Bearing witness to the streets of San Diego
This October, I participated in a street retreat with Genro Roshi and three practitioners. The four-day bearing witness practice had us walking all throughout downtown San Diego from park canyons to trolley side soup kitchens. Equipped with less than minimal supplies, my perception of my hometown was changed drastically.
Genro Roshi, an international street retreat veteran from Hudson River Zen Center, led our street sangha (Herb, Ando, Melissa and I). This group became vital for my own sanity. It was a delight diving into bearing witness to homelessness and still crack jokes with my friends every step of the way.
The meal servings became our retreat schedule. I remember marching up and down, hill after hill to sit in line for an hour. This was followed by an hour to an hour and a half of Christian services and then the meal. The group whose company I enjoyed the most was the City of Refuge. We first spotted them on the MLKjr Park Promenade simply offering snacks and coffee to anyone. The next day we hiked up to their communal house in Logan Heights where we were welcomed and fed. Much to my surprise, I did not go hungry while on the streets. Even during hours when no meals were served, food was available. Vans and trucks routinely pulled up to 17th and Island who passed out fried chicken, clam chowder (delicious by the way), ham sandwiches, juice, water, rice and beans, and fruit.
Sleeping in downtown was quite a challenge. My first night was just short of horrible. We settled on a spot in the Redwood Circle of Balboa Park along 6th Ave. While at first I thought it was well hidden away, many people walked by all through the evening…one person even woke us up to have a conversation. An hour later, the sprinklers doused me head to toe in one fell swoop. I had left my blanket at home thinking the night wouldn’t be cold. The constant breeze took all my body heat away and along with my wet clothes and a jacket I found, I shivered almost the entire night. I’ve dubbed this the coldest night of my life.
Within two hours of getting up for breakfast, I was given a blanket. A store-house just around the corner from God’s Extended Hand takes requests for clothing and supplies then hands them out for free. All I did was simply ask and I was personally escorted. The homeless are more than willing to help and boy are they resourceful!
There are all kinds of people living on the streets. The very first woman I spoke with named Beth just happened to be a past resident of a Zen Center in Colorado. I met a disabled man named Anthony who knew the very best and the very worst places to sleep in all the city. There is no real majority of “type” or “kind.” Every person has a unique situation and an intriguing story. I even came across a woman who didn’t want ANYONE speaking to her at all.
On another side, there are many housed people who didn’t want anyone the streets speaking with them. This was painstakingly apparent during the begging portion of the retreat. Herb and Ando, Melissa and I paired up and set out to ask for money. The trickiest part was letting go of my ideas of who will and who won’t give. There is no way to know this. I held out my worn down cardboard coffee cup and asked for change. First sparingly and then faster as my ideas began to fade. I felt so embarrassed at first as I begged in front of a busy restaurant with patio seating. What soon hit me was my own invisibility. Most housed people forced themselves not to make eye contact. This stone-walling left me dejected and quite discouraged from wanting to make any communication. At the end of an hour, I had rounded up $2.54 and a couple of pears from a fruit booth. These small tokens yielded a huge amount of appreciation in myself.
A strong element that kept our group grounded was the meditation, council and Day of Reflection services each day. We were given the space to experience our hearts, share from the heart and vow to kept the practice alive throughout the entire journey downtown.
This path has shocked me out of my normal routine and lit up my sense of home to where ever I take myself. If I were to sum up the whole experience in one word, it would be: rich.
Here’s a video of Genro’s Dharma talk on Street Retreats