To Glide, Unconditionally

5 Jul


Redwoods dwarf Monday hikers.

Redwoods dwarf Monday hikers.

Monday morning I wake up in Marin County – or, as a friend who lives there jokes, “the home of the 1 percent.” I suspect I am hanging with the other 99 an hour later, when I strolled into Muir Woods.

Either way, the massive redwoods that stretched hundreds of feet above me aren’t caring – casting us and all our arbitrary divisions into deep shadow. Some trees here have reached a thousand years in age – it’s reassuring that they were here long before us, and will be here long after.

Of course, just as enduring, and less reassuring, is my next tourist sight of the day.

The homeless.

An hour after navigating the ups and downs, twists and roots of the Ocean View Trail in one of the more affluent counties on the West Coast, I’m veering past apparently homeless men in the Tenderloin, the toughest district in San Francisco. In a 2013 survey, District 6 was listed with 3,038 homeless men, almost half the total of 6,436 for the city. These figures come from yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, which pronounced that a 10-year-old plan to end homeless had “failed.”

This conclusion comes despite the city housing 11,362 homeless individuals in the last decade. House one, another pops up. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who 10 years ago as mayor launched the current plan – concedes that homelessness will never be eradicated. “… There are new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives. It’s the manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society.”

I tend to agree with that cynicism, especially as I edge past a few street folks – some with eyes dazed, disconnected. But my mood shifts when I approach the bright orange awnings of Glide Memorial Methodist Church, walk in the front door to the counter, and experience energy, industry, and laughter. One of the security team, someone whom I’d later learn had experienced homelessness, gave me advice on where to move my car to duck a ticket, then pointed me upstairs to the office of the volunteer coordinator, Eden Chan.


Behind Eden’s desk is a cartoon image of a tenderloin sporting a bandaid and bruises, with the caption, “The Tenderloin – ain’t so tender!” But around the cartoon are notes of appreciation, suggesting that, thanks to Glide, there are still pockets of kindness – and highly effective ones, at that.

“Some people might think it’s only a success story if a homeless person becomes a businessman,” she’ll tell me a couple of days later, when she has time to sit still. “I think a success is providing a place that’s safe.”

Sometimes even joyful. Glide rides the spiritual energy and inspired leadership of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, who have led the church down a path of “radical inclusiveness” since the 1960s. As a young pastor, Williams transformed the church into one that reached out to marginalized populations, assertively reaching out to the poor, to the gay and lesbian, to drug addicts. Back in the ‘60s, Williams even took down the sanctuary cross, declaring that “we all must be the cross.” The Sunday worship services are called “Celebrations,” and they are the stuff of legend. The day before my volunteer gig, I tried to attend the service, only to be thwarted by the gigantic Gay Rights Parade. But Williams would take that trade – in his ministry, he officiated same-sex unions decades before they were legally recognized.

That joyful spirit makes it easier for workers to rise to the challenge the rest of the week. After all, the key phrase is “Love Unconditionally,” and part of that love manifests itself as “telling your truth” – and hearing the truths people have to tell can be heartbreaking at times.

Beyond the Possible sports blurbs from Buffett and Bono, Tutu and Angelou.

Beyond the Possible sports blurbs from Buffett and Bono, Tutu and Angelou.

Even my wordless walk to and from Glide suggests stories that I don’t even want to imagine – and those stories are ongoing, happening again and again, night after night, in the streets and alleys.

“I heard someone else say that poverty is scary, even if it’s not happening to you,” Eden tells me. “It’s scary and it’s sad and people don’t want that and the way they cope is to avoid it or unplug or turn away. And Cecil has said that, too. People have asked us to have the line inside for meals and somehow hide the ugliness of the food line, and Cecil said, ‘No. Poverty shouldn’t be hidden. You should see this; you should have to think about it.’”

Naturally, some volunteers come to Glide in order to overcome the tendency to look away. “I had someone say to me when he came in for an interview that living in San Francisco, there’s a large homeless population. Just to cope, you tune them all out. Because if you don’t, it’s very hard to walk anywhere – and he didn’t want to do that anymore, so that’s why he came.”

Some come from farther away. Intern Marisa Sitz is from Pinson, Alabama – perhaps an hour from my hometown. An English major at Birmingham-Southern, she was drawn to the message of “Unconditional Love.” She feels that the interns are treated as “guests in the community.” Shortly after her arrival, she witnessed another intern seeming overwhelmed with the noise and the bustle of comingling with the clients.

“One of the clients noticed that she was standing with arms clasped in front of her and introverted and very closed-off looking, and he walked over and said, ‘Girl, why are you so tense? It’s all good!’ It got her laughing and it was very kind. That’s been the kind of experience that’s been repeated, They treat us as if this is their home and we are their guests, even if we’re guests who help.”

Marisa has laugh at the lobby counter.

Marisa has laugh at the lobby counter.

Of course, it’s easier to generate positive feelings all around when you’re helping so many people get through their days. Glide has a wide-ranging program addressing spirit, growth, leadership, and wellness – which starts with making sure people have something to eat. The website states that in fiscal year 2011-12, Glide served 835,036 meals.

One person who has put away a few of those meals is my floor supervisor for my shift in the dining hall. A short, stocky man of 46, with long black and grey hair flowing out of his Golden State Warriors cap, James first came here as a client with a meth-amphetamine addiction. But even then, he insisted on volunteering every time he had a meal, wanting to earn his food. Soon he was volunteering so much, he was given a staff position. He tells me that he’s been clean for six years, thanks “to Jesus and to Glide.”

“For me it was just that in this neighborhood, there’s a lot of negativity, and come here and it’s so positive and you want to be around positive people. It’s like the old saying that ‘if you run with dogs, you’re going to get fleas.’ If you’re around people doing positive things, some positive stuff is going to come out of it.”

The positivity kept multiplying when he was honored with a full-time staff position as an “expediter” – coordinating all the volunteers for three meals a day, five days a week. That meant people depending on him too much for him to fall back into old habits.

“You can actually see the difference you make for people. And me, since I live in the neighborhood, I’ve had a lot of people coming up, saying ‘it’s good to see one of us do this’ or ‘if you can do it, I can do it.’

“I don’t see myself as a role model, but when you work in a place like Glide, it kind of falls into place that you’re a role model. Because they see someone like me, who’s been on both sides of it, a guy who stopped putting needles in his arms and has been doing the job for the last seven years, and doing it well.”

During my shift, I can see why they call him the “expediter” – although the word that pops into my mind is “maestro.” Greeting each person with cheer and energy, he’s a whirlwind of motion; within 10 minutes, he has us all in our gloves, aprons and hairnets. Five or so folks are positioned behind the counter, their jobs being to place various food items onto each tray. Said tray then is handed over the counter to Maria, who places fruit on the tray, then slides it down to a guy to my right, whose job is to place the pepper and salt packets.

James wheeling and dealing and doing his thing. (Photo from Glide website.)

My initial job is to simply slide the full trays down to Joyce, who presents the tray to the client. That is, once the client has gotten the correct color ticket from yet another young volunteer.

As we wait, I sense folks starting to line up in the hallway. In the kitchen, one of the cooks pauses to windmill his arms several times, as if warming up for the big game. And it truly is an adrenaline rush. In the first half hour, I count 100 trays, and then lose track amid my new pepper packet duties. After perhaps 45 minutes, James comes marching by, shouting, “Good job! Only 572 to go!”

The food we’re serving is a patty of meat, rice or potatoes, watermelon or oranges, bread, and the salt and pepper. There’s a vegetarian stroganoff – James knows when those are coming and makes sure those trays are diverted. Amid the assembly line, it would be easy to disregard the vegetarians, or to ignore the fact that many people may be on low-salt diets. Providing the packets separately gives clients at least a little control over their food.

The clients, meanwhile, vary. I don’t notice any who overwhelm me with the stereotypical odor of some street folks. Most appear reasonably clean; some take the time to make eye contact and exchange greetings, while others shuffle off quietly to their tables. One person loudly thanks the volunteers as he walks by us in the line; he does this again when he comes back for seconds.

From my corner spot in the assembly line, I occasionally sneak looks at the tables – some sit and stare without speaking to one another, while others carry on loudly with one another.

Once the meals are served – all 727 of them – I talk with Chloe, the ticket taker, and Joyce, the person who handed the vast majority of the clients their trays.

Joyce and Chloe after the meal rush is over.

Joyce and Chloe after the meal rush is over.

Joyce has seen more daunting work environments; an incoming first-year biology student at UCLA, she got to the last day of a hospital internship before she fainted.

“But I didn’t faint because of what I saw, but what my partner was describing to me, which was a patient that couldn’t stop bleeding. She said it looked like a fountain of blood and imagining it in my head made it worse than seeing it, and then I smelled it. The next thing I know I woke up in a bed not too far from the patient.”

In this case, the reality for Chloe and Joyce was more positive than what they might have imagined. They were impressed by both the politeness of the clients and the organization of the operation: Chloe had to learn a ticket system that included special designations for people who had to rush off to jobs, as well as several other classifications. She tried to be friendly even amid the rush. “Many of them have been outside all day, so it’s nice to have someone say, ‘how are you doing?’”

They agree that the experience might change the way they walk down the street. I try it myself as I walk to my car, moving more slowly, taking the time for a nod of the head or a quick “hey.” But the buoyant mood from inside Glide’s walls seems to rise into the twilight air and dissipate; even two hours from sunset, four folks are sleeping on the sidewalk. I’m sure I just helped feed two of them. I should be glad they at least got some food in them – but there’s still the sadness of the rest of their stories, repeated day after day.

Then I think of that job interview candidate who came to Glide hoping to focus on the very people whom he’d previously worked so hard to push beyond his peripheral vision, beyond the blinders we put on every day. Only he finally chose to pay attention – and then to act.

And of course I think of Cecil Williams himself, who wrote in Beyond the Possible: “The key to living a full life is to affirm, affirm, affirm. … Notice what is happening to you every day and affirm your love whenever you can.”

At Glide, that affirmation isn’t reserved for Sunday morning – it’s what they do every day, and night, of the week.

And they give their clients the chance to do the same.

Which makes the Tenderloin, like Muir Woods, territory I plan to hike again.



1 Jul
Elephant seals duke it out playfully on California Highway 1.

Elephant seals duke it out playfully near California Highway 1.

Since leaving Massachusetts on April 11th, I’ve soaked in some spectacular scenery. The natural creation of Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon. The manmade equivalent in the form of Vegas and Hollywood Boulevard at night. Scores of scenes of quieter beauty, from dawn on the Texas Gulf Coast to twilight in Santa Barbara.

And so on.

And so on.

Almost enough to say, OK, enough with the whole panoramic vista thing.

So last week when my friends Ted and Chella proposed we run a two-car tag team up the curves and dips of California Highway 1, from San Luis Obispo to the Monterey Peninsula, I started building in escape clauses. I’d give Chella a ride as far north as Pismo Beach, and then, well, we’d see.

But who can resist the Elephant Seal beach – where one can see hundreds of elephant seals, which can get up to two tons, lying side by side next to the surf – or Ragged Point, a high cliff jutting sharply out into the Pacific. Or the way visibility can change from metallic blues and bright green in bright sun to the waves gone dark in a sudden incoming fog. At points you’re level with a thin layer of cloud, splitting the ocean from the sky. Redwoods, pine, and spruce abound. This is scenery you can gladly give your heart to – and the kind of twisty-turny cliff-side driving that you sure as hell better give your mind to.

All of which should pretty much be enough to make you forget about your day job, or your research project, or almost any human endeavor. Yet even on our Wednesday drive up this profoundly moving coast, on a day when I had no ambitions other than absorbing natural beauty, the theme of service has a way of poking its head up like a sea lion eying a rock to climb onto.

Near the elephant seals, amid a sudden fog, a woman talked loudly over a blasting wind, fielding questions. The seal on her jacket identified Charmaine Coimbra as one of the Friends of the Elephant Seals.

How good a friend? Well, when she retired and started casting about for the perfect volunteer gig, she soon thought of the seals. “I’m a California girl,” she told me loudly over the wind, “and I love the sea.”

Charmaine and her friends amid a blustery wind.

Charmaine and her friends amid a blustery wind.

Even though I’ve visited this stretch before, Charmaine’s expertise gives me a new appreciation for what’s happening in front of me – which, as far as I can tell, is mostly nothing. Sure, they flap about a bit, and two young bulls rise up and play-fight, emitting a few deep howls in the process. Mostly they just lie there. But their stillness gives you the chance to observe the various stages of molting, the loss of the brown furry outer layer for the smooth silver-grey skin beneath. This is what they swim down from Alaska to do for a month every summer.

There’s also something else going on. During their long swim, they lose bone density; the prolonged time on land, even just lying and moving sporadically, gives them the chance to rebuild their skeletal support. Paradoxically, this healthy instinct comes at the expense of exercise – so they also fast. They thus adjust diet for their exercise level – which is one way that a two-ton elephant seal has healthier habits than this (weight fortunately not available at press time) human.

Charmaine didn’t wait until retirement to start volunteering – her career in community service began at age 3, when she accompanied her father in dancing to “Me and My Shadow” at a Grange fundraiser. She’s been involved in various forms of volunteer work in the decades since.

But in literal terms, no cause is bigger than the elephant seals stretching out on the beach behind her. When I line her up for a picture, and she jokes about not exactly looking her best, a woman behind her interjects. “Hey, don’t worry – we all look beautiful compared to these guys!”

Charmaine isn’t offended. When I asked if she had a favorite elephant seal, Charmaine laughed. “To tell you the truth, they all look alike to me!”

Books hanging from Henry Miller Library ceiling.

Books hanging from Henry Miller Library ceiling.

Further up the road, past Ragged Point and other locales, I catch up with Ted and Chella once again – at the Henry Miller Library, a wonderfully quirky roadside tribute to the famous bohemian fiction writer. I enter a courtyard couched under towering redwoods and other trees, wind myself past modern folk art sculptures, some seeming to celebrate fertility and eroticism, others suggesting crucifixion and the evil of television. The A-frame library is marked by Henry Miller books hanging open from the ceiling, sunlight shining through from above.

Out back, I find a deck and plush couches. On one of them sits my friends – on the other a young woman with blonde-and-pink hair, curled up. The book she’s reading isn’t by Henry Miller – it’s a Harold Robbins instead. But Anna Leah is an English major back east in Boston, and when she was looking for a way to volunteer in the Big Sur area, site of many family vacations, it was hard to resist the library. She gets to pitch her tent behind a wood fence not far from the couch, and uses a solar shower. She cleans before and after each business day, as well as working in the shop.

Anna Leah mimics one of the statues.

Anna Leah mimics one of the statues.

It’s less demanding than her first volunteer gig of this summer – setting up and taking down stages during a music festival. She was drawn to that one not just for the music, but for the pleasure of trying “manual labor”, learning construction skills and discovering that one doesn’t have to be burly and male to be good at the job. She becomes increasingly animated as she talked about how each volunteer gig helps her try new things and expand her skill set. But now she’s found a job perfect for an English major – working and reading in the shade of the redwoods, plenty of culture and counterculture to inspire her – as if Big Sur wasn’t enough on its own. She smiled. “It’s a sweet deal.”

A ringside view from Ragged Point.

A ringside view from Ragged Point.

12 Jun
Kaya and Khari talk New Orleans, Katrina, and the connection that comes in times of crisis.

Kaya and Khari talk New Orleans, Katrina, and the connection that comes in times of crisis.

Even though I  write this from my picnic table at the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary in California — one of my favorite places to write ever – I’m letting you know about the posting of my second blog for Verge Magazine – which was written, naturally enough, in New Orleans. That’s right, more than a month, and at least three thousand miles, ago.

But reading it again now makes me reflect on just how rich that time was, and all the ways that the month and the miles since have somehow held its own in terms of connection. (In case you’re wondering, in the next Verge blog, we do manage to get to the West Coast .)

The Generous Stallion

9 Jun
Neda, Bill, and one of their 300-odd clients.

Bill, daughter Neda, and, of course. Spirit. (Photo by Melanie Stengle.)

After a military honor guard presented the folded flags to the family of the William S. DeMayo, actor Robert Gossett steps forward. Wearing a celebrative white instead of more funereal shades, Gossett spun, waving a hand over the sprawling, rolling California countryside – also known as Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary.


“All this,” he proclaimed, “is Bill.”

A few minutes later, between testimonials from daughters Neda and Diana, the proceedings were interrupted by two folks on the fringes of the crowd – a pair of horses who had broken into boisterous whinnying.

“That’s Bill!” someone shouted amid the laughter.

Two decades ago, when Bill De Mayo was a mere lad of 73, who would have thought his life would take the East Coaster out here, on a horse sanctuary he would help his daughter found on the California coast? After earning four bronze service stars and two oak leaf clusters as a bombardier in World War II, Bill had returned to his native Northeast and build a career in accounting, rising to partner in the firm of Ernst and Ernst (now known as Ernst and Young). He was not particularly known as a horse person, but his daughter Neda definitely was. As a girl, she’d seen a documentary about the abuse of wild horses; unlike many of us, she had retained the passion to do something about it into adulthood.

Determined to found a sanctuary for wild horses, she was evaluating a variety of West Coast sites when her father began contemplating retiring to California. Then they discovered the 300-acre spread in rural Santa Barbara County, in a region with the promising name of Point Conception. The family decided to sell their securities to buy the land. Under Neda’s leadership, Return to Freedom flourished, recruiting such supporters as Robert Redford and Carole King. Even one of their horses is a star – Spirit (seen above) was the model for the Dreamworks animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Robert Redford with Bill and daughters Neda (left) and Diana. (Photo by Elissa Kline.)

Robert Redford with Bill and daughters Neda (left) and Diana. (Photo by Elissa Kline.)

I never knew Bill – he passed away May 4th – but I had heard enough stories over the last year to know I’d have liked him. Karena Ryals, the friend who connected me to the sanctuary, was one of his caregivers; she was with him when he passed. She talks fondly of his love of singing, something they often did together; on the day he died, she joined him when he cheerfully broke into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of the storm

There’s a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of the lark

The song was fitting for reasons beyond the timing. Since arriving here at the ranch four days ago, everyone I’ve talked to about Bill DeMayo – from family and friends to the staff – talked about his relentless optimism.

You can add to that his relentless generosity, which, one friend of his told me, was the source from which everything else here sprang. Without even meeting the man, I have benefitted from that virtue. Return to Freedom has put me to as good a use as any agency on this two-month road trip. I’ve cleaned gutters on the office and the barns, thrown clumps of hay at (and occasionally onto) horses and burros from a moving cart, and mucked corrals and stalls, sometimes near the horses who had produced the manure I was gathering. (Along the way, I discovered that while academics occasionally refer to clerical work as “shoveling s–t,” the actual activity is, surprisingly, preferable to paperwork.) Finally, I owe Bill for the nights, walking to and from my cozy cabin under a starry sky devoid of light pollution, the only noises those from horses, coyotes, birds, and other creatures of the night.

After two months on the road, this place has restored my spirits even as it’s worked my body. There’s a lovely calm amid the hustle and bustle, a cordiality amid the scores of tasks that keep the horses fed and the ranch running. Back in Tuscaloosa some unknown thousands of miles ago, a dear friend, Margaret Cooper, told me how her own volunteer work comes out of gratitude for how good people have been to her; Return to Freedom joins the long list of places where I’ve seen that dynamic in action.

Taj starts his work as the spreader of ashes.

Taj starts her work as the spreader of ashes. (Photo by Mike Land.)

As Neda said at the service, “My dad, he was always grateful, he never expected much, and he was so glad for the gifts he had received.” Last year, in a Father’s Day blog, Neda compared her dad to “the rugged stallions who guide their herds to food, shelter and safety” – as well as someone who helped her every step of the way toward her dream.

Then there are the words of the man himself, in the message he wrote for his own memorial program. “My life,” he stated, “is fuller and richer by virtue of what I have shared.”

Bill's daughters get a spontaneous escort. (Photo by Kimmerlee Curl.)

Bill’s daughters get a spontaneous escort. (Photo by Kimmerlee Curyl.)

When the sharing on the patio is over, and Peter Crowheart and his fellow musicians have performed the Native American song “Soldier Boy,” Neda saddles up and leads a riderless white horse most of the way up a ridge. Once we all catch up, there’s a Chumash chanting ceremony in which each of us is blessed with the smoke of burning sage and the pressing of an eagle feather to our foreheads; the horses are included in this rite. Many of Bill’s ashes are spread along the spine of the riderless horse, the rest remaining in a bag Neda holds once she mounts her own horse. Then she leads the Arabian up the ridge, her father’s ashes trailing them in a cloud that settles into the sanctuary he helped create.

We watch as she, her sister Diana, and, of course, Bill ride up and down the ridge, eventually working their way along a crease.We’re not the only ones watching: Opposite us, a herd of wild horses line up at the fence line, then take off almost parallel to the riders – kicking up their own cloud in seeming tribute. We whoop then, and again later, as the two sisters  come trotting back up the ridge, grinning amid grief, celebrating the man who made this moment possible … for all of us.

Neda and Diana ride back to the cheers of family and friends.

Neda and Diana ride back to the cheers of family and friends. (Photo by Mike Land.)


Splashdowns and Startups

3 Jun


My celebratory plunge into the Pacific. (Photo by Karena Ryals.)

My celebratory plunge into the Pacific. (Photo by Karena Ryals.)


On the 52nd day of the community service road trip, Serving the Story finally splashed down in the Pacific Ocean – specifically the beach at Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara, California. Karena Ryals took this photo – in a most unlikely example of good karma, this time I got to be the one picking up a friend at the Burbank Airport.

I hope to post on my latest service adventures – including Best Friends animal shelter in Utah and a volunteer ranger on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon –  in the next day or so. Meanwhile, the good folks at Verge Magazine have granted me space for a second blog about my journey, with different material from what I provide here.  To read the first entry – and enjoy all the intriguing features of Verge – try this link.



Families Without Borders

27 May
View of the Southside Presbyterian sanctuary, inspired by Native American kiva design.

View of the Southside Presbyterian sanctuary, inspired by Native American kiva design.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Serving the Story looks back on the sixth week of the community service road trip, spanning from the border city of El Paso, Texas to the border city of Tucson, Arizona – with predictable results.

The service at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian rolls around to the concerns of the people, and I’m expecting the usual: The pastor shares a few terse written notes on a folks facing difficulties, perhaps asks if anyone has anything to add, then, never having left the altar, moves on. Business taken care of.

Instead, the pastor, Alison Harrington, abandons the altar entirely, walks to the nearest person with a raised hand – and simply hands over the microphone.

The voice of the parishioner, unfiltered.

In more ways than we care to notice, Christian church services are bound by space and time.  For some reason, the service is supposed to last an hour – although if you wind up a few minutes early, most folks aren’t complaining. Most sanctuaries, meanwhile, put folks in the same old shoebox – a raised platform at one end serving to separate those leading the service from the congregation; if the choir isn’t there, it usually commands its own perch in the back. As for the audience, very few brave the front row, and some even hide in the back.

Southside defies all of that. The church design is based on a circular Native American kiva, placing those leading the service near the center. Among other things, this means folks come up to greet her even as the service is about to start. Meanwhile, the advertised service is a whopping hour-and-a-half. Eve at that, we’re running long – at least 20 people share concerns and celebrations. Their combined voices take up more time than the pastor’s own sermon.

That sermon, meanwhile, reminds us that churches are also bound by other dimensions. It focuses on the story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery – “I don’t know why we teach this story to children,” she jokes – only to have that misfortune lead to him achieving prominence as an interpreter of dreams and a leader of his people.

Rev. Harrington and parishioner have laugh between Monday morning homeless breakfast and beginning of Immigrant Trail walk.

“Pastor Alison”  and parishioner have laugh between Monday homeless breakfast and beginning of Immigrant Trail walk.

She notes this is an example of God turning “the harm that was intended” into something good. In the same way, she argues, the racism of the white church led to the creation of a black church, which then became the backbone of the civil rights movement. Similarly, 108 years ago, the refusal of Arizonans to worship alongside Native Americans led to the creation of Southside Presbyterian.

The church is turning harm into good in a particularly dramatic fashion right now – it’s given sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, along with his wife and daughter. The church is doing so to keep the U.S. government from breaking up a family that’s been living, working, and paying taxes in this country for 14 years. The church is not only providing refuge, but also working hard with legal advocacy and publicizing the case nationally. Meanwhile, the church collaborates with No More Deaths, a brave – and physically fit – group that risks encounters with the border patrol, drug cartel smugglers, and numerous natural dangers to haul water into the desert, where it’s left to help prevent lost immigrants from dying in the wilderness. In addition to all this, the church is the launching point for this week’s 75-mile Immigrant Trail walk, a memorial pilgrimage to honor immigrants who died attempting to cross.

Like its altar, Southside Presbyterian is right in the middle of things – and, Rev. Harrington argues, that’s simply the church putting its “faith foot forward.”   It’s not political; it’s just what family does for family.

The challenge is to expand our concept of our family – one  that reaches beyond blood kinship and friendship to people we’ve never met. One No More Deaths volunteer, Amanda Rutherford, easily imagines the strangers from south of the border who are both desperate and in many cases misled, getting lost in the desert attempting to cross. She helps deliver water to leave along the ever-shifting routes, hiking with up to eight gallons, in addition to her own supply. Her first run, she and her partner found someone seemingly on the brink of death from dehydration; they contacted Border Patrol, but not before the man looked at her and her partner with a sense of gratitude and connection so profound, it still sticks with her. She’s since set aside her interests to apply for law school in order to impact immigration policy — but she still makes her share of trail hikes, imagining others wandering disoriented in the desert.

Amanda Rutherford hikes with eight gallons of water to leave along immigrant trails to prevent them dying; on her first trip, she and her partner discovered someone in serious trouble and was able to get Border Patrol to help him.

Amanda Rutherford hikes with eight gallons of water to leave along immigrant trails.

Four days and twice as many hours of driving ago, I met Ruben Garcia, leader of El Paso’s Annunciation House. He argued that we are far more connected to the poor of Mexico than we care to admit, both spiritually and economically; he agreed that one reason we hesitate to honor that connection is because we’re afraid of what it implies for our lifestyles. After we finished talking, I communed over lunch with four of his young staff, whom had come from various parts of the country to live and work at the house.

The next day, I drove a half hour farther from the border, across the state line to Chaparral, New Mexico – an unincorporated colonia where the Sisters of the Assumption have long worked to meet the needs of the poor. Amid the rows of trailer homes and desert earth, the sisters – with help from students and staff from my own employer, Assumption College back in Massachusetts – built their convent, a compound of straw-built homes. The Sisters are not only spiritually grounded, but environmentally savvy.

Annie and Ryan, two staff members at El Paso’s Annunciation House, with mural painted by a client.

Like Annunciation House or Southside Presbyterian, the Sisters don’t rigidly define their mission. Again, like a family, the nuns deal with whatever comes up, big or small, from prison ministry and after-school programs to the woman who drove up as the Sisters were hosting a group of international students from Georgetown. The woman’s son had just been in a car accident and she wanted to sit in the small but airy chapel to pray; the sisters delayed their tour until the woman was finished.

The Sisters were so warm, hospitable, and even funny, they even made me, an outside, feel like part of that family. When you’re on the road, those moments of connection are particularly appreciated; six week on the road has me feeling cut off and aloof, relegated to the margins of every group you encounter, simply because everyone knows you’re moving on. You’re shockingly grateful when someone gives you a job to do; when a truck showed up to load forty-odd sacks of donated goods  from the Annunciation House basement, I felt I was sweating out a couple of days’ worth of melancholy as I dragged sacks up the stairs. In those moments, I get to feel like I’m part of something bigger.

Something at least a little like, well, a family.

But being part of a family is about more than doing chores – even if those chores have both practical and symbolic power. The choice to extend our sense of family runs through everything from the ways we engage others and meet their needs to our lifestyle choices, right down to the absurd amount I’ve spent eating out even as I spent the day interviewing folks who have taken vows of poverty.

Like this community service road trip in general, my journey toward a more deeply integrated sense of family has thousands of miles to go. How will I apply this to how I live my life as I go – and my life back in Worcester, if the car I’ve nicknamed Guzzler manages to get me back there? I’m not sure yet. But whatever change is inspired,it’ll be due in part to the example of folks like Southside Presbyterian and No More Deaths, Annunciation House and the Sisters of the Assumption.

And others like them still waiting ahead, just beyond the horizon.

An animated Sister Chabela draws laughter as she greets a diverse group of Georgetown students, some from the Qatar campus.

The Valley and the Sea

22 May
Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

When I pull up near the surf, the sun, a fluorescent pinkish orange, has just emerged from the eastern horizon. I blew 200 bucks on a Port Aransas hotel last night out of fear I wouldn’t break camp in time to meet naturalist Tony Amos at this precise spot; I realize now that I could have camped here, like a dozen or so others, opening my tent flap to the roaring surf, and sleeping better in the bargain.

Of course, the last time I pitched my tent on a Texas beach at night, back in 1986, we awoke to the realization that the sand was covered with blotches of tar from an oil spill. The stains remain still on my tent.

There is no tar today, mercifully. Even the cars that cruise the beach here are few and far between. When Tony – a 76-year-old oceanographer who has taken his detailed counts from this stretch of beach some 4,800-odd times over a period of 37 years – picks me up, there’s plenty of natural wonders to try to see through his expert eyes. Recording meticulously, he’ll count more than 800 individual birds on several miles of beach, as well as periodically pacing off the beach width and even measuring temperature, salinity and wind direction. If I point out a bird to him, he refuses to count it, as he doesn’t know if he’d have seen it – he strives to maintain a constant method from count to count. So I settle for picking up trash when I see it, lugging plastic bottles over to garbage cans.

“I don’t do that,” he tells me. “I’d never be able to finish if I did.”

For such reasons, he said, humans “aren’t my favorite entities,” although he then laughs and adds, “I shouldn’t say that.”

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Not that Amos is a curmudgeon. His cordial English politeness has earned him friends all over this small Texas beach town, particularly when paired with his founding of the Animal Rescue Keep – which abbreviates to ARK, perfect for a barefoot man with long flowing white hair and beard. But unlike the Biblical figure, he resists dire prophecies; he says that when he’s interviewed, he resists “futuristic speculation” about long-term consequences.

“I don’t see doom and gloom when I think of the environment. When I get out there I see the sun rising over the horizon, I see the waves on the ocean I see this and I see that, and I know that nature has got an ability to survive some of this stuff.”

Are you more positive because you’re engaging in action?

“Yes. And I look at everything, and I see things like this.” He pulls out his camera, shows me a picture of two tiny flowering plants casting minute shadows on damp sand. “You know those large photographs with a single word under it, like, say, ‘Courage’. I want to blow this up; I just don’t know the word yet.”

“Hope,” perhaps?

That’s certainly something I’ve noticed over my week in south and central Texas. Down near the border in the Rio Grande Valley, at Proyecto Desarrollo Humana, I visited with Sister Emily Jocson and others – some nuns, some not – working to help immigrant families; you would think the overwhelming tide of immigrants, and the poverty most will likely never quite escape, would make that an ultimately sad visit. But of course those who work there were already aware of poverty, either superficially or intimately – Sister Emily grew up in the Philippines, where she was able to attend college and earn her civil engineering degree, but she saw plenty growing up in a Third World country. But much like Tony Amos being moved by a small flowering plant, she sees up close the quieter triumphs.

“The most rewarding is when I see people being empowered and that their lives have changed. There’s this movement from one level to another.” For instance, typically, she said, Mexican women don’t state their opinions even when asked, but at the community center, “they could express themselves, and you can see a change when they express themselves. Even their families are seeing the change.”

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Then, of course, there are the more measurable ones – such as Aranet, the young woman working the reception counter. Her parents waded across the Rio Grande – her mother and sister floating in a tire while others pushed – and she came over later on someone else’s papers.

But now she’s documented, and, thanks to both donors and to parents who see the bigger picture, she’s attending college to become a physical therapist. She became interested while volunteering as an adolescent at the community center, where physical therapists, doctors and dentists donate basic services to people in the neighborhood. She wants to come back herself and do the same. “I think a lot of people need it.”

Tony, of course, has his own stories, fueled by his own compassion for both sea creatures and the people who want to help them.

What keeps him going? “First of all, I have empathy for these animals – without that you can’t do this.”

Daring to feel for them, however, could open him up to deeper outrage at threats to those creatures, from massive oil spills by corrupt corporations to the campers who leave fires burning, creating a situation where birds tempted to pick through the hot coals could harm themselves.

What balances against all these invitations to cynicism?

“What balances against that is that we use human beings we can’t be totally practical,” he says, laughing deeply. “It’s like the argument about recycling, what we do may be of no real help, but what it does do is promote a consciousness in the person who is doing it, as well as the thing being done, so it has merit that way, especially for young people. Do we always have to equate things we do with a measure of success or failure or gain, ultimately financial gain?”

Perhaps that’s why, despite all the large-scale abuses that sometimes makes me paradoxically angry and cynical, I walked away from both Sister Emily and Tony Amos feeling happier, not sadder. Elated, even.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Particularly at the ARK, where there were a lot of opportunities for me to play a part in the successes. The staff let me throw fish to the injured pelicans – a challenge in that healthy pelicans fly into the pen to try to cut in on the action, putting me in the position of a quarterback trying to get the attention of his wide receiver – as well as feed baby starlings.

And while I saw a dead sea turtle, I was later given the honor of releasing three live ones, fully healed, from a jetty lining the boats’ path to the sea. Anxious not to drop any of the green sea turtles, I lowered each into the surf, trying to point them toward the open sea.

One dove deep and disappeared, a second swam away from the sea – and the third shot up the channel, swimming so vigorously, it was hard to believe s/he ever needed rescuing.

I stared until the third turtle disappeared in deeper water – then clambered back up the rock jetty, feeling a little healthier myself.



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