Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Meeting My Inner Authoritarian

Reflection delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco on October 23, 2016.

The first trouble I remember getting into at school was in fifth grade. A student teacher was in charge for the week, and each student was given a daily allotment of blocks. Going to the bathroom now cost three blocks, a drink of water two, and one to sharpen a pencil. I thought this was unfair, and quickly used up my allotment with trips to the bathroom and pencil sharpener, and then boldly walked over to the water fountain. I was told I’d be eating my lunch in the classroom while my friends went out to the school yard. I couldn’t tell you today exactly what inspired my protest, and I didn’t win any classmates over to the cause, but I continued it for the week. The lonely lunches indoors felt right, for some reason.

Dia de las Mujeres, Managua, Nicaragua

I’ve found myself resisting authority in different ways over the years since: marching against both Bushes’ wars on Iraq, sitting against the Sit Lie law, camping out with Occupy San Francisco, en las marchas con mis companeras y companeros en Nicaragua, and dressing as Afraid the Clown to fly across country – the TSA were really good natured about the last one, and it brought a lot of smiles, but it also seems to have gotten me on a watch list. For many years, I’ve identified as a Fool, who was the one who spoke truth in the King’s court, regardless of the risk.

Yes, I have been an egalitarian consensus loving . . . fool, wearing my contempt for authority and hierarchy with pride for years.

Then I became a father. The beginning part was easy – aside from being stressed and muddle-minded from a lack of sleep – it was all about caring for and wondering over the beauty of this amazing little being. Then, they started to move, and it became about: “Don’t grab that electrical wire, take this toy instead.” “Wait! Don’t crawl headfirst down those stairs!” “Ahhh! You’re about to run into traffic!” Which kept me on my toes, but I didn’t mind because they don’t know any better. Somehow, when I first thought “now it seems like he’s doing it on purpose,” and put my son in his room to calm down, he realized that he could just walk right out. At that moment, he became the protester, and I became – the cop?

I tried – still try – to be kind and reasonable: “Buddy, I need you to stay in your room until you’re ready to not throw things.” “Hell no! We won’t go!” – Not his exact words, but you get the picture. I began to see in my actions, and even my thoughts, the behavior and logic of what we radicals – can I call myself that? – call The State and Its Agents: “I’m stopping you from doing something you’ll regret later.” “I’m doing this for the good of the community (or, in this case, the household.)” “I’m confining you until you agree to behave differently.” “I’m just trying to restrain you, not to hurt you.” Of course, the stakes are lower in our confrontations, and no one ends up bruised, let alone with broken bones or a bullet in their back.

As I watch my son resisting authority which must seem to him arbitrary and at times unreasonable, using the techniques of those with no more to resist with than their mind and body, I find myself full of questions. Is my parental authority absolute and legitimate? Are there times when the use of force is appropriate? Is there a truth I should be listening to in even his most unreasonable screaming and tantrums? In his hitting?

In calm moments like this, I am grateful for how my son reflects the world back to me, and keeps me always learning. And, though sympathetic toward his teachers and other adults, I’m proud to be raising a resistor, especially in this world where unjust authority needs to be resisted by those who can.

Perhaps I’ll teach him a song we once sang to cops arresting protesters:

“You can forbid almost anything, but you can’t forbid me to think. You can’t forbid my tears to fall, and you can’t close my mouth while I sing.”

Walking into place

On the 17 hour Amtrak ride from San Francisco to Portland, I struggled to understand exactly what I was making the trip for. Some things were clear: I want to spend time with my sister, her husband, and their 10-day old baby. Portland is one of my favorite cities to be in (not just because of my family). And the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly is here, and I will host a Street Retreat here on Saturday, as I have at GAs in Long Beach, Ft. Worth, St. Louis, and Ft. Lauderdale, as well as the 2008 Assembly in Portland.

I questioned: How could time on streets compete with a brand-new nephew? How could I connect meaningfully with the convention without paying the $400 registration (I had not requested a scholarship or volunteer shift in advance defray the cost)? Why would I sleep on the same streets, at the same convention alone, where I had with 3 other Fools in 2008?

After an evening with an adorable baby and his family, and a good night's sleep on an air-bed, I set out for the convention center on foot this morning.

Walking the streets has a remarkable ability to orient me to my relationship to a place.

As I came down Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, through historically African American neighborhoods being transformed through gentrification, I stopped at a mural on the side of a community health center. It read: "Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival. - Rene' Dubos...1981" Those words drew me into reflection on tolerance, and what we might offer each other beyond tolerance 34 years later.

I also met Simon with Boo-Boo, his 16-year-old poodle, panhandling drivers "to take care of Boo-Boo," who won't eat the dog food offered by local charities. He directed me to Blanchett House to find a free meal.

By the time I reached the convention center, it occurred to me that my work was to ground myself in the local ecology and bear witness to what happens on the boundaries between the convention and the streets.

The Faithful Fools often talk about bearing witness being our work, but remembering sometimes feels like revelation. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mirror Window Door Dream

A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the North Bay on September 23, 2007.

About three months ago, I walked into a swarm of bees.  I was on my way to a medical appointment, and over the trail from the train station to the parking lot hung a black cloud.  At first I thought it was a strange, dark dust cloud.  As I approached, I could see that the particles were too large and were moving chaotically – not in the spiral column dust moves in.  It must have been fifteen feet high and eight feet across – there were thousands of dark, buzzing bees.

I was first stung by a bee when I was about three years old.  It flew up my shirt, got trapped, and stung me in the belly.  This happened again a year or two later.  I remember associating the bee being trapped – a feeling I knew I didn't like – with its decision to sting me.  I started tucking my shirt in whenever I saw a bee or heard it buzzing.

Like other kids, I would run away when bees came.  I was fascinated that the bees would chase, and sometimes sting, children as they ran.  It made sense that bees would sting people who swatted at them – who wants to be swatted at?  But if a kid was running away, why wouldn't the bee just leave it alone?

Eventually I learned to try and be still when bees were around, to try and control my response to the fear I felt.

The last time I was stung, I was on the schoolyard, and reached back to brush something – whatever it was – off my neck.  The bee got stuck between my fingers and stung me there.  My hand swelled up and I went to the school nurse to ice my hand.
As I walked through that cloud of bees, I couldn't help but think about what it feels like to be stung; about how many bees there were around me, and how many stingers they had.  I also thought about the so-called “killer bees” that have been in the news in the past few years – notorious for attacking in swarms.  But I knew the best thing for me to do was to restrain my body's response and keep walking calmly through the swarm of fear.

As we walk through this world, the Faithful Fools try to remember that we are seeing a mirror image of ourselves – our perception, fed by our judgments, histories, and feelings, colors the way we see things.

When I look in the mirror, I often see fear.  Old fears, like my childhood fear of the dark; current fears, like of failing or appearing weak – fears that are strong and thriving, and fears that are conquered – well, they're not really conquered, I've just managed to help install a  favorable government.

Perhaps the scariest thing I've done in the past few years was going to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Long Beach.  The convention itself wasn't the problem – though trying to pick the right workshops to attend can be daunting.  I had committed that year to sleeping on the streets during the week of the convention – alone.

We've all heard stories of violence committed against homeless people – I felt extremely vulnerable sleeping outside in a public place, where all my identities – middle-class, educated, sane – get replaced by the label homeless and everything that means to people:  Poor, helpless, worthless, dangerous?

I spent the afternoon in a park where homeless people hang out, hoping to connect with someone so I wouldn't have to be alone.

I wonder now if that's why homeless people are drawn to our church communities – because it is scary to be out there on the streets alone, and it is reassuring to know there are people who know who you are, and might care about you, and about what might happen to you.

I wonder if that's why we all are drawn to our church communities.

Well, I survived the week in Long Beach, and without incident.  The worst thing that happened to me was when a pair of local police drove up and told me to leave the Convention Center.  I was sitting on the steps with my shoes and socks off – a rare treat on the streets – holding my sign as a group of UUs stood by talking.  The cops were confused when I showed them my GA name badge – in the end they told me I couldn't ask for money, and then drove off.
I have now spent the week sleeping alone on the streets during the General Assemblies at Ft Worth and St Louis as well. I go to bear witness to life on the streets of our host cities, and to embody the connection between what goes on in the Convention Centers and hotels – the discussions at the workshops, the decisions in the plenary hall that guide our denomination, the exchanges of money and words between the various businesses and their employees and the conventioneers – and what goes on in the streets, where people's lives are affected by the actions of those with power and wealth.

I also go to prepare for the One-Day Street Retreat.  A handful of GA attendees walk out the doors of the convention center and retreat from the busy workshop schedule to spend a day with me, the people on the streets, and themselves.  This has grown into a practice for some, who join the Fools on the streets each year to reflect on how they see themselves in soup lines and other places they've been told they shouldn't go.

The Faithful Fools' mission statement says, “We discover on the streets our common humanity.”

This year at the General Assembly in Portland, four of us committed to spending the week on the streets, on a Seven-Day Street Retreat.  We camped out in an empty lot two blocks from the convention center.  It had signs forbidding parking, but that's not what we were doing, so we figured we'd be okay.  Each day we took turns sitting outside the entrance  of the Convention Center with our shopping cart which held our sleeping bags, cardboard, and tarp that we used for sleeping, as well as our Fools' Hats and literature about the Faithful Fools.

Our spot on the wall outside the entrance was a real crossroads.  UUs of all stripes passed us on their ways in and out of the convention center – some stopped to talk, some seemed to give us disapproving looks.  Local Portlanders walked by on their way to and from lunch.  And occasionally visible through the center's glass walls, someone in lived-in clothes would come by collecting bottles and cans for recycling, or lie down in the grass under the shade of a tree and sleep – sometimes right next to a bench where a UU sat snoozing with their name badge on.

Ours became a listening post.  People would come out from a workshop needing to tell someone about what they had just experienced, and they knew we would be there.  Sometimes they would come excited about what they had just heard, sometimes they needed to vent.  At an event where so much was going on and everyone is on the move from one thing to the next, we could be counted on to just be there.  Isn't that what we all need sometimes, someone who can be counted on to just be there?

On the second day of the convention, some concerned UUs, a few adults and a teenage girl, came and found me at our spot.  There was a man on the corner who claimed to have been excluded from GA.  The teen, sensitive as most teens are to being left out, seemed especially concerned.  They wondered if there was anything we Fools could do to help this man.  I didn't know if I could help, but I knew I could try.

A major part of the Faithful Fools work is what we call accompaniment.  I see it as similar to the type of support my friends and family have offered me over my life.  We take people to doctor's appointments, or go with them to the welfare office, or to drug-treatment clinics, and walk with them through the process of moving their life in the direction they would like to change.
Many people who find themselves on the streets have gotten there, in part, through bad experiences with institutions.  Some people who are adept at interpersonal relationships struggle to translate that skill into successful negotiations with the world of rules and regulations, paperwork, long waits and deadlines.  Sometimes it helps to have a friend along – someone to turn to when things get stressful; someone to see the way the system that is meant to work for you seems to work against you, and to commiserate over it; someone to speak up for you when your voice feels small in the face of an organization which seems huge, and whose representative is “just doing their job” which is not treating you like a person, but as a “case,” or worse, a problem.  Sometimes it helps to have someone who isn't quite as stressed out because it is not their life on the line who can remember that the person just doing their job is a person – who is probably also stressed – and deserves a thank you, even when things don't go perfectly.

So I went over to talk to this man, whose name is Michael, and who stood there on the corner in front of the Portland Convention Center with a sign that read, “UUs said all are welcome, but I am not allowed in.”

This sign, of course, had caught a lot of attention.  We UUs like to think of ourselves as welcoming and open to diversity of beliefs, background, and ability.  And we feel challenged by the idea that we are not.
I listened to Michael's story, and told him I would see what I could do.

I went into the GA registration office and listened to their story – their were frazzled after registering nearly 10,000 people – they quickly referred me to the Chaplain who had met with Michael the previous day.
I listened to the Chaplain, who seemed to take my concern and offer to help as a sign that I needed pastoral care – which bothered me – and referred me to the “Right Relations Team.”

I listened to a wonderful, compassionate young woman from the Right Relations Team who said, “there's nothing you can do.”

Before coming to stand on the corner holding his sign, Michael had spoken to the GA staff Psychiatrist and Chaplain, and their decision was that “it would be best for Michael and the community if he just went home.”  They felt Michael might pose a danger to himself or someone else were he to come to GA.

Beyond that, I feel the details of the story are not important here, and I'll tell you why in a moment.

I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist Church, and spent the first years of my life as a Scientific Fundamentalist – I was successfully taught to believe that all the world's big questions could be explained and understood through scientific principles and use of the Scientific Method, and I tended to ridicule as fanciful spiritual traditions and ideas.  By age twenty, I had studied at least a year each of university level Physics, Biology, and Chemistry – the foundations of scientific belief.
I came to understand the human thought process as a series of reactions to stimuli dependent on environmental conditions.  I saw each of us as coming to be who we are, where we are, as the result of knowable processes in a larger context of inevitable evolution.  Things were as they were, and people were as they were, and there wasn't anything significant I could do to change them, and indeed the natural order of the world suggested that I shouldn't.
A content person was the happy result of the evolutionary process – good parents, good genes - and a suffering person was the unfortunate byproduct of the same process.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, lingered a question: “In the midst of all this inevitability, how could I feel like I actually had a choice?”

The scientist within me began asking why I felt like I could make decisions – if thought were the result merely of predictable electro-chemical reactions, what would be the purpose of feeling like I had a say in what I thought or did?  And wouldn't this kind of unproductive philosophizing have been naturally selected out?  Picture early humans on the plains of Africa:  One is thinking, “how can I get that gazelle meat to my family without being eaten by those lions?”  The other, “how does my brain get to choose which gazelle I should try to eat?”  I've got a good guess which one contributed more offspring to the gene pool.
I lived with this question for a few years until, while taking a comparative religion course, I performed what I consider to be the most important scientific experiment of my life.  I committed to, through the course of the class live my life as if I believed the teachings of each book we studied while we were studying that particular book.
We started with the Bhagivad Gita, where I got my first in depth introduction to Karma.  I began living my life as if I could change the world, or at least my experience of it, by changing my thoughts and actions.  I began acting more generous and patient – acting more generous and patient, even, than I actually felt.  I tried to think good thoughts about people – including my boss and the customers who had annoyed me at the store I worked in.

The experiment was so successful that I am still performing it each day, to the best of my ability.  And the data show, again and again, that I can affect my life, and even the lives of others by my actions.
I am currently attempting to discipline myself so as to discover if there are limits to the energy produced by generosity.
And this is what called me to offer my help to this man outside the General Assembly – a desire to explore the idea that each of our actions have the potential to transform our own experience of the world, another's experience, and our experience of another.  Perhaps it could be stated as a deep curiosity about what it would mean to our community and to this man's life were we to reach inside ourselves and find a way to include him.

What would it mean to him to be accompanied on his journey from outsider to insider, from being labeled “dangerous” to being labeled “welcome”?  What would it mean to the GA staff and volunteers to be accompanied on their journey from being “tired and at the end of their resources” to being “able to find a way to accommodate and forgive”?  What would it mean to our Unitarian Universalist community to be accompanied on our journey from being “a group of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly middle-class religious liberals” to being “the faith tradition that works the hardest to live out our principles and make our message available to all people”?   And what would it mean for this man, the staff and volunteers, and the UU community to accompany me on my journey from being “resigned to accept the limits of human compassion” to being “energized by the belief that one committed individual can make a difference”?
The details of Michael's story aren't particularly relevant because, I believe, none of the players in the story acted unjustly.  The GA staff were doing what they could to protect the thousands of people who rely on them to do so.  They were acting on their best judgment.  I was frustrated because I came not just to say “this is wrong, you have to do this differently!”  I came to offer a way.  I offered myself, and the other Faithful Fools at GA with experience doing so, to accompany Michael while he was at GA.  To be there with him to keep him and the community safe.

We put up these boundaries - these windows from which to watch the world pass by, these doors to open and close to those we choose – to keep us safe, and it takes trust to let down our guards and let someone in.  I had not yet built that trust with the GA staff.

What does it take to build that trust?
It takes, for one thing, familiarity.  The stranger we see out the window becomes less and less strange over time, until one day they are no longer strange.  It takes hanging out on the boundary, going back and forth through the doors until no one is sure any longer whether you belong inside or out.

We all live there, on the boundary.  We tell ourselves otherwise to make our lives simpler, but we are never really in one place or the other:  We are not “young” or “old” we are right between the age we were and the age we are becoming.  Even our shared religious identity, Unitarian Universalism, isn't a belief we all share, but rather describes our commitment to come to places like this on Sundays and share the journey from what we once believed and what we will soon believe.
It is our task to walk with each other through the boundaries, the glass doors, the bee swarms, the hard parts of our lives, until the barrier becomes as thin as a light mist.

In his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us.  If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.  And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.  How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last minute are transformed into princesses?  Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Caroline Casey, who hosts the “Visionary Activism” show on KPFA radio, gives one of my favorite quotes:
“The secular critic holds a mirror to the world and says 'tsk, tsk, tsk.'
With a wave of his hand, the trickster turns the mirror into a window and says, 'This is how it could be...'
With another wave, it becomes a door and he says, 'Let's go there!'
With one more wave, the door disappears, and he says 'It's all a part of the same dream.'”

May we all dream our dragons into princesses.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Art of Walking the Streets

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin, on May 31, 2015.

A Seven-Day Street Retreat is an extended ritual of gathering, walking the streets and living in reflection, and regathering to reflect together. As Performance and Ritual share the same mother, it is also my favorite work of performance art. In concluding this year’s retreat, I asked:

“What is the art of walking the streets?”

...and wrote in response:

No room for the Fools, even in the manger.
“In this performance, eight Fools went out into the streets of downtown SF, with only what they could carry, living as they imagined they would if they were homeless. There were spectators, who merely observed the Fools from a distance, as well as other players - some willing, some not. Some played along, treating these Fools like the roles they imagined they were in. Others treated them like the actors they knew them to be.

“Sometimes, it was hard to know the difference.

“Did the Fools change how they see themselves by walking through this space of confused identity?

“Did how the world sees itself, or how the world sees people on the streets, change by the Fools being seen in these roles?

“How would we know?”

Of course, we can’t know. But we do know that art changes the world, through changing how we see it. A great work of art does not change the world in one specific way, as it is seen and interpreted in countless ways. Art that attempts to speak only one message is called “propaganda.”

This is not what we are attempting in presenting the Street Retreat.

What is changed when Faithful Fools sleep outside of a church on sheets of cardboard? When rain soaks through their sleeping bags? When they gather under the eaves of another church, in front of a painting of a manger? When a man who has lived on the streets for years joins them, after being run off by a security guard, from another part of that church’s property? When that same security guard comes upon the group of them, tells them they can rest there a moment, but not the whole night - and does not return to make sure they don’t stay?

We may not see the change, but we know it’s there.

On the last morning of the Retreat, I stood outside my favorite coffee shop, begging for a hot cup. It isn’t easy for me to ask for help, and especially not for money. I hoped the empty cup in my hand, my tiredness, and slept-in clothes would tell the story for me, as I said “good morning!” to everyone who passed. Some returned the greeting on the way into, or out of, the coffee shop. One man tied up his two dogs, and asked me to watch them while he was inside. I did.

After standing there for over an hour and getting nothing, I realized I was glad to be playing the role of morning greeter. In the city I want to live in, people say “hi” to each other on the street.

Something changed.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Reflection on Spiritual Transformation

Reading this reflection at the UU Church of SF
After spending most of my childhood attending Sunday School at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco, I finished high school without feeling like I really knew what Unitarian Universalists believed. My explanations to friends at school mostly emphasized accepting other people’s beliefs – which is important – but they didn’t include mention of the bonds I made with amazing people in different stages of life, or much of what we did together. The explanations always felt weak.

When George Bush – the first one – invaded Iraq, my attention was drawn to the region, and the history of fighting there, and how closely battle lines paralleled religious divisions. I decided I was an atheist, and done with organized religion – not that I would stop attending youth group on Sunday nights, though, nor did I renounce my membership in the church.

It wasn’t until I was attending college in San Diego that I began to appreciate what UUs believe. I felt surrounded by people with conservative views – on campus, and in the city at large. As a continuing member of this church, I received a copy of the UU World, our national newsletter. It was here that I found voices resonant with my beliefs, so when I came back home, I came back to church.

At the same time, I was taking a comparative religion course at City College and, being open to other's beliefs and having been brought up with a scientific background, I decided to conduct an experiment: as we read the different religious texts, I would try to act as if I believed what I was reading. It started with the Baghavad Gita, where I read about karma. I went about my days acting like I believed in karma, and within a week, I was no longer an atheist. I wasn't sure what I believed, but I knew I believed something.

After a couple of years working with the middle schoolers in the Sunday School, I was asked by Kay Jorgensen, who was our Social Justice Minister, if I would volunteer with the Faithful Fools as a Shadower on something called a “Street Retreat” in the Tenderloin. I was skeptical of the Faithful Fools and their “Street Retreats” – after all, I hung out in the Tenderloin, with my friends in rock bands who lived there in cheap apartments – but I believed in the value of Unitarian Universalist youth being exposed to the neighborhood, and the people who lived there.

I first made my own Street Retreat, and realized this was a different way of walking the streets. My experience accompanying the youth on their own Retreats strengthened that realization. The young people expressed new appreciation for their full refrigerators – including for the foods they didn’t like to eat. They noticed the beauty of community in a place they expected to be sad or scary. They bore witness to people’s struggles, and to inspiring efforts to overcome them. In some cases, they came to know other people’s challenges, as difficult as the ones they themselves were facing.

As we Faithful Fools say, they discovered on the streets their common humanity.

And I kept walking the streets, both because of what I was discovering and because of what I saw others discovering, until this act of presence in the Tenderloin became my way of life, and I was asked to do it as a full time job.

I was to speak to how Unitarian Universalist youth, dozens of whom do Street Retreats each year as part of the Coming of Age program, are transformed by the Street Retreat. I do not know that any one was transformed by a day on the Tenderloin’s streets. What I do know is that they, along with thousands of other youth and adults who have made Street Retreats, have been introduced to a practice – which I believe to be a Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice – of encountering themselves and others in an articulation of our values of accepting and loving one another for who we are, and recognizing that we can all be teachers to each other.

And that, I believe, is our work as a community: to create a space in which each of us can be transformed by the possibility of our being together, while our togetherness is transformed by each of us being here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Unblocking the path

A different car blocking a bike lane in S.F.
After spending most of the afternoon on hold or talking with representatives of my health care provider, trying to ensure that they weren't going to end my insurance while I wait for my funds to get moved from the wrong account to the right one (I may be writing about the sanity of single-payer healthcare soon), I left for home from the Tenderloin in a somewhat agitated state. I was with my 16-month-old son, who does a lot to lift my spirits, and we were going home by bicycle, which is easily our favorite way to get home, so it seemed I wouldn't be feeling stress for long. We were riding home through Golden Gate Park, which is beautiful no matter what the weather, though the ever-increasing encroachment of parked cars into the bike lane can sometimes be a downer.

I was making plans for dinner and a couple of quick errands as we passed the waterfall, which signals it's time to prepare to turn and leave the park, when I saw it up ahead: there was a car parked right in the bike lane! This wasn't mere encroachment. Half of the car was in the lane, and the other half - well, there was no parking space there, they were basically parked in the bike lane in a section of road that should have no parked cars!

The idea of spitting on the car crossed my mind, as bad an example as that would have set for my son. Then I had a better idea - perhaps they were still in the car (I mean, really, why would they choose to park so badly, and right there?), and I could talk to them about their bad choice - I would try to be assertive but polite, to be understanding but be understood, as I wanted to be on the phone earlier. Oh, good, the driver's side window was open.

As I pulled up, I realized the car was empty. No one to yell at (I mean talk politely to), I thought, that's too bad. Then I looked to see if the driver was close by - maybe they were taking a picture, or something. I stopped and stood holding the bike with my son still on it, and watched as a few people passed by - none of them moved toward the car. Then it occurred to me: maybe this car wasn't parked, maybe it was abandoned. Maybe the driver was sick in the bushes, or worse. I walked my bike back to the waterfall and approached a woman who seemed like she could be the owner of the car.

"Did you see anyone get out of that car up ahead?" I asked. She hadn't, but when I described the car she thought it could be hers, which she had parked a half-mile back. She walked back with me to check it out. She agreed it looked abandoned, and also noticed open compartments, indicating someone searching it for valuables. She thought it was probably stolen, which made sense to me. We decided to call the police. "Are you going to call 911?" she asked. I said "no," it didn't seem like anyone was in immediate danger, so we should call the local police station. "You are so good!" she said; and I felt good.

The woman completed the call to the police, and told me they didn't need anyone to stay with the vehicle, as they had her contact info. She mentioned that this stolen car could easily have been her car instead, and thought the owner would appreciate it being reported found so soon. I would say she thought she had done a good deed, and was grateful that I had brought her into this opportunity to do it.

I rode away grateful myself, not just for having had the chance to be of help, but for having been patient with my initial reaction to seeing the car. Taking the time to notice my feelings about the car, and to then stop to address them, made the space for noticing that there was a different story playing out than the one I first told myself. As we were trying to reach the police, another cyclist struck the car in anger as he rode by - I doubt if he would have wanted to hit the car if he knew it was probably thieves who had left it there.

Years ago, I decided that when drivers honked at me while I was riding my bike safely and legally in traffic, I would assume they were doing so to express appreciation of my stylish clothes or beautiful bike. Whether they were mad or not, I didn't have to get self-righteously mad back. As I headed home from the park, I remembered an insight I gained while witnessing a friend, who I consider to be the wisest person I've met, (and who is likely too modest to want to be credited here): there is not much difference between wisdom and kindness.

I don't think I've ever been so grateful to find a car blocking the bike lane. I hope I can remember this one each time I see a car in the bike lane after today.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Finding Ministry in the Streets

What holds me separate?

My first night sleeping on the streets of Long Beach I felt the separateness deeply. I walked up and down Pine Ave, looking into restaurants and bars where people with money sat at tables sparkling with glasses and plates full of food, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Somehow, the fact that I chose to allow the window to come between us for that week didn’t reduce my loneliness. I had hung out at a park outside the library that afternoon, hoping to make a friend, but no conversation got much beyond “Hello,” and certainly didn’t get to an invitation to camp out on the streets with someone, as I had hoped. So I walked alone between the worlds of the street, where I came to be, and the tourist, which is how I came to be there. That night I made my bed out of a sheet of cardboard hidden in a bush beside a bank and lay there alone thinking of all those I loved until I fell asleep.

I was there for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual General Assembly, getting to know the streets in preparation to lead a Street Retreat for conference participants, and fulfilling a vow I made four years earlier to sleep on the street if I ever returned to the Assembly. In the four years since making that vow  to myself, I had encountered the Faithful Fools, and made a practice of Street Retreats in San Francisco.

This practice of spending time in reflection on the streets for a day or a week revealed to me, again and again, aspects of the reality of poverty in the midst of wealth and wealth in the midst of poverty. I was learning to engage what I encountered on the street, in the soup lines, in others, and myself as a mirror. As I was learning to see myself in that mirror, I found the distance between my recognizing a need and acting to meet it shortening. Of course I would do what I could to make this practice available to my fellow UUs gathering from around the country. Even if it meant sleeping alone on the streets of a strange city?

I woke early in the morning, returned my cardboard to the dumpster where I had found it, and waited outside a church to get breakfast. The guy next to me in line struck up a conversation. “Where are you from?” he asked. His name was Perry. We ate together, came back a couple hours later to get a bag of groceries, and hung out at the library park. He invited me to join him that night in the shelter he stayed in, and paid my fare for the 45 minute streetcar ride into Watts – there were no homeless shelters in Long Beach at that time. He introduced me to his friends, and showed me the ropes at the shelter. Perry and I swept the floor together while the other men hung out smoking and talking in the yard. That night, the guy in the bunk next to mine told me he was stuck on the street for three more days, waiting to collect on a $50,000 legal settlement, and had three dollars to get him through till then. I said I thought it would be tough to have to wait like that. He said “It may rain pennies tomorrow.” I slept better that night.

What keeps me separate?

I was worried about telling Perry what I was doing on the streets of Long Beach, so I waited until right before I had to go to the convention center to register. He said he appreciated what I was trying to do, but I still felt caught in between worlds again – especially when a police car drove up while I was sitting on the steps talking to other friends there for the convention and asked me to leave. The officer quickly decided it was okay for me to be there, after I showed him my conventioneer’s badge.

I spent each night out on the streets, eating free meals served in local churches or parks, and spent my days in the convention center, sharing my experiences of life on the streets of Long Beach in the Assembly’s workshops, booths, and halls. My schedule at the convention became dictated by soup kitchen hours, and my time on the streets was defined by an urgency to get back to for a workshop or presentation. I never ran into Perry again that week.

What still connects me?

I felt grounded by the support of the community of Unitarian Universalists I met with each day, and began to feel like I was in the streets not just for myself, but as an extension of our collective desire to participate in needed societal change. I felt like an embodiment of the connection between what happened in the  world outside the convention center and the conversations and decision-making that went on inside.

At the end of the week, we held the one-day Street Retreat. A small group of Fools and other convention-goers took off their badges crossed the boundaries of the convention center maps to discover the humanity they hold in common with the residents of Long Beach’s streets. Our walking spelled out the words of the Fools’ mantra: “What holds us separate? What keeps us separated? As we walk the streets, what still connects us?” Together, we made the walls of the convention center, and of our own hearts, more permeable. I returned home changed by the week’s experiences.

We enroll in street level learning when we invite chance to dictate the curriculum, step out of the identities of student and teacher, and study the textbooks of ourselves and each other. When I go into the streets, I no longer can pretend to control what will happen, or who I will meet. I do not get to choose who I will learn from, or who will learn from encountering me. If we embrace the experience available to us, we can be changed by our learning. By sharing our experiences, we expand our circle of learning.

What would you learn in a day, a week, or a regular practice of walking the streets in reflection?