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.
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