The title says it all! There is nothing else like it in the world. I was blown away by how deep and how wide it was. You can barely see the Colorado River from the top. We hiked one mile into the Canyon to a spot called Oo-Ah Point. It was a 270 degree view that was so amazing I did not take any pictures. Here are the pictures I did take:
Yesterday, my eight week stay at Andre House came to an end as I returned to Ohio. The good byes were difficult, but it is nice seeing my Ohio friends and family again. Even though I am no longer at Andre House, Breaking the Standard Model will still be continued. I have a few more posts and some epic Grand Canyon photos to publish.
Wednesday was my last day at the center while it was open. (I was at the Grand Canyon Thursday and we are closed Fridays.) I took the back door during dinner so I would have the opportunity to say good bye to as many of the guests as I could. After the last couple left, I locked the backdoor and went to grab my book and water bottle, except my nice biking water bottle was missing. I remembered having taken a drink when there were five people left eating so it could not have gone far. It was nowhere to be seen where I was sitting, so I concluded that it had either been taken by a guest or I had accidentally thrown it in the trash as I tied up the bag. I looked outside and at the top of the trash, but did not see it. Giving it up for lost or stolen, I packed up stuff to head to dinner.
Upon walking out of the center to the car, I looked up and saw the last guest to have left that night, holding my precious water bottle. "Really?" I thought, "The very last guest on the last day of working at Andre House steals my water bottle." I wanted to politely ask for it back under the pretext that I assumed it was an honest mistake, which it probably was, but something stopped me. I rationalized that he probably needed it more than I did, and that I would now be leaving a part of myself in Phoenix. I drove off without seeing the bottle again, though as of his last sighting on Thursday, the guest still had the bottle, so I know it is being used well.
I have eaten at soup kitchens and drop in centers before.During high school, I would often share a meal with the guests at the small Catholic Worker drop-in center at which I volunteered.This past winter, I ate two dinners at a Cleveland soup kitchen with my Urban Plunge group, a program run by the University of Notre Dame that immerses students in an inner city for a couple of days.However, Kayla’s suggestion that I go through Andre House’s dinner line still contained a bit of a challenge.I had been working on the other side of the line for seven weeks, so I was curious as to how I would be received by the guests, and if I would gain a new perspective on Andre House.What I experience was not what I expected at all.
I arrived fifteen minutes before the doors would be opened for dinner.I figured this would allow me time to experience standing outside the gate, then being let in and having to site on the benches waiting to be called.Instead, due to baseball’s All-Star Weekend, attendance at Andre House was low since a number of additional sites were feeding as part of the festivities.I was ushered straight into the parking lot and took a seat in the fourth row of benches.Additionally, the weather was overcast, so it was not nearly as hot as it had been on previous weeks.I had expected to experience long, uncomfortable waits in the hot sun, but instead I merely sat in the cool shade.The trend of a comfortable meal continued when I walked inside. I received heaping piles of food, not the skimpy portions on which I had planned, and was not forced to squeeze between unfriendly strangers in the dining room, again due to the small turnout.After an additional trip through the line (with no wait), I left Andre House full, comfortable, but disappointed.
However, my initial disappointment did not last.I slowly recognized I had gained two valuable insights from the experience.I watched other guests attempt to trade their food and often throw out entire portions of unwanted food.Even though we ask each guests if he wants something, it makes sense that they may take a food they do not want; they can trade it for something they do enjoy eating.The amount of food thrown out, though, boggled my mind.I realized how rich and well-fed we are as a nation, since even our homeless discard food.Tobacco is a different story: I witness a number of used butts being picked up off the parking lot ground for later use.What the poor find truly valuable was evident.
My second recognition was far more profound.I had gone through the food line in order to find out a little more about what it was like to be homeless.I had tried to walk a mile in their shoes, but realized I can only go so far.I can never really truly understand their life.I eat the same food and live in the same neighborhood as they do, but we are worlds apart.When I went through the dinner line, I had come from a quiet, air conditioned house that I knew would still be cool when I returned.I knew I had a family that was looking forward to my return in a week.I had money in my wallet to buy additional food if the meal was unsatisfying.I had only undertaken one aspect of being poor, and had only gotten an ever so slight a taste.Even if I were to give away everything I owned, forsake my family, and live as the homeless of Phoenix do, I will not have the full experience because I would be living the life voluntarily, while most live it against their will.I cannot fabricate the experience of being poor; to walk in their shoes, I actually have to be in their shoes.
I was reminded of what one of the priests as Andre House had said.The priest had lived and worked in Uganda for twenty years and he told a story about another missionary priest who had been there for sixty-five years.The Ugandans wanted to give him a gift to honor him for his many years of service, so they asked him what he wanted most.He told them if he could have anything in the world, he would want to be in one of their minds for fifteen minutes.He had been with them well over a half century, but he believed he would have learned more about Ugandans in those fifteen minutes than in all the rest of his life.
I understand how this priest felt.You can never really know someone until you are in exactly the same circumstances that they are.This is not to disparage any kind of outreach; it is certainly good work. But it is important to remember that the understanding you have on someone else’s life is really only a projection of your own experiences.
Sadly, this is my last week here at Andre House. That does not mean my week has been devoid of confrontation and drama.
Yesterday, I had a man walk up to me and ask if I spoke Spanish. When I answered that I could speak a little, he began speaking in rapid fire Spanish. Even after I told him "lento, lento" (slow), he kept right on chugging along. I caught a few "tengo"s and casas but that was about it. Eventually after a look around the dining room, he seemed content and left.
Today was a particularly interesting Pascente office shift. One of my favorite guests, the woman from Akron, came in and we talked for a while about the city to which I am returning. She even asked me to write down my name as she was leaving so that she could keep me in her prayers. At the same time, a woman came in to make a phone call, and half way through I noticed she was crying. I waited for her to finish, and then asked if she was alright. She replied that she had been arrested the night before because someone had used her ID to commit some kind fraud. She now had to pay over one thousand dollars in fines in order not to go to jail and she was selling everything she owned. I could not have felt worse for someone.
Howver, the biggest event of the day for me was undergoing a rite of passage that almost every staff undergoes: being called Un-Chirstian. To be honest, I was probably a little to excited about it afterwards, but I guess it was better than taking it personally.
I man walked into the office, sat down in a chair, and announced "I want to kill a lot of people." Not a great start. He angrily complained about having to run around to different organizations to get different services, and how everything that he had owned had been stolen while he was in the hospital. I could understand his frustration, as navigating the bureaucracy of social service organizations is incredibly difficult. He said he had a job interview in an hour and a half and needed a shirt nicer than the one he was wearing. Alicia went to get him shirt and I thought the problem was over.
However, he stormed back in with his new polo and slammed it on my desk. He argued that he should have been allowed to go in to shop for new shirts, and that the one that he was given was too heavy. I explained we could not make an excuse for him, but he continued ranting that the shirt was way too hot for him and he wanted a lighter t-shirt like the one I was wearing. When I tried explaining that he had a much better chance of getting a job with the polo than with a food stained t-shirt like mine, he threw the polo in the trash, called me un-Christian, told Fr. Eric he was a hypocrite and didn't follow Jesus, and left. I felt bad because he did say he was an Iraq war veteran. However, he was being completely unreasonable (although the t-shirt might have gone better with his mohawk).
O and I kicked out a drunk wheelchair operator at dinner, another first. The fun never ends!
Immigration is a tense issue. In Arizona, immigration is an INTENSE issue. People are very opinionated and the politics of the state do not help much. I had mostly avoided the topic until, of all days, July 4, when it was thrust into my faith.
Matt is a member of small Christian community that prays together on Tuesday nights at a community prayer house. One of the ministries that this community performs is immigrant hospitality, which helps Hispanic immigrants get settled in the United States. My understanding is that they help whoever comes to them, legal or illegal.
I came back to the house on July 4 to find Matt very upset. Granted, by normal standards, Matt would have seemed just peeved, but by Matt standards I could tell something was really wrong. I knew that he was supposed to have gone to welcoming party for a girl who was moving into one of the houses, so I was initially confused. As I listened, I realized what had happened.
The girl is an illegal immigrant, but is considered an unaccompanied minor since she was under eighteen. This means she was kept at a separate juvenile center for detained immigrants. The communities understanding had been that she would be released on her eighteenth birthday, so she could get her life back together and get the proper documentation. They planned an entire welcoming party for her, only for her to be moved to the adult detention center on her birthday instead of being released.
Matt explained to me that detainees at this site are not informed of how their legal case is progressing, and can be held for an indefinite amount of time. Therefore, neither the girl nor her host family knew if or when she would be released or deported. Luckily the story has a happy ending in that she was released a few days later and is now living with her host family.
Being a detached observer of immigration here in Arizona has helped me be fairly objective about the issue. There are legitimate concerns on both sides; we do not want porous borders through which drugs, weapons, and criminals flow, but we should not have to resort to what amounts to concentration camps for illegal immigrants. Matt also observed that immigration is a complicated issue, but he added that if there was a feasible way to immigrate legally, more people would do it. The way I see it, the legalization ought to be streamlined to admit more people, but any plan would probably have pitfalls and opponents. About all that people can agree on is that the issue is complicated, but change has to start somewhere.
Andrew is the other ND student here with me at Andre House. He has kindly provided some blog material while I am off celebrating 19 years of existence.
No matter who walks into the doors at Andre House, we make it our goal to serve them. Because of this, we get a large variety of people. Prostitutes, transvestites, married men and women, immigrants, sex offenders, criminals, former college professors, mentally ill guests, and military veterans all frequent Andre House. However, there is one common bond between all of these people – they all laugh. They laugh at themselves, at each other, at us, and at nothing in particular. They laugh in the good times, when they just got a job offer for the first time in months. They laugh in the bad times, when all of their possessions got stolen while they were sleeping. I have always been a firm believer that no matter how bad a situation is laughter can make it at least a bit better. These men and women who we serve are living proof of this.
When you are homeless in a city such as Phoenix, it is easy to get depressed and lose your faith in life. There are many people who come around with this look in their eyes. But every now and then, more common than one might think, a different type of guest comes in for our services. I hear a man laugh about how he may not have a place to live for the next few weeks by brushing it off with the statement “well…I could use to get in tune with Mother Nature now that I think about it!” I have a woman laugh at me as I fumble around looking for the proper feminine hygiene product she requires. I laugh with a guest about his antics during his childhood and how we would never be able to deal with children of our own.
So what does this all have to do with service, God, or anything? Well, to me, laughter is a beautiful thing. It allows you to stop taking yourself so seriously and realize life is just absurd sometimes. To me, laughter is something God put in at the last moment before the world was complete to “lighten the mood” and remind us that life is never really as bad as we may think. While it is extremely easy for me to laugh all the time, it is very hard for someone who has just lost it all to do the same.
Therefore, whenever I see someone I am serving laugh at Andre House I think a couple things. First, whether the person realizes it or not, they have some hope and have not given up completely. Second, it reminds me to always stay positive and laugh because if someone in a much direr situation than I am in can do it, then so can I. Finally, it brings me back to reality. Prostitutes, transvestites, married men and women, immigrants, sex offenders, criminals, former college professors, mentally ill guests, and military veterans all frequent Andre House. However, there is one other common bond between all these people – they are all human. They are all flesh and bone that can live, learn, love, and, most of all, laugh. So whenever I see someone I serve laugh it reminds me that these people are no different from me. These men and women could have easily been my brothers or sisters, classmates, girlfriend, or friends. Because of this, I never forget that these people are my equals and not on a lower level than me because of a disability, situation, or bad luck.
From my experience here, I have already learned that life is far too short to take every moment too seriously, so no matter whom you are you need to lighten up a bit. Take a moment, sit back, and laugh. Laugh at the absurdities, the uncontrollable ironies, and the small nuances that drive people crazy. Laugh at those who you love, laugh at those who you hate. Laugh at the poor, laugh at the rich. Most of all, laugh at yourself. Laughter is a drug which allows us to truly live. At Andre House, I have learned that sometimes the best cure for depression or heartache is not therapy or prescription medicines, but one healthy dose of laughter. At Andre House, I have learned that whether you are the Ethiopian man who speaks limited English or the Czech woman who requests a special bra size every time she comes to get clothes, they are connected by laughter. At Andre House, I have learned that laughter is a gift from God, a gift we should not waste. So go ahead, sit back and laugh because someone out there is laughingwith you.
The summer before my junior year of high school, my family had the opportunity to travel to Italy. One of the most memorable moments of this trip occurred when we visited the cemetery of the town from which my grandma comes. My mom was working on the genealogy of her family, and wanted to see if the cemetery had any records of her ancestors.
The curator had no records of anyone with our family names. He explained that if no relatives remained in the area, bodies were exhumed and moved underneath the chapel to make room from fresh graves, since Italy has very little extra space. He then took us underneath the chapel to see what was a mass grave. That mass grave is how I think of death; that wall of bones symbolizes the quiet anonymity that will overtake us all eventually.
I came face to face with death's reality again this morning. Five of us on summer staff drove thirty minutes outside of Phoenix to a potter's field to inter three men who had died and whose bodies had gone unclaimed. More than likely they died on the street or in a shelter. This was not an uncommon ceremony; eight different groups rotate overseeing the service to inter those who leave this world with nothing.
The experience was surreal. We were right outside an Air Force Base, so the occasional fighter jet would scream by overhead. We were in the middle of the desert, dust blowing in out faces and small insects biting our legs. To top it off, a chain gang of Maricopa County inmates had the job of handling the casket and lowering it into the ground, while we said the prayer and blessed the casket. (By chain gang, I mean the men were chained together at the ankles and in black and white striped clothes.)
Burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy that seems to always get glossed over (along with visiting the imprisoned, which we also checked off). I can certainly see the value in it though. These men had no one to mourn for them, no one to pray for their repose; except us. We may have been the last humans to acknowledge that these men ever lived, and the gravity of that as our duty weighed on me during the ceremony. Some of the graves at the cemetery were actually cared for with flowers or crosses, but most featured only a small round marker stuck in the ground. I cannot say I was sad, but I was depressed, depressed at how quickly death's anonymity would swallow these men up. It has really made me appreciate my faith, that there is hope that we simply will not fade away after death, but will come to new life.
If you do nothing else today, pray for the souls of Wilbur, Arturo, and Edward. Their families and friends are likely unaware these men have passed, unless they have no family. It is a grave and solemn duty to take the place of their loved ones and commend them to God.
Yes, that is the technical term for the giant dust cloud that descended on Phoenix last night. Besides being the greatest term for anything and an unending source of humor (That's the biggest haboob I have ever seen!), haboobs are actually fairly intense events. The best way to explain it is a warm weather blizzard with almost tornado force winds.
We first noticed the haboob descending on downtown during dinner at our transitional houses. A couple of us went over to start taking pictures. As you can see below, it looked like something out of a disaster movie, especially when it engulfed downtown. I got a few pictures in before I joined the scramble to bring the food and tables inside.
Even native Phoenicians said this was one of the biggest, most intense haboobs they had ever seen. You could not really feel the dust hitting you, but I did feel it in my eyes and it got in my mouth. Once the cloud engulfed us, it was as if it was the middle of the night instead of evening.
I walked back to Mom's house from the transitional houses in the middle of the storm. I was walking down a north-south street, so, since the wind was from the south, I was pushed along by 30-40 mile per hour winds. At one point, I turned around to see a squall of sand approaching me. I turned my back to it and got pelted with sand particles, which felt like getting hit with ice in a blizzard.
The haboob never really moved past us. It seemed like it just dissipated after a while, but not before it had left everything with a nice coating of dust. Usually a rain storm follows a haboob, but we only got a few drops, which is actually more rain than I have seen than in the past six weeks, but nothing close to the monsoon most people were expecting.
Being a first-timer and not owning any property, the haboob was a fun weather novelty. However, Andrew put it in perspective for me. He commented about how much this storm probably affected most of our guests. Many probably could not get shelter from the dust, meaning all their belongings got coated with the dust as seen above. Only a few of them could shower it out of their hair or wash it out of their clothes today at our facility. Natural disasters are no fun for anyone, whether a flooded basement or downed trees, but they always hit the poor worst.
As of today, I have been here in Phoenix a total of six weeks. I only have two weeks left, but I like to think of it as entering the fourth quarter, when I have to play my best or I am just tired and want the game to end. it all depends on my mood.
I have never really introduced you to the staff members with whom I work. Since this is the internet, I am not going to post their entire life stories here, but I am going to give you a general idea of who they are and where they come from.
Andre House has a permanent staff of two: Fr. Eric and Br. Richard. Br Richard has been here almost as long as Andre House has, and Fr. Eric is the director so they do almost all of the administrating, while still making time to work directly with the guests. They are both hysterical to work partners (Fr. Eric's antics are well-documented here), but more than anything they are deeply passionate about serving the poor here.
Each year, a core staff assists this dynamic duo in running Andre House. Andrew, Matt, Liz, Alicia, Lauren, and Valerie will wind up their year of service here, (well Liz is not but that's a complicated story). Liz and Matt have both done a year of Andre House before, while Alicia and Lauren will be staying on staff for next year.
They are a diverse group. Three of them are from Phoenix, one is from Illinois one is from Texas, and one is from Wisconsin. Their ages range from 23 to 31 to one who is a generation ahead of us. Some joined out of a desire to serve, some wanted to gain life skills, while one needed a place to live after leaving grad school. Two had never lived away from home before working here, while one lived out of a car for a while. All are Catholic. All of us except one live together in community in the staff house, which is a riot. More on that later.
Then you have me and the rest of the summer staff who have been lightening the load around here the past few weeks. Josh, Ryan, Andrew and I are from Domerland, the first two being seminarians. Gabby, who has already sadly left, and Lauren are from King's College in Pennsylvania, another Holy Cross school. Finally, Kayla is from Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I would describe us as a rambunctious group, that work hard and play hard.
It has been an interesting experience living with and spending exorbitant amounts of time with this group. Not having any sisters and going to college under the iron fist of parietals, it has been especially eye opening living with girls. One quick story explains how eclectic our community can be.
I am at the hospitality center with Lauren when she gets a text from Liz and Alicia back home. She laughs and the reads me the following message. "Definition of community: Sitting with your best friend in the bathroom catching up and eating cookie dough while she shaves your legs." The image this created in my head was harrowing.
They later corrected the message, saying that they were not shaving each other's legs, just that one was shaving her own. Like that makes the situation any less weird. I guess that's just what girls do. Just don't give me any cooties.