The Stories Underneath

So many of us, when walking or driving around, we see the people holding those cardboard signs, those who seem less fortunate than us. What we never realize or never even think about is the fact of how many there are. We never think about who they are or their circumstances surrounding how they got there. We never realize what types of experiences that they have had to get to where they are. I am one now to think about what is available to them nowadays and not feel as sorry for them. But also at the same time, I never think about what they may had gone through during their time of homelessness, who they may of encountered, how many bad experiences they have had to not even want to go into a shelter.

The homeless point in time count started today. It actually started for me on last Thursday (January 19) when I went to the team leader training. When I first heard about this homeless point in time count, I was very intrigued by the idea of getting to do something like this just for the fact of being better able to understand more of the idea of where residents who live where I work could of came from before going to the shelter.  Homelessness has always been a curiosity of mine because it never makes sense. Now since working at the shelter it has made me have even more questions especially about those who are panhandling on different streets.  There are so many resources available for these people where they could have three meals a day as well as most of the time a place to sleep and even people to help them find a home and get health services. All these questions that I have have led me to want to participate in this count just to find out more about how people on the street may live.

Starting out,  the training was very interesting. The people were organized but could be better so. One of the most interesting aspects of this count for me was the veteran portion.  They are wanting all veterans that we meet on the street to automatically go into a shelter that night.  And then they said that they would find them shelter within 48 hours. For me that seems a bit surreal. The training overall allowed me to learn a lot. The only difference between the team leader training and the normal volunteer training was the fact that we got to learn about our route to find the homeless people. In the training we learned about the survey as well as the different crisis methods (in case there happened to be one). We also got to meet people who may also be on the team. In my case, the other team members of mine had gone to the training the previous day so I was unable to meet them until Sunday night (January 22). Overall I felt that the training was very productive and it made me even more excited for the event itself.

On the Sunday night, the excitement happened. We were supposed to meet at 7 pm at Our Daily Bread. Originally, I had no idea where that was, so I planned on driving there. When I put it in my GPS though, I found out that it was only 0.4 miles from where I was, so in the beginning I felt quite stupid. In the end though, it was OK cause I had to drive around for about 20 minutes trying to find parking. Each time that I went to the training places I found it very interesting. Since being in Baltimore I have been able to learn a lot more about the different homeless resources and where people can go to get help. But I had never actually seen the different

My team members

My team members

properties. So being able to go into both Helping Up Mission as well as Our Daily Bread makes the words actually have some pictures to them. It helps me to see how well put together they are and how they can be so successful. Both of the places are quite big buildings and they allow a lot of people to be in there at once which is a great help when there are so many homeless in Baltimore that are needing more resources.

 

Both nights of the count we were provided with pizza for dinner. The first night though, was the night that all of the people on the team met. My team in itself was quite small, we only had 5 people on our team. In the end though, it was perfectly fine cause we drove most of the time and only needed to take one vehicle. We were assigned to the area around Federal Hill and down near Fort McHenry. We didn’t encounter many of homeless people on the street the first night, but the first one we had I had pointed out because it looked like a person, but I wasn’t for sure. In the end though, we encountered about 5 people that night, 3 of which completed a full survey. Overall I was very pleased with the first night.

The second night was just as eventful as well as it went smoother. That night as well I was able to have a friend join on our volunteer time. We did not meet as many people that night as well. I was able to point out another person though that was not as noticeable from the vehicle. He was one who was noticeably mentally handicapped. He got very nervous when most of the team was surrounding him. One of the people on the team was one who carried around things to give out to people he encountered, so he was able to give him a new blanket. After that I asked him again if he would be willing to and he accepted after I asked if it was only me.

After that experience when we were back in the vehicle, one of the other people on the team asked me what my major was in university. I told her that I majored in International Studies with a minor in World Languages and Culture. She told me after that it was very surprising to me because of the fact that I have a natural helping ability.

After I heard that, it just made things clear for me. Since I started working here at Project PLASE, I had considered different paths for what I should do after this year. I had been considering a master’s degree down the path, but  didn’t even know what to do. But I was leaning towards a Social Work degree. After this women told me that, I was just like, OK, its going to happen. I don’t know when I will start it, but I will definitely be moving my way to getting that degree.

One impressive thing that I realized from this Point in Time Count was how dedicated Baltimore is to trying to drastically reduce homelessness in the city. The mayor was present at the first night to give a short speech. It impressed me that she was willing to come and talk to the volunteers are wanting to help to count the people suffering with this issue.

Here is my sneaky photo of the mayor talking.

Here is my sneaky photo of the mayor talking.

 

This experience for me has been one to make me think about a lot. It has made me realize that people have different experiences in different places. We may think we are doing best for them, but in some ways, it may be making things worse for people. Sometimes people may not want our help. One of the people that I met during this experience was one who wasn’t homeless in his mind. He may of been homeless in my mind and others’ minds, but in his, he has they says “home is where the heart is.” He is happy where he is staying, so why should he move? With that in mind, sometimes we need to think about other people and try to put ourselves in their shoes. Sometimes, what we think may help, could also hinder.

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The beautiful night view. One of my favorite things about living in a city.

Making Change with Community

jubilee tree

A lot of my conversations lately have been about volunteering. At our last ESC meeting, we discussed how volunteering without thinking can lead to unintended consequences–everything from building something poorly to re-instituting a neo-colonialist, patriarchal cycle of control and dependence (wowza). In my time at ESC, I’ve learned more and more how to be patient as a volunteer, with volunteers, and in the process of creating change in the city I love.

Sometimes, work is work–at the end of the day, I realized I didn’t really step outside the office, and I stared at spreadsheets and answered emails. These days can seem cumbersome, but there are moments when I realize all of the work made real products. At the Baltimore Orchard Project (BOP), we’ve been making pompoms to decorate the trees so people know that orchards are loved and cared for. That past few months have been filled with pompom-crazed days–volunteers have made pompoms, kids have made pompoms (even though their tiny hands and poor hand-eye coordination elongate the process), and many trees have been successfully pomed. On Saturday at the BMore Healthy Expo, my co-worker Karyn and I had people of all ages stopping by to make pompoms. It was exhausting–untangling yarn, trying to listen to many children at once, talking to parents who are losing their patience. By the end of the day, we were exhausted and realized some people just took the pompoms home with them even though they were supposed to put them on the tree we somehow had gotten into the convention center. It was one of those tiring days where we wondered how much are we really doing?

WELL, on Tuesday at the Jubilee Arts Center where Karyn leads the Garden Art Class, we were outside making signs for the trees in the orchard. Some kids were not paying attention and throwing the football around and running into each other. Again, one of those days where we wondered what are we doing? BUT, a woman stopped by. She past us, turned her car around, and parked right up to the orchard and said, “Hey, are you the pompom ladies?” and we replied “Why yes!” She had seen the pompoms on the trees at Jubilee and noticed they were the same pompoms she had made with her kids at the Expo. After her and Karyn had a long conversation, she decided to bring her kids to Jubilee. Now Jubilee has more students and BOP has more kids to teach about the wonderful world of fruit trees. With patience, time, and love, Karyn and I realized all of that hard work does lead to good change.

Spring Fling at Amazing Grace

This weekend Amazing Grace, the church I attend here in Baltimore, hosted its annual Spring Fling. I had no idea what to expect from it, details were vague, but intriguing, and the plan for a block party that would close down the road for the day was reassessed due to the gloomy and snowy forecast. However the pastor had been talking up since January to the point that attendance seemed mandatory! Despite the dismal weather the event really did turn out to be wonderful, about half and half church members and residence of the McElderry neighborhood around the church were in attendance. Booths were set up inside a large church gym space with art activities like candle painting, making yarn balls, and adding to a community art piece; local organizations many focused on sustainable and healthy living; and lots of sensational healthy cookout food. The emphasis was on celebrating the arrival of spring and strengthening the connections between the church and community; which they did in spectacular fashion! I don’t often see large church events that have something other than fundraising or evangelizing in some way as the primary goal. I don’t think there’s inherently any problem with these types of events but they tend to spread a more narrow view of the church to the community than what the church itself really represents. Events I have seen though, like this one, that allow for simple goals like community building to be at the forefront are vital to the health of a church and their relationship to the neighborhoods and communities that they are a part of. I am so thankful to be a part of this community at Amazing Grace this year, and I am so proud of the commitment they have made to be part of and partners with the McElderry neighborhood.

Young attendees eyeing up the impressive dessert cart

Young attendees eyeing up the impressive dessert cart

Checkerboard City

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I have a love-hate relationship with Baltimore’s neighborhoods. I love the character that the neighborhoods of Baltimore add. I love the small town feel that they can interject in the middle of the city. I love that different neighborhoods appeal to me depending on my mood. I love that a walk across a few blocks can take me through several exceedingly different neighborhoods. I love the quirkiness of Hampden, the history of Fells Point, and the artistic atmosphere of Station North. But for all I love about them the fact stands that these unique Baltimore neighborhoods are the checkered squares of a very segregated city.

 

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Baltimore was the stark contrast of neighborhoods that are side by side each other. Black and white, blue collar and white collar. Each neighborhood has these rigidly defined identities which make it unique, and add to its character; but which also further segregate and alienate people from one another. Coming from 83% white Madison, Wisconsin to 63% black Baltimore, Maryland I thought I’d end up out of my comfort zone, and as a minority in situations all the time. What I found at first however was that I continued to be drawn in to racially and socioeconomically segregated places and situations. Acknowledging this tendency has lead me to more actively seek out smaller and more diverse communities apart from the barriers created within neighborhoods. I have grown to love many aspects of Baltimore, but these ridged boarders between people, these neighborhoods based on race and class isolate us from each other and impede our efforts to understand and learn from one another which in turn impedes the growth and success of the city as a whole.

Putting Down Roots in a New City

This is something many in my generation are facing. Out of necessity, we move about from city to city wherever we can land opportunities that pay the rent. If we’re lucky, our jobs are also somewhat meaningful and fulfilling and maybe, just maybe, provide health care.. I’m privileged to be a part of ESC, a program which offers all of that.

Transience as a way of life is desirable for some folks, but personally, I prefer stability and long-term community. It’s ironic then that over the past three years, I’ve lived in as many states. With each transition comes the need to embed myself in a new community – to become a part of the new place I call home.

This is never any easy process, but moving to Baltimore was different. Maybe it’s the blue collar culture of the city that says “It’s okay if you’re on stipend. You can still love the city without money.” Or maybe it’s my job which takes me to every corner of the city, helping me to know it better. After a year of living in Chicago, I still didn’t know anyone on my block. In Baltimore, though, I knew most of my block by name in a month. People sit on their stoops through the warms months, greeting neighbors and talking local politics. On the weekends, folks from the neighborhood bring a bag of hot dogs and cook a communal supper on the grill in the vacant lot. This place feels like home.

Our block during the great blizzard of January 2016

Our block during the great blizzard of January 2016

 

Serendipity

In my experience, people have had many opinions on “chance” and serendipitous moments. Some say chance and serendipity can be predicted in formulaic patterns; some say serendipity is unpredictable (those people tend to advise not to “leave things up to chance”); some maintain that serendipity is God working in intended, planned ways, while others say serendipity is God showing the world just how chaotic yet purposeful the world can be. And some say serendipity is that cheesy 2000s rom-com featuring John Cusack. I’m not sure where I fall yet, but I do feel that God has weaved serendipitous moments into my life recently.

I got started with Episcopal Service Corps by applying to a job which directed me to the program. It was explained to me that the position I received was made possible by ESC providing the housing, food, and a stipend for me. I was a bit confused, but after speaking with Reverend Jan and previous ESC-ers I figured, “Seems cool! I’ll do it.” However, the workplace position did not work out, but I was supported by the people of ESC—they were not just my sustenance of food and shelter but my sustenance for moving forward. ESC—Jan, my housemates, the network of ESC—provided the support I needed to get back on my feet, try new things, meet new people, and start a new job. After being interviewed at a few different places and feeling completely at a loss of where my life was going to go next, my fellow Gilead, Jordan, put in a good word for me (like the thoughtful person he is) at his workplace, and next thing I knew, I was at Atwater’s talking to Jan and Jordan’s supervisor, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, and experiencing the immense spiritual insight of a Reverend and a Rabbi—both amazing women—guiding me from emptiness to an exciting future of service. Upon reflection, I realize I wasn’t experiencing emptiness at all—although I felt lonely and confused and nervous about what was to come during my unemployed-but-still-with-ESC time, I was surrounded by an amazing support group of my friends, family, and the people of Baltimore—trying to carve out space for me in this amazing city. Hours after I met with Nina and Jan, Nina found the funding to hire me onto The Baltimore Orchard Project (BOP), where the journey of serendipitous moments continues.

I quickly learned some of the ins and outs of BOP, an organization that strengthens communities by planting orchards with them, educating people to be long-term stewards, and sharing the harvest with neighbors. My first project was to implement the first BOP edible rain garden at the Jubilee Arts center, and I quickly became familiar with fruit and nut trees (which I’m still learning about), orchards, communities, and more. As I was explaining my new job to my mom, she said that her dad was the fruit tree guy of Baltimore. My Pop-pop owned Greenfields Nursery (on Falls Road) and planted a lot of the old trees I still see in the city today. Pop-pop passed away when I was young, and I’ve always been proud to say that he ran Greenfields. My mom inherited his green thumb, something that doesn’t always come so easily to me yet I’ve been attempting to learn from. Now I finally feel that I’m doing the work my mom has tried to teach me about all of these years—work that my Pop-pop would be proud of.

Graduating—like for most people—was bittersweet. I didn’t realize I would miss learning, especially research, so much. But with BOP, I learn something incredible every day, and I am teaching a Towson University class how to conduct Consensual Qualitative Research to study attitudes towards non-profits and fruit and nut trees in the city. I have come into an amazing work environment, where I am constantly supported by inspiring people—Jordan being one of them. We work as a team—following the ebb and flow of meetings, unexpected turns, and a slew of new planting partners.

God has worked in serendipitous ways—and I could get into the nitty gritty analysis of how and why—but what I know right now is that She has given me an abundance of love and support.

Environmental Justice and the Poor

For one of our recent seminars, we reflected on the passage “Doughnuts, Coffee, and Communion” from Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Stanley P. Saunders and Chuck L. Campbell, 2000). A few points stuck out to me as reflected on this passage, but I’ll focus on one for this post.

Poor people can suffer devastating consequences as a result of small mistakes or misfortunes – mistakes or misfortunes that may very well have been outside of their control. The same small mistake or misfortune could happen to a middle-class person and not have as devastating of effects – simply because of money, connections, education, and even self-confidence, as the narrator notes.

This point resonated with me particularly because of what I’ve learned through my job experience this year. I’m leading a project, Congregations Restoring Creation, through the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council. In October 2015, we held a retreat promoting the ethics of sustainability and environmental justice as important to the Christian faith in this day and age. One retreat message in particular, The Imperative of the Privileged (given by Reverend Mary Gaut), made me realize more just how much every day actions as a middle-class person can have devastating effects on the poor over time. Furthermore, the poor often do not get to choose to escape the consequences – where they live, the quality of air they breathe, the kind of water they get to drink. But because I may have some money, or some status, or some power, or some relatives, or some connections, I can often move from an unhealthy or unsafe place to a better one, if I wanted to. There are things I have or possess that have often blinded me from the effects of every my every day actions (such as using electricity that doesn’t come from clean energy sources). I often don’t have to see or experience the effects of my actions; the poor do, in their air quality, asthma, birth defects, and more.

I used to unknowingly separate the issues of spirituality, climate change, and the Christian faith in my mind. Yet this year, the interconnectedness of these issues is becoming more real and tangible to me as I learn from and work with various faith communities, faith leaders, and great organizations in Maryland.

Read Rev. Mary Gaut’s wonderful piece on environmental justice here: http://www.cmecouncil.org/AwakeArise.html. Her piece is at the bottom left of our website under “Environmental Justice.”

You can find all of other resources and project updates on our website as well!

I’m looking forward to learning more about the Christian faith and environmental justice as the year unfolds.

Sharon Varghese

Entering the New Year

Episcopal Service Corps – Maryland 

Reflections on Entering the New Year and Project Plase

 

My time working at Project Plase as part of the Episcopal Service Corps – Maryland has been a rewarding, yet challenging experience so far. I am blessed to be part of a program that provides nurturing spiritual directors and advisors, and a housing environment that gives me the space to learn more about what it means to live in intentional community with wonderful housemates seeking to learn, discern, and serve this year.

 

Before proceeding, I would like to provide a brief overview of what my responsibilities as an intern with Episcopal Service Corps – Maryland involved with Project Plase entails:

 

I am serving in the Episcopal Service Corps working for Project Plase in Baltimore. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people in need of ample shelter and employment. Episcopal Service Corps invites men and women in their 20s to work for justice, live in Christian community, grow in leadership, discern life calling, and deepen their faith life.  Project Plase is a housing shelter that offers both transitional housing, and helps clients access permanent housing. We bring hope, restore dignity, and strive end the cycle of homelessness for clients and their families. Our work is a communal effort. My service fellowship is for a year. The program is affiliated with AmeriCorps. My duty is to serve as a housing counselor at Project Plase. I am responsible for conducting room checks, working with clients on their housing needs (whether transitional or permanent), ensuring that I am doing everything in my ability to meet the basic needs of the clients, and helping them access services like employment searches, public benefits, Baltimore housing options, etc., offered by the program.

 

Furthermore, something that I have been wrestling with this year is what it means to truly serve God and discern my life calling in the context of this service fellowship. To be clear, I have been blessed with all of the resources I need to have a productive and meaningful year. But something I need to work on is to not allow the hecticness of my work, duties at the house, and preparations for next year, interfere with my discernment and spiritual well-being.

 

As one of my favorite passages of Scripture reads,

 

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,  they will walk and not be faint.” — Isaiah 40:31

 

This is a theme that I hope, with God’s help, to be more true to throughout the rest of this service program. Incidentally, it also a meaningful theme for this New Year.

 

I would like to conclude my reflections by presenting a spiritual challenge that I have encountered as my service work has progressed. Serving at Project Plase has brought into clear focus the sad fact that a great number of people in the city of Baltimore struggle to get by with the basic necessities in life. How can I be a positive influence in this environment, asides from trying my best at my responsibilites? I understand that my first and foremost responsibility is to take care of my Project Plase assignments. But I hope that through my clients’ interactions with me, they can draw strength, inspiration, and hope in situations that are often seemingly overwhelming and miserable.

 

When thinking about this the other day, the hymn, “There Is a Balm in Gilead” (which is incidentally a theme for this service year) came to mind. In part, it reads,

 

“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again…

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend;

And if you lack for knowledge, He’ll never refuse to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”

 

As someone who seeks to deepen his understanding of what it means to be a Christian, through my reflections, I have found that one of the great themes of the Scriptures is that God identifies with suffering. I am father to the fatherless. I am the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep. I think that these passages suggest that God connects His heart so closely with suffering people that He sees any action against them as an offense to Him. Working with underprivileged people this year has also helped me to see that through the cross, to  those who are suffering, is offered the great promise of God knowing too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. The cross is an empowering sign of what it means to live amidst suffering. Through the hope that Christ offers to the world through his death and resurrection, I hope and pray that I can continue in strength to have a meaningful service year with Episcopal Service Corps.

 

Creating Community


Creating a community while in Baltimore is something I’ve been challenging myself to continually work towards. The intentional community of the Gilead house is an integral part of my Baltimore community; but, as I quickly realized when I started this program, alone it is insufficient for truly becoming immersed in this city. It sounds strange to talk about creating community. The communities that are built around us and that we foster are not created through a step by step recipes with carefully measured ingredients, although I’ll admit I was hoping it would go that way. But somehow, to me at least, that phrase fits. I’ve been finding that as I very intentionally  seek out places that feed me, churches, parks, gardens… the communities that are already there tend to open up and help me find my place among them.

 

I have found worshiping communities that expand my understanding of my own faith in #Breakingbread and Amazing Grace Lutheran. I have push myself to learn and connect at my internship at Great Kids Farm, at our community garden next door, at dance classes around the city, and jumping into opportunities that  are unfamiliar to me. I have been able to explore my own interests and share what I enjoy with my fellow housemates as well as with people from other faith based service year programs similar to our own.

 

I sort of skipped this stage of life during college. Of finding myself in an unfamiliar place, without the structures of the community I’d grown up in. I went to a school that was only about a half hours bike ride away from home. My childhood community still surrounded me, and I had freedom to expand my community while maintaining my safety net of friends and family close at hand.

 

This new experience of creating a community, almost from scratch in Baltimore has been in turns exhilarating, frightening, lonely, and immensely fulfilling. It has pushed me into places, and conversations, experiences and emotions that I might never have found, or might even have avoided were I still so comfortable in keeping hold of what I was already familiar with at home.

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