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."


  1. I give it three thumbs up. :)

  2. Thanks.

    Glad to know that you're putting that extra hand to use. ;)

  3. A lovely post.

    And as usual, it makes me want to answer it with a poem:

    The Star Market
    By Marie Howe

    The people Jesus loved were shopping at the Star Market yesterday.
    The old lead-colored man standing next to me at the checkout
    breathed so heavily I had to step back a few steps.

    Even after his bags were packed he still stood, breathing hard and
    hawking into his hand. The feeble, the lame, I could hardly look at them:
    shuffling through the aisles, they smelled of decay, as if the Star Market

    had declared a day off for the able-bodied, and I had wandered in
    with the rest of them—sour milk, bad meat—
    looking for cereal and spring water.

    Jesus must have been a saint, I said to myself, looking for my lost car
    in the parking lot later, stumbling among the people who would have
    been lowered into rooms by ropes, who would have crept

    out of caves or crawled from the corners of public baths on their hands
    and knees begging for mercy.

    If I touch only the hem of his garment, one woman thought,
    could I bear the look on his face when he wheels around?

  4. I don't have any poetry to add, but I agree: that was a lovely post, and an intriguing description of Christian faith.

  5. Sometimes I think an apt description of my faith is "I believe; help my unbelief" written a hundred times over.

    @Amaryllis: a lovely poem.

    Along those lines, let me submit a song from my favorite band, Over the Rhine. You can listen to it at http://youtu.be/-FyOqECvDZw

    Jesus in New Orleans

    The last time I saw Jesus
    I was drinking bloody marys in the South
    In a barroom in New Orleans
    Rinsin' out the bad taste in my mouth

    She wore a dark and faded blazer
    With a little of the lining hanging out
    When the jukebox played Miss Dorothy Moore
    I knew that it was him without a doubt

    I said, the road is my redeemer
    I never know just what on earth I'll find
    In the faces of a stranger
    In the dark and weary corners of a mind

    She said, The last highway is only
    As far away as you are from yourself
    And no matter just how bad it gets
    It does no good to blame somebody else

    Ain't it crazy
    What's revealed when you're not looking all that close
    Ain't it crazy
    How we put to death the ones we need the most

    I know I'm not a martyr
    I've never died for anyone but me
    The last frontier is only
    The stranger in the mirror that I see

    But when I least expect it
    Here and there I see my savior's face
    He's still my favorite loser
    Falling for the entire human race

  6. Sarah -
    your journey is a great teacher ... thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks, Sue. It's good to hear from you guys! How are you?