“Good luck with achieving all your dreams.” “Sick of the System.” “God bless.” “Mom is drunk again.” The graffiti in the public bathroom at Santa Monica Pier exposed the stark contrast between two very different living circumstances in LA within just a few hours of my getting off the plane. Walking through the park, I looked to my right and saw people lying on the grass next to a shopping cart with all their belongings. To my left, I saw million-dollar oceanside condos. I remember being stunned and confused by this odd juxtaposition of lifestyles.
That night, we went to Mass at St. Monica’s, a beautiful, energetic Church near the Pier. In his homily, the priest asked us to think of one word we can strive to live out in 2016, something we can return to in good times and bad, something that draws us into deeper relationship with God, others, and ourselves. The word I chose was “wholeness,” and it became the framework for my trip.
On Tuesday, Paul, the head of the kitchen at Union Rescue Mission, took some time out of preparing lunch to tell us his story. He had a very difficult childhood, and had seen a lot of hard things. But he was able to turn his life around and now finds fulfillment in in giving back to the community and working with others. He said something that really struck me – we are always looking for God to come down and talk to us directly, for some sort of clear vision that would just tell us exactly what to do. We get frustrated when we can’t seem to hear or feel Him. But God does talk to us – He uses messengers; we just forget to look for Him in them. How much do we miss by forgetting to look for God in our neighbor? We may miss a nudge in a specific direction for a career or relationship, but more importantly, we miss the opportunity to love God in that person. We become whole when we allow the presence of God that dwells in each of us to be most fully alive through love of neighbor and self. That requires an element of vulnerability, openness, and intentional relationship building. Those things were epitomized in our conversation with Paul and many times throughout the week. Even though Paul and I come from very different backgrounds and went forth that day to very different lives, in that moment, we were whole.
The same message about God being present through other people was also offered to us by José, a man we just happened to meet outside a Church. He had a similar story to Paul, and, also like Paul, he continued to come back to God’s goodness and love, giving Him all the credit for his recovery. Midway through talking with us, José asked if we knew God’s name. This had me puzzled for a minute, but Gabe answered, “Yahweh.” “Yes! And what does that mean?” José asked. We recognized what he meant as he said it. “Yahweh means ‘I am.’” I am. The Spirit of God dwells within me and in the people on Skid Row and the homies at Homeboy Industries and the women and children at Good Shepherd – in everyone. We have a responsibility to live in such a way that His Spirit is conveyed to every person we meet. When we allow ourselves to become truly present to an encounter with someone, the pieces of God inside each of us, colored by our own personalities and experiences, can be united, and we are whole.
I felt that wholeness so many times on the LA immersion. I felt it with Paul and José on Tuesday, and with Emma’s community who opened their home to us for dinner. I felt it with Paco on Wednesday at Homeboy Industries, and with Big Joe and a fellow volunteer on Thursday at the Catholic Worker. I felt it with the other immersion participants while we did dishes at record speed, learned about where we each come from, shared meals, reflections, and prayers together, and laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. I felt it with the two Marianist communities who opened their homes to us for meals and fellowship. The genuine, raw, complete love I witnessed that week was unlike any other.
But I also saw a lot of pain and suffering. People shouldn’t have to live in cardboard boxes that get destroyed when it rains. People shouldn’t have to sleep outside. People shouldn’t have to worry for their safety while they walk to school. But they do. How can that be? I think that’s the other part of wholeness. Part of being whole is accepting the bad along with the good. The pain along with the beauty. The sorrow along with the joy. So, rather than the contrast that struck me that first day, perhaps it was simply a big dose of wholeness. It caught me off-guard, and I didn’t quite understand it yet. I still don’t, fully. But I see. LA doesn’t have to be divided. We simply have to realize that part of the whole is hurting, and we are called to work together can to alleviate that pain.
Since LA, I have continued to focus on wholeness and how it applies to my day-to-day life. Am I present to my relationships back home with my family and friends? Do I look up while I walk to class, open to the possibility of encounter, or am I distracted by that one last text I need to send? And, perhaps most difficult, do I accept the bad along with the good, when it comes along? Accepting doesn’t mean passively ignoring it, but rather taking a deep breath and continuing to walk through it. There is ample opportunity each day for me to put these ideas into motion, and I have started doing a few things to help facilitate that – donating four items each month, refraining from complaints about the weather, and writing down something I am thankful for every day. Working on simplicity, positivity, and gratitude is helping me continue to process the immersion. I think about it every day, and I still struggle to grasp parts of it. But I know the crux of the experience was pure love, and that is love is insurmountable – it is whole.
University of Dayton