Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Touring Life: A Tale of Two Cities

This week has been quite unique... and it's only Tuesday.  In  the course of the last two days I've given two detailed tours of my neighborhood and of my [adopted] city.  These two tours were similar in a lot of ways- they were given via car, involved a whole lot of talking on my part (see: the sore throat I'm developing), and they gave me new insight into my life and the place in which I choose to live it.  They also both mark a collision of two worlds- a convergence of my life in Philly, which is tied up with my journey towards religious life, and my former life from college.  Really, those lives are the same, except they've happened to the same person on two separate plains.

This week two friends from college have come to visit me in Philly. The first, James, is now a theology teacher at a all-boys high school in Massachusetts.  He was traveling with a few of his students over their winter break on a service and advocacy trip that brought them to Philadelphia as they make their way circuitously to Washington D.C. learning about urban poverty, decline, and social injustice along the way.  I met the group (four students and one other chaperone) at the Covenant House of Philadelphia where they'd spent the morning learning about CH's mission and taking part in the organization's valuable work by sorting donations and helping around the site.  From there, I took the boys to get cheesesteaks, a Philadelphia must, and then we embarked on the second half of the day- a three hour tour.

To help illustrate the topics that the group had already heard about in Camden the day before and the state of Kensington, we began our journey in Mount Airy and moved our way down Germantown Avenue.  As long time readers of this blog would know, this is a journey I myself am familiar with and which was shared with me when I first arrived in the city as a volunteer.  It basically traces one of the oldest and longest roads in the city; it also traces the movement of wealth out of the city and the abandonment of certain neighborhoods over time.  As you ride down Germantown Avenue, you can watch the city change.  Homes that are majestic in one neighborhood are decrepit in the next. With every few blocks, the bars on the windows change shape, exchanging flourishes and adornments for practicality and brute strength.

Driving from Mount Airy through Germantown to Kensington provides a brief glimpse into this shift, and for the purposes of this tour (and James's group), our truncated excursion would do just fine in illustrating key points.

Once in Kensington, I showed the group the community center, explained our mission and programs, and then we walked our way around the block to the church.  After a brief tour and glimpse into the beauty of Visitation's upper church, we hopped back into the van to take a driving tour of Kensington.  Paradoxically there is a lot to see in Kensingotn but there also isn't. I asked the teenage girl manning the center's front desk what she thought I should share with the group on our tour and she honestly couldn't come up with anything, except for a little chuckle at the idea of a tour.

"The Coca-cola factory?" I suggested.
"Yeah, I guess." She replied.
 "How about the B St. Bridge or K&A?" I continued.
"Ummm that could work" she retorted half-heartedly.
"Anywhere else you think I should show them?" I asked in a last ditch effort.
"Not that I can think of, I think that's about it" she replied, her voice and expression conveying a genuine desire to help me out but also a real bewilderment at what exactly to show outsiders on a tour of the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, we toured the neighborhood- the murals, the social supports, the trash, the drugs, the factories, the developments, the devolution. We saw it all and before I knew it we were done. Leaving me off at the corner of Kensington and Lehigh, the boys continued on their journey headed towards Washington D.C.

Today, my friend Kristen arrived in Philadelphia.  Here for a conference, her visit is much different than James's and so was her tour.  Arriving at the center via the El this morning, she hopped in my car and we headed off to the Welcome Center. I pointed out the corner of Somerset and Kensington, sharing fun facts about heroin and tidbits picked up while living in the neighborhood. Soon enough conversation moved to mutual friends, updates on life, and just general enjoyment of each other's company as I showed her around my "new" home and got her settled in before I returned to work.

After work and dinner, Kristen and I headed out to explore the town.  Driving across North Philadelphia, we chatted less about the landscape than about life in general.  We then made our way down to the Schuylkill River, driving along MLK Boulevard, and making our way to the parking lot between the art museum and boat house row.  From there we walked the banks of the river.  I pointed out features of the skyline, gave fun facts about the city, and we soaked in the majestic beauty of the bustling urban landscape.

As we rounded our way around the Art Museum steps something struck me though. This city that I was showing Kristen was much different than the one I'd shown to James. Yet, they were (and are) the same city. Still, one felt more real to me than the other. I live in one, I visit the other.  Both inform the work that I do and how I choose to live my life.  I live in and work for Kensington so that one day it might enjoy the luxury of safety and civility so omnipresent at the Schuylkill's edge.  That's not to say it's always the safest, but you catch my drift.

My time with James and the boys was delightful, so was (and still is) my time with Kristen. But there is no mistaking that life has led me to a very interesting place. It is place that involves discomfort with the way things are, longing for the way they can be, and awareness of the reality of both of these things.  My time in college/before Philadelphia was blessed; indeed, without it I wouldn't have the wonderful friends I have today... and I probably never would have made my way to Philadelphia and the SSJs.

It's funny how journeys run together and even after they seemingly diverge, find themselves reunited. So it is that two tours and two visits have left me thinking about my own journey to the place I now call home.  Uniting the past with my present is a blessing, to express my knowledge of this community and also the connection I feel to it. In time, I have come to know this place and it has come to know me. With each new experience I uncover something new and discover that no matter how many times you've journeyed through a place there's always a fresh way of looking at it as you round familiar corners.

As we move into the season of Lent, the same could be said of our journeys through life: there's always a fresh way of looking at it as you round familiar corners.  Maybe it means being more present and aware of your surroundings, maybe it means being more available to your God and neighbor, and maybe, just maybe, it means journeying (for the next few weeks especially) with new eyes that see the old and bring it to bear on envisioning the new.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Meeting Me, Myself, and I.

Two and a half years ago, I decided I wasn't going to do a year of service.  A year later I decided to reconsider and today I find myself on the cusp of a life of service that I don't know if I ever quite imagined in 2008.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to look back on the journey that led me to do a year of service by sharing the story of that decision with a group of juniors and seniors from Chestnut Hill College on their Life Choices Retreat.  The story is one that has shaped who I am and ultimately landed me where I am today.  Despite that fact, it's not a story that I reflect on in depth with much regularity anymore.

Yet in preparation for this retreat, I found myself examining the process I took to decide where I was called to be in a new way. It is a tale of two decisions: how I decided not to do service... and then ended up doing service.  I know it pretty well, since, well, I lived it. But being able to take the time to reflect on the decisions that I made which led me to service allowed me to see those decisions and the person who made them in a new light.

As is so often the case on this blog, and especially for the purposes of this post, the story isn't nearly as important as the reflection that has led to its telling.  Hindsight is 20/20, but even now looking back on where I've been and the decisions I've made teaches me something about myself, information that is as pertinent to who I was then as it is to the here and now.

From college to Commonweal to the SSJ Mission Corps to life as a candidate with the sisters, each step has been taken after much consideration and prayer.  Each move has come out of trust and remains in faith as I am led from one grace to another.  Honestly it couldn't have happened any other way. When I've tried to move forward otherwise, I see and experience the fault, I trip and stumble; I realize the need to walk in faith with God.

This weekend, though, God introduced me to some others I've been walking with- Me, Myself, and I.  They've been on this journey with me the whole time and reflecting on how I've come to where I am today I needed to sit with each one of them. As I did, I recognized that they were sitting with me. In each new moment, they journeyed with me and in striving to stand most honestly before my God the stood with (and deep within) me.

There was the little girl who dwells within me. With wonder and simple joy, she skips and squeals.  She longs for attention, makes herself giggle, and smiles at the world around her.  She is and was enamored by a God so great and powerful, who nonetheless takes the time to talk to little girls.  I am her and she is me.

I am also the teenager who obviously knows best but still yearns for love and approval, who just wants to be held tightly and know that the God who whispered into her ear was there. She is the one in whom the little girl jumped when God's voice was heard; so familiar, so fantastical, so fundamental.  Even though she cared to dictate the conditions of a call, God took her by the hand and led her until she realized that if this call was true, it couldn't work that way. God held tight, knowing her hands couldn't hold it all.

Her hands are your hands; her hands are my hands; her hands are God's hands.

That teen grew into a young woman- Pondering philosophy and religion, taking hold of desires and passions, staking claim more readily to who she is. As she grows, so does that claim... so does my claim.  She is in me. They all are. And they all stake a claim to who I am.

So does who I am becoming.  That woman is within me too.  I am slowly coming to know her. While I may not really know her, she still plays a part in who I am today, if only because that is part of who she'll be tomorrow.

Looking back on where I've been I see each one of them in my life... There is always a primary player but in the background the others play supporting roles.  As a child, the teen and young woman took notes so that the little girl would be comfortable when I grew up. With time, the little girl shared innocence, intuition, and joy in the most unexpected places as the other players took the reins. Each player takes cues from the others; they teach one another inadvertently and as a result, I grow. Without any one of them I am not truly who I am and at my best, I am the bond that somehow unites them all.

No matter where I go they travel with me- from college to Commonweal to the SSJ Mission Corps to life as a candidate with the sisters- I am their's, they are mine, and we are all God's.

Gratefully, Me, Myself, and I can rest assured in that.