Monday, December 10, 2007

You Want the Truth?

In just over a week, I will be on my way to Eugene, Oregon, to spend Christmas with my family! I am so excited to see everyone, but am trying to prepare myself. I know what lies waiting for me in Eugene... the interrogation.

Family, friends, church community... they will all want to know what I have been doing for the past 5 months, and there's really no short and/or safe answer to that question. I walk a fine line in giving some detail but not enough to beg more questions (i.e.: "What do you mean by..." or "Is that really safe?"). It's even harder to make the work I do sound appealing to all persons, all ideologies, all ages; therefore, I will be faced with reactions ranging from kind smiles to rolling eyes. And my response to all must be, truthfully, how much I love the work I'm doing. I already have my pre-recorded response ready for the shoot-the-breeze conversations I'll have where people don't really want to know all the details.

While this will be slightly exhausting, I am excited to see my family, and I am looking forward to sharing my experiences and stories with people. I have worked so hard these past 5 months and the work and lifestyle has pushed my limits physically and emotionally.

I recently realized that I have been welcomed in fully to the community. I started off my living in the back house, a separate 5-bedroom house on the LACW property, and doing the basic work with no extra responsibility or accountability. About a month into my stay, I moved into the main house to be closer the bulk of the community, and then I started taking on more responsibilities: house evenings, Wednesday liturgy musician, line watching, spending the night at the kitchen, driving (that's a new one!). Now, I am going to the Wednesday afternoon meetings for the core community. It's the LACW way of saying, "yea, you're one of us now."

This all did not come without serious doses of doubt, lack of self confidence, frustration, and confusion. The community does not have the time to walk me through, holding my hand in everything that I do. There is no regular positive reinforcement, and little praise. Quite honestly, it was very hard for the first two months. I worked as hard as I could to show that I was committed to the cause of the Catholic Worker. I kept my ears open desperately for words of encouragement, but they rarely came, and when they did, they were dismissible. Was everyone so busy that they did not have time to notice me?

But as I was handed more responsibility, I slowly began to understand that this was the community's way of recognizing that I am trustworthy, hard-working, and valuable to the LACW. There have been few times when people from the house have told me straight out that they are happy I am here, and I can count the instances on one hand; yet each time had a special meaning for me, and I cherish those moments.

I am not saying that the LACW is right or wrong in their ways of introducing new community members. For me, it has been a good learning experience. Painful and difficult, yes; in the meantime, the hands-off method has forced me to become more self-reliant and have more confidence in my abilities.

The past five months have not been what I had expected. The work we do is in no way glamorous. The community life is not smiley and happy all day long. We can be a sweaty, drowsy, grumpy, hungry, impatient and stressed bunch of people--but isn't that the point of this whole thing? To do this all together, to help each other through each day, and to do good work. It's not supposed to be glamorous, smiley and happy... but that's easier to accept when you say it. It's a little bit more difficult when you live it.

Hopefully I will survive the next 10 days so I can go home, share my stories, relax, and return to the work I have committed myself to... Phew. What a life.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Caring for Our Brothers and Sisters

"Sam," a friend from the Hippie Kitchen, and I met during the summer over a uniquely deep conversation about the state of our world. I had sat down in the garden to enjoy my beans and salad, and we just started chatting. Ever since, when Sam eats at the Kitchen, we share lunch together and he updates me on his life. During the past few months, Sam has been struggling with getting housing, food stamps, and government aid. He was been told numerous times that he is just one interview away from his own place, but he was turned down countless times, and his hope was wearing thin.

But Sam is not one to sit by and be screwed by the system. He is an educated man, and is blessed enough to have friends and resources to help him with necessary paperwork--not all people on Skid Row have connections, awareness or capabilities to handle such processes and procedures. And a few weeks ago, Sam developed a plan. "I'm going to be a janitor, Allison," he said with pride and glee. "I'm going to be a janitor so I can start working in the schools, and then I'm going to be a substitute teacher."

Last week, Sam and I shared lunch as we often do, and I asked in my routine manner how he was doing. Sam leaned in, opened his hands in a burst next to his smiling face and said, "It's all happening." He signed up for his janitor test and background check, and registered to take the CBEST test, a prerequisite for all teachers. To top it all off, he finally received his approval for SSI.

And just this Thursday, I saw Sam at the Kitchen. He could hardly hold back all the good news he had for me. I was line watching at the time, and he came back three times to find me and ask when I was going to stop and eat. "I need to talk to you, Allison!" I found a substitute, quickly grabbed a plate of food, and sat down with Sam. I barely had time to start the "how's it going?" routine before he pulled out a manila folder full of papers. Jittered with excitement, Sam began to unload all of the wonderful things that had happened in the past week. He had just received his approval to begin his janitorial classes so he could qualify for a job that would pay $14 per hour and provide him with full benefits. On top of that, he got notice that he is eligible for Section 8 which would pay for a bulk of his rent and utilities. "You thought that was all?" he exclaimed as he pulled more papers out of his manila folder. "Look at this!" He handed me his card for food stamps, his receipt from his latest check from his low-paying part-time job, and his coupon stating SRO Housing eligibility.

I was blown away. Sam had worked and waited for all of this, and everything he needed came to him in one week. As he put the papers away, muttering something about dying if he lost them, he had a mixed expression of exhaustion and fulfillment. He turned back to me and laughed, "Well I'm glad this all happened because if it didn't, I was going to rob a bank." I gave him a look begging for an explanation, hoping that he was kidding. "Yea, I seriously considered it," he continued. "I was going to just pass a note. Not use a gun or anything. They stick you in jail for so much longer if you have a weapon on you. No, I'd just pass a note and say that 'that person by the door' would shoot everyone if they didn't give me all their large bills. You know that some tellers have more large bills than others? Anyway, it wouldn't be violent, no one would have to know, and the guy by the door would just be some regular that I wouldn't even have to talk to. No one would have to talk to him. It kinda works out, huh?"

I could feel my body growing cold with fear in response to his plan. Rob a bank? Is this the true desperation these men and women have reached? They are so completely out of options and out of hope that they would risk their freedom to get some money? And then it occurred to me that Sam is one of the very fortunate people on the Row. He has a place to stay, even if he is not fond of his step-mother. He has a part-time job rather than no job at all. He is not addicted to drugs or alcohol. He is educated. Still, despite all of this, he struggled to qualify for employment, housing, Section 8, food stamps, and SSI. What does this mean for the people who are sleeping on the street, jobless and poorly educated? If Sam fought his way to these services that should be so readily available, how hard would others have to fight?

Sam waited for months to hear back about housing, food stamps, SSI and Section 8; but he could manage to wait. So many people cannot manage to wait like Sam, and desperation grows strongly and quickly. Our society so quickly demonizes criminals, addicts and the homeless because we believe they are capable of achieving the "American Dream" if they only work at it; their failure is their own fault, their poverty is proof of laziness, and their addiction is proof of weakness. But if these people are not surrounded by a loving community or blessed with an education, it is in fact the weakness of our culture that is shown--not that of the individual.

The upcoming weeks will be very joyful for Sam, and I hope that I am able to share in the celebration with him. But the upcoming weeks will be very sorrowful for others as they continue to be homeless during the coldest part of the year, which ironically coincides with "The Season of Giving," "The Holiday Season," "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," etc.

I encourage all of you, if you are not already involved with service, to volunteer with your local hospitality kitchen, county food storage and distributor, St. Vincent dePaul, and other organizations. And I challenge you to continue the "Season of Giving" so it no longer becomes just a season, but a mindset. Men and women around the country need us, and it is our responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Safe, Un-arrested, and Full

(Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch movement, and me at Saturday rally outside Fort Benning.)

(One of the three fences protecting Fort Benning... Saturday, the day before the procession, as the military police watch over the crowds.)

(Margaret as part of the drumming circle on Saturday after the rally.)

(Ignatian Teach-In... thousands of students and young adults gathered to learn from and teach each other about the SOA, the Iraq War, poverty and justice.)

(Beginning of the procession on Sunday... these are participants of a die-in that took place in front of the gates.)

Margaret and I returned on Monday from our cross-country trip to close the School of Americas. It's difficult to describe every demonstration, emotion and experience of the weekend, so please allow the photos to explain some for me.

We stayed at the Open Door Community in Atlanta for three nights during our visit. This incredible community is a "Protestant arm" of the Catholic Worker movement. The ODC serves breakfasts and lunches out of their own home, inviting in men and women from the streets to eat in a warm and comfortable kitchen. They also provide showers weekly to their patrons, as well as clothing and medicine that they might need. The Atlanta community welcomed us so warmly and fed us so well that it was difficult to return to Los Angeles.

During the weekend at SOA, Margaret and I trained for the role of "Peacemakers." Essentially, the Peacemakers are the SOA Watch version of a line watcher: we were responsible for squelching conflict, and maintaining the pacifist atmosphere of the weekend. There were about 36 of us to cover a crowd of 25,000; yet there were no serious conflicts that needed to be addressed. How incredible that thousands of people can gather together and keep to a vow of non-violence!

All weekend, music was everywhere--in the puppetista demonstrations, on stage in front of the Fort, at the Catholic mass, while walking down the street, and at concerts at the local hotels. The movement would not have been the same without the beautiful songs accompanying it.

Most of all, I was struck by the reality of this school. I was able to watch people cross by the fence and lay crosses, flowers, banners and other memorabilia; and during that time a woman passed through, barely able to walk because she was so grief-stricken. She was not mourning over strangers, as many of us were. She was mourning over five of her close relatives that had been "disappeared" in Argentina by a military controlled by SOA-taught soldiers. Her life, her family, her reality were destroyed in part (if not completely) because of the teachings of the SOA.

I talked with a friend of mine before I left for the SOA, and he asked if it was even an issue anymore. This school and the ideology it represents is why there are millions of homeless, less money towards education, deteriorating quality of life in some Latin American countries, conflict around the world, and the rampant spread of the use of torture. This school is not only still an "issue," but it is a cancer of which we must rid ourselves before it takes control and kills our neighbors and ourselves.

Yesterday, we celebrated Thanksgiving as a community, inviting over 50 people to our house to share an afternoon meal. The turn-out was great, and there was so much food! (13 turkeys, 10 gallons of stuffing, gallons of mashed potatoes, many cakes, more pies, and all the fixings!) It was a beautiful day, and while I couldn't be with my family on Thanksgiving, I felt that I had found a very close second.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Back to Benning

Tomorrow Margaret and I head off to the SOA Watch via Atlanta, where we'll be staying with the ever-so-kind Open Door Community for a few days before heading down to Columbus to peacefully vigil in front of the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

If you have no idea or little background with the SOA Watch, visit the link to the left. Feel free also to look at my blog from last year (or just the pictures). Also, there is a caravan traveling from San Francisco to Columbus, Georgia. Their blog is also up and running, and definitely worth at least a peek.

Keep us in your prayers, but especially for those whom we are standing in witness: the victims of torture, violence and hate; the populations whose homes have been destroyed through the teachings of the School of Americas; those who still live with the traumatic physical and emotional effects of the acts of war the SOA education helped to wage.

Thank you all for your support!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Age Is Just a Number... Right?

I am one of three 20-somethings in the Catholic Worker community of 21 people. The average age of the volunteers/community members living at the house is 43.1 years. This is not said with disdain by any means. Living with people who are older than me and dedicated to, what I believe to be, an amazing movement gives me hope for my continued dedication to the issues of homelessness, war and violence.

While we are connected by our beliefs and passions, the age gap does factor in to the challenges of living in community. Sometimes, in the minds of older community members, the young person is equal to the person with the most energy to spare. I'd like to point out that this assumption isn't really true...if any of you have met Faustino, you will understand my point.

At other points, the "we've been doing this for longer than you've been on this planet" spat, or the "my life experience is double yours" defensive rears its ugly head--most often, they are raised in joking manners.

And being a single young woman at the Catholic Worker isn't always that great either. Each young man who passes through is always seen, again in the eyes of the older community members, as a potential match for poor, single, lonely Allison. While most of this is in jest, it's also strongly persistent. I have actually said, "I'm not as desperate as you think I am," to a few people.

The technology gap also accompanies the age gap. I am helping one of the guests get comfortable with cutting, copying and pasting on the computer. Jeff, now in his sixties, is just hopping on the Internet and signed up for his first e-mail address a few weeks ago. Catherine, in her seventies, is learning to "Google" search. All three are amazed by the vastness of the Internet and continually confused by applications, programs, websites and capabilities outside their normal Internet/e-mail routines.

Despite the age difference between me and the majority of the community, I have found it quite easy to begin conversations, build relationships and enjoy time spent with everyone. I can't imagine having an experience like this later in my life, so I am embracing this gap as just another unique quality to the life at the Catholic Worker.

In other news, Margaret and I are leaving for the SOA Watch next Wednesday (November 14) for five days. We will be staying with our sister community in Atlanta, Georgia, before heading down to Columbus, Georgia, to participate in a weekend of vigiling, prayer and peaceful protest. Please keep us in your prayers, and I look forward to sharing my experiences (and photos!) when I get back!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Serenity Prayer

God, grant me

The serenity to accept the things
I cannot change,

The courage to change the things
I can,

And the wisdom
to know
the difference.

Having been in the LACW community for three months now, I have a deeper appreciation for this prayer. Serenity, courage and wisdom are three qualities I find myself challenged by and craving on a daily basis.

Serenity is the acknowledgement that peace signs, waves, and smiles do not take back the middle finger from the passerby; but the LACW is persistent in our peaceful nonviolence despite the middle fingers (real and metaphoric) that we cannot change. To be nonviolent is to spread peace and serenity during a time of conflict, not to avoid conflict through silence. Silence demonstrates neutrality and can too easily be condemned as apathy.

Our persistence to end apathy is an expression of our courage to change our world. The Catholic Worker is a foundation for an alternative lifestyle that screams out for the realization of God's equal and just kindom. Works of mercy--including feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, and clothing the naked--are the soul of our faith-acted-out. I have witnessed and experienced the simple fruits of these actions, and I feel that personally my journey toward pacifism has been greatly aided by my time with the Catholic Worker.

As a community dedicated to peace, the need to change our world and the chosen avenues of change bring constant questioning. Do we serve the individual who comes as we are leaving the kitchen? Risk arrest to be of witness and in solidarity? Change our diet to match our values? Speak to others about our thoughts and experiences despite their opposition? How do we embody our cause?

Attention to these questions spurs wisdom. While preparing to act in the name of peace and justice, one must be aware of the past and present violations of peace, as well as hopes for future peace. The past is concrete as are its current effects. Presently, we must act with courage to put our mark on our future.

Without serenity, courage and wisdom, our actions are passive, negligent and ignorant.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Role of Music

Lately, I have realized that I am immersed in music. Below are a few examples of the joy we receive during the week because of sweet song that graces the LACW.

At the Kitchen, we do not listen to the radio because of past conflict over stations, volume, etc. Yet, our work days are still filled with music. Arnal, a guest at the house and dishwasher extraordinaire at the Kitchen, is in constant song. He has one on his tongue most of the time, and if he isn't singing then he is soon reminded of a song. His repertoire ranges from Stevie Wonder to the Dreamgirls soundtrack to 50 Cent. Songs usually are accompanied by a little groove: a head bob, a step here and there, snapping or clapping. Arnal is always encouraging to those who join in either dance or song with him and will ask that you "get into it!" A day at the Kitchen is simply incomplete without the voice of Arnal.

The community members also get into music at the house. Each Wednesday evening we host a liturgy which is open to all who wish to come. Faustino and Margaret play guitar, Clare and Martha sing, and I play piano for liturgy... and we have fun. Last week was especially energetic, with Jeff shouting sporadically, "Yeah! Alright!" during the songs.

After the liturgy, we invite people to stay for dinner which inevitably keeps us washing more dishes than a usual LACW meal. However, Margaret and I manage to keep the situation quite entertaining. Washing dishes in the kitchen spills over into a dance party (which keeps us washing dishes longer than is necessary). Community members will come in to give us more dishes and laugh at us, hopefully with a tone of endearment rather than embarrassment for us. I have seen how the energy we have in the kitchen on Wednesday nights can build up a little more energy and happiness at the end of the day.

During our free time at the house, Margaret and I have gotten into the habit of pulling out some music and playing for hours (literally). Currently, we're working on a great book of songs which include pieces from the Eagles, Rolling Stones, The Band, and many more. When we are playing more traditional pieces, Clare will mosey toward us and join in singing. Those moments are some of my favorites: when we can gather spontaneously for music.

And just yesterday we hosted a Hospitality Day at the house in which guys from the Row are invited to come to the LACW house for breakfast and lunch, some pleasant company and lots of relaxation. I spent most of the time at the piano playing alongside upwards of three guitarists. We kept coming up with songs, surfing through the music that is scattered around the piano and just listening to songs memorized by others. We played some songs from the 60s, and a few of the men started talking about remembering that song when they were kids and shared stories about that time of their lives.

I have always felt that music is a powerful force, but when it is added to community, music becomes more of a spirit. Music spreads happiness, revives memories, infects listeners with the urge to dance, and invites singing on a large scale. I am happy to be a part of a community that welcomes that spirit so openly.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Eight Months More

Earlier this week, I told the LACW I would like to stay until June. Before this week, I had planned to stay until December and to then begin applying for jobs and/or graduate school; however, I noticed the responsibilities I have at the kitchen, the relationships I have been forming with volunteers and community members, and my complete joy in working in disgusting, smoggy, hot LA. I could not (and still cannot) imagine myself being anywhere else in the upcoming months besides with the LACW.

There have been so many stages I have been through just to get to this point. I went through a job-hunting stage that lasted most of Spring Semester and into June. Then I went through a can't-leave-Portland stage that resulted in many late nights of conversation with friends, personal reflection and the obligatory emotional breakdown. Then, I went on a road trip. And while that doesn't seem like a stage, it gave me time to come to grips with the fact that I was leaving my home state of 22 years. Throughout all these stages, the LACW was in my mind as a back up plan (more accurately, an "if no one wants to hire me, and there is absolutely nothing else I can do short of moving in with my parents, I'll move to the LACW" plan). I never really thought I would end up here.

I am excited about the upcoming months. It is a long time for a recent college grad who had a hard time looking even a few weeks into her future when she first arrived; but this time is full of time to get to know the guys on the Row, learn the accordion, speak more Spanish, get the hang of the public transportation system, reflect on what it is I want to do as a career, polish my line-watching skills, and embrace community living.

Right now, I am living my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am blessed enough to have a family that is supportive, even if they wouldn't make this same choice for me. While I am faced with challenges everyday, I do my best to face them directly so to make my experience here fruitful and positive. And I will continue to do so as long as I am here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Everyone Wants a Piece of the Hippie Kitchen

Recently, the Hippie Kitchen was named LA's best place to volunteer by Los Angeles Magazine. Resulting from this truly great recognition and publicity, there have been many more people calling to inquire about volunteering with us.

On Friday, we received two unique phone calls. The first was from MTV. They are filming a reality show about a teen skateboard star. The producers want him to participate in some sort of service work. Jeff took the call and said that, of course, we would love to have him and the crew come by the kitchen... just leave the cameras at home. The producers seemed miffed that they could not film their teen giving back to his city, but Jeff said, "I guess that's the difference between charity and service."

That same day, a representative from the Dr. Phil show called wanting to film in the garden for a segment on homelessness. Faustino explained that we do not allow filming within the garden or in the kitchen while it is open. The Dr. Phil rep tried to reassure Faustino that our patrons would be portrayed in a positive light. Faustino went into a little more detail behind our "no filming" policy. As he explained it to me, as well, he noted that, "The guys at the kitchen are dirty, down on their luck, probably in the worst part of their lives. You want to shove a camera in their face? How do you think they're going to respond to that?"

Today, I answered the phone and spoke with a woman from MTV (again!) who is in charge of setting up dates on an MTV dating show for twenty-somethings. She said that the couple meets for the first time on her dime, and she is supposed to make them interact in a fun and unique way. Then, I heard the tinge of guilt: "I'd really like the date to involve service. I'd feel a little redemption if I could set up a date that gave something back." When she continued to brainstorm ways the couple could help in the kitchen, I wanted to say, "I'm sorry, but when we serve the poor, we do it for the poor. Our kitchen is not used as a stage for publicity, to show off our generosity, or to foster budding romances. But we would love for you to come in on a Saturday and volunteer!" Instead, I just said that we don't allow filming on the property.

I completely understand the desire to film within the Hippie Kitchen. We are an oasis. The guys are comfortable in the garden. There are a lot of guys who know each other and know the volunteers. It's true human interaction. And not allowing filming in the garden preserves that genuineness. It is flattering, though, that so many people think of us, and that the award from Los Angeles Magazine has delivered so much positive response.

So, MTV, Dr. Phil, Oprah, CNN, whoever... if you're reading this: No, you cannot film in our garden. But please take time out of your schedule to volunteer with us. Don't do it for the cameras. Do it for the men and women on the Row.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Community Living

by Peter Maurin

The central act of devotional life
in the Catholic Church
is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Sacrifice of the Mass
is the unbloody repetition
of the Sacrifice of the Cross.
On the Cross at Calvary
Christ gave us His life to redeem the world.
The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice.
The life of a Christian must be
a life of sacrifice.
We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ
on Calvary
by trying to get all we can.
We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ
on Calvary
by trying to give all we can.

I found this piece in The Green Revolution: Easy Essays on Catholic Radicalism by Peter Maurin, a man known for his action alongside Dorothy Day in the creation of the Catholic Worker Movement. Maurin focused his efforts on Houses of Hospitality, believing that all men and women have the right to shelter and community, but more so that the Catholic faith called its followers to provide this care to one another.

Meeting this calling has not been very easy. The LACW's home is one of hospitality, hosting guests with different needs, backgrounds, vices and destinies. Adding the guests' great diversity to the already unique conglomerate of community members is a recipe for an alternative lifestyle. To put it simply: there is no "average" day.

For me, growing up with two younger brothers was a challenge. When I was 19, being a neighbor to three twenty-somethings in the middle of the Willamette National Forest was a challenge. In college, living with my peers was a challenge. But none of these living situations can match the daily trials of living in community with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

This is not said with the intention of putting down those who live at the house, but simply to shed light on the compromises we must make to provide shelter, food and comfort (to a certain level). It is a devotional lifestyle to live in community. One shower to fifteen or more people, a donated van that came without an engine, and $15 per week are examples of the tangible sacrifices; but more outstanding are the emotional sacrifices. Privacy and silence have their limits. Witnessing the struggles of housemates, hanging on (or saying goodbye) to that last bit of patience and understanding, and exposure to new and different mindsets are more serious examples of the challenges we often face as individuals in a community.

Maurin understood Houses of Hospitality are truly Houses of Sacrifice, but also Houses of Christ. As a community, we greet each new day understanding the possibilities that our buttons will be pushed, our goals will just be out of reach, a sweaty day will go uncleaned, and that frustration rather than joy will rule the day. What keeps us going is knowing that despite these possibilities, these obstables, we are doing Christ's work to let each guest's humanity shine. We are trying to foster love. We are trying to actualize Christ's sacrifice. We are trying to give all we can.

To celebrate our efforts, we are venturing to a Sister House Retreat this weekend. We will share lots of food, lots of drink, and lots of laughter. This is a highlight of the LACW year, and I'm glad I'm able to join this year. So please keep us in your prayers for safe travels, blessed work, and continued energy.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

LA Story

Day by day, Los Angeles presents itself with new challenges and more surprises. The following stories are some examples...

The Photographer

Last Friday, as all Fridays, I vigiled against the war with the Catholic Worker outside a cluster of federal buildings. A man came up to Margaret, Sophie and I and took our picture. Turning his digital camera away from us, the passerby sneered, "I'm going to send this picture to my son in Iraq. He's going to blow it up to a poster and they'll use it for target practice."

As the man in his clean grey suit marched away, we stood in woeful silence. I was on the verge of anxious laughter while trying to ignore the all-consuming pit in my chest. Whether the man was sincere was not the main concern. The hateful words that lingered on the street corner, the mentality behind the action, and the underlying meaning of the threat were of more concern.

That day, Sophie, Margaret and I held signs that read, "BRING THE TROOPS HOME ALIVE!" "NOT ONE MORE BODY FOR WAR," and "STOP U.S. WAR IN IRAQ." Not surprisingly, the man silently walked by Catherine and her sign noting more than 3700 dead U.S. soldiers. He said nothing to the older couple just feet away. He instead turned his focus toward the young adults and gave us a piece of his mind with a voice full of anger and words soaked in hate.

After some time had passed, Margaret broke the silence. She discussed her interpretation of the reactions of all passersby; how each reaction proves that the men and women who see our presence are affected. Those who ignore or turn their heads do so because they are confronted with the reality of our world. Those who address us with anger do so because we are displaying an opposing opinion. Those who honk, wave, and smile do so because it is how they show solidarity.

While we protest the existence of this war that continues to plague our nation, we also protest the degrading use of human life. We are not commodities that can be gambled. We are not to be used and spat back into an unsupported and invisible life. Each man and woman who is sacrificing their well being within the armed forces is deserving, as we all are, of food, shelter, and community. That man can choose to think we are against his son; but in fact, we support his humanity.

The Foreigner

After a Wednesday night liturgy held at the Catholic Worker house, the young women of the community decided to walk a friend home in East LA. The sun had already set, but we were walking in familiar territory.

As we passed through the residential area, we were stopped by a group of young boys no older than 15. They looked at us, half of the group being white, and said with a sense of worry, "Are you lost?"

All the ladies chuckled and said, "No."

"Where are you from?" they asked in complete wonder.

Sophie, being from Altadena, replied defiantly, "Around here!"

The boys just looked at the gringas and scoffed, "Yea... right." But as we walked away from the condescending teenagers, they called after us in an endearing desperation, "Hey! You girls wanna play some football?!"

I do feel like a foreigner here in East LA. It has less to do with my language, age or race than my familiarity of the area. While I might not look like I fit in, I surely don't act like I fit in. I recently learned that Pasadena is northeast of LA... it is not, in fact, closer to the beach. Or my slow and uncomfortable immersion into a constantly sunny and dry city (I sweat, I squint, I burn--I miss rain). Despite my obvious non-LA-ness, the people I have encountered have been more than happy to explain how the lightrail fees work ($250 fine without a ticket!), complain about the heat with me, or simply ask how my stay is going. It makes the transition much easier.

My new goal is to begin meeting people outside of the Catholic Worker. Everything I do and know about Los Angeles is somehow connected to the LACW. I can feel a strong need to meet new people, have a life outside of the Catholic Worker. I need to have a little bit of social independence. I'm severely ready for that independence.

Lastly: Ben Lee and Ione Skye volunteered at the Hippie Kitchen this week.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Necessities for a Catholic Worker in Training

(1) Patience--There have been countless times I could have been rude to the guys on the Row, rolled my eyes at a community member, or given up on myself. But the patience that I have been granted during my time here has helped me stay my ground and not make too much more a fool of myself.

(2) Sense of Humor--Even if that means people making fun of me... constantly. Or guys on the Row looking at me saying, "Oh Lordy. You don't miss a meal, do you? You've got a healthy body!" Or when I'm watching the movie Moonstruck, and dreading Cher and Nicholas Cage and their completely dull acting. A sense of humor is quite helpful.

(3) Embrace the Smelliness--Everything reeks. You. Your food (only sometimes, especially if you've found it in the depths of the refrigerator or it's a moldy donation). The Row. The water. The things that smell good are Jeff Deitrich's cooking, clean clothes, and every once in a while I smell okay. Luckily, I don't have as much of a problem being a little stinky. It's part of the job description. I figure the things that need the help are the smelly things. Why stay clean and avoid the work when I can get dirty and get stuff done?

(4) An Open Mind--I, in no way, agree with everything the Catholic Worker believes and/or does. I actually don't think anyone at the house agrees completely. But together, we form our branch of the Catholic Worker movement. As part of that movement, it is important that we anticipate change and keep open minds toward the challenges, gifts, and unexpected moments that lay ahead. Without an open mind, the movement can't move. It's just stalled.

(5) Sacrifice--Sleep is usually the first to go; oftentimes sleep is sacrificed for the greater good of community (i.e.: helping someone with an early shift, staying up late to hang out with community members, etc.). Comfort and privacy are definitely high up on that list of sacrifice. While I have my own room, I'm not living a luxurious life here; and I share my living space with, currently, twenty-one people. Miscellaneous sacrifices also include air conditioning, cable, skim milk, fresh produce, my own car, and copious amounts of free time.

(6) Spiritual Commitment--Margaret used the phrase "intentional discernment" yesterday. It took me a little while to really understand what she was saying, but I realize that the Catholic Worker experience itself is intentional discernment. We welcome into our hearts and minds the opportunity to change our world. We look to our family, friends, leaders, and fellow humans to do the same. Hopefully this intentional discernment will bring answers whether it be to personal and internal peace or to a bigger picture. But the journey to those answers are just as important.

(7) A Good Liver--The Catholic Worker works hard, but we know how to play, too.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Another Four Months of Training

I have given a commitment to the LACW community to live here through December. What I will be doing when January rolls around? I have no idea. But for now, it's nice to know that I have a place I can call home for a little while before/during my job hunt.

The phrase "job hunt" describes so well the process I must go through. I only have a certain amount of energy and skill, and I can hunt all day long without hitting anything. The hunting range might even be completely desolate, or full of game that is too far out of reach. The prospect of the real world is a little bit of a shock to my system still.

In other news, the LAPD has issued Segways to some police stationed downtown.

And James Brown was released from jail last week!

Lastly, the summers in LA apparently do not stop in September. The hot weather, as I have heard from numerous native LA folk, may continue into October. (Yesterday was at least 100 degrees.) Oh joy of joys.

Friday, August 31, 2007

It's Me!

This is proof that I am still in fact alive and well at the Catholic Worker. Beside me is Margaret, a new Catholic Worker in Training. She's testing the waters for a month and will see if the place is right for her. It's nice to have another person my age in the house (she's 24), and it's even better that we're both still learning so much about the routine, lifestyle and quirks of the LACW.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back to the Grind

After 11 wonderful days in beautiful Oregon, I am back in Los Angeles. The break from the big city was much needed. I even got to sleep well past 7am (i.e.: 10am at the earliest), which was quite a treat!

I had the opportunity to visit family and friends in both Eugene and Portland, and heard the following question more times than I would have liked: "So, what's the plan now?" I understand that most people meant this question with the best of intentions; however, when I hear that question, it translates, most likely incorrectly, to, "Seriously, what are you really going to do with your life?"

Preferably, people would ask, "So, how are things in LA?" Because then I can respond with something like...

"Things are great! I love LA, even though it's pretty challenging. Definitely not something I could do for the rest of my life, but I'm happy for now."

And then they could ask, "So do you know what you want to do after LA?"

I'd smile, or laugh or roll my eyes sarcastically and say, "I don't necessarily have a plan, but I'm working on it. I'm taking a break from the job hunt for a few months so I can feel settled and focus on the work and community in LA. Eventually I'd really like to get into social work, and I think the experience I am getting in LA is really fitting for that goal."

The other person would nod, smile, and say, "It sounds like a struggle, but it also sounds like you're doing a great job. I'm glad you've found something you enjoy!"

See, isn't that a much better conversation? I think so.

I am blessed enough to have the support of my friends and family concerning my involvement with the Catholic Worker. I was almost reluctant to continue living here without that support system, but my visit back to Oregon has relieved me of that stress. My dad even said last night before I left, "Take as much time as you need in LA." It's difficult to describe the comfort that kind of statement brings; the feeling of knowing that despite the hippie decisions I make, I can count on my family to support me as long as I am doing what I feel I am called to do.

Every once in a while, and by that I mean approximately everyday, I take a step back from what I am doing and just realize what a rich part of my life I am living. Now, I can defer loans, be unemployed, live in voluntary poverty, speak my mind with confidence and still ask questions without embarrassment. I am young enough to be considered young, but old enough that my opinions suddenly mean something (maybe not a lot, but at least something). And while living in Los Angeles, I am taking full advantage of all of the opportunities. Am I going to be able to do this when I'm 30? 40? Probably not. By then I'm sure I will have fulfilled some sort of plan I had mustered up years before; and as much as I anticipate my life will still be driven by causes of social justice, I will not be able to act on them as I am doing now.

So I will grudgingly take work shifts the community signed me up for this week; but I do constantly remember that this is a unique experience in my life, and knowing that keeps me working. The life of a Catholic Worker in Training is tasking, but it's the life I'm choosing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Homelessness Is Your Problem, Too

A week and a half ago, my friend from Skid Row, James Brown, was arrested for not paying a $200 jaywalking ticket. His sentence is 60 days. About the same time, another friend, AJ, was arrested for sleeping on the sidewalk outside the Hippie Kitchen at 6:20am (the homeless are allowed to sleep on the sidewalk from 9pm to 6am). He got out of jail two days later and retrieved his carts that had been put in storage; the next day, someone set one of his carts on fire.

The life on Skid Row has become so much more hectic and brutal since last summer. Not only do the men and women have to be wary of each other, but there has been an extremely heightened presence of security and police officers in the area. There have been amazing consequences.

The guys who come to the Hippie Kitchen have been harassed by private security guards hired by companies in the downtown area. These officers are commonly known in the area as "shirts" because of the different colored uniforms they wear for the different districts in town. The Red Shirts often bike by the Hippie Kitchen, looking for men and women who are jaywalking, dealing drugs, sleeping on the sidewalk, storing their things in supermarket (aka: stolen) carts, and other crimes. The Red Shirts do either or possibly both of the following: (1) address the individual directly, search through personal belongings, take pictures of the individual, put the individual against the wall to pat down, and miscellaneous harassment; (2) contact the LAPD with the information they can receive from the individual, give the location and the police address the situation.

While it may seem that the Shirts are providing a service to protect the gentrified area, they are acting illegally. They have no rights outside the private property they are hired to secure. Outside the bounds of the company, they may wear a uniform but have only the rights as a common citizen. The Shirts are abusing their rights and are harassing the men and women on Skid Row.

If you spend just 15 minutes in the garden at the Hippie Kitchen, you will hear stories about Shirt and LAPD brutality. Two ACLU attorneys came to the kitchen last week to talk with our patrons about their experiences simply with police searching through belongings without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Last year, they would have stayed for an hour maximum. Last week, they stayed from 9:30am to noon, speaking with as many people as they could. Everyone has a story, whether it is their own, friend's, neighbor's or something they witnessed. This doesn't even cover the arrests that are made for jaywalking just so the individual can be given a citation at the police station, or the tents and bags that are torn (not searched) apart, or the woman who was beaten outside our kitchen two months ago by four police officers, or all the unspoken and unknown crimes the victims are too afraid to speak about.

The men and women in Skid Row live day to day not only in poverty but in fear. They are being pushed out of Skid Row and into different districts of the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. The downtown area has developed into a loft-city. New high-rises are popping up all over. Ads are seen throughout the media. The city is making a point to clean the city up a little, and have an "art walk" every month to help display the fun and exuberant aspects of the area.

But the city has seen that the area needs protecting. The abundance of police and security force only helps to prove that the city is preparing to help the men and women who plan to move into these lofts and eradicate homelessness at the same time... or at least make the homeless someone else's problem.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

First Day of Line Watcher Training

On Tuesday, I came the closest I ever have to a fight in the garden at the Hippie Kitchen. Currently, I am in training for line watching. I have to be aware of people cutting in line, fighting or leaving their spot in line. If a fight breaks out, I have to call another line watcher (a community member) to stop the argument. While I do not have the proper training and/or courage to put myself in a position to stop the arguments now, I will be one of those people in the future.

Sitting outside with Clare and Martha, I was learning about basic line watching skills (eyes on the line, always say "hi," communicate with other line watchers, etc.). While Martha was just a few feet away from me, I felt there was just enough space between us for me to have my own space to watch over as a rookie. And then I saw a streak out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a man dump a cup of water on a woman in the garden, exchange nasty words, and then spit on her. By the time he was walking away, the woman started to walk after him. I knew from the second I saw the water hit her face that the situation would turn ugly very quickly; and when I realized that these actions did not correspond with the atmosphere of peace at the Hippie Kitchen, I anxiously called Martha's attention to the fight.

Martha, 53 years old and as gentle as anyone could be, hurriedly brought herself in between the man and woman. She waved her hands in small, nonthreatening circles, only saying, "Please don't. Please don't." The look on Martha's face expressed her dread for the situation, but more so it described her complete heartache that she should have to encourage peace. As if the man she stood in front of had personally let her down.

Meanwhile, I stood no more than 10 feet away wondering why I had not acted sooner. Why did I watch him spit on the woman? If I had called Martha just a second earlier, would the situation be much different? And just as these thoughts raced through my mind, I saw the woman struggling with a young man who jumped in as Martha did. The woman had picked up a pepper container (a glass bottle) off a nearby cart and threw it at the man who spat on her. The bottle crashed on the ground, and the woman ran out of the garden to the street.

Martha handed the remaining salt and pepper containers to me and asked me to bring them inside the kitchen. Her tone was firm but calm. I, on the other hand, could not control my anxiousness. I scurried inside the kitchen holding the two bottles and thrust them at the woman who was serving the main dish. "Take these!" I squeaked.

"What?" she replied, holding a plate full of beans in one hand and and a ladle in the other.

"Just take them!" I held the containers, looking at her with desperation. Seeing that she was not in a rush as I was, I shoved them towards another woman who was standing next to her. Still not knowing exactly what to do, I went back outside to see if there were more containers I could frantically pass around the kitchen, or if the garden was as it should be.

I found that Martha was no longer waving her hands, the woman had left, and the man seemed to be less aggressive. But right as the guard seemed to have been let down, he sprinted past me toward the door of the kitchen to cut through to the street. This time, Clare joined Martha in begging this man's cooperation. Only 21 years old, but full of the necessary power and confidence of a line watcher, Clare held her arms out and chanted, "Peaceful garden. Peace. This is a peaceful garden," over Martha's heart wrenching pleas. The man simply turned around and left for the street.

Taking a few deep breaths to bring myself back from the panicked few minutes, I only felt embarrassment. I did not help. I stood and watched. And when I was asked to help, I was an anxious mess. Am I suited for this job? I spoke with Martha later that day and received the affirmation I needed: I did do a good job; I took the containers as I was asked; I did not overstep my boundaries; I did not assume responsibilities as a trained line watcher would.

I have mixed feelings about my position as a potential line watcher, but the negative feelings are only based in fear: fear of failure, timidness, weakness. Now finishing my third day of line watcher training, I can notice on my own the skills I need to develop. I am excited to prove to myself and the community that I am strong enough to confront the men and women, but kind enough to offer friendship. I have no doubt that the training will continue to bring stories just as nerve-racking, but I know that I will grow stronger because of them.