Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Harm Reduction

Originally written for the Just Lutheran Blog.

The Faithful Fools’ monthly Street Retreat in October coincided with a big bike and skateboard competition held in the Civic Center Plaza, just outside the Tenderloin. I marveled some at the huge jumps and fancy tricks the competitors were making on the several-ton dirt mounds trucked in for the event, but more at how the spectacle drew flocks of young men on their own bikes and skateboards to the City’s center. The big open walk in front of the library was covered with boys and men rolling, jumping, flipping, and sliding their boards back and forth across the usually empty space, pausing briefly for any patrons who chose that entrance over the building’s other, quieter options. Seeing public space being used by people felt good to me, as did the dynamic energy of the skaters in contrast to the quiet stillness inside the place of research and knowledge – a community thrives on both kinds of energy.

After a few minutes my moment of appreciation was shattered by an altercation on the sidewalk just a few feet away: A woman waiting for the bus was shouting “watch your language, there are children here!” as a group of young men and a young woman carrying a blanket were calling each other names as they walked parallel down the street. Big events, which bring noise and crowds downtown and occupy grass and other usually quiet space, tend be stressful for those who spend most or all of the day out on the streets.  The young men, who I couldn’t hear, were holding a cell-phone up to record the woman as she screamed at them. The words she was using were foul! I had met her twice before, so I called her name and approached her. I said “this isn’t helping” and stepped in between her and the group of men. I told her I thought no one deserved to be called the names she was using. “Yeah, but they’re so mean” she responded, “they were making fun of my legs!” - which were bare under her short skirt, and covered with sores.

The young men walked on down the street as she and I started talking, and then we walked together around the corner. We talked as we walked about how people often lash out and insult others out of their own pain, fear, and insecurity – I remembered doing so as a teenager. I waited outside of Burger King as she went in to get some food, and then we went to find a place to sit. She wanted to go somewhere quiet, away from all the people, and led me to a parking lot behind a hotel, where she laid out her blanket like for a picnic behind one of the parked cars. We had a pleasant conversation, and she offered me some of her food. She told me a bit of the story of her coming to San Francisco, and how she ended up staying because “you can get any drug you want here.” I asked her about the focus of her life, which she said was getting high.

Welcome and the Faithful Fools are both organizations that tend to follow what’s called the “Harm Reduction Model.” This model recognizes that, while there are some individuals who respond to themselves or their behavior being judged by trying to change, and others who might never change their behavior, there are others who will accept help from those who accept them for who they are and what they do, and it is worthwhile reducing the harm in their lives. This is the principle behind needle exchanges, the “Housing First” model of addressing homelessness that San Francisco and other cities have turned to in the past few years, and Welcome’s policy of providing food and hospitality to anyone, as long as they are not presently a threat to themselves or others. Harm Reduction is grounded in the foolish idea that everyone is worthy of being helped, and that no one knows better than a person themselves what help they need. What a relief it is not to have to be an expert!

Not forgetting the altercation in front of the library, I asked my friend about her legs: How were they? Did they need medical treatment? Had she sought treatment yet? In addition to the scabs I had noticed, she pointed out an open sore and a pus-filled abscess. Yes, she realized she needed to see a doctor. I asked if she would go right then, if I would go with her? She said she would but, as I have become used to with those living with addictions, she needed to get high first. (A hospital is a scary enough place already, and you never know when you will get let out – a person experiencing withdrawal symptoms is not likely to keep waiting to be seen.) She said she’d be done fixing in ten minutes, if I’d be willing to come back for her then. I was, and I did, but she had not been successful in administering the drug. Her veins had deteriorated under the effect of her drug use, making IV injection very difficult. I continued to walk away and return about every 10 minutes for over an hour and a half, until staff from the hotel stumbled upon her and drove her off the parking lot. She apologized for keeping me so long, and suggested that maybe this wasn’t going to be the best time for a trip to the hospital, after all. Having just about used up my patience for that day, I agreed, and headed off on my way.

I walked away feeling only slightly defeated as, while we did not successfully attend to her clear medical need, something else important was done with that time: we were building trust in each other, and each of us had the opportunity to show the other that we cared about each others' needs and respected their time. This relationship building could be a first step in a journey toward her receiving the health care she clearly needs, but it is certainly part of the process of building the kind of network of caring for each other that we all depend on, and which makes living in community as neighbors worthwhile. The proposed trip to the hospital turned out to be a fool’s errand, but as a Fool, I could see its value in my own life, and the life of our community.

The beautiful thing to me about this kind of work is that it doesn’t cost any money – I didn’t need to have a blanket to give, or food to offer, or spare change in my pocket – what it required was the willingness to give a few minutes out of my day, to allow someone else to invite me into relationship, and to open my heart. This kind of work is available to all of us to do, if we are willing to give ourselves the time to go on a few fool’s errands. We can start in our own communities, or if you want to have a supportive container in which to follow where the pathway of relationship might lead, you can join the Faithful Fools on one of our monthly Street Retreats in the Tenderloin. (more information online at )

Friday, September 7, 2012

Wolf at the Table

The other day, as I was having lunch with a couple of friends, my conversation got infected by the conversation at the next table. A young man was describing his views on government spending to his female companion. I say “infected” because so much of his viewpoint was so contrary to mine, that I began to react emotionally and was distracted from catching up with my friends by listening to his arguments and coming up with my own counter-arguments. I found it difficult to give my companions the attention they deserved, and had  a noticeably less-enjoyable lunch than I might have otherwise. 

The young man’s core point seemed to be that he did not want to pay taxes to take care of the needs of others, who in his view deserved to suffer the consequences of whatever bad decisions or lack of motivation caused their suffering. Now, my experience has been that stories of suffering are varied and often complex, and rarely attributable solely to the sufferer’s own actions, but the debate I was imagining was not about karma. When our neighbors’ conversation turned to healthcare, I could feel my stomach twisting into knots.

Just the night before, I had been discussing with friends a news article about the escalators for our local subway system , BART, breaking down due to damage caused by human waste. It seemed clear to me that this was a natural consequence of our collective failure to provide access to public restrooms – our refusal to allow people to “go” in our businesses, or to fund and share space with working public toilets, does not change the function of human bodies. One of the realities of living together in community is we cannot escape the consequences of failing to look out for one another’s needs. As I left the restaurant, I begged the pardon of my neighbors at the next table as I interrupted their conversation.

“I couldn’t help but notice how your conversation about healthcare infected the conversation at my table,” I said, “and it got me thinking about how if I were sick with tuberculosis or some other infectious disease and coughing at my table, you would be at risk of getting infected with something possibly very dangerous. If, by your refusing to contribute to my healthcare, I am unable to afford to seek treatment, you in fact are making a decision that puts your own health in jeopardy.  Our lives are too connected to not look our for one another.”
The simple truth that we care for ourselves by caring for each other does not address the complexities that enter in once we actually start doing it. Actually helping each other is a life-long learning process, one full of missteps and foibles, as well as successes and gratification. One of the tools I’ve used for reflecting on the difficulties of living in community is the story of the the Wolf of Gubbio.  In the original version of this myth, a ravenous wolf marauds the town of Gubbio, eating its sheep and sometimes its shepherds. St Francis, who speaks wolf, brokers a deal where the villagers feed the wolf, who then lives tamely among them - happily ever after. Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, wrote a version based on his own understanding of human nature and wolf nature called “Los Motivos del Lobo” (“The Motives of the Wolf”), which the Faithful Fools perform as an interactive play in churches, conventions, community groups, and streets around the world.  

This version looks at what happens when the saint leaves the community and the people begin acting once again like people – fighting each other, and eventually beating the wolf – and the wolf goes back to acting like a wolf – poaching the herds and frightening the villagers. In our play, having heard the wolf’s story, St Francis leaves the villagers and wolf to decide where to go from there.  Without the saint mediating, the villagers (audience) and the wolf begin to see each other, and themselves, in a new light. Violence, greed, and hunger are both wolf and human characteristics, as are fear and the tendency to distrust those who are different. Meeting the other face to face allows villager and wolf to see past their prejudices and really get to know one another – this moment of seeing honestly our commonalities alongside our differences is the beginning of working together to meet our common needs, and to help each other. 

We performed “Los Motivos del Lobo”  last month for an audience at Our Saviour’s Lutheran church in Minneapolis, as well as at a conference in Rochester, MN for Catholic educators. The “villagers” offered food and shelter to the wolf, and to protect him from violence from other humans. They asked the wolf to protect them from other wolves, and offered to pray with him. They all sang together. Each time we perform the play, the ending is different. Each “village” finds a new set of solutions in relationship with the wolf. This is the value of the play – it has no answers, it raises questions we can reflect on again and again.

The process of caring for one another can hold this same sort of value – to start with meeting the immediate needs of another, and then to extend the value of the experience by reflecting on what it is we offer, how it fits into another’s needs, and how it meets our own needs. The Faithful Fools strive to provide opportunities for people to come together across the boundaries of our ideas about who the other is, so we can learn together.  At our purple building in the Tenderloin, you can join us for one of our arts programs, or sit in meditation or at bible study. If you care to join us in making a meal, sitting for conversation, or feeding your body as well as your need for human connection, come find us at Welcome at Old First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday afternoons or the 2nd and 4th Saturday of every month. See you there!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Food for thought

I packed a lunch the first time I went on a Street Retreat with the Faithful Fools. While I considered myself comfortable in the Tenderloin, I knew I wasn't going to eat at one of the soup kitchens. I don't remember anymore the precise reasons I gave myself not to, but when I hear others give them, they sound familiar: the food will be bad, I don't want to eat food someone who really needs it might, they won't have anything that meets my dietary requirements, I don't want to waste time standing in line I could use doing something more useful or interesting. 
Of course, there's always fear: the dining halls that serve hungry people for free are almost always out of view – in basements or behind windowless walls or fences. Until we go into one, we don't really know what happens there, who eats there, or what they eat. When we go in as a volunteer, we get to see some of this, but our name sticker or apron and permission to stand behind the counter – our identity as a server rather than guest or client – shows us a different side of the experience.

In the twelve years since that first Retreat, I have partaken in free food offered by dozens of organizations in San Francisco and around the U.S., and I find myself reflecting on these experiences now that the Fools and I have committed to support Welcome in its work to provide food and hospitality to people every Tuesday and two Saturdays per month. The experience I've had at each meal is as varied as the people who serve it.
One of my favorite places to eat for free lies behind a tall, nondescript fence on a busy street. If you arrive early, you are handed a number and can sit on a rock in the garden as you wait for your group to be called. There's always a vegetarian soup and a fresh salad, and when there's another soup with meat, or croutons for the salad, the volunteers will ask if you want some before serving you. A little out of the way, and serving a somewhat specialized fare, the few hundred who eat there each day are treated to a comparatively quiet space where the chairs never seem to all fill, encouraging lingering.
Programs that feed thousands a day don't have those same luxuries – when a line wraps around a city block, it doesn't make sense to have guests just sit and chat. Larger programs also tend to find efficiencies in serving the food as well. Trays are usually uniformly filled assembly-line style and passed with a smile to guests who then go looking for a seat. One morning at a large feeding program, I was dismayed to discover my bagel was slightly moldy. I felt worse upon looking around the table and seeing that mine was the least moldy bagel at the table. I was struck that each tray was passed through the hands of three volunteers after being filled, before reaching the guest's hands. Was there a moment when any volunteer asked “will the person who gets this tray want to eat it?”
Hungry people get fed when someone realizes there is a need, and finds a way to meet it. This means feeding people in the space available, which can be a church basement entered via long passages and stairways revealing the pipes and inner-workings of the building, a space built for the purpose of feeding people, or sometimes outside in a park, square, or sidewalk. After finding a closed door at an address I found on a free food list in New York City, I waited on the steps outside a train station until a van drove up and handed out baloney sandwiches, punch, and an apple to those of us gathered. 
One of my favorite food programs says “This is not charity. This is a protest!” and feeds hundreds in view of City Hall with discards collected from stores and restaurants – at its best we get organic soup and salad, at worst it's been a bucket of oatmeal that arrives (still welcome by hungry stomachs) an hour late.
One time, while standing in line for another meal, I saw a man dancing in a flowing straw mask to a couple of drummers while others walked away from this surprising ritual with plates heaped with colorful fragrant fare. Over the years, this unique group has grown, both in guests and volunteers, but the founder continues his practice of walking down the line, and taking each person's hand as he looks them in the eye and says “Happy Tuesday!” His spiritual practice extends to fasting each Tuesday until all guests are fed, and the love he expresses in the songs of gratitude he sings throughout the meal is a nourishing of the soul as the food he shares from his homeland is of the body.
We all have eaten food from someone else's kitchen – maybe a friend's, a family member's, a restaurant's, or a soup kitchen's - and from that know the difference between a great meal and something that just filled our stomach. When you are hungry, a full stomach can be a great thing, but the exchange of care and love provides a lasting nourishment those who come to eat as well as those who offer the meal.
As we serve our meals at Welcome, we reflect on the ingredients that make up a great meal: What can we serve that is healthy? That tastes good? How does our preparation show the care we feel for our guests? How do we stay centered in our role as hosts? How do we encourage politeness and comfort among both guests and hosts? How do we help everyone feel Welcome?

Join us for a meal sometime! Tuesdays 2-4pm. 2nd and 4th Saturdays 5:30-7pm.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Guide My Walking..."

This post was written for the Faithful Fools' March Newsletter, found here.
PCT hiker on the Big Horn Plateau

“Be thou my feet, and guide my walking
Be thou my eyes, that I may see
Open my heart, give me compassion
Hear my cry, and answer me...”

This song by Juliana Howard became my mantra as I walked with myself. It had been a few days since I had last seen another hiker and, with the trail covered under several feet of snow, the comforting sense that I was traveling the same route as anyone else came and went with footprints I would stumble upon from time to time. I had only a few days of food with me, and I started to wonder if I would make it out of this section of wilderness at all, let alone in time to meet the friends that would be waiting for me at the next road-crossing. I had spoken with the National Park Ranger for this area just before starting north of Tuolumne Meadows. She said she was looking forward seeing her territory for the first time in about a week, but would have to wait out the snow before starting to patrol it regularly. This was more solitude than I had bargained for.

The mantra helped. It lifted my spirits some: in part because of the fond memories of learning and singing it for the first time with a cadre of Fools on a Seven Day Street Retreat, in part because it helped remind me that, as small as I am, the greatness that surrounds me is something I am connected to, something I am a part of. I no longer had to rely only on my own eyes to see where I was going, on my own feet to find the way. The way and I could find each other. We did find each other, over and over, and with a timing that challenges my scientifically-trained skeptical mind: it seemed that the footprints I came to rely on to double my speed of travel (the map I had of this section was woefully inadequate for navigation in snow) would appear to me at the moments when I was deepest in the mantra, and least focused on my own fear and misery. 

Whatever journey I'm on, walking the streets, in the wilderness, or on the path of my daily life, I strive to recognize myself in the place I'm in. When I'm distracted by myself – thinking about what I've done, what I think I'm going to do, or how I'm feeling – I often miss what's around me, sometimes to the extent of missing my path itself. Similarly, when I'm looking only outward at the world, I can forget that I am a part of it. When I sing “Open my heart, give me compassion; Hear my cry, and answer me,” I am called to extend compassion to myself and the world together, for we are the givers and those who need compassion simultaneously. The world and I cry together, and together we can answer that cry.
Approaching Forester Pass

My fourth day in this desolate area began at dawn with a ice-cold hour of crossing the snow-fed braids of Piute Creek. It continued with several hours of climbing up and down the ridges separating drainages that feed Hetch Hetchy, the reservoir supplying water to San Francisco. At 4pm, I stood shivering in a patch of sunlight, having just swam across the 30-foot wide Stubblefield Creek, which was still over my head at its opposite shore. The deer I saw on the other side gave me a look I read as “what are YOU doing here?” I hiked on, needing to make time in order to meet my friends the next day. I found footprints again when I most needed them – in a featureless area: flat, away from creeks or lakes, and deep in trees blocking possible views of surrounding peaks – and followed them to the edge of Wilma Lake. I followed the prints as they picked a path through the trees, staying just above the icy lake shore. As I came around to the inlet, which more merged with than entered the lake, I saw my path-finders standing on a bridge ankle-deep in water. We made camp shortly after, and hiked together the next day until we hit trail good enough that I could go on ahead and meet my friends, just as they had sat down to dinner.

It is a cliché that we go on journeys to find ourselves. When we surround ourselves in a new context, we get a new perspective. These perspectives slowly give us a fuller picture of who we are, and we begin to piece together our core being from the parts of us present in every context. 

Hiking alone in the high Sierra
A journey also is a time to remember who we have with us. At the beginning of each Street Retreat, we toss a ball of purple yarn around the circle, connecting us to each other, as well as to the thousands of previous and future Retreatants who participate in the same ritual. I don't have a ball of yarn in hand at the beginning of every journey I take, but the Faithful Fools – and what I have learned with them – are always with me.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Glass Houses

Sitting, of all places, on the toilet when it happened, I heard two successive loud bangs on the roof, followed by a third which was accompanied by the crash of something breaking. Finished with my business, I quickly got up to investigate, but first had to take a few minutes to fill a bucket and flush – I figured there was really nothing I could do immediately to stop whatever was happening.

The free skylight!
When I realized there was a hole in the roof I helped replace last year, I briefly cursed the ceramic-like material we chose instead of the more commonly used zinc. Then I remembered that it is the insulating properties of the material that allow meetings, like the free electricians' class that was suddenly scrambling to understand the noises, to happen on hot afternoons like this one in the Barrio. Several students ran up the alley to the field behind the house to investigate, a couple more went into the back garden to see if they could spot the culprits, while I surveyed the damage – wondering what, really, could be done if we did find the responsible parties. This is a neighborhood where who the ladrones are is talked about openly, and the police sometimes have to be fetched in a taxi to investigate a burglary.

I found the fist-sized hole above the cabinet where we keep the games and childrens' books, just outside the kitchen door. A few feet away was the small chunk of concrete that had been hurled – I imagine with some sort of sling – with enough force to shatter the roof panel. Three other small holes revealed the contact points of less-destructive throws.
The rock: really a tangerine-sized chunk of concrete.
I find myself trying to process my emotions while the six students who aren't looking for the stone throwers, and their teacher from the Technical School - who says “that woke us up!” - mill about anxiously. Do I feel unsafe? Barely – I feel a bit more vulnerable than usual, for sure, but for some unexplained reason I feel ready to deal with whatever might happen to me, even if it were a rock to the head. What about the children, and the other adults who use this place, mostly when I'm not here? Yes, I definitely feel concern for them, and for Marria, who I have invited to join me on this visit. This needs to be a place where people feel (and are) safe, where they can relax – a retreat from the busyness and anxiety that are so often byproducts of the struggle for survival in the modern world.

What would I do if I had the chance to confront the rock-throwers? Yell at them? (What, really, would that accomplish?) Call the Police, and try to make sure they get punished? I struggle to find a punishing bone in my body. Life is so full of natural consequences, why would I need (or want) to increase the pain in this world that so often feels over-full of it? The closest I feel to resolution in those fifteen minutes after the incident is that I want to invite the stoners over to the house, to explain what it is for, and to find out what it is they need. Maybe that would shed some light on what inspired them to hail rocks on our roof. (Was it only our roof? I heard no reports of other roofs being hit.)

A beam of sunlight serves as a constant reminder as the adrenaline wears off, and I continue reflecting on the event, what might have caused it, if there's something I should do about it. Somehow it is easier for me to consider the house a target, rather than be a subject of totally random violence. Maybe it's like a sugary sweetener feeding my gringo guilt. Of course we should be the target: we have a brand new roof, and a water tank, and a new paint job, and most of the year no one even lives in this house! To some, this house could represent the wealth and hegemonic power of the United States, more or less dependent on exploitation of countries like Nicaragua and its people; the U.S. role in overturning the Nicaraguan revolution, facilitated by drug and arms sales; the hundreds of years of colonial history, which left the largest, most resource-rich country in Central America its poorest, with still-beautiful landscapes growing out of clear-cut jungle. Of course I am just making up someone else's story, using what I know, and looking from my own perspective. I don't know why this happened any more than I do who did it.

When I take the time, though, to think about myself, I remember that my own behavior often reflects the care I feel I am receiving from others. How many times have my arguments and fights with my siblings been born out of jealousy for what they got from my parents? When have I taken liberties with employers: when I believe they really cared for my well being as much as their own, or when it seemed like they were out for only their own good? Have I ever left a MacDonalds cleaner than I found it? How about the home of a gracious host? I want to care for these piedrinos in the way I feel cared for, in the way I feel care for them. For though I don't know them, I do care for them, and about them; and, as members of this community, in some unknown way I feel they are caring for me, though throwing rocks isn't their most precise way of doing so.

It comes to me simply and directly, as a cat who's ready to be pet now: I will confront what feels like uncarefulness with care. I decide to go into the street in front of the house and clean up the garbage, carelessly tossed there like the rocks on my roof.

In the spirit of the Faithful Fools, who believe wehave what we need before it is asked of us, I find an extra garbage sack in front of the house (we reuse them here). If that weren't enough, when the neighborhood kids ask me what we'll do together tomorrow, I tell them what I really want to do is clean the street; and they ask what time, and debate over when it won't be too hot, and then show up promptly at 4pm and we clean for an hour. In the end, I don't know if what I've done will keep more rocks from falling on the roof of the Casa Misionera Franciscana, or keep the culprits from doing it to someone else, but I feel like I helped some kids who could grow up to be rock-throwers find something to do when they're bored that probably feels better than throwing rocks at someone's house.

I can't help but think that maybe we all live in glass houses, and the first stone isn't the only one we shouldn't throw.

Paz y amor.
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