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,