Sunday, December 21, 2008

Merry Christmas

Hey Family,

I know you guys would have liked to have been here. So, this is the best I can do (you can even see my piano teacher walk out and applaud after the first song). I love you and miss you. Merry Christmas.

Clare and Allison perform at the Neighborhood Music School Christmas Recital (Dec. 20).

Skylark (Mercer/Carmichael)

The Christmas Song (Arr. Brian Page)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Life at the LACW in the past few months has been exciting to say the least. Below are just a few photos to illustrate some of what I've been up to...

At the end of August (yes, I know, ages ago), a few of us LACW ladies participated in a scavenger hunt held by an annual punk festival. The challenges included kissing a dog tongue to tongue, holding a boa constrictor, receiving a pamphlet of information from a Scientology center (extra points if photo documentation of a team member getting kicked out by security) and collecting items such as a human tooth, trophy, report card with an F, and a bowling pin. Another challenge: a team member can get a mohawk (20 points!). I offered up my own scalp. Sybilla, a summer intern and pictured in the background, enthusiastically set scissors and clippers to my hair. Nine inches gone, a great haircut still remains on my head. I've maintained the 'do. How many times in my life will my radical hairstyle couple so well with my radical lifestyle?

The music continues. Margaret and I have been scoping out open mic venues around Los Angeles (so if anyone has a suggestion, let us know!). The accordion is getting a little more playing time, and our music book is in the process of a major update. We are always looking for excuses to bring our music, and philosophy behind it, to others. For Margaret and I, music is not meant for performance, but for sharing. Music, in other words, is community. We cart around a milk crate full of percussion instruments and invite people to pick up a tambourine, shaker or their guitar and join in the experience. To sit back and listen is simply not enough.

The last two weeks of October were spent in Oregon with my godson, Maxwell Alexander Keippela. I got a refresher course on changing diapers, how to handle copious amounts of spit up (there's a photo that I chose to leave out of the blog... you're welcome), and grew evermore amazed each day at the fast development of this precious life. Being with Max and his dear parents was a renewal for me. It was an overwhelming reminder of the importance of the family unit, and while I am living in a community now, there is no replacement for the bond I have with my own kin. An early Thanksgiving passed through my heart.
Oh, we also went to the zoo, and Max wanted to spend some face-time with the animals...
This Thanksgiving, we hosted 80-some people in our warm home. The night before, a small crew of willing and young blooded sous chefs prepared the bread, garlic, and apples for the stuffing, along with four batches of cookies, a vegetarian stuffing, and two loaves of bread. Thanksgiving Day was met with great excitement and the house bustled early in the morning as we prepared the decorations, turkeys and all the fixings. A few trips to the Hippie Kitchen were required to pick up all of the guys we invited from Skid Row. Some even came clad in button-up shirts and ties. Our feast was a great success, and the afternoon ended with a grand, boisterous round of participatory music. Everyone left with beaming smiles.
Now, we ready ourselves for the coming of Christmas. This Advent season brings warmer weather than I ever imagined December could undertake, but the anticipation of Christ's birth still lingers in the LA heat. We at the LACW are grateful each day for the support of our volunteers and the persistence of the peace movement. During the upcoming weeks, our prayers will be centered around the well being of our friends who are suffering from critical illnesses, those who continue to struggle for comfort in Skid Row, and all of our brothers and sisters who pay witness to the underserved and forgotten. Our joy continues with our hope that Christ's message of compassion, mercy and nonviolence will soon permeate through our hearts and actions. Let Advent bring us the strength to carry out His message in our lives, to journey with Him down the path of true justice.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Poor Are Still With Us

It's that time of year... our annual appeal letter. Please read.

Pictures and stories to come. In the meantime, don't forget the true purpose of this season!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

For You, Dad...

Speaking with my dad about my recent posts and activities at the LACW, he encouraged me to "write something happy." I laughed at his request, thinking to myself about the men and women I see on a regular basis who struggle and fight for their quality of life. I continued to reflect on the "happy" aspects of the work of the LACW, and suddenly (and, albeit, naively) realized that there had to be something keeping me here. What is it?

The people. Although they can be depressed, angry, annoyed, and have the ability to suck out all stores of energy I might have, the men and women at the Hippie Kitchen are one-of-a-kind. And while there is suffering on the streets surrounding the Hippie Kitchen, we laugh and share entertaining stories of ridiculousness to keep spirits high. So these are a few examples of the simple hilarity we encounter at the kitchen, the way we stay sane, the way we keep up with our work...

There is a woman who frequents our kitchen. I have never spoken to her, maybe because I do not want to ruin the story I have created for her in my mind. Each time she comes to the Hippie Kitchen, she wears a different hat. I cannot say with confidence I have seen her in the same hat twice. Once, she had a banana-yellow foam visor with what looked like a foam fighter jet sticking off of it like a unicorn's horn. Sometimes she has different varieties of cowboy hats: a sequined, sparkly pink one or a black, leopard faux fur-lined one. Whether it is a construction helmet or a delicately knitted stocking cap, she faithfully wears a hat each day.

I wonder where she stores her caps. I imagine a garage full of shelves and hooks that she enters each morning. With her hand grazing her mole-speckled face (possibly plucking one or two of those stray white hairs from her chin), she gleefully picks a hat off of the display and sets it comfortably on her head. She grabs her woven plastic bag, tosses it over her hunched shoulder and presses on for the rest of her day.

Just this week, I saw her with a new accessory that particularly excited me: her shoes. They were silver moon boots (think: Napoleon Dynamite) with an embroidered flaming skull on the back of each heel. Above the orange, red and yellow design was, in Old English font, "Punk" on the left heel and "Rock" on the right heel. This woman is crazy, for sure, but she is pretty awesome, too.
Our patrons usually have their own routines. Some come around in line exactly seven times to get exactly the amount of food they want. Some sit in the same spot every day we're open. Some bring their own condiments to put on their food. One man comes each day with his own head of garlic. Sweeping up around the garden, I will find clusters of garlic peels. I can count on them being by a certain water cooler and a specific corner of the garden. He can go through two or three garlic heads each day.

Garlic Man is an old white man with white hair highlighted with roots of grey. He wears a white shirt, cargo pants and a black vest zipped up half way. His large black backpack weighs him down and he leans forward when he walks. He always holds a look the same facial expression. I cannot tell if he is angry, frustrated, confused, or just spent too much time staring straight at the eternal California sun.

During election season, as I was cleaning up his garlic shedding, he spoke to me about a conversation with a volunteer of ours. "He said that people are getting carried away by this election," Garlic Man said with his nondescript look. I nodded in agreement. "But what does that mean?" he continued. "I mean, where are they getting carried to?" I could see this conversation was going down a road which I did not want to follow and tried to sweep in a different direction. But he pulled me into his sun-squinted musings. "I believe in alien abductions, you know. I was abducted..." and then I stopped listening.
Occasionally, I am on the receiving end of an entertaining one-liner, pick up line, or random short story. Some examples... (please note: these were all said without preceding conversation--not even a hello)

"Why did you cut your hair? Oh, Allison, it looks horrible. It exposes your jawline... and your face."

"My sister's crazy and an alcoholic. Did you know that you can go onto the bus with a water bottle full of vodka and the bus driver will still let you on?"

(while working in our clinic) "I'd like Tylenol, a vitamin and your number."

"Girl, you got a round ass!" (said by a woman)

"You know who you look like? Sarah Palin. No no! Wait, that's a compliment!"

"Oh, so it looks like for once you're working."

There you go, Dad. I hope you're smiling!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Burn Out

In the realm of Catholic Worker-type service, the subject of "burn out" is nothing foreign to volunteers and community members. It is dangerously simple to put one's nose to the grind and not look up, with the results ranging from loneliness and depression to obsessing over work to rigidity in self and routine. During my 14 months in Los Angeles, I have caught myself with my focus completely on work and consequently heading straight for an early burn out.

Today, however, I shared time with a Hippie Kitchen patron who has crossed the threshold of burnout and now confronts a deeper conflict with the worth of his own life. He has always seemed to be a happy, energetic man, and our exchanges have been quite positive and full of laughter. But I caught him zoning out at one of the picnic tables today, and jokingly asked, "You okay?" I was not expecting him to respond with such melancholy. His exact words do not resonate, but his expression was careless and empty.

Sitting down, I offered a listening ear and for twenty minutes, he spoke to me about his recent struggles. A new friend stole his bike--a crucial tool for his work and lifestyle. He has paperwork for two bank accounts (in a bank that has recently fallen victim to the economic collapse) that he needs to give to his daughters whom he has not seen in five years. He turned 55 in August and spent the entire day alone and depressed in his camper. He only receives $180 each month, most of which goes straight to gas for his camper and propane for his mini-fridge. Minor problems include the wearing of his shoes, the poor condition of his camper, and the heat wave that is passing through Los Angeles.

With my heart at my feet, all I could say with confidence was, "You know, when you come here, you are loved and welcomed. We are always happy to see you."

"This is the only place I can come where people speak to me and use sentences with more than three words. Thank you." His eyes slightly squinted to focus on his thoughts, but his sight was set on nothing. He continued to tell me his thoughts about suicide. "I even have the bridge picked out. I'm going to--"

I abruptly stopped listening, but not early enough to be in denial of his problems. After giving sufficient time to witness him lurch toward his breaking point, I excused myself to help clean up inside the kitchen. Telling a few community members of my concerns, the consensus was to take him to the clinic that is adjacent to our garden.

My friend was unlocking his borrowed bike, suited for a child, when I confronted him. "I'm worried about you. I think we should go see the doctors at the clinic and get you some help."

He pulled his key out of the bolt lock and stared at the ground, "Okay. Anything is better than this."

Getting to see someone at the clinic proved to be more difficult, even after saying the problem was contemplation of suicide. One of the women looked straight at him and, in a disapproving tone, scolded, "Well, why do you want to go do that?!"

Right as he was ready to leave, I snarled, "I think this is a pretty serious issue!" The woman dropped her folded arms in defeat and walked inside to get a nurse.

Now shaking, of nervousness or fear or nearing his tipping point, my friend sat down on a hard plastic chair. The nurse came in and spoke to him across the checker-tiled floor, asking routine questions. After receiving more information about his personal problems than she clearly cared to hear, she wrote him a referral to a social worker who would be able to provide assistance in all the necessary ways. I thanked her for taking her time (past her closing time) to talk with him.

As we walked back to his child-sized bike, I told him that I needed him to make a verbal promise not to hurt himself.

"I won't hurt myself today."

"No," I said sternly. Drawing back to my Resident Assistant training I demanded, "I need you to promise me that you won't hurt yourself until I see you on Saturday."

"Okay," he replied. "I won't hurt myself until Saturday, but I'm saying that because I really like you." We hugged and parted ways.

A community member said I did the most I probably will be able to do. There might not be more I can do to help him, and I have to realize there is so much I do not know about this man and his struggles.

Suddenly, burn out has a new meaning.

Monday, August 11, 2008

After A Year...

The summer program is over. Six weeks of immersion for both the interns and the community. Amazing interns, I might say. The community cites this summer as the best they've had since... well, they can't remember when. I'm grateful to have survived my third consecutive summer with the LACW, and now, I'm off to start my second consecutive year as a community member.

July 18 marked the completion of my first year at the LACW, and I have been thinking lately of things I have accumulated since...

"Allison" turns out not to be the most common name, and actually has birthed many nicknames. Quite possibly more than I have ever had. The regulars include:
Alicia (for my Spanish-speaking buddies)
Ali (pronounced ah-LEE)
Licha (again, a Spanish nickname meaning "darling" or something to that effect)
Allison (yes, it's different--pronounced ah-lee-SAHN)

Others include:
Hey You

10 pounds, to be exact. That's what happens when copious amounts of cheese, bread, sweets and coffee are available. Actually, I shouldn't kid myself... there's just a lot of food. Soon, the weight will be all off. Give me another year, I promise.

LA Catholic Worker Tee-Shirts
We have for sale at the house "The only solution is Love" tee-shirts. Community members get them for free, one new one each year. But since I visited a few times during college and was an intern, I have three LACW shirts. And recently a friend went to the national 75th anniversary gathering and bought me a CW movement shirt. And we also have a "NO WAR" shirt. And then Margaret and I made LACW/SOAW Los Angeles shirts last November for the SOAW action at Ft. Benning. I lost count... is it somewhere around too many?

Ball Point Pens
Hoarding is not only a skill, it is a necessity at the Catholic Worker. I can't say anything for other houses, but here, things come and go in a jiffy. You want that muffin that's sitting on the kitchen counter, but you're not hungry right now? Take it. Who cares if you find it under your bed two weeks later. If you don't take it now, you might never get it. As noted above, I am in the process of avoiding the habitual collection of food. But I have continuously, throughout the year, kept a close eye out for nice pens. Ball point pens, preferably. Medium tip is nice, but I quite like the fine tip pens. Currently, I use them to work on the archive project (I'll touch on that in a minute); but mostly, I find the pen, use it once, and lose it. My inability to keep track of the favored pen only encourages the hoarding. I think one day, I'll clean my room and find dozens of them hiding in mysterious places like under all my LACW tee-shirts.

Tolerance for Dirt/Sweat/General Filth
It gets hot here. Really hot. And for an Oregonian, the Los Angeles summers send me into a sweat-induced trance. Add that to working in Skid Row, having limited clean clothes (our washer is known as the "dirtier"), and sporadic showering, and you get--no, not a hippie--tolerance. Even just 15 minutes after getting out of the shower, I kid you not, I already have dirt under my fingernails. I don't walk around like Pig Pen from Peanuts, but I wouldn't be readily welcomed by Howard Hughes. I do know how to accept hygiene as part of my lifestyle, so don't worry. I'll take a shower a few days after I can smell myself.

Useless Information Regarding the LACW
Want to know stories about the LACW that affect you in no way, shape or form? I'm your gal! Recently, I've taken up a much-too-large and self-consuming archive project. With almost 4o years under its belt, the LACW has successfully left no organized path to understand why it is the way it is today. Banana boxes full of unlabeled, undated pictures. Supposed milk crates in the abyss of the back house basement allegedly full of interesting articles, photos and miscellaneous archive material (Jeff, Catherine: you keep telling me they exist, yet you have no solid proof... I wait impatiently). Cassette tapes of interviews from certain people about certain things (again, unlabeled and undated). In a desperate attempt to prove to doubtful community members that my history major is in fact practical, I have decided to put order to this mess. So if you need to know when Jeff was arrested that one time for that one civil disobedience thing, or if you have a sneaking suspicion that something has changed since you last visited, ask me and I just might be able to give you an answer. Chances are, though, you really don't care.

Interested in Catholic Worker life? Internship? Volunteering? It's not as farcical as I am... so no fears. Contact us, and look for the Summer Internship issue of the Catholic Agitator!

Los Angeles Catholic Worker
632 N Brittania St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033


Saturday, July 12, 2008


There are many instances which have led me to truly believe in the desperation of the human soul. We are all longing for connection. Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, intimately focuses on her journey to find herself. The relationship in which she found the most comfort was the mystic connection between herself and God. Others find the solution to loneliness in family, a lifetime partner (romantic or platonic), or even with the companionship of a pet.

Lately, I have seen and listened to stories of overwhelming isolation. Some of the men and women who eat at the Hippie Kitchen experience not only the loneliness we all know in the physical and emotional sense, but also a spiritually exhausting hopelessness. How do we--as individuals, as a community, as a society and culture, as a family--heal our brothers and sisters?

In April, we hosted a music party at the Hippie Kitchen garden. We brought in the accordion, guitars, some percussion instruments, and a list of songs and music. It was a great hit, and the guys were more than happy to shout out names of tunes they wanted to hear. I remember saying, "We don't have 'American Pie,' sorry!" and hearing roaring groans of disappointment.

One of my favorite guests, and one of the two Persians I know who eat at the Hippie Kitchen, walked into the garden flushed and sullen-faced. It was quite clear he was drunk, and it was the first time I had even seen him under the influence. He is a well-kept man with a gentle and loving spirit. Whenever he speaks to me, he leans in a bit, almost a slight bow, and smiles to say, "Allison, how are you?" His greeting this time was strained as he asked to play the accordion. "You know how to play?" I almost scoffed in surprise. "Yes, yes. Give it to me," he replied kindly, and slightly slurred. Margaret and I helped to strap him into the large instrument.

The moment the accordion rested on his lap, although still intoxicated, his eyes alerted. I believe something was set off in his soul, and his drowsy eyes could barely express the change he felt. As he pulled open the accordion's lung, he recited the chord he played, "A." He continued to expand and contract the instrument, stretching it to his arms' full length and closing it almost completely. The music that emitted from his bony fingers was less than flawless. The heart wrenching tune he gave us lingered in the air as tears welled up in his bloodshot eyes. He stopped, wiped his face and said, "I haven't played the accordion in twenty years." Unable to clear his face of the salty streams, he got up and walked away.

Margaret and I looked at each other, and Margaret, being the braver one of the two of us, jumped up to follow him. A few moments later, I stood, trying to shake off the awe that had paralyzed me. He was ready to leave the kitchen when Margaret approached him and said, "That was beautiful!" Our new found musician muscled a smile and said with shame, "It just brought back too much... My mother and father... They died. And now, all I do is drink." Margaret, again finding words that I could not, set her hand on his shoulder and said, "We love you very much. And we support you." Using much of his remaining energy, he supported a smile, said thank you and left the kitchen.

A few weeks ago, he was telling me about the "mission life" as he called it. He has been mission-hopping for three years now, and is growing tired of the instability, the sermons that precede meals, and the strict hours in which guests are to check in and out. Staring off above my shoulder, he talked dreamily of having a room to stay in. "Nothing fancy," he said.

And suddenly, without prompting, he began to tell me of his journey to find Skid Row. Living comfortably with his mother, he had heard of the Los Angeles Mission, an organization still very much active in Skid Row. He sent a donation to the mission to support what he thought was important work. Soon after, his mother kicked him out because of his drinking problem and he found himself dependent on the very organization to which he earlier tithed.

"And I have to deal with anxiety," he moaned disappointingly. "I worry about so many things and I can't do anything because I worry. I live in missions because I cannot do anything. And my mother never understood why I worried so much."

While I know to keep distance between myself as a volunteer and the patrons of the kitchen, I knew I had to share with him my similar struggles. "I know exactly what you mean. It used to happen to me all the time." I continued to describe the physical manifestations of fear, and my handicaps when I am overcome by panic. He looked at me with his head cocked to the side, a curious grin across his face.

"I'm sorry you have to deal with that," I consoled.

"I'm glad you understand," he sighed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Being Sick at the CW

I remember when I was in elementary school secretly wanting to be sick more often so I could miss school. But when I got sick, it wasn't a day of fun. Besides the reality of feeling ill, queasy, achy or feverish, I was supposed to lie in bed and sleep and maybe I could watch a little television. And even to have this enormous privilege of staying home, the sickness had to be more than a cold. Living with aggressive allergies as a child, springtime would have been a jackpot for "at home" days if I was a better actress.

Now, at the Catholic Worker, I am sick. Not so sick that I'm going to curl over and die, and not so sick that I think I won't be able to work tomorrow. In fact, not even sick enough to feel right in skipping our morning routine (so I didn't). But I don't feel well. Headache. Constricted throat. Nose stuff I won't go into. No appetite. Complete exhaustion.

What is the CW response? Go to bed. Feel better soon. Strong undertone of: Get better soon so you won't be ditching us at work.

So, I go to bed. I rest, drink tea, and try to psyche myself up for a day of work tomorrow. And staying in bed these days is a true blessing. The community wants me to skip a meeting and go lay down? Sure I can do that! During past illnesses at the LACW, I was even sent home early from the kitchen. Although not 100%, I felt good enough to work for the day. But Jeff sent me home, telling me to get some rest.

In comparison to high school, let's say, this is a great improvement. I rarely stayed home during high school. Lots of responsibilities, lots of work, and lots of reasons to suck it up, pack kleenexes up the wazoo, and get to school. But now, any hint of sickness, and the entire community jumps up in alert: Are you feeling okay? Maybe you should stay home. No, that's fine. Don't go on the 6:30am crew tomorrow. I can substitute for you. And if you aren't feeling better for the 7:30am crew, just stay home. We'll be fine for volunteers at the kitchen.

A queen, I tell you. Treated like a queen. Well, a sick one.

But once you're feeling better, it's straight back to work. As if you were never bedridden. The workload is no slow integration back to the schedule. You're expected to get your nose to the grind and suck it up because you're not sick anymore!

For now, though, I'll try to feel better as soon as I can and appreciate the long naps (3+ hours). I'll be working at the kitchen tomorrow for sure.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Thank God for Vacation!

I just completed my first week back from vacation to Santa Maria, California. I spent time with Dennis Apel and Tensie Hernandez and their children, Rozella and Thomas. They run the Guadalupe Catholic Worker that responds to the needs of the farm workers in the area. They were the better than any hosts I could have asked for. I was treated like a queen.

Early in my vacation, I borrowed the family's car and tried to visit Guadalupe Beach. In a very Allison-like manner, I missed the “4-wheel-drive ONLY” sign before the beach entrance. Driving in Dennis and Tensie’s sedan, I journeyed excitedly toward the beach and just 20 yards before the parking lot, I got stuck in what can be described as a small drifting dune. I imagined trying to tell Tensie and Dennis why I returned home without their car, but a kind man came to help me out of the trap. He and an annoyed park ranger pushed the car back and upon hitting solid ground, I left for another beach.

I drove up to Oso Flaco Lake, a common stop for the LACW during the summer visit to Guadalupe. My previous visits to Oso Flaco revealed the site to be a place of insight. I have important memories associated with the beach. I was a little disappointed I had to return to a familiar beach, but was soon excited to be stepping back to the ocean’s end. The wind was a bit strong, and I was in shorts and a thin jacket. I passed a few groups of people leaving the beach as I arrived. When I reached the ocean, I looked north, looked south, and looked behind me. I was the only one on the beach.

In truth, the beach is a bit intimidating. The greatness of the ocean and its seemingly endless span makes me feel small and insignificant. Despite this pit in my stomach, I followed my feet that led my southward along the incoming waves. I pulled out my camera to immortalize these moments of solitude, but the camera would not turn on. Instead, I kept myself company by singing and speaking my thoughts aloud. Soon, the wind picked up and my mouth actually became numb. Unable to speak, I was forced to accept the sounds of the magnificent blue abyss. I was forced to accept my smallness. Among the grains of sand, I was humbled. I looked out the ocean and prayed.

For two hours, I was alone on the beach. When I returned northward, my footsteps were the only signs of human contact with the area. Often times, I feel that chance or some light version of fate leads me to my current place. It is a rare occasion in which I truly feel that God is working through me. But that afternoon, I knew that the Spirit had led me to that beach, showed me meekness, and presented me with Its creation.

That afternoon inspired the rest of my vacation. I took time to be silent and appreciate the beating of my heart, my breathing, the intricate evidence of my existence. I read, a hobby I am rediscovering after about a decade break. Slowly, I accepted the true meaning of my vacation: myself.

(and a little bit of trampoline time with the kids doesn't hurt the human spirit, either)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Embracing Courage and Recognizing Fear

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a great line watcher. I get nervous when I have to tell someone that they can't cut in line, and they have to start at the end of the line. Most of the time, there's no big fuss made. The cutter will argue for a second, roll his/her eyes and comply or leave. Beyond the occasional cutter, I haven't had too much experience with conflict in the garden. The other brave female line watchers are usually the first to dive right between two angry diners. I'm right behind them... sort of.

In the past few months, I've mastered the "back up" position. Clare, Martha, Ann, or Catherine will sacrifice their bodies to whatever comes at them, words or otherwise; meanwhile, I linger safely out of the way, but close enough to run up to help them if I am needed. And every single time I've approached to help, I become the target of the diner's anger. This can be seen as a good thing since the negative energy isn't being focused toward another diner.

But right about now is when I start to lose my bearings. I am not tough. I'm 23, just over 5 1/2 feet tall, and not very strong. I haven't used my "mom look" as much since I moved away from my brothers, the frequent victims of such glares. In short, I am neither physically or psychologically intimidating. And when an angry kitchen patron starts to stare me down, my timidness starts to take over.

On Thursday, for example, there was a scuffle between a large man and surprising feisty yet petite woman. The verbal conflict seemed to be calming down until the woman was reignited. The man, under the coaxing of the line watchers, left the area. As the woman charged toward his back, not finished telling him off, two line watchers and I stepped in front of her. Comfortable with the relative calmness, I continued to clean the garden when I was stopped by the still-reeling woman:

"It is none of your business! When I have something to say, I'm gonna say it! You get out of my face. I wasn't talking to you! Next time you get in my face like that, I swear I'll beat the shit out of you!"

While she was speaking, I felt my awkwardness surface. I concentrated on my facial expression, my body language, and what I'm going to say next--and I know it was obvious I was uncomfortable. I am sure I was holding a facial expression that hinted toward an uncomfortable bowel movement. And then I just stood there like some defenseless idiot... an open target for whatever words come at me. I went back to sweeping with a giant pit in my stomach, thinking about how I could have handled the situation better. My conclusion: couldn't I just try to pretend to be under control?!

My fear of line watching stems from the fear of vulnerability. In the moment of conflict, I reassure myself that this is a practical fear--pain, physical or emotional, is not something I find too enjoyable. I try to prepare myself for anything that will come my way, but the only time I think about it is during the moment anything could happen. I criticize myself for not embracing the courage I know I have. I do have the capacity to endure the pain that could be bestowed upon me in an "incident." The reason I am (at this point, hypothetically) stepping in to squelch a conflict is to provide a peaceful and restful environment to the people who suffer so much abuse and harassment outside our garden.

I have to get over my fear so I can fulfill the role of the line watcher--a person who maintains the peace of the garden. I am afraid of saying something wrong, or clearly being void of authority. I have to remember that with time, I will begin to understand more deeply the role of the line watcher. And then I will stop making weird faces.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reflections on April 1 Demonstration

On Tuesday, April 1, the LACW was present for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's press conference regarding the installation of streetlights in Skid Row. Sadly, I was on "house" and was not present. Check out the links in the previous post for more information.

Since, the LACW has been all over blogs by Central City East (the lofters' name for Skid Row).

One man who was quoted in the LA Times article also wrote on one blog:

Just wanted to say that the residents that attended the "press conference" represented different groups that are working together to solve common problems in the Skidrow/ Central City East neighborhood. These groups were OG's N Service Association, Skidrow 3 on 3 Streetball League, Issues and Solutions, and Skidrow Brigade/ Homeless Coalition.

While we did not come to press conference because we agree with every aspect of Safer Cities Initiative...we did come to support those efforts that we do agree upon and to listen to what the Mayor's future intentions....As well as to express our own concerns! Those protesters (who did not live in this community) had the "freedom of speech"! Nevertheless, I and others have the "freedom to hear"! I believe that these protesters interfered with that right.

These individuals are here in this neighborhood from 9 to 5 ( or whatever time they leave). They go home to there comfortable homes and clean streets. They are not around during the evening time to see what the homeless do...they turn their eyes to the drug trafficking. They don't concern themselves with all the garbage and trash that is scattered around the neighborhood by the various "street ministries" that come claiming they are here to "help the homeless". Food and clothing end up on the streets of Skidrow. These protesters "point their fingers" at others...they need to take responsibility for the damage they do!

Again, I don't need others to speak for me...nor "think" for me! Too many people believe they have the solutions to our problems without asking the homeless what they think. And when they do ask...they simply ignore the homeless comments and suggestions. So, I believe that the protesters were being very rude to us that wanted to hear!

Benito Compito
My response is below. Thank you all for your support. It is conversations, demonstrations, and exchanges such as these that empower and motivate us to continue our much-needed work. Blessings to all of you!

With true respect to Benito Compito (aka OG Man), he is clearly unfamiliar with the Los Angeles Catholic Worker. He inaccurately claims we leave our average shift for our “comfortable homes” without concern for drug trafficking or the pollution of Skid Row, and are creating damage along the way.

The Los Angeles Catholic Worker, with a base community of ten workers, is rooted in the practical application of simplicity. Contrary to Mr. Compito’s accusation, we do not leave our soup kitchen for our cozy lives. We live, instead, in Boyle Heights, an area still pained by gang violence and suffering from increasing gentrification. Our lifestyle is supported purely by donations that are not tax-deductible; we live through the summers without air conditioning, and through the winters without heaters; much of our food is donated, and sometimes it is a second-hand donation; we do not have cable, a microwave, clothes dryer, dishwasher, or carpet. More importantly than what we do and do not have, we maintain the ideology of simplicity because we make every effort to sustain solidarity with the men and women we serve. A delicate balance is made between our service at the kitchen, our lifestyle, and our survival as a community.

In addition, we currently host nine guests who are formerly homeless. We support each person in the house, which could include accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment, speaking in Spanish or translating, and cleaning the house to provide a livable space. If we had enough rooms, we would give them to more of our friends in need. Our work does not end at 5pm, as Mr. Compito implies. Rather, our lives are immersed in our work.

Many of our brothers and sisters in Skid Row suffer from addictions or are engulfed in the unfortunate dealings of drugs. We are very much aware of the plight of the poor and homeless. The Catholic Worker practices mercy, not the idea of “justice” supported by the LAPD, court and jail systems—an idea that resulted in the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), a city- and police-supported effort to “clean up” Skid Row. According to Gary Blasi, UCLA law professor and author of “Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness? The First Year of the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row,” in the first seven months (September 2006-April 2007) of the SCI, the LAPD added 50 more police officers to the 0.85 square miles that create Skid Row, and arrested an average of 750 people per month. Arrests for drug offenses, constituting over half of the arrests in the seven month period, were often made by undercover cops pretending to need two rocks of cocaine. Not being a dealer, the suspect offered to buy some with the $20 offered if s/he could share in the purchase. This arrest would be counted as a drug sale, rather than drug use. Only 22 arrests were made for serious violent crimes: homicide (1), robbery (8), aggravated assault (13), rape (0). We call for true justice, that which is not based in fear-mongering, deceit, and skewed priorities.

At the Catholic Worker, we provide resources through our clinic and strong relationship with Clean Needles Now, which assists drug users in disease prevention, and rehabilitation resources. We care deeply for the health of each and every person on Skid Row, and to be charged otherwise only demonstrates ignorance toward our organization.

The pollution of Skid Row is a serious issue, one that could be brought under slight control through the existence of porta-potties and waste cans in the area. On and off the streets, the Los Angeles Catholic Worker prides itself on the cleanliness of the area once we leave. Earlier this year, a number of Hippie Kitchen patrons noted a sewer overflowing with human waste just blocks away from our kitchen. While the sewer was out of our range of vision from the kitchen, a worker called the city and requested an immediate response. Just 45 minutes later, the sewer was under control. We believe that by keeping, at the very least, our corner of Skid Row clean, it inspires a bit of dignity. Yet dignity is a quality consistently raped from the people through poverty, disease, harassment by police, and the continued silence and idleness of our city and state officials.

Mr. Compito believes our work creates “damage.” I would be interested to hear specific situations in which we hurt, oppressed, neglected or in any way caused harm to the suffering in Skid Row. I would also encourage Mr. Compito to compare such, if any, instances with the police brutality that occurs daily in the same area. Jaywalkers are receiving tickets for over $150; and with a monthly General Relief income of $221, many “criminals” are ending up in jail because they are unable to pay citation fee. Men and women are being arrested for having shopping carts and milk crates, items considered by the LAPD to be “stolen property.” A patron on the Hippie Kitchen just last week told me that the private security in Skid Row took his cart with all of his belongings which was left on the sidewalk while he came to the kitchen to get a plate of food. When he heard his things were being confiscated, he ran to the security officers to get his cart. Asking for simply his blanket, he was refused. The security officers said it was no longer his property: it had all been seized.

It is clear Mr. Compito was displeased, as were the city representatives, with our presence on Tuesday. He notes that we had the freedom of speech, but he wanted the freedom to hear. Mr. Compito was more than welcome to hear on Tuesday, but he had to hear more than one side. Sadly, protest is welcome only if it does not steal the spotlight, ask challenging questions, or create tension. Our leaders anticipate silence, neutrality and cooperation, and when members of this democratic society call upon their rights to speak out, it is deemed “rude.”

Rudeness should not even be a topic of discussion regarding our actions on Tuesday. We interrupted a speech. In comparison, Mayor Villaraigosa is working with developers and the police to push out the homeless to create room for revenue. The people are being sacrificed on the altar of capitalism, surrounded by wreaths of handcuffs, taser guns, jaywalking tickets and jail sentences. Too often, we witness the increased victimization of the men and women of Skid Row. We refuse to be silent until the communities in Skid Row are recognized, respected and heard.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Recent Happenings

My Birthday! On March 20, the CW helped me celebrate my 23rd birthday with pizza, beer, music and (as seen above) dancing.

Stations of the Cross. Each year, the Catholic Worker hosts Stations of the Cross around "places of darkness" downtown such as the prison, courthouse, police stations and more. The ceremony parallels the suffering of Jesus to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in places of war, poverty and neglect. About 100 people showed up to walk and be witness to the men and women who are victim of our society.

Kelly visited! Only here for one night, but we drove around the downtown area, took a tour of the kitchen and had a delicious dinner at Jim's (our local burger/Mexican joint).

For Easter, we hosted a huge brunch enjoyed by many. And the following week, we hosted the annual Seder, a traditional Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. This was the LACW's 35th Seder, and we had an enthusiastic crowd, bouncing music and lots of wine.

Today, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa held a press conference across the street from our kitchen today announcing the installation of streetlights into Skid Row. Of course, the LACW believes that streetlights and housing are not mutually exclusive... so, the mayor, the city representatives and the press all heard our views. Normally, I wouldn't be supportive of such noise, but when the voices of the homeless are consistently ignored for the money of developers, it seems this is the only method of communication that is effective. Read the LA Times article (accompanied by video), see the KNBC clip, the KTLA clip, and the ABC story.

Enjoy, expect more updates soon (more details, as well).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

End Immediacy Immediately!

A theme that has been rolling around in my mind for the past few weeks is immediacy. I see this in my everyday life: drinking coffee to quickly wake up (and be tolerable), driving home instead of walking/riding a bike/using public transportation, e-mail/internet, throwing away recyclables at the kitchen. Waking up naturally, walking home, sending my letters via USPS, and making trips to the recycling center would all take time for which I seemingly do not have. The catch is that I do, in fact, have that time; so the question becomes: Do I have the motivation?

But the types of immediacy I have been contemplating are on a grander scale. In terms of capitalism, consumerism, materialism, war, and political "reform," long-term planning is not a priority (unless it has to do with money). For example, instant gratification is found at WAL*MART and McDonalds, because what we want is in front of us for a low price. Even though we know that WAL*MART has horrible employment practices and sells goods made by our exploited brothers and sisters overseas, Americans continue to buy. Even though we know McDonald's victimizes the environment and our health, Americans continue to buy.

And we continue to support immediacy in our politics and foreign affairs. The war in Iraq will bring in its fifth year on March 20 (I might forget that if the war hadn't started on my 18th birthday). Is our idea of peace in the context of immediacy? Is peace, to US citizens and our leaders, simply the absence of violence, obtained by killing/bombing/paralyzing the enemy to prevent retaliation? It seems this is our idea of peace, reached with speed. Why else would we sit by and allow the incessant bombing of innocents half a world away?

Dearest to my heart at this moment in my life, however, is the immediacy in which the homeless are mistreated. Lofts, high rises, apartments, condos, and general gentrification is rampant, to say the least, in Skid Row (known to builders/lofters/city council as "central city east"). Our brothers and sisters on the streets are pushed out, away from services, to make room for those who can afford, at the end of 2007, a "median price of $410,000". Arrests, police harassment, and encouragement from Cardinal Mahoney to stop sidewalk giveaways are mutating Skid Row into an even more unwelcoming and inhabitable area. All for economic growth. All for immediate profit.

Meanwhile, I am participating in a movement that recognizes the inability to achieve immediate results. The peace movement is a lifelong struggle that bears little fruit only if we hold the same standards of the businesses and politicians. We peaceniks receive little physical reward of years of hard work; we do not gain tremendous financial profit; we are not internationally renowned; we have no alliances with powerful organizations and groups such as the armed forces, city planners, and CEO's. Instead, we trudge on through the quagmire of violence and try to resurrect hope. It is a thankless job.

But even in these past months, I have discovered my own nonviolent self. I am nowhere near completely accepting nonviolence as my whole self as my language and attitude still exhibit violence and negativity. Yet, I know that I am capable of being peaceful; and even more, I know that each person is capable of being good. We all have to be willing to leave behind the temptation of immediacy. We must accept the bondage of patience, trust in mercy, and dedicate ourselves to others. The question is not if we can do this, rather when. When will we be motivated to save our world?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Got to Pray

MC Hammer came out with a "song" in 1990 telling anyone who would listen: "We need to pray/just to make it today." The Los Angeles Catholic Worker, although founded almost two decades before the song hit the charts, shares similar sentiments. We pray everyday, and often times more than once. We also have a two hour Bible study each Wednesday, followed by an evening liturgy service. If you're in LA, come by and visit to experience it!

Even though I have gone through youth groups, Sunday school, confirmation, retreats, and many other Catholic rituals, praying has never been my strong suit. But having it integrated into community life has helped me to appreciate the words that we recite in unison. The words have new meanings each day and I am surprised by my consistent desire to be centered when the community shares the short moments of prayer. The time is precious reflection we have each day.

The prayers below are the ones we use most often. Enjoy!

I should like a great lake of finest ale, for the King of Kings
I should like a table of the choicest food, for the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, and the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast, for they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast, for they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, and the sick dance with the angels
God bless the poor, God bless the sick, and bless our human race.
God bless our food, God bless our drink, all homes, O God, embrace.
--St. Bridget of Kildare

Oh, God, when I have food, help me to remember the hungry.
When I have work, help me to remember the jobless.
When I am without pain, help me to remember those who suffer.
And in remembering, help me to destroy my complacency and bestir my compassion.
Make me concerned enough to help, by word and deed,
those who cry out for what we take for granted.
--Samuel Pugh

You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry,
heavier than the bowl of soup and the full basket.
But you will keep your gentleness and your smile.
It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do.
You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and always good humored.
They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting masters you will soon see.
The uglier and dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting,
the more love you must give them.
It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you,
the bread you give them.
--St. Vincent de Paul

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
--Thomas Merton

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Why Worry?

I got out of the house a little tonight. Saw For the Bible Tells Me So, a documentary about homosexuality and the Bible. Very interesting. Something I recommend for everyone to see, no matter your spiritual and sexual orientations.

Since the movie was played in Pasadena, I called up Mariah, a dear friend, Pasadena resident and LACW '07 Summer Intern. She was working at a cute little coffee shop, and she gave me a delicious soy Mexican chocolate latte (which explains why I am writing this blog entry at 11:30pm).

During our conversation, Mariah mentioned worrying about change and how that worry is more stressful than the change itself. I wanted to start crying. I reached out for Mariah's hand and said, "You have no idea how much that helps me."

I have been blessed enough to be considered for a position with the Holy Cross Associates, a post-grad service program via the Holy Cross Order (i.e.: Nortre Dame, and University of Portland--my alma mater). The placement for this particular program is Santiago, Chile, for a period of 18 months. While details are slowly trickling in, and there are no concrete plans, I am mentally preparing myself for some major changes within this year.

However, along with the preparation comes doubt, fear, anxiety. This is all very similar to my experience during my last two months in Portland this past summer. Looking toward my move to Los Angeles, I found myself distant from close friends, overanalyzing my future, and in constant stress. Instead of embracing the change and taking full advantage of my time and people in Portland, I was focused on the aspects of my life that were out of my control. And I find myself thinking the same things all over again today.

I have always been a control freak. Over a decade has passed, but my family still makes fun of me for "helping" my brothers open gifts on birthdays, Christmas, etc. Our videocamera captured many occassions which ended with my hands around the present and my pudgy face expressing more surprise and glee than the brother who actually received the gift.

Since moving from Portland, I have made a conscious effort for the very first time in my life to let go of control and let life take its own pace. I have forced myself to live day-to-day, or at least try. It has been a difficult transition, but a fruitful one. And I have noticed little changes, ones most likely only noticable to myself.

Mariah's unintentional advice could not have come at a better time. I was ready to, emotionally and mentally, start saying goodbye to the Catholic Worker, even though I might not be leaving until as late as August. I was ready to be at a plateau, seeking no further responsibilities and not making attempts to fulfill a role outside the Worker. But she reminded me of the pain I put myself through waiting for my transition to come when I was in Portland. It was wasted time.

So while I have no idea what will happen to me from here on out, I have to take deep breaths and accept my inadequacy to control the universe. I have to appreciate that I am here in LA, doing incredible work with dedicated and spirited people. I have to remember that so far, my life has been extremely blessed and I have had little control over it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

SOAW Comes to LA!

Getting back to work from a vacation is a tough, and often swift, transition. Returning to Los Angeles from a 26 hour train ride on New Year's Day, I found myself signed up for all the early shifts for the week and some additional resposibilities for the next days. While I was a bit overwhelmed by this, I had no idea that the duties with the Catholic Worker would be the easy part of my week.

In December, Margaret had attended a planning meeting for the SOA Watch Los Angeles chapter. It had been decided by local organizers and activists to bring the SOAW vigil to Los Angeles, and Margaret was delegated the intimidating task of constructing the puppets. The conversation, according to Margaret, was something along the lines of...

Activists/Organizers: We need to have some puppets at this rally! Who has experience with puppets?

Margaret: Well, I've helped people make them once.

Activists/Organizers: Great! You can be in charge! Next item...

The rally was set for Saturday, January 12. When Margaret and I returned from our respective vacations home, we realized that there were 10 days for two large (approximately 8'x4') puppet heads, two pairs of hands, and more. Margaret seemed to have the project, timeline and her stress under control, so I gladly followed her lead in hopes of being more help than a burden.

We started on the last Friday of the school's winter break, meeting at Sacred Heart, a local all-girls high school. Surprisingly, more than 10 girls showed up. We worked through the weekend and entire following week to prepare the larger-than-life faces and supporting pieces.

The two faces were made to represent Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Rufina Amaya. Archbishop Romero was a significant icon in El Salvador against the corrupt government and a voice for his people. He was assassinated in 1980 by SOA graduates. Rufina was the only survivor of the El Mozote massacre in 1981. The massacre, in the country of El Salvador, was carried out by SOA graduates, and the death toll exceeded 800. She passed away in 2007, and her courage and message of hope were celebrated this year in the national SOA Watch vigil in Georgia.

Margaret and I quickly found ourselves waist deep in hours of work each day, spending more time with teenagers than we ever anticipated, and flying by the seat of our wheat paste-coated pants. Each day, each task, we looked at what we needed to do and tried to quelch the growing sense of anxiety. But we were saved by many generous people:

--The students of Sacred Heart High School: The young women sacrificed their last days of winter vacation, lunch hours, and even talked their way out of some classes their first week back to come paint, glue, tape, draw, cut, and transport these puppets. Not only were they excited about the puppets, but they were so passionate about the SOAW movement that they affected Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the founder of the movement. They were a workforce and consistent stream of energy.

--The staff of Sacred Heart High School: Without their permission to use their facilities to create and store our more than 20 puppets, Margaret and I would have been forced to push them into some random place at the Catholic Worker. Also hosted at the school was the press conference for the event and two days of Fr. Roy's presence. The staff welcomed so warmly the involvement of the activists and students.

--Arnie (above: far right): Our drum guru drove up from San Diego just days before the rally to assemble the equipment for the drum corps. His sarcasm, musicality and willingness to help us out was refreshing. His coordination of the drum corps brought dance, and a young, bright spirit to the performance. After the rally was finished, he even waited with Margaret and me in the park for our ride home. How sweet!

--Beth (above: bottom left) and Jake (below): Two superb puppetistas who took time out of their busy schedules to mentor Margaret and I in the art of puppet-making. Beth came our second day to help form the heads of Rufina and Oscar, which sounds like a small task; but without her knowledge and handy staple gun, Margaret and I would have resorted to copious amounts of duct tape. And when I say "copious," I mean more than the 4 rolls we went through.

Jake came to us from New Haven for the last 3 days of preparation. He restored our positive energy about the project by exhibiting his own excitement. Not only did he teach us how to construct and walk on stilts, but he reassured us that the work we had done was impressive for novices. He also secured the larger puppets and led the rehearsal session of the performance on Saturday.

--Patricia (above: far right): She let us take over her classroom, which is no overstatement. Mid-way through our 9-day project, the back half of her room was rendered useless and transformed into a cardboard jungle hiding tools, tape, cloth and miscellaneous puppet accessories. Patricia is also an inspiration to her students. During her religion classes, she encourages the girls to talk about social justice issues, highlights the importance of prayer supported by action, and teaches out of books she chooses (her qualifications for a good religion book: must mention Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero). Each year, she leads a small group of Sacred Heart students to the SOAW rally in Georgia.

--Margaret: The brave soul who took on this project with little experience and less sleep. She spent hours researching the necessary steps for proper construction, and even more time reflecting on how to respectfully bring to LA the emotions, message and performance of the SOAW in Georgia. Margaret put her complete energy into this project, and the final result mirrored her leadership, enthusiasm and passion for the SOAW.

After facing problems ranging from paint and paste stains to a useless staple gun to a collapsing Oscar Romero, we completed the two heads, their accompanying pairs of hands, three birds of death, a helicopter, and other painted cardboard pieces to represent village life. In addition, we constructed four pairs of stilts and learned to walk on them. Wow.

Saturday came, and Jake led the rehearsal. The village puppets come in, followed by the drum corps. Then, the birds of death fly in, along with the helicopter and attack the villages.

The villages are injured and fall to the power of the enemy.

Rufina and Oscar enter, bringing with them their spirit and message, to defeat the evil forces and ressurect the villages.

After this performance, Jake instructed everyone to come together to begin dancing and celebrating. "Only one rule!" he shouted. "You need to grab someone's hand and bring them in the dance with you." Margaret and I looked at one another with tears streaming down our faces. The long days and short nights, the paint that wouldn't scrub off of our fingers, the soreness from squatting, lifting, crouching and bending, and the distant feeling of hopelessness were forgotten during the rehearsal. All we saw was our work physically actualized.

The performance was beautiful. The day was clear, and the only reason we stopped the celebration was because the park was going to close for the night. For the first SOAW rally in Los Angeles, it was a success. And now, almost a week after the rally, I am still filled with the amazement I had that afternoon.