Monday, August 27, 2012

Wash and Be Washed; Feed and Be Fed


At first, most of our community thought it was strange to postpone Opening Retreat and Orientation until we'd all been here at least three weeks.  By the time it arrived, however, we agreed that it provided a welcome time to be refreshed and reminded why we are here.

Our opening retreat took place at Camp Dewan in Wisconsin. We got to see open spaces and look at stars again for the first time since moving to Chicago.  We spent time discussing and reflecting on the four key values that Franciscan Outreach Volunteers seeks to instill in us during our volunteer year:  simple living, service, community and spirituality.  It was a good opportunity for our group to get on the same page about these things and share our hearts about them.  We read from the Gospels and other Catholic figures.  Jesus and Dorothy Day echoed a lot of what I think many of us have either already been thinking or need to hear.  I was particularly struck by the passage from the latter; when talking about poverty, she said, "maybe it is a grace which [we] must pray for." To think about poverty as a state that we should seek in our own lives feels very foreign to me coming from my largely comfortable life.  Having encountered so many people in the past month, however, who live with so little every day, I'm starting to try to understand what they have that I don't without risking self-righteous presumption.  The readings started the thinking process, at least.

Hand washing at the Opening Retreat
Part of the retreat included a sort of ritual that helped connect us as a community.  Our Community Assistant/"house mom" brought a basin, towel, and a bar of soap to the table in the middle of our circle and called all of us to approach one by one, each having our hands washed and washing someone else's in turn.  I've had my feet washed twice before and cherish those moments as very sacred experiences, but  I wasn't prepared for what it would be like to have the same thing done to my hands.  They've grown a little tougher these days, and with the perils of working in the kitchen every day, they now bear a few more marks and bruises.  One of my German housemates took my hands after lathering up his own and proceeded to massage the foam into them--palms, fingers and all.  He wouldn't let me help but rinsed and dried them off himself.  And then I got to do the same to one of my fellow soup-kitchen workers.  Each handwashing concluded with a hug between the washed and the washer.  I arose from the table feeling cleansed in more ways than one.

The retreat also provided many lighter times to simply enjoy being together as a group.  We went to a Cub's game, thanks to a generous donation (and they won!), and later took part in a volunteer gathering with several other programs from around the city.  It was a good opportunity to find out about the work other people our age are doing in Chicago and start making connections outside Franciscan Outreach.
Cub's Game

Orientation was very informative and gave our community a broader perspective on realities that our homeless population has to face on a regular basis.  We heard from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, St. Leonard's Ministries, and the Br. David Darst Center.  Each of these groups shared stories from men who were formerly homeless or presented situations that often apply to the people we serve, whether they involve mental illness, addictions, or incarceration.  It made me see many of our guests in a different light as I thought about what I've heard of their experiences.

Father Chuck Faso also came to teach us about St. Francis and how Franciscans continue to embody his spirit in the modern world.  We talked of peace and how we can show it to our guests in our own home every day.  Father Chuck also led us in Mass at the end of the day.  We passed the peace together with hugs and blessings, and read from John about how Jesus is our very food and drink.  Fr. Chuck's homily echoed for me an important sentiment from a Walker Percy novel about how the main character had to "eat Christ" to inhabit his own flesh and love the people around him.  I think that sharing the Presence together was a good reminder for us that we embody Christ in ourselves inasmuch as we feed His sheep with meals and grace.

Banner near the entrance of the Marquard Center
In that sense, Mass and our commissioning service served as sort of bookends for me with the handwashing ritual a few days earlier.  The next day, Kendall ended orientation by commissioning us with more words from Dorothy Day: "We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.  We know Him in the breaking of bread and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore."  Each of us also received the sign of the Tau around our necks, a physical reminder of the grace and peace we have been given and should now give to our guests each day.  Our kitchen crew served dinner that night wearing our necklaces, eager to continue the work we've been called to do in our new home.

I'm thankful that we had some time to dive into volunteer life and settle into the Marquard Center before officially kicking things off, because instead of just getting more information about "the homeless problem," I was learning how to understand the guests I've been getting to know for the past month.  I wasn't being commissioned with some amorphous, self-righteous goal to evangelize the lost, but rather receiving grace that I can now give to my new brothers and sisters as they come and go through my door.  It seems like a pretty good way to start my year as a Franciscan.

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