A Place of Hospitality  

by Julia Raboteau

[Fall, 2003]

    Hospitality is making room for another like Mary’s womb made room for Christ, and we know the liturgical texts that her womb was made “as spacious as the heavens.”  
The umbrella for “Souls in Motion” is CSS, or Community Support System, a day rehabilitation program that has been providing psychiatric services for adults for nearly twenty-five years in Harlem , New York City.  CSS is presently housed in a former public high school building called the Oberia Dempsey Center along with many other social services. As a Continuing Day Treatment Program, our doors open early to offer breakfast to our clients and stay open seven days a week also providing lunch, Metrocards, reading and writing classes, recreational activities, counseling and medication. We also offer a limited number of shared living apartments.
Our clinical director, Mr. Willie James Prescott, was there when CSS opened its doors in 1979. A consummate father-type, he runs the program with a healthy balance of compassion and grit and is adored by our 100 clients.  His personal tone sets the stage for a dynamic and caring program.
    Our business officer, always immersed in the complicated maze of institutional finances, feels free to stop and cook a delicious Guianese meal for the clients. Our clinical coordinator takes a break from writing treatment plans to join us in the exercise circle. Retired staff members return to work part-time. Social work and psychiatric interns come from colleges in New York City. Volunteers offer their time and gifts.
   Souls in Motion is housed in the basement of the Dempsey Center, hidden away in a maze of winding corridors that culminate in large studio space that is often mistaken for a museum.  Louise and I began Souls as a haven to promote creativity for our psychiatric clients, but over the years we see that it has been a haven for everyone connected with our community, including ourselves!
Many people measure mental problems with a cultural yardstick. For us,  madness” is fragile, chaotic and frightened energy that is hiding a Big Spirit. For sixteen years we have been able to provide a stable, safe harbor for such a spirit. We believe that we feel better about ourselves if we tap into and reclaim the creative streak that lies at our core. We exist to help facilitate that connection by encouraging expression in the creative arts as well as in the interaction between human beings. 
Before I came to Harlem to work, I read a seventeen year study of a mental patient, Sylvia Frumpkin, that first appeared in four installments in The New Yorker by Susan Sheehan called “Is There No Place On Earth For Me?” and was amazed by the random chaos and downward spiral that characterized this woman’s life. Each day Louise and I try to answer this plea with a resounding “Yes!” there is a place, at Souls in Motion!
Our gifts define our respective roles in the studio. Louise is the Mother of the Hearth and cooks two delicious, healthy meals a day, tends to our menagerie of animals, directs the sewing projects and leads us in Qi Gong. I am the Architect of the Space and promote art, take photographs, oversee the Souls Press, and tend the garden. By nature, I am more Martha and Louise more Mary, but over the years we have grown to be some of both. Although we look quite different physically, it is common for people to confuse us and call us by each other’s names.
In vintage Raboteau style my husband Al wrote this description for our community: “Souls in Motion/CSS, a studio space in Harlem, a place to awaken and nourish the artistic spirit within each of us, a space for painting, for cooking, for writing, for stretching, for sewing, for the fine art of listening, for silence and reflection, a place where each person is welcome, a room of hospitality.” Al is no stranger to our room. He has been teaching a journal-writing seminar called “The Soup Seminar” with the clients for the last eight years.
The actual physical space is enormous and divided by low partitions that allow visibility into all of the parts. Everyone can see and hear each other easily. This arrangement helps to create a mutual respect for the people and the room. Clients who come regularly to work get their own desk, while others come to enjoy the quiet and the beauty, sleep off the effects of their various medication, interact with our animals or enjoy making something with their hands. We try to offer a balance between privacy and community.
One of the busiest desks in our room belongs to William Turner. From the beginning we were given the gift of Mr. Turner who keeps a spiritual pulse on all things. He is able to transform his personal psychosis into selfless prayer to God. His sleepless nights are often spent listening to news on the radio and praying for victims of earthquakes, floods, starvation, shootings, wars, rapes, global turmoil. His faith in God knows no boundaries. “God is Love” is often on his lips and in his drawings.
         He is also a visionary. He dreamt about the collapse of the Berlin Wall the night before it fell, and saw Louise and I in nursing aprons at its edge administering to people while he flew over it in a cape, an image dear to our hearts that we use on our calling cards. It was also prophetic as she and I began an acupuncture program three years after he had this dream.
       Fifty feet south of William sits another client, Lorna, mother, cook, poet, peer advocate who wants everyone to experience God’s gift of love and writes poems to steer us in that direction. We published her first book of poetry “Love Always” that is in now in its third edition. Like William, she is filled with gratitude for the gift of life and prays daily at our children’s altar. Many of our clients’ children have been raised in the foster care system. Lorna prays from a little book that lists their names. She also leads us in intercessional prayer at the Orthodox altar in the small niche off the acupuncture area, a comforting place to be when our wounds overwhelm us.
Two of our favorite prayers come from one of our clients who before she gets out of bed in the morning says “Thank you Lord for another day. A day I never saw before. And thank you for waking me clothed in my right mind and for having all the activity in my limbs,” and then at mealtime continues with “Lord, we thank you for this food. By Thy hands we are softly fed. Give us Lord, our daily bread. Amen. Amen.”
One day, when William was way down in the dumps, Lorna wrote him a poem to cheer him up called “if i bite you” and it goes “if i bite you, i ain’t gonna let nobody see me bite you, i’d love to hug you because you’re for real, you know the deal, i love your laughter, so if you’re gonna bite me, make it snappy…” This inspired poem became the title for our first published Souls’ anthology that featured prayers of thankfulness.
The Tibetan Buddhists believe that mental illness comes from immense unkindness to people when they were children. There can never be enough kindness to make up for the deep afflictions of painful childhoods.  For us, at Souls in Motion, hugs are 98% of our job, and almost everyone wants one. Louise and I love the aesthetic beauty in the studio, but we know that the main deal is the hugging. My “off” days in the community are those when I forget this lesson. 
Lorna, skeptical of treatment centers, found us through her close friend James whose enthusiasm for the studio had convinced her to at least visit. He promised her that Souls in Motion/CSS was not like most “programs.” During our first “interview” with her, we all felt like we had known each other for years. In 1999 she wrote these words for her presentation at a conference she and I attended called “Our Time Has Come":

      The support I have received has been unbelievable.
    We, the members, are thankful for all the true love we have
    received. I have given much thought to this, not only as a
    human being, but also as a spiritual being. And I believe that
    Our Almighty Creator has guided me in my also becoming a
    peer counselor at CSS/Souls in Motion. I have been
    basically drawn out of the shell that I had been in. With the
    support I have been able to remain out of the hospital for
    five years, which is something that earlier on in life seemed to
    me to be an unbelievable impossibility. I also give credit to
    my  hard work on myself, because in order for my
    medication to work, I have to work with my inner self as
    well as my outer self. I would like to see all the clients
    progress, as they have many talented abilities.

    Lorna has the added support of one of our most endearing volunteers, Libbie, who comes to give her acupuncture once a week. As a graduate of the CSS program, Lorna chose to stay and redefine her role in the program. She apprentices with Louise in the kitchen learning to cook and eat healthy food, develops ideas with me for the greeting card business she hopes to have one day with her younger daughter, and has received peer advocacy training. She finds that her acupuncture treatments are helping to improve both her physical and mental health, a key to realizing future goals.
Compassionate like his friend Lorna, James can pull himself out of his own depression to soothe another person’s suffering. Once he told me that if he hadn’t been eaten alive by mental depression and guilt, he would have become a social worker or a therapist in a school. I told him that he was already one, and that his generosity was indispensable at CSS. Presently, he is at a state hospital and the whole community misses him and prays for him. 
     His gentle nature was acknowledged by Jack, our resident rabbit, who would make a sudden stop to let James pet him as he hopped around our 8500 square feet that make up his studio habitat. Over the long span of his life, he has only let a precious few people pet him. With fierce bared teeth and sharp grunts, he set clear guidelines for touching early on. He courts Louise by chewing on her velvet pant legs and used to circle Orville, a former client, during his extensive philosophical pacing. He has definitely taught me about my rough edges by only recently in his tenth year, now blind with cataracts and survivor of a mini-stroke, allowing me finally to pat his head.
     However, it is Ballerina, our white cat with soulful eyes, who is queen of our roost. Scruffy and thin, she was sighted hanging out in the parking lot during the Raboteau wedding reception that was held at Souls in Motion. We adopted her just weeks before she gave birth to five kittens in a box under the computer. After some serious nutritional food from Louise, her sleek body could be seen in the aviary watching our three red slider’s swimming about, darting out playfully at Jack as he hopped by and lying with Fred, our African Leopard tortoise, under his heat lamp.
     Her calm energy is a balm for our room and ideal for those clients who are afraid of cats. She allows gentle petting, alerts us to visitors entering the room, lies in the middle of our morning Qi Gong circle, kneads sore abdomens during or after a Pilates or acupuncture session, and sleeps muse-like in the large basket in the middle of the round table for the writing class.
     Besides learning from our animals, we get lessons from each other. One of our most delightful teachers is Ethel whose deep faith in God and immense love of life inspires us when life looks grim.  Her buoyancy is a gift for the chronic depression that her husband James wrestles with. For many years their admirable marriage has been a model for other CSS couples. Against the gray grid that is Harlem , the difficulties of mental illness, and the pain in being separated from her husband, she sits in the green grass flanking the Hudson River to calm herself and lights her candles in prayer at night.  Her faith is deep and her spirit intrepid.
     Nowadays she visits James on the weekends when she can take a free bus that takes her to the hospital one hour north of Harlem . For six months, she has been a receptionist for CSS and is thinking about working a “real” job. The CSS program encourages clients to graduate and move on when they can. We do some pre-vocational training and work with agencies that are set up for job training skills. Before she can realize this goal, we hope to publish her charming autobiography.
     Over the years, many souls in motion have defined and continue to define themselves in our studio space, not the least of them include the artists, artisans, writers and musicians.  One of our most serious and talented artists is Joseph who has been drawing since childhood when he drew monster pictures on his mother’s brown shopping bags for the delight of his friends. When his residence moved him to an adult home in Coney Island two years ago, Joseph’s attendance dropped dramatically. But our strong belief in his creative gift has spurred his return. Now when he makes that two hour subway ride to Harlem , we see and applaud his new work, shore him up with art supplies and exchange hugs. 
     His work has been shown in an invitational show at the Ward Nasse Gallery in Soho , in a group show of Harlem Artists at Riverside Church , as a media event in our former Souls in Motion Garden, and featured in Double Take Magazine. He has a permanent show of his banners of magic markers on Tyvek and his pastels in the “Joseph Franklin” alcove in our studio where he shows visitors work from his portfolio.  
     Three years ago, our community was gifted by the presence of Anne, a painter from Paris, who needed a place to work. She began by doing quick black and white sketches of the clients. Soon she was doing pastels of the room and eventually moved to full-length oil portraits. Anne is a seamless blend of creativity in both her work and her life relationships. Her unabashed love of her subject matter make ‘the portrait   experience” a spiritual gift for our clients. Her paintings are hauntingly beautiful. 
     Her working presence alone is an inspiration for creativity in the studio. Recently, she has taken Joseph under her tutelage and is encouraging him to explore new media. She also has a special relationship with a client who works behind her who makes a Mandela every day. He gives all his work away, quite clear of the recipient before he starts. Only occasionally will Souls in Motion get one and it’s a waste of time to beg for one! Many of them end up in the communal dayroom/cafeteria and in staff offices. For him, making art is a labor of love and is seen as a way to give another a gift of oneself or thanks for “services rendered.” This is an attitude towards the “art object” that makes complete sense to me.  
    Then there is Mary, creator of the legendary Bummie Nose dolls. Mary cuts, sews and stuffs her little cloth dolls with great speed, braiding and twisting yarn for their elaborate hairdos. I am in charge of sewing the faces and the clothes but stay many dolls behind her. I simply can’t keep up with her single-mindedness and swift hands. We have been more successful at finding boutiques to sell Mary’s dolls than in selling Joseph’s artwork. Louise and Julia’s gifts lie in running the studio, not in the business end of it. In case you’re wondering, “Bummie Nose” is a term of endearment. Once you are in Mary’s good graces, you might get lucky and be called Bummie Nose. 
     No one is allowed to dip into Louise’s “Fabric Library” without her permission. This is a magical corner where rayon, cotton, velvet, tapestry, leather, ripstop, leather, canvass, and unbleached muslin are folded neatly on rows and rows of shelves. Mary and other clients often make quilts for their children or their grand-children. Louise supervises the design and the sewing of these quilts, as well as the dolls, potholders and our specialty, catnip filled mice for cats. I always get photos of everything and document the artisan with the artifact. Years ago, some of the quilts were featured during African-American month in the Ethnic Hall at the Museum of Natural History
     Everything is made “from scratch”, whether out of fabric or out of food. Louise makes a mean gingerbread by hand, grounding up fresh ginger and Chinese Herbs and it is her famously healthy food that gave rise to the name “Soup Seminar” for Al’s writing group.  Right before our healthy midday meal on Thursdays, Al begins the writing class by suggesting a topic for the day. While the writers are making a new entry into their journals, all is quiet. Then we can hear their voices as they take turns reading their work. Often the thinking can stir up the “bittersweet” experiences of one’s life, especially for a newcomer to the group, and everyone listens respectfully. Then it’s time to have some of the good food of the day.      
     In an excerpt from her poem “ The Greatest Love of All” Juliette, one of the regulars in the writing circle, writes “The love that the Most High has lavished on us is the greatest love of all. He has given us help in times of need/ It is the greatest love of all. He has forgiven our sins/ It is the greatest love of all. He has given us hope in times of despair/ It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us kindness/It is the greatest love of all. He has shown us mercy/It is the greatest love of all…..”  She also home schools her teenage daughter mornings in the studio.     
     Sayeeda uses a series of poems to describe her journey into schizophrenia and the arduous struggle to bring clarity and purpose back into her life. She writes, “There are times when I do not understand how my life grew up in flashes. It is like a death sentence for a young lady wanting to be successful in life. I like to look at my life as a car ride where I drove off the cliff and survive.” We will be publishing her book “A Glance Into The Mirror” this fall. 
    A sense of our community’s history plays an important role in promoting stability. The sixteen-year old existence of the room itself has allowed folks to come and go and then to return, with a “Oh, are you still here!” Many artifacts adorn our studio that bear testimony to its history – masks made of clients’ faces, wreaths woven from grapevines from the huge garden William and I tended for twelve years, photo blow-ups of clients from the thousand of photographs that make up my “Photograph Library”, paper dragons, reverbished street furniture, drawings and sculpture, gifts from the many volunteers and visitors who have been part of our studio, and memorial scrapbook for those clients who have passed. 
     Over the span of twenty-five years, our community has experienced many deaths. One that hit us very hard was that of William Gibbons who died relatively young and unexpectedly in his sleep. An uncomplaining human being, he had hid from us, even from the medical team, his painful stomach ulcers that had hemorrhaged in the middle of the night. In grieving and honoring him we became aware of the immense role he had played in our lives, and in memory, still does. He loved the Souls in Motion studio and was imbued with its free spirit. 
     At breakfast, he would surprise us with “sweet potato pies made from scratch.” often a combination of pumpkin, squash and sweet potatoes, that he had made for us at three in the morning. I was particularly touched because he knew that orange roots and tubers were my favorite kind of food. The fact that they often arrived upside-down only increased their value, disqualifying them as objects of perfection and moving them into acts of love.  Louise bought him a Martha Stewart double-tiered pie basket but no device, however well intentioned, could contain that effervescent style that characterized Mr. William Gibbons. 
     His art and poetry was as capricious and fanciful as those pies. He made dinosaur landscapes, broken glass encrusted ashtrays, colored plastic fork sculptures and tall wooden structures filled to the brim with small objects from 99cent stores and found objects. He worked faster than Mary and his results often disappeared as quickly to where and for whom we never knew. In Al’s group he wrote a poem called “Recipe for a Hot Day”: “A tall glass of cool breeze with ice cubes. Water sandwich with two cushions of fresh air.” He walked along Lenox Avenue with the same fluidity, darting unexpectedly out of a doorway to wish you a good morning, bowing with a “Honor, Mrs. Raboteau, honor her,” his eyes covered with one of his many pairs of sunglasses. 
    Yet his “lightness of being” public persona was deceptive. Privately, he spent hours amassing articles about civil rights and the injustices that mankind inflict on each other. During Black History Month, he would bring in books about famous people and once filled an entire wall with Xeroxed images of black lawyers, educators, and entertainers inspired by a conceptual art show we had seen at The Museum of Modern Art. He also brought in an article about “Professor Raboteau” that Al had not known existed to “honor him!” He kept us on our cultural toes. He had been to every known museum in all of New York ’s five boroughs and would bring news of shows that he hoped we would go to together. 
     We invited him to Princeton to attend the luncheon and unveiling ceremony of Al’s portrait as Dean of the Graduate School . When I met his train, there was no William. Disappointed, we drove on to the Graduate Dining hall where a large wooden door opened up magically for us to enter. Behind the door was, of course, William who ritualistically presented Al with a turquoise champagne glass. During lunch, he sat with the Raboteau clan and was in heaven as President Shapiro made a toast to the first African-American Graduate School Dean in the history of Princeton University . Back in Harlem , Anna honored William in turn when she chose him as the subject for her first oil painting. He could hardly conceal his delight. 
     When he died a month later, his death held a dramatic Mary and Martha lesson for me. In Princeton that day, without question he had filled my unusual request to help me carry a very long, dried out log from the woods to our front door. The day before he died, I denied William his request to photograph him live next to Anna’s portrait of him. This type of photography – the person, the picture of the person, the person holding a picture of a picture of the person and so forth – had become his new art form. I told him I would photograph him the next day even though I had already promised him a photo shoot that day. He left the studio visibly disappointed.   But there was to be no next day. When news of his death reached our studio, we were stunned and our communal grief was immeasurable. Mine was accompanied by the bitter memory of denial. The photo of us carrying my beloved log that day is on the small altar above my desk as a reminder to honor an important request when it is made. Under it is his small orange dog-eared Bible to reinforce the lesson. 
     There were two memorial services for Mr. Gibbons, our small intimate one with live music and clients’ poems to “honor him” and one at a funeral parlor that was attended to overflowing by his relatives and many of our clients. We read in the program that he frequently visited his fellow clients when there were hospitalized. We learned many other things as well since no staff person could ever get any information out of him about his past. He lived loving and honoring the creative fabrication of the moment in all its mystery. 
    A week after he died, a new client came to work in our studio, also filled with the desire to express the creative spirit and I felt I was being given a second chance. I mused, whereas Gibbon’s spirit was airy, Belton’s is dense, whereas Gibbon’s work fell apart with the slightest vibration, Belton’s work is firmly nailed together, whereas Gibbon’s work disappeared from the studio overnight, Belton’s wooden sculptures collect like a great forest. The Raboteau household is blessed with four Belton artifacts, a carved African face and cane, a Sacred Heart statue of Jesus and a small wooden table with sacred hearts. I am more mindful of first things first these days.  
      Al and I are believers of linking up different communities for the benefit of both of them, each one with its distinctive gifts to offer the other. Lorna, James and Ethel and a few others have stayed with us in Princeton and visited our church, Mother of God, Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Mission. One of our elder clients spends a week with us during Nativity and Pascha. Two years ago, our choir, priest, and parishioners from Princeton visited Souls in Motion during one of our holiday sales.  Many folks from our Orthodox community-at-large have visited us.  Distance and busyness are deterrents to implementing this dream but we are always on the lookout for new opportunities. 
    Over the sixteen years, we have “reinvented” the room many times trying to be sensitive to the needs of the people who are using it.  Many have benefited from our stable yet flexible environment. One year when it looked as if the entire program might close or change for the worst, we realized how fragile our creation really was. A close Orthodox friend consoled me by saying “You know, it will be okay, Souls in Motion is a place in the heart.”




























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