Friday, February 14, 2014

Trust in the Lord and He will Deliver


Kelly meditating on the lakeshore
Over the past few years, my relationship with God has been a work in progress but with each day it grows more secure.  Recently, I've found myself reflecting upon each experience and evaluating why God has made certain people present in my life.  And although I think He does not design our lives, I am a firm believer that God aids them in an indirect way.  With this year, my spirituality has undergone much scrutiny.  I find myself constantly inquiring about the suffering in our guests and the many issues that are boiling under the surface but still seem to go unnoticed.  Often pensive at Mass, I ask God to tranquilize the uneasiness of my mind.

Devoting time each week to attend Mass and personally converse with God was always a part of my life but recently the weekly meeting has gained a deeper meaning.  Always a family activity, going to Mass when I was younger was not my choice; the same rituals, anecdotes and the same 80-year-old avós (grandmas) slobbering huge kisses on my cheek never seemed appealing.  We always attended Portuguese Mass, so naturally I would follow along in the English missal because our priest spoke more "Portuglish" (a slang of Portuguese and English words) than either language.  And although I am fluent in Portuguese, I found it exhausting to constantly trade off mindsets from Portuglish to Portuguese and then to English.  It wasn't until I began attending Mass on my own with my selected Parish did I begin to fully listen and comprehend all of Jesus' messages.  That one-hour at Mass transformed from "daydreaming about everything else I could be dong" to a "sacred allotted time where I spoke to God" and fully allowing myself to become absorbed in the Scripture.

Kelly & Zach with a group of soup kitchen volunteers
The adversities our guests face and struggle with daily are often what I find myself speaking to God about the most.  In particular, a conversation I had with one of our guests this morning jolted me back into reality.  Always full of life, spunk and the character of two people, this guests never fails to lighten the mood.  He has a quirky commentary on life and we poke fun that he has slept on every surface in the building.  But this morning was different.  He walks in exhausted and lounges on the bench we have in the foyer with the look on his face that he's had a rough night.  His mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer--something no one wants to hear.  Reminiscing in failed opportunities and losing himself in drug abuse were factors he said contribute to his homelessness.  Weary of the lifestyle and beaten by the system, he articulates that he never expected his life in his mid-40's to come of this.  Immediately my heart sank as this enthusiastic guest broke down and peeled away at the plights of his life.

It's difficult to then reflect on such a conversation when you haven't wholly understood it yourself.  What do you say? How do you act?  The answers to these questions are anything but easy.  Coming into this program, there aren't any guidelines or instructional manuals.  Responding to these emotions require a combination of spirituality, sensitivity, and patience.  Our services only stretch so far, then all that remains is hope; hope that God will guide them towards the path of redemption.  It's moments like these when I need God and my spirituality the most- to make sense of the incomprehensible.  If this year of service has taught me anything, it has been to fully embrace Jesus and all of his teachings and to love our brothers and sisters, unconditionally.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Your Smile for your Brother is Charity"


"'Charity is prescribed for each descendant of Adam every day the sun rises.' He was then asked: 'From what do we give charity every day?' The Prophet answered: 'The doors of goodness are many...enjoying good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one's legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one's arms-all of these are charity prescribed for you.' He also said: 'Your smile for your brother is charity.'"  -Fiqh-us-Sunnah, Volume 3, Number 98

When I was preparing for my year of service in Chicago, everyone seemed so impressed when I told them my plans. Whenever I meet new people in Chicago, I inevitably end up talking about why I'm here.  Their reaction is usually similar, they show appreciation, admiration, and respect.  I once met a Buddhist person who told me that the service I do was good for my karma--eventually, you get back what you give.  This is my belief in the final act of justice, and my belief as a Muslim about the essence of "Karma".

Kristen, Mustafa & Hannah ice skating
I cannot deny that I am flattered by what people say.  However, I can't help but think about how those who I serve see me.  I wonder if they believe in the genuineness of my service, or is it possible that some might see me as a naive young lad who does not quite serve them from the heart so much as chasing after some personal benefits (for school, job, etc.); who is just willing to deal with the problems surrounding him for a year and then will leave everything behind and pretend not to have experience anything life changing in the course of his service year?

Every now and then I feel like I am possibly conveying this kind of impression out of insufficiency and truth be told, I would not blame any of our guests for thinking of me as the type of person I just described.  Every night after we let in our guests they have to stop by the desk in the dorm and check in with their names.  Often they show interest in having a conversation with me but unfortunately at times I have to dismiss them as I realize other people in line are forced to wait.  Later in the night they might not have an opportunity to come back and chat since they need to get some sleep.  There have been other moments when I felt I might be falling short.  At times I would fail to find something someone needed; toothpaste for example, after searching and knowing the person waited for a long time.  Most of the time it is not my fault, but I am still concerned I might appear careless and apathetic towards their wishes.

This is why I experienced a moment of fulfillment when one of our guests recently said he appreciated my genuine attempt to help as much as I can and for "not treating them as homeless people".  I was really happy to hear this, but at the same time I was puzzled by the words he chose to express his gratitude.  What does it mean to treat someone as a homeless person?  As a matter of fact, we cannot pretend that they are not homeless otherwise we would not succeed in providing the right type of service.  What he meant was actually something different yet obvious.  Our society has somehow linked the state of homelessness to negative traits of personality such as laziness, antisocial behavior, or to a criminal past.  This image is engrained in minds whether we want it or not.  The guests subconsciously paraphrased the sad reality by just using the word "homeless", which simple means to be without a home, it does not tell anything about the character of a person.

Winter Olympics Community Night
So far, I have learned something that opposes this prejudice.  When we walk by people on the street we are prone to assume that all they care about is getting money from us.  They are poor and do lack many things we take for granted, this is true.  But the truth is not as simple as we think it is.  People on the streets wish to be respected and treated with dignity as any other human being.  I firmly believe that this starts with the simple act of smiling.  Our prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Smiling is charity".

Even though it's a slight movement of our facial muscles it is capable of a huge impact on our souls.  Whenever I walk by someone I may not know and there is an exchange of a smile I instantly feel better.  It is the most effective way to lift the wall we have drawn between strangers and ourselves.  A smile removes the feelings of insecurity and reservation we resort to when we encounter someone on the street.  It conveys a powerful message.  It is often the initial spark that paves the way for people to get acquainted with each other.  Our feelings of loneliness might be rooted in the lack of smiling although we are not alone.  In this case we don't receive this message very often and feel emotionally neglected.  God has put this emotional need in us and he made us interdependent.

So what keeps us from 'donating' a smile to everyone?  Not only those who are marginalized but simply every individual regardless of their race, religion, social, and financial status, etc. At this point I might come off as a patronizing moralizer pointing his finger at people from his lecturing desk. At the end of the day I am not perfect and I don't walk around with a smile on my face all the time. That actually would be a little creepy if you ask me.  But I try to improve from day to day and make
Hannah, Mustafa & Patrick at dinner
an effort to give a smile as often as possible, especially on those days when you are not at your best.

I can tell from first hand experiences that after many of our guests come in with a troubled expression (and they have the right to feel that way, none of us can even remotely imagine what they have gone through that day) and see a smiling person at the desk, they also begin to smile and seem to forget about their worries for a minute or two.  If all of us smiled more often we would contribute to happiness and joy in all of our lives.  Let us give a smile whenever we see someone and be a part of meaningful charity!