Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"So how was LA?"

Howdy everyone! My name is Bridget Hennessy and I am a junior studying sociology at St. Mary’s University.  I am a member of the Marianist Leadership Program and that is the reason I had the wonderful opportunity to go on the LA Winter Immersion 2014 trip.  I made the trip and had a wonderful time, but now I’m back in Texas, getting back into my normal routine.  I’ve been thinking non-stop about the trip and wondering how I can put my experience into words.
“So how was LA?”  These are four words that I have been dreading.  This simple question could be answered with just “good” or with an hour long conversation.  For me, I would prefer the longer conversation, although the “good” is WAY easier!  I enjoy going on retreats and religious experiences like this one, but I always struggle with articulating my experience afterwards and sharing with others what I learned and gained.  I want make my experience known and understood by others because this is something that is clearly meant to be shared, especially with those who were not physically present.  So bear with me as I try my best to articulate and share my insights from my week in LA with you!
                This immersion experience for me has changed my perspective and general thinking in more ways than one.  I learned a great deal but there are a few points that really stand out to me. By the second day, my view of LA as the glitzy and glamorous city, where the rich and famous live, was completely shattered.  While this may be true in some areas, there is so much more to Los Angeles than that.  It is an extremely diverse and gigantic city with plenty of culture, but also with plenty of problems.  Amidst these problems, there are tons of passionate people and inspirational organizations working to alleviate these problems.   
There are a couple realizations that I had this past week which have changed me forever.  At first, it was difficult to have and allow these realizations because I had certain expectations coming into the trip.  I had read some of the past blogs and talked to students who had been on the trip before and I heard the idea of ‘solidarity with the poor.’  This is what I was going to experience.  I was going to have great conversations with the people I would be serving and I was looking forward to breaking down barriers between myself and others, particularly the homeless.  I was very excited and nervous, but ready to make a difference!
On Monday morning, we worked with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd at their domestic violence shelter for women and children.  In the long car ride on the way back home, I was talking with Brother Brandon and we began discussing the idea of trying to fix people and their problems.  People are not broken and definitely not in need of being fixed.  I have definitely fallen into this way of thinking.  I see people as being in need of repair, but as I thought more about it, I began to understand that it is not my job to fix someone.  It is my job to treat all whom I encounter with respect and dignity.  I am called to walk with them in the midst of their problems and be there for them on their journey.  Yes, I can offer ways to get help when I can, but ultimately it is the individual’s decision to take the chances and make the changes.  I learned that treating someone as a dignified and complete being is much more uplifting and powerful than treating someone as incomplete, damaged and in need of fixing.    
My next lesson came on our first day of serving the homeless.  We began at The Catholic Worker, which was a little nerve wracking because I set an expectation for myself, like I mentioned earlier.  Although I had a positive experience, I did not have any of these extended conversations with anyone who came to eat and I felt as though no barriers were truly broken down.  Later that evening, we went to Midnight Mission to serve another meal.  Midnight Mission is much larger than The Catholic Worker, equipped with a large serving line with those serving on one side and those receiving on the other side.  As I scooped potatoes onto the hungry individuals’ plates, I could not say much more than, “Hi, how are you?” and smile.  Not only was there a figurative barrier, but also a physical barrier.  I sort of checked out at and felt rather helpless.  What was I honestly doing for these people?  Yeah, I am putting food on their plate, but is my presence really making a difference?  I became pretty disappointed with myself and with the whole process.  I wanted to break down barriers!  I was supposed to treat these people with dignity and respect and really talk to them!  I got so down on myself and could not get the negativity out of my head.  
The meal ended soon after and the cleaning began.  I started to help in the dish pit and that is where I met Dan.  He was a middle-aged, Caucasian man who was working at a fast pace and yelling over the noisy dishwasher, giving various directions and tasks for me and a few others to do.  I completed all of the tasks and he complimented my ability to follow directions, saying that I was better than most of the guys that worked there (He was joking of course!).  Dan was very uplifting and a great leader in the kitchen.  He began to ask me about my school that was written across my T-shirt and about our group and what we are doing.  I explained to the best of my ability our objective as a group, feeling somewhat disappointed that I was not necessarily fulfilling those goals.  The very next moment, Dan began to express his gratitude and appreciation for our hard work.  He affirmed me and others like me who inspire him to get better and to be better.  I then learned that he is a member of Midnight Mission’s program and he is currently sober and getting his life back together.  I was shocked.  I just assumed he was a volunteer community member or someone who just worked there.  I had been moping around about not making an impact and not truly interacting with the people I was serving when I really was making an impact all along!  My whole mood changed and I realized that I was not as truly present as I should have been.  I now know that I am able to make a much stronger impact if only I actively stay present to the moment and situation that I am in.  Actions, even if they seem small, could have potentially large effects.  I had my eyes and my head elsewhere at Midnight Mission with my crazy expectations and hopes.  This caused me to miss what was right under my nose: Dan, the man who is strongly impacted and inspired to be better by me and other volunteers like me.   I learned to be present to the moment because those you are meant to help are there in your life. You just have to be watchful, open-minded and ready! 
“So how was LA?” you ask?  It was good. 

Thanks for reading!
Peace and love,

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Day 5: The Power of Community

Hey everybody, this is George and Charro from Chaminade (Go Swords!) and we'd like to share the story of our journey as we returned to Skid Row.

We woke up kind of early in order to prepare for the long yet fun filled day ahead of us. I (George) started off my day with a few bowls of triple rainbow Lucky Charms and a healthy dose of optimism (and sugar obviously). The drive to Downtown Los Angeles was a little cold and hazy, the buildings blurred in the distance. Arriving at the Union Rescue Mission (URM), I could see that it was a place that meant business; it had somewhat of an official feel to it. Once inside, we made our way to the kitchen and after dawning our hair nets, rubber gloves and aprons, we immediately began to help out with creating the breakfast plates. It was there that we met Rene. At first she seemed like any other volunteer that we'd met in the previous days, but then she shared her story with us; she had gone through the program at URM, was one of the successful people to completely finish and was currently a few years sober. She then instructed us on how to prepare the breakfast plates. At first we were a little slow and unsure of what to place where and how much of each food but Rene had the patience and took the time to help us out. As she said, "I might not be the boss, but I know how to work people." What seems like minutes later, we then had made an assembly line of hard boiled eggs, burritos and pastries and soon had created over 200 plates of food. Then it was time to open and masses of people started to line up, eagerly waiting to receive their breakfast. Handing them their plates, I soon realized that there was something different about these people from those I had met at the Catholic Worker earlier in the week. Here people seemed a little more at ease and more sure of what they wanted. After breakfast, Charro, Martin and I were given the opportunity to take a few boxes of the extra pastries and hand them out to the homeless down the street from URM. So we walked out the back door, with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts, ready to hand out delicious pastries. We walked just down to the corner but in that short distance, we met so many grateful people who were overjoyed to receive free baked goods and hospitality. Back in the kitchen we cracked dozens of eggs, opened cans of baked beans and opened packages of catfish and placed them on trays to defrost for lunch. After all of that we got to take a tour of the Union Rescue Mission with Marley. She showed us all of the different floors and  the variety of people that lived on each one. Some floors were specifically dedicated to only men while others were set aside for families and those with children. One floor even had a gym for recreational sports, a clothing center with a tailor and there were multiple laundry rooms spread out on each floor. We even got the privilege of getting to go on to the roof where they had a small garden and benches to sit on and relax throughout the day. Up there, we had a stunning view of downtown Los Angeles with all it's high business buildings and hotels. It was a breathtaking view and yet juxtaposing it was the overwhelming population of homeless aimlessly wandering the streets below. It was very sad to see such a beautiful city with that many homeless people, but it made me grateful to know that there are programs such as the Union Rescue Mission, Catholic Worker and Midnight Mission out there doing what they can to make a difference.

I (Charo) had some what of a different experience today down at Skid Row. I had the opportunity to go to Union Rescue mission in the morning for the second time this week, and also got to go to Catholic Worker. I found both of these organizations to be amazing, and although each organization provided me with a different experience, the feelings that I received from them were quite the same. I found my self feeling astonished and in awe of how much love and faith exists within these two different types of organizations that assist those on Skid Row. Although it was my second time this week at URM, I found the experience very different. This time I was able to see more of those that I was serving. and have a more face to face interaction with them. at Union I also got the privilege of getting to meet the young  woman name Rene who was in her sixties, who not only was a volunteer but also a participant in some of the programs at Union. Her story of her struggles amazed me and her power to love and motivation of paying it forward defiantly inspired me. When meeting Rene I felt that I was in the presence of one of God's angels. I could see God in her and it is in moments like this one on this trip that I feel help me grow in my faith and and become grateful to and learn from the struggles in my own life  just as Rene did. Also like George, I had the opportunity of passing out pastries to people out in the community of Skid Row. I must say the mental image of the peoples expressions after offering a pastry to them will never leave my mind.  It warmed my heart just to know that such a small act of kindness can really have a huge positive impact on someone's day. I also was able to experience the Catholic Worker organization on Skid Row. This community was some what different than Union because it worked more with those who are actually on the street rather than those who are in special programs. Although, I arrived later than the rest of my group to Catholic worker I still had the opportunity to sit down and talk to some of the people who come to the organization for a nice hot meal. One gentleman that I had the privilege of talking to shared with me his journey of coming to America in 1991, and also shared his struggles of being an illegal immigrant. What amazed me the most about him was not hearing about all of his struggles but was seeing that even though he struggled he still had a positive attitude and outlook on life. He shared with me that even though times are tough now he is in a better place than others in his home country of Mexico. I found myself not only only finding this positive attitude and love God in him but in most other people I met there at Skid Row. This amazed because throughout this week I have learned that Skid Row is not as terrifying as I had thought it would be. Instead I see as this amazing community in which people are going through a special moment in their lives in which are leading them into whatever future God  has planned for them.

Finally today we got to visit Junipero Serra High School, where we got an insight of what the Catholic community is doing to help the youth of Los Angeles. For me (Charro), this was an interesting opportunity for me because it gave me a perspective and kind of an idea of what Catholic based High Schools are like since I myself did not attend one. I must say I am learning so much on this trip, and not just about LA but also myself and who I want to be in my own community.

For me (George) it was really amazing to get to see how the past Marianist's culture influenced the high school; from the elegant grotto on the senior lawn to the tile mosaic of Father Chaminade and the magnificent chapel located within the school's halls. We also got to talk to Brother Skip, who attended Junipero Serra High School. Whenever he speaks, it's simply amazing to hear all of the knowledge and wisdom that he embodies and how willing he is to share it with any and everyone that he meets.

We then headed back home to Duarte to make our potluck dinner. Each of the universities (Chaminade, Dayton and St. Mary's) made a dish and the kitchen was soon filled with laughter, smiles and the smells of various foods floated through the air. Some of us even went outside and climbed the tree to pick lemons for our fresh lemonade. In the end we had a plethora of foods including salad, spam musubis, various enchilladas (chicken, beef and vegetarian) with rice and buckeyes and other chocolate dipped items like cookies and banana slices for dessert.

George and Charro

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Day 4: Bright Hearts, Bright Minds

Aloha, everyone! This is Faith, Joey, and Annie. After a long day of service yesterday, we were able to sleep in a bit and at 9 o'clock, we departed for San Gabriel Mission. This is one of the many histroic missions in LA. Here, we did something a little different than we have been. We broke into groups and spoke with each of our adult leaders about the Marianist charisms, leadership, and social justice. Br. Mark and Br. Brandon explained how charisms are gifts of the Holy Spirit that we can use to mold our own spirituality.  Brian helped us to reflect on how we can set goals and develop our own personal visions.  Later in the week, we're sharing our visions with each other. We talked with Mo about the difference between social justice and charitable works, and how they are different in that social justice goes beyond good deeds and aims to change systems that are in place.

San Gabriel Mission Bells
Next, we went to Dolores Mission and had lunch in the plaza. Dolores Mission is a parish and school that is located in Boyle Heights, one of the lowest income areas in LA. Their youth minister, showed us the church and told us about the history. Each night, they open their doors to up to 50 men in need of a place to stay. We were also given a tour of the school and later we were given the opportunity to work with the children. Dolores Mission has done a lot of work involving the security and academic success of the children in the community. Six years ago, a high school in the area had a graduation rate of 40%, and within two years, it improved to 60%, with the help of the Dolores Mission. The principal and assistant principal spoke to us about the history of the school and we were immediately struck by their passion and commitment to their students. We helped the kids with their homework and then played outside with them. It was interesting to see the progress that the students made throughout the day and really fun to interact with them.

Dolores Mission Church
Dinner with Jesuit Volunteers
One of the most challenging parts of this experience was working personally with the students. At the beginning, we were apprehensive about dealing directly with the children. They were very overwhelming and full of energy. Many did not want to focus on their homework and were eager to get out of the classroom, sometimes showing violence in the way they interacted with each other. However, it did get easier as the day progressed. By the end, we were able to cooperate with them and we all seemed to enjoy the experience.

We ended the day by having dinner with members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. We were treated to pupusas before reflecting on our experiences throughout the day and the week. We were really impressed with the dedication of these women and their enthusiasm for their work. Overall, today was, once again, a great experience and we look forward to the rest of the week.

God bless!
With love and prayers,
Joey Blankman, Faith Leasiolagi, and Annie Kyne

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Day Three Seeing Jesus Through the Eyes of the Poor

     Today our day started early at 5:30 AM and after a short breakfast we were split into two groups and sent to two different locations. The first was The Catholic Workers Group and the second was Union Rescue Mission. Both of these locations reside in the overpopulated Skid Row district located near downtown Los Angeles.
      At The Catholic Workers Group we were working at a soup kitchen that was affectionately named "The Hippie Kitchen" and we soon came to find out why. The majority of the workers that were involved in the sustaining of the Kitchen were a crowd of older folks who were probably well versed in the art of protesting and living in the Hippie era. The workers all had their own story to tell and a compassion for the work that they did, with an undescribable force that can only be fully understood watching it happen in real time. At one point during a prayer that was held before we started our work, we were informed of several workers who were not able to attend today, including a nun, because they were awaiting sentencing for protesting against the experimentation of nuclear weapons. This so blatenly shows how strong these heros stand to their convicitons. I am not sure if the workers knew it or not, but, the manner in which they serve this community the workers truely embrace and eminate the true passion and love that only Benedictine Hospitality can explain. There were several instances where I was so connected and could feel God's love and see his truely devine mercy in the eyes and the spirit of those that I was serving. The guests of the Hippie Kitchen are at a marvelous safe haven like atmosphere at this downtown location created by some of the most inspirational people I have been so honored to serve with.
       The second group showed up to Union Rescue Mission and were quickly transferred to the industrial-style kitchen designed to serve hundreds of the participants in the URM programs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From around 7:00 AM to about 10:30 AM, our group loaded trays upon trays of meatballs that would be used in a mushroom cream sauce we would later eat for lunch with noodles. The regular workers in the kitchen then assigned us to a very exciting and sometimes fragile project: cracking tens of dozens of eggs into buckets that would later be used for another dish later, perhaps for dinner. Even though it was slimy and slippery work, many of us greatly improved our egg-cracking skills, I certainly did. This took a long time, the eggs just kept coming. When we finally finished with that, we washed our hands and moved on to dicing up potatoes that were to be boiled later. We worked alongside a group of Notre Dame law students who we had a chance to talk to at lunch later. Without using more than three words, the chef of the kitchen taught us how to diced these massive potatoes like pros, removing any rough spots from the skin. We really had a system going, some of us would pass potatoes to each other like in the 'hot potatoe' game, and then we would dice them up. The final, most painstaking, yet most fulfilling part of our job in the kitchen was chopping up softball-sized white onions. After picking up demo by the quiet but wise chef, we were hacking away at the flaky vegetables, but very safely: no fingers were lost in the process. However, within five minuters we were all teary-eyed from the strong chemicals in the onion, it was quite a spectacle. But just as with everything else, we got used to our work and our proficiency at onion-chopping noticeably improved by the time the task was complete. I was privilegede enough to use my newfound vegetable-chopping skills when were returned to Santa Teresita that night to prepare a very healthy Mexican dish that included onions. We were all happy to be more confident with our cutlery as we chopped up a variety of vegetables for the snack. So, while in the moment at Union Rescue Mission our toils in the kitchen may have seemed like a hastle, it was preparing us for putting together that snack that night, perhaps it was just another part of God's great plan. Maybe the btter part though was that the seemingly small contribution that we made was receieved most graciously by the kitchen workers who would dish out our efforts to the UMR participants later on: we helped in an essential part of life: preparing a meal to share in, something that all humans take part in at some point.
       The next segement of our time at Union Rescue Mission was far more laid back. We were given a tour of the Mission from bottom floor all the way to the roof by a very kind lady. Honestly, we were exhausted from our time in the kitchen and the early start to the day, and the lady understood that extremely well. And for that reason, the tour went very well. She took us past the UCLA medical clinic and the USC dental clinic, where participants health is tended to. We peeped in on the men's living quarters, sufficient and yet humble. The roof was one of the most eye-opening parts of the day, from there we could see the streets of Skid Row lined with the destitute and homeless. Without moving our eyes, we could see the glimmering skyscrapers of the LA skyline. And behind that were the mountains which were hushed by the hazy smog created by that omnipresent LA pollution. Yet, in  the garden on the roof, tomatoes ripened and honey bees buzzed from the flowers of basil plants to other herbs nearby. Meanwhile, ravens croaked overhead. And with that, our time at UMR came to a close, and we returned to the ground floor. I was awestricken by the sheer magnitude and closeness of homelessness in Skid Row. It is a cycle of life ravaged by drugs and abuse, yet assisiance abounds fo those who search it out. It is the searching that maikes the difference.
      We spent our evening at the Midnight Mission that was located adjacent to Union Rescue Mission both of our groups met up there to complete our final task of the day. As we got up there we met up with Brother Skip Matthews where we found out that he was a regular and well known by the workers and the guests. We learned that there was only a 25% success rate for those homeless men that apply to stay at Midnight Mission to get back on their feet. Which is relatively high compared to the average rate of 9% success rate around the courtry. The tour guide of Midnight was relating how the guests gain knowledge and a sense of self worth is similar to that of a cell phone signal. At first the guests are at a one bar, or have no signal, however, with the help of Midnight they have the opportunity to gain the full four to five bars, which is to only to be gained after they leave Midnight with a successful career. After our tour of the facilities of Midnight Mission we finally got down to work and began to start serving their guests. We each had our own stations on the serving line for feeding the guests. We worked diligently and quickly making small converstation with those able to hold a converstation and with in no time were finished with our work. After we finished our work we had dinner with some the of workers from Midnight and began to learn about them and we got to understand them on a more intimate level. With each story we became spellbound in the amazing and awe inspiring lives that they have led and continue to lead. Once we got home we conducted a prayer service that included praying aloud what we were thankful for and what we have learned and for the people we have met. However, amongst the mix of all these blessed prayers we all realized that there was one single theme that was common: today no matter what the story, they face, the background, or the language spoken, we were able to see the grace of God through the eyes of the poor.

Martin and Peter

Monday, January 6, 2014

Day Two

Our morning adventures began with a full belly of the famous Vietnamese dish Pho and insight into the life of an inspiring individual. We all gathered around a long table at the well known Vietnamese restaurant to indulge in the Asian culture. The dish of rice noodles with beef and the company of Mr. Chan filled our stomachs and hearts with warmth. This man had only known us for a short amount of time, yet treated us like any true Marianist would, like family. He shared his struggles of escaping North Korea during a time of religious persecution and communist take over. Mr. Chan's story sounded unbelievable with the amount of people who died in front of him during his immigration. The boat he took to America was small with over a 100 people who lived with out water and food for three weeks. It was a miracle that he survived. Mr. Chan's bravery and courage was striking, and looking at him now, no one could ever tell he had a past of suffering. He made a joke at the end of our meal which explains his journey, "I came to America weighing 116 lbs, then I weighed 125 lbs, then 135 lbs, then 150 lbs, and now I weigh 175 lbs. I guess it is a sign of a good life." Mr. Chans gratefulness was inspiring, the joy that he now possesses is admirable and our venture to the restaurant Pho 87 will never be forgotten.

The hospitality we received by Mr. Chan was only the beginning to a wonderful day ahead of us. After having some wonderful Pho and hearing many stories, the groups made its way down to a battered womens center where once again greated with immense hospitality, and were able to learn about suffering, courage and hope. The first thing we did at this center was to hang out and play with the children who reside there temporarily. Some of us played a very competitive game of soccer while others took advantage of the playground and time to talk with the children. Some of us were having more fun than the children. It was a good way to burn off some of the Pho we ate earlier. All of the children at the location had been abused in one way or another, yet served as a reminder of hope. We also did some inventory at the facility. We had a lot of fun picking through the different fair trade toys and materials made all over the world. Many of us were impressed with how creative these objects were. Because of how many of us there were we were able to do the task in a short amount of time. The sisters were thankful for our help, but it was nothing in comparison to what we gained from their stories and hospitality. They most definitely hold a place in our prayers.

We can't wait to see what tomorow has to bring us!!
Mariana and Lindsey

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Together at Last

Good Evening!! It is Morgan (from Dayton) and Bridget (from St. Mary's)!! It is 10:30 pm here in LA. After the Dayton group getting delayed a day due to airplane issues and what not, we finally made it this morning!! We instantly began getting to know each other and clicked pretty quickly and started forming a beautiful community right away (#Marianist). While the rest of the group was waiting for the UD people to arrive they went to mass on the property where we are staying. They said mass was great and got a special greeting from the priest that called them students from Ohio but obviously none of the Ohio students were there hahaa. Once the Dayton crew got to Santa Teresita, our home for the next week, we raided the kitchen for food since we hadn't eaten all day!! Once everyone got back, we began with prayer and then a little "would you rather" game to break the ice allowing us to see where we were all at with this trip and where we have been before this trip! It was really cool and we really began to get to know each other. We then loaded up into our three minivans and headed to downton LA where we stopped at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels. Brother Brandon Paluch lead us in a reflection of all the Saints that decorated the walls of the Cathedral on a series of beautiful and amazing tapestries. He really enforced that we have everything we need to be a saint and we should strive everyday, especially this week, to be saints. It was a place of some needed prayer for some of us and a great place of reflection and reconnection with God. Our next stop was the Marianist brother's house in West Hills. We were warmly greeted outside of the house and like always, it felt like home. They had snacks waiting for us which thank goodness because here came a bunch of hungry college kids =) Soon enough the pizza was delivered and we had a very fulfilling meal along with some great community building with each other and the brothers. There were also some guests from Chaminade High School. After dinner, the brothers introduced themselves and their history in the Marianist family. Then, they allowed us to share all of our journey's...where we came from and how we got to where we are today and how we have gotten to know the Marianists. Like Lindsey mentioned tonight, we have all come from all different backgrounds and walks of life and will continue to all live different lives but we all have one thing in common: we strive to live out the Marianist charisms in our daily lives...that is just so amazing!! Once our time with the brothers was over, we packed back into the minivans, and were sent off by the brothers from the driveway. We headed back on our hour long journey home, made some tea, and met for evening prayer where we journaled about where we saw God in today. Some of us shared about the community we're starting to build, about the feeling of family, and the faith and support we have in each other, to name a few. We are all very tired and are ready to get rested tonight in order to have an epic first day of service tomorrow!! We are all so excited to discover what God has in store for us the rest of this week. Continue to keep us in your prayers as we keep learning about others, ourselves, and God.

peace, love, and Marianists,
Morgan and Bridget

Some photos to document today...
Brother Brandon leading us in reflection at the Cathedral.

The group outside of the Cathedral.

The West Hills Community.

Us listening to their beautiful stories.