The Downtown Transit Center in Anchorage, Alaska, sits in the heart of downtown. Framed in bright red metal, its walls of windows reflect light in a city stingy with winter sunshine. Noisy buses spew fumes all day, serving a sprawling town.
Like many city bus terminals, Anchorage’s center largely serves the poor. In our car-obsessed culture, public transportation is often inconvenient, time-consuming and neglected by all but those who have no other choice.
So, Anchorage’s center is often a gathering place for street people, kids, the homeless, the out-of-town visitor from Alaska’s bush communities. Because of that, social services agencies gravitate to offices in the center’s upper level.
Pope Francis reminds us that grace is to be found among the poor. So, not surprisingly, on the second floor of the center, grace is made manifest in a place called The Listening Post.
The Listening Post was the brainchild of two Anchorage women, both spiritual directors: one a Catholic, one a Lutheran minister. They had heard of a similar project in a northwestern city and were inspired to bring the idea to their hometown.
It’s a simple but profound idea: simply listening to another person’s story. Just drop in to The Listening Post. No appointments, no referrals. Someone there wants to hear your story. It’s a cathartic, human, spiritual, life-giving idea.
Avie Campala, one of the directors of The Listening Post, explains that listening means opening oneself to another in a way that exposes and respects the vulnerability of each.
“I often feel I’m someone’s confessor,” she said. “What an honor it is to be in that role.”
But only listen? It’s so basic that one is tempted to ask, But isn’t there more? In our wordy, advice-laden world, it’s hard to grasp the concept of listening as ministry. We want to help, suggest, refer, counsel, advise.
I understand the feeling. I was the big sister in my family, and I’m a mom, two roles brimming with the urge to instruct. And we who have been teachers and pastoral ministers are nurturing people — we want to help. It takes a while to understand that truly listening is sometimes the greatest help we can give.
The Listening Post is a warm, inviting place, with couches, coffee tables, soft lighting. Its doors are open four days a week and one evening. The Post moves to an “outpost” at a homeless shelter two evenings a week, and a food kitchen two afternoons a week. Well over 2,000 people come yearly to seek a listening ear.
With about 30 regular volunteers, only one is actually a trained therapist. But everyone goes through training in listening. Although volunteers are not trained as extensively as a spiritual companion or director, the concept is much the same. One listens with the heart.
“The volunteers are really present,” said Campala. “They pay attention. They may ask an open-ended question that lets someone go deeper.”
Examples might be, “Do you have a plan?” “Is there anything that gives you hope?” Such simple questions often produce profound reflection.
Campala says there are moments when “you know the rules so you can break them wisely.” A suicidal situation, for example, would constitute a time to intervene. But in general, “you can’t ‘fix’ someone else,” said Campala. People don’t come to The Listening Post to be “fixed.” They come to be heard, possibly for the first time.
“The longer I’ve been listening, the less those moments of advice-giving arise,” Campala said.
Although The Listening Post is not religiously affiliated, Campala said there is a sacredness permeating it.
“Listening is a sacred act,” she said.