How cities have shown me who matters
Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, October 16, 2019
I’m not much of a city girl. Any of my friends can tell you you’ll sooner see me in a National Park than joining streams of nameless crowds in downtown Manhattan or the heart of Chicago. Yet I’ve spent a decent amount of time in cities during my time at Notre Dame, and not just in the thriving South Bend metropolis. I have participated in two Urban Plunge service-learning immersions through the Center for Social Concerns, and each one has led me to a paradoxical and poignant realization about what — or, better, who — matters. It’s not about reconnecting myself with nature: it’s about people, because it’s people who matter and form a Church of action, justice and hope.
My first Urban Plunge experience brought my team to Minneapolis during the two coldest days of that winter season — so cold, in fact, there was a health emergency in the city as public officials struggled to find enough shelter spaces for people experiencing homelessness to stay. When I heard about one Minnesotan organization’s housing-first model to approach poverty, the weather outside made me think about how important it is to get people into their own homes, not just for the sake of empowering them to change their lives, but also for their safety and well-being. I was startled with my own privilege: even on an immersion learning about the realities of poverty, I had a rich and comfortable place to sleep in a local church. Public health crises and emergency winter shelters won’t put people under roofs forever, but giving them ownership to live in their space and to change their lives may. People matter enough to have the right to stable and warm housing.
On our second night in Minneapolis we headed to dinner with a non-profit which provides free meals to anybody who arrives. I didn’t realize that this meant us, too. Though I had served meals in food kitchens and shelters before, I had never been on the receiving side of the counter, nor had I ever learned the names of any of the people I’d served. Things changed during this dinner. Following the guests, we walked through the food line and chose seats at tables scattered through the dining space. It wasn’t long after I sat down when my table neighbor asked me a question, and not long after that before I was floored listening to her life story. I marveled that I had never once thought a true act of hospitality could be sitting among people and receiving their stories and truths. People matter enough to not just be given a meal, but to be given a space to initiate and enjoy a conversation.
I met Roger (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy) the next day on a tour of the city, an experience distinct from the typical historical or cultural urban tour. Roger had experienced houselessness in the Twin Cities for almost a decade, intermittently trading his tents for beds in shelters; he based his Minneapolis tour on his haunts during those years without a house. Walking through public buildings that blasted heat in the cold winter days, he told us how he used to linger in these spaces, not long enough to get booted out for loitering, but just long enough to warm his feet. We visited a street corner where, on a friendly day, he would stand with a sign and make close to $100. He pointed out the tent camp where he used to find community with other folks experiencing houselessness. When I was introduced to him, Roger had a different reality. He was a seven-year homeowner and worked full time, thanks to the advocacy of a local non-profit. His past encounters with poverty, alcohol abuse and arrest didn’t hold him back from a different encounter with an organization who saw him as dignified and deserving of work and a home of his own. People matter enough to earn a second chance (and a third, and a fourth).
Dorothy Day wrote in her autobiography, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our brother, and living close to him in community so we can show our love to Him.” Yes, I love the outdoors, the more rural, uninhabited, wilder spaces in our world. But I also love people, especially people dwelling in our urban environments. I love working with them, walking with them, sharing meals and moments of life with them in community. I love challenging myself to dig deeper into these communities to find ways to make change — even if change is as quiet as learning someone’s name and listening to their story.
People have helped me see mercy and goodness in cities. It is people who matter, and it is people who carry the power and hope of Christ to the world.
CSC Seminars Task Force
Applications for Urban Plunge: Church and Social Action 2019-2020 are open until Sunday, November 3 at 11:59pm. Find your Plunge on socialconcerns.nd.edu, and reach out to [email protected] or [email protected] with any questions.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.