Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What Keeps Us from Flying

One of my favorite quotations comes from Orville Wright. I originally read it on the back of a t-shirt that I later purchased while on vacation in Kitty Hawk, NC. It was a family vacation and I was fairly young, but it has always stuck with me.

“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.” – Orville Wright

Orville was of course describing the previous assumption that flight for anything other than birds was impossible. But Orville and Wilbur didn’t accept that as truth. They challenged the assumptions and engineered the first airplane! Now look at where we are, easily flying across continents and oceans in a couple of hours.

I wore that same t-shirt to a demonstration last night by the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in LA. Inspired by Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., the organization LA Voice put together a prayer vigil “for dignity and justice.” The program started with a Muslim call to prayer and was followed by messages given by other religious leaders, as well as testimonies of former criminals and immigrants. Their messages were all centered on the Pope’s prayers for creating good jobs, being good stewards of the climate, criminal justice reform, and dignity for immigrant families.

Twin Towers Jail

We assume so much in this country. Even those of us who already think we are progressive and open to new ideas have underlying biases and ingrained stereotypes of different people that we so often fail to see. I would describe myself to be a progressive, liberal thinker. And yet here I am in Los Angeles, working with the homeless and being flabbergasted by the end of every day reflecting on the people I encountered. They are so often nothing like I have imagined them to be.

In light of my ever changing perspective on what it means to live without a home, here are some assumptions I have found deep within my very own “open” mind.

1. The man or woman talking to themselves could fly into a rage at any moment.
2. It is dangerous to walk through an area of tents on the sidewalk.
3. That person passed out in the corner is sleeping off a drug high.
4. This woman has probably sold her body at some point.
5. That old man is so quiet he wouldn’t want to talk to us.
6. The guy always starting fights with his neighbors has really bad anger issues.
7. The woman who yells everything she says must have a mental disability.
8. We should really talk to that white, tattoo-less man. I bet he just needs a small push back on his feet.
9. The guy always complaining that others pick on him must be doing something to bring it on himself.
10.That woman must not care about her children.

These are the thoughts that have kept me from flying. What are yours?
The scene one morning at one of my outreach locations.
Many assumptions were made by all.

I am ashamed to share this list with you. I am ashamed that these thoughts have ever crossed my mind. But I am proud that every day I can turn some of these around; stop them from happening again. My assumptions were not true. Here is the truth.

That person talking to themselves will most likely be ecstatic to talk to a real person.
2. Those tents are people’s places of residence. They have no reason to harm you as you pass by and they carry on with their daily chores.
3. That person we can’t easily wake up is absolutely exhausted. Their daily tasks of walking long distances and searching for food are unimaginable to me.
4. This woman has likely been a victim of rape, depending on how long she has been out here.
5. That old man hasn’t told his story to anyone in 2 years after 20 years on the street. He will be the kindest, gentlest, most humble soul you may ever meet, and his story will be one of incredible strength.
6. The guy lashing out in anger is really reaching out for love and attention.
7. The woman who yells is actually deaf. Her boyfriend is also deaf and she speaks sign language to him. She is not mentally challenged, she is bilingual.
8. That white man already has a full time, minimum wage job, but he struggles to jump through all of the hoops we throw at him.
9. That guy getting picked on has a mental illness and has been the victim of bullying all his life. He was born this way and has done nothing to bring it on himself.
10. The woman is a victim of domestic violence which led to PTSD and the loss of her children.

 And from all of these assumptions I have challenged, beautiful things have started to happen. I am not afraid to strike up a conversation with someone who is talking to themselves. Some of those conversations go better than others, but I am proud to say I actually look forward to their eccentricity! I have also found that approaching people with genuine joy to be there can easily open the biggest can of worms you could ever ask for. But they are good worms! All nuggets of information that we can use to put them in the right kind of housing, and stories that turn them from clients into friends.

I am so happy to be here in Los Angeles. I am so happy to be working at PATH where everyone is passionate about ending homelessness. And I am ecstatic to be building my own version of a flying machine that I can ride for the rest of my life, looking down on all of the broken assumptions I operated by for so long.

Friends Ambar and Rowena camping out to see the Blood Moon
View of LA from Griffith Observatory

Hollywood sunset

The city of angels
The table is set. Will you join us?

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