Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Afternoon at the Federal Courthouse

Almost the instant my feet touched the Arizona soil, I heard about the state's issue of immigration. In Los Angeles, I knew undocumented immigrants, and the troubles I heard were often about finding work and a living space without being turned in to la migra. In Tucson, just a few hours from the Mexico-U.S. border, the struggles of the immigrants are ones of basic survival.
I have read about NAFTA/CAFTA, wars and poverty that have pushed Mexicans and Central Americans toward our borders, but not of the journey from their home to U.S. soil. From my friends involved in the struggle for immigrant rights, I have learned that many immigrants are guided by coyotes to whom the immigrants pay a hefty fine. The coyotes bring their paying customers across the border, but are not always to be trusted with having the well being of the payee foremost in their minds. For example, there are accounts of immigrants being led in circles so the coyote can establish his power and control. The environment also preys on those crossing. The cascading terrain of the Sonora Desert, which straddles the Mexico-Arizona border, flourishes with cacti, wildflowers and brush while it also provides a home to snakes, wild cats, deer, hawks, coyotes and more. In all, crossing the border is dangerous, tiresome and lengthy. The end of the journey comes with defeat for some, either in death or detainment by the Border Patrol.
Those who are detained at the Mexico-Arizona border are processed through Operation Streamline. This federal program has been active for a few years now in the border states. Federal funding, and the use of the United States federal court system, afford the prosecution of each alleged trespass from Mexico into the U.S. In Tucson, the proceedings take place Monday through Friday at 1:30pm. The trials are open to the public, thus young law students and human rights activists are often present to study or be a witness.
Felice kindly obliged me and brought me to the federal courthouse on March 8. We entered the courtroom on the second floor and I was suddenly overcome by the odor of Skid Row. It was a wall of smell that was all too familiar from my time serving and talking with men and women who had limited access to showers and a change of clothes. I looked to my left and there were rows of Hispanic men looking exhausted and unbathed.
Felice and I sat in the rows on the opposite end of the seating area, as directed by the bailiff. When we claimed our seats, we saw a short row of women with their backs against the partition which separated them from the courthouse pews. Some were wearing orange prison jumpsuits. There were yet another two rows of men sitting against the far wall in the far corner of the room. My heart broke thinking of the rain that had come down on the desert in the days before, the night's frigid temperatures and the tumult they all inevitably faced.
All of the detained were wearing earpieces so to hear the translator who sat to the right of the judge. Their arms were restrained by handcuffs looped around a chain belt, and their ankles were cuffed with a small chain allowing a minimal stride. The soft clinks of each prisoner's metal multiplied in the courtroom and built to a small thunder.
It was difficult to tell how many lawyers were present as they were pacing around the courtroom, talking with each other, shuffling papers. The judge entered and climbed some steps to his raised booth. Meanwhile, some defense attorneys rallied to their clients, encouraging them to stand and bringing them to the five standing microphones neatly lined in front of the judge. The first defense attorney to address the judge explained that his client did not understand Spanish and needed a translator for a native Mexican dialect. The judge asked why that was important. The defense attorney continued to say this was his client's second trespass and wanted to make it explicitly clear to him the consequences he faces would he trespassed a third time. The judge succumbed and marked a new date for his hearing.
After an additional pair of similar cases, the judge addressed the whole of the legal staff. Suddenly, approximately 15 lawyers stood, and in unison responded to the judge's routine and blanket questioning in preparation for trial. Then the judge shifted his weight so to see all of the defendants. Gazing downward from his platform seating, he addressed them en masse and detailed the consequences of pleading guilty and not guilty, the rights given to all defendants in the U.S. federal court, and made time for potential questions. Not one of the chained men and women spoke.
Five by five, the defendants were called by name to stand at the microphones in front of the judge. Their lawyers lined behind them. In some cases, the lawyers smiled at their client or patted the defendant on the back. The judge asked each of the detained immigrants the same questions: if the he/she is a citizen of Mexico, if he/she crossed the border at a place or time not permitted by the United States, and how the defendant pleads. Interspersed were available moments for the defendant to pose questions, or comment before sentencing. After their brief time standing before the judge, the men and women were sentenced and shuffled out to the holding cells.
The path out of the courtroom brought the immigrants walking toward the "audience" of the court. I saw each and every prosecuted face after sentencing. Some wore looks of relief, others sadness and still others held a blank stare. Once, a lawyer with his hand on the shoulder of a client tried to interject some quick words before he departed. The client furrowed his brow and simply said, "No mas, no mas," and shrugged off his legal representation. In my pitiful attempt to instill some dignity into their court experience, I tried to make eye contact with those who looked in my direction; and when I was successful, I offered a faint smile. But I had to accept my role as witness, and nothing more, as still five more immigrants approached the judge.
Each person who was sentenced that day had made a plea bargain, and many were sentenced to be imprisoned for 30 to 180 days depending on the charge. I found it terribly ironic that these men and women were being punished for crossing illegally into the United States, yet the federal government felt it just to keep them incarcerated in an already overcrowded prison system on the United States' dime for up to six months. I am more concerned about the waste of federal funds on imprisoning immigrants which demonstrates that, as a country, we are unwilling to spend money on an "illegal alien" unless it is to punish them.
About halfway through the series of quintets, the judge began to dole out a ruling of time served. As much as I could gather from the legal rhetoric of which I am not adept, the second half of defendants had crossed the border for the first time (or at least were in court for the first time), and their charges were lighter than those previous who had multiple trespasses on their records. Upon this ruling, the defendants were required to serve no more jail time. The first-timers would soon be deported to a Mexican border town, which is most likely nowhere near their home. Still, I silently cheered for this small victory. Finally, I thought, a silver lining in this procedure. Then the judge warned they could be held by the Border Patrol before deportation. He mentioned no specific amount of time--hours? days? weeks? And when would those awarded time served be handed over to the Border Patrol? My muted sense of glee was extinguished.
By the time the final five approached the microphones, the sounds of the rattling chains had dramatically diminished, and I could more clearly hear the judge's mumbled tones. These five had faced previous criminal charges in the United States unrelated to their immigration status. The prosecutor spoke up for the first time--besides the routine, "Yes, your honor," and "No, your honor"-- and advocated for an added 5 to 20 days to their sentences. One man had been convicted of assault in 2009. He had been charged and served for that crime; yet because he had re-entered the country and this was on his record, he was sentenced to an additional 10 days in prison. The woman standing next to him was sentenced to an additional 20 days for human trafficking. Her lawyer noted she was a single mother of a 2 year old, she hadn't actively participated in the illegal situation. She had not understood that the vehicle she was riding in held victims of human trafficking. As the judge sentenced her, he warned that if she decided to re-enter the United States illegally, she could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison for the felony. "Twenty days is a pretty good deal for you," he reassured.
The very last person to be processed that day received an added 10 days to his sentence for a misdemeanor offense in 2003. He was 18 at the time of the offense. I dropped my head into my hands, and silently recognized our shared age. And as he exited the courtroom, Operation Streamline completed for the day. I had watched 75 immigrants--74 Mexicans and one Honduran; 9 women and 64 men--be prosecuted under United States law; and after two hours of repetitive sentencing and legal jargon, I was free to go.
Many of us do not live a day's drive from the Mexico-U.S. border, and therefore our attention to immigrant rights is not as urgent as in Tucson, for example. And for some, this distance from the border affords us the comfort of assuming characteristics of immigrants such as parasitic, pathetic desperation, lazy, and unwilling to learn English. However, none of these perceptions take into account the humanity, suffering and basic needs of those who cross to the United States, nor do the stereotypes recognize the comparative wealth and privilege we have north of the border at the cost of those south of the border. These narrow views allow us to be complicit in the condemnation of our brothers and sisters and ignorant to their strife; they encourage the chasm already enforced by the Border Patrol and Homeland Security; and they provide little room in our hearts for the graces of hospitality and love.
Should we take the moment to open our minds and reshape our hearts to be aware of life outside our own experiences, we might better understand our global family. Change is within us.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Winter Summary

Travels since November have taken me through Washington, Oregon, California and landed me in Arizona (my first time in the southwest). I rode through northern California with the company of three young community-searching, simple-living explorers. All of us, strangers at the beginning of the trip (brought together by a Craigslist rideshare ad), hugged goodbye after the 8 hour drive.

In California, I was confronted with questions about my life plans and kindly offered a house in exchange for serving the poor (this is a very simplified version of the story). I declined for the time being.

A few mornings, at the crack of dawn, I accompanied a volunteer to the San Francisco food terminal to retrieve unwanted and/or unsell-able produce. We filled our large truck with six full pallets of food to be distributed to the hungry. Despite my not being a morning person, I was able to stay alert enough to speak Spanish with the laborers and avoid being run over by a forklift or two.

For a week, I spent time along the central Californian coast, breathing in fresh air and coming close to tears as the sun set. I even went to a barn dance.

The holidays beckoned me to Los Angeles where I was reunited with my LACW family and boyfriend, Sam. Originally planning to spend only two weeks in southern California, I spent two months. I figured this to be an improvement from the last time I expected to stay a limited time and ended up staying for two years.

A venture to another community quickly sent me back to Los Angeles. I am learning many lessons on hospitality, thankfulness and humility, and finding that the most effective (and the most undesirable) way to know how we should treat others is to experience mistreatment by others.

And now I am in Tucson, Arizona, with Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa. They have graciously hosted me since the end of January. The pair publish the radical newspaper The Nuclear Resister, which chronicles acts of dissent by those who advocate an end to war and nuclear weapons. Also printed in the paper are the address of peace prisoners who are serving time in jail for their nonviolent civil disobedience. Subscribers are encouraged to write letters of support and hope to these men and women. Jack and Felice have been doing this work for 30 years.

In their three decades of witness and independent reporting, they have acquired stacks of archives. I am here as their intern, helping to dig through and organize their boxes of articles, photos and letters until April.

Tucson is a friendly city with erratic weather thus far--80 degrees one day, clouds and rain the next. The city is scattered with cacti and haloed by mountains. It is also bike-friendly, by which I mean it has bike routes and is substantially flat. Tucson hosts the University of Arizona, which means there are a lot of coffee shops and obscure stores. I am happy here.

For now, this is my life and I am grateful for all of (mis)adventures I have come across since June.

Lent is upon us now, and I am turning my thoughts inward, slowly sculpting my heart to be more open to God's eternal Love and Grace. If you also celebrate Lent, I hope yours to be fruitful.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A $1 House, Chickens, Ducks, and Morning Glory

Admittedly, I know nothing about the Earth. Big "E" Earth and little "e" earth. I don't understand how we stay afloat in the universe instead of sinking into nothingness at an uncontrollable rate. And I certainly don't understand how we can bury a little nub of a plant in dirt and within days see proof of life emerging from the ground. While I will probably never understand the complexities of scientific law that propell us around the Sun, I can start to understand where I get my food. And that's where Kathleen Bellefeuille-Rice comes in.

I met Kathleen through Clare, her daughter and LACW community member. Kathleen is jolly, a hard worker by nature, and eternally passionate about gardening. She had extended a few invitations my way to visit her in Olympia, Washington, to learn about gardening and get my hands dirty. I decided to take her up on that offer.

Early October, I arrived in Olympia via public transportation. I paid a total of $6 to get from Portland to just blocks away from Kathleen's home. Granted, it took me 10 hours to complete the trip, I was stranded in Longview, Washington for 3 1/2 hours, and did hear the story about a mother being hit by a train (see previous entry). But the people are the glory of the adventure, aren't they?

Kathleen and her husband David live in a house that was physically moved from one lot to the current location. The house itself cost $1. It is now sitting on a nice plot on a hill in Olympia, surrounded by a garden that feeds Kathleen and David throughout the year. While they didn't live in a Catholic Worker house, they raised their two children in a similar lifestyle, valuing the traditions of simplicity and nonviolence. They do not own a car, relying on the public buses and their bicycles for local transportation. The food that doesn't come from their garden is purchased at the local food co-op, farmers market or straight from the farmer. David works as a water meter reader in order to provide an income and but not pay federal taxes (aka: war taxes). And Kathleen spends her days tending to the garden.

Although, "tending" might not be the accurate word, and the garden is not the sole venue of work. Kathleen labors year round to supply food her home. This includes the basics of planting, watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. There are also three chickens and three ducks that need food, water, and eggs to be collected. That is enough to keep anyone busy, but as I mentioned, Kathleen is a hard worker by nature. In the autumn, she spends much of her time around the stove, dehydrator and porch. The stove is the headquarters for canning. When I was with her, we made salsa out of tomatoes, parsley, onion, garlic and hot peppers. Kathleen also experiments with tinctures, homeopathic remedies and shampoos. (Science is a series of experiments, she says.) The dehydrator provides crisp slices of pears, handfuls of sweet kiwis and crunchy raspberries, flakes of nettle, leeks and onions for soups and rose petals for teas. The porch is the temporary resting area for the freshly harvested gourds, squashes, tomatoes, potatoes and other fall produce that aren't ready for in-house storage. Many of the vegetables later find homes in boxes under beds, under the house or in the attic.

This is just a quick overview of one season's worth of work. Did I mention that she often does it all by herself?

I don't want to project onto Kathleen, but I think she was happy to have another day laborer. David claimed since she knew I was coming, Kathleen started lining up more projects for me to do. We re-roofed her small greenhouse, cleared a few beds of produce, yanking morning glory out from the ground, and planted cover crops. Before some days began, I would join Kathleen for pre-dawn yoga. I was getting exhausted at 6:30 and going to bed at 8:30. I hadn't worked so hard in... well, a while. After working in her garden, a day at the Hippie Kitchen sounded like vacation. But it was wonderful work.

I had an established morning routine I looked forward to. First, I walked out to the Asian pear trees to coax the fruits off of the branches. The chickens followed and jabbed their beaks at the fallen orbs. Then to the raspberry bushes that were still producing juicy morsels. Spiders had found the thorny stalks and each day, I saw that one more had knitted herself a home between the aisles of bushes. My third stop were the kiwi trees. I reunited with the chickens who had declared a special roosting place near the fruits, and would chaperone my harvesting. They pecked at the ground for a second-hand feasts and clucked to each other incessantly. I would end the morning harvest when either the colander was full of the small, fleshy fruit, or when the chickens began to mistake my feet for grub.

Ripping fruit from its stem, however, was the extent of my garden knowledge. I spent a lot of time with a confused and/or apologetic look on my face, and Kathleen spent a lot of time telling me, "It's okay! You're new at this!" One evening, in preparation for dinner, I harvested an entire celery root instead of a few stalks as was asked of me. I mistook another plant for a rutabaga. Kathleen chimed in once more with reassurance as I hung my head in embarrassment.

When I wasn't making novice mistakes, Kathleen and I engaged in wonderful conversation. As we hauled clippings and weeds to the compost, harvested squash and loaded the dehydrator, we laughed and told each other stories. Kathleen openly shared anecdotes of her faith and snippets of motherly advice. We make breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and chatted about the place we found ourselves in our personal journeys. Our workspaces were warm with care and intention.

The entire two weeks were a blessing for me. Kathleen and David welcomed me into their home and into an intimate understanding of simplicity, peace and family. While I'm not sure I would be able to cultivate my own livelihood from the ground up just yet, I think I'd be willing to try in the future. So, thank you, Kathleen, for giving me an insight into the love that goes into the earth, and resurfaces to nourish us.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Stranger's Prophecy

(note: info on my two weeks in Olympia to come later; thought this story would be fun to share)

One of the great lessons I learned at the LACW was how to interact with crazy people. Even more than crazy people, I learned to interact with men and women whose social skills drive others away instead of inviting them into conversation. And while I still can be cold toward strangers who are looking for a dialogue (or an ear for a monologue), I try my best to be open to the interactions I could have with the random person I meet.

I found myself in such a situation last night while waiting for a Portland city bus to whisk me away to the Keippela's home one last time. As is the norm, I silently waited with a handful of other strangers, staring up the street in anticipation of the desired bus. A woman came up to the bus stop, grinning at me as if I was an old friend. With her thin lips and curly short hair, she reminded me of an aged Meg Ryan (pre-botox). She was wrapped tightly in a black overcoat that couldn't hide her slight frame and her knitted scarf ruffled up to her gaunt face. Breaking the code of bus stop silence, she asked, "What bus are you waiting for?"

"The 35. And you?" I stretched out from my introverted state.

"The same. I just don't know when our bus is coming." She leaned against the railing next to me, making herself comfortable for the wait. "You know, at work--I work at this building where they have cubicles..."

I've got a rambler here, I restrained a roll of the eyes. I ran into a similar type in Longview, Washington, when bussing my way up to Olympia. He ended the conversation by telling me how his mom was killed when hit by a train. However, according to him, it was "not that bad. She wasn't nice. She wasn't a good mom. My dad didn't even like her." I wondered if this interaction would be just as fascinating.

Noticing that I was sniffling and coping with a cold, she spoke about a soup she learned about. "It's called 'sick people soup.'" She listed off the vegetables needed. "It calls for miso, too. You know, bean curd. But I didn't have any, so I put refried beans on it. 'Cuz that stuff is spicy! It elevates the, uh... oh, what do you call 'em? Those things." She waved her hands around her chest and stomach, hoping I could finish her sentence. "Well, the spicy stuff is good for you."

Portland State students passed by. Crowds entered and exited the restaurant on the corner. People gathered to wait for the bus, and I continued suppressing sneezes. All the while, my new acquaintance continued to talk, routinely adjusting her glasses with her leather-gloved hands.

She directed the conversation toward me. "Do you work or go to school?"

"Neither. I travel." This was the first time I'd ever defined travel as what I "do," and my heart jumped with a bit of joy.

"Where are you traveling?" Her eye narrowed in interest. She leaned toward me, her weight still resting on the railing separating our personal bubbles.

I explained my recent travels and upcoming plans. Usually, with strangers, I am reluctant to use the term "Catholic Worker." Mainly because I don't like answering the same questions over and over again, especially being asked if I'm a nun. Yet despite my limited energy due to my cold, I thought I'd return the favor of monologue and briefly explain the Catholic Worker movement to my bus stop buddy. Serving the poor, community, hospitality, nonviolence, the whole shebang.

She was immediately amazed. "That's wonderful. That's God's work." Her face lit up with a smile, and she fixed her glasses more rapidly. My few sentences were enough to spark her lengthy stories about giving her jackets away and revelations of Jesus calling her to Him. "Revelations are just dreams that God wants us to have," she clarified. Our bus arrived mid-story, and she followed me on, weaving her tale as we took our seats on opposite sides of the aisle.

The rumbling of the bus and constant influx of passengers made conversation impossible for us and I was preoccupied with making sure my luggage wouldn't hinder the path of fellow riders. When I was finally situated, the woman wrapped in black had found a new seat.

That was nice, I happily reflected. People just want to connect with other people.

Some minutes later, I saw movement to my right, and the Meg Ryan lookalike was seated next to me. She wore an expression of giddy anxiety. I smiled to her.

"The Lord wanted me to tell you something," she spoke confidently. "Actually, He didn't have to tell me, I just knew to tell you: You are doing His work. By helping the poor, you are doing His work. And it looks like you're not feeling well right now, but you'll get better. I'll pray for you."

There was a point when I could have entertained her fantasies about God and grinned and nodded and told myself, "She's crazy." Instead, I felt her loving concern and faith. I smiled as she professed. I was smiling so deeply my cheeks were going to cramp.

"The Lord is going to test you," she warned, "because He tests everyone. But keep doing what you are doing, and you will be fine. Don't stray from the Lord."

She looked down to her lap. "I wanted to give you these." In her small hand were a plastic wrapped collection of prayer cards with Bible verses printed on them. "They help me a lot when I'm having a hard time. This is my last one, and I want you to have it."

She reached to me, I reached to her, and in between us was prayer. "Thank you," I whispered.

She released the cards into my hand. "You know, I think I was supposed to meet you."

For the remainder of the bus ride, she spoke more about pastors she knew, asked if I worked to "save" the poor (my response: "St. Francis said, 'Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.'"), and told stories of friends who had been healed. We introduced ourselves by name. Sherry smiled and said goodbye as I exited the bus.

Oftentimes, "normal" people grow wary of those who hear God. We deem them crazy, and their message is lost. Sherry has probably been ignored, shut down, or unprofessionally diagnosed by people she has met. Do I believe that she actually heard God's voice? No, I don't. But her kindness, outgoingness and obvious faith are gifts that were offered within our hour of knowing each other. And no matter her place in life, who am I to deny such gifts? And who am I to say they are not of God?

So I think Sherry was right. I think we were supposed to meet.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Keippelas

When I moved from Los Angeles to Oregon, I knew my ideal situation would be living with the Keippela family. Four years ago, I met Kacy as my supervisor at the University of Portland Office of Volunteer Services. The two of us hit it off and maintained what we jokingly refer to as a "secret relationship" throughout the year. I lived just two blocks away from Kacy and her husband Andrew, and spent a good amount of my junior year at their house. They took me out to dinner for my 21st birthday, tried to set me up with one of their friends, let me store all of my stuff in their garage one summer, and even let me crash at their house for a few nights when I was transitioning from one living situation to another.

Throughout my junior and senior year of college, Kacy and Andrew grew to be two of my closest friends. I learned about young marriage from them, and witnessed their dedication to each other during the beginning months of their lifelong commitment. Despite my differing political beliefs and world view, we respected each other and felt comfortable speaking openly; and when I told them about the Catholic Worker, they were very supportive. Kacy and Andrew saw me through travels to Nicaragua and Los Angeles, graduation, immense transition and inevitable heartache and my move to LA. I was present for Kacy and Andrew's adoption of their dog and first love, Oscar, the purchasing of their first home, and most recently the gift of their first child, Maxwell Alexander.

I had the gall to ask Kacy and Andrew if I could stay with them for a few months after leaving Los Angeles. Their response was immediate and welcoming, even after hosting another house guest for the three months prior. Once I arrived with my uncertain future ahead of me, they gave me a home. When I sank into the ruts of depression and loneliness, they offered me counsel. And without hesitation, they welcomed me into their family and asked me to be godmother to their son.

The expectations I had of these past months, as I have often written, were nothing of what actually happened. I thought Los Angeles was going to be the only place to which I would have an emotional connection, but the Tacoma CW dug into my heart. And now, I'm not leaving some place I've visited, or people with whom I can easily break ties. I'm leaving family... again. I'm packing my bags to venture out into a life yet to be determined, and I am saying goodbye to the Keippelas.

They are not affluent. They do not have a large home or income. They are not Catholic Workers. Kacy and Andrew are a middle class white couple who saw my need and offered food, shelter and love. They opened their house for hospitality. Once for a near-stranger, and again for me.

I share this story to lift up the Keippelas for their generosity and spirit of kindness. And I also share this story as an example of the great work an "average" person can do. Andrew told me a few weeks after I arrived, "We have that extra room and you need a place to stay." The logic was simple.

Without a doubt, Kacy and Andrew sustained me through what were months of confusion. They could have easily asked me to leave, or demanded a deadline for my stay. And while they may not define their generosity in this way, I received the grace of the Works of Mercy, and felt love that God asks of us all.

Thank you, Kacy, Andrew and Max, for everything you have given me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

More Confrontation With Money

These past few weeks have been a blur for me. I left the Tacoma Catholic Worker with much more sadness than I could have anticipated. The community members and Jesuit Volunteers pulled me back to purpose. I spent hours in fascinating conversation about life, love, family, service, music, and community. I ended my days covered in dirt from the garden, and plans each night were anyone's guess. My three weeks in Tacoma excited me for my future route through the west coast.

My excitement did break, however, as my grandma was recently hospitalized. Days after, on September 24, she passed away in hospice care in Pasco, Washington. Grieving a family member is new to me as an adult, and the process weighs on me. Yet the blessing amidst the sadness is family. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren: we are bonded together in our love for Grandma. And while that love was comforting, I couldn't shake the expectation for Grandma to walk through the door of her Lutheran church and join us in singing her favorite hymns.

I won't pretend to have the slightest idea of the workings of life and death (I think my entries are proof of such ignorance); but in effort to further my understanding of life, I am confronting the issue of need. As a first step, this morning I worked on my budget for the year. When I decided to embark on this year of travel, simplicity was not a goal but a requirement. I hadn't hoped for extreme poverty, yet I find myself with $327.13 to my name (not including some leftover money on a Target gift card and Fred Meyer coupon).

Side note:

I have been given money by some family and friends. Some people have bought me dinner, drinks, paid for gas. And for all of these acts of generosity, I am grateful. But I do not want to skim through this year on the dollars of my friends and family. Will I turn down your gift? No. Might I send it to a Catholic Worker or local organization? Yes, and I would encourage you to do the same.

I already knew I wouldn't be able to pay for flights across the country, which is why I quickly abandoned any hopes to go to the School of the Americas Watch, and the east coast Catholic Workers. When I was telling some high school friends about my financial situation, one exclaimed, "That's less than one dollar a day!" For some reason, I had never thought of it like that, probably because I didn't ever take a good look at how far I could get with my money.

I was resistant to make a budget because of my idea of simplicity: money is not the priority. And I still agree with that statement! Money is not the priority. When it is, we get wars and corporations. But I can't argue that money doesn't exist. I have money, and I am going about a system that requires money as an exchange for goods and services. It would be hard to convince Amtrak or Greyhound that a jar or two of homemade blackberry jam would suffice for a ticket to San Francisco (even though I think that's a fair deal). Plus, you can't make that trade online, which is a hindrance.

In more detail, my outline of finances shows that I have approximately $36.34 per month through June. (My plans after June? We'll talk about that in June.) Within mainstream society, I can't really make that pittance support anything. People who are receiving multiples of that are still fighting to keep above ground. Lucky for me there is more than mainstream society. There are Rideshares through Craigslist, the Lower Columbia Community Action Council, dumpster diving, Goodwill, and most importantly hospitality.

My biggest hope right now is not that I'll make it until June. I know I will. That's not in question. My biggest hope is that I can make it to June without expecting rescue. Less than $40 a month will be difficult, especially for the girl who used to regularly overcharge her debit card at the mall. I'm not looking forward to the inevitable "I don't have enough money" breakdown. As long as I stay true to my goals for the year (see below), I have to remember I will be fine.

Goals and Purposes
* to explore the Catholic Worker lifestyle in new environments
* to better understand the needs of, use for, and actions of community
* to challenge myself as an individual to take risks, face discomfort, handle uncertainty and eventually find inner strength and peace
* to learn more about simplicity, nonviolence, hospitality and service and how to incorporate these values into my life
* to interact with people I might never have spoken to
* to find beauty and grace, even in the midst of suffering
* to bring the Catholic Worker to my family and friends as something tangible, relatable, real, possible
* to learn to love more deeply and more often
* to find Jesus and my faith

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Passion: It Hurts So Good

I made it to the Tacoma Catholic Worker. And for the past three weeks have tried to keep busy amidst the community's attempt to restructure and redefine itself. I've found good, thankless work in the organic garden just outside the main house (there are 8 houses used by the Tacoma CW). I wake up at a decent, yet not lazy, hour to start weeding which is most of my labor. I spent a substatial amount of time harvesting the Asian pears, blackberries, tomatoes, miscellaneous squash, non-Asian pears, lettuce, beets and an occasional ear of corn. After I drained the garden of its yield, I helped to can the produce. And yesterday, I finally finished the blackberry jam project. But if I'm not in the garden, I sit back and witness community dynamics, have conversations with fascinating people (the Jesuit Volunteers are next door), search for a piano to play, and look forward to a year of discovering the lifestyle that fits me best.

A friend of mine is currently in a similar time of discovery, although half way across the country and without an organic garden. We met in Los Angeles, and he has since been a source of strength for me, possessing the unique ability to simultaneously calm and enlighten me. Our spiritual journeys have also been quite parallel, although his dedication to his own path seems much more solid than my temporal excitement.

Recently we talked of causes we believe are just. Essentially, we were asking: What do we do with our passion? Do we feed our passion to boredom to create a lively experience, or do we find what we need and cultivate our calling? We didn't have any decent answers.

Ironically enough, it seems the challenge is passion--reining it in, directing it. "Ambivelent" is not a word often used to describe a Catholic Worker. Yet sometimes our conviction as Catholic Workers is so strong that it drives others away, alienates us from dialogue, paints an untrue picture of our work, or distracts us from the journey toward Christ. In other situations, we feel the burning in our bellies and refuse to act for fear of disapproval. One of the many struggles I have lies within the risk of meeting the needs of my self and spirit without being dictated by the societal understanding of what is acceptable. My friend's response to that revelation: "Welcome to following the Gospel."

In Greek (pema) and Latin (pati), passion literally means suffering. Hence, we call the series of events leading to Jesus' death The Passion of Christ. This is slightly reassuring, only in the sense that my struggles with my chosen path now seem to have Greek and Latin meaning. It makes me wonder if the Buddhists really have got it down: Life means suffering (one of the Four Noble Truths). And the Noble Eightfold Path leads one out of suffering and to Nirvana. It transforms suffering into a higher level of existence, ultimate wisdom. Similarly, Jesus' death brought forgiveness and eternal life, and our following Jesus can lead us from the suffering of mortal life to immortal grace and love.

As I continue to learn, the journey seems to be within the challenge, passion and confusion. My dear friend and I are stuck on a path with blind turns, but we maintain faith that each step and the destination are grace. In the meantime, what do we do with our love, hopes and desires blooming from our passion?

"Maybe we just have to demand more from the world and, in turn, ourselves," I reached for wisdom.

"Maybe not more," he replied, "but just something different."