Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Six middle and high school volunteers from Idaho Falls, Idaho arrived at the center on Friday to help cleanup. They were on an urban immersion. And so, after giving them the 20 minute tour of what we do and what we’re about I looked over longingly at the Seldom Seen Acting Company whose rehearsal I was missing. I decided, instead of cleaning up the center, to ask the Company if the kids could be included.

An amazing thing happened.

The Company was brainstorming new ideas for its second production, Season II of the Seldom Seen Acting Company. They were putting ideas for plot, character, place, and language on index cards. The Company was kind enough to include the young volunteers. So the Idahoans all sat timidly down, having just learned that the guys in the center were almost all on-the-street homeless people and many former drug users and ex-felons. There’s something special about youth, however, which allows the fears and stereotypes to drain away so fast: the kids jumped into the mix without fear. One suggested “an immigrant” as a character, another offered “mental patient,” and “junkie,” and a third put “hospital” into the mix of places.

After brainstorming about a dozen ideas for each category, each Idahoan was placed with a member of the Company and assigned the task of picking one idea from each category. The pair was then to create and perform the makeshift scene in front of everybody and report what they learned. The performances that ensued were hilarious, touching, silly, and completely earnest. For instance, I myself was a mental patient playing a scene with my Idaho friend who was a junkie. We were in Africa and were fighting over clothing and haircuts. Oh, and our language was gibberish. In another scene JR was a grandfather rooting on his grandson who was a Warriors basketball player during the Championship game (he won and the grandfather was proud). In another, Isaac was a counselor for a kid who was convinced he should drop out of school.

And finally, the best for last: a scene between Jesus (played by Dennis) and a hospital volunteer discouraged by the lack of results in his field and convinced it was time to quit. Imagine the scene: a white, suburban, young man from Idaho prostrated and praying to a very black, uneducated, ex-dope fiend born and raised in Oakland. The contrasts alone were enough to make the scene stunning. Beneath what appeared to be irony, however, was a resounding truth: the wealthy kid of the “1/3 World” that has the privilege of enjoying the fruits of life was praying to the poor “2/3 World” that is on the verge of dying. The poor is Jesus according to the spirituality of Dorothy Day, the Liberation Theologians, and (dare I say it?) Frederick Oznam and St. Vincent de Paul himself. And in this scene, the poor man literally was Jesus. This picture should be on the front cover of any book about solidarity. It was truly priceless. This was solidarity. This was the embrace of the poor. The impoverished black man (Jesus nonetheless!) was gently whispering words of encouragement to the privileged kid. Heady theologians subscribing to Ignatian spirituality wait their entire lives for a moment like this. And here, a fearless kid from Idaho unwittingly finds himself wrapped in the arms of Jesus. His faith was great, indeed.

Don’t you see: the kids got to be homeless! They got a chance to really, truly empathize. They were forced to perform the thought experiment, to think about what life would be like on the street. This is making a difference. Imagine, now, how many seeds were planted in these kids. What kind of effect will this experience have on them? What kind of effect will my experience have on me?

Everybody bought into it. For a moment, we were all together as one.

You see, there’s no better service that volunteers can do than to interact with our clients—to simply be with them. This fellowship is what causes the fears and stereotypes to drain away. It just happens that these people previously considered sub-human (homeless people, black people, gay people, immigrants, substitute any marginalized population) all of the sudden get viewed righteously as part of the human family. This is what the Champion Guidance Center does. This is its greatest strength and its core mission: to restore dignity. When a person rejects another both the person rejected and the one doing the rejecting lose. Because not only are the clients less dignified on account of the discrimination but those who discriminate themselves, even if they do it unconsciously, also strip away their own dignity. You hurt yourself when you turn away from your neighbor. So, this fellowship restores dignity to both the one “being served” and the one “serving.” I believe, and I have to believe, that pain and suffering is nothing more than a failure to bring this awareness into consciousness. The Champion Guidance Center is in the business of breaking the veneer separateness. That’s what we did for those kids on Friday. And that’s why it was so special.

That’s why, when somebody asks me “what do I do when a homeless person asks me for a dollar?” I say, “you respond with love.” How would you, for instance, respond if it was your brother or sister approaching you on the street? This is the response we are called to give as family members of this human race, as Christians. What would you do? Well, you might start by offering him some food and maybe even put him up for a night or two. Impossible? That’s exactly what Dorothy Day did. That’s what Steve does. It’s what the Champion Guidance Center is desperately, desperately trying to do with Marion Village.

Do you get it yet?

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