The Summer of Opportunity

This summer I have been interning in the social services department at Bread for the City in Washington, DC. Bread for the City offers a variety of services including food, clothing, medical care, legal and social services to low-income residents of Washington, DC. The mission of this organization is to create an atmosphere of dignity and respect “recognizing that all people share a common humanity, and that all are responsible to themselves and to society as a whole.” After just a few short weeks living in DC and having the honor of working at such an impressive organization, I know my experiences this summer will be affecting nearly all of my decisions that I make in the near future, and possibly alter the way I view things for the rest of my life.  I feel blessed to be working in an environment that focuses on a holistic approach to ending poverty; offering love and support in all different directions. I am part of an organization whose values seem to mesh so well with my own. The affection and support I see the rest of the staff give to each other and to every client is inspiring. They work to develop strong and lasting relationships with their clients, seeing these individuals as more than just a poverty statistic.

The social services department allows any district resident to come in during walk-in hours and speak with a case manager for any sort of help they may need, from housing to food to legal troubles to applying for various public benefits. Each client goes through an in-take process, which I have had the pleasure to take part in. These clients have allowed me to see life through entirely different lenses and give me a greater perspective on various social issues. This intake process allows me to sit down one-on-one and assess each clients’ needs and provide information and referrals to help link individuals with appropriate services.  Bread for the City uses “a strengths-based approach, listening intently to the needs of each individual in order to build relationships and work towards self-sufficiency. What begins with a referral and a few simple conversations can lead to more intensive case management, where goals are established and individuals work one-on-one with a case manager to address such issues as unemployment, substance abuse, a housing crisis, or mental or physical health challenges.”

It’s been overwhelming and extremely enlightening to work in this particular department. I have never felt so engaged in something before. I spend my free time at work researching information on subsidized housing, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, TANF, DC Housing Authority, and any other resources that are available for those living in poverty here in DC. I have never felt this type of thirst for knowledge before; I have never been so curious about understanding and educating myself. My heart has forced my mind to try and think critically about solutions to poverty and how we as a community can help address that problem in this city, inspiring change to those around us. I go to sleep every night by 11 pm, physically exhausted by a long day at work but always feeling so spiritually alive. Each day at work brings new challenges and frustrations, but it also brings more joy and continues to light the flame of passion I have within myself. I fall in love with my job and the clients here at Bread for the City more and more each day. This organization and the individuals I have met here in DC have consumed a part of my soul; my heart and mind feel so connected to the people I have come into contact with. This internship is more than just a summer job; it’s all I think about, it’s all I want to talk about and I love it. Unfortunately no matter how much I talk about it, my words cannot do these feelings justice, nor can they do the people or things I have experienced justice. I wish I had a better way to explain the way my heart makes my whole chest pound when a client smiles at me after a conversation, or the smile I get on my face when I am able to witness a small spark of hope in the eyes of those struggling. The feelings my body is overcome with cannot be put into words, and for once I am content with that. I am happy just soaking up this love and letting this relaxing, peaceful breeze slowly ripple through my entire body.

My main role in this department is to help with the Housing Access Program (HAP). This program helps provide general information on DC’s low-income housing options and ensures that our community is aware of the resources and agencies that can help. HAP also provides in-depth assistance with site-based section 8 housing, helping clients identify the specific buildings with open waiting lists at which they are eligible to apply, helping them complete those applications, and giving guidance on the follow-up and communication process with various buildings once those applications are submitted.” This has been such an eye-opening program to work with. Currently the DC Housing Authority has a waiting list of thousands of people trying to get into subsidized housing. If a client’s name was put on that list this past April before the list was finally closed, they were told they would have to wait 40 years to be housed. 40 years. I do not want to even try and reflect on that at this moment because I will never understand what it’s like to be told “no” or feel ignored for 40 years of my life. Despite these complications with the DC Housing Authority, our HAP here at Bread for the City has located 100 privately owned buildings (separate from the DC Housing Authority) that offer subsidized housing. The main thing we do is give this list of buildings out to people with the open waiting lists that they are eligible to apply for and then sit with them on-on-one or in a group to help them through the long and often frustrating application process. The experiences I have had during these housing clinics are something that I will have to go into more detail later because it has defined my thinking so much these past few weeks. I have been left filled with mixtures of frustration, anger, sadness, empathy, and joy that are extremely hard to express.

I think a lot of these feelings come from the lack of knowledge and understanding that the majority of our country seems to have about these issues. I have grown up right outside this city my entire life and I feel ashamed that I never understood what an enormous problem homelessness and affordable housing is for those living in poverty. These issues faced by low-income DC residents have sadly become a sort of omnipresence in our world, much like the air we breathe. We know it exists all around us but if we walk by and hold our noses, we can pretend like it’s not a problem. This is not the way I want to live my life; I do not want to wait until that air becomes suffocating before we fix it, and I do not want to live in a country that allows these types of injustices to go unnoticed. We are an intelligent nation and I refuse to believe that we are doing the best we can to provide for ourselves and one another. And I also refuse to let the knowledge and experiences I have gained at this organization go to waste by failing to find out what my ‘something’ is in transforming this world and do that ‘something’ very well.

Often times in our society it seems that many people let the idea that we belong to each other escape our minds. We classify ourselves into different groups or categories based on class, race, culture, and socioeconomic status. We draw invisible lines in our minds that separate us from one another and embed this idea of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ into the social structures of our world. And the minute we as a society draw these boundaries, our social structures become tainted and we lose our ability to engage with reality, by ignoring our responsibility to one another. We spend entirely too much time emphasizing the secondary differences of our world that we forget about the oneness of humanity. My first few weeks working at Bread for the City and living in DC has reminded me of this oneness, this great pull in us all to love and connect with one another. The look of love I have seen in the eyes of these DC residents has allowed me to begin to imagine the world that God has created for us, one based on self-giving love and kinship. God has helped open my eyes and my heart to a new way to experience summer and I owe it not only to myself ,but to the people I have meet here in DC, to be truly present for these moments, opening my heart and my mind to whatever comes my way. Leaving my expectations at the door and allowing that unconditional love I have encountered here to pour out from the center of my being. The people I have had the pleasure to encounter have allowed me to feel a continual presence of God within another person, a feeling I have never felt for such an extended period of time.

It’s hard to try and sum up the first few weeks of my experiences here in DC. I know I began my first week feeling overwhelmed, nervous, loaded with responsibility, enthusiastic and eager. And those same feeling are still with me; but I would have to say the joy I feel at work each day tops all of those. I still feel a bit naïve at times in the office, and get upset at myself for not doing everything perfect right away. But I know that I am helping, and that is a great feeling. Everyone in the department has been asking for my help and given me a lot of responsibility. They are trusting me with our clients here and that feels great. Sometimes I want to offer my support in so many different directions, but it’s hard and I still have much to learn about the way social services operate here in DC. There are a lot of barriers and holes one must jump through to get assistance and sometimes I wish I could do something to make the process easier for those suffering; and who knows, maybe one day I can. But this summer has allowed me the opportunity to take a step back and take a long loving look at the world. I have realized that the idea of peace or equality may be beyond my view. I cannot do everything; I can accomplish only a small finite amount of God’s kingdom. No matter how much I passion I put into my lifestyle, I cannot fix everything. I cannot change the life of every client I speak with, or often my attention to every single person I see out of the street asking for money. But what I can do is help lay the foundation of justice and love, so that one day maybe our world can live in peace. By developing a “well-educated solidarity” and action orientated commitment to justice, I can become part of a world that strengthens one another through direct contact, giving preference for the marginalized and thus inspiring others to do the same. By living my life with love for humanity, I have the potential to ignite a spark within another person, one that I may never see, but none the less opening our world towards a better future. And frankly, coming to this realization has been a very scary thing. I have the potential to do something and do it very well. But that requires a lot of spiritual, mental, and emotional strength…something that I know I can get from God and those around me if I open my heart to such an encounter.

Poverty is regrettably such a huge part of humanity and it has never felt so real to me. I look at everyone I pass during the day and I have felt nothing but love radiating from the center of their being. I don’t think I have ever felt my whole body smiling so much in one day. I feel my happiness becoming bound up in the happiness of others. In order to transform our world, we must learn to imagine ourselves united by a chain of love. This requires us to inch our ways out to the margins and stand in solidarity with the voiceless, powerless, and those whose dignity has been ignored. Kinship must be our ultimate goal; we must learn to recognize the intrinsic value of every human being, regardless of circumstance. We belong to one another. It’s as simple as that. I hope that someday the vision of this organization, and the one I hold in my heart, — recognizing a community in which all people, regardless of circumstance, have access to the resources they need to live with dignity and respect — will be a vision shared and expressed by the leadership of our country.

Like every new experience, big or small, this summer has the potential to impact me in so many ways. But it’s up to me to open myself up to this experience; and remind myself to ask God for guidance whenever I am feeling overwhelmed. My words will never be able to do justice to these experiences or paint the perfect picture of the beautiful encounters that I have been blessed to have with so many people thus far this summer, but that is okay. One thing I hope for myself is to remember each day to take a step back and breathe in the holy spirit, realizing God’s presence around me. It’s amazing how much one slow breathe can do for me. It reminds me of where I am and whom I belong to. I feel at peace with myself and all those around me. Ending this reflection with a favorite poem of mine; it reminds me to live my life with a full moon in each eye, letting all those around me feel that sweet moon language…

With That Moon Language

Admit something;

Everyone you see, you say to them,

“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;

Otherwise,

Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,

This great pull in us

To connect,

Why not become the one

Who lives with a full moon in each eye

That is always saying,

With that sweet moon language,

What every other eye in this world

Is dying to

Hear. –Hafiz