Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Last 6 Months in, I'm sorry, 15 Minutes?


Reflection on the Mid-Year Retreat
Some of the things I've been thinking about lately include my faith life, what my plans for after Franciscan Outreach Volunteers include, my discernment for my vocation (married or religious life), my relationships, or lack there of, with guests, and being caught up in Netflix dramas or Broadway productions or PBS Masterpiece Classics.  I don't imagine myself a real contemplative, or exceedingly reflective, but I do find that I ask myself many questions throughout the day, on any one of the aforementioned topics, but also on little things that may just as easily slip my mind.  Those are always the best.

As a whole, our community recently finished our Mid-Year Retreat.  You know how at retreats you spend "X" amount of time reflecting on "X" subject and how it influenced you or brought you here today?  Mine came soon after arriving to our snow-globe of a retreat site (it was lovely: outside of the city, trees surrounding the building, squirrels frantically digging at tree feet).  We were supposed to reflect on the previous six months of our lives, how we feel/felt, how we've grown, then create some artistic representation of the last six months...?!  Six months is a very long time to reflect over a 10-15 min time frame, and I'm not exactly one to keep my mind from wandering.  *At this point I would like to concede that this was, in fact, one of my favorite parts of the retreat, and I greatly value opportunities such as this.*

Sara & Kristen cooking for the community
So, I closed my eyes and rested my forehead over my hands and just sat there, face down, letting my mind kind of do its meandering in and out of the prompt.  I'd like to say a flood of thoughts came rushing to my memory, all in a neat, tidy, and chronological fashion and they were all so wonderful to recall, but let's be serious...that's not what happened.  Again, six months of memories is a lot!  It was a blur, a melting pot of leaving my hot and humid college town in Texas, driving 17ish hours in a Clampett-mobile (90 year old grandma included), meeting 12 new roommates, starting work the day after arriving, the smell of burning a 60 serving pot of pasta, and the endless amount of yogurt to sort boils over in my memory.  Hundreds of new faces, hundreds of new names, oodles upon oddles of facial expressions.  The image that kept coming to the forefront of my mind, the clearest image I could assemble, was a sincere smile on a man who regularly walks through the doors of the Marquard Center soup kitchen.  That was it.  I mean, not it, but it was probably the most poignant.  Why?  Why that smile on that face on that man?  I never had a particularly deep connection with him.  I've seen many smiles through the doors of the Marquard Center.  I've chatted with him, but also with others on numerous occasions, so what makes this image so memorable?

I realized that what I was remembering was a little thing that could just as easily slip my mind.  But it wasn't the smile.  I got to see happiness.  No, it was much more than that.  I got to witness a deep, true, and totally joy-filled moment.  It was sincere, unafraid, and unembarrassed.  Why did he smile in such a manner?  The reason seems trivial, but it's actually quite endearing.  He asked me to play some songs on YouTube that he thought I should hear, that he would educate me on music history.  We talked about groups and songs that I know because of my parents, like "Carry on My Wayward Son" by Kansas, my mom's class song in high school, or "Shambala" by three Dog Night, a group my dad educated me about when I was in high school. I'm slowly beginning to understand why it has impacted me the way it did.  See, when I was describing my art project to my community on our retreat, I began to feel my throat constrict as tears gathered.  Unexplainable at the time, but the more I think about it, the more clear my emotions become.
Mid-Year Retreat

I understood the joy I felt based on something that reminds me of people I love dearly, with whom I already share a deep connection.  Rather, I was able to make a sincere connection with another human being based on a simple, common interest, one that he valued and cared enough about to share with meI never imagined sharing something as easy as music would be so...emotional.  I don't know what exactly was going through the man's mind or heart throughout the entire interaction, so I feel almost one-sided on this subject, but I just cannot let myself believe I saw anything other than joy in his smile.  I wish I could see more of them.  I wish I could make more of them.  Until the time when true joy covers the faces of every person on this earth, I'm happy to get a glimpse of it when I can.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Cards I've Been Dealt


"You're the average of the five people you spend the most time with." -Jim Rohn

Snowball fight on our recent Mid-Year retreat
If this quote has any truth to it, I am an incredibly lucky man.  Over the course of six months, I have spent more time with Sara, Gracie, Mike, Emily, and Kelly than I have spent with any of my close friends or family during any other six month period in my life.  By working side-by-side in the Marquard Center kitchen we have gotten to know each other to the point that we can pick up on each others "ism's" as Gracie calls them.  These "ism's" are the quirks that are uniquely a part of us.  For instance, I tend to walk on the balls of my feet and say words like "dope", "sweet", and "phenomenal" more often than most other human beings.  This year I have developed a strong affinity for dates (the kind you eat not the kind you go on) and this affinity has provided plenty of jokes at my expense, which we all tend to enjoy.  I've noticed a few of us beginning to incorporate the phrase "that's happening" into our lives.  Courtesy of Emily Ford, we all have a new motivational mantra.  Kelly tends to use the word "banana" like I might use the work "knucklehead". "Don't put your hands in there you banana!" is one example that comes to mind.  Sara's enthusiasm for any idea is demonstrated by the phrase, "OH MY GOSH, CAN WE PLEASE DO THAT!" That enthusiasm is extremely contagious I might add.  Mike has the magical ability to add comedy to any situation.  Whenever I have to ask for a second opinion about the seasoning in a dish we're serving for dinner, Mike is there to say, "Why not?  You ain't driving!"  This is just the kind of motivation I need to get a dish completed with a smile on my face.
Zach preparing dinner

These "ism's" are certainly not restricted to the Kitchen Staff.  The shelter crew, the other half of our community, has just as many if not more examples of these phenomena.  Since our community has been enriched by five fascinating citizens of Germany, we have learned a wealth of cultural quirks that you cannot learn from reading a book.  I've noticed phrases like "in general," and "the thing is," being used frequently when trying to prove a point.  We use them in the kitchen now to interact lightheartedly.  When we label our leftover dishes made from dinner we prefer to write "Wegetables" instead of vegetables to poke fun at our German roommates' pronunciation of the letter V.  Timo has introduced me to the wonders of bacon-wrapped dates.  He has single-handedly brought my love affair with the Middle Eastern fruit into the stratosphere.  Thanks to him, I will have an hors d'oeuvre up my sleeve that will guarantee hit dinner parties for the rest of my life. Ephi has taught me a new way to tell people to watch out or be careful with "Attention! Attention!" Hannah's "ism" just happens to be whipping up five-star quality meals like it's her job (which it's not, she works at the shelter).  We all tend to enjoy her cooking, and I think many of us kitchen folk have wondered if we should just have her serve the guests.

Community secret Santa exchange
These instances all demonstrate the beauty of living in a diverse community.  We become the average of each other.  Where or when else will you get the opportunity to incorporate the culture of Texas, Ohio, Indiana, New jersey, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts into your life?  Let alone Germany?  If you are a person that values the diversity of ideas and perspectives, there are not many ways to live more diversely than community.  Not only have I gained a vastly more encompassing perspective of the world from working closely and living with these folks, I have also picked up on each of their strengths.  Each person in this community has left an impression on me that I have no doubt has changed me for the better.  Whether it be work ethic, lightheartedness, positivity, capacity to love, or determination, each one of my roommates, or should I say brothers and sisters, have shown me how to be a better person.  I am eternally grateful that God has deemed me worthy to receive such an abundance of good personalities into my life.  When I stroll the top floor of the Marquard Center (our apartment) on my days off, I cannot avoid the living and breathing inspiration even if I tried.  I have seen strength in every individual in my community...strength I want to be a part of my own life.  I can only hope that I have made some positive impressions of my own with them, because they have given me so much that it seems difficult to ever be able to repay.  If this community happens to be the cards God has dealt for me this year, I have been dealt a royal flush. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Homeless Simulation-24 hours on Chicago's Streets


Recently we participated in a homeless simulation with Chicago's Mission Year volunteers.  We had all packed our items for the night not knowing where we were headed next.  We started around 7pm with a meal and a speaker from Breakthrough Ministries.  Afterwards, we were told that we would only be allowed to take three items with us.  I picked a jacket, a sleeping bag that I found in our community, and after much thought I decided my final item would be a water bottle.

Timo and other volunteers at the shelter's Thanksgiving meal
Our leaders brought us downstairs in the Marquard Center and told us we'd be sleeping in the dining room.  This was a bit of a relief because we thought we might be sleeping outside.  It was freezing outside so the cold breeze came in constantly...a reminder of the risk of not having a shelter in the winter.  As I was lying on the floor of the dining room, I tossed and turned again and again because my body started hurting once I was in a position for too long.  I was just trying to stay warm and waiting for it to be over.  I couldn't fall asleep until early in the morning when the tiredness became worse than the inconvenience of the floor.

We got woken up at 6:30am and were told that we had 10 minutes to pack up our stuff.  We were then told to wait at the door to our community apartment but nobody knew what would be behind the door.  Eventually we were called in three at a time.  When I reached the hallway there was a man sitting at a table waiting for me.  My side of the table had no chair so I had to kneel on the floor.  The man's role was to be my case manager and in order to get breakfast I had to answer his pages of questions.  However, when he started talking, he wasn't speaking English.  Instead he spoke Chinese which unfortunately I don't speak.  There was great difficulty communicating and he was annoyed by me.  I wondered, what should I do?  I had been happy to just get through the night but I was exhausted and confused.  Eventually I was dismissed and told it was time for breakfast.

Out of the 16 of us taking part, only 4 people received a piece of paper that allowed them a lunch bag with chips, a sandwich, and a can of orange soda in it.  At this point I was starting to get critical about the homeless simulation.  I thought about our guests and services we offer at Franciscan Outreach.  No one has to sleep on the floor, everyone gets breakfast and dinner, and our case managers are nothing like that!  We do our best to see that everyone is warmly welcomed, treated with respect and if communication problems occur we look for someone who can help translate.

Timo & Mustafa making traditional German dumplings
We took some time to talk about what we felt like during the night and the experience in the morning.  It was neat to see how many people felt the same way I did, and also to hear new experiences from others.  Then we went downtown in teams of two with a list of ideas and challenges to complete.  We weren't allowed to use our phones and we just had our ID's and a bus card that we were only allowed to use for back home that night.

Downtown, my partner and I just started walking without a destination and checked our lists for things we wanted to do.  We just started walking in one direction and kept walking, and walking, and walking.  After a while I started thinking "what am I doing here?" I just kept walking around.  I realized if you don't have anywhere to go you might just walk around aimlessly.  I felt like there was nowhere to go and nowhere that I would be welcomed. I continued walking and started looking through some trash cans (a suggestion on our list) to search for some useful things.  I was disgusted by the trashcans and there smell, I was disappointed by what I found, only some cans and leaves on the bottom of the trashcan.  But mostly I felt people staring at me.  I tried to look for places where almost nobody could see me but someone always could.

My partner and I walked to the library and then to Panera to check in with Kristen and meet up with another community member.  We took some time to sit by ourselves near the Sear's Tower.  I felt uncomfortable sitting there.  It was worse to realize what it is like for people who are really on the streets.  I got a small glimpse at what it feels like to be ignored.

After a while a guy came and sat down right next to us.  He asked for a lighter for a cigarette butt that he found on the ground and for some of my water.  None of us had a lighter and I still hadn't found a water fountain to fill up my bottle.  So he just sat with us for a bit.  He said he wasn't from Chicago so he couldn't tell us where free meals or similar services were.  After a while he left and we were alone again.  We started to realize how cold the sidewalk was, it felt like it sucked the energy out of us.  We found a train station to go to the bathroom in and warm up a bit.

Community night ice skating
We gathered back wit the rest of the group and talked about the difference experiences everyone had.  Some groups panhandled more, tried to ask people directly for money, made signs and got $20 from one man who first passed them and then came back.  One volunteer said she felt like a pigeon during the day.  At first I thought it was weird, but then I realized that was exactly how I felt. Pigeons bothered us all the time in Chicago and today we oddly felt closer to them than to the people.

On our way back home I was glad that I took part in this experience but still couldn't figure out what the day meant to me.  I still felt weird because obviously my experience was far off from what it is like to really be without a home.  But I knew I did not want another night on the floor or even on the streets.  I felt really exhausted from only this one day.

When I went to work that night and stood at the door to the shelter letting all our guests into the warm dorm I was really impressed by how close I felt to everybody who came in.  I always had a lot of fun at work with the guests, but this night was different, I felt more connected and could imagine what many of the guests might feel like in a way that I had not experienced before.  That is something I will definitely keep with me this year.