[CenterfortheWorkingPoor] An Update from the Center for the Working Poor / Flowers in the Dumpster and more

Center for the Working Poor centerfortheworkingpoor at gmail.com
Tue Jul 24 03:40:45 UTC 2007



Dear friend,
 

            At the Center for the Working Poor we are continuing to live 
out our mission as a community living in voluntary poverty and serving 
the poor. You may have first heard of us not too long ago when we had 
just one full-time volunteer. We have since grown to a house of seven 
with four-full time volunteers. Our mission is growing, too. More and 
more families are coming to us looking for support in times of crisis. 
And we are finding new ways to support them in their struggle for a 
living wage.

            We hope you enjoy the most recent update about the Center. 
Paul calls it "Looking for flowers in the dumpster." As the title 
suggests, we live simple lives here at the Center. At the moment we have 
barely enough to carry out our work for the next few months. Your 
generous donations are always appreciated.

 

(Donations can be made online at www.centerfortheworkingpoor.org 
<http://www.centerfortheworkingpoor.org/>, or mailed to 1289 Bellevue 
Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90026)

 

 

 

*Looking For Flowers In The Dumpster*

          

I am still running the Center for the Working Poor (aka the Burning Bush 
Community), delivering food to families of the working poor, writing and 
speaking about issues of poverty, and supporting local living wage and 
immigrant rights campaigns. In the last seven months, there have been 
some big changes at "the Center." Then again, the whole journey thus far 
has been a whirlwind. It was just a year and half ago that I left my 
professional career at a labor union (running boycotts and organizing 
workers), donated my money to the common good, and started living in 
voluntary poverty. The result was the start of this intentional 
community, based on Gandhian principles and the lessons of the Catholic 
Worker movement. Shortly thereafter a new immigrant rights movement 
erupted, opening the minds and hearts of the union leadership to a 
vision of bigger protests for living wages. Finally, some of my dreams 
of massive non-violent civil disobedience were actualized. Only a few 
weeks later a good friend of mine flew me to her wedding in India. It 
was an honor and an adventure, and I could not have anticipated what all 
it would involve. In the end, I talked with the Tibetan prime minster in 
exile. Two months later, I was back in LA. We moved into a larger house 
of hospitality to accommodate our growing community. We serve a growing 
number of families that have been fired from their jobs for being 
whistle-blowers of one sort or another.

 

All this kept us very busy. But the biggest change for our community has 
come from the trash. We started collecting from grocery store dumpsters, 
and now we have more incredible food than we can eat. If you are 
willing, we will share it with you.

 

Until recently, I sustained myself on a diet of primarily rice, beans, 
and spinach. I was touched when people wrote to me to express concern 
about my diet. When an older couple sent me 20 dollars a month with the 
expressed wish to expand my diet, it felt like my grandmother lovingly 
scolding me. Well, they don't have to worry anymore. My life has been 
transformed by a harvest of food from the trash. I am serious when I say 
that 95 percent of all the food I eat now comes from the trash. Once a 
week we go to dumpsters at a few, mostly organic gourmet grocery stores. 
Having eaten rice and beans every day for so long, the first time I went 
to the dumpsters I was eager to expand my diet to include bread and more 
vegetables. I had modest expectations.

 

They were wildly exceeded. In just matter of hours we had crates and 
crates of food. More than just a wide variety of vegetables, we found 
tons of gourmet food: Crates of breads pastries, pies, vegetables---even 
expensive vegetables like eggplant and portabella mushrooms---plus 
cheese and tofu eggless salad. Last but not least, we found endless 
amounts of frozen fruit; soon I would have the makings to fuel a full-on 
smoothie addiction.

 

I know many of you must be thinking that this stuff is repulsive. You'd 
be surprised. Our society's system is so wasteful. The globalization of 
our food supply, combined with the rise of processed food, has created a 
system where food is wasted at every level. So much of it is perfectly 
good by any reasonable standard. Take, for example, Trader Joe's (a 
gourmet grocery chain, also known as dumpster diver heaven). This chain 
processes and pre-packages everything in saran wrapped 
packages--everything from sandwiches to fresh fruit and vegetables. If 
it is not selling fast enough, taking up too much space on the shelves, 
or, God forbid, is approaching too near the expiration date, the food 
gets tossed. For us to pick up the mostly air-tight containers, then 
wash and inspect anything we want to throw into our fridge, is easy as 
can be. There is nothing better for the environment than dumpster food. 
Instead of consuming a massive amount of energy to produce more unneeded 
food, we are instead eating the discarded excess of the system. We are 
like environmentally friendly, human-sized bacteria processing some of 
the waste produced in putting food on America's tables.

 

I'm not such a picky eater by nature. But it feels all right to be 
choosy when I am saving food from the trash. These days I am a dumpster 
snob. I want more than carefully packaged whole grain bread, pomegranate 
juice, and flourless chocolate cake. That stuff is easy to find. These 
days, I want pretty flowers. To my amazement, the dumpsters will provide 
an occasional score of cut flowers--dozens of bouquets with only a few 
bent flowers in the bunch that apparently make them unfit for sale. In a 
short time, I cultivated a bourgie interest in arranging flowers around 
our house, and on a few occasions I have been able to surprise the 
families we serve with beautiful bouquets. I cannot tell you how much 
having so many flowers around---not to mention an infinite supply of 
gourmet organic food from the dumpster--has changed my life. I am 
constantly cooking, eating, and organizing big dinners. We always 
advertise: "food fresh from the dumpsters." 

 


  Going to India


  

Soon after the major civil disobedience I helped to organize on 
September 28^th , a good friend asked if I would go to her wedding in 
India. Aware that I did not have any money, she offered to fly me there, 
making use of her immense accumulation of airline miles from her 
corporate job. I realized that this trip might seem like a total 
contradiction to me living in supposed "voluntary poverty." Her offer 
provoked me to reflect on the nature of voluntary poverty in the light 
of my new life.  "Voluntary Poverty" has given me a nice (although 
crowded) communal house, tons of gourmet food, flowers from the 
dumpster, and, last but not least, "a free trip to India." True, 
voluntary poverty is an act of profound renunciation. It means letting 
go of our will, our plans, and our ideas ---even our survival instinct 
to do as Jesus said when he told us, "do not store treasures here on 
earth." But in doing this we receive the grace of God; we enter into the 
abundance of his kingdom, which is expressed in a beloved community of 
sharing and in countless acts of spontaneous generosity.

Imagine that in the heat of the moment you donate your brand new 2007 
Ferrari Testerrosa 
<http://www.cardata.com/images/2007/2007_Ferrari_599.jpg> to charity. 
It's a great feeling, but you soon find yourself stuck on the side of 
the road. But if you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you'll 
probably soon hear a whistle blowing---it's God's train coming around 
the bend, and this is your chance to jump on board. We often cry like 
little babies because God's train leaves at weird hours or doesn't go 
where we want it to. But boy it is sure a fun and wild ride, and it will 
take you places the Ferrari never could. 

 

One of the most horrible aspects of the involuntary poverty of the 
workers we serve as compared with our voluntary poverty, is the horrible 
immobility that confines them physically and psychological to urban 
ghettos.  In contrast, within my voluntary poverty I have found a 
strange new freedom. This confirms that experience of the early 
Christians and Franciscans who took seriously Jesus' explicit order to 
his disciples to travel far to serve "without payment" as well as "take 
no gold. . . in your belts, no bag for your journey, or (even) two 
tunics. . ."  It was their willingness to own nothing and ride God's 
train that made it possible for them to spread their beloved community 
all over the globe. In fact, Saint Francis made many international 
trips. These included his famous effort to single handedly end the world 
war of his time by making himself a human kamikaze bomb of pure love 
headed for the Muslim Sultan in midst of the Crusades. As for me, the 
freedom still feels scary. My faith remains so limited. I sometimes find 
it hard to be at any peace when my bank statements show that my 
community will go bankrupt in 10 months. However, spending some time in 
prayer, I discerned that this was all part of God calling me to jump on 
his train. 

 

When I accepted April's invitation to attend her wedding and departed on 
my travels, I was still committed to living on only the $200 monthly 
stipend that each volunteer living at the Center receives. But when I 
arrived in India, this turned out to be a fortune. April was marrying 
into an amazing Indian family. Because April career had moved her all 
over the country, I was one of her only friends from Iowa (where we grew 
up) to meet her Indian family. She was so excited to have some old 
friends to represent her in what would be a small Iowan cultural 
delegation amid the hundreds of Indians that would show up to the 
wedding.  I was literally and figuratively adopted by April's in-laws in 
India. I lived and ate with them, and I ceremonially played the role of 
April's older brother at the wedding service. I sincerely love April, 
her husband Bunny, and their Indian family. The hospitality they offered 
was deeply touching. At times, I wanted to cry because I was so grateful 
to receive their hospitality. It truly felt like an expression of God's 
grace.


   Visiting Samdhong Rinpoche

I arrived in India 3 weeks before the weeding, so I decided to go to 
Dharamsala, a place renown as a center of spiritual practice. It is home 
to dozens of prominent monasteries of different religious traditions 
including the Dali Lama's. It is also the home of the Tibetan 
government-in-exile and the Tibetan freedom movement. I rented a room at 
a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and settled into a strict early morning 
schedule of long hours of meditation, broken up by a late afternoon 
visit to the cafés. Although I consider myself a contemplative Catholic, 
I went to India expecting immersion in my religious practice; I pictured 
myself mediating for weeks, sitting half naked on a mountain top next to 
long-haired swami. But instead, I was surprised to find myself being 
born once again into the life of a political non-violent warrior, 
spending hours at loud bars drinking Tibetan butter tea talking strategy 
all night with a dozen young activists who had just gotten out of jail 
after serving two-week sentences for protesting the visit of a Chinese 
official to India.

            Because my college had an exchange program with a Tibetan 
university, I knew a few Tibetan activists. Owing to these contacts, I 
was quickly adopted into their scene in Dharamsala. It was amazing to be 
half a world away from Los Angeles, thinking "these people are just like 
me." But there was one person that I had impractically dreamed of 
meeting:  the Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche.

 

As you may know, I am a Gandhi nut. I read Gandhi's work as often as I'm 
able. In India, he has become such a cultural icon that almost all 
politicians claim Gandhi as their own. Yet few share Samdhong Rinpoche's 
dedication to Gandhian ideas, which, if followed with dedication, will 
leave you poor and might just get you killed.

 

A word about Samdhong Rinpoche. Maybe my admiration is a bit naive, but 
I feel like a screaming girl at a Beatles concert when it comes this 
guy. Why? Well, he is one of the most prominent Gandhian scholars alive, 
having written and spoken widely about nonviolence. He is a high-level 
incarnate Lama and very respected religious leader in Tibet, and many 
suspect the Dali Lama is grooming him to replace him in his politically 
role after his death. But what I love is that he is an amazing political 
radical, regularly challenging Tibetans to maintain their non-violent 
resistance and their spirituality. He has advocated going to non-violent 
war with the Chinese government and has volunteered to be the first to 
sacrifice himself as a human kamikaze bomb of pure love to likely death 
at the hands of the authorities in order to create massive non-violent 
protest in China. In other words, this guy is hard core.

 

Before he started forming his "non-violent army," which was to be made 
up primarily of monks, the overwhelming majority of people in the 
Tibetan community voted for him to be their highest elected political 
leader: the prime minister in exile. He now is responsible for all the 
schools, cooperatives, and institutions of the Tibetan government in 
exile, and he runs them with open dedication to doing so as Gandhi 
professed.

 

A few activists I knew put in a good word for me, so I could get a 
meeting with him. Just as I had dreamed, a week later, we were sitting 
together in his office and having an intense conversation about 
non-violence, Satyagraha, and his vision of a non-violent army.

 

For so long my own visions of a nonviolent army kept me up at night, got 
me in lots of trouble in my professional career, and gave me a sort of 
"crazy Paul" reputation. This developed an insecurity within me, a kind 
of dam around my heart. Sitting in the presence of such a wise and 
respected man, listening to him share a non-violent vision almost 
identical to mine, I felt that insecurity washing away at long last. I 
know now that it might take years, or decades, to realize this shared 
vision of non-violence, for which the. The Center of Working Poor is a 
vehicle. But I believe that God has put me here to make my humble 
contribution to making a vision of a community of non-violence and love 
a reality. For so long I have been wondering alone for this place of my 
dreams. But I have faith that, although the pathways may be long and 
windy, this place is a sure destination on God's train.

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