Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back again - Kurt Nelson

The group has returned to Dartmouth.  Happy, tired, and more-or-less healthy.  I'm a bit overwhelmed by the experiences we've had and the people we've met.  And I'm consistently inspired by the passion, dedication and community of our group.

Without a doubt, I'm happy to be home.  Ready for my nice, quiet bed.  Delighted to see my family, and rest, and walk my dog.  I'm excited to see spring unfold up north as we did around DC.   But as we put the nation's capitol in our rear window, I couldn't help but feel a little sad as well.

On the one hand, I'll miss this group.  They affirmed me in my calling and in the educational models we use.  They inspire me to keep at it.  And I quite simply enjoyed being around them for such long, focused, unadulterated stretches of time.

And on the other hand, I still wonder if I'm doing enough to counter the vast challenges of poverty in our nation and world.  When I stay up at night, it's because I worry if my work is direct enough, bold enough, and radical enough.  Given the immense problems of our country and world, is it okay for me to live such a comfortable existence?

And so as I drove home, in a van full of sleeping, brilliant students, I pondered my (and our) privilege. 

Interfaith service: What's the big idea?

Parnian Parvin-Nejad '13

The phrase "interfaith service" itself sounds like a noble undertaking, but once you think about it, its meaning is not quite as clear.  What exactly is so special about doing community service with a group of people of different faiths?  Many faiths include service to the community as a component of putting their beliefs into practice, or in the case of Abrahamic religions, as a way to serve God.  That's an easy answer for the "faith service" part, but the "inter-" part still remains to be clarified.  Half of our ASB trip is focused on this idea of “interfaith” volunteering, but before the trip, it was still not entirely obvious to me why.  Half What benefit is to be gained in bringing together people of different faiths to do service rather than drawing from a single belief system?
Thanks in part to the discussion we had with a representative from the President’s Office of Faith-Based Community Partnerships, I think I am on my way to an answer to this question.  We started off our discussion with the representative, Clay, with his introduction to the initiatives organized by the Corporation for National Community Service (CNCS), such as AmeriCorps and Habitat for Humanity.  He explained to us the difference between stupidity (a refusal to learn or a determination to retain incorrect assumptions) and ignorance (a willingness to fill in the spaces of incomplete knowledge)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Hopeful Cynic

Geovanni Cuevas, '14

Inez is  a homeless man who wanders around our nation’s capitol in despair. We met him on the first official day of our trip, and what a bizarre day to say the least. If I were to hand you a hot dog wrapped in foil paper, a bottle of water and an orange and then instruct you to wander the streets of Washington, D.C profiling every person you saw in an attempt to identify  the one in the most need of the aforementioned food, how would you begin your search?

Words cannot properly express the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach as I scanned the streets while pausing on every black and brown face to evaluate “how homeless they looked.” Imagine, if you can, the awkward situation of approaching someone on their smoke break and offering them some water---a seemingly innocuous gesture, but one where there is no denying the implications--- you think this person is homeless. And even if it’s true, is it not a humiliating experience to have someone explicitly acknowledge our destitution? The minute you meet the eyes of the person to whom you’re offering food, there is a mutual understanding that you’ve made an assessment about their well being, about their status as a person and about their ability to provide for themselves. I assume for most of us, accepting charity would imply a level of humility bordering on embarrassment. Not exactly the most dignifying of experiences. Nevertheless, we wandered from the shelter in Southeast Washington to Union Station, where we met Inez, randomly approaching strangers offering them food and attempting to offer them, as our guide put it, “some dignity.”

The Luxury of Certainty

Shweta Raghu '15

       When I removed my dust mask and returned to the hostel after our work at the Manna  building site yesterday, I had a new nickname: The Stairmaster. No, it as not because of my love for the gym-machine-of-joy, but because I spent the whole workday scraping and sweeping mud, paint, and other debris off several flights of stairs. Yes, it may sound like extremely boring and repetitive labor. And don't get me wrong, it was repetitive (scrape, sweep, move down one step, repeat), and (dare I say) boring at times, but it made me think. About what we had been doing on the trip, and what I was hoping to learn.   
       In fact, we had been doing repetitive tasks almost every day. For many of us, repetitive to the point of frustration- at least while we were doing the jobs and immediately afterwards. But during our daily reflections, I found that many of my most positive experiences were seemingly pointless and repetitive tasks.

Finding God at the Washington Monument

Phoebe Reid '15

Cherry blossoms arched overhead, masking the warm night sky above as we trekked down the mall. Imposing stone monuments of governance and our country’s greatness flanked the sides of our journey, as our faith carried us on.

My frustrations about faith and belief were aired and vulnerabilities revealed. The Buddhas teachings and 7 Unitarian Universalist principles swarmed around a lack of a higher power and questions emerged.

Where does someone not raised in a religious tradition find God?

“On this walk, before we get to the monument”

“Yes, I’ll find God at the Washington Monument”

God wasn't there.

Instead I found a family at the monument.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Stephen Kirkpatrick '13

            I’ll bring many things home from this trip.  Memories. Awareness. Photographs. 14 wonderful friends. Newfound ambitions.
            And I’ll bring home 2 swollen red eyes.
            Thursday morning, I woke up with pinkeye. Not precisely sure where it came from, but by this morning it had spread to both eyes, so I figured I should see a doctor.
            No big deal. Just a quick call to the local clinic, a 30-miinute appointment, and a prescription for some antibiotics. In another week I’ll be perfectly fine.
            The clinic I went to on Capitol Hill is a lot like my clinic at home. It’s immaculately clean, decorated in serene blues, and well-staffed. The nurse and the doctor who saw me are friendly. Transferring my parents’ insurance was a breeze, and the whole ordeal only ended up costing me $25.
            The thing is, the entire day, before catching some extra sleep, while watching TV on my MacBook, over my $15 lunch at a diner near the clinic, I couldn’t help making the contrast between my experience today and the one I had on Wednesday.
            We helped organize a closet for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project at DC General, a hospital-turned-shelter at the outermost border of the District.

Martha's Table

Wajahat Kiani '14

To further our understanding of how different organizations are tackling the issue of homelessness, we headed over to Martha’s Table on 14th street NorthWest.  With the image of shelters run by Anna Federner-esque figure etched in my mind, I was clearly in for a surprise. The place appeared extremely professional; the front office could have been easily been mistaken for a well-kept front desk at any reasonable corporation. We were given a quick orientation by the extremely energetic profession, Nadia. According to her, Martha’s table provided educational programs to approximately 250 children, meals to homeless people through both their support and referral program and their city-wide distribution centers and registered organizations. Nadia’s voice struggled to contain the passion she felt towards her work.  Her enthusiasm for her work reinforced the significance of the work that we would do that day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Ariel Shapiro '13

Today we witnessed the purposeful, structured DC Central Kitchen.  We prepared food for at least some of the five thousand meals a day that DC Central Kitchen serves.  Parnian, Shweta, and I spent the good part of an hour struggling valiantly to open dozens of cans of diced tomatoes and spaghetti sauce.  The can openers were warped and demanded all of our focus; my motor skills still were not up for the job.  Yet just dumping can after can into an enormous tub, in the midst of the smell of chopped onions and the sound of peelers on hundreds of potatoes, reminded me of the importance of intentionality.  Many of DC Central's employees wore t-shirts that read "Feeding the Soul of the City," and to me, this motto epitomizes intentionality.  Each potato peeled, and each green bean snapped would be a part of a meal. Focusing on that significance and remembering it with each bean made me feel a part of a large community, scattered across the strangely homey industrial kitchen. I felt affection stirred into the potatoes and baked in the pies.  This philosophy of giving through food, of transmitting affection through food is a powerful one.  Five thousand meals a day is an overwhelming concept -- it's overwhelming to consider that continuous necessity.  But when combined with the giving of dignity, with a whole community of diverse and even disparate volunteers committed to that goal, five thousand meals a day becomes close to a miracle. I do wish that there was no necessity for such an organization, but as there is, I am glad that one such as DC Central Kitchen exists -- one that believes that everyone deserves a good meal of strong, sustainable, often local, healthy and wholesome food. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pictures from DC...

Meeting with Clay Middleton from the Corporation for National and Community Service and Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Meeting with Maggie Siddiqi from the Islamic Society of North America.
 On our day off, in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

More touring from the day off, at the MLK memorial.

On Hope and Faith - Kurt Nelson

Thoughts from Kurt for the evening:  3/20/12

We've crested the halfway point of our trip.  Moved hundreds of totes and bags and boxes worth of musty clothing and debris and food (not in the same containers, thankfully). 

We've conversed deep into the night about theology and wandered much of the city.  Heard stories from folks living on the street and from those serving them daily.  We've met with civic leaders and organization managers and regular volunteers.  We've argued and worked and been overwhelmed.  We've served the people we've met to the best of our ability.  We've asked hard questions and pondered big ideas.

And in the midst of it all, I find myself pondering to things in particular:

First, hope. 

Broken Things

Sage Dalton '12

"God dearly loves broken things."
-Jeffrey R Holland

I've thought about this quote a lot the past few days. I thought about when I watched Inez limp to CCNV, his face full of excruciating pain. I thought about it as I tried to process the vast destruction and deep hate we witnessed in East Baltimore. I thought about as I contemplated all the people that the enormous number of sandwiches we packed at Martha's Table would reach. 

God dearly loves broken things. 
Broken hearts, broken furniture, broken dreams, broken houses, broken love, broken intentions, broken boxes, broken souls, broken world. 

In the midst of the sadness and frustration and discouragement I've felt during this trip, I have also felt the closeness of God's love, His very real presence and care for all these broken things.

I have been impressed by the way the faith and action of others are vessels for pouring out this ever present and intrinsic love. I have been awed by the way His love pours forth through the simple actions of others on our trip who consistently and genuinely reach out to strangers, but also to each other. I am deeply grateful to be here and to learn from them. 

Our trip is called faith in action, but I want to call it faith is action. 

According to the Bible, if you have faith, the first and second great commandments are to love God and to love your neighbors (Matthew 22:37-39). Faith leads to love. 

Kurt was wearing a shirt yesterday that had this quote on it: "Love cannot remain by itself -- it has no meaningLove has to be put into action, and that action is service" - Mother Theresa. Love leads to action. 

In sum, faith in God leads to love, but this love by itself is meaningless and it must be put into action. Ultimately, faith is action. Through action we can be vessels to pour out God's ever present love for all His broken children in His broken world.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Muslimat al-Nisaa

Aaron Colston '14

    The house in East Baltimore we visited that weekend made me think twice about “community service.” The house was the storage space of a shelter for Muslim women who were victims of domestic abuse until the house was ransacked. Clothes were sprawled on the floor of the living room and the bedrooms upstairs, part of the ceiling dangled like wrapping paper, toys and books lay twisted on the carpet. They left their mark by scrawling on the walls along the stairs, the threshold, and the living room the word “kufar,” Arabic for “infidel.” By the time we started taking the clothes and toys in bags and plastic tote boxes people began to pour slowly out of the houses on the street to watch. Our blue-gray gloves and white masks over our mouths and noses were clear signals that we weren’t a part of their community. So what were we doing, really, on this “service” trip?
     Part of it did have do with “giving back.” The time we gave to helping clean and organize the house freed up the shelter for its own work. What might have taken months took about two days. Not only that, but some of the community made use of the clothes and furniture that the shelter decided to give away in a “free yard sale.” With the time we had, we were able to practically clean up an entire house. Real work--concrete service--had been accomplished.
    But at the end of the second day of work on the house, the truth stood in the back of my mind that for all our hard work we had only scratched the surface. Crime does not leave a city with ease. The same goes for domestic abuse. In the large scale, that shelter is just one attempt to help a population within the community in Baltimore. The problems imaginable only magnify the further we extend what “community” means--neighborhood to city, city to county, to state, to country, to planet, ad infinitum.
    Yet so do the blessings imaginable, so long as we keep things in perspective. It would have been too ambitious for me or anyone else on this trip to think that we could have solved another community’s problems in ten days, let alone one weekend. All we can do is hand over ourselves in the little way we can--and when we see that the self we have given is but a grain of sand in the ocean of the world’s troubles, our littleness hopefully begets great humility. That said, I think that “community service” has been successful when two things happen. One, that the little work done over the weekend, while not ending the problem, shows a community that they aren’t alone in their struggle, and two, when the person serving becomes humble in their service.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

ISNA and Capitol Hill Group Ministry

Michelle Earhart '12

Hello from the Faith in Action ASB! We spent most of yesterday driving down to Washington D.C., and then went for a short walk around the seminar center where we're staying. We ran into some recognizable buildings... as it turns out, we are very much on Capitol Hill. 

We awoke mostly refreshed and walked to meet with Maggie, a staffer of the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) office for interfaith and community alliances. The office also runs Shoulder to Shoulder, which works against anti-Muslim sentiments. She very courteously answered our questions about working with ISNA. It seems that a lot of this office's time is spent responding to Islam-related events, such as the NYPD surveillance of Muslims and the burning of Korans in Afghanistan, but in both reaction and prevention, they have a number of interfaith initiatives where they work to break down some of the misconceptions about Muslims in parts of the world. We discussed what it meant to represent the "moderate" Muslim and what that concept even means (it's usually used in opposition to "extremists" who wish to push their beliefs on other people, sometimes through violent means, but why does that concept apply to Muslims? People don't tend to describe themselves as "moderate" Christians or Buddhists in order to distinguish themselves from the more fundamentalist members of their religion. "Moderate" and "extreme" are political terms, suggesting that the Islamic faith itself has become quite politicized in the way it is viewed by our country). ISNA also works with groups of other faiths to come together and advocate for representative policy changes, and while it can be hard to agree sometimes, there is an underlying suggestion that if different religious groups can come together, the factions "across the street" should be able to, as well.

Moving from an organization that focuses on advocacy to direct triage, we took the metro to a branch of Capitol Hill Group Ministry, where we met Dan, who'd been working there for six months. Dan was obviously very passionate about homelessness, but also felt like it was "an unsolvable problem... like sadness."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Exams, Hazing, Judgment, and Grace - Richard R. Crocker

Exams, Hazing, Judgment, and Grace
Richard R. Crocker, College Chaplain
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
March 11, 2012
Matthew 25:31-46

This is the season for exams. Some of you are in the midst of them. Contrary to what you may hope, however, exams never end. They keep happening to us throughout our life, even if only in our dreams.

All of you have had the dream, I expect, where you realize you have to go to a class to take an exam – only you have never been to the class all term and you are totally unprepared? It is a common dream. Exams are a kind of judgment: they determine whether we have learned what we were intended, or expected, to learn.

Some Christians seem to believe that life is a pass/fail exam, where the only question is “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” The correct answer means you go to heaven; the incorrect answer means you go to hell.

Other Christians have an equally simplistic view: in their belief, there is no judgment, only universal acceptance. All is forgiven. Everybody passes, no matter what. They call this grace. While both perspectives have many adherents, neither one is supported by the scripture passage that we have just read, where, Jesus himself describes the judgment which awaits us all.

The scripture passage is one with which I expect and hope all of you are already familiar. It is a vision that uses the language of metaphor and parable to describe the ultimate test, the ultimate exam.