Week 2 – Caylin

It’s not surprising to me that I’ve gone six days without blogging again… I definitely regret not finding time sooner to post again, but I can’t complain about the reasons why. Most people could, probably, considering these reasons include days that start at 6:30 AM (AKA waking up at 4:30 AM). But not I! I think that I’ve thoroughly convinced Liam and others working at BSM that I’m a bit of a weirdo since I have been consistently arriving earlier than planned and truly wiggling my way into their community. The good news about that is that I don’t think they mind! Sadly, tomorrow is my last day as the temporary “intern-worm.” But now is not the time to discuss that, now is the time to reflect on the entire week that’s passed since my last post.

While last week was filled with discovery, this week was much more filled with disillusionment. Disillusionment is often cast as a very negative term, but I don’t mean it as so. I just mean that I found more than once that my first impressions of parts of BSM and the people who live and work in BSM were skewed. And so my idealistic, simplistic understanding of what BSM is all about fell short even by Sunday evening and continued to be challenged throughout the week. I was disillusioned from my idea that I got the picture, and through this I think that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the work they do and the people who co-exist at the crossroads that is BSM.

Sunday was my third worship service. Previous to this worship service, I had walked away from the church after service feeling rather alienated by my own beliefs and a little bit wrong for having sat in with such a wonderfully faithful community while having confidence in my own, different, faith. BSM is a completely open community to those who are open to it, which I am, but it’s hard to feel completely comfortable in the midst of people who have something in common that you do not. To empower this feeling further, the topics of the previous worship services were ones that not only were hard for me to understand, but also that I felt did not bode well with BSM’s mission. But this Sunday, the topic was based on of the idea of mysticism and the “mystery of God,” both ideas which I definitely find myself more in tune with. In addition with feeling that I understood the sermon and the entire vibe of the evening, the music was absolutely fantastic and in the midst of it all I had a very strange, emotional conversation with a man who is a resident of the overnight cafe. So I walked away from this service feeling really spiritually charged. I think the disillusionment here was in the exclusivity of the church. I had always felt that being a Christian was either all-in or all-out, and really, at least in the eyes of BSM, it doesn’t have to be like that at all.

On Monday, I ran the mail service with the help from another volunteer, Kevin. I love helping with the mail service. The coolest part was being able to help people to sign up for the mail service. There were about 5 people who came in to sign up to make 315 S Broad their address, and so I would explain the rules, help them fill out the quick paper work, and give them a moment to just relax or to talk. A lot of the people who sign up for the mail service are in a time of transition, whether it is just becoming homeless, leaving a shelter, becoming homeless for a second or third time, or something else. This means that the majority of them really needed a moment to gather themselves. It was nice to hear from a few of them that just taking a moment to sit and talk with them made them feel a little bit calmer. But something interesting is that one woman had a strong complaint about the cafe. This was a huge disillusionment for me, as I had not seriously considered the perception that the people we helped had of BSM. It stayed on my mind a lot throughout the week, as I started to see not only what BSM does but what BSM sometimes fails to do.

After that, I stayed in Philadelphia to help with and attend Last Mondays, the monthly art performance by a Philadelphia art group Hybridge Arts Collective (which was fantastic).

Tuesday was a nice day. The biggest things that happened were two meetings, one with Liam and one with Erica. Meeting with Liam has been a challenge simply because I always feel like our meetings end before I’ve actually gotten to say what I mean to. I’ve attempted to translate to him what I’m getting out of my internship and I don’t think I’ve actually done so very well. But that’s okay, maybe it just takes more time and reflection before I can really articulate. My meeting with Erica went well. Liam helped me to set up meetings with almost everyone on staff so I can really get an idea of what piece they bring to the BSM puzzle and how it all fits together, and she is a pretty significant piece of that.

Wednesday was another one of those long days. I got to BSM around 7 AM and didn’t leave until around 7 PM. It was also a good day. I worked the extended hours again, which was great since I actually know most of the people who are there in the morning now and it feels like a really familiar space. I talked to Liam about the woman who complained to me about the staff at the Cafe on Monday in an attempt to understand what initiatives BSM takes to gather feedback from guests about what they do well/not so well. They held a forum a while ago to get feedback, but it did not go so well. This could be because of the extent to which mental illness is a part of the Cafe experience. I haven’t really touched on the mental illness part of BSM’s guests, mostly because it was another huge disillusionment for me. I want to talk more about it in conjunction with Breaking Bread and Friday’s extended hours, but first I want to finish Wednesday.

After the morning we had a training course in how to identify and deal with issues of domestic violence. This was really interesting, because the last VTGS meeting was centered on the same topic. (VTGS is the service learning course held at BSM that Liam runs). So I had been to a panel on the same subject, but I was excited to engage in discussion about it with a completely different group of people.
After this, we had a staff meeting. The best part of that was getting to babysit Joshua when he got fussy. His mom is a hugely integral part of the staff (not to mention awesome), so I jumped to give her a break while they finished up the business of staff meetings.

I did some menial work until around 6:30 PM, when it was time for the “No Holds Barred” bible study. Before this, I told Liam I was nervous, and the last time I went to a bible study was in 7th grade because they offered free donuts. My biblical knowledge is so lacking that it’s a little bit embarrassing in a religious environment, but he told me that it was fine and I could just view it as a “sociological experiment.” So I went, and as we began, I decided to actively engage, and sort of throw what little I knew on the table and see what held up. This was really interesting. When we first began, I read over the passage and didn’t see any significance to it. By the end, I think I understood most of the subtext. I wish I was going to service on Sunday to see what the sermon focuses on.

Thursday was Breaking Bread. I want to focus only on the mental illness bit I was talking about a little earlier. I wrote a while ago about the man I met at extended hours and how excited I was to connect with him. I learned soon after that day that he had some sort of mental illness. He seems to be OCD about things that don’t exist. Dirty city air getting everyone sick, snake venom on seats, dirt getting inside of his shoes and making him sick. As I’ve spent more time with him, I’ve seen it become more and more a part of my perception of him, which makes me a little bit sad. It’s amazing, however, that when he comes to talk to me, he really tries to act normal. He passes off his OCD as “everyone feels that way, you know?” or just avoids the topic completely. Mental illness is a part of almost everyone who BSM works with, whether it is a personality disorder, bipolar, OCD, schizophrenia, or something else. It’s really made me aware of how complex homelessness is.

Today, I worked extended hours again. I wish it wasn’t my last time for a while, as it feels really good to be on first-name basis with a bunch of the guests. I’m really going to miss the people I’ve met here, both staff and guests.

Tomorrow is my last day 😦 I’m going to the VTGS class, even though no one else from Westtown is… it feels sort of anti-climactic to end with the class, instead of a breaking bread or worship service or something that really lets me see the entire community before I leave. I guess it’s a fitting end, since the class is really what brought me in to BSM.

I know I didn’t really get to my “deeper understand of what BSM is,” but I am exhausted and need to go to bed! Look for a reflection post in a few days!

Caylin

Days 2 through 4 – Caylin

Every day at BSM introduces a whole new aspect of the organization to me. Which is awesome, but pretty intimidating to blog about after I let 3 days get away from me. But it’s also a good sign that I haven’t had time to blog for the past three days; it means I’m busy doing more pressing things and haven’t had a moment to sit and reflect. Anyway, today was reasonably easy and I was only there from 9:30 to 3. So, I’ve had a bit of relaxation throughout the afternoon, and now am relaxing even more at a friend’s house and boring her to death as I attempt to backtrack and reflect on everything that’s happened. I think it’s best to attack this day by day…

Tuesday: 10 AM-4 PM
Brittany showed me how the mail service works, so that I will be able to run it by myself next Monday. The best thing about the mail service, to me, is of course the face-to-face interaction with clients who use it. This was the first real interaction I’ve had with multiple homeless men and women through BSM, beyond dinner conversations during No Barriers Dinners and the like. Brief description of the mail service: it’s a program for people who do not have a viable address at which they can receive mail. BSM hosts over 300 people through the mail service. But one woman in particular struck me. I wrote something about it on the train ride home, really quickly, in order to not forget the details.

“They stole my medicine… they attacked me and stole my medicine. They will never fix this, the way they are doing things… they always attack me…” I hear her words before I even see her. Her voice is smooth and calm, yet disconnected. She enters the room with the same disconnected look in her eyes, wrapped in layer upon layer of leggings, scarfs, skirts, shirts, jacket, and hat. Her arms cradle a worn paper bag. “They stole my long underwear… it is too cold to walk to get any… I don’t have the money. It is too far, and they will attack me… I don’t look bad and I don’t do anything bad… but they attack me. In Athens, my husband’s property… it was in my name. But they took it and they took my long underwear. I’m here for my mail, do I have any mail?” Brittany greets her and looks for her mail. There is none today. I close my laptop and listen. “The same people who ruined my career, lost my money, they stole my medicine and ruined my long underwear. They attack me.” She stands in front of the desk as a man walks into the room behind her. He recognizes her and sits down, waiting for her to turn and leave. She doesn’t. She continues to speak in circles, pleading and gesticulating gently, and I stare at the wall in front of me. Brittany knows better than to interrupt. She continues for a few more slow, uncomfortable minutes, until she slowly backs out of the office, speaking in the same even, empty voice. As she turns out of the room, the man quietly picks up his mail and follows her to the door. He exits, and she stands in the doorway, out of sight, lost in her story.

It might seem like this encounter stuck with me just because of how strange and uncomfortable it was. But the one thing that got to me, more than anything else, was when she mentioned a “career.” Wow, she hasn’t always been this woman. Wow, this personality is a condition, a situation, an experience. Yet it has permeated her soul and affected her entire life. It blows my mind how things change for people. I’ve met people who’ve been homeless for years, for weeks, and even for only three days. And each story, however fragmented, broken, or false, is a testimony to humanity’s unfailing impermanence and the unjust nature of every day life. You know, that whole “life isn’t fair,” deal we all have to accept at one point or another.

Wednesday: 7 AM-9 PM

Wednesday was madness. I, of course, as the new intern, had a ball. But most of the staff were quite stressed out. Which is understandable! For some reason, around 5 events were planned for Wednesday night. The schedule we were handed at the staff meeting, which covered the late afternoon to end-of-the-night activities, was a page and a half long. A quick definition of the main event: No Barriers Dinner. NBD is a once-monthly community dinner, set up in the sanctuary, in which all are invited to participate in a dinner that is designed to break down barriers and build bridges between peoples who wouldn’t normally have the chance to connect. It rocks. You get to feel completely confident to sit down at a table filled with strangers, cause everyone else is doing it too, and jump into a conversation about anything and everything. But before I get to that, let’s start at 7 AM.

I came in so early to assist with the extended hours of 315 Cafe, which is BSM’s overnight homeless shelter. Not actually designated as a homeless shelter, the Cafe is designed to give people who are not able to find places in actual homeless shelters a place to stay. During a Code Blue (concerning weather and temperature), which it was on Tuesday night, around 75 people are allowed to stay at BSM. This was another amazing spot for me, as it offers the chance for a lot of connection with people. Because the people living at the cafe are allowed to stay until noon during the extended hours, many are more than willing to get involved in long conversations, art projects, or are just content to continue to sleep or watch a movie. I met a really sweet man and we talked for a pretty long time about a variety of random subjects. Wrestling, lacrosse, horseback riding, motorcross, where we live and where we grew up, stories from high school, pitbulls. This was my first chance to make a real connection, and it is so awesome now to see him at other events and be able to greet him by name, pull up a chair and feel like I am really a part of the community now that I know more people than just the staff.

The afternoon was filled with a lunch with Liam (which was great, he always has really good insight and is an intimidating conversationalist), a long and dull staff meeting (which was fine because what else are staff meetings supposed to be?), and hurried work to finish setting up for the NBD and volunteer fair and movie showing and choir practice and whatever else. During NBD, I sat at a table which initially felt really awkward and quiet. No one was interested in participating in a conversation, and I felt really intimidated and only tried, weakly, once or twice to engage them. But as the meal continued a few more people joined the table and all of a sudden I was thrust into this amazing conversation with two of the men at the table. Both residents of the cafe, they were open about their stories, how they got to where they are today, and their entire lives basically. The connection we felt was huge, on my part and theirs. This is the magic of NBD. We went down to the volunteer fair separately, but wound up together again and quickly heavy into another conversation. I realized something really important about myself through all of this: I fancy myself a “people person,” but it was hard for me to put myself out there. I am so used to people being inquisitive towards me that it was hard for me to start the conversation in an effective way. What a cool thing to notice. While it’s exemplary of my own egoist ways, it also rocks, because it gives me something to work on personally for the next week which will help me to become a better person in general.

Thursday: 9:30 AM-3 PM

Today was Breaking Bread. Breaking Bread is a lot like NBD, except it extends beyond a meal and is much more oriented towards people who are either homeless or in need of clothing, personal supplies, or simply human interaction. I worked in the third floor balcony, directing and helping a bunch of other high school seniors in organizing the absolute chaos that has resulted from the donations BSM has gathered over the years. These donations make up the clothing closet, which is a place for those who need clothing to come, browse, and take up to five items. It was hard for me at first to be working with high school kids, who are people I feel that I understand and am not often inspired by, while I knew that the people I had met yesterday and so many more were downstairs eating and interacting. But I got over it, since I knew how important it was to sort the donations. We worked there for about two hours, but then Jere, the personal care coordinator at BSM, asked me to help him within the Clothing Closet for the last hour of Breaking Bread, which was so awesome. It was a lot like being a personal shopper, in some weird world that would be run by thrift stores, and it was fun interacting with people in a way that it was really easy to make jokes about certain pieces of clothes and lighten up the mood. I saw the man I met at Wednesday’s extended hours again, which was awesome, and I met a bunch of other people. So all in all, my frustrations were answered.

A short reflection:

I love this internship. What I’ve been doing is what I want to do with my life. I could write about this forever and not even get to the really important stuff (obviously). Conversation is a really significant thing. Breaking down the barriers that are complete constructs of our culture is actually enlightening. And to circle back to the idea of hope I touched on last time: so many of the people I’ve met have pointed towards scripture or a member of the staff as the light at the end of their tunnel. They’ve spoken about how they’ve just held a staff member’s hand or gaze as they talked through an issue, and it helped them to turn their lives around. It is all just another example of how empowering support, hope, and another’s love (spiritual or interpersonal) can be, and I can see how, for so many people, faith can be a powerful foundation for this love.

-Caylin

PS- sorry for how long this is! Usually I would try to condense it in some way, but it is almost midnight and I plan to be on the road to be in Philadelphia by 5:50 AM tomorrow morning. So sleep is my most pressing desire. And expect pictures of: the church, funny staff members, an adorable baby, and some really amazing people sometime in the near-to-far future!

Counting down the days…

Hey! I’m Caylin, nice to meet you. I’m not going to lie, hearing about some of my classmate’s plans for their international, culturally stimulating senior projects gets me a little bit jealous… But in all honestly, I feel that what I’ve chosen to do is the perfect answer for the questions I’ve been asking myself lately. And I took quite a trip even getting to the point where I could hand in any of the required information to T. Cindy (things like location, or topic). Some of my rejected plans include: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, working in an orphanage in Romania, and working on a mustang ranch in Arizona. Each idea didn’t work out for one reason or another (mostly because I am stubborn, have a severe aversion to decision-making, and get silly premonitions about things).  But anyways, after all of my friends told me that they were tired of hearing my new Senior Project ideas that were “definitely it this time!”, and T. Steve sent me a few of his “get it together” emails, I sat down with my adviser to figure out what it really was I wanted in a senior project.

That’s when things started coming together. I’m incredibly lucky to have traveled to as many places as I have, and even luckier to be attending a college next year that will allow me to travel to about seven more by the time I earn my B.A. But someone said to me, during the planning process, that “this project is a chance to do something that you haven’t done before.” It feels much more organic for me to stay close to home, and I definitely want to avoid taking a senior project “vacation” at all costs. So, Philadelphia is my location.

While climbing a mountain sounds monumental, and working with mustangs sounds like fun, those things aren’t really what  I would consider myself passionate about. It’s always a little awkward for me when I’m asked about what I am passionate about, because my answer isn’t a typical hobby. It isn’t playing music, or food, or writing, or running, or a sport, or theatre. It’s people, culture, stories, and the idea of “collective consciousness” that I like talking about so much. I love the fact that I live in the same city as people who have so many thing to share that I’ve never ever dreamed about, and yet we are still alike in so many ways and have such a vast capacity to learn from each other. It is something that I don’t feel the need to travel to a different country to understand and experience. So, that, in a weird, complicated nutshell, is my topic.

I guess I should explain exactly what I am doing during my senior project. I’m lucky enough to have a connection, through a class I take with students from Westtown and three other schools, with a really cool not-for-profit organization in Philadelphia called Broad Street Ministry. An open-minded faith community, BSM sort of embodies the answer to the questions that have been swimming around my head this year. What is the role of faith in the larger community? What brings people together, or sets them apart? How do you bridge cultural gaps, be they lingual, religious, economical, racial, environmental, or any other? A part of BSM’s mission, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that “we meet you where you are at.” There is no preconceived notion that anyone walking through the ministry’s beautiful doors has any religious experience, background, or beliefs of any sort. They do, they don’t, they aren’t sure- it’s considered extraneous. It’s about providing a service to our city, a place to seek shelter, community, warmth, food, art, and conversation for people from all social classes and backgrounds. It’s about bringing people together and giving them the space to learn from each other and build bridges across these societal gaps. Also, Broad Street Ministry works to raise awareness between people through service. I personally believe that service is the most effective way to put people in a situation from which they learn from others, whether it is from stepping outside of your comfort zone or facing a problem which you hadn’t focused on before.

I asked Liam, the Arts Marshal at BSM and the teacher of the Service Learning class I take there, if I could become a part of the community for two weeks. He accepted, and ever since then I’ve been happily driving into Philadelphia as much as possible, attending whatever events I can get to and slowly getting to know what Broad Street Ministry is all about. When my project starts, I’ll be able to actually start volunteering, doing things ranging from helping with the mail service, to organizing the clothing closet, to attending and helping at Breaking Bread and a No Barriers Dinner.

I think the reason that I am so excited to start my senior project is that I’ve found an organization that I really feel is doing straight-forward, honest work, and just trying to be all that it can be. There is no falseness there, from what I’ve experienced. I am so excited to see that the passion I’ve cultivated, what I would call human interaction, service, and community building, is shared by others in such effective means. It’s going to be really awesome getting to work with Broad Street Ministry and gaining knowledge of Philadelphia from such diverse perspectives.