      Yeah. And that’s just really helpful for churches in general. To have a deep empathy it’s not that, so-and-so is just making a bad decision today. They’re in a survival mode and trauma has caused them to potentially have a state of arrested development.

Suzanne:                Yeah. Exactly.

Laura:                      They can’t make logical decisions today because they got to survive.

Suzanne:                So you can have a lot more peace and freedom and really a lot more compassion and forgiveness. Because you’re not doing it just to be mean or to be a jerk or whatever. Or to be a manipulator. You’re doing it for survival. And so if we can mitigate that need for survival, then you can go back to growing developmentally. And one thing to be noted too, is that the earlier you can start, the better off you are. But then it’s also helping the deacons and the church staff understand the purpose behind why they did what they did.

Laura:                      Most ministries focus on giving handouts to the poor. How can focusing on building relationships rather than handouts kind of affect churches ministry?

Suzanne:                Yeah. So, churches tend to want to do good for other people. The problem is that a lot of times, that puts the people doing the good in a position of superiority. And the people receiving the good, whether that be clothing, whether it be money, whether it be a food pantry, whether it be transportation with the bus ministry, it puts the receiver in the position of inferiority. And that’s a difficult place to build a relationship.

If you truly want a relationship. And you want them to come into your congregation. And you want them to be an active part of your family, you can not treat them as if they’re children, unless of course they are. You treat a five-year-old vastly differently than you would treat a 15 year old. Which would still be also differently than you would treat a 25 or 35 year old. I’m 43 and my parents treat me as a 43 year old. They don’t treat me like I’m 15. They don’t treat me like I’m six. That would be offensive to me.

And so the churches a lot of times think that they’re doing what people want in giving stuff. Whether it’s food or clothes or money or whatever. When truly what Jesus offered was relationship. He healed what he was asked. He could have spoken one word across the masses of the 5,000 and everyone could have been miraculously healed from whatever it was that was bothering them. But he didn’t choose to do that. He was relational. He was face to face. He was intentional.

And that’s where you see true growth. So I think a lot of times too, it’s a matter of ignorance. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help. I can’t build you a house or buy you a car. If there’s no relationship being developed around that, nothing sustainable, then you really aren’t just kind of throwing your money away.

So churches can get burn out very quickly because of that. They can also feel very much used and manipulated because quite frankly, that’s what you’re doing. The person coming to you wanting you to pay your rent is using you to pay their rent. That’s exactly the relationship that you’re developing with them. And that’s the only kind of relationship you’ll have as a transactional relationship.

If you want truly the transformational relationship, I can listen to your story. I can talk with you and I can share my story and I can see if there might be some ways that I can help you. But having that transactional relationship just permanently puts you in the position of the doer of the superior and the other person is the inferior and the receiver and that’s just not healthy.

Laura:                      It’s a lot easier to give a handout than to become someones friend.

Suzanne:                Exactly. Think about, I could clean out my closet. I could even clean out my cabinets and bring you all sorts of nearly expired or way expired canned goods. And I can feel really good about myself. I gave to the poor. I gave all of my junk that I didn’t want to the poor. And look how clean my house is now. That certainly does have some level of meaning. But it has nowhere near the level of connection and commitment that actually developing a friendship with somebody would.

Laura:                      Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Suzanne:                It’s a whole deeper level. And there’s a lot of fear and feelings of inadequacy behind that. That I think a lot of churches just say, “Well, it’s just way easier for us just to take up a food drive or just have a clothing drive and then we’ll give it to this ministry down the street and let them deal with, the them, of the world. We’ll stay in our little ivory tower and we’ll let them deal with this other agency.”

Laura:                      Yeah. We have this guy named Michael, who comes to our church probably once a month and he might be in transitional housing. I’m not for sure if he’s homeless. But he’d come in and I sat beside him because he sits near the back and he just looked at me and he’s like, “Why did you sit beside me?” I was like, “Well, because there was no one here and I’m your friend.” He’s like, “Well, why are you my friend?” I’m like, “Well, because I want to be your friend.” And he was so suspicious of that.

Suzanne:                Yeah.

Laura:                      But he would keep coming every month and we’d have a little snack time after service and he would sit with us and talk with us. And it’s a very slow-growing relationship.

Suzanne:                Yes.

Laura:                      But there was one day he actually did say, “I’m glad to be here with my friends.”

Suzanne:                Exactly.

Laura:                      And it took so much skepticism to get to that point. But I haven’t given him clothes or money or anything.

Suzanne:                Yeah.

Laura:                      It’s been such a precious relationship to have a relationship with someone who is probably struggling on the borderline of being homeless. But there’s always room for something more than just a handout.

Suzanne:                Exactly. Because ultimately that’s what people need. It really is true that, you can get your needs met. We’ve had girls refuse to come into the program because one of our requirements is that they have to give up their cell phone for the first two weeks or sometimes the first 30 days that they’re with us. And we’ve had a number of girls that have said, “No thanks. I’ll go back to the shelter” Or, “No thanks. I’ll go back to living in my car.”

There’s ways you can get your needs met. We’ve dealt with women who have been in prostitution. We’ve dealt with women who have been in gangs. We’ve had women who rundown to the Wendy’s down the street and make a new friend and now you’re sleeping on his couch.

So there’s ways you can get your needs met if you’re willing. There’s not a lot of ways you can build friendship. There’s not a lot of ways you can build connection in a way that is healthy and makes me feel like a human being. Makes me feel important and worth something. That sense of self worth of self efficacy is so impactful that it is worth far, far more than what I could spend on food or putting somebody up in an apartment room or a motel or something like that. It is worth so much more because that’s something that they can truly build a future on for themselves.

Laura:                      Yeah. Because probably if someone is asking for handouts on a regular basis. Their identity is marred, they’re never going to be the giver. They’re always receiving. And more than anything, they’re just probably super lonely.

Suzanne:                Exactly. Think about it from their perspective. If all I ever do, is come and ask anybody for something. I’m kind of the perpetual panhandler. Whether that’s at an agency, whether that’s at a church, whether that’s at the food stamp office, whatever it is. Whether it’s on the street corner hiding from the police. What does that say about who I am as a person? What does that tell me about my worth and my validity? It only reinforces the feelings of inadequacy, of uselessness, of worthlessness, of shame that people have told me, that I have thought for myself. All of those things are part of that transaction.

So if they come to an agency and they say, “I need help. I need money. I need something. I haven’t eaten in three days.” Well, there’s some things that I can do. I always have a can of tuna somewhere. I always have something that we can eat or we can go down the street and we can get a burger. I can make sure you eat. We ain’t going to starve around here.

But so much more than that, I can go with you. And I can sit with you. And I can eat my lunch with you. And I can talk. Maybe I did buy your lunch, but we can talk and I can get to know who you are. And I can make sure that you understand that, yeah, you’re in a terrible place, and I really hate that this is where you’re at. But I’m not your savior, but I can be your friend.

Laura:                      Yeah. We have a church in Atlanta, who uses one of our programs, Faith & Finances to help teach low-income members of their congregation how to manage their money. But more importantly, the relationship they had with this guy named Marise who used to be homeless. He ended up staying at that church and a couple of years in, he eventually became a deacon at that church.

Suzanne:                It’s amazing.

Laura:                      Which is incredible because, he gained a community that loved him, but also, churches who are investing in relationships with those who are homeless. When you’re thinking of Mercy Ministry, how amazing would it be to have someone who live that life. When it comes to, how should we develop our Mercy Ministry.

Suzanne:                Exactly.

Laura:                      They’re the ones who know exactly what they need. Yeah, more than anyone who’s never experienced that one.

Suzanne:                Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And how gratifying is that? Through Foundation House we have a job training program called Healing Springs Gives. And our director of operations, her name is Ashley. And when she came to us straight out of six months in jail. She did not have her GED. She was 28. Didn’t have a driver’s license. Had several felony convictions. Was very, very pregnant. She came to us when she was about seven and a half, eight months pregnant and she also didn’t have custody of her two oldest children.

So, through her working the program, she has since gotten her driver’s license, gotten her GED, turned 29, had her beautiful baby boy, her third child, gotten custody restored. And so now she’s living with all three of her children. And has been so successful in the job training program that we actually hired her on as a permanent employee to be the director of operations.

Laura:                      Wow.

Suzanne:                And now she’s turning around and training up new clients. And so she can share not only her story, but she can share her overcoming as well. And in the course of making lotion and lip balm and soaps for mass market sale. So it’s pouring into these individuals. But it’s also pouring into them strategically with the expectation that now they are in a position, to turn around and reach people that we never could.

Laura:                      Yeah. Being kind to those are who are down on their look. You’re investing in your church because when they feel like they’re loved and cared for, they’re going to come back and then they’re going to go back to the community where they’re the gatekeepers and they’re going to bring new people in.

Suzanne:                Exactly. Exactly. And it’s all supporting the body of Christ.

Laura:                       For more information on Suzanne Burns and check our her work at Foundation House Ministries, To learn more about Suzanne’s ministry coaching check out Be Charity Wise. Check out our new resource from the Chalmers Center A Field Guide to Becoming Whole. Our latest book offers a simple framework of principles for effective poverty alleviation that you can put into practice where you are.

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Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura formerly served as the social media manager and designer at the Chalmers Center. She enjoys serving weekly at her local community kitchen and has a desire to see the church build relationships with disenfranchised people. Laura lives in Chattanooga, TN with her husband Tim.


  1. E. Jane Sabens on April 26, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    Thank you so much. I have learned great things about how to build friendships with those I have been “Superior” to. I have gained a new perspective on feeling used and manipulated – and now better understanding of the survival mindset and the trauma that can lead to it. Thank you for defining transactional relationships vs transitional relationships.

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