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."
As he borrowed five of our group to prepare some food that we would later pass out, we talked about our personal reaction to this statement- while homelessness certainly isn't a simple problem, most of our group didn't see it as a totally unsolvable problem, though we might have to change our current culture in order to effect some big changes. When Dan came back, he agreed with us somewhat, but it does seem like he'd become a bit jaded with the attitudes of the government officials in the area, who are all looking for some single policy that will 'fix' this problem for good.

Dan works with chronically homeless people, who account for about 10% of all homeless people and are the source of many of the stereotypes associated with homelessness- carries around all their belongings, sleeps outside, often male, unkempt, sometimes veteran, has an addiction or mental illness- I'm recounting these in list form because, as it turns out, for the next couple of hours we had to heavily lean on the very stereotypes we had spent a term breaking down. We split up into small groups of 2 or 3, and, each armed with a subset of hot dogs, juice, oranges, pretzels, and water bottles, and went out to first and foremost "form a human connection" with homeless people, offering them some food or drink after the initial conversation if they so wished. As Dan put it, "When we run out of food, we will still be able to give out dignity."

It sounds noble, but my group spent our first 20-minute excursion sizing up people uncomfortably from afar, asking each other things like, "What about that guy?", "Maybe they're on a smoke break from work.", "That person could be coming home from shopping...". There were a LOT of feelings involved: we didn't want to accidentally offend someone who wasn't homeless, it didn't feel natural to interrupt someone who was talking with a friend or walking somewhere, we weren't sure how to approach someone or how we'd be received, and the entire act of profiling was outside of everyone's comfort zone. After the first excursion, only three groups had actually approached someone.

Still, we had a few more opportunities- first slightly further down for 20 minutes on Pennsylvania Ave., and then for an hour at Union Station. The reactions were quite varied- some people were grateful or interested in talking, a few groups got cursed at, other people were homeless but weren't interested in receiving food or interacting with us. We experienced a lot of dissonance- the city itself is a mix of extremely clean prestigious areas with neglected areas the next block over; the station had businesspeople and homeless people alike walking around; we experienced emotional dissonance, as we tried to reconcile our anger with the system with our vulnerability with our desire to make a difference; and there was certainly some physical dissonance, as several hours on our feet started catching up to us, and yet I certainly felt rather guilty for being hungry and tired when I couldn't be worse off than the people we were trying to help.

Some of the stories I experienced/heard from other groups, though there are a lot more I didn't catch, and perhaps people can elaborate on these or add their own stories later:

  • Several people talked about their faith, which they held fast to despite (or because) of their circumstances. Shweta's group met a veteran who felt the apocalypse was approaching. My group ran into a man with a very positive outlook on life, who was just glad to be alive and trusted that God would provide for him. When Ariel asked a man if he had advice for us young people, he told us "Stay in school... and pray, a lot."
  • Parnian, Phoebe and I ran into a lady wandering a bit aimlessly through a median. When we started talking to her, it became quite evident that she was not... when we asked her if she wanted anything, she said no and offered us cookies.
  • Geo's group was talking to a very kind lady when, mid-conversation, a cop approached, grabbed the lady's unopened alcohol, and poured it out in front of them, throwing it away. Thinking their group was working with the cop, she wouldn't take their items and marched off.
  • Similarly, others of us were talking to Aaron while he was tiredly sitting on the ground, and a cop approached and tried to intercede. Everyone hurriedly assured him that Aaron was with us, and he left, but it made the whole experience, and our feelings about profiling, more uncomfortable... 
Autumn and Chauna met a man, who mentioned being sick. He ended up accompanying us to our last destination, the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a vast, old shelter.  It turns out the man, named Inez, spoke Spanish, and so he and Geo had a long conversation. Inez had hurt his foot somehow eight days prior, and had been drinking since then to deal with the pain. When we got to the shelter, it wouldn't take him in (they are only required to take people in if it is freezing outside and there is danger of hypothermia). Their clinic was also closed, so they let us know that Inez's best chance of getting his foot treated was if we called an ambulance and let them know of the situation. It arrived as we were leaving, though we don't know whether they treated him or not.

Before we started out, Dan explained that we would end at the CCNV so that we'd be depressed but motivated to make a change. It certainly sparked negative emotions- the area was a lot more neglected, and businesspeople walking through weren't making eye contact at all, the shelter turning away Inez and the clinic being closed so early, the homeless people there mostly hanging out with their friends and so our presence tended to be more intrusive than helpful, and the large, describedly inefficient shelter looming over us all. It had also started to rain by this point.

Talking over it later, a lot of the group members expressed confusion over the experience- there were so many feelings, opinions, other people's stories and issues and problems to sort through. It was visceral and made me (and a few others) incredibly angry, to talk with people about and watch the dehumanization that comes with homelessness. To really fully realize the immense struggles that existing, human people have to go through on a daily basis is not only disheartening, it's difficult to reconcile with the very privileged lives we lead and the very small help we were giving. It was frustrating when we didn't establish a human connection, because approaching someone on the street was too awkward, or the person wasn't interested in opening up to a stranger, or was offended by our interest. It felt like we didn't have the time or resources to properly care about someone or have a good conversation with them, and so, at times, our aid itself might have been dehumanizing, as we stereotyped people and tried to give them what we thought they needed based on that. It was difficult to try and shed our egos as much as possible, to focus on helping someone instead of any of a myriad of feelings we were experiencing with the situation, and in some situations, we weren't sure if we were helping at all.

Alice helped voice our collective feelings about the work with Capitol Hill, which was that, regardless of the intrinsic value of our work that day (which I certainly have a lot of mixed feelings about), its instrumental value was immense. Dan would probably agree with her, as he congratulated my group after our first, non-interactive 20 minutes for engaging our feelings, even if we didn't actually talk to anyone. The effect the day had on us was certainly palpable, even if we can't quite describe it clearly, yet. And I have to say that I gained a much greater understanding of homelessness as an individual issue, and hopefully the understanding that we gain from these ten days in D.C. will allow us to alleviate homelessness in the future, in whatever way we choose to proceed.

Geo shared an insight from the San Francisco ASB last year: we are not here to fix problems. Even if we help 0 people, the trip will still be valuable. I am still unsure as to how I feel about this. Definitely very lucky to have this opportunity, but also rather selfish, because if I'm not helping anyone, then I'm using them for their educational value, which I don't feel like I have a right to do. But do I just want to help people so that I feel like I have accomplished something important/meaningful/productive? because then, that is a selfish impulse also. Having actually helped someone is not something I think one ever has a right to expect from a situation, though, as Geo put it, it's certainly a bonus. And, as Kurt has framed it, as we go through the rest of this trip, we will continue to encounter people who, like us, are facing the problem of homelessness, and are trying to make a difference in the very differing ways they think will affect it best. So the difference we make (or not), the things we grow to learn and understand, and the difference we hope to make in the future will definitely be things to keep in mind as our trip progresses.

Still, I think that underneath all this confusion, there's a sense that today was a very good thing indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment