Thursday, July 30, 2015

Umbrellas and Gratitude

by Clara Summers

I believe that giving and receiving gratitude is a good practice in one’s life. Science backs me up on this. This blog post is less a meditation on my year than a thank you to all the people who made it what it was.

Early on in my ESC year, I found myself on an unfamiliar street, after dark, in the pouring rain, without a raincoat or umbrella.

I had spent the evening unsuccessfully trying to navigate the Baltimore bus system to get to an outreach meeting. After three buses (the same route, but going three different places!) and a twenty-block walk, I arrived 45 minutes late to my meeting, soaking wet. I stumbled through a five-minute presentation, drawing little interest from those I was meeting with, and traipsed back outside to catch a bus that (the internet told me) would take me straight home. Instead, I ended up in an unknown neighborhood.

I was pretty miserable. The evening had been too long, too wet, and too frustrating. The meeting hadn’t been productive, and now I was lost.[1]
“Can you give me the number of a taxi?” I called my housemate, Kelly, fighting off tears.
“Are you ok? I’ll come pick you up. Where are you?”
Kelly figured out my location and set off to be my Housemate Hero of the Day. As I waited in the rain, an older woman walked by me into one of the nearby rowhouses. I didn’t think anything of it, and continued to stare into the rain.

The next thing I knew, the woman had returned and was holding out a pink umbrella. “This is for you,” she said.
“Oh my goodness, that’s so nice of you. Are you sure? I don’t want to take it away from you, and I couldn’t get any wetter than I already am.” I answered.
“Yes I’m sure, I don’t want you to catch cold,” she insisted.
I thanked the woman, took the umbrella, and watched as she returned to her house. In a few minutes, Kelly arrived, and I gratefully climbed into her car, finally on my way home.
Even though I'm vegetarian, I like that this
is the quintessential Baltimore restaurant.

I often think of the woman and her pink umbrella. She was my guardian angel that night, giving me something she knew she wouldn’t get back, and showing her care for a stranger she could have easily ignored. For me, she exemplifies much of my relationship with Baltimore. Sometimes things were tough, and all I wanted was to be gone or out of whatever difficult situation I found myself in. But time and time again, Baltimore and its inhabitants came through for me in more ways than I ever anticipated. Whether it was strangers or new friends, people looked out for me and brought me into their communities, showing me that I had a place with them and in Baltimore.

I’ve struggled to find ways to express my gratitude to all the people who took me under their wing this year. So here, in my imperfect way, I will do my best to thank some of the communities that shaped my year, mostly without naming individuals (you know who you are). Warning: if you don’t like gratuitous gratitude, here is where you stop reading.

Thank you, dancers: One of the ways that I acclimatize myself to a new place is by going out and participating in activities. At the beginning, this took the form of participating in the Community Project, a collaborative dance class and performance organized by The Collective as a program of Free Fall Baltimore. The experience of co-creating choreography and getting to dance with Baltimoreans of all dance levels was rewarding, and gave me my first taste of the friendliness and community that I now associate with this city. I went on to frequent contra dance, a program of the Baltimore Folk Music Society, and decompressed at Charm City Yoga.

Thank you, friends: Aside from the people I met through dance, I was very fortunate in that I chanced upon like-minded people throughout the year, and quickly had a network of friends who were always up for getting together to cook, listen to music, go to events, or simply relax and talk. These friends gave me rides, invited me over to their homes, introduced me to others, shared my joys, and supported me when I was down.

Thank you, church: Early on in my year I was introduced to six:eight United Church of Christ, which became my church home. I spent my Sunday evenings in worship with this intimate group of bluegrass-playing Jesus-loving justice warriors (some of whom were my colleagues!). Basically it was a church community that was designed for me, and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.

Thank you, colleagues: The most defining aspect of my year was my work. I had the privilege of collaborating with an amazing network of climate activists and faith leaders this year. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, especially about organizing and policy, but also about faith and how to be a good human. Many of my colleagues became my personal friends, which has been a wonderful part of this year.

Thank you, IPL: I couldn’t have asked for a better site placement. The IPL team is made up of powerful women who are changing DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia one climate-conscious congregation at a time. They have taught me so much, and their unfailing support and trust in me allowed me to do things I never thought I could do. Talk about professional development! You know you’re in a good workplace when staff meetings start with professional and personal updates, and your supervisors encourage you to go for extra fellowships, even if it will take up work time. I’ve spent this year learning from the best. I’ll probably be pretty spoiled going forward, since I know what good management and a supportive work environment looks like now ;-).

Thank you, ESC: There are a variety of models out there for service corps, but I think ESC has found the right one. I looked forward to Reflection Seminar each week; Thursday afternoons turned into a sort of extra Sabbath for me. Retreats throughout the year kept us grounded, community dinners provided social connection, and having a Spiritual Mentor was a huge source of support. The people involved in ESC were also incredibly supportive of my work with IPL: they signed clergy sign-on letters, and the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels (which owns Gilead House) even signed up for 100% wind electricity. All of the clergy and lay leaders who put their time into ESC are outstanding individuals, and I’m glad I got to have them in my life.

Thank you, fellow Gileads: Last but not least are my housemates. You put up with me this year! There were rough times, there were good times, and we’ve made it through. Each person in the house, at one time or another, acted as my Housemate Hero of the Day (special shout out to Margaret, who, as my roommate, was a huge support). This took a variety of forms, including but not limited to: giving me massages, picking up bubble tea, feeding me when I was sick, or simply listening attentively. From you all, I finally fully comprehend that there is no one ideal set of skills or character traits—there are endless combinations, and all have their unique and powerful contribution to the world.

In summary, people treated me very well this year, and I’m so grateful. Everywhere I went in Baltimore, I met people who were dedicated to making the world and their city a better place. Learning from these people, and seeing all the great work being done by religious communities, has strengthened my faith and commitment to creating positive change. Thanks for feeding my soul. Our paths will cross again!

[1] Those of you who know me will remember that I don’t have a smart phone, so I am actually still capable of getting lost.