The Wisdom of Retreat

This past week has been one of well-timed, welcomed rest as I find myself exactly halfway between the beginning and the end, both with Urban Hope and with the Project on Lived Theology. So far, there have been plenty of things to reflect on; I carry a journal that is literally full of my various thoughts and have an entire Word document dedicated to quotes and ideas I’ve encountered so far on this journey. There is no shortage of material, both simple and profound, to sift through and let it softly inform my life as I move forward.

Luckily for me, last week Urban Hope had an overnight retreat, a structured, intentional period of reflection for both campers and counselors. We drove about twenty minutes outside of Durham to Camp New Hope, a camp in the woods with cabins and plenty of outdoor space to get away. For many of our campers, our air-conditioned cabins were rustic to the point of fascination; we might as well have been in the Amazon. It was a fun week filled with games, swimming, “campfire” devotions (it rained the whole time, so our campfire was a flashlight and we cooked s’mores on the stove), and plenty of time to talk with and get to know the campers on a deeper level.

It was perfect to change from the normal context of my interaction with the campers, one far different from the “remote” woods, and to see how at Camp New Hope many of the walls came down and the kids opened up. I felt a strong shift with many of the kids and am excited to see where our mutual experience at New Hope takes us. After two nights, the kids went back to Walltown and the counselors stayed on for an extra day for our own retreat.

Urban Hope 2013 Counselors and Staff at Camp New Hope

As I stood in the quiet stillness of Camp New Hope immediately following our campers’ departure one word floated around in my mind: retreat–the act of retreating from the constant motion of life, at least for a little while. Dorothy Day’s published diary, Duty of Delight, is filled with moments of retreat when Dorothy would leave her hectic NYC life for a quieter stay on a Catholic Worker farm or some other calm, isolated place. Rather than mere relaxation, Dorothy saw her retreats as spiritual experiences where she was able to connect with God away from the distractions of her everyday life. No doubt it was relaxing, and no doubt it quieted her soul, but the main goal was to reflect. The main goal was to get away and connect with God so that she could look back on her actions, everything she had done, and let her reflection inform her future action.

The retreat this past week had me thinking not just of the utility of retreat, but its wisdom. If we look at retreat as merely a useful tool, we might only stumble across it when it is convenient rather than actively pursue its presence in our lives. Sitting at Camp New Hope, and reading of Dorothy’s retreats, encouraged me to view retreat as that latter possibility, as something that I should fight to incorporate into my life in order to carve out a place where I can sit back and reflect. As I am sure many can confirm, reflection is often difficult in the moment. When countless things are grabbing for your attention, how can any be expected to take a moment and analyze just exactly what is unfolding around them? Retreat is one possible answer; scheduled time away from the very things you are seeking to break down and question. It also doesn’t hurt that retreats can often be a place of pure relaxation… Whatever makes the reflection easier!

Camp New Hope offered me this place of relaxation and retreat, and reflection came easily. For the most part, however, my reflection came in the form of questions, many of which were inspired by the book that I am currently reading: The Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. To be completely honest, many of these questions are difficult to ask, especially in a society that seeks to quell any attempts to open many of Pandora’s boxes found in our nation’s history and their current implications. In the moment, living within the context that often begs these questions, there still somehow exists the temptation to remain quiet rather than open up and ask them. On this retreat, however, I was able to gather my thoughts without the fear of offending anyone or stepping on toes and point myself in the right direction, towards actually addressing these hard questions in the coming days and weeks.

This time of retreat was truly invaluable. Life slowed down to a point where time’s purpose seemed to be to help me through these questions, and perhaps just as importantly, to quiet my soul. Retreat, at least in this circumstance, provided me with the opportunity to refill my tank and ready myself for the rest of the summer. This state of reflection and relaxation, so present in retreat, strikes me now as the wise thing to do in a life consisting of constant motion. I am certainly ready and excited to get back to doing what I set out to do at the beginning of Urban Hope: be an active and engaging presence and influence in the lives of my campers.


Calming Song

As a lover of music and a firm believer in music’s ability to unite and inspire, I write about it quite a bit. For me, music braids a perfume of the divine into my everyday. Everyday life at The Haven is not exactly “easy.” Days can be crisis-filled, emotionally draining, or busy with mitigating conflict and unease. Yet, among these tremulous hours, joy is born in our community. This week I witnessed something extraordinary in the sanctuary.  The transcendent moment I witnessed was a blessing of memory—a reminder that among human hardship there are constant moments of human brilliance.

The Haven sanctuary is usually empty in the afternoon, after sleepy morning-dwellers leave and business for the day picks up around the building. I heard music playing from the office space on the fourth floor, and went down to investigate the sounds coming from the sanctuary. It was a young man in a red t-shirt and black basketball shorts playing the piano. Slightly out of tune, the piano still produces equal amounts of melancholy and joyful tunes. He had taken off one shoe to better use the pedals. The young man was playing a very passionate piece full of chromatic chord progressions and rising crescendos. Fascinated, I sat quietly in the back of the sanctuary and listened to him play, enjoying the late afternoon light filtering through the stained glass windows.

The Haven sanctuary is used for public concerts, like this performance by The Nettles. As I have learned, it can also be a space for personal creation.

At the end of the song, I gently applauded and he turned around, startled: “Geez, where did you come from?” He bolted from the piano bench towards the water fountain, but returned to introduce himself as “S.” Another guest, Mr. F., came up the stairs and asked S. to keep playing. The two of us returned to the pews and respectfully took our front row seats next to the piano. At a close vantage point, I realized with incredulity, that S. was playing only with the three middle fingers of each hand. He had clearly taught himself to play, as no piano teacher would allow a student to play with only six fingers. It became clear that he had also written the song. After the second rendition, S. launched into a rapid fire pace explanation of where the song came from. He explained that he had needed to teach himself to play the piano in order to finish composing a song begun with a good friend, who had passed away last year. S. needed to finish writing the song in honor of this friend.

S. had the unmistakable air of someone with an intellectual disability. The pace of his speech was nearly unintelligible, and it was impossible to make eye contact. I’m not sure S. knew how much he had impressed me with his performance. All day, I raved about this young man’s seemingly genius ability to teach himself a new instrument merely to compose with it. The apparent barrier of an intellectual disability was not a barrier at all, but an obvious revelation of God’s mysterious presence in every day’s reality.

In a parable on handing over a fugitive to the enemy Henri Nouwen quotes: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known” (The Wounded Healer, 26). Nouwen’s reflective, instructive book adamantly teaches that it is impossible to know the secrets of another person’s life until you slow down and concentrate on creating individual relationships. It should not be a mystery that every human life is complex and surprising, but it can be easy to lose track of that micro scale when facing such a sweeping issue as homelessness. It is all too easy to concentrate on the policies, the reform, and the operating life of the Haven. Even on the main floor in the Day Haven space, days can fall into a routine of familiar faces and familiar needs. This experience with S. has taught me to remain open to the miracles of human life happening every day.

Henri Nouwen also writes, “the God within can not only be a source of a new creative life but also the source of a chaotic confusion” (37). I cannot claim to know the intricacies of S.’s mind, but the crafted music he produces seem to indicate a wrestling of a confusing reality into a creative offering. He said he wrote the piece to preserve the legacy of a friend and mentor. I can only imagine the depth of the bond and friendship that inspired S. to learn an entirely new instrument in order to process and honor his friend’s life and death. Life among the poor does not mean a poverty of love and hope. S. was not playing for an audience; he was playing for himself. The contemplative ability of music to quiet the soul and comfort in times of loss was apparent and strikingly glorious. Within the Haven’s bustling world, a young soul creates his own space of calm.

In his guidance on becoming a contemplative leader, Nouwen asks the future Christian leader to “look for signs of hope and promise in the situation in which he finds himself” (45). There is hope in the boy playing his passionate, fervent music. In every individual life, there is revelation of wonder and peace.

Relational is Radical

I was introduced to the Catholic Worker movement a couple of years ago when I visited Casa Alma in Charlottesville, a Catholic Worker community started by Laura and Steve Brown in 2009.  This initial encounter prompted inquiry into the history of the Catholic Worker and the surprising discovery of the community directory listing hundreds of houses worldwide.  According to their website, the Catholic Worker is a movement whose aim is to live “in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ” which they see as a requirement “to begin living in a different way.”1  Due to this different kind of living, the Catholic Worker movement is often regarded as “radical,” a term I would like to unpack. Is the Catholic Worker a radical way in which to practice Catholicism? Is a Catholic Worker lifestyle simply radical in relation to that of mainstream society?  Initially I thought acts of civil disobedience or ploughshares (in which military or nuclear equipment and weapons are damaged) were the more radical aspects of the Catholic Worker movement, because they can often result in arrests, trials in court, and prison sentences.  Though acts of civil disobedience are certainly bold ways to proclaim beliefs in the public sphere, I am discovering that the radical core of the Catholic Worker movement consists more so of small, relational practices carried out with the conviction that they can transform society.

Author Dan McKanan in Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition places the Catholic Worker within the tradition of American radicalism, which he defines as “a tradition of social movements and organizations that seek to extend the values of liberty, equality, solidarity, and peace” (5).  McKanan relates radicalism to religion as a brother or sister, as a perspective more concerned with relationships amongst people rather than spiritual or material realities; one that still hopes for societal change beyond the institutional level but looks to the future rather than to the transcendent.  He notes however, that often a religious faith is strongly linked to the belief that one can renew the earth; a radical belief indeed.  This proved to be the case for Dorothy Day, whose “revelatory experiences of interpersonal encounter confirmed the truths of biblical revelation” (8).

“To be radical is to go to the roots,” writes Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, in one of his Easy Essays (18).  At the core of the Catholic Worker is the commitment to practice the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy, which has a clear rooting in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew.  The passage in Matthew 25 reads,

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?  And the king will say to them in reply.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Based on this passage, the Catholic Church has defined the Corporeal Works of Mercy as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.  Additionally, there are Spiritual Works of Mercy, which include admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, and praying for the living and the dead.  According to the Catholic Worker website, the works of mercy, both corporeal and spiritual, are “an abiding norm for the Catholic Worker Movement.  Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin lived lives of ‘active love’ built on these precepts.”  The Catholic Worker as a movement aims to put into practice this call from Christ to do works of mercy for the poor, a call “rooted” in the Gospel, and Dorothy Day considered these works to be “the best revolutionary technique and a means for changing the social order.”2

Peter Maurin’s Easy Essay on personal sacrifice also roots the Works of Mercy as a practice of the early Christian church:

In the first centuries of Christianity
the poor were fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
and the Pagans
said about the Christians:
“See how they love each other.”
Today the poor are fed, clothed, and sheltered
by the politicians
at the expense
of the taxpayers.
And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
but at the expense of taxpayers
Pagans say about the Christians
“See how they pass the buck.”

Practicing the works of mercy can also be described as taking personal responsibility for one’s neighbor rather than leaving another’s welfare up to the state or an institution.  This is another example of going to the root of the problem, a radical act, by focusing on a relationship with a neighbor in need.  Peter Maurin described himself as a “personalist.”  He was inspired by Emmanuel Mounier, an 20th century French philosopher, whose Christian perspective of personalism at its core states that each person has an equal dignity and is loved by God.  From this basis, Mounier viewed modern capitalism as a negative economic development due mainly to its “priority of profit,” since in capitalism “the person is subordinated to consumption, consumption in turn is subordinated to production, and production to speculative profit.”3

Scott Albrecht, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Farm, has often stated that, “If you’re a British citizen, it is as though you have a pound sign over your head,” indicating that the British government sees their citizens as having greater value than that of non-British citizens.  After many years of working with the homeless, Scott and Maria Albrecht came to realize where the aid of the government fell short for impoverished foreigners in the UK. They subsequently began the Catholic Worker Farm specifically to provide accommodation for homeless women who are not eligible for any support from the government until they are granted the proper legal status.  As a result, the Catholic Worker Worker Farm provides accommodation only for women who are “street homeless,” some of the most destitute of British society.  Because they have chosen to take in these women, they are not a registered charity, and are not given the housing benefit they would receive from the UK government if the homeless women were British citizens.

The kind of personal sacrifice that Catholic Workers undergo by taking a personal responsibility for their neighbor and practicing the works of mercy was viewed by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin as having “the potential to create an entirely new community.”4 Perhaps this belief in an ultimate renewal of society as a result of human relationships is the radical core of the movement, in which one believes a new society can be created in the shell of the old.  Furthermore, McKanan writes, “the peculiarly unifying genius of the Catholic Worker lies in the fact that everyone can practice the works of mercy,” an idea linked to the Catholic Worker vision of the possibility of a new society (11).

A couple encounters with fellow community members who have associated themselves with the Catholic Worker movement have shown me glimpses of this vision of a new society, in which one simply recognizes the need and chooses to care of their neighbor.  At the farm, a local licensed psychotherapist offers therapy to two women each week.  He happened to walk past our table one day in Chorleyshire where we ask for monetary donations on the street and offered to give psychological help to the women.  At the Great Western Market, where we go to ask for old or out-of-date food from sellers, one vendor is unbelievably generous and always asks us what we need and tries to provide it for us.  In a sense, we are giving all the vendors and the citizens of Chorleyshire an opportunity to take part in this new society, by giving them the choice to practice a work of mercy.

Another time, one volunteer was confronted in a store by a shopper who recognized him as the renter of our second house of hospitality.  She had stopped Stephen to explain that, as a resident herself on that street, she found our hedges too overgrown.  We had actually already planned on going to the house that afternoon to do the much-needed work in the garden, and humorously, our neighbor who had confronted us that morning walked down our street a few hours later as Stephen was cutting the hedges, which she had “reminded” him to trim earlier that day.  Stephen remarked, “So you’ve come by to help!”  She quickly denied, stating that she had only been passing by, but he persisted, and invited her to enter the garden where I, another volunteer and two of the women staying in our houses were working.  Stephen introduced us to Caroline as a neighbor who had come by to help.  IMG_1362We proceeded to show her the flowerbed we were weeding, and asked her about various plants that we couldn’t identify; she knew most of them.  Leaving in a positive mood from this unexpected opportunity to give her suggestions, Caroline told us she would think of an appropriate plant for the bed, and would stop back by the house.

Stephen both encouraged and gave an opportunity for Caroline to take personal responsibility for her neighbors, when otherwise she might not have considered doing so.  Our seventy-year-old neighbor was the perfect person to give garden advice, and in this way I see Stephen’s invitation as mimicry of Dorothy Day’s “intense desire to see the heroic potential of every person whom she met” (34).  Both taking responsibility for the poor and inviting others to do the same are small practices radically rooted in relationships and the means by which the Catholic Worker movement has endured.  McKanan notes that in the passage from Matthew 25 it is not explicitly stated that the sheep on the right share a common theology or ideology, but rather “their identity as a community stems entirely from their common care for an anonymous Christ” (7).

1, Aims and Means

2 Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker (May 1940); quoted in Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, page 52.

3 Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins, page 107.

4 Dan McKanan, The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the works of Mercy in a New Generation, page 9.

“White Girl on the Job”

On one hand, life at the Haven proves that poverty does not discriminate. People in need come from all walks of life, ages, religions and colors. That said, about sixty-five percent of the Haven’s guests are African-American–a majority. Recently, a UVA friend asked me “what it feels like to be the only white girl at my job.” Quite taken aback, I had to explain that not only was this assumption untrue, but it suggested that I am a racial outsider to the community I serve. His comment revealed that many of my UVA peers assume poverty in Charlottesville to be a “black problem,” exclusively affecting one population to the point of rendering me, a white volunteer, totally isolated in the building.

camillehavendeskThe idea that poverty could be simplified into a racial group issue is unfortunately not unique to my misinformed friend. Interestingly, this idea conflicts with the not-uncommon belief that people in poverty can and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to improve their living situations. In their study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith identify this individualistic responsibility as an inheritance of a capitalist economy and, in the religiously political sense, a belief in personal accountability for salvation. The erroneous assumption then is that the inability to own personal accountability just “happens” to disproportionately affect African Americans in the Charlottesville community. Emerson and Smith confront some of the questions of race and poverty I face as a student ambassador between the Haven and the UVA community. For example, why isn’t systematic discrimination addressed for what it is, instead of denying a racialized America? How might faith be used as a catalyst for racial reconciliation?

An interview conducted by Emerson and Smith with Curtiss DeYoung particularly struck me. DeYoung, a white man, attended seminary at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, preached in an all- black congregation in Harlem, New York, and worked in a shelter for runaway youth in Times Square. DeYoung recounts, “I was completely out of my comfort zone the whole time in New York. I said to myself, I need a least an hour or two of comfort. I thought I could find a congregation of my own denomination, and there I would find people like me” (61). I identify with DeYoung. As a fair skinned, blonde college student, I am a poster child for the university world, and not the community with which many Haven guests are comfortable. As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe the novelty of my newness among the staff has shielded me from any outright negativity. The Haven is wholly a supportive and safe space, and significant conflict between staff and guests is uncommon. On the occasion that tensions bubble over and there is an issue, one of the white staff members involved in the conflict will inevitably be called a racist. It is an easy insult, because it immediately distances the two conflicting parties and aims to invalidate any genuine empathy. I do not think that anyone at the Haven is under the impression that racialized society does not exist. Working at the Haven has forced me to admit that our world is not colorblind. One of the most challenging things for me has been to realize that a barrier exists between many of the Haven guests and me, a barrier that I would rather not admit to. However, race isn’t really something that is talked about a lot inside the Haven. Among the staff, discussions on discrimination pertain to issues affecting all groups, such as substance abuse or criminal history.

The complex reality of race in Charlottesville is something I am confronted with more in conversation outside of work hours. Through casual conversation, I find that many of my university peers understand discrimination as an urban, downtown issue separate from our college world. Even when meaning to erase poverty and reconstruct discrimination, it is easier to pretend these systems of inequality do not exist in our own neighborhood. America’s complex history of race relations belies this societal dilemma. Emerson and Smith write, “the early white abolitionists opposed slavery but not racializaion. They were uncomfortable with these strange Africans, and, to put it bluntly, wished them to go away” (29). This nineteenth century attitude is not too different today. People want to erase poverty, but not welcome the impoverished onto their own block. One of Emerson and Smith’s conclusions is that the majority of their study subjects (white evangelical Americans) are willing to consider their congregations and neighborhoods open to integration and support creating personal relationships with members of another race, but resist any initiative that requires impetus on their end. They accept further movement towards inclusive community as appropriate and desirable, but do not wish to do any of the moving. For example, Emerson and Smith do not cite any instances in which a white interviewee said they would prefer to move to a more integrated part of town. UVA students rarely live east of 13th Street NW, lest the interactions with “townies” become too frequent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that the most segregated hour of American life was Sunday morning at 11am. If one believes, as I do, that faith can be a unifying force, the faithful community must advocate not only for equality and acceptance, but unity. There is a significant distinction between equality and unity. In my anecdotal existence, awareness about discrimination is framed as a need for acceptance, tolerance, and equality between all people. Not often (or never) has it been framed as, “what can you do to actively diversify and unify your community?” Ideally, Emerson and Smith write, diverse community carries the pragmatic function of “expos[ing] whites, typically unable to understand or see the depths of racialized society, to a United States seen through the eyes of those experiencing its injustices” (55). Everyday at the Haven, I am getting a full force of education thrown in my face. Everyday carries a unique realization that some part of my life I thought was universal in fact varies for others. The Haven is a unique nucleus where a diverse Charlottesville is unified under an umbrella of need.

In unifying our community, I continue to believe that we cannot deny the self-selection of our social environments. My former professor, Dr. Valerie Cooper, taught her students, “We tend to be drawn to people who look like us when facing big issues like determination of faith or support through hardship.” However, poverty is not exclusive to any one denomination, any one community, or any one race. It is a human issue that must be faced with visions of unity and mutuality, not as a responsibility for one slice of humanity to bear. I am grateful to the many writers, thinkers, and scholars that instill a solid optimism for a deconstruction of racialized America. Emerson and Smith conclude their book with a call for evangelicals (and really, all Christians) to embrace both the creation of individual relationships and the condemnation of debilitating social structures as major actions to deconstruct racism in America.

Faith has a deep power to inspire action and hope. From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights era, religious faith and social movement have been inextricably linked, attesting to the power of faith to demand and realize change. Scripture like Galatians 3:26-29, Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 12:7 and Romans 2:9-11 make it easy to argue for biblical equality among all people. It is not difficult to make the case for increased unity among all people, with the accompanying acknowledgment that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters. There must be more than a simple call to action to alleviate pockets of poverty across town. Working in a very diverse climate of the Haven has been the greatest way for me to confront fallacies on racial poverty and to actively engage (if only at an individual level) in unifying the privileged college bubble with the sphere of Charlottesville. I anxiously await the day when no one will think to call me the “white girl on the job” or identify housing insecurity as a problem inherent in the African-American population, but refer to each neighbor as Brother and Sister.

Listening to: “What Do You Want?”

Part of my work with the Project on Lived Theology, includes meeting with my mentor Jonathan on a weekly basis to discuss the readings that we have been going through together. For the past two weeks we have been reading the “biography” of a Civil Rights group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), called Many Minds, One Heart. My past few blogs have seen the recurrence of a few key actors in the movement, most notably Ella Baker, who have not only challenged my perception of the Civil Rights Movement by changing the focus to ordinary individuals but have also challenged me on a personal level, specifically with how I relate to people. At the heart of this movement was a desire to build relationships founded on listening, and only through that attentive practice could one successfully discern the actions to take in a given community.

The driving force behind Miss Ella Baker’s tactics was its relational nature. By listening to people, one can better understand their wants, needs, and desires, and then act accordingly. Ann Atwater, the woman largely responsible for integrating Durham Public Schools, performed this practice this by asking people “What do you want?” She said that this was the key to developing communities. After asking what someone wants, she would teach, we must work with them toward that goal until we’re halfway there, and then tell them what we want. This process is one of involvement, one of achieving goals by creating relationships with true “wants” at their heart.

This process is what helped Ann Atwater work with C.P. Ellis, an American segregationist and Exalted Cyclops of the Durham Ku Klux Klan, to successfully integrate Durham Schools. After discussing what they wanted and listening to each other, this militant black activist and militant white segregationist realized that they both desired the best schooling for their children and that in order to accomplish this Durham schools had to be integrated. At the end of the ten-day integration session, C.P. Ellis stood in the front of the room. He held up his Klan membership card and said to everyone there, “If schools are going to be better by me tearing up this card, I shall do so.” And so he did. Ellis renounced the Klan that night and never returned. Other Klansmen threatened his life and never talked to him again for the next 30 years.Thus began integration, and more specifically, a genuine, lasting friendship between the two unlikeliest people in Durham, all through listening to the wants of others.

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis work alongside each other to integrate Durham schools

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis work alongside each other to integrate Durham schools

Last Friday Jonathan challenged me to do just this at Urban Hope. There is the distinct possibility, he noted, that I could go all through Urban Hope and have an intensely positive experience, one filled with personal reflection, realizations, and growth. I could live life with these kids throughout this entire summer and let it inform and influence the actions that I take when I return to the Charlottesville community. Perhaps even more than that, my experience at Urban Hope could profoundly shape the rest of my life, causing me to branch out beyond what I had previously intended and create a more intense involvement with urban youth, wherever I may end up. All of these things are great, he said, and would indicate a very rewarding summer experience. But suspended in the air between his sentences I felt the implication of all those scenarios: none of those mean much to the kids at Urban Hope beyond this summer.

The question Jonathan wanted me to ask myself was this: what would it look like to treat these kids as Miss Baker treated folks, or how Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis treated each other? How could I find out what these kids want and embark on a journey of fulfilling that desire in their lives? What is it that I can do now, here in Durham, to build up the Walltown community by translating the desires of its youth into concrete action?

“What do you want?” is a difficult question for any adult to answer truthfully, so how much more challenging would it be for a child if asked? Jonathan encouraged me to find alternative ways of posing this question, of searching out its answer in the lives of my campers. What makes them happy? What makes them angry? To which “wants” do their everyday actions point?
I have only been thinking about these questions for a couple days but a few answers immediately came to my attention. Most obvious to me was that the actions of these kids point to what seems like a deep desire for affirmation, to be told that they matter. Perhaps every child feels this way, and I’m sure to some degree they do, but this desire seems so real here in Walltown. I don’t want to generalize the lives and realities of the folks in this community but I am sure that at least some of these kids come from incredibly difficult families where they compete with so many things for the loving attention of their parent(s), grandmother, or foster parent.

I’ve tried to put myself in their parent’s shoes. I imagine a life, for example, in which I was financially unable to receive a college education and now work multiple jobs to provide for my children. In this life I face daily the realities of a difficult neighborhood and must somehow deal with the stresses and burdens that come with it. My financial situation precludes many amenities that make life easier for me and my family, like health care, legal services, or good education. And on top of all these things I must also provide love and attention to my kids… It seems difficult to accomplish theoretically, and I’ve seen with my own eyes that it is difficult to accomplish for many in Walltown. When questions of survival are on the table, “quality” time with children may seem an unaffordable luxury.

Where, then, do I come in? If what these kids want is to be affirmed, to be shown that they do in fact matter, then this is something that I, as someone who interacts with them daily, can do. One theme throughout camp that we’ve been revisiting with the kids is that as Christians we can understand our beautiful identity as children of God, made in His image. Addressing their wants, however, requires me to see that truth as well, and to love them accordingly. While seemingly simple, I am beginning to understand that this is a part of my time here that I cannot ignore or push to the side; it must be at the forefront of every interaction that I have with the campers. My role extends past a camp counselor merely here to maintain the peace and begins to break into the realm of mentor and friend, a role that can better contribute to the Walltown community. In this role I hope to discover more and more “wants” of Walltown and to continue working with Urban Hope to see them addressed.

Sources of Joy

Much of our time at the Catholic Worker Farm is spent accomplishing work in the garden and around the house, helping the women with their legal cases, discussing the state of affairs at our two houses in volunteer meetings and planning upcoming events. Personally, I often find myself hoping for more opportunities to simply be with the women.  I think this time I hope for is often available; it is just a matter of recognizing when a situation has presented itself to sit with or talk with the women, and making the choice to take the opportunity.   It is in time spent being with the women that I have experienced joy in the smallest, simplest of interactions, and I find these experiences to be fleeting moments in which the intentions for our work become realities.

“Community life can become a real school for growth and love,” writes Jean Vanier in his work, “Our Journey Home.”  Vanier is the founder of the L’Arch communities for disabled persons, and he has written extensively about community and relationships based on his years of experience living with volunteers and disabled guests.  His writing on communion has helped me to articulate the joyful moments I’ve experienced with the homeless women with whom I live in community.  Though often times there is conflict, stress, and irritation in our houses, it seems the joyful moments that occur intermittently are slowly creating a sense of unity amongst the women. Vanier describes the L’Arch communities as families of brothers and sisters; we describe our houses in the same way.  The women have not chosen each other as housemates and it is easier to get along with certain people more so than others.

Acknowledging disparities between members of a community as gifts rather than as irreconcilable differences is a way to see how community members complement each other rather than create divisions amongst each other.  Vanier uses the example of Martha and Mary in the gospel of Luke.  In the scene, Martha wants to concentrate on the tasks she needs to accomplish, while Mary desires simply to sit “at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he [is] saying” (Luke 10:39).  Vanier sees the two sisters as having a choice, to either become jealous or critical of one another as a result of their different tendencies, or to make the “transition” to see each other as “members of the same body, different from ourselves, but important and necessary to the life of the body,” in which “differences then are no longer a threat, but a treasure” (189).

The reference to members of the same body alludes to 1 Corinthians 12 in which Paul describes how each member of the Christian community has been baptized into one body. The community is diverse, and therefore it is necessary that all of the “parts” function together.  Each person should take concern for the other members because although each serves a different purpose, all are necessary.  In a similar way, each woman has entered into the body that is the Catholic Worker house, and as a community we must address how the diversity within the house will function.  I find Vanier’s description of making a “transition” as an appropriate way to describe the decision to see another as an individual with gifts and as a member of the same body, though it can take many encounters and interactions before a full transition can take place.  He also speaks of passing through many stages before one is able to accept another as “neither angels nor demons, but human beings, beautiful and wounded, a mixture of light and darkness” (188).

It is a joy to both watch and take part in a friendship between two young women living in our house of hospitality.  These two women seem to have nearly opposite personalities in addition to being of different nationalities and having sought accommodation at the Catholic Worker as a result of different circumstances.  One of the women is quiet and consistently hardworking, while the other is the most outgoing in the house and sometimes needs encouragement to complete her weekly chores.  The first woman is still taking English lessons, and the other is attending a local college and is fluent in English.   One is from Southeast Asia and the other, from Africa.  Unexpectedly these women both enjoy spending time together and are friends.  It is inspiring to see how they respect each other and accept each other’s differences; neither of them poses a threat to the other, but rather sees the other as a treasure.



Another kind of transition that takes place is the realization of a shared, common humanity or underlying relatedness, which can occur as a result of or during a particular interaction or conversation. This is another joyful experience because when this transition is recognized, it seems a theology of intrinsic dignity at the root of the Catholic Worker becomes a reality.  During some dinners in which the women are open to dialogue and seem to have peaceful spirits, I sense a transformation in which a group of Africans, Americans, Swedes, homeless persons, Catholics, and Sikhs, are united simply as humans, around a dinner table, all with common desires and feelings.  Usually this sense of underlying relatedness manifests when the women are discussing a topic to which they can all relate and contribute.  Usually when we talk about food, children, and childhood, the women seem to desire to openly share their experiences and to affirm each other.  Everyone has something to share about how to prepare their favorite foods, their culinary preferences, their childhood memories, how they were parented, and experiences parenting their own child.

Though the women often communicate feelings of annoyance that they have to participate in house dinners, I have found that coming together for a meal each night is an opportunity for a celebration, as it is often where I have found I can make these transitions and choices to respect differences and to recognize commonalities, both of which are a source of joy.  Vanier writes, “celebration creates unity in the community, and also flows from it” (199).  When the women are respecting each other’s differences, or discussing shared experiences with each other, a kind of celebration takes place, as it seems the unity of the community is affirmed.  Moods and feelings relax, the women laugh and joke with each other, and common experiences are recognized.

Vanier writes that the celebration of a community finds its fullest expression in shared meals, recalling that the words “companion” and “to accompany” have their roots in cum pane which means to share bread or food in Latin.  He also cites Aristotle, who stated that “for two people to be friends, they must eat a sack of salt together; they must share many meals (199).”  Choosing to make the “transition,” to see another as a member of the same body, and to respect another’s differences, is something that certainly must be done over and over again; as making a full transition resulting in recognition of the treasure that is another person can take time.  Not surprisingly, many of the moments of joy that I have experienced with the women have happened during a shared meal when it was least expected, after so many ordinary meals of slow conversation, subdued spirits, or energy focused solely on the children.  The table itself is a place of solidarity in which all those who sit around it are leveled by the common food and common table.

Many women have told me that they find the stress they carry and the waiting they must endure to be unbearable. The community dinners are an opportunity for the women to engage with each other, and our vision for the meals is that it would be a way in which a community of support could grow over time.  Often times the community dinners are quite difficult or chaotic, but sometimes there are these fleeting moments in which our vision manifests itself.   Vanier describes celebration as a “song of hope;” I hope the women find these moments to be their hopeful song in the same way that it has become mine.