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May 20, 2012

Images of Community

by carrollministry

I think it’s a good sign that I spent an entire week participating in a service immersion experience and wasn’t able to find any time to write an entry for our group’s blog. Even though the twelve of us have returned from Los Angeles, I know that our journey will continue. As I process all that I witnessed and encountered over the past week, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on a concept that incorporates so much of what I experienced: community.

Community = open doors

Delores Mission is a church without walls. I am struck by the Delores Mission logo, which depicts a building made of people, and I can’t think of a more appropriate image for a church. For many years, before the mission built an additional structure to house the homeless overnight, the church itself was used as a shelter. You can still see the scrapes and chipped paint along the sidewalls caused by many mattresses drug from storage each night and laid on the floor and the pews.

I was also humbled by the willingness of community members to open their homes and host us overnight. Tessa, Mary, and I stayed with Rosa, her husband, and their three children. Each night as we arrived at the family’s home very late, Rosa (alerted by her 3 chiwawas) would greet us at the door. On Thursday evening we enjoyed a meal with the family, which included pupusas, traditional Salvadoran stuffed tortillas, and great conversation.

This image of an open door is truly radical, especially in this place. In a community accustomed to crime and violence, I expected to encounter gates, barred windows and locked doors not just literally, but also figuratively. As we said goodbye to Delores Mission and Boyle Heights, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude toward this community that responds to violence with openness and love.

Community = family

While we were staying at the mission we continually heard of the escalating violence that had led to three recent gang-related homicides. Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries explains that many men and women who become part of gangs are under the illusion that the gang will provide unconditional acceptance and love – like a family. As many eventually learn, this acceptance and love is conditional and can disappear very quickly.

Throughout this immersion trip, I was continually reminded of how connected we are as a human family. Living in Montana, I’m not exposed to homelessness and violence to the same extent that I witnessed on Skid Row and in Boyle Heights. Very rarely do I meet undocumented immigrants or hear about gang-related crime. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not affected, nor does it mean that I can ignore any of these issues. I am returning home not only with my stories but also with the stories of others whose faces are fresh in my mind and whose words are fresh in my heart. As Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Community = reconciliation

One of our most difficult visits as a group was to Skid Row where we witnessed the effects of drug-related homelessness in an incredibly uncomfortable first-hand manner. Personally, I walked away from the experience very disheartened. When reflecting on the experience with others, I learned that I wasn’t alone.

One of our last visits before leaving Los Angeles was to the Office of Restorative Justice, an organization that responds to Jesus’ invitation to walk with both the victim and the prisoner in a very concrete way by reaching out to victims of violent crime, the incarcerated, and the families of both. Violent crime is so divisive and leads to many people feeling excluded and ostracized. It was so uplifting to hear about the specific way that this office is facilitate healing and forgiveness.

I have begun to experience reconciliation in a small way since visiting Skid Row. I have learned that it is only in community that I can sort out my feelings and find even the smallest ray of hope in an incredibly broken situation. The Office of Restorative Justice provided an amazing lens with which to gaze through, and I feel as though I’m returning to Montana with renewed faith and conviction that specific steps can be taken to restore wholeness within our own communities.

-Stephanie Pung

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