Alaska News

Listening Post is 'here to be present and loving'

Like an eddy in the crosscurrent of this busy city, the downtown transit center is full of people waiting -- some for buses, others for friends. Too many for nobody and nothing.

It's not the people all dressed up with someplace to go you wonder about. It's the lost and lonely. The working worried. The out-of-order angry, the ones security guards in fluorescent vests keep a real close eye on.

Some of them have discovered a place on the second-floor mezzanine where they can go to get some peace. Those who've read the signs and followed the arrows to The Listening Post know they can leave the din behind and enter an oasis of quiet.

In this place of soft lighting, meditative music, comfy couches, shoji screens and boxes of Kleenex, visitors can talk if they want to, not talk if they don't. They can read, meditate, pray or sit in silence and hear themselves think.

For those who live on or near the streets, The Listening Post is a day spa for the soul.

"They're a world away when they're in here," Mary Cartwright says. "They're a world away from what's right over that balcony."

The Listening Post was founded a little over a year ago by Cartwright and Marcia Wakeland, both spiritual directors, the former a Catholic, the latter a Lutheran pastor. But they're not pushing religion. They're not pushing anything. All they offer is a cup of herbal tea, a quiet place to be and volunteers trained in the art of listening.


The Listening Post is not a place to get fixed.

"We are not part of the system," volunteer Jean Abel said. "We're here to be present and loving."

No preaching, no advice, no judgment. Some clarifying questions, maybe, questions that encourage people to go deeper, but that's about it. And nobody takes notes.

Gil Serrano, 48, who gets around by bus, saw the signs several months ago and decided to check it out. He's interested in exploring spirituality, but was a little leery at first.

"I'm kind of a seeker dude," he said. "I wanted to make sure they weren't crazy fundamentalist culty people."

The way he explains it, drugs, alcohol and an undiagnosed mental illness brought him a ton of grief, including time in jail. Now that he's out and started over, he appreciates having a place where he can say what he really thinks, not what some counselor or parole officer wants to hear.

"For me I guess it's therapeutic," he said. "The passive listening that they practice gets people to clarify in their own minds what it is they believe. I don't know anything else like it."

Most of the training in this kind of listening comes from unlearning, Wakeland said. Volunteers, some of whom have backgrounds in counseling, have to resist saying what they think will make things better.

"We tell them from the beginning, you don't have to fix them or rescue them or advise them or counsel them or give an opinion, or even cheerlead," she said. "That's probably the hardest part for many of our volunteers, not to be a cheerleader, but to simply receive the person's story."

The first person who walked into The Listening Post was a man who said he just had to tell somebody he'd been sober for 30 days. Instead of "That's great" (cheerleading), the volunteer said something like, "So, you stopped drinking for 30 days." Because if he later started up again, he'd feel he'd let that person down.

"Then he told us his whole story -- how he'd come to this place, his history, and what it meant for him to be able to say that to us," Wakeland said. "We accepted him both as a person who drinks and a person who doesn't drink. As a human being."

On the surface, it seems so simple even the volunteers laugh about it: What a weird mission. You don't have to say anything, you don't have to do anything.

But that simplicity is its power.

Cartwright, Wakeland and the 25 volunteers who listen think those who come through the door have the answers they need within them. When people with no agenda listen to them -- not sort of listen, but really listen -- they are free to be open and honest. And that, Cartwright said, includes being honest with themselves.

"In the telling of their stories, we find people are able to find strength and wisdom they didn't know they had."


The Listening Post concept has been around for years; there are many variations in this and other countries. The inspiration to open one here came straight out of a Spiritual Directors International convention Cartwright and Wakeland attended in Vancouver, B.C. They were so moved by the stories they heard about a Listening Post in the heart of that city, their reaction was instantaneous, like "a nudge from God."


The Anchorage Listening Post -- whose volunteers come from all faiths, or no faith -- operates under the umbrella of Lutheran Social Services. It's received a couple of grants from the Alaska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but it pays rent and other bills, roughly $800 a month, mainly from private donations.

When it came time to pick a location, the downtown transit center seemed ideal, Cartwright said.

"You can feel the heartbeat of the city in that place."

But the post's future there is uncertain. Its lease is up at the end of the year, and it could lose its space. So Cartwright and Wakeland worry.

In the past year, the place has had about 800 visits, from people who've come once or twice, to those who've become regulars. They see the signs, hear of it from others, or pick up a brochure at one of the shelters or soup kitchens around the city. Now and then, one of the security guards downstairs will see someone struggling and bring that person to this refuge.

Some are mentally ill. Many are homeless. But The Listening Post gets all kinds, from teens to tourists. Three quarters come to talk. Most of them are men.

You don't have to be in some kind of crisis to be welcome. It's open to everyone. It doesn't do appointments. And it doesn't cost a dime.

On a recent Friday afternoon, volunteer Debra Dailey was in a side room listening to a disoriented man talk in spirals, while another, Deb Sis, sat on a couch with a teen-age girl who's been dropping in since practically the beginning.


Holly Jeanne, 19, is a student at Avail, an alternative high school downtown, and she brought her progress report with her:

What a great attitude and enthusiasm for learning.

Very motivated. Fantastic.

She was in a great mood that day, but that's not always the case. Sometimes when she comes in she brings along her troubles.

"They calm me down about stuff I'm stressing over," she said. "I can handle it a lot of the time, but when I get overstressed I can't function."

When Merle Jerue, 38, first came to The Listening Post, he didn't expect to be the one doing the talking. He's a longtime volunteer at the Downtown Soup Kitchen and just wanted to check it out before recommending it to folks there.

Before he knew it, he was telling his story. And it's a rough one. Growing up with disabilities in Anvik, being the last to see two friends before their snow machine plunged through the ice, hitting the bottle as a teenager, getting into trouble, going to jail, ending up on the streets of Anchorage, hearing strangers call him a loser, getting stabbed more than a dozen times, his heavy winter coat saving him from dying that day.

Getting clean and sober.

After a few visits, after hearing his story and his connection to those on the streets, Cartwright asked if he'd consider becoming a Listening Post listener. So he took the training. While most of the volunteers come from lives a world apart from the homeless guests, he's one who's been there.

"One of the hardest parts," he said, "is knowing just what they're going through, and carrying that with me."

Before opening the center, Cartwright and others did some volunteering at the Brother Francis Shelter to better understand that world.

"That was a wonderful experience for us," she said. "Because we know where they're going at the end of the day. And boy, it definitely keeps you from having any illusions that when they walk out of here they're somehow going to have changed lives, that they're going to go back and make things right.


"At the end of the day, they're going back to rows of mattresses and Styrofoam bowls of hot stew and noise and confusion and chaos."

These are people who often feel invisible, she said. At The Listening Post, like everyone who enters this space, they are seen as sacred human beings.

"I know it sounds pie-in-the-skyish," she said, "but something happens in here. The spirit of love takes over."

Find Debra McKinney online at or call 257-4465.


Debra McKinney

Debra McKinney is an Alaska writer and former longtime feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News.