Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.
From December 23 – January 20, Changing Lives, Changing Minds will post every two weeks. After that we’ll pick back up with our regular schedule. See you in 2010!
Our days were organized around soup kitchens, breakfast at St. Francis, lunch at the Pine Street Inn, where at night 280 men and 363 women sleep in beds if they sign in on time. We didn’t try for beds in the shelters because, though food is abundant, beds are not.
What were we doing there? The question was never easy for me to answer. The Zen Peacemakers, who sponsor the street retreats, describe them as “a powerful practice of not knowing and bearing witness.” “Not knowing,” on the literal level, came easy. To live on the streets, to place oneself in radically new circumstance, simply to enter conversation with people whose lives and ways are radically different from those of you and your friends – all this is not knowing. It requires that we enter experience without pre-conception, seeing and feeling without reference to our established ideas or value systems, being willing to be naked as a babe again.
Not knowing, in my experience, meant also the luxury of hanging out for hours without thinking about what will come next, let alone what should come next. I sat on a bench for a long time in a park near MIT. People, with and without children or dogs, passed by, fathers and sons shot baskets, children played in shallow sliding pools, sometimes getting wet with their clothes on, sometimes feeling the edge of the water from the walk, glancing back at a parent to see how far they could go. It was a brilliant summer day, touched by a mild breeze. I had nothing to do, no compulsion to interpret anything, let alone the brilliance of the leaves of trees in the sun.
Perhaps the core of not knowing is the absence of the observer who ordinarily processes what he sees in terms of his own fear or desire. I honestly had no fear or desire during these two days. I was open to what was going on, open to a change in what was going on. Only once did I wish I were in a different place or under different circumstance. That was on the second night, when we slept or tried to sleep on the grass in a park. (Grass, despite my pre-conceptions, turns out to be not much softer to sleep on than concrete when you have only one or two layers of cardboard for a bed.)
The night turned very cold and I was wearing only a light sweater over my shirt, under only a clear-plastic rain poncho. I tossed all night, unable to make peace with the cold. A few hours before dawn I wolfed down a bun and a muffin that we’d got from one of the shelters, on the vague notion that the carbs might make calories that would warm me. In fact, they only made me faintly sick. That was as close as I came to suffering on the trip, the closest I came to fighting my circumstance instead of bearing witness to it.
I keep returning to the question of why, on a very strong impulse, I joined the retreat. I think the deepest answer is in this passage from Matthew 25:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the Least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Literature and scripture taught me that there is spiritual revelation and an awakening of the heart to be found “down there.” In the end, I can’t say that I found it this time. But there will be other occasions.