Sunday, October 31, 2010

Appetite to Connect

Walking along a sidewalk on the outskirts of Boston, my eye is drawn to a shop window displaying two rows of pumpkins. I'm in town to visit family.

Atop each pumpkin is a distinct set of eyeglasses. While admiring the playfulness of the scene, something about it captivates my attention. Before long, the somewhat overcast sky brings a drizzle, which quickly turns into a downpour. No time to lose. I keep moving.

Two weeks later, sitting with friends on a sidewalk in San Francisco, we greet passersby while holding bright green signs, which read, "No on L: Sidewalks are for people." After the event, I assemble a musical slideshow.

A week earlier, in Manhattan's Strawberry Fields, I sit at night on the grass singing along with many people gathered to remember John Lennon. The occasion: his would-be 70th birthday. A large array of candles, photos, and peace messages adorn the paved path leading up to the Imagine Circle.

Trying to capture the scene with my camera proves to be unproductive given the light level. While attempting this, I hear a familiar voice standing beside me comment on the challenge of photographing at night. Looking up, I see Marjorie Markus. She's smiling, slightly mischievously, camera in hand.

Surprised, I smile, realizing we're right where Sensing Wonder's Potluck Tea Party happens. I'm filled with gratitude for her continuing generosity and good cheer in offering her nearby apartment as the place to brew the tea as well as for her many wonderful photos of these parties. We laugh as we hug, then wander up to the Imagine Circle as more people gather. We sit on a nearby bench as forty or more voices join in a recognizable refrain, "All you need is love."

A week later, I'm sitting on the sidewalk in a soft drizzle beneath a canopy of trees along the edge of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. A series of seeming coincidences have led to my being here, among them visiting my sister who lives across the Bay.

This Sunday morning street action emerges from a weekend gathering called, "Working for Liberation: Spiritually and Socially Engaged Communities." It is jointly organized by Faithful Fools, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and The Clearview Project. The "Fools" host the gathering. Their mission is to:

learn and educate through engaging in relationships with people who are impoverished and without housing, as well as those with homes and economic wealth. Together we address the policies, attitudes and lack of knowledge that perpetuate injustice and poverty not just locally in San Francisco, but nationally and globally. Walking and working together people of privilege and people who are impoverished help one another bridge gaps and shift perceptions that inhibit personal and social change. We work to build community by breaking through boundaries that separate us, such as economic power, religious beliefs, class, race, gender, ethnicity, and together we discover what connects us.

Today's action is in harmony with this principle. Our group of sixteen is sitting to urge voters not to ratify Proposition L, which would ban sitting on the sidewalks of San Francisco. I notice a large sign on the side of a bus-stop, which displays a photo of a Civil Rights era sit-in at a 1960's lunch counter. The caption reads, "sitting is not a crime - Vote No on L."

As we sit, motorists passing by cheer us on as do many people walking by. Kay (Rev. Kay Jorgensen), co-founder of the "Fools," greets those walking by with, "Good morning!" This connects and sometimes invites conversation. Mostly, we are just sitting. Frequently, we look up and greet those passing by with a smile. The wet autumn chill calls attention to conditions of living on the street.

The previous day, I get a taste of this as we disperse after breakfast carrying nothing but bare essentials. As we check-in with one another before leaving, I share the poignancy for me of this week's Torah portion, Lekh lekha, in which Abraham is guided by that "still small voice" to go forth from his birthplace to the "land that I will show you."

Kay offers a hug before we go. She understands. I feel a few tears on my cheek.

I think of the circumstances leading me here. I think of friends in New York City, members of spiritual communities to which I belong. This very day, members of the Buddhist Council of New York are hosting an annual event, MeditateNYC, which brings together many communities offering meditation. Members of Village Zendo offer to coordinate and support the Zendo's participation in this event, a role I often play, so I can be here now. This also is the case with members of the NY Metro chapter of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Tomorrow, members of the Zendo will be visiting Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison, to facilitate a weekly meditation group.

Meanwhile, Mitzvah Day, an annual event, approaches next Sunday at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. The action-packed day includes many community-outreach projects such as cleaning the park, visiting the elderly, and preparing food for those living on the street. The congregation operates an overnight shelter on-site through the generosity of congregants who spend at least one night each year.

Also in mind are friends from the Zen Community of Oregon, where twelve years earlier I begin Zen practice. They are finishing up construction of a peace pagoda, which flows from previous peace-themed projects such as Jizos for Peace. This week, many of them sit in silent retreat.

Each of these communities is remarkably distinct in its expression of kindness. Even so, a steady stream of continuity courses through. All are what I would call spiritually and socially engaged.

At the same time in San Francisco, sixteen of us set out with a plan to remain for the most part within the Tenderloin and to re-group mid-afternoon. Our outing is a condensed form of a so-called "street retreat" or "plunge" into the world of street people. With no money, cell phone, or other belongings, kindness literally nourishes.

The first order of business is to locate a shelter for lunch. The time is 10:30am. We're told that one needs to arrive early to get in line. Two shelters are nearby and one is at a distance. I decide to walk crosstown to the further one.

Themes from the previous night's conversation are slowly churning as I walk. That previous night, we ponder in small groups, "what is social change?" For me, this ties in with another question, "What do I mean by liberation?" The most compelling and challenging theme is encapsulated in a phrase, "nonviolent disruption."

Having never heard this term before, I google it later and locate Mark Engler, on, who notes:

A standard narrative of nonviolence as a modern political instrument -- especially in the United States -- might start around the time of Henry David Thoreau, who, sitting in jail for war tax resistance, first argued that civil disobedience could undermine the legitimacy of the state and provoke a crisis in governance. The story . . . would soon rush forward to figures like Gandhi, who pioneered the strategy of how to apply nonviolent disruption on a mass scale, and to Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi's most famous American importer.

During the small group in which I'm participating, Alan Senauke, Zen teacher, folk musician, and founder of The Clearview Project, refers to Martin Luther King Jr.'s character and approach in remarking, "he had a remarkable capacity to tolerate the intolerable and keep moving. He had an appetite to connect."

This phrase echoes throughout my body as I walk the next day along Polk Street, past the Tenderloin, along sparsely populated streets, which eventually course beneath the winding freeway leading to the Bay bridge. The rhythm of my footsteps sustains me during the thirty minutes it takes to get here.

My teacher's words, "include everything," inspire me to keep going.

Reflecting on a street retreat she co-leads in lower Manhattan last year, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara speaks on the practice of "include everything" in the context of experiencing mealtime at various shelters operated by different religious institutions. She notes,

"During those four days, some things happened that directly faced me with my koan to "include everything," and I thought it might be useful to share them with you. The experiences concerned the places where we went to receive food"

After sharing impressions of what she appreciates and what she finds uncomfortable, she remarks,

"What is religion anyway? Most of us in this room have opinions about religion. I began to think of the root of the word religion. Its origins are disputed. . . great compassion, this is what motivates the volunteers of the spiritual groups, those who are out there serving food. . . Isn't that what we do, when we offer the gift of our attention and love, when we include everything?"

Moving under the freeway, I spot a street sign, "Potrero." I continue up a couple more blocks and wonder whether to ask someone. Then I see a nondescript sign across the street. It says, "Martin's."

Martin de Porres House of Hospitality or as their website states,

"Martin's as it is affectionately known, is a free restaurant, serving breakfast and lunch during the week and brunch on Sundays. Our mission is to serve in the spirit of compassion, understanding and love. We are a community of people with diverse spiritual practices although our roots are in, and we continue to be inspired by, the Catholic Worker Movement. Begun by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, the Catholic Worker phil-osophy and ideals are carried out by upwards of 200 houses worldwide in various works of mercy in the spirit of "gentle personalism."

They have been feeding people since 1971.

I arrive exhausted, shivering, hungry, and with a pounding dull ache in my head. I sleep little the night before and now feel emotions churning as much as thoughts. The place looks welcoming. Painted on the outer wall facing the street are colorful murals with words such as "peace" and "love" while not in any sort of cliched phrasing. They look like they were painted by kids.

I enter into an open-air courtyard, am cheerfully greeted by several volunteers and handed a ticket. Number 40. I'm oriented to how it works and how to make myself at home until lunch is served, about an hour later. I have been cautioned by the Fools to arrive at a shelter at least an hour before the meal as this is when folks get in line. At Martin's, there is no line. We gather in various places within the courtyard and an adjacent covered sort of picnic area.

I rest and drink in the scene. The vibe is welcoming and spacious. There seems to be room for everybody, not just physically but emotionally too. I sit on a bench and then noting some folks lying down on these, do the same. Sunshine pierces through and warms me. After a while, I get up and get a slice of fresh-baked bread from a big plastic bin. It's there to hold folks over until lunch is served. I breathe in the gorgeous aroma and take a bite - sourdough, wonderfully chewy. I smile with relief and gratitude.

I reflect on my own journey in the last year. During October of last year, my position as Staff Chaplain at Housing Works, the country's largest minority-led social service and advocacy agency for people living with HIV, is terminated due to a complex interplay of politics and funding. The majority of clients there have a history of living on the street and many are often actively in need of housing. I think about them now.

I think about how fortunate I have been in the last six months to be employed as a per-diem chaplain at two New York City hospitals. I think about waves of anxiety, which arise in me this month as this situation drastically shifts, and I apply for a second year's unemployment claim. I wonder how I will survive in the months ahead. I begin to shake as tears come in release and appreciation for the many friends and family without whose generosity, especially during the past year, I might have been facing desperate circumstances. While I don't know what is to come, I am finally able to rest.

Within minutes, someone announces that it's lunchtime. Eventually, my number is called. I get a tray and am served a bowl of spicy lentil soup, salad, and more fresh bread. It all looks amazing. I sit down at a table replete with a vase of pink carnations and bowls of freshly chopped jalapenos. An old woman with chipped pink nail polish and running mascara sits across from me. Wanting to connect, I say to her, "hey, your nail polish color matches the flowers." She smiles, looking up to the flowers, then back to her food, and says, "yup." We eat a few bites. Then she says, "how do you do your nails?"

I look down at my unpainted nails and say, "well, when I used to paint them, I'd use different colors." She looks at me and smiles. I get the sense that my response is not really connecting to what she means. I try again, "I guess I'd paint them like this," and gesture movement from the cuticle to the tip in overlapping swipes. She says, "Yeah, that's how I do it too. It lasts longer that way, doesn't chip as quick." I laugh and nod my head. Our eyes meet in a shared knowing smile.

Two men who look to be in their 60's join us. One of them asks me, "you been here long?" I reply, "not long." I remember more Fools' wisdom. Before we set out, Faithful Fools co-founder Carmen (Sr. Carmen Barsody) tells us that we might find ourselves in a situation where we'll be deciding whether to tell folks we're on retreat or whether to be, as she says, "ambiguous." I notice my inclination towards what my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Camerata called, "fruitful ambiguity." It seems authentic to the moment.

My new friend encourages me, "don't worry. It'll get better. We all make mistakes." He tells me in a tone tinged with hurt, rage, and disappointment, of being laid off by a large aerospace manufacturer after years of employment. He then goes on to tell me of his experience as a soldier in Vietnam. He says, "I told my men, if you just see women and children, hold your fire. We don't shoot women and children. But if you're carrying a MIG and you point it at me, well then I will aim right at you." Noting the incongruity of his statement (the MIG being a fighter aircraft not a firearm in ground-based combat), I still resonate with the quivering of his voice.

My mind flashes to the testimony of soldiers I have heard at the "Truth Commission on Conscience in War" earlier this year in New York City. I remember one of them speaking of the heartwrenching dilemma of children blocking a tank's forward motion. What to do?

What is truth in such a moment? What really matters? All I want to do is connect and relate. The longer I sit at the table, I realize how deeply nourished I feel. The exchange itself is kindness. Sitting here is genuine and refreshingly direct. The people eating this meal, serving this meal, the greeters, the cooks. They all offer kindness in a very matter of fact way.

This is a functional, caring community. As I get up from the table, they all wish me well. I thank them and feeling better at last, set out for the long walk back.

When I finally arrive near our meet-up place, a half hour remains until our meet-up time. I wander down the street and catch a glimpse of greenery. It's an alley between two buildings, SRO's (Single Residence Occupancies). The sign says, Tenderloin National Forest. I am captivated by its green charm and displays of artwork along the building walls and pathways.

A website for the space notes,

"Initiated by Sarah Lewison and her San Francisco State Art CityLab class on the Urban Laboratory, [it] continues to be created and implemented by the visions of a great many people in the neighborhood. . . The Forest is intended to be an inspiration and model for others to attempt gardening in the inner city."

Meandering through the forest, I bump into Tyson Casey, another participant in the retreat and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In silence, we smile in recognition and shared appreciation. Each facing a different direction, we part ways and keep moving.

A week later in New York City, I'm riding the subway during morning Rush hour. A man gets on and says loud enough for everyone to hear, "Good morning. My name is Craig Schley and I'm running for representative in the 15th district. I need your support." As two able assistants offer info flyers to passengers, he states his credentials and vision, among them being founder of an organization called, Voices of the Everyday People (VOTE People).

He then offers to shake hands with anyone who wants to. In greeting a man standing by a door near me, I hear them laugh. Craig turns to face the whole car and remarks, "Man says, 'you must not have a lot of money to ride the subway.' Well, I don't have a lot of money. And you know what Muhammed Ali said, 'You got to have skill but you need more will than skill!' "

At that, a whole lot of passengers laugh, some saying, "that's right!" He waves goodbye at the next stop, thanking everyone for their time, and gets off.

I look around. Nearly everyone is sitting now. I wonder who has money and who does not? Who is planning to vote and who is not? Tired of thinking, I listen to the rumble beneath my feet.

The train is moving.

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