The shame of foreclosure is a stigma in our society that prevents us from uniting with our neighbors to end a crisis that is destroying our communities. This reality was driven home for me by two events that occurred this week.
The first event was a conversation with a very close friend of mine. He refused to put up a Foreclosure Prevention Zone sign in his front yard. He told me that he was afraid that his neighbors would think he was being foreclosed. Many people in Petaluma are putting these signs in their yards and windows. But I’m certain there are many more people like my friend who don’t want to be stigmatized as a victim of the foreclosure crisis, and would never consider displaying this sign. Ironically, my friend had contacted me several weeks ago to ask for help for a friend of his who was facing foreclosure. Through the intervention of Occupy Petaluma, his friend’s home was saved after the bank agreed to modify the mortgage. I was saddened and perplexed that my friend was unable to make the connection between our work to save people’s homes and the need to publicly stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are facing foreclosure. His feeling of shame at the idea of being stigmatized by putting a sign in his yard was too powerful to overcome – even though he realized it may help his neighbors in distress. I have to admit that I felt angry and judgmental toward my friend. While I want to let go of these unkind feelings and reconcile with my friend, this event has allowed me to understand the depth of shame that prevents us from becoming a community of compassion in a time when economic inequality and the suffering of our neighbors is tearing apart the fabric of our society.
The second event was a visit to my old house, which was foreclosed after I lost my job and my wife’s business went bankrupt. I hadn’t been back there for more than a year. It was a traumatic experience. On Wednesday, I received a call from a producer at NBC Nightly News. They wanted to interview me about the foreclosure fraud settlement between the banks and government. (It is a sham – a legal fig leaf on a monumental injustice!) While I was waiting at my old house for the news crew to arrive, memories of happier times flooded back. I remembered watering the plants and flowers in the front yard. I remembered watching my wife help our son learn to ride his first bike on the street in front of our house. I remembered the time a disoriented turkey flew up on our roof while my son and I watched in surprise and delight. The memories were overwhelming, and even though I thought that I had already healed from the trauma of losing our home, by the time the news crew arrived I was close to tears. When they began filming, I broke down. It was embarrassing the next day to watch myself crying on national television knowing that many people were watching me during this vulnerable moment. The shame of foreclosure had once again entrapped me, and I wanted to withdraw from the work at Occupy Petaluma to save people’s homes. I wanted to hide. In the last few days, I have felt raw and drained as I try to cope with the pain of these feelings.
The shame of foreclosure is a very powerful force. It keeps us isolated. It keeps us divided. It keeps us trapped in guilt and fear. There is much more going on in the foreclosure crisis than the staggering statistics of loss and the indefensible lack of justice in this tragedy. These things cannot tell the whole story. We will never understand the tragedy of this crisis unless we are willing to listen to the voices of those who are suffering from the shame of foreclosure. Millions of people in our country are living on a daily basis with shame. There is the shame of being foreclosed. There is the shame of participating in the illegal and immoral practice of foreclosing people’s homes. And there is the shame of living in denial about the suffering of our neighbors who are being foreclosed. We could solve the foreclosure crisis and still remain divided as communities unless we understand that the shame of foreclosure affects all of us — and together let go of the shame.
On Sunday, February 19th, we will begin the weekly “Vigil for Our Neighbors in Foreclosure” at Walnut Park in downtown Petaluma. The vigil, which will be held from 2:00-3:00 pm, will include a time of silence and an opportunity to share our stories about being foreclosed or witnessing neighbors being foreclosed.
I hope these vigils will plant the seeds of reconciliation in our community so we can unite to overcome the shame of foreclosure. Wall Street, the banks and the government cannot do this work for us. We cannot overcome this shame and reconcile with one another alone as individuals. We can only do it together as a community. It is an extraordinary challenge. Only our courage to reach out in compassion to one another will ultimately allow us to overcome the foreclosure crisis and the shame associated with it. Our silent and spoken witness in the vigils will be testimony of our belief that we have the capacity and determination to become a community of compassion.