Witnessing to story

A large part of my experience here has been to witness. At Magdalene, witnessing often means listening to stories. Whether I hear them in the small group meeting I co-lead, in one-on-one interactions, or as I interview potential residents over the phone, my job is to listen carefully to the stories that are told. At this halfway point in my summer, I’ve been reflecting on the personal stories I’ve had the privilege to hear. In my experience as a student, theologians and theorists of all kinds often analyze the importance of narratives, but I’m grateful that my time at Magdalene has shaped my understanding of the role of narrative for individuals in recovery. That the Magdalene program is a two-year residential program with women living and working together in community means that each resident is at a vastly different point in her recovery–in her story–than the next. The nature of the program has given me the opportunity to see how stories change–in how they are understood and how they are shared with others–throughout the recovery process.

TelephoneOne of my main duties as an intern at Magdalene is answering the phone to take messages, tell prospective women or social workers about the program, and to complete entrance request applications that put a prospective resident on our waiting list. These applications require me to ask very personal questions regarding the particular woman’s history. While I’m constantly struck by their honesty and willingness to share in order to seek help in our program, I can imagine that talking to me, a stranger, over the phone about mental illness, addiction, and prostitution is not an easy thing to do. Having daily conversations with women seeking entrance into the program alongside daily interactions with women currently in the program adds an entirely new dimension to my reflection on personal narrative and healing.

These stories can be painful. I listen to these women describe their current and past situations, record their responses, and know that this is merely a beginning step in their Magdalene journey. As Maureen H. O’Connell writes in her essay on Dorothy Day, “She refused to shield herself from the ugliness of poverty precisely because of the sharp contrasts it brought into focus for her: the inherent dignity of persons assaulted by these conditions and the God to be encountered and loved in those people” (She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, 174). It would be fairly difficult to shield myself from suffering and “ugliness,” to use O’Connell’s language. And focusing on such harshness is perhaps not the most productive thing to do in the context of Magdalene. But on a fundamental level, the program couldn’t function for these women if we didn’t pay attention to or document the “ugliness” of the things these women experienced prior to their entrance in the program.

These reflections brought me back to a moment from one of my earliest days at Magdalene. An individual at Thistle Farms, the social enterprise side of the Thistle Farms Magdalene organization, had approached Sara, the program director at Magdalene about wanting to interview some of the more senior residents. I listened to Sara explain to two of the women who have been here the longest about the nature of the interview. She made it exceptionally clear that they would not be asked to tell their story, but to speak on their personal growth since entering the program. At the time I understood this to be an explicit expression that these women would not be exploited for their stories, and I think this was an incredibly important point to establish. But this distinction between the recitation of a history–like that of answering entrance request application questions–and the personal growth since then seems to be an important one.

I fully believe that the stories of our lives and the stories we encounter play a fundamental role in shaping us. In Serene Jones’ discussion of endings, she writes, “What God performs in the silence before creation is the subject of the gospel. It is a gesture toward redemption and restoration that renders the Creator vulnerable to the contingencies and chaos of the unfolding human story” (Trauma and Grace, 96). Perhaps these narratives of growth and development are something of a gesture as well. In terms of the nature of stories and memories, perhaps these later understandings of growth can’t be captured in descriptions of past events. In speaking to prospective women on the phone and spending time with the current residents–those who’ve been here two days and those who’ve been here twenty-one months– I sense a shift in how stories are understood and told. That the women who were to be interviewed at Thistle Farms agreed to do so with the knowledge that they could answer without fear of exploitation demonstrates a powerful gesture of ownership. The women move from responsively telling their story as fact to be documented and assessed to sharing narratives of growth and development. These stories gesture to redemption, recovery, and the formation of future narratives upon graduation from the Magdalene program.

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Uncomfortably close

How does homelessness make you feel?

Feet on city streetI don’t know what your experience with homelessness is. Perhaps you are homeless. Perhaps you’ve never had a conversation with someone who has experienced homelessness. So rather than assume your answer to this question, I’ll tell you mine.

When I encounter a homeless individual, particularly someone that may be panhandling or directly asking me for help on the streets, I feel raw inside. I feel awkward. Embarrassed—for myself, and for them. I feel uncomfortable. I feel sorry for their poverty and guilty of my privilege. I experience secondhand the shame that they may feel, as well feeling ashamed for not stopping and caring about them. I feel annoyed. I feel love, overwhelming me to tears. Sometimes I want to avert my eyes and ignore the individual. Sometimes I want to stop and pray for them and care for them. Sometimes I feel trepidation. I feel compassion yet am uncharitable. I am kind yet act uncaring. I feel anxious yet am insensitive. I feel ambivalence, anxiety, pity.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these emotions. I bet I’m not alone in this strange mixture of feelings. Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of these emotions, if you were the person asking for help. I’m pretty confident that these feelings are common, frequent, and familiar to many who may read this. I wonder, though—why? How and why does a stranger evoke such strong and weird emotions from us?

In his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr talks about how we make decisions about love and justice for others in society. He describes how our desire for justice for others varies in accordance with their relational proximity to us. “Love is most active when the vividness or nearness of the need prompts those whose imagination is weak, and the remoteness of the claim challenges those whose imagination is sensitive. Love, which depends upon emotion, whether it expresses itself in transient sentiment or constant goodwill, is baffled by the more intricate social relations in which the highest ethical attitudes are achieved only by careful calculation” (74). Translated a bit, he suggests it’s easiest to give twenty dollars to your child, or to a starving child in a third world country, and that it’s much harder to hand a twenty to the homeless man panhandling on your daily commute. For the first example, love that is near and immediate compels our sensitivities because we are able to see and experience both our relationship with the individual, as well as their need for our help. Their mere relational proximity compels us to extend mercy—even extravagantly or irrationally so. On the other hand, when we are informed of individuals’ needs who are far from our comprehension, the strangeness of their identities and circumstances compels our imaginations to sympathy. But persons whose identities have complex relationships to our own often fail to impact our charitable instincts—say, for example, a fellow citizen of your nation but one who lives many miles from you, or is of a different religion and ethnicity from you, or votes differently from you.

I think that the individuals experiencing homelessness that we encounter in our everyday lives somehow find themselves in this strange desert of love and justice that Niebuhr describes. We hold our families and friends comfortably close, and we hold the victims of famine in Sudan comfortably far from us, but homeless folks in our own hometown are uncomfortably close. Their signs and their families and the places where they sleep and their disability checks and their smelliness are uncomfortable, because they are too close but not close enough for us to truly, deeply care about their bodies and souls. Instead of being an abstract concept capable of compelling your sympathetic imagination, need and hunger appears in front of you, in bodily flesh—but it takes too much time and energy to make the careful calculations Niebuhr claims are required to actually show mercy to these individuals.

When I think about it this way, it seems so strange. Why do we try to contract our existence from those who deserve our sympathy the most? People in your city are hungry. Children in my city are in need. Men in your city are sick. Mothers in my city are in pain. Veterans in your city are homeless. This is not apart from us.

Niebuhr constructs a theology where individuals attempt to comprehend morality both through reason and/or love: but both are insufficient to procure justice in the case of individuals whose proximity resembles that of the homeless population. The purity of our goodwill becomes distorted through our irrational modes of reasoning and our unequal methods for compassion. In this scenario, I think that our physical and perceived proximity to folks without homes in America inspires fear within those of us who have financial privilege. For some reason, the nearness of the pain and poverty is too uncomfortable for us to naturally desire their earthly redemption.

Truly good and righteous intentions may become distorted and even immoral due to this fear of proximity. I agree with Niebuhr. Our desire to distance ourselves from moral responsibility for the poor causes justice to lie far outside of the reach of those facing the greatest injustices—those that are right beyond our own doorsteps.

I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to end this blog post for a while now, because it feels uncomfortable and unfinished. However, perhaps that perfectly sums up where we are at in the work of ending homelessness: a place that is both deeply uncomfortable and thoroughly unfinished. Perhaps we all need to rest in that space a bit more, and a bit longer, in order to learn together how to make justice for the most vulnerable in America a bit more proximate.

Niebuhr writes, “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing is intrinsically good except goodwill” (170). Humbly, I suggest that most Americans do not wish ill-will towards our poorest citizens, but as a society, we do not wish them good-will, either—not how Niebuhr defines it. I hope that dwelling in that suggestion makes us uneasy. I hope it makes us more willing to make more and more careful calculations, transforming the emotions we feel towards our most weak and vulnerable neighbors and friends.

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The power to create

There is a prayer in Hebrew that goes

Hareyni mekabel alai et mitzvat ha’boreh v’ahavata lereacha k’mocha reacha k’mocha

The Urban Adamah translation of that prayer says

It is upon me to receive the connection of the Creator, to love your neighbor as yourself.

This translation reads a little awkwardly, but the sentiment of it is beautiful: that it is through loving our neighbors as ourselves that we receive “the connection” of the Creator, or that in receiving that connection, we will inherently be loving our neighbors as ourselves. In one way or another, it makes it such that the idea of feeling the connection of and with the Creator (in whatever way that concept makes sense to us) is tied inherently to empathy and compassion.

While the use of the word “connection” is powerful in the UA translation, it is also the source of its syntactical awkwardness. “Connection” is used here to translate the Hebrew word mitzvat, more commonly translated as “commandment.” The common translation of Hareyni would read more like, “It is upon me to receive the commandment of the Creator, ‘To love your neighbor as yourself,’” but Urban Adamah opts for the more neutral translation of mitzvat as “connection.” This is interesting to me because it provides a different understanding of what we mean when we talk about “commandments” in Judaism, and also of how we understand the relationship between God and humankind. Rather than looking at the commandments as orders sent down from an anthropomorphized God-on-high, the translation of mitzvat as connection reframes the concept as useful strategies through which we as human individuals can feel some closeness to the at once transcendent (unknowable) and immanent (all-present) Divine. It generates a more reciprocal understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, one that can be opted into, that is consensual. This understanding of mitzvat more closely relates to my personal understanding of the Covenant within Judaism, the supposed pact between God and Israel (the Jewish people) from which our entire national identity is derived. In my understanding of the Covenant, “God” is accepted as the infinite source and Creator of the universe (after all, that is Their intellectual/conceptual role), but at the same time, it is equally important to emphasize the role of the Israelites and of Jewish God-consciousness in the generation and articulation of a Jewish-specific concept of God. There exists between God and Israel a mutual bond of creativity. For me in particular, I know that it is through acts of creativity that I have felt some of my clearest moments of connection to my concept of the Divine.

SunsetOn Wednesday afternoon, the other Fellows and I went to Studio Am – The Jewish Studio Project where we spent a few hours with Rabbi Adina Allen talking about the intersections of Jewish spirituality, art-making, and justice work. In her introduction to the day’s activities, Rabbi Allen drew our attention to the fact that God’s first act in the Bible was one of creativity—in fact, it was the titanic creative act of producing the universe. The God of the Hebrew Bible is primarily a creative deity. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in my experience, many of the moments where I’ve felt the most “transcendent,” when I’ve felt a certain power flowing through me, a connection to something higher and outside of myself, have been when I’ve lost myself completely in a piece of writing. It’s those long hours that pass like minutes, when the moon’s high up in the sky and I seem to know exactly where I should be going next in a piece without having to step back and think about it. When the story writes itself. It’s in those moments when I feel the least myself, the least rooted in the world around me, but the most awake and energized, the most connected to the deepest place within me, the place that is so easily blocked out by things like ego and daily life. Even before I started to become comfortable again with the idea of God, I’d say that in those moments I truly felt like I was tapping into something spiritual, something more meaningful than the limited physical world around me, and especially more meaningful than whatever words it was that I’d just put on the page. That’s the thing I’ve come to realize about writing: that, in writing, I am trying to capture and portray something that transcends materiality but am stuck with tools that themselves are only crude, false representations of the material world. It’s frustrating. It’s futile. So too is the search for God. I cherish both pursuits all the same.

The framing of creativity as a modality through which to connect with the Divine also attaches an important ethical and communal aspect to the creative process. If we recall the words of Genesis, we realize that God’s creativity is inherently tied to an aspect of “goodness” (“God saw all that [They] had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31, NASB). One might also look again at Hareyni and remember that the particular mitzvah involved there is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We might feel a connection to the Divine through our creative acts, but the imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a part of feeling that connection reminds us that our creative acts don’t exist inside a bubble; that they must, in some respect, be undertaken with a love and consideration for one’s neighbors in mind if they are truly to connect us to God. To me, this strengthens the purpose of creative acts such they are not just an arbitrary outpouring of some pent-up mental and/or spiritual energy, but rather serve as intentional efforts to connect more deeply both with God and with other human beings. It reminds me of one of the most important lessons I received as a creative writing student at UVA, that a writer must consider their audience. After all, while there is much to be said for what I feel like I personally receive from writing, what is the point of making art if not to share it with others? To try and make your reality known to other people and, perhaps, somehow inspire them to connect more fully to their own personal truth? For me, for my writing to feel important, it must serve the ends of spiritual and political uplift. Connecting my understanding of how and why I write to my understanding of the Divine and my particular relationship to that as a Jewish person helps to refine and deepen that goal.

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Paperwork and Eucharist

Every week the residents of Magdalene fill out “Weekly Sheets.” These two-page packets are used to document the meetings they attend, to notify staff of upcoming appointments, and to request weekend passes. Every week, after appointments have been entered into the group calendar and passes have been reviewed, I file them. I organize them alphabetically and chronologically in a system I created in the first couple weeks of my work here. I also often file various paperwork and documentation into each of the residents’ individual files labelled with their names and entry dates. It isn’t the most glamorous or exciting of tasks, but as the weeks have gone by I’ve begun to feel the significance of organizing and attending to these individual narratives. In the practice of filing and organizing these documents that mark the past experiences of the residents and their progress as they move forward in their recovery, there is a great deal of beauty and weight. Completing these tasks has become somewhat of a ritual in my week.

As my site mentor Shelia has explained to me, accurate file-keeping is critical to tracking the progress of the women of Magdalene in their recovery. Another regular part of my internship has been observing staffings – individual meetings between a resident and staff to address issues and complications as they arise. As Shelia says, having accurate and complete files that document a particular resident’s past is critical to making in-the-moment decisions about how to move forward. Part of the significance in the seemingly tedious task of filing is in this confluence of past, present, and future. Consulting a resident’s meticulously organized file can allow staff to consult the past, comprehend the present, and plan for the future.

Filing Cabinet

William T. Cavanaugh’s work Torture and Eucharist concerns the particular context of Chile under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. He asserts that the Eucharistic liturgy can function as resistance against state-sanctioned violence in the form of torture, which he sees as an “anti-liturgy” (206). He goes on to write that “Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of his followers.” In Cavanaugh’s work, this simultaneous experience of past, present, and future is referred to as Eucharistic time that exists outside of historical, linear time in the liturgy of the Eucharist. He writes that when the sacrament of the Eucharist is performed and experienced, “past and future simultaneously converge, and the whole Christ, the eschatological church of all times and places, is present” (234). While the sharing of Christ’s body and blood is, on some level, deeply incomparable with hole-punching and filing papers, there is something of the “simultaneity of past and future in the present” that occurs in the moments that these files become necessary for decisions regarding care for the women at Magdalene (222).

In my practice of organizing and filing in the Magdalene office, I’ve found something in the imposition of order on the chaotic and traumatic histories of the residents that feels somehow liturgical. Rather than reducing the residents to a series of documents, this humble and conscientious filing functions in defiance to the chaos and turmoil of the traumatic histories the women of Magdalene have survived. Cavanaugh writes that Eucharistic liturgy resists the fact that “modern torture is predicated on invisibility, that is, the invisibility of the secret police apparatus and the disappearance of bodies” by making “the true body of Christ visible.” In a similar way, these files are resistant to trauma as predicated on chaos and disorder by intentionally organizing and giving form to documentation of deeply personal narratives.

There is something sacred and liturgical in the handling, organizing, and reorganizing of these files as assemblages of past, present, and future and as physical manifestations of a refusal to submit to chaos. This week in particular, as I’ve assembled the proper tabs in their proper order in empty folders for the two new women who have been welcomed into the community, and placed them–waiting to be filled with history, progress, and trajectory–on shelves with the rest of the files, I’ve felt the privilege of being part of this liturgy and catching glimpses of its power.

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Breathing and glory

I sat cross-legged in a striped armchair in a circle of couches, love seats, and rocking chairs in the living room of the biggest Magdalene house. The Relapse Prevention group had just ended and most of the women were outside in the courtyard taking their break between sessions. Now, sitting with Marlena, the other summer intern, I prepared to co-lead our first group meeting together on grounding techniques.

ArmchairsIn preparation for the session, Marlena and I had discussed the experience of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally chaotic. What do we do in our own lives to bring us back to where we are? When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lose my sense of presence in the moment and in the world around me. This loss of presence can be particularly acute for people like the women of Magdalene House who have suffered significant trauma. As Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, people who have histories of trauma can “physically disconnect their minds from their experiences of embodiment,” a phenomenon clinically referred to as dissociation (16).

During the session, the group discussed tools for grounding ourselves in moments where we feel emotionally or mentally chaotic. We talked about breathing exercises; some of us had preconceptions about the idea of using breath as a coping and healing tool. We’ve all heard someone tell us to “just breathe” when we’re upset about something. It sounds absurd that something so small and so bodily could make a difference. But after we led a few breathing exercises, the women spoke of feeling noticeably more relaxed. We discussed other ways to use our five senses to bring us back to the present moment: plant our feet on the ground, take a sip of water, light a candle, focus on an object, listen for ambient noise, and come back to the moment and the world around us.

Jones writes that God’s glory–the beauty, breadth, and depth of God and Her creation–is experienced and encountered both intellectually and with all of our senses. Just as lived theology purports that we can access reflections and insights about God in the world by living, we can learn about and experience God’s glory by being and being attuned to the world around us. As Jones writes, “God’s glory is known incarnationally, in the depths of our bodies, at the point of connection with the most unlikely of all” (121).

This week, I’m reminded of how we must constantly return to the context of individuals living, working, and healing in community. The tools the group shared during our session invited each participant to engage with our surroundings in the present moment. Doing so inevitably means engaging with the people around us. These tools help us to live more peacefully with ourselves and in our community. Community living can be messy. But using our senses and our breath to re-engage in the present, particularly at Magdalene, means re-engaging with a community of survivors at a vast range of phases in their recovery processes. It means re-engaging with glory. In focusing on our own bodies and spirits we are made aware of surrounding bodies and spirits. We recognize the present while we look to the future. In the context of Jones’ understanding of vocation that we are all bodies and lives with a “direction intentionally unfolding in the context of community” (113), combatting dissociation with engagement in glory–as Marlena and I explored with the women of Magdalene–can begin to point us in the direction we are called.

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Richmond’s Priests and Prophets

Richmond's Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era, Douglas E. ThompsonRace, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era

In the wake of the mid-twentieth century’s desegregation period, escalated turbulence and tension among political, social, and spiritual groups were commonplace, notably in the American south. In Richmond’s Priests and Prophets, author Douglas E. Thompson investigates the role white Christian leaders played in the shifting landscape of their congregations and communities amidst civil rights efforts in Richmond, Virginia. Faced with the decision to resist or assist the new racial narrative, these religious leaders are revealed to have adopted priestly and prophetic roles. Through a fresh analysis of the various desegregation strategies and patterns of the era, Thompson offers a timely and significant insight into one of the most pivotal American movements.

In an interview from John Fea’s “Author Corner,” Thompson explains the book’s formation:

“When I had begun the research in the late 1990s there was little scholarship on how white Christians engaged the civil rights movement. In the nearly fifteen years since then, there are more monographs about white Christians but many of those focus on what Charles Marsh and Stephen Haynes call the spectacles of the 1960s. When I began my research on Richmond in the 1990s, I was surprised at how few spectacles occurred. I reframed the book to examine why there had not been spectacles in the 1950s when the pressure points over desegregation were present. In the book I argue that we might understand the 1960s by studying the 1950s closer…

Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.”

For more information on the book click here. Continue reading Fea’s interview with Thompson here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Learning humility at the Haven

This week, I have been repeatedly surprised by small, random interactions with strangers. Each has been beautiful, making me stop to appreciate sweet moments of this already-too-short summer. I’ve met a taxi driver named Houston who used to travel the world playing music, and a sweet older man named Bob who taught me about rose gardening. I’ve learned so much from each conversation. I’m especially learning how to listen carefully, to seek understanding before judgement, and to welcome free advice that strangers often bestow on me.

For example, yesterday I met a man, and, during the course of our conversation, we discovered that at different times we lived only a few blocks from each other in Richmond, Virginia. We shared a wonderful conversation, and he ended by offering me some advice. He urged me to find my passion and pursue it, not become discouraged in doing good, and love rather than judging others. He ended with this: “Don’t try to change the world. It is too big, and you are too small. You will become tired and weary. Just do small things. Find work that means something and do it with all you’ve got. You don’t need to change the world; you can just do small things”.

I walked away from that conversation humbled and joyful. His words reminded me of Mother Teresa’s: “Do small things with great love.” They also reminded me of quite a number of comments I’ve received after explaining to individuals what I’m up to this summer. The conversation normally goes like this:

Me describing my summer internship: [says a lot of words about my feelings, homelessness, humanity, writing, theology, justice, more feelings]

Nice, kind person who asked about my internship: “Megan, you’re so incredible!!! See, it’s people like you who are going to change the world.”

I’ve received this exact comment probably a dozen times since I accepted the internship with the Project on Lived Theology, and it fills me with conflicted feelings. Here’s a sample of my stream-of-consciousness thoughts when I hear those words:

  • Ugh, I hate when people compliment me. Laugh it off and act like you’re humble.
  • If you think serving the homeless is so great, why don’t you ever volunteer yourself?
  • I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to serve The Haven this summer. I wish others could experience this too.
  • I’m so excited… I can’t believe these are my summer plans! I’m going to learn so much.
  • Yeah, it’s cool, but I’m not going to tell you how super nervous and apprehensive I actually am.
  • Lol, I’m definitely not gonna change the world…
  • Why do “people like me” have to save the world? Isn’t that your job, too?

Sharing these thoughts feels almost too vulnerable, but I want to be honest. I’m selfish. I’m prideful. I seem to believe that I am worthy of praise, yet I am judgmental of those who praise me. I’m bitter and cynical and self-righteous and critical of good, kind, lovely people’s intentions and altruism.

These traits that I perceive in myself help make Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, intensely relatable as she described her own experiences with those in poverty during her early, radical-communist days, when she was not too much older than I am now. She says: “Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized….I was professing to be a radical. But I was not a good one. I was following the ‘devices and desires of my own heart’” (Day, 59).

One of my favorite guests is a younger woman who I’ll call Allyson. I’ve been working hard to win her respect and friendship. She mostly stays out of the other guests’ way, and often helps out with everyday tasks—sometimes she’ll ask to sweep, or fold our aprons and towels. She has expressed to me that she wishes she could volunteer like I can. But it takes some things to be a volunteer. It takes a full belly, so you have energy to work. Proper clothes. A good night’s sleep, with a roof over your head.

Folded LaundryYesterday, we talked for a while, and it was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. She expressed her envy that I was a student—she had to drop out of college because of some family financial crises. She hates writing but loves math. She’s smart. She’s fearful that she might be going crazy—that this homeless lifestyle, this constant struggle, this constant instability and struggle might become permanent. Yesterday, she untangled the pesky knots that the dryer puts in the aprons when we wash them. No one had asked her to. No one knew she was doing it. As I watched her, I realized that she would make a much, much better intern than I will ever be.

Day self-critiques, “So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of the works of mercy as we know them regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I wanted to … make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” (Day, 60).

I am almost certain that I, and every person reading this blog, is in favor of the very small works of mercy we perform at The Haven: frying an egg, handing out socks, listening to guest’s stories. But I am also certain that my own pride, my own arrogance, my own selfishness prevents me, and perhaps others, from seeking truly transformative and selfless justice. It prevents us from being good radicals: because selflessness, generosity, and mercy are radical acts of love. However, Dorothy Day doesn’t recommend that we should radically attempt to change the world: rather, she suggests that we create a world “where it is easier for [wo]men to be good” (Day 181). For myself, perhaps seeking uncomfortably vulnerable humility will make it easier for me to do good.

May this repentance of my pride further the revolution, in my heart and in ours.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Gratitude at Urban Adamah

Modeh ani lefanecha ruach chai v’kayam

“I am grateful before You eternal living spirit”

From the Modeh ani, traditional morning prayer, Urban Adamah version.

In my first few weeks here at Urban Adamah, gratitude keeps emerging as a central theme. At first I didn’t recognize it. It was just a subtle feeling I had been carrying around, something I felt when Chloe, our Fellowship director, transformed Lake Anza into a mikveh (ritual bath) for the twelve of us Fellows, and when we were hiking back down through Tilden Regional Park in silence afterward. It was something I felt when, within just a few hours of meeting them, I began to have intimate and meaningful conversations with my housemates, talks which made me feel seen and heard and at home. It’s something I’ve felt every time I’ve noticed a seed sprouting or a stalk growing or a flower opening up in the greenhouse, where in the span of a few weeks I’ve gone from a known killer of succulents to, somehow, a nurturing plant-parent. Gratitude has been with me from the very beginning, from the moment I stepped off the plane in San Francisco, saw a few queer couples, and knew, thank God, that I’d arrived. It just took me about a week and half to be able to put a name to it.

Every Thursday, Kate—another Fellow—and I bike down from Berkeley to West Oakland to work at People’s Grocery, a community garden on the property of the historic California Hotel, which opened in 1930 and by the 1940s had developed into an important Black cultural center. In its heyday, the hotel hosted such iconic figures as James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many more. It began to decline in the 1960s and eventually (but only temporarily) closed its doors. Today, California Hotel serves as subsidized housing for West Oakland’s low-income and disabled communities. With its awesome presence and history, California Hotel and its gracious, welcoming residents are enough to inspire gratitude in and of themselves, and it was while working there on our first Thursday in Oakland that it clicked for me that gratitude was the common thread that ran through so many of my experiences.

On that first Thursday, Kate and I helped set up and got to stay for “Flavas in the Garden,” a weekly event where California Hotel residents and community members get to gather in the garden, eat, and engage in facilitated discussion. Topics can range from racial equity and politics, to food justice, health, and pretty much anything else. The first week we were there, the topic, as it turned out, was gratitude, and all of us in the circle were invited to share a few things we were feeling grateful for on that particular Thursday. A lot of people shared their gratitude for Heather, the gardener extraordinaire and sole staff member at People’s Grocery, whose birthday it just so happened to be. A lot of people thanked God for waking them up to a new day every morning. I gave my gratitude to Berkeley, and to Oakland, and I think expressing that has helped me feel closer to both cities.


The underlying philosophy of our conversation during “Flavas” was that the energy you put out into the universe is the energy you attract. While that might sound a little esoteric and New Age, it’s a concept that has found itself expressed in many of the world’s prominent religious traditions. Think of karma. Think of prayer. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book Jewish Renewal, writes:

Judaism places transcendence on the agenda of the human race. Human beings need not be stuck in a world of pain and oppression. We can regain contact with a deeper level of being, a level more consonant with who we really are — namely, beings who are created in the image of God, who embody an inherent tendency toward goodness and holiness, toward being ’embodied spirituality.’ Transcendence is not transcending this world, but rather our ability to bring more fully into being in this world aspects of ourselves and aspects of reality that surround us but to which we have become tone deaf. Every inch of creation, every cell of being, not only contains atoms stored with physical energy, but also contains and reflects the spiritual and moral energy that we call God. Much of the pain and oppression we experience in this world is a reflection of the way we do not recognize God in the world, in one another, in ourselves. (Lerner 29)

This path of transcendence that Rabbi Lerner identifies within Judaism sounds to me a lot like a path of gratitude. Gratitude is a strategy by which we can open our eyes and ears again to the positive aspects of our experiences, to the things we want to acknowledge and manifest in the world. The expression of and meditation on gratitude actively shapes one’s perspective into one of positivity, even if that gratitude feels forced or hard to find. It’s not about ignoring the things about the world and ourselves that we would like change, but about transforming the world and ourselves through the filter of our perceptions. A world characterized by positivity is one in which it is easier to move and breathe and create change. There is a political element to this as well. Practicing radical gratitude can be seen as a strategy for self-preservation, a crucial praxis of resistance in a time when the struggle is as all-encompassing, ongoing, and daily as it is today. If oppression operates through a strategy of dividing people and making us feel small, radical gratitude serves to unite us and remind us of our collective power. It reminds us that, even as there are institutions and systems of oppression we wish to dismantle, there are values we wish to preserve. Let us not forget our values.

Thinking about gratitude in this way, something I’ve come to realize is that the dominant mode through which I have tended to relate to myself and the world around me is one of negativity—focusing on aspects that I do not like, that I want to suppress. Flipping that and focusing instead on positivity, on the things that I enjoy, the qualities of existence for which I am grateful and which I want to foster at least feels healthier, more productive. I’m trying to put that into practice. It’s a slow process—I have a lot of unlearning to do—but I believe in my ability to achieve my goals. After all, I have people to help me along the way.

To get started, here are a few things I’m grateful for:

The source of life, which wakes me up every day

My body, which protects and cares for me, and which I hope to protect and care for in return

The Earth, which houses and nourishes us all

History and tradition, which guide us

Fiona and Inana, the goats at Urban Adamah, who bring happiness to all of us here

Thank you.

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