It’s rush hour on a Tuesday morning near Capitol Square in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. A couple dozen men and women, some better dressed than others, are streaming into the sanctuary of the Bethel Lutheran Church with books in their hands. They are not church members. They are street people who love to read, gathering for the weekly Book Club for the Homeless.
Helping themselves to a breakfast of bagels and coffee, they start to warm up. Soon the room is buzzing with conversation about the morning’s agenda, which includes a visit via Skype with Denver author Terry Frei (Third Down and a War to Go). For the next couple of hours, worries about life on the street give way to literature, history and current events. Whenever possible, laughter creeps in.
Suzanne Alexander is the founder and facilitator of the group, which started in November of 2009. Alexander said she was inspired to start the group after moving from the suburbs to the city and seeing a staggering number of homeless people. “You read about homelessness in your paper, but when you experience it, it’s an eye-opener.” Her goal was to find a way to connect with homeless people in a way that wasn’t “preachy” and to provide an inviting environment. “The intention is to create community, a place that’s safe. It can be hard for the homeless to find places where they are welcome.”
With the support of church leadership as well as the volunteer director of a homeless support program, she implemented the book club. Attendance averages 20 to 30 people a week.
Regular attendee Roman Kurylak, 67, lives in a transitional housing shelter for men. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to sit someplace where it matters not who you are but the ideas that you want to present.”
Kurylak, who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War and describes himself as “a loner who never married,” said he views the reading assignments as a way to keep his mind sharp.
Club member Jeremy Evenson, 40, grew up in a town not far from Madison and holds a degree in computer science. He said he values the social interaction. Evenson also said one of his favorite books discussed by the group was The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Stein, who resides in Seattle, was the first author to Skype with the book club.
Interviewed by phone, the author acknowledged that this was a group that didn’t otherwise have access to books. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to explore the parts of his book that resonated with them. Since Stein’s June 2010 appearance, the club has enjoyed inperson and Skype visits with nine authors, including Luis Alberto Urrea (Into the Beautiful North), Michael Sallah (co-author of Tiger Force), and David Oliver Relin (co-author of Three Cups of Tea).
Alexander said she works with members to help them prepare for the author events. When the day arrives, they are comfortable asking questions. “I’ve been touched by the degree of caring, warmth and respect that people show each other.”
By Denice Ryan Martin