Sitting in the twelve passenger van, I remember how much I hated slopping beans on men’s plates. The memory was of the endless line of poor migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, coming everyday by the thousands to receive their simple meal. This was the tireless work of the Franciscan Sisters of Peace, and their volunteers and I hated it.
I hated it because of my week before of being one of them. I wasn’t really one of them; I was a fraud, a pilgrim pretending to be homeless for a month. That week I was in a shelter with migrants on the north side of the boarder in Los Angeles. It was in this short time that the pain of the homeless really hit me. To my surprise, I never went hungry as there were plenty of good souls giving out food. What I was really hungry for was dignity. Walking with the men we were rejected from jobs, kicked off the streets, and at the end of all that, food was slopped on our plates. I am so use to people listening to me and giving me respect as an “intelligent white person.” I couldn’t take it. Sitting in the shelter one night I had to listen to a well intentioned Santa Clara student lecture me about how to get my life in order. I wanted to scream at her!
Slopping beans the next week I knew I couldn’t do this anymore. My soul, these men, our world, hungers for so much more than food lines. Yes, it is wonderful work that I need to keep doing. It is the basics and a beautiful work of mercy, yet I feel called to do more toward helping us all find our dignity
In my search for this “something,” I found community organizing and a ministry with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The work has taught me a methodology that helps bring people together to realize their own worth and voice in this world. It led me to the experience of driving the twelve passenger van down to Springfield, IL last Wednesday.
In the van were five Loyola University students, two Loyola Academy High School students, and four young adults who live in transitional housing units. We were taking this four hour trip to join thousands in raising our voices and advocating a tax increase so that education and social services don’t get cut as the State legislator tries to figure out how to deal with a $13 billion budget deficit.
I loved the day. I got to see one of the high school students tell her State representative how her faith calls for a society that protects and cares for the poor. I got to march with a crowd of 15,000 people from all backgrounds. There were teachers, health care workers, social service providers, and many children. It was an imperfect crowd for an imperfect cause. The proposed tax increase will not fix everything, but is a start. It was energizing seeing 15,000 people working for something bigger then themselves and desiring the good.
The best part of it all was the road games. I was nervous how the van ride would go and excited to see if the young people would bond. It didn’t seem to happen for most of the trip. The early departure and busy schedule made most of them retreat to sleep or their ipods. Thirty miles from Chicago, grace intervened. We hit awful traffic and in her frustration, one of the young adults who lives in transitional housing asked, “Does anyone want to play a game?”
The next two hours of stop and go traffic we all said what we were brining to grandma’s house, completed the rhythm, and spied unusual objects. After a tense day of working together for structural change it was nice to relax and laugh. Leading a reflection just before getting into the city, it was moving to hear them describe what it meant to be a part of something so significant, how it felt to be making a difference, and how they enjoyed creating a new community.
A fellow Jesuit asked me at dinner that night, “Were you the only Jesuit there today?” I didn’t even think of it. I was.
“It was good you were there,” he replied. Yes, it was good I was there. God had led me from an impersonal food line to being with a community of people raising their voice to demand change. It was awesome and I am tremendously grateful for the experience. The Spirit was alive that day and as a Companion of Jesus, it feels consoling to try to be where he is.