It’s so satisfying to help people directly.
For much of my activist life I helped organize things. I did orders and sales for the Greyston Bakery, which subscribes to Open Hiring of its employees, meaning they’ll hire anyone on a list of applicants without asking for information re past jobs, a criminal record, prison time, etc.. I wrote and wrote and wrote: grants for our supportive housing projects, childcare center, and an AIDS center. I wrote profiles, articles, and books to tell the world about efforts by peacemakers around the world. I loved my Zen Peacemaker family and want to make sure it nurtures future generations.
I write checks, I tithe, I speak with people on Zoom. It’s easy to feel good about yourself.
What I’ve missed since my Greyston days is to actually see folks face-to-face.
Indirect service is crucial: sharing ideas, writing up text for web pages, all the endless, invisible planning and structure-building efforts that not only keep things going but also renew them and gives birth to new creations. At the same time, you can fall into the trap of seeing the people you serve as abstractions. Even as you write fancy mission statements about helping, when you stay far it’s easy to lose individuals in favor of stereotypes, to trust data and statistics over personal stories, to lose an authentic sense of connectedness that reminds me I have no monopoly on being a human being..
So, come Wednesday late afternoon, I stop what I’m doing. I match food cards with supermarket receipts and fold them together, bring my envelope of cash, and drive to meet Jimena in the cold, closed porch of her house, where we meet in winter. When it gets warmer we’ll get back to the streets outside.
Slowly people arrive. Women and also men, occasionally with their children. Since they’re undocumented it’s awkward for me to ask if I can take a photo. The adults are often carelessly dressed even when it’s very cold out, but the kids are invariably wrapped in warm coats and jackets.
Jimena reminds them that schools open next week for in-person learning. She often has forms for them to sign and has to explain them at great length in Spanish
“Eve,” she recently told me, “most have had only an elementary school education. No one finished high school. There are some who are not only illiterate in Spanish (forget English), they don’t speak Spanish well but only their own native dialect. They actually learn Spanish here.”
We’re careful with social distance and our masks hide all our smiles and good wishes. Thank God for the wrinkles around my eyes, I think to myself. They now give away not just my age but my heartfelt wishes.
I watch their faces and listen to Jimena, and if it’s been an especially cold and difficult day, or if covid makes me feel like an island lost somewhere in the Arctic Sea I can get discouraged. How are they going to make it? Will they always be working on the farms for wages no one with legal papers would accept?
And what about the macho culture they bring with them from a few countries (not all)? What about homes where birth control is seen as something sluttish when used by a woman and not masculine when used by the man? Where women can’t buy things for themselves even when they earn the money, but have to be accompanied by their husbands who give their okay and take out the cash to pay? Where men who can’t read and write won’t dream of letting their wives call for and pay for the check even when the women are the ones who’re working?
I can feel anger coming up when I hear these stories. And then I remember: My parents also had East European shtetl culture on the brain. They couldn’t imagine their daughter going off to live on her own after high school and told me if I did that I could never come home again. Their son was to be a judge and their daughters mothers, maybe teachers, too, to supplement the family income, nothing else.
For many years my father used to encourage me to move to Israel, telling me how many good secretarial jobs there were for women who were bilingual. I obtained two graduate degrees from Columbia University and he still couldn’t imagine my doing anything else.
But things changed. My brother wasn’t much into studies and never became a judge; his sisters had more advanced degrees than his. More important, we built very different lives for ourselves than those my parents envisaged for us.
“Any good news?” I ask Jimena.
“Things always change,” she says, turning suddenly into a Buddhist. “And by the way, can we give someone $700 for rent?”
“Along with food cards for next week?” I say dubiously, trying to remember how much was in the account last time I checked.
“You see that woman who just left with the shopping card?”
“The one in the pink jacket with whom you talked for a long time?” I feel my lack of Spanish acutely, there isn’t a Wednesday when I don’t wish I could do more than hand out food cards and say: “Para usted y su familia. Con todo corazon.“ I wish I could babble away like Jimena.
“Her daughter came to join her from Atlanta with a baby. Valentina was already living with another family so when the daughter came the landlord said they have to move. The daughter made it to Atlanta when she was 16, I think she was already pregnant don’t ask me how she made it. Over there she gave birth and took care of the baby alone even as she went to high school, she got very good grades. Now she’s moved here and I am trying to help her transfer her high school records from Atlanta to here so that she could graduate in May. They found an apartment and I helped her get first and last month rents together, but in addition they still need to make a deposit.”
“So, what’s the good news?” I ask. Maybe she’ll say that $700 monthly rent is pretty good in this area.
“Aren’t you listening, Eve? She has very high grades. She can graduate with an excellent record and go to college. She really wants to build a life for herself. She raised a baby all alone in a strange new place from the time she was 16 and she kept up with her studies and she will finish here and will go on and learn. She will build something different, you will see.”
As I did, I think to myself. And I wasn’t pregnant and didn’t give birth all alone in a strange city and a strange language even while going to high school. And I’m the one getting discouraged?
“We’ll have the money for them,” I tell her.
Who am I to get discouraged? What do I know how much life there is even in this world’s very margins, how quickly things turn, and the power of deep faith and imagination?
It was a beautiful sunset when I finally left in the early evening (see above).
My job is just to ask for help in these posts and come Wednesday afternoon give to those who need face-to-face. You can’t join me face-to-face, but you can help here below. Thank you.
You can also send a check either to support my blog or to buy food cards for immigrant families to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line what you are donating to. Thank you.