Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Look beyond the bread you eat...

Last night, after a long day of classes and tutoring, I came upon Maria, one of Sr. Pat's students.  She and Sr. Pat were talking about how Gabi, Maria's seven year-old daughter, loves the ham at the Welcome Center.

"Do you want a sandwich for Gabi?" Sr. Pat offered.

"Yes, thank you," Maria replied.

"I'll make it," I piped in.  I walked over to the bread drawer.  There were sandwich thins, oat nut bread, and rye bread. 

I have never developed a taste for rye bread, perhaps because it was introduced late enough in my life that I never felt "accustomed" to it. I trained myself to prefer whole wheat bread and other, "healthier" alternatives to white bread, but rye bread hasn't stuck.

As such, I couldn't imagine any seven year old wanting a sandwich made of rye bread. 

The potato bread was all the way upstairs.  And okay, it sounds lame to me now, but I in that moment, I was willing to let anything be an obstacle.

I seriously considered making the sandwich with one of the alternatives.  I couldn't see Gabi wanting any of them, though.  Some seven year-olds don't even eat the crusts on their bread; if I handed her a sandwich with oat and nut pieces in it, I could envision her handing it back to me. 

It's fairly simple to predict the inclinations of a seven year old girl.  Extrapolating beyond that, for extra people or for different situations, becomes more complicated with each additional layer.  How can you know what someone would want?

The heuristic approximation is sympathy.


In December of 2010, as a senior in college, I was bagging Christmas presents at the St. Francis Inn.  All of the bags that I had were too small for this box, a present for a young boy that was a guest there.  Completely baffled, truly, I presented this dilemma to the volunteer who was supervising me, Kelly.

"What would you want?"  That was her answer, or something similarly sassy.*

The implication was that, obviously, I had to find a bigger bag 

Would I want a present half sticking out of the bag, not in the least bit surprising to its recipient?  If I were giving this present to someone, what would I want it to look like? 

Kelly's question challenged me to look beyond the act itself toward the way in which the act was performed.  By doing this, instead of being an act of responsibility, it becomes an act of love, a demonstration of concern for the person on the receiving end.


I walked upstairs and grabbed the potato bread to make Gabi's sandwich. 

It could have been nothing, but it was everything.

*(Side note: I love Kelly, and I love her sass.  I know she is channeling it wonderfully in her fourth grade classroom!)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My first official blog endorsement for John Flynn.

I wrote the following poem/lyric in January of this year after seeing John Flynn perform live in Philadelphia.  I was moved by the caliber and artistry of his stories, and used that inspiration to channel my own experiences into this bit of writing.  I came back to it today after an encounter that left me without any words but these.  

Also, this is my plug for John Flynn.  I think he's phenomenal.  But you can judge for yourself.

"Two Coins"

Two coins.
That was all she had,
all she could afford,
and as they fell out from her hands,
she said a prayer to her lord.

"I’m asking for tomorrow.
You’ve blessed me with today.
I don’t need much of anything,
just extended stay.
I’ve got so much to finish here.
Please help me see it through.
Whatever is your will for me
is what I will to you."

I took the silver coins she gave
and held them in my hand.
It wasn't much, but it would buy
her way into the promised land,
and as she gazed into my eyes,
I memorized her face,
for never had a clearer picture
been given me of grace.

"I’m asking for tomorrow.
You’ve blessed me with today.
I don’t need much of anything,
just extended stay.
I’ve got so much to finish here.
Please help me see it through.
Whatever is your will for me
is what I will to you."

I hoard the much that I’ve been given.
She gave all she could afford.
At night on bended knee,
I whisper this prayer to my lord:

Please teach me her example
each and every day.
The love she has is all she needs.
Don’t take her soul away.
I’ve got so much to learn from her.
She’s teaching me to do
whatever is your will for me.
That’s what I will to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Won't you be my dear neighbor?

My Facebook newsfeed has been filled with pictures and statuses about Hurricane Sandy, of late.  Living in Philadelphia, my community and I were in the middle of the storm, certainly, but we were very blessed to not have much to show for it.

We lost power for about fifteen hours, and most of that was during the night, when we slept.  We had a roof over our heads and four walls to protect us from the wind and rain.  We didn't lose any of our food, because we were able to bring it to the Welcome Center, where I work, and we had warm pancakes for lunch on Tuesday with the sisters who live there.

Among all of the political mudslinging and meteorology-mania, I found this quote in a Facebook post:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

― Mother Teresa

When I began contemplating a year of service, I was ready to go to the ends of the earth, convinced that the more removed from East Greenbush, New York, I was, the more I would learn, and the more meaningful my service would be.

Relative to Ecuador and Kenya, Philadelphia and Camden are both practically next to East Greenbush, and they are near to each other (the Ben Franklin Bridge connects the two cities, and it's only five dollars to go from NJ to PA).

I can't compare my real service experiences to hypothetical ones in a meaningful way, but I will say that I have been challenged to grow and learn in so many ways, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.

The people that have been nearest to me this past year and a half are some of the most strong, hardworking, courageous, and loving people that I have ever been blessed to encounter.


With my neighborhood faring rather well, all things considered, and both Monday and Tuesday off of work, I found myself with much time to think.  I spent that time remembering the many friends and acquaintances that I knew were suffering more deeply because of the storm.  They held some of my attention, but another storm captured my attention, too.


I've never been to New Orleans.  I have many friends who have gone and done beautiful work there, and I think I would love to go, too.  One day, I hope.

Katrina made her visit to New Orleans seven years ago, in a record-breaking hurricane season that brought devastation to so many.  Just like Sandy has.

Seven years later, people are still going down to NOLA, providing help when they can, and that's awesome. No sarcasm intended.  I really think that individual people and groups are doing as much as they can.

That's why I am here, in Philadelphia, right now.  I am doing as much as I can for the people nearest to me.

I'm curious to see how long it will take for the northeast to recover from Sandy.  I hope and pray that it won't be seven years, or seven months, or even seven weeks.

I ask myself, "Is that long?"  That depends on who you're asking.

The St. Francis Inn is a soup kitchen in my neighborhood, and they served a meal yesterday despite being without power at least two hours before the meal was scheduled to begin.  I don't know what they served, but I do know that whoever braved the storm to come eat must have been hungry and grateful, even if their demeanor didn't reflect it.  I know some guests by name who have relied on that support for years.

Ask Diane, who just had her fourth child, what she would do for seven weeks if she couldn't rely on the support of the Inn to feed her growing family.

Or, if my own ministry, the Welcome Center, what if we just shut down for several weeks?  We work with immigrants, helping them to become citizens, and whatever your position is on immigration, let me say this: the people I meet every day aren't trying to play the system, they are trying to not get played by the system.

I meet with a woman on Mondays to practice for her citizenship interview, and she is one of the most faithful of all of my students.  Every Monday, at 1:30, we practice speaking and writing, answering over and over the questions she'll need to know in that interview room.  The charm of her self-effacing laugh diffuses each moment that I've managed to not sufficiently communicate a point to her, again, as if it's somehow her fault.

These are the people who I am nearest to and people who I have come to know and love.  They are no more or less important than those in South America, Africa, and other parts of the USA, but in my own reality, they are my world.

I doubt I'll get to New Orleans or New York any time soon.

I have English classes to teach.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

...every heart to love will come, but like a refugee...

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.  


Thus began our community prayer last night.

It was not the first time I'd heard this meditation before; it found me at Le Moyne, and later it found me during my year as a Franciscan Volunteer.  And now as an SSJ Mission Corps Volunteer, it continues to follow me.

I resisted every bit of this prayer.  My mind did jumping jacks and cartwheels; my heart kicked and screamed all the way though the moments of silence.

For me, this prayer always calls to mind the difference between the worldview I was given and the worldview I am slowly gaining.  God, who could be so loving, must certainly be able to do something about all of this suffering, all of this brokenness that I encounter every day.

Somewhere between the second and third line of this meditation, I was able to step outside of my own inner tantrum and picture myself.  I was flailing violently, as a small child in the throes of anguish, certain that she had just been slighted and appalled at the injustice of it all. 

As I maintained my mental outburst, I saw myself comforted, held in the arms of that same loving God that I was cursing.  I kept kicking, screaming, crying, and God never let go.

God was telling me exactly what to do, offering exactly what I required, but those things were presented in a way that made me uncomfortable.  I didn't want to stop fighting, because I was not convinced that anything would come of the stopping.

This the same counter-intuitive block that I have toward taking some free time before I have finished everything on my to-do list: I feel like I am wasting time when I could be finishing this one thing, or this other thing.  I don't know where the research is that disproves my beliefs, but I know there is some out there, and despite that, I hold fast to my entirely flawed convictions.  The invitation remains:

Be still and know that I am God.

All the tools are there, all of the things that I need are right in front of me, though it might not appear that way.  I just have to take the time to look at them and assume the responsibility for them.

There's a story, which I have heard many variations of, where the main character sees some sort of injustice, becomes upset, and asks God what he is going to do about it.  In all of the permutations, the reply from God is the same:

"I did do something. I made YOU!"  

Why is the world like this and not how I thought it would be?  
What are you going to do about it?  

I made you.

But I am not strong enough, brave enough, prepared enough...

And then I hear the response.  It's not an answer, but somewhere in there is a promise that if I do what I am told, I will figure out what I am supposed to do next.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.  


Monday, October 8, 2012

tell lucky you are!

A while back, someone told me that typically, people graduate college, get a job, and ultimately face the fact that the real world is quite different from college.  

I, however, was so very wrapped up in my new volunteer life (which is both like and unlike the "real" world to which I referred) that I had forgotten to do that, until now.  

Today, on a cold, rainy, fall afternoon (one of my favorite kinds of days), all that I wanted to do was to go curl up somewhere cozy and journal, with some hot tea.  My only stipulation was that I needed to leave my living space.

At Le Moyne, that space would have been my room, and I could have happily gone to the lounge, or to the library, or to a friend's place, and I would have walked there.  

In Philadelphia, there are not random "lounges" where one can sit for extended periods of time indoors without attracting undue attention to oneself.  Or, if there are, I haven't found them yet (there is a "Memberz Only Lounge" - spelled just like that on the sign - near our house, but I don't think that's what I am going for).  The Philadelphia Free Library has 54 branches, but only one branch is open on Sundays, from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.  And I don't have twenty-five peers at my disposal to entertain and to be entertained by.  

I ended up crouched on the floor of the Barnes and Noble in Rittenhouse Square, no tea, for a couple of hours.  My bum was a bit sore, but I did feel good at the end of all of it, truly.  

In having gone to Barnes and Noble, I am more fully able to appreciate my house for what it is.  In leaving Le Moyne, I have come to cherish my alma mater even more.

I tried the best I could to appreciate Le Moyne for what it taught me and brought out in me, and some days, I did better than others.  Last fall, however, when I visited campus and was walking around at night, I relished ever more profoundly the kind of privilege I was exercising.  

Only at Le Moyne could I walk back from the Science Center to Harrison Hall at 2:00 am by myself without thinking twice about my safety (although in retrospect, that was not one of my better life choices - the late night walking alone part).  

Only at Le Moyne could I sit in the Den and read or write without having to buy anything.  

Only at Le Moyne is the library open for more than four hours on a Sunday. 


Both at Le Moyne and in Kensington, I have been able to come to know many wonderfully fabulous people.

Both at Le Moyne and in Kensington, I have been challenged to grow in ways that I never thought possible. 

Both at Le Moyne and in Kensington, I have been given the opportunity to learn so much, in traditional and extraordinary ways.

Both at Le Moyne and in Kensington, there is overwhelming beauty, if you look for it.  And I don't mean pretty scenery, I mean bursting-and-radiating-from-the-cracks-in-the-pavement beautiful.  

And one day, I'll miss Kensington as deeply as I miss Le Moyne.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This one's for the teachers.

I only continue to appreciate the many wonderful teachers that have graced my life now that I am trying to teach my own class.

Somewhere, along the line, I figured out that being a good teacher implied a degree of entertainment.  People are far more likely to remember something if you make it memorable.

I learned this from an English teacher who hopped across the room pretending to be a spider, from a coach with more spirit in her left pinky-finger than most people have in their whole body, and from a physics professor who threw things (both accidentally and on purpose) and occasionally put his own safety in jeopardy, among others.

On Tuesday, in my own attempt to be a good teacher, I took off my shoe and then waved my hand in front of my face (and made the stinky feet face), just to show my beginner class what a shoe was (and keep them captivated).  They laughed, so at least I knew that they were paying attention.

And thus, one of my mantras continues to be: check your dignity at the door.

I dance around the classroom, I sing, I jump, I do whatever I can to make sure I know that they are internalizing the things that I offer to them.  I can't joke with words; that is the exact reason I have these students to begin with: they don't understand the English language.

I repeat over and over small phrases such as "what is it?" and "it's a pencil" with the hope that by June, I won't have to wave a card in their face with the words on it.  Their responses will be as natural as me dancing around the classroom (which is actually pretty natural, believe it or not).

Thus, I enter the classroom every Tuesday and Thursday night, ready to be laughed at.

Tonight, those same beginners are playing Bingo for brownies, a reward for all of the time spent thus far repeating the same questions over and over, with me hoping that I won't have to explain what they mean or how to answer them, again.  Amid the fun, they will actually have to practice knowing their numbers, and the jury's still out on how that will go. 

I've never thought otherwise, but I want to go on record as having said: teaching is not easy, but it can be really fun.

Even if I have to smell my own stinky shoes.

Peace and all good,

Saturday, September 22, 2012

To be happy...

I signed up for this year, expecting full well that I would be teaching adults, and I am.

There are, however, several children that come in and out of my life at the Welcome Center, and one in particular, of late.

Manny is five, and he only started Kindergarten on Wednesday, so he's made quite a few appearances at the Welcome Center.  Last week, Sr. Pat and I took Manny to the library, and as we picked him up, he told us that the woman who had been watching Manny and her own son, "They made me angry!"

"Why?" we both inquired.

"Because they made me angry."  Five year old logic, of course.  We told Manny that he was too young to be that angry, and he said, "Okay," in this blind acceptance and gleeful sort of stupor.  He always says "okay" that way.  It sounds like sedated joy, and it makes me laugh every time.

"Why are you laughing at me?"  Manny demanded.

"I'm not laughing at you," I assure him.  "I'm laughing because I want you to laugh, too!"

And it's true.  I want him to be happy.  I said to him, "I want you to be happy all the time," and then I retracted the last bit by saying, "well, most of it."

If we're happy all the time, then we are blind to the realities around us.

If we are constantly satisfied, then we fail to realize the value of the things we have.

If we never have to wait for anything, we can't appreciate the time that has been spent so that we don't have to wait.

It's a constant tightrope dance for me.  I want to have a true picture of reality, and the truer it becomes, the heavier it becomes.  I've heard myself say, over and over, "I want you to tell me, I can handle it."  I have also been on the side that thinks that love is to protect the ones you care about by shading their reality for them.

When I was on my silent retreat in August, Fr. Ned told us that, in this world, there was always suffering, but the difference was that, in Christianity, we are invited to embrace that suffering.  I haven't come to a conclusion about how I feel as far as whether or not God "ordains" the painful pieces of our lives, but I know this: without the cross, there is no redemption.  Without something having gone awry, there is nothing to straighten out.

But Manny's only five.

He's still learning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How to be like Jesus.

It's times like these you learn to love again. 
It's times like these you give and give again.
It's times like these you learn to love again.
It's times like these time and time again.
~ Foo Fighters, "Times Like These"

I spent the majority of my afternoon half carefully, half carelessly, placing labels on envelopes for newsletters.  I thought absentmindedly about who would get them, and I paid a measure (but certainly not a full one) of attention to my two charges, Maria, who is learning French, and Nhi, who was working on an assignment about St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  I rushed through those envelopes so that I could run to the library, where a movie and two books were wating for me.

As it turns out, they are still there, because I rushed through reading the directions and made a wrong turn.  When I arrived to the library, it had closed minutes before.  All of that rushing, and if I had only stopped to pay a speck of attention, I would have known that the library was closing.

I returned, tail between my legs, to an empty office.  I had a couple of things to read and send out before returning home.

The doorbell rang, but, even though I had told Nancy that I didn't mind being in the office alone, I hadn't any intention of opening the door and occasioning any potential trouble.

I continued my reading in the hope that the man at the door would give up.  Not very Christ-like, I know. 

At least four times more he rang the doorbell, a plea to be heard.

An extended period of silence lulled me into a false sense of security: maybe he's gone...

But then, the doorbell.  A high pitch, followed by a low pitch.

Whatever this man needed, he would not be ignored, so I opened the door.

"Is Sr. Pat or Sr. Eileen here?"

No, they aren't.  They just took Colleen up to the novitiate.  They won't be back tonight.

But I still don't know this man, so I put up the yellow caution tape.

"They can't speak with you right now; is there something I can help you with?"

"I need them to help me with some papers," I thought I heard.  "Can I come back tomorrow at this time?"

"Can you come in the morning?" I offered, knowing that the sisters would be here, and that if he came tomorrow at this time, he would be interrupting their dinner.

"I work in the morning," he said, "but I can come in the evening."

We settled on an evening time, and I knew that the sisters would be there to greet this man, whose name I learned to be Antonio.

Before he left, he offered me the bag in his hand, for the sisters.  "It's going to go bad," he said.  It was some sort of cake.

As I closed the door, I was humbled by his persistence, his care, and his gratitude.

The story that has followed me, of late, is that of the Canaanite woman (Gospel of Matthew).  At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been traveling and he has been trying so hard to stay out of the limelight for just a little while.  His notoriety cannot be quenched, however, and he is approached by an outsider, this Canaanite woman, with a request to heal her daughter.

Jesus replies to her that it is not fair to take the children's bread and feed it to the dogs.  Jesus hung with the outcasts, for sure, but this woman, a Canaanite, was outside of those "outsiders."

 "...even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master's table," she counters.  I might not be in your circle, but I matter, she implies.

Jesus praises her faith, and heals her daughter. 

All I could do was stand there, both awed and dumbfounded, and tell Antonio to come back tomorrow. 

Lesson learned still learning.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Home is a verb.

Last night, I dreamt of the wonderful faces of St. Anthony's School, a place where magic continues to happen every day.  I know this to be true because there were a number of magic wands that poked and prodded at me all year until, finally, my toughened exterior broke open.

It is little more than magic and grace that presents to you the me that is now in Philadelphia.

For years, God has been trying to get me to Philadelphia.  Most of my life, actually.  It started when I was in grade school, and my mother was offered a transfer to Philadelphia with her company, which she turned down to stay in East Greenbush.  It continued with my mother's prodding to "go to Siena," which I promptly dismissed, since Siena was too close to home.  At Le Moyne, I was swirled into the wonder of the St. Francis Inn, which led me to FVM, and ultimately, to Camden.

And Camden was just enough to get me here.

If I watch carefully out the window of the elevated train, I can see bits of the Camden skyline during my commute to and from the Welcome Center.  While it's not St. Anthony of Padua Parish and School, it still reminds me of a place that I have learned to forever call home.

About a year and a half ago, I crafted a blessing that included the following:  "May you remember that home is not an address, but a place in your heart for the family you are given and the family you choose."

The other day, though, reflecting on home, I remembered something that completely snow-globed my understanding of the word:  home is a verb.  

Definition number twenty on for the word home: to go or return home.  And number twenty-two: to navigate toward a point by means of coordinates other than those given by altitude.  

I home is not just a cool piece of technology that will charge your iPod and wake you up in the morning.  It means that I am moving toward a point, toward my home.  Which, by my own definition, is a place in my heart.  

Perhaps the definition is a tad redundant, but the meaning is what matters.  

The part that naturally becomes frustrating is that the coordinates I am getting are not taking me right there.  I must, necessarily, travel to points other than home, because (and pardon how cliche I am going to sound, please) the journey is what will allow me to experience home when I finally arrive, and it will also be the arrival.  

Rosa, one of my co-workers at the Welcome Center, told me yesterday that they feel as though I have been here for five months, even though it's only been about two or three work weeks.  It is as if the spot existed for me this whole time and they were just waiting for me to come and fill it.  

Classes start on Monday morning, and, well, here I am. 

Just in time.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Standing out in a crowd...

I have been living in Kensington now for three weeks.  I continue to confront the reality that whether I live here for three months, three years, or three lifetimes, I will always be an outsider.

My safety net is too strong.

I am a Caucasian female who was born in the suburbs and got an education that many of the people I encounter on a daily basis never even had the option to choose or reject.  The color of my skin and the knowledge in my brain cannot be taken away from me.  There is power in that that I am only beginning to understand.

I am currently part of a volunteer program that supports me financially and spiritually, and while our director claims that we live below the "official" poverty line, I will never be living in economic poverty the way that I see it played out by my "dear neighbors."

I will always have enough nutritious food to eat.  For me, it will not be a question of where my next meal comes from, but when will I go to the store, and what will I buy when I get there.  Knowing that I will be supported in this way allows me to use the knowledge that I have accumulated to buy food that will nourish me, and not merely fill me up.

I will always have a roof over my head, heat in my house, and clothes to wear.  I am fortunate enough to have a washer and dryer in my basement AND a washer and dryer that I can use at work, both free of charge.

I have a transit pass that allows me to take the elevated train to and from work every day.  I am able to ride to work in the safety of mass transit.  Since the pass is for unlimited travel, I am also able to leave Kensington, at no additional cost, and find solace in the comfort of a small park or bookshop.

I will always be an outsider because I will always have an out.

I have many people in my life who care about my well being and about the path that I have chosen.  Those people support me as I make the conscious choice to live this way, even though I might have gotten a job that paid much more, or I might have gone to school, ultimately for the same end result.

Some of those same people would support me if threads in my net began tearing.  Many people here in Kensington don't always have the means to do so for the people that they love, no matter how much they want hold each other up in that same way.

This is the SSJ Mission Corps pledge: give us one year of your life, and we will give you a better understanding of yourself, your neighbor and God.  I came into this year regarding it the way I regarded the promise made by my Jesuit education (that I would be made a woman for others): skeptically.

Here I am, living the truth and reality of both.  I am a woman, for others, who is learning by experience the value of what it means to be in relationship with my neighbor in a direct way.  And I am trying to find God in all of it.

Slowly, but surely.

This race was never to the swift.

Peace and all good,

Saturday, September 1, 2012

This is *reality* Greg!

Readers, beware!  The title is meant to be a humorous foray into a heavier subject.  To get the joke, you have to know only two bits of context.  The first is that my father's nickname is Greg (which in no way resembles his actual name, but that's another story for another time).  The second is that the line is from E.T., near the end, when Elliot is getting one of his older brother's friends to help bring back E.T.

Elliot: He's a man from outer space and we're taking him to his spaceship.
Greg: Well, can't he just beam up?
Elliot: This is *reality*, Greg!

How does that relate to my day, you're probably wondering.  I hope you are at least wondering that now.

Well, my father and my mother both came to Kensington today with the remainder of the things I was not able to bring on the train when I moved down here.

They told me that when they arrived, before I was able to swoop down and collect them from outside, that they had seen two men shooting up down the street.  I would imagine it was heroin, but honestly, I don't know anything about drugs.  It's the only one I am sure involves a syringe.  At any rate, they were doing well, all things considered, but I could tell that any one of a few thoughts were running through their mind.

- This place is more dangerous than the place we left her last time.

- (My father)  I left the city so that my kids wouldn't live in such a desolate place.

- We're going to take her home, now.

- Rachel must be out of her mind.  How can she be calm right now, when we are trying to be calm and (so obviously) struggling to do so?

Alas, what I want to say to my father is: This is *reality* Greg!

I don't know how to communicate effectively my environment to people who haven't seen it without scaring them, or making them think I am disillusioned in any way, or making them think I have missed some fundamental part of the human experience by being here.  This blog is helping me navigate those waters, but it is far from the whole answer to how I will pass on what I have been a part of here.

Today, I want to emphasize one particular point:

Kensington is part of the human experience.

Every day on my way to work, I walk past dozens of people.  Real people, some of whom are addicted to illegal substances, some who are homeless, some who are single parents struggling to get by.  Soon, I may be sharing my morning commute on the elevated train with students running late to school because they are the parent figure in their house, and sharing my evening commute with nurses who have spent the day caring for the sick and struggling.  Each of the people I encounter is participating in the human experience.

Why then, is my father's human experience so radically different from the two men down the street, shooting up?  I respond with a line from a sign that was on our back porch area last year in Camden, from Mother Teresa.  "God does not create poverty.  We do, because we do not share."

There are so many layers to reality.  Kensington is only one of many of mine.  I invite you to consider which realities are yours.  How does living your human experience affect another's human experience, someone who you will never know?

Peace and all good,

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Learning to feed myself...

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
― Julia Child

Thanks, Julia!

I didn't mention much of this last year, but an important part of my time in Camden was learning how to cook.  Alex humored my interest, and my anxiety, as well as she could, and at the end I knew how to make a couple of things.  I don't know what it is about this year, but I do feel that I have a greater lease on life.  I am excited to experiment in the kitchen.

I've always said, and I really do believe this, that if I had to be a vegetarian, I could do it.  I don't have such a strong attachment to meat that I need to eat it all the time, but I do enjoy it and rely on it for some protein and vitamins.

One of my two housemates is a vegetarian, though, and that means that if I want to cook something that everyone can eat, I have to make it sans meat.

Two things have happened as a result of all of this.  The first is that I crave meat, precisely because I am more conscious that I cannot always have it.  Last year it was not as much of an issue.  No one was opposed to eating meat, but we couldn't have meat and everything else that we wanted on our budget.  Oh well.

The second, and far more interesting, thing is that I have been looking for recipes, because I am newly interested in this world of cooking.  I was a bit startled to find just how much meat has embedded itself into the wealth of recipes that I encountered.  It felt as though meat was everywhere, and it became a bit daunting to find anything that didn't have even chicken stock in it. Not too daunting, though.  I have happily begun with a handful of recipes that are vegetarian, or would be with a vegetable stock substitution.

Now, while I have all of these wishy-washy positions on meat, they are not based on anything other than my own wants and needs, and not on any sort of larger awareness.  Thus, I am going to spend some time this year learning about the larger picture - how does my own consumption influence the world?

Both the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscans have a focus on the care for and integrity of creation.  I don't know if, at the end of this year, I will want a black bean burger or a Kobe beef burger, but I do want to know more about what fulfilling each desire will mean.

And, on the more fun end, I am going to learn to cook things like lentils and dry beans and tofu, so how can it be bad?

Peace and all good,

Saturday, August 18, 2012

It's foreign on this side...

I have officially moved to the other side of the river (or at least I will have, tomorrow), from Camden to Philadelphia, and for all that I thought I knew about Kensington or Philadelphia, it's a whole other world.

My housemates and I got to walk around Kensington with one of the former Mission Corps Volunteers yesterday, and I was forced to look at the realities that I had managed to avoid.  For all the time I had spent in Kensington, it is far more than Hagert Street, where the St. Francis Inn is located.  It is Visitation Parish, the Cardinal Bevilacqua Center, Covenant House, Marianna Bracetti Academy, Fiore Pizza, the Catholic Worker, and even far more than this.  It is people that I will come to know as beautiful, as my "dear neighbor," even though I am having a hard time seeing it that way now.

When we began our walk, I saw one of the guests of the Inn, Rambo, crossing the street ahead of us.  I didn't think he would recognize me, but I stayed out of view in case he did.  Rambo has a penchant for talking, and I didn't know how I would get around that if he started today.  He didn't see me.

As we turned onto the block of the Inn, I encountered Danny, a longtime guest of the Inn, and an alcoholic who had relapsed.  He has some sort of terminal illness, perhaps a consequence of his sorted past, I honestly don't know.  All I knew was that he was drunk, and that despite every effort that had been made on the part of the Inn, he was still drinking.  Whatever he has in this life, it's not enough to keep him sober.

That encounter snapped me back to the reality of what I do, and what I will do.  I cannot save everyone in Kensington, or even everyone at the Welcome Center.  The most likely scenario is that, on June 28th, when I am finished with my term of service, the people with whom I worked will still live in Kensington under the same circumstances in which I found them.  It is a hard reality.

During our orientation, we talked a bit about the two feet of social justice: meeting immediate needs and working toward systemic change.  If you don't meet the immediate needs of the people you work with, they will only be worse off.  By the same token, if you don't work to change the systems that caused that need to exist, you enable a cycle of poverty to continue.  It's not an either/or, but a both/and.

The students that I will be tutoring after school every day have the immediate need of homework help; they need to understand the work they are given and possess the tools to complete it.  Their longer term need is to know English, which I will work to help them with as well.  This need is at the interface of immediate and systemic.  In addition to meeting those needs, I will also be learning about the systems that have created these needs.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to lobby in DC, to use the force of my own power in that way.  My skin color, my level of education, my background will always give me a level of impact that Danny and Rambo will never have.  Having spent some time last year, and anticipating spending more time this year, in the service of immediate needs, I hope to be able to learn about and do more to influence systems.  Whether that means going back to DC, pursuing graduate school as a way to leverage my knowledge and understanding, or continuing to accompany the people I have come and am coming to love, I know that this year will be an awfully big adventure.

I'm slightly terrified of all of this, in the best of ways, and I am trying to remind myself that there was a beginning to my time in Camden, too.  Say what you will, but Kensington looks rougher than Cramer Hill ever did, although there are not as many abandoned buildings, I suppose.

So, I guess I just ask for your prayers as I embark on this next journey, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support that has gotten me here.  I am infinitely blessed to have crossed paths with all of you, whoever you are.

Thus continues the story of one girl who has a whole lot of love to give and a whole lot of living left to do...

Peace and all good,

Monday, July 30, 2012

simple living, revisited.

Packing is about my least favorite thing to do.  I have too much stuff, and I can't fathom getting rid of it, except by waving a magic wand and having it all go away.  That's the thing: if it were easy, I would very soon have much less in my possession, but as it were, that technology does not exist yet.  So, here I am.

The pack-rat gene runs on my mother's side of the family, compounded by my own inordinate sentiment toward material things, whether they be clothes or books or knick-knacks.  This is how, in my twenty three years on this planet, I have filled my bedroom brimming with clothes, toys, CDs, books and other things.  Especially books.

An avid reader dwells beneath my nerdy exterior, and I have amassed hundreds of books in my lifetime.  I have so many books that I have never read, let alone opened, because I cannot read them quite as fast as I acquire them.  A side effect of growing up, I suppose.  

Many people have suggested to me that I should get a Kindle, or a Nook, and I politely explain that the real book lover in me will die hard.  I love pages, and words, and I am not ready to abandon convention for convenience.  

I do admit a problem: simple living, as I am making best attempts at, involves fewer books than I have.  I began this process last summer when I sold back a vast number of my science books.  Now, I am forced to take a critical look at what I have, and say, truthfully, do I need all of these books?

The answer, of course, I already know: absolutely not.

As I move toward this next year of service, I continue to reflect on the role of "things" in my life, and I am starting by getting rid of a few more books. =)

Peace and all good,

Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying.  The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things. 
~ Elise Boulding

Friday, July 20, 2012

...searching for starfish: the next chapter...

Hello World!

I know it's been a long time since you last heard from me, and I will try to be as concise as possible.  A lot has been going on here in Camden, both great and terrible, and I am leaving the place that I love and have learned to call home in just a few short days.

Along the way, I have been talking with God, sometimes arguing with God.  He seems to want for my life something different than what I'd envisioned, which was staying another year in Camden.  What I've discovered, though, is that when he wants something for me, he'll make it happen, and if I want it, too, then he will really make it happen.  So it was with my next step: on August 13th, I will be moving to Kensington, Philadelphia, to teach English as a second language with the Sisters of St. Joseph.  I will be living in community, similar to what I do now, with two other women, who will each be working in schools affiliated with the Sisters of St. Joseph.  I will be in a program called the SSJ Mission Corps (here's their website:

What does this mean?  It means that I will get to work with fabulous people, again, and that I will also be able to have some contact with the people I have grown to love here.  I am very excited at the prospect of having my own classes to teach, and I will get to share this year with two wonderful women, who will make up the rest of my community.

What does this not mean?  I am not entering a community, that is to say, I am not becoming a Sister by being a part of this program.  I have the highest respect for all of these women, but right now, I am not ready to be one of them.

I'm hopeful, excited, grateful to Colleen, the program director for SSJMC, and very much looking forward to what I know will be a year of incredible beauty and growth.  I am so blessed, beyond all comprehension, to have the opportunity to do this.

For those who are looking for more Camden stories, I will do my best to post some, and also to be better in the months to come.  I thank you all for reading and following my story.  You are all in my thoughts and prayers.

Peace and all good,

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thy Kingdom Come

One of my goals this year has been to learn Spanish, and one of the first ways that I did that was by learning the "Padre nuestro,"  the "Our Father."

It was the first thing that I memorized in Spanish, and I practiced it faithfully for a while, and then I got distracted, with my work, with the Hail Mary, with community living, with things going on outside of Camden.

Recently, when I have said the "Padre nuestro" at the May Rosaries, or at Spanish mass, I tend to forget, "venga a nosotros tu reino."  Which means, "thy Kingdom come."

The Kingdom is coming.

It is quite fitting that that line is the one I often omit, accidentally, of course, because it's a difficult one to live, here in Camden.

The Kingdom is coming.

What I envision as the Kingdom, what you envision as the Kingdom, is nothing compared to the Kingdom that is coming.  It won't be built of stone, or cement, or wood, or steel.  It will be built of real people, connected by real love.  We're building it now, here in Camden, and other people in other places all over the world are working to build the Kingdom, simply by loving and caring for each other.  And it could be finished right now, under two conditions: that all people realize that we are called simply to love and to be responsible to one another, and then to actually do that.

It's easy to despair here, where so much is run down, littered, graffiti-ed.  It's easy to despair when there is so much violence and drug use.  It's easy to despair when there is so little money, and everything is only getting more expensive.  But the Kingdom is coming.

When I interviewed for my second year with Katie Sullivan, she drove me home, and as we traveled down River Road, I squealed and told her to make the first left that she could.  I wanted to take her a different way to my house, via Harrison Street.

Harrison Street, at the beginning of the year, had potholes feet wide and several inches deep, from heavy trucks constantly making use of it.

About six weeks ago, it finally got paved.  It went from being the one of the worst streets in Camden to being one of the best.

This year has become about finding my hope, about seeing the abundant good amid the chaos.  It continues to bend me into shape, so that I am better able to love all those around me.

Thy Kingdom come.

Peace and all good,

Friday, May 18, 2012

I'm just sitting out here watching airplanes...

The first bit of this is a story (spoiler alert!) that will appear in an upcoming FVMemo, the publication of my volunteer program.  I think, though, that most of you readers don't receive the FVMemo, so I don't anticipate too much chaos.  There is an epilogue, however, that does not appear in the FVMemo, and I have added that for the benefit of you readers.  Part one:

The elementary soccer league is in full swing at St, Anthony's, and last week [really last month], I brought the kids down to soccer after choir practice.
"You have to tell the coach why we're late," Emani demanded.  
I approached the coach to explain that I was bringing the choir members to soccer.  He began telling me that one of the other St. Anthony's kids, Raymond, was not welcome back at soccer.  Raymond had punched a kid in the face, one from another local elementary school.  
"I'm not in charge of the kids, I'm just bringing them down from choir," I politely told him.  
He wasn't entirely appeased by my words, but he went back to coaching, and I went over to fulfill my role as comforter to both children, who had been forced to sit out.  
I squatted next to the boy, who'd been "victim", and I greeted him.  
"I'm Miss Rachel, what's your name?"  Nothing.
"What grade are you in?"  Nada.
"What school do you go to?"  At this point, although the boy himself was not answering, others around, including Raymond, were piping in, and I discovered that he was a first grader at Sharp Elementary.  
"Would you like a piece of paper to draw on?"  It was as though I wasn't there.
"Okay, well, I will be over here if you want to talk."  And I walked away, a bit deflated, but certainly with the intent of trying again.  I listened to Raymond's story, which dripped of self defense and poor judgment, and I explained to him that hitting someone is not okay, and that if he ever had a problem, he should tell the coach or one of the other adults.  
I passed by the boy, who uttered his first sentence to me, "Can I have a piece of paper to make an airplane?"
"What's your name?"  
"Nighal," he said.  I began to have a conversation with an obviously grumpy boy.
"I'll give you the paper, Nighal, but only if you smile for me first."
"I don't smile.  I'm mean."  He said it so matter of factly.  This was the first child I had met in all of Camden who'd ever refused to be happy.  So I did what I knew how to do: I made the paper airplane and began throwing it, playing keep away from Nighal.  
Somewhere along the line, God made his presence known, and Nighal let out a small, closed-mouth grin.  Eventually, I gave him the airplane.  When he left that afternoon, he was truly smiling.
Yesterday, I brought the choir members down to soccer again, and Nighal was not there.  Raymond was there, however; he'd been given a second chance.  
Camden is a constant lesson in forgiveness and love.
I pray that Nighal continues to find reasons to smile.

The epilogue, two weeks later:

I was walking home before Friary dinner from soccer, and I ran into Nighal unexpectedly as he was entering his home.  

"Hi, Nighal!"

"My birthday was on Friday!"  A smile.  

"Happy Birthday, Nighal!"  

That was all, and that may be what it ever will be between Nighal and me, but I hope (and pray) that he knows someone is out there, caring about him.  

This year, I have had the chance to know many wonderful people, both briefly, and also very deeply.  I am grateful for all of them.  

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Notre Dame Football Tickets

Hello world!

I know it's been a while, and first I would like to say that I just discovered that people emailed me back from the blogs that have been emailed to them.  I did not realized, and I am so sorry if anyone felt ignored when I did not email them back.  That was certainly not my intention.  The posts go out with the email associated with this account, which, until now, was not forwarded to the email account that I check.

Anyway, I have a wonderful story.  The moral of it is cliche - stick to your instincts, and things will work out for you in the end.  The story goes something like this:

My Uncle Ric has teased me about having gone off to do a volunteer year, especially after he found out that I had considered doing the Alliance for Catholic Education Masters in Teaching Program at Notre Dame.  He couldn't understand why I would come to Camden instead of go to Notre Dame.  More to the point, he wanted football tickets.

"What can you get me from a soup kitchen in Kensington?  I want football tickets!"
*N.B. At the time of this comment, I had only seen the ministry at the Inn, and I did not know that I would be coming to Camden.

Fast forward to my volunteer year.  Fr. Jud, pastor of St. Anthony's, is a Notre Dame alum and very involved with the local alumni association.  They had a Notre Dame service day this past fall, and again one this past Saturday.  Steve, the husband of the cook at the Friary, is himself a Notre Dame alum, and was raffling off football t-shirts at the end of the service day.

When you ask for other people, I'm told, you are more likely to get it, but even still, my ticket was not pulled.  After the raffle, I pulled Steve aside and asked him what I could do to get one of those shirts.  I explained the story about my Uncle, and Steve gave me a shirt.  For free.  My day had been made.

"I can get him football tickets, too, but he would have to pay for those..."

I couldn't believe my ears.

I called my Uncle, left him a message, and he called me right back.  "What's wrong?  You never call."

I told him about my day, and how, if he wanted, I could secure him tickets to the game of his choice.  He was pleased, but certainly not as excited as I was.

"What would make me happier is if you told me that you were going to be there in school, too."

Not quite, Uncle Ric...

I came to Camden, and in the end, my Uncle will still get Notre Dame football tickets.

Ask and ye shall receive.

Peace and all good,

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"You aren't messing up today!"

At 6:20 this morning, my alarm went off, and I uttered the requisite groan of exhaustion.  Why am I getting up right now?  Every Sunday, I have the same sluggish attitude, but I am almost always rewarded for my efforts, and today was no exception.

I arrived at the church, began setting up the projector, only to find that my limited tech knowledge, which had been sufficient, was no longer enough to get the slides to appear on the screen.

I spewed a few expletives, rebooted both the projector and the computer, and thus having exhausted my battery of tests, gave up.

How many parish workers and parishioners does it take to get a projector to work? At least six.  The whole system finally worked, with many adjustments, for the noon mass (unfortunately, not soon enough for 8 am mass), and I breathed a small sigh of relief.  The process had cost me precious rehearsal time, however, and I was skeptical of how the rest of the mass would go.

As we gathered to "All the Ends of the Earth," the children and the third grade teacher, Mrs. Martins, filed in to fill the rest of the choir, which was supplied by the parish's English Bible Study group, Quest, and a few regulars.  There were nineteen of us in total, a record number.  I can't even begin to emphasize how good that felt.

When it came time for our Easter psalm, Bobby Fisher's "This is the Day," I was nervous and excited.  It was only the second week we had done it, and I still wasn't sure that I had engaged the congregation as much as I had hoped on that first Easter Sunday.  I was, and am, convinced that if any hymn or psalm was going to engage this congregation, it would be that one.

We started off strong, and the kids joined in with me on the first verse.  In the middle of the following refrain, I heard someone clapping, and before I knew it, the entire congregation was clapping.

I couldn't stop smiling.  Finally, after eight months, I found a small measure of success.

The entire congregation was clapping.

During our rehearsal, I made a point of telling everyone that when we sang verse four, everything had to come to a quick stop on 'house': "the stone which the builders rejected has become the foundation of our HOUSE!"  Like that.  (In my own past, a drum solo would go there, but we were not prepared for a drum solo today.)

And it happened.  The tambourines stopped, the choir stopped, the clarinet stopped.  The clapping did not stop, and I take that as the St. Anthony's version of a "drum solo."  I couldn't believe it.  I couldn't stop smiling.

Eight months ago, if I had arrived here, and this had been my first mass, this is what would have happened:

1.  I would have pulled my hair out in frustration, realizing how far the music at this parish was from anything I had every known.

2.  I would have thrown my hands up at the "disorganization," which seems wholly organized relative to where I started, but certainly not organized relative to what I was accustomed.

I appreciated today SO MUCH.  The music sounded wonderful; there were so many voices, all working toward prayer.  It was phenomenal, and I also know that I couldn't have appreciated how phenomenal it was until now.  I needed to know what it was like to start from square one, I needed to build relationships, and I needed to learn who the people are that I am serving.  I am constantly daunted by and grateful for the learning curve that my job presents, and I know I am better for it.

The part of Thomas Merton that I am often guilty of quoting is the first paragraph of his Letter to a Young Activist, but the part that resonated with me today was later in the letter.  (I will reproduce it in its entirety, for completeness):

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion.

The real hope, then is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do God’s will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it before hand.

Enough of this…it is at least a gesture…I will keep you in my prayers.

All the best, in Christ,

"The real hope, then is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see."

After all of my attempts at "success," however narrowly and broadly defined, God made good of all of it.  When I really began to focus on the truth, the people, not the work, but it's implication, only then did I finally move toward that goodness.

And, then, the highest compliment of all.  Annaliah, one of the third graders, said to me in the middle of mass: "You aren't messing up today!"

See, I am making all things new...

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"I have ninja skills and I am not afraid to use them!"

I continue to be humbled by the people here.

Today, Chris, Alex and I were tasked with transporting the Clavinova, a glorified electric keyboard, to the Reyes family's home.  What ensued was that Chris, Alex, Rodrigo and Jose, the two oldest boys (12 and 10, respectively), were heaving the keyboard into the back of our van, while I supervised Maria and Jesus (8 and 7) in the church van, waiting to leave.  Estela, their mom, was supervising the movement of the piano.

A suspicious man appeared in the church parking lot, in the midst of all of this.  Maria felt compelled to get out of the van, but I ushered her back in.  I told her that she needed to stay in the van, and I had Jesus lock the doors in case I needed to close them in to protect them from the man.  Maria was having none of this, however.

"The most important thing to me right now is that you are safe," I told her.

"I have ninja skills and I am not afraid to use them!" exclaimed Jesus.

Everyone was fine - Chris swooped in and redirected the man away from the church van.  We arrived safely at the Reyes family home, and I brought Maria and Jesus upstairs while everyone else brought the keyboard in.  The kids were all so proud to show us their house, and I was so excited to see it.  We helped them move in in November, and it was wonderful to see them having settled into their new home.  It was also eye opening.  Rodrigo and Jose sleep on the couch in the living room, and Maria and Jesus share a room with Estela.  It's really a two person apartment, and somehow it's become a five person home.  As small as our house feels (which is quite often), it's so much more than what all five of them have.  I have my own room.  Estela doesn't even have her own room.  She's a rock, Estela.  I would have gone crazy by now...

With the piano successfully moved, Rodrigo turned to me and asked, "Miss Rachel, now that we have a piano, will you teach me?"

"I could certainly teach you, but maybe we can talk to Ms. Kisada about the Friends of Music program, so that you could get a real piano teacher."


Then, later, I returned to Estela's bedroom, which has become home to the piano, in addition to three people.  Jose was sitting at the piano.

"I love this piano with all my heart."  I had never heard anything more genuine in my entire life.  I could have cried.

As we both headed toward the kitchen/living room/Rodrigo and Jose's room, I mentioned to Jose, "Maybe now that you have a piano, you can get a real piano teacher."

"But you're my real piano teacher!"

"You could get a better piano teacher."

"But you're a better piano teacher!"

"Well, then maybe you could get two piano teachers."

Jose Reyes thinks that I am a good piano teacher.  We validate each other.  It reminds me of a bit of Teilhard de Chardin that I love: "We are one, after all, you and I, together we will suffer, together exist and forever will recreate each other."

Peace and all good,

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"I fought a little boy..."

Don't worry.  I didn't actually fight a little boy.  It's a quote from one of the third graders, Annaliah.  In the third grade, Mrs. Martins, their teacher, has her students write sentences with their spelling words.  The sentences have to be at least nine words long, to show that they understand the meaning of the word.  A few weeks ago, I was sitting with Annaliah as she wrote her sentences.  As she plowed through her words, she came upon the word "fought."  She spoke that sentence out loud, like she had done with the others, to make sure that it was nine words before she wrote it down.  She began, "I fought a little boy..."  I don't remember what the rest of the sentence was, but I was so taken aback by how she had started it.

I'm often guilty of being hopeless, and chalking things in Camden up to the fact that "it's Camden."  For instance, with this sentence, I would have never expected to hear it from kids in my school district growing up, and certainly it took me by surprise to hear Annaliah speak those words: violence here is so much more common than I could have ever imagined.  That doesn't make it right, but right now, that's the situation.

It doesn't have to be like this.

The church had a bowling fundraiser tonight and, although I desperately wanted to bowl, a sprained ankle kept me from the lanes.  Instead, I continued work on a knitting project.  Annaliah, the same third grader, was there with her mother and her brother.  She kept me company for part of the evening when she was not bowling, and she wanted to learn to knit.  She helped me with a couple of the stitches, but I knew that it was going to be difficult to let her work on the project, so I made her a deal:

"Annaliah, I have another pair of knitting needles at home.  When I finish this project, I will give you these knitting needles and I will use my other ones so that I can teach you how to knit."

The proposal was accepted without hesitation.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I have to find the hope in those little moments.  Annaliah's smiling face and constant enthusiasm motivate me to be more for her, to be more for all of the kids there.  It's really easy to get frustrated and give up; believe me, those kids are no walk in the park, but I know that I am helping them to grow into themselves, and I can only hope that these kids will be better off for what I have done.  At the very least, I remember the Hippocratic Oath, and I try to live by that: "first, do no harm."  My housemate, Chris, describes it as "harm reduction."

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Camden, in the beginning, was because I wanted to be somewhere where I felt that I was effecting change, or could be effecting change.  Well, I am here to tell you that it certainly does not feel like that.  Who knows what the city will look like twenty years from now, when these children are in charge?  It's hard to tell.  All I can hope is that I have helped them to want a brighter tomorrow, and that I have helped them to be more capable of working toward it.  Antoine de Sainte-Exupery said it best: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

I hope I can lead them to long for the sea, and perhaps even to find their own starfish.

Peace and all good,

Thursday, February 2, 2012

That's not a secret!

Every Wednesday, I have the privilege of volunteering with a program called Volunteers Engaging Neighborhoods, or VEN, for short.  My work entails helping students who have a lower proficiency in English with their homework.  What it boils down to is that I help Alejandro, a sixth grader, learn the meaning of "complete sentence."  I am determined that he will know what one is and be able to write one by the time he enters seventh grade, which I think is reasonable.  However, any sort of my own judgement of what is "reasonable" is completely thrown out the window here, usually.  And that just means I need to grow.  A lot.  And so it goes.

My growth also includes my continued misadventures as I learn Spanish.  I told someone a few weeks ago that my "aniversario" was February 11th, which does not mean birthday, like I thought, but wedding anniversary.  "Cumpleaños" is the word for birthday.

So, yesterday I was in helping Alejandro, and my housemate, Alex, was helping Maria and Alma, two third grade girls.  Alex had to step out for a moment, so I was supervising the girls a little (probably distracting them more than anything else).  I tried to say something to them in Spanish, that, of course, did not make any sense.

"We don't understand you," remarked Alma.  I squatted down next to them, as they were sitting in their desks.

"Let me tell you guys a secret," I whispered loudly.  "I don't know how to speak Spanish."

"That's not a secret!" exclaimed Maria.  "You're telling everybody!"

Leave it to third graders to tell it like it is.

And as for growth, two things that I constantly remind myself:

The first is from my Jesuit Education, Teilhard de Chardin:

Patient Trust
By Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God

We are quite naturally impatient in everything
      to reach the end withour delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
      unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of progress
      that it is made by passing through
      some states of instability ---
      and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
      Your ideas mature gradually --- let them grow,
      let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don't try to force them on,
      as though you could be today what time
      (that is to say, grace and cirsumstances
      acting on your own good will)
      will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
      gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
      that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
      in suspense and incomplete.

And the second, which I saw on a sign on the side of the road earlier in my year of service:

Don't be afraid of growing slowly.  Be only afraid of standing still.

Peace and all good,

Monday, January 30, 2012

Simple, but not easy.

It's easy to get caught up in problems.

I know, firsthand, from nearly twenty-three years on this earth, and especially having spent the last five months in Camden, New Jersey, that it's easy to see what went wrong, or what one does not have, or every problem as a bad problem.

All problems are not bad.

Two Sundays ago, we were blessed with some extra musicians: Kevin, a guitarist, and Janet, a violinist.  They are the son and daughter-in-law of the third grade teacher, who helps out at the 12:10 mass on Sunday.  Kevin and Janet are also fabulous musicians, each in their own right.  However, rehearsal time was minimal, by which I mean that all four of our musicians were together to practice for about 15 minutes.  We didn't have time to practice all of the songs.

But we had four fabulous musicians (counting Betsy and Isidro), and I couldn't see past all of the chaos to be grateful for it in the moment.

It's all about perspective.

This year, for me, has been an entire shift in perspective that is still in process, without an end in sight.  The idea is simple: I must change what I focus on so that I can be positive in the moment and toward the future.  In practice, this is not easy.  It completely goes against my fruitless attempts at perfection, or even the adjusted levels of "acceptable" that I continue to revise.

It's about finding joy in the little moments, like tonight at rehearsal.  Betsy had accidentally hit Isidro in the face on Sunday with the head of her guitar, and remarking on that, Isidro said that if it had been any worse, "it would have been a gory scene."  I laughed, because I was so taken aback by such a funny and wonderfully made sentence.

I am reminded of Thomas Merton, who got me this far: "In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything."

I have also been recently reflecting on the parable of the widow with the two coins.  She gives much less than other givers, but she gives all that she has, and that means so much more.

Today, Estela Reyes gave us a bag with several books either in Spanish or both English and Spanish.  She is the single mother of four beautiful children, and the Reyes family was one of the first that I was able to meet here in Camden.  I teach her son, Jose, piano (insofar as one can do that sort of thing with only minimal piano ability), and Jose, Maria and Jesus are all in the school choir.  Estela is one of the people who motivates me most to learn Spanish, because I would love to be able to carry on conversations with her in full sentences.  Right now, I speak in broken Spanish, and in her broken English she replies.  And so, she gave us these books, knowing my, and my communities, efforts toward learning the language.  She was so proud to show them to me, and I was so humbled to be able to accept them from her.

It doesn't seem like much, but it's HUGE.

Last night, I had dinner with Vinny, a man who lives down the street from us.  About four or five years ago, he had a stroke that left the left side of his body paralyzed and has relegated him to a wheelchair.  He has gained some function back, but he can only use his one hand, and he can't bend his arm.  Because of the stroke, he cannot work, and he is as strapped as anyone in this city.  Money, for him, is tight.

Last night, Vinny had a friend of his bring him over Popeye's Chicken, and Vinny shared his fried chicken with me.  For someone who occasionally doesn't have enough money to eat anything at all, this is a huge deal for him to have Popeye's.  It was as though all he had was two coins, and he just gave me one of them.

I am guilty of falling into the trap of "I serve the poor" and "I  am such a good person for doing this or that."  It is moments like this that show me who really is poor: me.  I am so chained to all of my things, to my standard of life, and to what end?  Ita Ford, a Maryknoll sister who was martyred in El Salvador, captures what I hope to continue to reflect on far better than I ever could.

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless? Can I say to my neighbors, ‘I have no solutions to this situation; I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you.’ Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?”

Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?

Simple, but not easy.

Peace and all good,

Monday, January 16, 2012

Please don't stop the music...


This post marks a few milestones:

1. It is my first post of the new year!  Happy 2012 everyone!

2. It is my first post in a long time, which is a milestone insofar as I have been able to sit down and get time to write the post.

3. It is the first post where I believe I have figured out how to auto email people that it has been posted.  I don't know if it will work, and if it does work, I don't know if it will take more than ten, but I am excited to see. :-)

4. It is the first post where I think that I have a firm idea of what my job description is, or at least one that will make sense to other people.

So, here's what I have been up to:

Music, music, music.

It's funny, I remember saying at the beginning of the year that I would get up only once for 8 am mass, the time that we were presented as volunteers to the parish.  I have eaten my words; every Sunday I get up at about 6 am, and head over to the church by 7:30 to rehearse the choir.  I am profoundly grateful for my role in working with them; I just wish it was later in the day!

Monday nights, however, are by far my favorite night of the week.  It is then that I have rehearsal with Betsy and Isidro, 14 and 11, respectively.  They are sister and brother, and the cornerstones of the musical accompaniment to the 12:10 mass.  Betsy plays guitar primarily, but she also plays clarinet and alto saxophone.  Isidro plays the clarinet primarily, as well as the piano, and the alto saxophone.  They played all four Christmas masses in my absence, and have contributed immensely to the music.  Their skill and their commitment both amaze and humble me.

 (I should say that, as of right now, the 8 am mass is done completely a capella.  It's not by choice, but we are doing pretty well, all things considered.)

In addition to Sunday mass, I have been helping with the school children's choir, which sings every Friday morning at 8:30 mass (I think God was getting me extra good with that whole 'I don't want to get up early bit.'  He always gets the last laugh.)  It is primarily made up of the third grade, because Mrs. Martins, the third grade teacher, is in charge, but we are growing the number of students in other grades little by little. :-)  The kids have a hard time focusing.  I have a hard time handling that, especially this past month with Mrs. Martins out of town, visiting her family and friends in India.  Luckily, my housemate, Alex, stepped right in to help me keep them under control, or as under control as one can get the children.  I was VERY excited to see Mrs. Martins this past Friday, her first day back.

My proudest moment this year, in my own estimation, however, was last Wednesday.  Here's the background.  Jose is a fourth grader at St. Anthony's, and in December, he asked me to teach him to play "Seek Ye First" on the piano.  Well, I had to oblige, and then somehow got sucked into also agreeing to give him piano lessons.  It evolved further as soon as Jose told his friend, Jakob, about his lessons, and Jakob wanted lessons, too.

Here's the caveat.  I don't know how to play the piano, not well enough to teach someone else to play.  Jakob and Jose didn't care.  So, in my continued efforts to do the most sustainable thing, I decided to teach them together and start with music theory first.  I know plenty about that, and they need to learn to read music anyway if they want to play the piano.

Next caveat: Jakob is a big ball of energy.  Almost uncontrollable.  And so I thought, how can I make this exciting for them?  In a stroke of brilliance, I decided to do music theory on the pavement in the parking lot.  And that's what we did.  We drew our staff and began learning notes.  FACE rhymes with SPACE, and Every Good Boy Deserves Fun.  And fun did they have.  Hopefully this week, some of it will have stuck.

More to come, but for now, please don't stop the music... ;-)

Peace and all good,