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,