Sunday, February 24, 2013

Introspection and Resistance in the Wilderness

I love Lent.  I really do.  I love the theological themes of wilderness, temptation, confession, sin, and death.  Sermons during Lent are more profound; they hold my attention and challenge my understanding of Scripture and faith.  Take the two sermons I heard this past week, one from Rev. Linda Eastwood on Ash Wednesday and one from Rev. Julian DeShazier this past Sunday.  Linda explored how we fall short in our discipleship, how we would rather ignore the “little” sins that we commit every day than consider our own complicity in the evils of the world.  Lent, she said, is a time to confront ourselves and to repent through our actions as well as through verbal confession.  In his sermon on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Julian argued that we are sent into the wilderness each Lent to confront our own temptations, those things which prevent us from being good Christians all year round.  Once we have mastery over our temptations, they can no longer obstruct our faithful discipleship.  In going out into the wilderness, the mysterious and frightening wilderness, we discover that we are our own worst enemy.  And that’s ok.  Because our Creator is faithful and just, (S)he will be with us in the wilderness and will strengthen us to overcome temptation.

As much as I love the idea of Lent, I’m not so good at actually confronting the wilderness or myself.  In fact, I avoid independent spiritual reflection like it could kill me.  As theologically rich and intellectually satisfying as the Lenten season is, actually going into the wilderness and confronting yourself is scary as shit.  Here are two pop-culture references that sum up what Lenten self-reflection is actually like:

1)  That scene in “Batman Begins” when Bruce Wayne eats the hallucinogenic flower, has to somehow defend himself against a ninja attack, then opens a box only to be swarmed by bats (his greatest fear).

2)  That scene in “Firefly” (episode 10) in which Niska refers to a quote by Xiang Yu while torturing Mal and Wash.  “Know a man for years.  Live with him, share his bread and water, speak with him on every subject.  Then tie him up and hold him over a volcano’s edge.  On that day, you will finally meet the man.”

This wilderness thing is no joke, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.  That’s why I usually avoid it.  Every year I make promises that I’ll spend more time reading the Bible, maybe actually do a little spiritual reflection, carve out some time in the day for meditation and focused stillness.  I do it a couple of times, but then I find excuses:  I have too much homework, I should catch up on emails, it would be a shame not to go for a walk when it’s 50 degrees outside, it’s about time I cleaned out the refrigerator, etc.  The truth is, I’m afraid to sit with God and with myself, to really reflect on my faith and my life.  It’s not easy to evaluate yourself, to really think about your sins and faults, and to recognize the temptations that keep you from being what God desires and hopes for.  I don’t believe that the adversary Jesus faced in the wilderness was some incarnate evil; it was himself.  Jesus was sent into the desert: he ate that hallucinogenic flower, he held himself over a volcano so that he could confront his own limitations, fears, and temptations.  And it took FORTY DAYS of reflection, fasting, and prayer for Jesus to finally overcome all those things that could have prevented him from becoming the Christ.  But here’s the silver lining:  he did it; we can too. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cold Streets

         After today’s clinical intervention class on vertical and horizontal integration, I’ve realized that I need to begin putting my experiences into words so as to better process them.  While I could easily verbalize these experiences, I would either be talking a great deal to myself or overloading my roommates with feelings.  We don’t do feelings.  So here I am, back to blogging.  Yes, I do recognize that this medium of expression may enable my reluctance to talk about real stuff and allow me to decrease feelings of vulnerability while processing my thoughts and emotions.  Baby steps y’all, baby steps.   

On January 22, I took part in Chicago’s Point in Time homeless count; from 9pm to 1am I drove around the West Side, tallying those who appeared to be homeless and asking them to complete a short survey.  In conjunction with volunteers conducting a shelter count that same evening, we attempted to identify and document the entire homeless population of Chicago, noting various demographic characteristics and attempting to get a good sample of the population to give more in-depth information about their current situation.  It’s a massive undertaking, one that ever single city receiving Federal dollars for homelessness intervention has to complete.  Thankfully, the weather outside was bad enough (sub-zero temps with wind chill) so that most of the homeless went to shelters, warming centers, or other buildings that offered some barrier against the cold.  This made the count very easy and probably more accurate.  With that being said, there were still people on the streets that night.  After four hours of driving around, we tallied eight homeless individuals—that’s eight people who had nowhere else to go, eight people who had to stay outside in conditions that could very well kill them. 

The streets of Chicago look very different at night, even on a night that keeps most people indoors.  Our survey area was in West Chicago, in areas that one of the workers in my van (Ned, a native of the area) called “Dope City.”  Although we didn’t see many homeless individuals out and about that night, we did see lots of young men hanging out on street corners.  A volunteer in our van asked if we should ask these young men to complete the survey.  My supervisor, who was driving, said that there was no need; they obviously weren’t homeless.  I could tell that he was right, and I was surprised to discover that over the course of my internship I had gained knowledge of the subtle signs of homelessness: quality of clothing, how many homeless people carry themselves, whether or not they have bags with them, how swollen their ankles are, etc.  These young men carried themselves confidently, had nice clothes and boots and were purposefully staying in one spot, even though the wind was blowing and they could have easily ducked into a gas station or doorway.  I was surprised at how many of these young men, who work in the drug trade, had braved the elements.  “This is nothing, there’s hardly anyone here,” Ned told me.  “You know it’s cold when the drug dealers aren’t out.” 

It seems to me that the City of Chicago, both the government and the public, have written off certain people and neighborhoods.  Here we were, counting all the homeless in the city, and no one was counting the young people in the drug trade.  These individuals may not be homeless now, but chances are they will be in 10 to 15 years.  They will probably get arrested, serve time, and then not be able to find a job once they are released from prison because of their ex-offender status.  Without income, they won’t be able to afford basic necessities.  This is the story I hear all the time from the middle-aged men who come to us for services.  Once they’re homeless, the city is willing to find them shelter, get them into job-training programs, fund substance abuse interventions, etc.  If the city were to invest in interventions that could prevent this pattern, we would probably find significantly fewer homeless men on the street in the next 10 years.  When I look at the work the Salvation Army does with the homeless, I see a lack in preventative services.  We help clients who are homeless or who are in immediate danger of becoming homeless; it’s a requirement for many of our programs.  The Salvation Army does not reach out to the young people who are at risk for becoming homeless in their adult lives; they do not offer workforce development, tutoring, life-skills training for youth and young adults.   Do people have to be naked, hungry, or sick before we clothe, feed, and comfort them?