May 4, 2010

Visit to Ms. S's house

Lucas Sharma is a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and volunteers full-time at Bread for the City as the Legal Clinic Coordinator in our Northwest Center. The following post borrows heavily from his personal blog recording his experiences during his year of service (lucassharma.blogspot.com).

Last week, I went on a client visit with Rebecca and Eli to deliver food and a donated television to one of our legal clinic clients. Ms. S lives in the Northeast section of the city. As we drove from our Southeast office across the Anacostia and back into Northeast, the area looked familiar. My roommate Jordan and I had biked to that very intersection during one of our biking expeditions a few weeks prior and had commented on the presence of stores, chain stores, etc… in an area we might not have expected them.

Perhaps one block from this area, an area that includes chain stores and retail development is the building where Ms. S lives. From the outside fa├žade of the client’s building, life looked normal and average – nothing out of the ordinary. As Eli opened the door of the apartment building, I was transported into another world – trash was the first thing I saw in the hallways of the building… cigarette butts lined the floors… We arrived at the top of the stairs to meet Ms. S, who told Eli that we should walk around back of the building to enter her unit. We walked back into the sunshine, around the building, and up a flight of stairs.

This morning I was fishing for a word to describe walking up those back stairs. I think eerie describes the way I felt walking into Ms. S’s apartment building. The dark messy hallways contained large holes in the walls. The doors to the various apartments had violent images of death and corpses graffitied on them. We stepped through a large pile of garbage as we walked toward Ms. S’s apartment – the garbage could have been the home to rats and bed bugs for all I know. We handed Ms. S a bag of food, chatted for a second, and said goodbye.

This is the aspect of poverty I don’t have to see at Bread for the City. The image of Ms. S’s apartment building is imprinted in my mind as a sign of mental illness, the effects of drugs and prostitution, lack of opportunity, hopelessness… the effects of the poverty cycle that is present in our society.

I was more struck here than I was in Zambia. Zambia, an African nation, a nation mired in deep poverty. Walking along the dirt streets of Zambezi, glances at homes with thatch roofs and no running water, with children wearing second- or third-hand clothing from America, with the people staring at the white outsiders. That is an image of poverty too -- an image of some of the world’s most absolute poverty.

I think as Americans, with our media coverage, we’ve been conditioned to know that to expect in Africa. That is the African poverty we expect when we travel there. It is no surprise to us when we see it. Though it tugs at our hearts and we grapple with the site of the poverty, it is exactly what we expected to see.

I live in Washington, DC. The capital of the United States of America, the “richest country in the world.” I live in the same city as the U.S. Capitol building, the White House, the Smithsonian Institution Museums, the Memorials, and the Washington Monument. But I also live in a city where Ms. S lives perhaps worse than the people of Zambia. Ms. S’s apartment is just hidden by the brick exterior. Bricks are hard and sturdy. Bricks don’t reveal what is inside.

To borrow a phrase from Norman Maclean and adapt it to my own experience, I am haunted by the image of Ms. S’s house. I have not lost hope, however. Instead, my experience with Ms. S makes clear my vocation to act with justice, to love tenderly, to serve one another, and to walk humbly with God.

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