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?