Be the Cause

Ingredients for a successful revolution

Yesterday was our third day of serving lunch to the ladies at the Downtown Women’s Center. And that was just it: serving lunch by laying a hamburger patty on a bun while Rucha put a scoop of fries onto a plate, which was then passed to someone else for salad. “Do you want mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup? What about salad? You want salad? Whose is this? What did you want? Table 2, next!”

In one half hour the Ladies shuffled past us in a line, and we were done. We washed up and left. There was nothing else to do, no more food to share, no way we could initiate some type of conversation with the Ladies without feeling like we were imposing on their circle. For as regimented as this particular luncheon may seem, it might also be the only reliable and consistent thing in their lives. Practically speaking, who am I to interfere or presume that they are in need of more?

This was not what I had envisioned when I arranged for us to volunteer. This is not the type of “revolution” we were to have! While Rucha works with survivors of domestic violence, I work with older adults and folks with disabilities. I thought that given our backgrounds, we would be able to offer some other resources, or at least be of help in some other way. We are both counselors, we are advocates. And still, we have yet to interact with the Ladies on a personal and meaningful level.

As it turns out, I think I’m just too shy or awkward to go up to one of the Ladies and try to initiate a conversation. What would we talk about? We come from two different worlds, and once I’ve put food on their plates I’d get to go back home. Actually, I’d get to go to a quaint little restaurant for $8 french toast and $2 coffee to debrief with Rucha about the last hour.

The greatest aspect of service is the process itself, where you’re challenged to think about the project at hand in a social/political context, and how you are personally responsible for promoting or changing it. That first day I decided that since I’m unable to chat with the Ladies, I would apply what I learned from my Seva experience: if I could simply serve this hamburger, this cup of soup, this piece of chicken — whatever it may be — with love, I would be doing more. One of the Ladies asked which church we were with, and I told her that we were just there to help out. I thought of the concept of “charity,” and how Seva goes so much further than that. For me, “charity” connotes condescension, hierarchy. I think ultimately I feel a need to give or reinforce a sense of dignity to these Ladies who are so ignored, who are everyday surviving.

The Ladies smile at me and say thank you. I feel awkward saying “you’re welcome.” I feel like they should not thank me at all because my presence there is just, it’s human and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing extraordinary about this.

Ultimately I want to be there to listen because I honestly believe that no one else is. I want to tell that teenaged girl with her mother that she’s so strong and precious. I want to tell those elderly Asian ladies that I understand that they’re not used to eating beans, and it’s ok if they don’t want any. I wanted to tell them that I’m sorry that there wasn’t enough food, and that some of it was burnt or the portions were not equal. I’m sorry it’s not fair, but what can I do to make it better?

To be an advocate is to empower individuals who want change, and then help them to achieve that change.

What can we each do to make this better?

I’m open to suggestions.

Habitat for Humanity

The turnout for the Habitat for Humanity build was relatively dismal on the BTC end — only Bharti and I and a couple of other volunteers showed up. Then again, most people were on the other side of town distributing flyers for the Health Fair, it was a hot July day, we’d be doing manual labor and things just simply come up. . .whaddya gonna do?

Yet this is the nature of volunteerism, where no one is under any strict obligation to show up for a project, to participate on a regular basis or approach the meaning of service the same way. So why sign up, but not attend? Why show up, but not get to work? We’re all guilty of having done this at least once.

Personally, there are times when the prospect of doing something new and different seems too daunting — and then I get over it, while my friends look at me and ask when I’d become “such a hippie.” For them the desire is there. Society tells us to be good, responsible citizens by reaching out to our community, we collect our required number of volunteer hours, receive tax deductions, some really great photo opportunities. But what’s it really worth? Well, if Reba McEntire and Whirlpool can get behind Habitat, then so can I, in all my newfound grooviness.

Four homes are being constructed in Glendale, next to a school on Pacific Avenue. Everyday, six days a week, a new set of volunteers works on the houses. Volunteers for Habitat are not required to have any construction skills whatsoever, so of course Bharti and I got to install some stuff called “corner beading” and I learned how to hammer a nail. After two hours we’d put beading on two windows in one room. According to the foreman it was the “best beading job in the whole house.” (HA!) Slowly, but surely we did contribute something. For the most part we worked alone. Then Gilbert showed up, eager to get to work.

This is his house, and apparently we’d just put beading in what would be the kids’ room (they’re 2 and 3 years old). Another guy named Ober was also there working with the same vigor — he’d also received a home from Habitat for Humanity, and was now there to help Gilbert with his. Getting to meet the people who are benefitting from my service is one of the highlights of doing projects.

I was at a graduation ceremony a couple months ago where Father Greg Boyle (of Homeboy Industries) was the keynote speaker. He said that service should not be the ultimate end, but “kinship.” I’ve thought a lot about that idea since then, and how Compassion Cells help to further that feeling. Instead of seeing Habitat for Humanity as a construction project or community service opportunity, I’d like to compare its dynamics to volunteering itself, where we are faced with this invitation, an open door. So many people will pass through that house and leave behind a piece of themselves, an imprint through their work. Conversely, if their experience is anything like mine, they will have the opportunity to meet people like Gilbert and Ober. They will let others into their homes, their hearts and take something with them at the end of the day. I was not only there to help remedy the housing shortage, or help a low-income Hispanic family fulfill a seemingly far-fetched dream. Everytime I pass that house I’ll remember that experience. I’ve never been handy around my own house, nor especially enthusiastic about working in the heat. I am not always energized or optimistic about life, but I realize that those are the times when I need to get out and volunteer the most. It’s part of my humanity, and as others take the same step forward, they too will inhabit that space of kinship and compassion, finding themselves welcome to build together something truly beautiful.

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