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.