From "Creed," by Dom Helder Cámara

I want to believe that the whole world

Is my home, the field I sow,

And that all reap what all have sown.

I will not believe that I can combat oppression out there

If I tolerate injustice here.

I want to believe that what is right

Is the same here and there

And that I will not be free

While even one human being is excluded.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Purpose at a Picnic Table

I passed a man reading today.
A tattered man with a mole-freckled face and a sideways gut.
Usually, he carries life in a single bursting black trash bag, which sags behind him through his 50-block urban homeless hell called Skid Row.
Usually, there is no place to read. When you are homeless on the Row, a $6 million police force, which guzzles more funding than all the homeless services in the city combined, threatens to cite you with an unpayable trespassing ticket, or else incarcerate you, if you dare sit down on public sidewalks during daylight hours.
Not that you would read if you were allowed to sit down. Smells and screams and substance abuse lurk too closely to warrant an escape into pure imagination. A more real escape is necessary.
And so on three separate Fridays every year, the LA Catholic Worker, where I'm an earnest and clueless newbie, rents a bus and takes 50 Row residents on a picnic. We don't do it to convert souls. Merely to give our selves in other bodies a well-deserved rests. (Me in another body. That's all you are.)
We serve hamburgers, watermelon, and ice cream sandwiches (which were processed by child-labor maniac Nestle, to the abomination of some of our guests) on the banks of a green lake in Whittier, CA. Anyone who lives in the suburbs would be less-than-impressed with the location. It smells like algae and duck-poop and is surrounded by power plants.
But when sewer-stained concrete has been your playground, your bedroom, for a few months or years, any patch of grass exhales liberation.
And so my tattered friend reads.
I am struck subtly and resonantly that watching him read is the pinnacle of my life. A realization, not like a golden trumpet blast, but like a river rippling its transformation upon receiving a smooth stone.
This is true, lasting, weightless happiness. No true love's first bloom nor sweeping green cliff's majesty, however symphonic, could stir such music in me as the sound of broken chains. No matter whom they tether. Because the truth is, when we cross far enough through the fear on the lids of our mind's eye, we realize something my favorite author says better than I...
"In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world's rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned."
-Annie Dillard

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Two Days' Quotes at the LA Catholic Worker

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) community is where I'm spending at least the next six weeks of my life. I am attempting to capture the indescribable by writing a few quotes I've heard during only three days with this radical community.

"You're only smiling because no one in your family has died."
-a Skid Row immigrant from Pakistan whose wife was killed by US troops

"I ain't never been afraid of nothing. Except all white people. Haha."
-Jesse Love (that is his legitimate middle name), former Skid Row resident, now a community member who has been married 10+ years to a white CW

"We had a free medical clinic on Skid Row. But we had to close it due to overflow. Folks were coming from Mexico to use it."
-Catherine Morris, co-head of LACW, wife of Jeff Dietrich

"I came to the United States because my three-year-old daughter had cancer and there was no way to help her at home. But I didn't make enough money here, so she died. One time she saw me crying and said, 'Mamita, no llores por mi. (Don't cry for me)' I pretended I had been cutting onions. But she knew I was lying."
-Maria, a Mexican immigrant and guest at LACW

"Of course I'm scared to be homeless again. But I am excited to get away from bad influences and start fresh. Yeah, I'm getting a good vibe."
-Chad, whom I met on the Greyhound bus from Portland to LA, who is attempting to leave his alcoholic past and start over in SoCal

"Today's young people have lost beauty to technology. Music is angry and contrived. Women are no longer blessed vessels of life. They are 'sexy' or unimportant."
-Chris, a guest at the LACW, formerly homeless, who speaks four languages and plays classical piano

"I feel guilty when I'm not hospitable, even when it's stretched thin. My Southern mother's fault."
-Jeff Dietrich, co-head of LACW (a house of hospitality), husband of Catherine Morris, when I asked him how "he handles it all," like not spitting back at people when they spit at him

"Thank you for smiling and saying hi to me."
"You're welcome. So...did you like the cake served at the kitchen yesterday?"
"Yes, but I shouldn't have eaten it. That stuff is poisonous."
"Then why did you eat it?"
"Good question. You do crazy things when you're hungry."
-(Me with) James, a 20-something Skid Row resident who used to work in micro-brews in Oregon

"Never believe that what you're doing doesn't change anything."
-Skid Row resident, after waiting an hour for a bowl of oatmeal and an orange