Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Midwinter Sunshine

A Book Review
Watering the Greyhound Garden: 
Stories from the Streets of San Francisco 
by Warren B. Smith

By Sarah Leslie

This post isn’t really about heresy, per se. It is a review of a new paperback, Watering the Greyhound Garden: Stories from the Streets of San Francisco, written by one of my favorite authors in the discernment world, our longtime friend Warren Smith. Take a break, grab a cup of coffee, put up your feet and enjoy a brief winter respite reading this sunny book.

Full disclosure: A few years ago I spent a good part of the summer looking over this manuscript.[1] It was the most delightful “editing” project I’ve ever done. I had known about the manuscript for some time and kept encouraging Smith to put it into print. I envisioned it as the perfect coffee table type of book that we could use for stimulating discussions when friends came over. 

Well, there’s good news! The book was just released by Mountain Stream Press and it is every bit what I hoped for. Even better! Here’s the summary:

In Watering the Greyhound Garden, Warren B. Smith recounts his job as a Travelers Aid social worker at the San Francisco Greyhound Bus Terminal. In fifty-one heartfelt stories, Smith describes some of the many people he encountered at the depot and on the streets of San Francisco. Meet Banjo Bobby Brown, Waldo Weinstein, the Pacific Heights Teenager, the "Drunken" policeman, the Strong Man, the Minnesota Gambler, the Oklahoma Kid, the Tennessee Thompsons, and many more. The Greyhound Bus Terminal was like a modern-day Jericho Road, where broken-down travelers were in urgent need of help. From California dreamers and state hospital runaways to an abused housewife, a stranded grandmother, a suicidal transvestite, and a seventy-three-year-old man still riding the rails—the author met them all when they needed help from Travelers Aid. With compassion and careful attention to detail, the author describes the challenges and joys of working for Travelers Aid and in "watering" what he calls "the Greyhound garden."[2]

This autobiographical book is filled with short vignettes that capture a historical moment in time. It accurately depicts the pivotal period when the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement was fading, the homeless were rising, and the Gay movement was coming out of the closet. The economy was in crisis and unemployment was high. Deinstitutionalization had left many troubled people on the streets with no assistance. Counselors and social workers were encountering unprecedented issues. These stories will be evocative for those who lived through those restless, amoral and turbulent times.[3]

Interesting photos of San Francisco during this era accompany the vivid imagery of the text. This draws the reader into experiencing the street scene of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Walking along the streets with Smith is a sensate experience, smelling, seeing, hearing and touching that time period’s environment and its people.

The original manuscript, written shortly after Smith’s experiences, was shelved for several decades.[4] Much has changed in Smith’s life since then! As he explains in his preface, “Note to the Reader,” “Prior to my deep involvement in the New Age/New Spirituality and my later conversion to the Christian faith, I was paid to be a ‘Good Samaritan’ at the San Francisco Greyhound Bus Terminal.” This is the story of the earlier part of Smith’s life, before he went on a spiritual journey. Many of Warren Smith’s fans do not know that he was a community social worker for many years, that he directed several homeless programs, and worked as a hospice social worker.

Watering the Greyhound Garden has several noteworthy features:
  1. The reader will want to read what happens next, to know the rest of the story. Throughout the book, Smith leaves a trail of tantalizing tidbits about the next phase of his journey. For example, on page 72 he recounts, “Little did I know then that just three years later… I would return to the city for a weekend celebration as a follower of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Ragneesh... [d]ressed in all orange dyed clothing….” What happens to Smith after his “Greyhound experience”? It is chronicled in the story of his journey into the New Age and afterwards.[5]
  2. This book is a conversation piece. A perfect coffee table book! It really does not delve into Christian matters, although a well-suited Bible verse heads each chapter. The book will provide a great entry point for a stimulating discussion with a nonbeliever. Tip: have on hand an extra copy of Warren’s testimony The Light That Was Dark: From the New Age to Amazing Grace to pass along as a sequel.
  3. Watering the Greyhound Garden graphically depicts the rigours of a genuine street ministry, done one-on-one with needy and troubled people. This is where the rubber meets the road. Showing real mercy is much harder than following pre-canned scripts and institutional outcomes. Smith is a fresh-faced “kid” in this book, an idealistic newly-trained social worker who sometimes meets people's needs in creative and unconventional ways. It is refreshing to read! (Note: This type of real-life, heart-felt social work stands in stark contrast to the starry-eyed dreams and coercive cultural schemes of neoevangelical “citywide evangelizing” programs currently in vogue. One gains a broader appreciation of what might have motivated Smith to author a book critical of Rick Warren, his ideas and methods.[6])

The discerning reader is left with a niggling question that can only be satiated by reading further. How does a street-wise young social worker who is both rational and compassionate go on to "dance and meditate with a hundred other Rajneesh devotees"(p. 72) just a few short years later? And then how does God's amazing grace work such a marvelous conversion as described next? This early part of Smith's life holds a valuable lesson for all of us. And the fact that in his later books he warns the church about the very things that first enticed him....[7] Well, Watering the Greyhound Garden seems to underscore how possibilities that seem too incredible to contemplate suddenly change overnight with the lure and seduction of New Age spirituality.

In conclusion, besides being an absolutely delightful little book to read, Watering the Greyhound Garden can serve a useful purpose for those who are on the front lines of street ministry and/or old-fashioned evangelism. It is a rich and rewarding experience to read this book.

Watering the Greyhound Garden: Stories from the Streets of San Francisco is available at Amazon.com.

Listen to Warren Smith's interview 2/14/13 with Stand Up for the Truth radio, HERE.

[1] In addition to serving as one of the editors on this manuscript, I also published several of Warren Smith’s books (Conscience Press): Reinventing Jesus Christ: The New Gospel ( the 1st print and 2nd online edition) and the first edition of Deceived on Purpose: The New Age Implications of the Purpose-Driven Church.
[2] Book description at Amazon.com
[3] This author was a counselor in private practice during this same era. Perhaps this personal experience makes this book seem even more poignant and realistic in its portrayal of the new complexities we all faced at that time. Unlike Smith, I could offer hope through the Gospel. But I also had a front-row seat in watching the evangelical world slip off into the existentialism of humanistic psychology, and abandon the one-on-one genuine “Good Samaritan” ministries that required personal and sacrificial charity.
[4] For example, The Course in Miracles New Age “bible verses” originally heading each chapter have now been replaced with Bible verses.
[5] The Light That Was Dark: From the New Age to Amazing Grace (Mountain Stream Press, 2005). Originally published by Northfield Publishing in 1992 with the subtitle A Spiritual Journey.
[6] Smith authored Deceived on Purpose: The New Age Implications of the Purpose-Driven Church (Mountain Stream Press, 2004). At this same time we had just published a monograph, The Pied Pipers ofPurpose: Part 1: Human Capital Systems and Church Performance (Conscience Press, 2004), which dealt with some of the inherent problems of imposing a purpose-driven, outcome-based assessment system to meet human needs.
7. As a former Flower Child hippie, who took a similar spiritual journey into the New Age and out, I can relate much to Warren Smith's life story, and can rejoice with him in also being saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Note: The interested reader can now find Warren Smith's writings posted at www.spiritual-research-network.com