Thursday, May 17, 2007

Living on the Streets

For four days this month, I was homeless.

For four chilly nights I slept in parks and learned the value of cardboard. I ate at homeless shelters and begged for food. I learned how generous people are, especially those who have the least to give.

This was part of a 'street retreat' called Bearing witness to Homelessness. Organized by a local Shambala mediation center and lead by Zen peacemaker Sensei Gauntt, it was described as an opportunity to go beyond our selves and our limits, to open ourselves to the experience of poverty and homelessness. Indeed it was all this and more.

The 15 other participants and I had been instructed to come to this retreat with warm clothes, a bus ticket, a piece of ID - and nothing else. No money, no watch, no cell phone or notebook. For five days we had not washed our hair; the men had not shaved.

Since we would be availing ourselves of some of the homeless services in town, in order to participate on this retreat we were required to raise $350 for local shelters and services. I am sincerely grateful to my friends and family who collectively gave me $420. For each person who gave, their initials were written or carved on my Tibetan mala which I carried with on the retreat.

But those are the logistics of the retreat. The experience is harder to describe. I'm still processing it.

What stands out most is the time we spent in shelters and missions. In the past I have volunteered and worked at drop-in shelters, but that was always from the perspective of me offering something to others. This time, I was receiving.

I am grateful for every meal I received - made sweeter by the hunger and by the community I shared it with. One morning at the Salvation Army I sat across from an elderly woman with plastic bags at her feet and gold in her teeth. She noticed that I had not taken the small carton of milk that came with breakfast and I tried to explain that I didn't want it, but she did not seem to understand. "Milk," she said again. I went back to the counter and got my milk and gave it to here. "Merci," she said with a smile. There was bacon on my plate, I gestured to see if she wanted it and gladly she took it. "Merci." When she saw I was not eating all my toast, she pointed to those as well. I handed them over and she carefully wrapped them in a paper napkin before putting them in a plastic bag. She got up to leave and I realized there was a small container of margarine on my tray. I touched her arm to get her attention and handed it to her. "Merci," she said again, then bent over and kissed me on the cheek. That kiss stayed with me all day.

'Sharing' could probably be the word that best describes this retreat. Body heat at night, food during the day. When my lips were chapped and burning from the cold and wind I panhandled for $2 to buy a small container of lip balm which soon was being passed among all. A man living at the Salvation Army gave us toothpaste and sunscreen. One loaf of bread fed 16 mouths.

There are so many other stories I could tell. Of old André and his dog Mutt. Of the restaurant which gave us delicious soup at closing. Of the construction of cardboard condominiums. Of circles of sharing and community. Of a man who gave me two bags of groceries when I had only asked for some bread. All together, I feel very blessed.

"Let us forever remember the causes of suffering.
Let us forever believe in the end of suffering.
May we always have the courage to bear witness,
To see ourselves as Other and Other as ourselves."
- Zen Peacemaker cantation

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