Learning to Trust: Jeff Dorr
By France Griggs Sloat
Jeff Dorr stepped off the Greyhound bus and into the hot, humid air of Atlanta, tired and wrinkled after a 24-hour trip from Detroit. Wearing a plain brown T-shirt, khaki pants and flip-flops, Dorr intended to walk 20 miles southeast to a Trappist monastery where he was planning to spend his pilgrimage in prayerful, contemplative solitude amidst the natural beauty of the monks’ pine forests, lakes and blooming trees.
Within minutes, however, his plan vanished.
The first person he stopped on the street to ask for directions had just gotten out of prison. They talked for a few minutes, and Dorr was so moved that he gave the man $10 for train fare. A few steps farther on, he met Kenny, a homeless man with health problems. They talked, too, and Dorr ended up giving him the remainder of his cash so he could eat. He also dug a pair of socks out of his backpack to give him.
That’s when it hit him.
“I realized that I felt drawn to a new focus,” Dorr says. “I knew what homeless people looked like and sounded like, but I never knew experientially what it meant to be homeless. I thought maybe that’s where this should go. Something of that experience of being on the street and being without was what I was meant to be doing.”
So Dorr shelved the security of the monastery and took to the mean streets of Atlanta. He checked into the Atlanta Union Mission where he discovered that life at a shelter is unpredictable at best. Each day hundreds of Atlanta’s down-and-out check into the shelter, while across the street the Atlanta Aquarium welcomes the better-heeled into its underwater wonderland, and the World of Coca-Cola museum entertains the paying public at its “Home of Happiness.” The irony didn’t escape Dorr.
Among the dozens of people Dorr met was Vince, a big, tall friendly guy whose stories and engaging personality drew people to him. He hung out every morning at the CNN Center food court and sold cell phones he bought off the black market. Dorr tagged along, and when he asked where the phones came from, Vince simply said, “I don’t ask questions.”
Vince, a former drug dealer, was also fighting lung cancer. One night—after a man tried to pick a fight with him—Vince decided to leave the shelter and go to the hospital emergency room where he could get a bed and a check-up. Dorr went along and slept in the waiting room. In the morning, the hospital gave Vince a free prescription for his pain and discharged him back to the streets.
“I looked at Vince as a real friend,” Dorr says. “He was there with me as I was being exposed to the shelter. I presume that 50 percent of what Vince told me was lies, but I hung out with him half the days I was there. We’d wander around the city together. One thing I gained from the shelter was a whole new appreciation for who ends up there.”
A lot of shelter residents have addiction or mental health issues. Others were like Vince—people who had houses and jobs and then something went wrong, like a divorce. “And now they’re here,” Dorr says. Mark was another example. His strong, fit build and decent clothes—as well as his cell phone—made him seem out of place. One day, Mark looked at Dorr:
“What’s your deal?” he said. “You don’t belong here.”
“What do you mean?” Dorr replied.
“Look around. You’re different.”
Dorr told him his story. The next morning Mark woke up Dorr at 3:30 a.m. to walk to a Waffle House. At breakfast, Mark told Dorr his story—he was a divorced father of two from Chicago and was in Atlanta looking for a job.
In all, Dorr spent 18 nights at the shelter—more than half his pilgrimage. He eventually reported to the monastery, spending seven days digging a ditch, mowing the lawn, eating lunch in silence, attending four of the five daily prayer sessions and learning how to chant. He also stayed in the homes of five different families he met at churches or at the soup kitchens where he volunteered.
“The point of the pilgrimage is to spend the month letting go of our typical securities of home, money, community, and in doing that, come to trust more fully in God,” he says. “I realized how blessed I am, and that no matter what I do, I can’t experience life on the streets the way these guys do. It changed the outlook I had of what I was striving for and what God was calling me to. His message to me was to be with them, but you can’t be them.”