Hearing The Homeless, And Seeing Ourselves

Posted by Afreen Malim on Oct 7, 2015
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It all started a few weeks back with a simple rekindling of an idea:

"We invite you to join us for an opportunity to engage in deep listening and sharing presence with our brothers and sisters without a home.

"From the early days of Hear the Homeless, to the insightful reflections of our young interns a couple summers ago who interviewed the homeless -- what stands out clearly is that when we come together with an intention to connect and share, there is a shift that happens in our own being -- and the giving and receiving becomes hard to measure : )

"To add an even more personal energy to this event we will be making sandwiches ourselves and sharing them with the homeless in the Berkeley area with all our love and presence."

Various folks answered the call, and this past Saturday, all 20 of us packed into Vinya’s apartment in Berkeley and, after a period of stillness, we began the day reflecting on what brought us together: Why did we choose to say yes to spending a Saturday making and sharing sandwiches with homeless friends, and committing to engage in conversations to hear about their journeys?

The range of intentions for the day were as diverse as the corners of the bay that we all came from.   There were friends who remembered such events from ten years ago and came to re-engage. Others wanted to connect more with their own neighborhoods. And yet others had always wanted to help, but were not sure how they could approach a stranger on the streets.

We served over 75 sandwiches as we spread across various parts of Berkeley. As we self-organized into sandwich assembly lines, paper bag artwork corner, dishwashing crews, many invisible threads of love and service kept emerging all around.

Throughout the day, as we huddled together between sharing moments of silence and opportunities to express our reflections, a theme that kept re-emerging was the opportunity that every single moment consistently offers to pause and deepen our presence. Towards the end, we circled up in Vinya’s living room to share reflections. Once again, the power of circle became palpable, as it revealed the spectrum of experiences and beautiful insights that each person had throughout their interactions.  

“Upon joining the artwork team after our opening circle, the focus was on an intention of connection, and messages of love and community emerged through colored markers onto the lunch bags we would be packing and sharing with new friends. I knew it would be a transformative experience, though I wasn’t prepared for what was to come,” Sara reflected. She went on to share:  

“Our mini-group went to People's Park, where David told us about its rich history of social activism and how the park is now largely occupied by our brothers and sisters who are becoming part of a growing homeless population. Charlie shared about physical abuse of impoverished people at local hospitals (Alta Bates Berkeley in particular). Several folks politely declined the offerings for themselves, yet eagerly pointed us towards others who were in greater need.

"Andy, with sunlight streaming through his eyes and smile, shared that he is grateful he has a place to shower occasionally and fresh air to breathe, as has been domestically displaced since February and is struggling to find new work in construction. He was reading a book on African history and neatly wrote down Habitat for Humanity contact info we offered for possible job connections. He also promised that next time we meet, wherever it is, he will share one of his original reggae songs.   “Could I 'do more'? Yes. Am i inspired to do more? Yes. My heart has been transformed by the day & the depth of each of these human connections. As many shared in our reflection circle, I intend to keep this experience in my moment-to-moment awareness and trust that the opportunities to serve will continue arising. I also intend to hear Andy's music. :)”  

Also at the park, Prahallad met Bobo, who he recalled, "was resting against a tree, smiled at us and said he was just enjoying the beautiful weather, remarking at how much we have in this country and that he didn't need anything. He asked us to give the food to the more needy, and thanked us for connecting with our humanity  by sharing with other humans."

The encounter caught Prahallad off guard, as he noted, "I had an image that a stereotypical homeless person would be disheveled, smelly, unclean. But not all were. The people knew that food was here, when we arrived. Many approached us asking for food. I didn't see any shame in many of their eyes. Another person who was quietly sitting in the sun, away from others, perked up as we approached him and was very grateful for the food. He looked clean, a little shy, and hesitant to share further, but again, my stereotypes were shaken. Later, we met Andy who was really busy happily reading a book. He was grateful for the brown bag and went back to reading."

A few days later, he reflected, "These experiences have had me thinking about all the people I met over those couple of hours. I hope to dive a little deeper into learning about them the next time."

Another mini-group, composed of Nandini, Rahul, Asha, and 2-year-old Uma, headed over to Ashby Bart Station armed with a heaping box of bag lunches.

“While actively searching for someone to share our sandwiches with (and coming up short), I kept having feelings of regret that when I’m not actively searching for someone to serve, they always seem to present themselves and I am often just too busy to stop,” Asha noticed. “But now today, on this day of intentioned service, our group had trouble finding people to serve. Which really just served as a reminder to me that the best opportunities to serve are incorporated into daily life, and that my real work lies in having the quality of presence to recognize that opportunity.”

Similarly, Nandini reflected how “the heart-space which allowed us to come together to “hear the homeless” that day was always ready and available to me, within me, if I chose to look there -- and that I could tap into the intentions to be of service and to share vulnerability with anyone at anytime - whether it be a “homeless” individual, a stranger in the elevator at work, or a friend.”

The process also made her introspect on her own labels or stereotypes. “This process of looking for someone who may be homeless or needing food really brought to light the racial/gender stereotypes and biases I held in what I considered a homeless person to look and act like.”

Rahul recalled, “There was a sweet moment that happened when I noticed an older man who hadn't had lunch. It was unclear if he was homeless but he certainly didn't have much financial means. After I offered him a lunch, he cupped my hand in his and said a very moving 3 minute prayer and blessing for my well being. It struck me that we are constantly being blessed by the world and constantly have the opportunity to also bless it ourselves. Events like this reveal that truth that is always right in front of us.”

Another crew went to Downtown Berkeley and among the many folks they encountered was a Buddhist nun who embodied a striking sense of acceptance in living without a home. As they conversed with various folks and gave away their last bag of lunch, two homeless individuals remained lunch-less. Without skipping a beat, one of the group members said, “Oh, no problem! Let’s just pick up a couple sandwiches from the shop here.”

The spirit of giving is really contagious-- once we start, it’s hard to stop!

As we gave the lunches, we viscerally saw how we were really the beneficiaries of all the love and goodwill that seemed to generate out of thin air and ripple out into all the exchanges of conversations and food. As Audrey wrote:

“What struck me the most was that, as we all made our rounds-- and even as we all re-grouped and shared reflections on the experience-- the giving of bag lunches wasn't so much what we were offering, but rather, they were an excuse to practice love. Each interaction was an exchange that goes much deeper-- a practice of taking the time to see the soul under each nameless face: to stand on the same ground with another being, to look eye-to-eye, and listen with ears wide open, ready to take in the magnificence of a perfect stranger, and in so doing, to melt the barriers of our own hearts just a little bit more.”

When Bhoutik and Shubhra joined another crew at People's Park, they found themselves instantly flocked by hungry bodies with palms out stretched, braced for an offering. As they gave out sandwiches, someone asked, “What group are you? Are you part of a church or something?”

To which Bhoutik replied, “We’re just a group of friends who wanted to give.”

There is something really special about that. Just a simple group of friends who wanted to give.

Nothing more. And nothing less.

See more photos from the day.           

Posted by Afreen Malim | | permalink

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Comments (5)

  • Jyoti wrote ...

    Wow! Speechless. Touched. A Virtual BIG Group Hug!

  • Michaele Premet-Rosen wrote ...

    The beauty of this sharing of love brought tears. So deeply wonderful. Bless.

  • Kristy Pace wrote ...

    What a beautiful, perfect way to spend a Saturday.

  • Xiaojuan Shu wrote ...

    What a miraculous story about giving and being given at the same time! Let's all do this regularly. :)

  • Micky O'Toole wrote ...

    This is wonderful. I was between homes twice in my life and I will never forget the kindness of "strangers." The memories of these since and deep connections, sparked by kindness and empathy, will remain with me forever.