Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Up Homeboy?

     My roommate and I ran a 5K today to benefit Homeboy Industries, an organization that helps former gang members to turn their lives around.  It's a great organization that offers several programs ranging from career services to interim jobs at one of several Homeboy sites to tattoo removal.  We went to the Homegirl cafe for brunch afterward where we had some wonderful food.  If you're in the LA area, you should definitely check it out - it's down by the Chinatown metro stop. 
     It was a cool event that brought a lot of people together to foster acceptance of those in our community who are trying to make changes in their lives.  All too often it is easy to judge people on their past actions, and quash any chance they have to turn things around before they even begin.  It was also encouraging to see an organization that is doing so well and doing so much good for the community.  When my students often tell me stories about gang violence it is easy to be disheartened, but Homeboy Industries definitely gives me some hope, and in the words of The Shawshank Redemption, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On my knees in the night / sayin prayers in the street light

They say I got ta learn, but nobody's here to teach me,
If they cant understand it, how can they reach me?
I guess they can't; I guess they won't
I guess they front; that's why I know my life is outta luck, fool!
- Coolio, "Gangsta's Paradise"
      I wonder sometimes how effective I'm being with my kids.  I don't want to fail them when they've been failed by so many people around them.  I don't want to be another person who just doesn't get it.  Some of my kids today were using chalk on their backpacks and drawing symbols that were ostensibly crosses hanging from a chain.  I had to ask them to stop because they're not supposed to have any symbols or writing on anything they wear or bring to school.  They didn't know why.  A particularly cheeky 8th grader spouted "Why, Miss D?  I believe in God.  Can't I show that I believe in God?"
     Part of me wanted to pat the kid on the back and tell him of course, but technically his backback was breaking school policy (which is in place to prevent gang related symbols from cropping up), and God knows I didn't want to get into a sociological discussion with an 8th grader about the similarities (and differences) between gangs and religious groups in their use of symbols.
     I get caught up in these internal dilemmas every day, and I worry that I'm not saying what I should be in order to break through the tough shells on my kids.  They've certainly been hardened by the cold reality of gangs and poverty.  I feel responsible though to help turn them from that path.
     Thinking about it, I'm beginning to wonder if it's possible to get through to the kids unless I meet them where they are.  They don't need another teacher condescending and correcting them all the time.  They need someone who's going to be there with them, be on their team, however the prophet Amos spelled it out long ago: "Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?" (3:3).  I've got to find a way to agree to walk with them, and not worry so much about how much farther there is to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In Praise of Folly

"Where ignorance is bliss; 'tis folly to be wise."
Thomas Gray, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
     I can't decide whether Mr. Gray has hit the nail on the head, or if he's a hopeless fool himself.  Despite suffering brought about by an awareness of the world's harsh realities, is ignorance really the best way to live?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I go back and forth.
      Mr. Gray seems to think that wisdom comes precisely from becoming aware that the world ain't all sunshine and rainbows.  After a long melancholy poem, his ending quip throws its hands up, and says that if ignorance makes you happy, well then, screw the world and be ignorant.  I just can't seem to agree with that defeatist attitude, but something tells me that there's more to the poem than that.
     For lack of time, here are more questions/concerns I have with Mr. Gray -
1. Is it a bad thing to be a fool?
2. What do you mean exactly by wisdom?
3. How are you defining bliss?
4. Are we to assume that bliss is to be sought after?
5. Are we talking about deliberate ignorance?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Becoming Superman

     Despite my long enduring love for Superman, in the past two months I've found that becoming a superhero is not quite so easy as running into a phone booth and speedily changing into a spandex bodysuit.  However, every day my coworkers and I are asked to make that transformation (ok not into spandex bodysuits, though I'm sure our kids would LOVE that, but you get the point).  Our little charter school is standing in the face of the gargantuan LAUSD, trying to throw a force field around our kids to protect them from the mess that has been made of American public schools (especially LA public schools).
John Legend, Shine On, from Waiting for Superman.
     Due to the mess that has been created by LAUSD and other social forces, I'm trying to teach 6th graders, many of whom are at a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level, basic reading and writing skills.  They haven't been left behind by the system, but instead they were forced up through it without the attention they needed to meet grade level.  Overcrowded classrooms and ineffective teachers who cannot be fired due to tenure are only part of the problem.
     It's a huge struggle to teach children knowing full well that the homework that we give them likely won't get done at home because many of my kids don't live in environments where they are pushed to succeed, and some of them are not 100% safe at home.  What's going to motivate a student to do her homework when her brother who just graduated from high school got shot and killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time?  And what about my special education students, who are becoming painfully aware that they are not like the other students - what's going to motivate them to do their work when they believe in their hearts that they can't succeed?
     It would be easy as educators to step back and throw our hands up, do our jobs and go home, and sigh about another lost generation.  But my school is full of superheros - teachers and administrators who often come to school at 7am and don't leave until 5 or 6pm, spending extra time working with students, despite the challenges that we face daily.  For every student who doesn't believe in himself, there is a classmate willing to elbow him in the ribs to remind him to pay attention.  It's those moments that bring us back every day, willing to stay the extra hour and tutor a student who doesn't get it right away.  It's exhausting work, but it is good work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

No Going Backwards

     Sitting at the kitchen table with one of my roommates, we began, or I began rather, venting frustrations about not moving forward spiritually.  Some of the books we are reading (or are supposed to be reading) make some rather exasperating assumptions, and while possible, I don't think I'm the only one who has been frustrated by these books. 
     One of the readings for the week, a selection from John Neafsey's A Sacred Voice is Calling, makes some pretty irritating theoretical generalizations about how to pursue a socially conscious life that responds to a higher calling, or Dream with a capital "D" as Neafsey calls it.  He does a lot of surface level talk about how to engage with the world around us, but says little that is actually of use.  My favorite example of his aggravating propensity toward vaguery comes in his three step plan for how to engage actively with society: "Speak metaphorically but concretely..."
     I'm sorry, what?  By definition a metaphor is anything but concrete.  Admittedly, I can see what Neafsey (by way of Walter Bruggeman from whom he draws this three step plan) is getting at.  However, notwithstanding the fact that all three steps essentially say the same thing in words that aren't even that different, these things are far easier said than done, and Neafsey makes no suggestion for how we are to go about finding, let alone employing, such concrete metaphors for talking about the world's suffering.  Methodologically, he does exactly what he cautions us against - he consistently speaks in abstract metaphors instead of providing concrete examples from which to work.
Photo Credit:
     Leaving aside the theoretical and methodological issues I have with these readings (I can ignore them because I know I have a proclivity for being overly academic), the point where I stumble the hardest comes in Neafsey's fundamental assumptions.  He assumes that his readers are spiritual dunces, that we aren't actively seeking God already. 
"The root metaphor for vocation centers around the... 'seeing eye,' a capacity for perception and vision and imagination.  This might, for some, involve actual visionary experiences of another level of reality, mystical glimpses into the world of the spirit.  More commonly, it has to do with seeing the reality of the world more clearly, looking more deeply into things, beneath the surface of things."
He then spends the rest of the chapter talking about what he perceives to be the more common experience of spirituality.  I think it's selling us short.  He entirely ignores and even speaks diminutively of the human capacity for mystical understanding of God's vision.  He seems to think it's impossible for us Americans.  I beg to differ, Mr. Neafsey.  And isn't it a little foolhardy to set out to examine and change the world for the better if we have not encountered God in prayer?
     Furthermore, where does this leave those of us who already have and already do mystically (though that word seems a little inflated) encounter God daily?  What advice do you have for us, Mr. Neafsey?  Needless to say, if you haven't gathered this already, I'm feeling a little stunted in my spiritual growth.  Neafsey is talking about things that I realized in high school.  I told my ever-so-attentive roommate about these frustrations, and while she demurely agreed to some extent, she offered a bit of pertinent advice - "Your spiritual journey can't go backwards."  So maybe it feels like things aren't moving forward as much as I would like, but she's right - God isn't leading me backward.  I just have to figure out why we're taking this particular detour, why we're taking the "roundabout way" (Exodus 13:18) yet again.  In the meanwhile, I'll have to practice patience with writers who promulgate nebulous advice while assuming that humanity no longer knows how to communicate with God.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Batter My Heart

     Taking a break from Johnny Steinbeck, I was studying for the GRE Literature test by brushing up on some 17th century writers.  This I found:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,' and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new,
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,' and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.

John Donne Holy Sonnet XIV

Saturday, October 16, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

     Today the roomies and I went to see our newly acquired little brothers in a production of The Wizard of Oz.  It was well done, and the roughly 75 munchkins ranging from 3 to 10 years old were ridiculously adorable. 
     The show's tagline, however, got me thinking about the idea of "home."  What is home anyway?  Is it a physical shelter?  A house?  A city?  A country?  What exactly are the delineations of "home"?  Where does "home" end and the rest of the world begin?  Or is "home" dependent on the people who inhabit the place with you?  In which case, for those of us who are blessed enough to have friends and family all over the country and the world, where "home" is becomes a pretty difficult question. 
     What about those of us, however, for whom there literally is no place like home.  Living in Hollywood, it's hard not to think about homelessness.  There are at least 4 or 5 people who live on our street corner.  I woke up early one morning to go running, and right outside of our house here in Hollywood I ran past a man who was sprawled out sleeping on the concrete sidewalk.  As I ran back down Hollywood Boulevard I passed a group of people who were sleeping on top of a metro vent for the heat.  At least these few had some company, I found myself thinking.  What about that man who was sleeping by himself on our street?  It seemed he had neither a shelter nor a community.  I felt pretty helpless too - wasn't sure if there was anything I could offer him, and by the time I got back home he was already gone. 
     Last week, the readings at church were about being grateful for the things we have in life.  How fitting that the week should end with a play about being grateful for home - both for shelter and community.  Count yourself as very blessed if you have one or both of these.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Practice Resurrection

res·ur·rec·tion (r z -r k sh n). n. 1. The act of rising from the dead or returning to life. 2. The state of one who has returned to life. 
     So... usually, even if I'm not always good at it, I can at least understand how Jesus wants us to imitate His life.  Serve the poor.  Feed the hungry.  Give rest to the weary.  Give drink to the thirsty.  Speak for the oppressed.  Sacrifice yourself for others.  Ok.  Great. 
     That's more or less the story up to the cross.
     And then there's that funny resurrection thing.
     Short of physically dying and coming back to life, how exactly are we supposed to imitate Jesus in the resurrection?  Maybe it'll help to look and see what exactly happened at the resurrection...
but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.     Acts 10:40
Caused him to be seen.  Maybe that's what this resurrection business is about - seeing God working in our lives.  Constant awareness.  Life should be an offering and a prayer, the soul constantly whispering to God. 
     I could talk about dying to self and living in Christ, but I feel like that's been overdone.  And it's a lot easier to say "I'm dying to myself" with the voice than it is to speak those words with the heart.  Where do we start then?  My best guess - start where the apostles started.  Seeking God's face, seeking to see His work.  Then trust that the rest will unfold.

Monday, October 11, 2010

John Steinbeck on Humility

If you hadn't noticed, I was a little behind in my posting due to the untimely death of my computer.  Now that I have a new one, I am trying to catch up.

This I found while reading dear Johnny:
     "The ways of sin are curious," Samuel observed.  "I guess if a man had to shuck off everything he had, inside and out, he'd manage to hide a few little sins somewhere for his own discomfort.  They're the last things we'll give up."
     "Maybe that's a good thing to keep us humble.  The fear of God in us."
     "I guess so," said Samuel.  "And I guess humility must be a good thing, since it's a rare man who has not a piece of it, but when you look at humbleness it's hard to see where its value rests unless you grant that it is a pleasurable pain and very precious.  Suffering - I wonder has it been properly looked at."     John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Abundance of Need

     I've been running a cooking club after school with some of my middle school students.  We don't have access to many resources.  More than 90% of the students at my school qualify for free lunches, which puts our school in the "high poverty" categorization.  We make do with what we have though.  We all bring food in to share, and we choose simple recipes.  We only cook on two days of every week.
     At the beginning of the year, I asked my students how they wanted to divide the club up, and we decided to do themed cultural weeks.  This week we're doing French foods; last week we cooked simple Mexican foods; and the preceding week we cooked American foods.  I let them vote on two menu items for each week.  I chuckled to myself when they chose hamburgers and hot dogs for our two American food items, and I showed them Super Size Me on the days that we weren't cooking.  One student got the hint and disgustedly asked me if we were still going to make hamburgers the next day.  Most of them still tell me that McDonalds is their favorite food, and that their parents take them there fairly frequently. 
     Something seems off here.  Southern California is one of the richest areas of the country when it comes to farming.  There is an overabundance of fresh produce brought into markets daily from the over 81,000 farms in the Golden State.  According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, "California's agricultural abundance includes over 400 commodities."  The CDFA also reported that California is the sole producer (meaning it produces over 99%) of several foods including almonds, artichokes, figs, grapes, peaches, plums, pomegranates, and walnuts.
     So with all of this fresh food around, why is it that people are still choosing McDonalds and In'n'Out over the farmer's market?  An LA Times article noted that obesity is highest among the poorer sections of LA, and one thing's sure, a hamburger at McDonalds is cheaper than a bag of carrots at the market.  But we knew that was an issue already.  We've known that until we make fresh foods more affordable, people are going to keep choosing less healthy fast food alternatives. 
     The awful irony of the matter, however, is the fact that the very people who work on the farms, laboring in the fields all day long under the hot California sun, are the same ones who cannot afford fresh foods.  The LA Times reports that
[Farm work] is not only grueling but seasonal. Certain crops require constant migration. For example, lettuce grows in Yuma from November to March. Then lettuce harvesters migrate to Huron, south of Fresno, for the month of April. Then it's on to Salinas from May through mid-October, and back to Huron through mid-November. On a good day, lettuce crews make up to $14 an hour, but that's only if consumers don't suddenly prefer soup to salad. If they do, wages fall.
With such uncertainty regarding daily and monthly wages, many farmhands cannot afford to feed their families healthy foods.  What's worse, this problem has been rippling under the surface in California for years and years.  Don't believe me?  Go read John Steinbeck.  Read Grapes of Wrath and tell me why the Joad family works all day picking peaches, but none of them ever get to enjoy the taste of a sweet California peach and instead they languish on pig fat.  Things haven't changed much around here, sad to say.  I've been trying to give my students an idea of how they can make healthy choices on a slim budget, but it isn't easy when they literally do not have the money to pay for fresh produce.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Where are we going, man?" "I don't know but we gotta go."

     I have a tendency to work myself to the bone.  Ask anyone who knows me well.  It is a rare day when I am not running from one activity or organization to the next at breakneck pace.  I usually average about 6 hours of sleep, and have been known to function on as little as 4 or 5, to accommodate all of the things I pack into my days.  Wherever I go, I throw my whole self into the community, taking on jobs and service work and building relationships with people around me.  It's become something of a point of pride - how much can I do without driving myself totally insane? I generally run around with some degree of insanity, but I try to keep from stepping over the edge.  Don't get me wrong - I love to work, to do, constantly to go.  I think, at least, that my frenetic energy comes from a deep desire to serve.  I wonder though, what am I trying to prove?
     Last night I was thinking about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).  Some of the laborers work and work and work all day long, and at the end of the day they are paid the typical day's wages - others are hired at the end of the day, and they, too, receive the full day's wages.  Those who worked all day grumble and question the landowner - why are our wages the same as those of they who worked only one hour when we toiled all day long?  The landowner, somewhat shockingly, replies,
"Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?" Matthew 20:13-15. 
     What a challenge to our hearts and minds - especially those of us who live in the capitalistic American meritocracy where we earn our success and our worth.  We glory in working 50 hour weeks and getting paid overtime and raking in those bonuses.  Our culture values hard work.  We get what we deserve in this country, or at least we think we do.  Now, I could comment on the dangers of working too hard, to the point that any room for stillness and silent communication with God who rests in the truest parts of our selves gets lost in the to-do lists.  Stop and smell the roses, some would say.  
       This particular passage, however, asks us to transform our vision of merit.  I'm not saying that our culture shouldn't value hard work, but we who labor in the American vineyard have a tendency to work and work and work and expect adequate payment.  For everything we do.  Even spiritual matters.  If I pray for this many minutes a day, so and so many times a week, I should expect my spiritual growth to increase at a corresponding monthly output.  If we work hard, or pray hard in this case, we should be rewarded for it.  And we will be, in whatever way God sees fit.  Frustrating?  Sometimes, yes, but the more challenging part of the parable, at least for me, comes in reconciling the fact that those who do less than half the work receive the same reward.  We are challenged here to recognize that we cannot earn God's love at all - we don't have to - it is freely given.  It isn't about who works, or prays, the most.  We need to extricate the idea of earning from our spiritual vocabulary because no matter how hard we try to find one, there isn't a formula for grace.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Palm Springs in September

On a Desert Road

A field - a farm, electric - its harvest
The wind that breathes the spirit of the land.
Turbines, tall and proud, slice the valley floor -
Shouldn't it bleed a little? Perhaps,
But parched veins prevent exsanguination.
The lifeblood of the land lies far beneath,
Seeping away to more fertile regions;
All the while these tall giants twist power.
America's exhausted bones curve up
And outward from the arid, rocky ground,
Tired witnesses to human yearnings -
Touched by the same desert air, unstirring,
Wrinkled mountains stand defiantly and
Glare at the desert sun. They thirst for life.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two Sides of a Coin

     Last week I wrote about a man on death row.  He was scheduled to die last Wednesday, but was given a temporary reprieve until Thursday after several days of legal jockeying concerning the drugs involved in lethal injection.  I found most of the information regarding his case on the New York Times website, but it wasn't until I looked at a site called LA Now, part of the LA Times, that I found anyone writing from the perspective of the family of the victim. 
     Back in 1980, Mr. Brown raped and strangled a 15 year old girl in Riverside, California.  He has been on death row since his conviction in 1982, for nearly 30 years.  What does that mean in terms of the family of the victim?  For thirty years, they have been unable to move on from the trauma.  For thirty years, they have remained painfully tied to the bureaucratic legislation associated with capital punishment.
     What is the best remedy?  Kill the perpetrator faster?  Less legislative argument?  Maybe, if we're disregarding the moral implications for now.  At least it would save the victim's family from the pain and suffering of thirty + years with no sense of closure.
     But isn't there another route?  What about forgiveness?  You may be balking at this statement.  How, you ask, is the family of a young girl who was brutally raped and strangled supposed to forgive the rapist?  Ok, admittedly, I didn't claim that this route was the easy one.  In fact, it's much more difficult and it requires courage, but in the end it leads to much more beautiful results.  Once they find a way to forgive, the family can move on from the horrific tragedy.  They don't have to remain tied to it for an indeterminate number of years.  They can stop feeling like victims, and reclaim their power to live again. 
     Now, I'm not saying that the crime should be excused.  According to the Mayo Clinic, "forgiveness doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act."  Forgiveness allows both sides of a crime, perpetrator(s) and victim(s), to heal.  It begins the process of repairing a break in society.  Endless legislation does not.