Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday

I went to see poet Saul Williams perform when I was in college and he touched on the subject of writer’s block. Essentially his take was that it doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t exist, in the sense that writing should come from experience and that you will write when you are ready.

Well, this has been one hell of a year--I swam in Lake Tahoe, watched a sunset in Santa Cruz, biked across The Golden Gate Bridge, burnt to a crisp on Venice Beach and watched on television as people rioted down my street to name a few things. However, all things, good and bad, must eventually come to an end and after a few days in Napa at the JVC dis-orientation retreat I am ready to say goodbye to the blog.

It seems like only yesterday I was driving down US-101 to Aptos, California ready to meet 70 other volunteers. I don’t think any of us had a clue of what we were getting ourselves into.

We hung out at retreat for five days talking about the values of JVC and getting to know one another. We would talk about our job placements and I would tell people I was working at a homeless facility and pretend like I was confident and ready for the challenge, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The thought of working with the homeless scared me. Last summer I went to visit friends in Chicago a few weeks before JVC started and we were standing outside of a restaurant on a Monday night in Wrigleyville, the place was pretty dead and a couple of homeless men came up and started talking to us. One man was a Native American named Brian Blue Cloud, and he started doing a drunken rain dance for us and singing Billy Joel songs. It was funny for a little while. His friend came over and seemed pleasant enough at first, but then as the conversation continued things started to get a little more awkward. They started asking us for money and Brian Blue Cloud’s friend demanded we buy him beer and made a thinly veiled threat of violence. We walked away without any altercation, but it was still an uncomfortable situation that left me on edge.

That fear didn’t diminish when I walked into the men’s center for the first time, either. I saw a group of guys I had little in common with. Thoughts of mental illness, drug abuse and felonies raced through my head.

Slowly but surely my feelings changed. We shared conversations of politics and sports over cups of coffee, watched movies and laughed. They showered, did their laundry and on occasion I was able to give them bus passes, shelter referrals and help them with their legal matters.

My clients morphed from a homogenous population into actual human beings with names, hobbies, interests, families, funny stories, past lives and aspirations for the future.

A few weeks ago, while walking home I was stressing out about life after JVC when I spotted a couple of my favorite clients. I was stopped at a crosswalk and they were on the other side of the street. They waited for me to cross and we talked for a few minutes, and mid-way through the conversation, mood completely lifted, I realized that they were no longer my just my clients, they were also my friends.

I don’t mean to romanticize working with the homeless. It is difficult. It is challenging. It is tiring. But it has also been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. I will always remember and be grateful for the lessons of honesty, dignity and living in the present moment that I have been fortunate enough to witness.

To end, I want to thank SVdP and everyone I’ve worked with for making this year possible. Also, I want to thank all of the amazing, talented, committed and inspiring JV's I’ve met who’ve made the experience as fun and meaningful as it’s been. Finally, I want to thank my family for their love and support--you guys are amazing.

One last thought for the year: To paraphrase St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Go forth and set the world on fire, just try not to burn down Oakland.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fourth of July

I was sitting around yesterday thinking--contemplating the meaning of life--and while I didn’t have an epiphany about man’s purpose on earth, I did decide that if I were to create a new and perfect holiday it would be complete with fireworks, hot dogs, burgers, Budweiser and most importantly, a healthy heaping of freedom! Then I realized that I'd just described the Fourth of July. Oh boy, did I feel foolish...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Way I See It.

My Jesuit Volunteer year is quickly coming to an end, and it’s both hard to believe and something I’m truly looking forward to. I’ve made really good friends and had some great experiences, but I’m ready to move forward and see what the next chapter holds.

I don’t have any clearer picture of what I want to do with my life than when I arrived in California last August, but one thing I’ve definitely seen this year is the value of commitment.

A few weeks ago I was at Starbucks and my tall cup of black coffee had on it “The Way I See It #76”:

"The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life." - Anne Morriss

The exciting part of the JV year is long gone—moving out to California, meeting other recent college grads, finding your own definition of the words “social justice,” becoming comfortable working with homeless clients—that was the exciting part. Right now for most JV’s their jobs are second-nature, they are tired of not making money and the truth of the matter is that it’d probably be more beneficial to go wait tables or find any other job.

But few, if any, will take the easy route. This is the part of the year that is truly a test. It is a test of your ability to live in the present moment, to give your best when you would rather be elsewhere and your commitment to serve marginalized populations.

That is the thing about social justice—it’s not always front page news. Actually, it’s rarely news at all. The headlines: “Man Needs Shower,” “Man Needs Cup of Coffee,” “Man Needs Referral to Overnight Shelter,” are not glitzy or attention grabbing. No, they are only true.

Change is slow and it takes a renewed commitment each day to serve your clients with dignity and patience, optimism and compassion without worry of outcome. And maybe, as I’ve experienced this year, you’ll see an old client on the street and he’ll be dressed nicely and thank you for your help. Or, as often happens, most clients will simply disappear from your life without a good-bye, and that’s okay too.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stories, Freedom and a Picture of Lake Merritt.

Photo by José Antonio Galloso

On Thursday over 60 people came to St. Vincent de Paul to meet with the Public Defender and prepare for the upcoming Homeless Court that will be held next Friday in our community center. Due to the difficulties of reaching our clients, many of whom only have voice-mail boxes they check infrequently or phones that oscillate in and out of service, it would be nearly impossible to set up appointment times. So instead, we have everyone show up a little before 9:30 with a first-come, first-served policy. At best you could describe the situation as controlled-chaos--more accurately though, it was mostly just chaos. But really, as a whole all of the clients were extremely patient, understanding and excited to be part of the program.

Last night before bed, I opened up The Best American Short Stories 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie and in the introduction he wrote: “…The freedom to tell each other the stories of ourselves, to retell the stories of our culture and beliefs, is profoundly connected to the larger subject of freedom itself…”

That quotation reminded me of my clients who show tremendous strength in addressing their legal matters. We have them write a letter to the judge and document their personal progress, growth and achievements, which the court accepts in lieu of a financial payment.

Essentially, they are telling their own stories, many of which involve job loss, drug abuse, failed marriages and countless other peaks and valleys. For many people, these stories would be too painful and embarrassing, but as I’ve seen throughout this year, our clients refuse to indulge in false pride and they are better for it. It’s clear that the process of addressing their problems--refusing to hide in the shadows and watch their lives spin out of control--is incredibly liberating in a way that someone such as myself who doesn’t live in the margins of society, can ever fully comprehend.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Dance of Life.

The chapel at the Jesuit Retreat Center.
I was reminded to stop and smell the roses.

To be alone with your thoughts for the better part of four days is an experience every person should have at one time in their life.

At the beginning of the retreat we all met with our spiritual directors. My spiritual director, S.J. Tom Weston, asked me how I was feeling and if I needed a break from work. I told him I went home the week prior and was feeling pretty refreshed, but about three hours later, with my window open and a nice breeze passing through the room, I was out cold.

Aside from sleeping, and eating ridiculously good food, I spent much of my silent time reading a compilation of Henri Nouwen’s writings called The Dance of Life, which spoke to me in a way few books ever have. The passage that stuck with me the most was: “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.”

Part of the retreat included a peace vigil where the staff put out journals we could write down our thoughts on peace and the JV year as a whole. They also put out the journals from the prior years, and it was interesting to see how similar the entries were from year to year. There was always a funny guy, cynical guy, some girl taking herself way too seriously, but mostly there was a deep appreciation for the triumphs, struggles and conflicts they had endured throughout the year. I thought about the journals while I was reading more Nouwen and I recognized that the universal epiphany of this year is that “in solitude we discover that our life is not a possession but a gift to be shared.” We leave the comforts of family and friends at home and move to neighborhoods rougher and more impoverished than most of us have ever lived in, and instead of accepting fear and despair we attempt to find hope and dare to bring light where there is darkness.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy to wonder if there’s any point, to question whether change will ever come, but I think the lesson I’ve taken away from this experience is that joy and sadness are not mutually exclusive. There are days when I’m biking to work and I have a million thoughts and worries running through my mind and I forget to stop and appreciate a crisp morning or blue sky. This was the case the other day when I was running late, still half-asleep when I looked at the park across from St. Vincent and saw one of our clients blasting music on his boom-box and busting a move. I watched him for a while longer, here was this man who has so little, wonders where he’ll get his next meal, where he’ll sleep, and yet he’s still able to find so much joy.

The dance of life doesn’t begin when poverty, mental illness, rampant substance abuse and violence is eradicated--it is here and now. To witness all that is wrong with the world juxtaposed with genuine laughter and untainted pleasure can only be explained through grace--in a word, it’s divine.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Silence, please...

The excitement of dollar dogs--it's hard to contain.
Hello! I thought I’d drop a line before I head to silent retreat on Monday for four days--this is definitely another reality check that the year is coming to close. The retreat is held in Los Altos at a Jesuit retreat center that is supposed to be very scenic and I hear the food is buffet style and delicious, so I’m looking forward to that and some time to read a few books and relax.

Not too much else is new around here. On Wednesday night I went to the Oakland Coliseum for the first time and saw the Oakland A’s beat the Kansas City Royals 7-2. It was also dollar hot dog night, unfortunately I’d already eaten dinner, so I only ate a couple, otherwise I think I’d be good for about a dozen—I guess that’s something I can look forward to next time.

Also this weekend is the much ballyhooed Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco where people wear wacky costumes and pull around wacky floats and have a real wacky time! So yeah, that should be fun…

"When you become aware of silence, immediately there is that state of inner still alertness. You are present. You have stepped out of thousands of years of collective human conditioning."
-Eckhart Tolle

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen...Guest Cartoonist Brett Foreman

Here's a little current events humor from our talented culinary student services coordinator Brett Foreman. Enjoy.