Sunday, March 23, 2008

Urban Plunge Reflection

If I were to sum up Urban Plunge in one sentence, I would do so in this way: “It was both a big and new step, yet an altogether preliminary one. If you don’t wish to read a couple pages of further explanation, I suppose this would be the place to stop.
The truth of the matter is this: it’s impossible to understand Urban Plunge without going. I really desire that this sounds as non-condescending as possible, for I don’t wish to elevate myself, as if I came out of this experience with a more potent moral compass. If anything, the experience has served far more to illuminate faults in myself. It’s impossible to fully communicate partly because different things strike different people. Additionally, every group has a unique experience. Ultimately, (and I believe, most importantly,) the difficulty arises in that through the experience, one learns almost entirely things that he/she did not expect.
For example, in considering the difficulties to be faced prior to embarking on Plunge, the ones most likely to come to mind would be finding food, staying warm, avoiding death, and the like. However, these were hardly the larger difficulties faced, particularly in light of the fact that we were given a place to sleep (the second of those would have been harder, otherwise.) It became quite clear how to avoid danger, and finding food simply depended on looking in enough trash cans/dumpsters, begging at enough market stands, going to shelters, and spanging (spare-changing)/asking for leftovers. The true difficulties arose in the psychological experiences, most particularly at the end, when faced with the prospect of going home, clarifying how the experience would not suffice on its own. This hasn’t been made easier in coming home, as I feel like almost every action is measured by my experience. I can’t say that I’ve not eaten anything out at all, but I do see food differently, and I pray that this new mindset will continue.
In addressing the first part of my one-sentence summary of the experience, I have completely new eyes as a result of this experience. After Plunge, going downtown will be wholly new, for as it progressed, one encountered the same homeless people every day. People we encountered at Westlake on the first day were hanging out at the very same stage at Westlake on Monday night. When I sat at the end, on Tuesday, I looked at Seattle from Gasworks Park differently. It was a huge conglomeration of individuals, not the homeless and the non-homeless.
As for the second part, there is still so much for me to do. The experience is so deep, and yet it's so shallow, in that we always knew there was not only an end to it, but even if we were legitimately homeless, we hadn't been rejected by the world innumerable times; we had a support system that we don't realize.I felt like there were so many more people to meet, so many things I didn’t understand, and so much that I want to change in myself as a result. I want to hear more stories, and understand all the people who we watched, but couldn’t talk to. I want to bridge that gap, which was only made passable through my dress, and make it passable through love. I want to see just how far SPU can go in truly living up to the responsibility of being a Christian University, something that is so easy not to take seriously (I'm speaking for myself here as well, mind you.)
The root of the “So what?” at this point seems to come down to this: I want my beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions to be as perfectly unified as possible. I think back on how I saw the my own face in those that passed me, and couldn’t help but think how much infinitely more was the abandoned feeling I gave, to people who received a hundred looks like that a day for years on end. Is this how I believe or pledge to act? Hardly, and this reminded me immensely of passages from a book I’ve been reading over the last few months, slowly: The Freedom of Simplicity. In this, Richard Foster talks about how simplicity ultimately must stem from this simple unity within God, and I found that similar connections existed with many other things I’ve thought about recently, like my own attachment to possessions, just how reckless I need to be in my faith in God with giving of myself, and my education. I couldn’t help but constantly think, throughout the trip, of my own education, the lack of which was a common denominator among those we met, and how ungrateful I was for it. I greatly desire my education to be worshipful and joyous, in the context of learning to the end of serving others. I have believed this in my head, but I want it to be visible in how I learn.

For a little cross section of the people and experiences we encountered, here are a couple of stories:

Mississippi (he only went by his street name, unable to reveal his real one due to warrants for his arrest) was a 19-year-old from Portland. He’d lived there till he was about 7, and after his mother was put in prison, he and his brother were moved to Mississippi (hence, street name), a placed he described as “where the police encourage parents to beat their children, and the schools still paddle you.” At some point, he ran away from his broken adopted parents, ultimately ending up in Seattle last summer. He now deals pot to the high school kids at Westlake, and is looking to get back home to find his brother. Additionally, he mentioned that he had essentially been awake non-stop for three days, because the police had found his squat, and he had to sleep in alleys and whatnot, in addition to the fact that he is high most of the time. A lot of the street kids (as I mentioned before) dress just like any typical high school kid, but Mississippi was the most legit street kid we met, as his hands were practically black with dirt, and he wore a huge, black coat. We took him out to McDonald’s on the last day.
Don was a fifty-something-year old, who we met spanging outside Gameworks. He has colon cancer, lives by himself in an apartment, and has to pay for chemo on his own, and lives in an apartment. I’ve never seen somebody so weak in my entire life. We offered him a donut, from the gigantic bag we’d found in a dumpster earlier (we were sooo cool with the street kids at that point, handing out donuts left and right), but he declined, saying he hurt too much to even eat. We prayed with him and gave some money and our remaining bus passes, but it all felt so feeble and weak. The ironic part is that we gave most of what we had, and this didn’t feel like enough; we had hardly anything ourselves! This illustrates a thought that struck me perpetually throughout the trip, as we were able to give away five dollars so easily, when it was a quarter of all the money between us at a given time, depending on how much we had spanged. Would I, in turn, be willing to give $250 out of the 1,000 or so in my account at such a whim? Should I be so? These sorts of questions plagued the trip.
We met Otis in Pioneer Square, and he had a cast for his foot, which he had apparently broken quite recently in a scuffle with his girlfriend. He had just gotten out of ten years in prison in New Orleans.
MFC, whose name stands for “Monkey Fucking Coconuts,” a name ordained by one of his friends, had been up for an entire three days without food, on an ecstasy trip.
We also met Jerry, an ex-crack addict poet in the University District. He gave us a free copy of a poem of his, which I enjoyed reading, for it portrayed the world in a refreshingly simple manner: The hate is everywhere, and the love needs to come in soon!
On Sunday, we were encouraged to try out one or two churches, in order to see how Christians would react to our homelessness. We additionally decided to attend a church that would be very uncomfortable with our presence, so what better place to go than a prosperity gospel church, where health and wealth are seen as signs of God’s goodness and work? In that vein, we decided to go to City Church, and I think that stands as one of the most disturbing experiences I’ve ever encountered. There are some churches that I’ll never attend, but still respect, because I feel as if we’re working toward a similar goal, and have the same foundations, yet our beliefs simply work themselves out differently. City Church, on the other hand, was flat-out unbiblical. When tithing envelopes are waved in the air, sick people are suddenly not useful to God, being happy is always better than sadness, credit card machines can be used to give offerings, I start to ask questions. There was some value to their message, in that the churches I’ve attended haven’t put the emphasis they did on miraculous healings, something that still happens today. However, their view of material and physical “success” was simply not rooted in who Jesus is and what He did. We stood outside afterward, and asked for money, additionally holding up a sign saying “Jesus was homeless,” in order to cause at least a little stir (I wanted to more angry signs, but my group wisely calmed me down.) To our shock, two middle school girls told us that Jesus in fact was not homeless. One very nice, humble woman gave us money without any show, when nobody was watching, and a couple people were very friendly. However, on the whole, we weren’t looked upon very fondly, as the seats around us were the last to be filled. There’s plenty more to be said about my feelings about the service, but this wasn’t the whole of Urban Plunge, so I’ll leave it at that!
I suppose that’s it. I would love to talk to people further on this, but I wanted to provide a baseline for it. I’ll also post more if I remember anything different, or have new reflections.