Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

The following is a reflection written by Erin Buckley, one of this year's volunteers living at the North House.

I walk down the street, balancing two Styrofoam cups in my hands—in my left, water, in my right, Diet Coke. The sun glints off the snow, and I am glad to be approaching my destination, the apartment of one of the elders I visit through my work with Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. For although on this afternoon, January 13, Chicago is feeling temperatures above freezing for the first time in the new year, the cold creeps into my fingers. I carry a paper bag with an A&P corned beef sandwich on rye bread with mustard, and a wrap for myself. I am pleased to deliver such a specific lunch request to Luretta. (Note: name changed to protect privacy.)

Luretta buzzes me into her building and greets me at her door with a bright green and yellow sunflower sweater and a smile. I unload my goods, strip off my coat, sit beside her, and we catch up about Christmas and New Year’s. As we talk, I admire the display across the room from me—a Michella Obama doll in her glittering white inauguration gown, two smooth-faced dolls, a framed portrait of a uniformed woman holding a miniature space shuttle, presumably the first African American female astronaut. The scene looks similar to many of the shrine-like displays at the apartments I visit on Chicago’s South Side. The prominence of the Obama family among these shrines is rivaled only by portraits of Jesus Christ, and sometimes Mary.

Two bronze busts of Martin Luther King, Jr., nestled amongst the pictures, prompt me to ask Luretta if she had heard Martin Luther King, Jr., speak at Soldier Field in the 1960’s. I had learned of this event the previous day in speaking to an elder. Yes, she nods, she’d been there, and it was a hot day. “And didn’t Martin Luther King, Jr., live in Chicago for a while?” Yes, she confirms this.

Luretta seems a little more relaxed today. Perhaps it is the heavy sandwich which makes her space her thoughts a little more. After an hour or so, I leave Luretta’s with a Styrofoam cup holding an aloe Vera sprout, which she gave me from a plant burgeoning on her windowsill.

This year has been a year of building specific, intentional relationships with particular people in nooks and crannies throughout this city. Today, as I exit Luretta’s building, I think about winter, about warmth, about black and white. Also, I think about blindness. Luretta is 74 years old, has been blind for 5 years, and she lives alone. For Christmas, she was delighted to receive a 9-tape recorded set of the New Testament. I have no doubt that she has also heard the passage from the Old Testament, Isaiah Ch. 42: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”

Today, as it was in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time, Chicago is one of the most segregated major cities in the country. Like many of my roommates, I am grateful for a job that affords me the opportunity to interact with people of different backgrounds and cultures than myself this year. If you were to see us, you might not think that Luretta and I share much in common. I am so fortunate to be able to visit this woman with a strong faith and a joyful spirit, this woman who cannot see me, who allows me to fulfill my job description every time I call her “friend.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Here We Are

The following is a reflection written by Beth Johnson, one of this year's Volunteers living at the South House.

Here we are! The year 2010 is upon us, and to be honest, it’s a year I hadn’t really thought much about before it came knocking on my door just a couple of weeks ago. As the clock struck 12:00 this year, to put it candidly, the thought that ran through my head was, “Whoa--here we go, ready or not-- onto a new decade??!”

The lack of planning may have been due to the fact that 2009 had been such a milestone year for me and many other Amate volunteers. With the goal of graduating college and moving on toward new adventures in mind, perhaps we failed to look beyond the present excitement of our goals playing out. Or maybe it was the fact that the year “20-10” just seemed like something straight out of a movie filled with robots and flying cars…too far off in the distance to really imagine it. But regardless, we are here now, and so far I have enjoyed looking toward the future-- full steam ahead, and with great optimism about what it has to offer each one of us.

Despite the confusion I have experienced in relation to just how it is we got to this point so quickly, I am overwhelmed with the number of new things in my life that I can be so thankful for. The changes I have experienced throughout the latter half of 2009 have brought my life an abundance of new experiences and relationships, and for that I am grateful.

During my time at Amate House, I have been living in the community’s South House, which is located in the McKinley Park neighborhood of Chicago, and my work has been with preschoolers at the Academy of St. Benedict the African School (A.S.B.A.). This school is located on the west side of the city’s Englewood neighborhood, a neighborhood that faces a tremendous amount of poverty and a prevalent theme of violence.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect when I walked into my classroom for the first time in August. Was I even going to like the preschool setting? Would I be patient enough, generous enough, loving enough to meet the needs of my 3, 4, and 5 year old students, some of which are experiencing the school setting for the very first time?

Throughout my time with the 23 children that I have had the cherished opportunity to teach, I can tell you that my fears and anxieties have put to rest, not by walking into this experience with ease, but rather by learning from the lively, patient, ever-loving spirits of my students that not any one person is perfect, but that if we’re in it together, we can make light out of any situation, circumstance, or shortcoming that takes place both in the classroom and out of it.

Many of my students come from backgrounds that I will never be able to fully grasp. Throughout our time together though, I have enjoyed walking alongside them as they grow into, as they say, “big kids!”, or as I see them, into confident, strong-willed, and resilient young people.

It is from them that I have learned the lessons I would like to carry with me into the new year…First that no matter what happens today, there is always the opportunity for a fresh start tomorrow. Second, there is nothing a hug and an honest apology shouldn’t be able to fix, and third, we are all human, we all make mistakes (wet our pants, trip over our snow pants, cry when we wake up from naptime)….so why not treat ourselves and each other with a little extra love?

So, with that, I hope that no matter where this new year finds you, that ready or not, you can move into 2010 with peace in your heart and simplicity in your soul, as you remember to treat yourself gently, just as my preschoolers have so lovingly taught me to do.