LitClub:  Bethel's Book Club for the Homeless
Madison, Wisconsin

club bethel homelessSOMETIMES LIFE DEALS a heavy blow, knocks us off our feet. Members of this book club, homeless men and women, have surely felt those blows. Yet through books and conversation, they've found friendship and joy while gathering at a church in Madison, WI.

So how did your group get going?
Pastor Laura of Bethel Church saw a CBS news story about the Boston club and began organizing. Our first members came from Bethel's Homeless Spiritual Support Group...which continues to meet right before the book club.

A recent visit to Madison's homeless shelter also gained us new members.

You can read more about us on our blog, Streets of Madison.

What a great idea!
Yes, it is. Books open minds and stir souls. It’s a small step in helping to create, restore or sustain a sense of community for people in need. Also, books and movies are a way in which our culture expresses its hopes and fears and everything in between. And a book club is a way for the homeless to take part in that dialogue.

Book clubs for the homeless seem pretty unusual.
Actually, the idea is spreading! There are homeless book clubs in NYC, DC, Detroit, Fort Wayne, Charlotte, NC., and New Smyrna Beach, FL. We recently heard of one starting up in London.

Back to your group—how often do you meet?
We meet weekly, during the day—which means we discuss the book, section at a time. It takes us about a month to complete a book.

How many participate?
On average, around eight, but it varies—anywhere from one to 20. Homeless folks land jobs, homes, or simply relocate. But our club is here when they need us!

You're there for your members, but how do you keep afloat?
We meet in the Bethel Church, and we receive donations from the community.

You do some interesting things: you skype* with authors.
What a privilege! We've skyped with two bestselling authors Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) and David Oliver Relin (Three Cups of Tea).

And we met Robert Kurson (Shadow Divers) in person! All three authors were immensely entertaining and gracious. You can read about our author visits on our Blog.

You also have movie time, right?
Right—it's our "Movie of the Month," or MOM. Instead of meeting to talk about our book selection, we meet in a hall or the church basement to munch on popcorn and watch a movie on a large screen. A chef from a local restaurant makes the popcorn. Our current flick is The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock.

Lets get to some books you've read.

The Appeal by John Grisham
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The Kite Runner
Same Kind of Different as Me
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
Three Cups of Tea
Water for Elephants

Any turn out to be a group favorite?
The Art of Racing in the Rain was an immediate hit. From the opening scene—where we meet Enzo, a dying dog, who narrates his life—it's a gripping tale (tail?)! The writing is straightforward and accessible—a book that feels like a friend, one that makes you laugh and cry and sigh.

What books led to great discussions?
Same Kind of Different as Me. Our book club is regularly attended by folks who know what it is like to be disenfranchised, marginalized, treated lightly or worse. This book inspired lively disussion—a mixed group of people talking about racism and prejudice. We're grateful that Denver Moore's book opened up this exchange of ideas and experiences. Books are powerful that way.

Any not so popular?
You had to ask! We were ready for an easy read so we decided to read a John Grisham book. Everyone agreed he'd be a nice change of pace. We selected The Appeal—great premise, but the story was difficult to follow and often led nowhere. Not a typical Grisham performance. But we’ll cut him some slack and maybe try one of his other books down the road.

How do you choose your books?
Suggestions come from book club members, friends, and supporters. We entertain various titles and make a decision within a few weeks of starting a new book.

You want to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome, but you've got some pretty strict rules, right?
Yes, we have seven rules:

  1. Show up on time.
  2. Don't hog the conversation.
  3. Leave the preaching to the preachers.
  4. Know-it-alls not allowed. (By the way, a know-it-all is an attitude, not a person. Check the attitude at the door.)
  5. Try to ask one good question a week and give people time to answer it.
  6. Do your best to keep up with the reading, but come even if you didn't.
  7. Know someone who reads real slow or not at all? Bring 'em along. We'll help.

That last rule is the most important. There is a strong link between illiteracy and homelessness. We have a certified reading tutor to help those who struggle.

* Skype is a video-conferencing program that allows computer users to make voice calls with video to others. Grandparents are the biggest skypers according to marketing surveys.

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