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Miracles, Even Now

8 Aug

When Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times isn’t providing thorough reporting and devastating critiques of the wrongs of our world, he’s providing plenty of news about altruistic and talented people making a positive difference.

One example is A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, the book Kristof co-wrote with wife Sheryl WuDunn about some of the hundreds of altruistic efforts all over the world that actually work, as well as some that don’t.

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Kristof speaks at World Economic Forum. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger.)

Another example is reporting about efforts like the one in this piece that appeared in The New York Times last month. (Sorry I am just now posting it.)

As often is the case with the stories Kristof reports, the fact the problem even exists in this day and age may outrage – but the success in overcoming it should inspire. While many are doing wanton and callous damage to the world’s most vulnerable citizens, others continue to take active responsibility for doing generous and even ingenious work to improve the lives of others.

The Service of Nature

12 Jul
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The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon greet the dawn.

This blog began as a way of chronicling my 2014 cross-country road trip – a journey devoted to volunteering and interviewing people about their causes. That sojourn of three months and a week became the basis for a book project titled, appropriately enough, “The Whole Service Trip.”

Three years later, I still highly recommend the experience itself – not only seeing so much of the richly varying landscapes and cities of America, but also the kinder side of Americans, giving to something larger than themselves. One of the most affirming phenomena was how those people gave to me – particularly when it came to story ideas for the next day’s journey.

There was just one problem – sometimes all those spontaneous suggestions got in the way of a more selfish, secondary agenda. I promised myself that once I got to the spectacular desert rock formations of northern Arizona and southern Utah, I would give myself over to my inner nature lover.

For 48 fleeting hours, I managed to do just that. I caught a richly colorful sunset from the south rim of the Grand Canyon – followed by a disappointingly gray and cold dawn after a cold front blew through – and made it up to Page for a raft ride through Glen Canyon, where the Colorado River has cut a path so deep, it warps one’s sense of proportion. Only, on that raft ride, I met yet another tourist who told me about another volunteer opportunity a few hours west in Kanab, Utah – Best Friends, the largest no-kill animal shelter in the United States. Duty called. So my days of exploring the Utah national parks became a quick two-hour jaunt up to the edge of Bryce Canyon, where I stared over the edge from a couple of spots for less than two hours … before then heading south to California.

Later it would be one of my journey’s greatest regrets. I told myself I would someday return to Utah. In the meantime, I finally read Edward Abbey’s legendary Desert Solitaire, his account of a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park – as well as two whole Wallace Stegner books and the better part of a third, and David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains, built around his own road trip, as well as the exploring of, yes, Abbey and Stegner.

So this summer I finally gave myself that present – I wedged a week of Utah rambling between visits to Alabama family and California friends. I finally walked beneath and even behind a waterfall at Zion National Park and beheld the sunrise over the hundreds of hoodoo spires huddled against the edge of Bryce Canyon. I took a windy walk through a petrified forest. I left the sweeping landscapes of reds and oranges, pinks and yellows for a forest, only to emerge from the far side into even more sensational desert. Near Moab, I survived the hike up to Delicate Arch – as featured on so many Utah license plates – and from the Grand View Point at the edge of the Island in The Sky I felt the same panorama-induced awe I felt years ago when beholding the Grand Canyon.

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Delicate Arch dwarfs its admirers.

So, mission accomplished – if the mission had been the pure tourist drinking in of natural wonder. No interviews on site about people’s altruistic endeavors. No long nights of transcription in motel rooms. No lying awake after the lights were out, wondering how all this would fit into a book.

Yet in so many ways, this trip still felt like an outgrowth of that earlier “whole service trip.” For I went into this trip, well, a little more whole. On that trip I was on a search for a new direction in my own communal life; on this one, I felt compelled to send postcard after postcard to Therence, the teenage friend I work with through African Community Education.

On that trip, too, I might’ve blown through Utah’s big country far too quickly – but the seed of this year’s nature-gawking was planted. And the wonder of staring out at all those ancient geological formations – the rocks that will be here long after us and our problems have come and go can actually can empower us for to return to more communal calling. Yes, we live in dark times – even the national parks which I enjoyed so much are threatened by the crass commercial interests of those who now reign in Washington D.C. – yet it somehow helps to remember our smallness against the grand sweep of natural history.

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Woman contemplates view from base of one of the Windows at Arches.

Consider my return from this latest, non-service trip – the first full day in my own apartment in more than a month. I made good on a promise to myself by gazing at more nature shows. In less than three hours, PBS shows hit on three highlights of that “whole service trip.” There was The Great Yellowstone Thaw, about the national park I passed through, then Big Pacific, a program on the Pacific Ocean that included the central California coast – where I’d interviewed many a volunteers. Then, most amazing, Travelscope took me to Port Aransas, Texas – where the TV show host was doing the same ride-along that I did three years ago with Tony Amos, the Brit-turned-Texan founder of Animal Rescue Keep – as he conducted another of almost 5,000 wildlife counts he’s done of the same three-mile stretch of Port Aransas beach.

After our dawn ride, during a late breakfast at one of his local hangouts, he told me how his volunteer work saves him from environmental pessimism. “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.”

And for some of us, at least, nature also has the ability to help us survive – or even, for that matter, transcend – ourselves.

Click here for the blog I wrote about Tony during my “whole service trip.”

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Tony Amos directing me to come inspect the beach he’d driven almost 5,000 times.

 

 

Saint Cyr’s Long Run

15 Apr
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Saint Cyr trains for the Boston Marathon. (WBZ-TV.)

On Palm Sunday at Assumption College, conscientious and creative students from Cinzia Pica-Smith’s Principles of Case Management class led scores of folks on a Refugee Walk around campus. At each stop, the students shared another part of the fictional narrative they’d carefully composed to reflect an African refugee’s journey from genocide through the bureaucratic hoops of the immigration process to a new life in the United States. The story and the images were both moving and inspiring.

The next day, in a classroom directly above one of the stops, Saint Cyr Dimanche visited my Life Stories class to discuss his own Refugee Walk – a roughly 2,000-mile journey on foot from war-torn Central African Republic to Cameroon, during which he and boys he fell in with had to avoid being killed by predators, animal and human.

Seeing the awe on our faces, Saint Cyr laughed.

“Ahh, it wasn’t that hard!”

Maybe that attitude is why, one week before he was set to run the Boston Marathon – and a day after he was interviewed for a story by WBZ in Boston – Saint Cyr seemed easy and relaxed as he spoke. He even assured us that compared to the slopes he trained on in the rugged terrain of Worcester, Heartbreak Hill isn’t that difficult.

Of course, Heartbreak Hill is considerably harder when you’ve run more than 20 miles to get there – just as Saint Cyr’s story points to a world of suffering he must have witnessed, and stoically overcome, to flee his home, avoid capture, reach Cameroon, and survive a construction job that put him in a hospital – where an American couple found him and advocated for him, helping push him through the process to have him adopted by Bob and Anne Bureau in Massachusetts. The Bureaus had 15 minutes to make a decision to accept Saint Cyr – who was closing in on his 18th birthday, which would have ended his eligibility in the refugee minors program – and they agreed even though they’d been told they spoke no common language. Thanks to the kindness of the Bureaus and agencies such as African Community Education – and most of all his courage and determination – Saint Cyr made up for missing most of his schooling while fleeing for his life; he’s now finishing his sophomore year at Brandeis University, studying international relations with an eye toward helping those in his homeland.

So one can hardly question Saint Cyr if he seems confident on the verge of Monday’s 26-mile, 200-yard run. After all, he’s seen longer.

 

Refugees and Redemption

14 Mar
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Ruben Garcia in Annunciation House.

In class yesterday, while discussing Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, I couldn’t help but quote Ruben Garcia, the founder of El Paso’s Annunciation House, on how the poor, even those in other countries, are intimately connected to us, whether we choose to take responsibility for it or not. I met Ruben back in 2014, on my cross-country road journey for my book project, The Whole Service Trip – and Ruben certainly provided more than his share of strong material. On top of the  economic and political connections our world has to that of the poor, there is the  spiritual and moral connection.  “The God of the scriptures,” Ruben asserted, identifies most with the poor. Thus, he argued, “the poor are our opportunities for holiness. What the poor have to offer us is nothing less than our own redemption.”

This year it seems that as a nation, we’re moving farther from that redemption, at least in terms that Ruben Garcia would recognize. Recent travel bans against immigrants serve as one of many prime examples from the first two months of the Trump presidency. Yet even with odds stacked against them, local individuals and groups keep fighting the good fight, as do, of course, the immigrants they serve.

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Yawo speaks at 2016 ACE Festival

Take Kaska Yawo and his colleagues at Catholic Charities, working to support refugees as they make new homes in Worcester. In today’s Telegram, Kaska and others discuss the challenges faced by refugees and those seeking to help them. Kaska, who came here as a refugee himself, has gone on to become a U.S. Citizen, helped countless people – and co-founded African Community Education, the agency where I happen to volunteer. So I’ve seen firsthand the ways that, even in times when brutal indifference and outright hatred seems to permeate the atmosphere, refugee kids and their families make slow but steady headway in carving out a life in a new country. As does the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Southeast Asian Coalition, and numerous other agencies who could our help and, in the process, allow us the privilege of connecting with people who, in all probably, have overcome far more than us.

You can help refugees in far more ways than you know. Obviously, you can protest loudly against inhumane policies. Reading the above link to the Telegram article might make you want to do just that.  But if you’re not inclined toward that kind of confrontation, simply volunteer at one of these agencies. You may not feel you have much to contribute, but I’m betting you do.

Take tutoring. You may consider yourself untraveled and unskilled in other languages, or feel that you haven’t been trained in how to tutor academic subjects. But if you speak the native tongue and knowing the local culture, you can help someone new to this country in more ways than you can probably imagine. Besides, some of the most powerful moments come when a student sees a tutor who doesn’t have all the answers right away – and then works with the tutor to get there together. Not to mention all the times a child from some other country, one who lacks confidence in negotiating anew world, realizes that s/he has plenty to teach us, too.

I’m sure Ruben Garcia would agree.

 

A Miracle Born of Careful Attention

7 Mar
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At Santa Barbara Rescue Mission, Jill visits with colleague from another agency.

There’s a reason that during my book project, The Whole Service Trip, Jill Wallerstedt, an advocate for the homeless in Santa Barbara, California, merited virtually an entire chapter for herself. Just as it’s not surprising that when I present stories about many of people I met while driving coast to coast talking to people about their causes, she winds up being one of the ones audiences take to most. A person who lives the social gospel, Jill is also as adept as anyone I know at seeing past the boundaries and labels that limit so many of our efforts to help others; she engages as easily and matter-of-factly with homeless clients as she does with anyone else in her life, while at the same time taking a hard line when a client needs a course correction. Along the way, she pays close attention to what’s being said between the lines of conversation.

She’s always stated this makes her no different than most people who work with homeless populations. The below story – told directly by Jill – underscores how patient diligence on the part of both Jill and others made, in Jill’s words, a “miracle” happen right before her eyes earlier this week. The story serves as a reminder to all of us that, even amid all of the justifiable moral outrage and outright despair those who care about the less fortunate are feeling these days, we still have diligent, caring people out there, achieving victories that, even if they don’t change the course of national politics, make a huge difference in the lives of particular people.

Jill’s story, as told by Jill:

     Yesterday I witnessed a miracle. Here is my story about it.

      Her smile brightens her whole face and yours too. She has literally nothing we count for happiness, but she shines from within. If you knew her you would agree she deserves a miracle.     Today she got hers. 
       I first met Mary on the steps of the Santa Barbara Public Library two years ago. I was looking for her but I didn’t know what she looked like. She fit the description I was given at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Homeless Roundtable meeting – small, thin, blonde hair, bright blue eyes. 
     “Mary?” I asked, sitting down next to her.
     She smiled in reply.
     “My name is Jill. I work at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. I hear you are living here at the library. I thought I’d stop by and see if there’s anything I can get for you or help you with.”
      It’s a direct approach, but one that works with homeless people. 
      Mary thought a cup of coffee would be nice, so we went across the street to a café and got to know each other. She was indeed living outside the library, sleeping under a statue, and she spent her days inside doing research when she wasn’t walking the streets of our beautiful city. We found out we had some things in common, and she began to trust me.
      What makes Mary’s story unique is that she has amnesia from an accident 11 years ago. She cannot remember her real name, her social security number, or any identifying information. This means, for all legal intents and purposes, she does not exist. She cannot get an ID card, Social Security card, Medi-Cal, or Food Stamps, which are some of the first steps homeless people can take to get back on their feet. More importantly, she cannot apply for housing. Even her memories before the accident were affected, like being able to recall her children’s or parents’ names or where she most recently lived, so contacting family was impossible.
      A cup of coffee bloomed into a two-year friendship that started with once-a-week meals for six months until she agreed to come indoors at night at the Rescue Mission. She stayed with us intermittently, as she loved being outdoors at night in good weather. We kept in touch at the Rescue Mission’s Drop-In Center when we could.
     Other outreach professionals from the Santa Barbara Police Department’s Restorative Court, Doctors Without Walls, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and PATH Santa Barbara have also tried various ways to help her. The name Mary Roberts with her birthdate did not trigger any identifying information in any police or legal database. Live Scan fingerprinting brought up only information since her accident. Every turn became a dead end. 
     However, the art of conversation is a powerful healer. As we went out together, we often talked about our pasts and compared notes. Sometimes an anecdote I shared would trigger a memory for her. She would get an “Aha!” look in her bright blue eyes and say, “That reminds me…” I learned she is an intelligent, spiritual person, who was raised on a farm and worked with her father outdoors. She had several good jobs and was married, but could not remember factual details about these things. She told me she accepted her amnesia and homelessness as a blessing in disguise. Even though she owned only a sleeping bag and a few clothes when I first met her, slept outdoors in all manner of weather, and had no money of her own, she appreciated the freedom of being without society’s pressures and demands. 
     For the past year, Mary has been safe in the PATH Santa Barbara shelter, with a roof over her head and three meals a day. But still, no closer to having any options for the future.
      In February, I realized that I had not seen Mary in about 3 months. I wrote a letter to her at PATH asking if she wanted to go out for lunch. She called a few days later and we went to eat near the beach. During our lunch, she mentioned that she had some numbers floating around in her head that might be her Social Security number.  I encouraged her to go to the Social Security Office and see if the number corresponded to her records. Even though she did not remember her first name, she thought she knew her last name. I told her that Social Security can ask questions from your work history and various addresses to confirm your identity, so it was worth a trip there. 
      Mary went to Social Security a few days later, and she had the representative call me and put me on speaker phone. I was able to explain her situation to him. With her birthdate, the social security number, her last name, and the questions, he was able to verify her identity. Surprisingly, at first she did not recognize her real first name, Kayannette. As close as she was to getting her social security card, she could not remember her mother’s maiden name. The representative was unable to help, except to give her a letter of denial and request for a photo ID to take to the DMV.
     On Friday February 17, I talked to her at PATH and offered to take her to the DMV. It was the worst rain storm in recent history here, and she declined. However, I asked if she remembered ever having a California ID. She said she had, and she would try to remember details.
     Fast forward to yesterday. I got a phone message from Mureen Brown of Restorative Court saying they had found Mary’s family! Mary – now Kayannette – had gone to Carmen Uribe, a staff member at PATH, to provide her Social Security number, her actual name, and the fact that she had remembered she had a driver’s license in 2000 in Cambria, CA (before her accident.) Carmen called Mureen who searched DMV records to find a Driver’s License in that name and birthdate. Looking at the photo, she was sure it was the same person. She then searched the missing person’s database and found that her family had filed a missing person’s report 10 years and 10 months ago.  Kayannette was found!
     In unbelievably fast time, Maureen contacted one of Kayannette’s three children, a son. He then contacted his other brother and sister, and they all flew to Santa Barbara today for a reunion.
     I was incredibly blessed to be invited to meet them and to see my friend Kayannette experience the miracle that we all wished would happen for her, but didn’t expect. There are no words for the joy and tears and awe of that family in the same space together for the first time in 11 years, making plans for a future together. She will be living near one of her sons for a while here in California. She will also be traveling to Colorado to reunite with her 91-year-old father!
     Truly, this is the stuff of dreams, as they say, a true dream that will warm the hearts of everyone who knew Kayannette and now know her children. I’ll always treasure this day, especially remembering the smile on her face. Indescribable.

Merry Shaqmas

21 Dec

While individual acts of charity can’t make up for negative structural changes likely to be pushed by our next President, the current hostile environment also makes individual acts of kindness stand particularly tall – particularly when it’s in the form of 7-foot-1 NBA Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal.

When Shaq’s significant other asked about doing something for 30 kids at an agency in Central Massachusetts, his only condition was that they needed to get more kids.

And organizers did – 400 of them, to be exact.

Read the rest of the story in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. In this age where there’s so much unapologetically self-entitled greed, it’s good to be reminded that there’s still plenty of affluent people who model a sense of social responsibility to something larger than themselves.

As the paper pointed out, it wouldn’t be a particularly good idea for the behemoth with the size-22 shoes – and what looks to be more pounds than the 325 he played at – to go sliding down anyone’s chimney this Christmas Eve.

Just the same, merry Shaqmas to all, and to all a good night.

 

 

Glide Unconditionally

6 Dec

 

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Glide parishioners take an altar selfie before Pride Sunday service

As the preachers are apt to remind us this time of year, December is the most contradictory and paradoxical of seasons. Between holiday hospitality and strategic gift-purchasing, they tell us, we threaten to turn deeper principles of love and grace from blessings to be celebrated to objectives to be executed, with holiday joy caving to grim perfectionism.

But that’s not how this blogger rolls.

If there’s any urge I can claim to transcend, it’s perfectionism.

For instance, I’m so stressed with closing down my fall semester, instead of, say, going to church, I’m writing a blog about the last time I went to church.

In June.

In a church three thousand miles from here.

And when you get down to it, I’m not so much writing this blog, when you get down to it, as cutting and pasting it. It’s based on a passage from the last chapter of my road trip memoir, The Whole Service Trip – the proposal for which will soon be sent to a publisher near you – and the Kaboom! art exhibit poster I made about that service. The exhibit challenged me to juxtapose the key images and phrases from my road experiences – and one scene that came to mind was my visit to Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, a church with a long tradition of ministering to the LGBTQ community.

For many of us these days, the world is divided into Pre- and Post-Election, as if what happened before was a fairy-tale realm. But way back in June, folks at Glide had their own cause for grief – as they met on Pride Sunday in San Francisco, they were only two weeks removed from the mass shooting at what was known as a gay night club in Orlando. Glide is built on direct engagement and lofty goals, melting the Christian message down to its own version of perfection – Unconditional Love – and that particular Sunday had to be a time when that standard was most tested.

But coming to the rescue was a young man in Glide’s soulful and jazzy choir, a young man named, appropriately, Jonah – the prophet who went into the belly of the whale and lived to tell about it.

Below is the poster, and below that, in case you can’t read the text, the original passage.

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Between those two announcements, however, comes the Community Prayer, led by a young bearded man named Jonah, who asks us to “please get connected” – and we do, my long arms stretched to their full length to connect the stocky man in the aisle to my right to a woman on my left. The woman in particular radiates a kind beauty as she smiles my way. Some sway to the rhythm of the subdued but beautiful electric keyboard accompaniment, a moving rendering of the gospel classic “I Can’t Believe He’s Brought Me This Far (To Leave Me).” Jonah prays aloud with pauses, as if reflectively and spontaneously confessing to his divine Friend.

“God,” Jonah intones, “sometimes we’re too difficult.”

Pause.

“I know you know.”

It’s a phrase we use so often, signifying that we respect the intelligence of the listener, but here it takes on another meaning – even in the church without a cross, here’s this faith in an all-knowing God, the kind who knows what’s on our mind even before we know it ourselves.

Cross or no cross, here’s a man confessing his limitations in the face of a higher power. Only the limitations he confesses are failures to fully understand the reality of other human beings, failures of the empathetic imagination. “I don’t have any frame of reference for how vulnerable some people in our world are. I think sometimes if I were in Eastern Europe in the ‘30s or something, maybe I would know. Maybe if I was a refugee or immigrant in UK right now, I might have a little sense.” So no easy answers, no false assurances..

Then Jonah makes the move to the issue on our hearts today, the elephant in the room that, at Glide, is never ignored. “ … I’m … so sad about Orlando … and about the things that happened that cause that sense of vulnerability to be heightened. Anything that has potential to bring that fear into the world and turn us away from each other more.”

            Then Jonah makes the healing cathartic turn toward hope, springing eternal, even here among the heartbroken and disillusioned. “And God I’m so grateful … so grateful for this beautiful place called Glide where it seems like every day is Pride Day, every day is for everybody, every day is a day to be free and safe and loved and welcomed … and we can all be together in that … “ and I feel the woman’s hand tighten around mine, and I tighten mine in return.

Jonah speaks louder. “So, Lord we’re going to celebrate you like we do here … We’re going to get out there and march, and we’re going to shout it out for every single creature on this planet.”

By now I feel like heading out the door this very second, but we’re not done praying yet.

“Thank you for all you’ve made … thank you for your pride in us.”

Then a surprising turn.

“Let us do our thing and make our mistakes.”

May we do the same things as this holiday season continues. To allow the re-energizing force of joy to do its work even amid our worries. To not let the barrage of holiday tasks get in the way of the spontaneous joy of the season. To “do our thing and make our mistakes.”

To, as one of the t-shirts created by a certain church in San Francisco reminds us, Glide Unconditionally.

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