My year of service has brought me to become a part of a very different world than I have been a member of in the past. A world in which sometimes, I feel like no more than an observer.
Each day I pass people who are homeless, camped at the river that is just down the hill from our house. I listen to the interchange behind me on the bus as a woman vents about her frustration with her probation officer and how he will most likely put her back in jail since she didn’t make their last meeting. On the way home I see the drugs being passed as people prepare to deal with the long, lonely night ahead of them.
At work the children flit between the energy they get from finally being noticed and the anger that comes when they have to keep responding, “No.” No, they can’t read that word and no, they don’t want to talk about how many reading levels behind they are. I watch weary hands and pained eyes as caseworkers and interns pour themselves out another night for the children and families they care about so much. They will go home tonight and read articles online about how little of a difference their endless work will make thanks to systematic poverty.
Ignorant rich people pretending to care, child abuse billboards, and an elderly woman muttering to an invisible person only she can see will pass before my eyes sometime this week or even just today, occupy my thoughts for a second or two, and then move along with all the other things that are now just normal and routine to me. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t transform and mold my theology and my heart.
Even letting yourself adapt to something still means that you are changing.
And this would be a perfectly fine place to land by the end of this year. To have been exposed to racism, economic depression, homelessness, childhood trauma, and my own white privilege all around me and be equipped with resources to have conversations with others on these topics makes me feel accomplished. To experience a day similar to the one I described above makes me feel trendy, on-topic, and social justice-y. To see the people around me and feel compassion on them makes me feel kind. And having all these feelings and ideas, processing them and then compartmentalizing them so I can use them as tools after this year makes me feel safe.
But then, there are a few of the memories I carry from this year that I can’t quite pack up in safe little boxes for later–for coffee shop conversations. They are the memories that hurt too much to think about. The pictures that swim in front of my eyes when I least expect them to at work. The feelings that words fail to capture.
When I watched the homeless man weeping as the cops arrest him for trying to find a place to sleep inside, away from the snow. And then I just got on the bus and went home.
A child screeching, looking with unseeing eyes as he declares with certainty to me that he will kill himself and nobody will even care.
The strangers hand print on the 10 foot wall that separates them from the job that will sustain her starving children so many miles back home. I have no idea if she lived.
A young boy from my home state shot to death for carrying the same toy gun my brother had when he was that age. The boy’s sister roughly restrained and arrested as she wrestles, trying to be by his side so he’s not alone when he dies.
These memories, names, and moments I do not just see like the rest. These are the ones I feel.
I am rocked.
I lose my center.
I question God.
I sit for days with weary tears.
There is nothing magical about these moments in comparison to the others. Only that my heart deeply felt them instead of just noticed. I let myself sit with them and not feel safe for awhile. And in the world where we live today, I think many Christians are trying to figure out this place. Our days are filled with lots of heavy things, whether we see it on the news, watch it happen at work, or experience it ourselves. We see hurt, loneliness, sexism, anger, oppression. You don’t have to be in a year of service to see it all.
But are we letting ourselves move into the gray space between having to “fix it” and turning our backs and moving on? In this in between space of just being, we are going to feel things that cannot be managed. We will be intimately connected with people very different from us. The space where loving our neighbors deeply with no strings attached happens.
This space may look like stopping and listening and asking questions to the guy who is homeless on the street as he talks about his crazy life story. It may mean you let yourself feel more than sad for the hundreds of girls impregnated by Boko Haram’s men. Sit and feel angry. Let yourself cry. Take awhile to remember these are our sisters in Christ. Maybe even be spurred to action.
Practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, community, Lectio Divina/Visio Divina and more have given me space and time to remember to feel as I go throughout my days. On the bus, at work, and even on my weekends. These practices help me pay attention. They also help give me strength for the pain that comes from feeling what is around me.
Habits of sitting in prayer over stories from the news, practicing hospitality for new acquaintances, and living a simple lifestyle has kept my heart soft so it is easier to be opened and used. It is what has allowed me to pick out those moments that are more than just routine.
Because love of my neighbors and community should be a physical experience, not just a glazed over moment.
May God bless us with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
so that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war
so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
to believe that we can make a difference in the world
so that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.
A Franciscan Benediction
Photography credit: Anne Nesser