Tuesday, May 31, 2011

what I think about when I think about faith, part 3

Part one is here. Part two is here.

And at long last, here is part three.

I graduated from college in 2006, which makes this year my fifth year out (holy crap, that's scary).

During my first year out of college, I joined the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps (CapCorps for short). They placed me at N Street Village, a nonprofit that serves homeless women. N Street started out of Luther Place Memorial Church in the 70s, when the church decided to open its doors and let people sleep inside. It's grown into a multi-services organization open to people of all (and no) faiths. I was in the day center, where anyone could walk in off the street and find a safe place to spend the day.

I'd already spent a bunch of time hanging out with people who were homeless, but I never had to enforce specific rules or boundaries other than my own personal ones. But suddenly, here I was, this 23-year-old kid who had to tell women twice her age that they couldn't get more than one shirt out of the clothing closet or had to do one more chore in order to come inside during the weekend. Add race to the whole thing, and I was a rather confused mess.

The women told me that they liked me because I treated them like people, not clients. I was bad at my job for the same reason. I had a hard time putting my foot down because my head got in the way. My boss, the day center manager, was probably a saving grace here: she was formerly homeless and a recovering alcoholic who'd gone through N Street's program herself. She could pick out bullshit a mile away. She often picked out my bullshit a mile away.

"No one's crazy 24/7," she'd say to us. Even our most mentally ill clients had stunning moments of lucidity. We had one women who was schizophrenic who rarely ate; we used to coax her with peanut butter and jelly because for months, that was the only thing she would eat. Then, one day, out of the blue, she looked up at us and said, "Why are you giving me peanut butter? I don't want peanut butter."

I have tons of stories about N Street (at least one ends with bruises up and down my arms). But that was only part of my year. There was also my housemates (who are wonderful) and the Capuchin Franciscans, with whom we spent a lot of time.

The Capuchins taught me about life together, about being in a place where you (plural) sometimes have disparate views but a common purpose. The Capuchins lived together in a friary, 35 men under one roof. You can imagine that they must butt heads a lot. We'd go over for Sunday evening prayer and dinner once a month or so, and it was sort of funny--barring any other visitors, it would be us four girls and a room full of brown habits.

We had a house friar, Brother Mark (one of my housemates nicknamed him our "frother-brother"), who'd come over once a week, have dinner with us and hang out. If there were conflicts, he'd be the one to mediate; luckily, we didn't have serious conflicts, and we got along well (our program director, Brother Dennis, called us "the walking slumber party").

Being a full-time volunteer teaches you, in some ways, about faith and trust. Room, board, transportation, and health insurance were covered. We were given $400 a month for groceries ($25/week/person), whatever we needed for transportation (for me, it was $44/month for a bus pass), and the program dealt with the rent. Other than that, we were given $100/month for living expenses. Sometimes it was plenty of money; other times, we'd get to the end of the month and have to stretch it out. It put us, in a limited way, in the position of the people we worked with, having to take their checks and make them work til the end of the month.

It wasn't perfect, obviously; most of us had savings we could fall back on, and we had numerous safety nets, like family and the volunteer corps itself. But it wasn't supposed to be an experiment, as, say, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was. It was supposed to be an experience in service, in life together, in faith.

(A side note: one of my favorite things about the Capuchins is that they rented out part of the friary space to TASSC--Torture Abolition and Support Survivor Coalition.)

The year after that, I moved to Camden, NJ. My main post about Camden is here.

Camden taught me a lot of things--things about race and class, about how the environment is connected to poverty, about the ways in which the powerful can ignore the marginalized without being affected. It also taught me about the beautiful side of the Church, because our community was connected to Sacred Heart. One of the odd things about Sacred Heart is that most of the parishioners come from outside of Camden (most of the kids at the school, by contrast, are from Camden and not Catholic. Fr. Michael jokes that it's a Catholic school for Baptist kids). Yet so many of them chose to spend their free time in our neighborhood: in the greenhouse and the garden, at the school, at Joe's Place, which serves neighborhood dinners a couple times a month. It's not perfect, obviously, because too much and you can create a power imbalance. But there's an element of working together with people, especially kids and their parents, that helps to level the playing field a little.

What it taught me was a continuation of what I learned as a YACHT kid and at N Street about the complexities of human interaction. In Camden, I was there all the time. There was no going home, because this was home. And if we are, as they say, supposed to see the face of Christ in others, then Camden is a great learning experience in that--because what do you say to the woman who shows up at your door, who's strung out on drugs and got every disease in the book? Well, you put on gloves and wrap up her bleeding hands and give her food...and when you turn around, she steals your wallet. That's my learning experience. And what it comes down to is this: what do you say to that woman the next time she comes to your door?

In other words, oh, Sarah. Where are your big ideals now? --I think part of the answer is that I've given up on big ideals (though, seriously, what is so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?), that I've consigned myself to what I can do around me.

I went back to school after my year in Camden. It's a bit like culture whiplash, going from Camden to University City. I work at a college now. In some ways, it feels like selling out, because working at a college necessarily means working with kids who are privileged in some ways. In others, it feels like I'm where I should be--working within my field, and often working with students who are underprepared for college.

The past few years have taught me this: the face of Christ is not pretty. It's often bruised, bleeding, malnourished, desperate, manipulative, angry, mean. Sometimes it tells you hard truths, and sometimes it yells at you things you don't want to hear. Sometimes it's a beautiful child; other times, that beautiful child is throwing a tantrum. Sometimes, it's your best friend; other times, it's your worst enemy.

I cannot separate my faith from the way I look at others. It's a people-trump-ideology ideology, if that makes sense ('swhy I support marriage equality, for example: because to believe otherwise hurts people I know and love). I once said to a friend of mine that my faith often follows my actions, that I can't believe unless I do. I don't necessarily think that that's a bad thing.

But also--as I was saying to another friend the other day--we are in flux. We don't stop changing, and perhaps in five years, I'll look at what I've written and realize that I'm completely different.

For now, though? This rambling set of posts hopefully gives a little bit of insight about "what I think about when I think about faith."

Monday, May 23, 2011

But to-day the struggle.

I have about 2/3 of my next "what I think about" post written, but the rest won't seem to materialize. In lieu of my own thoughts, I give you W.H. Auden's "Spain." This poem is interesting to me because Auden disavowed it years later, saying that it was "dishonest" and didn't really reflect what he thought. He wrote it after visiting Spain during its Civil War.

So, without further ado:

W.H. Auden, Spain

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,
The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;
Yesterday the prayer to the sunset
And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,
Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright
On the crag by the leaning tower:
"O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor."

And the investigator peers through his instruments
At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus
Or enormous Jupiter finished:
"But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire."

And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets
Of the evening paper: "Our day is our loss. O show us
History the operator, the
Organiser. Time the refreshing river."

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life
That shapes the individual belly and orders
The private nocturnal terror:
"Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

"Raise the vast military empires of the shark
And the tiger, establish the robin's plucky canton?
Intervene. O descend as a dove or
A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend."

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
"O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I'm the

"Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

"What's your proposal? To build the just city? I will.
I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain."

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,
On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen's islands
Or the corrupt heart of the city.
Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond
To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises
Have become invading battalions;
And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.
Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people's army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
the photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty's masterful shadow;
To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The consious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

among the gods, who brought this quarrel on?

To start, let me say this: I have no sympathy for Osama Bin Laden. I think anyone who plans the deaths of thousands and inspires others to kill is evil.

I think, though, that his death should not be a cause for celebration but a time to step back and reflect on the last decade. Because, really? Ten years and thousands of lives, military and civilian, have been lost. And it makes me twitchy to hear chants of USA! when I think about that. Is this the end (in the sense of purpose) of what we've done in Afghanistan? (Iraq, I s'pose, is a different ball game.) The whole thing seems a Pyrrhic victory.

And then there's the fact that I am, as a Christian, called to "love my enemies." Many other people have written about this. Surprisingly (because I am, at heart, a renegade), I found the response from the Vatican rather appropriate and thoughtful: ‎"Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace." (Fr. Federico Lombardi)

Other voices that I've found interesting or thoughtful:

No Tears for Osama, No Cheers For US Imperialism:

Let me be clear: I shed no tears for bin Laden, whose murderous beyond-the-State reign, left nothing but death, grief and trauma across multiple continents. But the pursuit of bin Laden was not justification for what has been an escalation of violence and de-stabilization in the Middle East and Northern Africa, by two American Presidents. 
"USA! USA!" is the wrong response
This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history -- the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.
Beyond Retaliation

Matt Daloisio, who co-coordinates the Witness Against Torture Campaign, sounded a note that we find far more authentic than triumphal celebration. “10 years,” Matt wrote. “Over 6000 US Soldiers killed. Trillions of Dollars wasted. Hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. Tens of thousands imprisoned. Torture as part of foreign policy. And we are supposed to celebrate the murder of one person? I am not excited. I am not happy. I remain profoundly sad.”
Waking Up in a Post-Osama World
I hope that those who lost loved ones on 9/11 feel some sense of closure from the death of Osama Bin Laden.

I know I am supposed to feel like celebrating, but I just feel a deep sense of sadness as I grapple with a flood of memories from the day the planes flew into the World Trade Center and the events that followed.
So, yeah, I feel sadness, not so much at Bin Laden's death itself, but at the events of the last ten years. I, fortunately, didn't lose anyone in 9/11, but my roots are in New York, and we have family still there. 9/11 happened four years after we moved out of New York, but I remember the panic I felt at the announcement--I was a senior in high school, sitting in English class, and I ran down to the main office to call my mom to see if we knew anyone who worked in or around the Towers. My grandfather, who was a Brooklyn firefighter, lost people he trained. My aunt worked in the WTC for years; she moved in '92, but she knew people who still were there.
A year and some later, people yelled things about 9/11 at me when I said that I was against the war in Iraq. Half of those people had never been to the damn city.

Anyway. There's a sort-of "I don't really know what to think" thing going on with me. I've ended up with it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and lines from Wilfred Owen ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?") and Matthew Arnold (yeah, ignorant armies and stuff) going through my head. And then there's hold onto the good and love your enemies, which is funny, because I'm not one for quoting the Bible at anyone, including myself...

Now I'm rambling. I'd love to hear others' responses.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Because, apparently, you really can't take the New York out of the girl.

 Or, I still have my accent.

What American accent do you have?
Created by Xavier on Memegen.net
New York City. You are most definitely from New York City. Not New Jersey, not Connecticut. If you are from Jersey then you can probably get into New York City in 10 minutes or less.
Take this quiz now - it's easy!
We're going to start with "cot" and "caught." When you say those words do they sound the same or different?