Anxious. Different. Uncomfortable. Uncertain.
Entering into the new and unfamiliar community of Cleveland, Ohio, these words flooded my mind as we drove into the city. I was excited for the opportunities of growth that the week would offer, yet extremely nervous for the uncertainty that laid ahead of me. Our week would be filled with learning about the gentrification and homelessness affecting the city and making meaningful connections with the individuals experiencing homelessness.
If I’m being completely honest, I had never talked to a person experiencing homelessness prior to this trip. As a natural introvert, the idea of conversing with someone who I didn’t know and who I assumed I had nothing in common with honestly terrified me. I thought to myself: How was I going to be able to make those meaningful connections throughout the week? I was immediately challenged with this question on our second day of the trip. Our host site, the Cleveland Catholic Worker, held something called “drop-in hours”, where individuals experiencing homelessness could gather for a nice meal, take a shower, and just enjoy some hospitality at the Storefront where our group was staying for the week. Our role here was to be in community with those people. I tried my best during this first experience with the drop-in hours to push myself out of my comfort zone in the hopes of deepening the connection I had with this community. I learned early on in the week the power that vulnerability and openness held in being able to foster those connections.
As the week went on, I became more comfortable talking to strangers – asking about their lives and getting to know them on a personal level. During the drop-in time on the Thursday night before we left, I talked to a man named Ricky. Ricky and I instantly clicked. He used to be a nursing assistant at the local hospital and he had dreams of being a registered nurse one day. As a nursing student myself, you can imagine that Ricky and I had a lot to talk about. We bonded over the compassion and care that the nursing profession encompassed and I was so inspired by his passion for this career field. In the short hour or so that we had met, Ricky and I had connected so much that I truly considered us to be friends. In many different ways, I could see so much of myself in Ricky. He transformed my misconception that these individuals were so different than me. Rather, he taught me that we were actually much more alike than we were different. My conversation with Ricky that night taught me more about what kinship means than a textbook definition ever could. It allowed me to get a glimpse as to what being in community really looks like. The connection that I had with this man whom I had just met showed me that the first step of being in community always starts with kinship. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open to those in a different community, we’re better able to see those individuals for who they really are. By doing so, we break down the barriers filled with stereotypes and misconceptions that hold us back from connecting with those communities.
I often imagine what it was like on that Thursday evening to look in on the Catholic Worker Storefront. In the midst of a dark and rainy night, there’s some light pouring out of an old building on the near west side of Cleveland. It looks warm and friendly inside. There are people sitting around creaky wooden tables sharing a hot meal, holding coffee cups, and talking about their lives. On one side there’s a group of people gathered around an old-fashioned fireplace and on the other is a game of cards going on. When I think of the word community – this is what I picture. Looking back on this image of the Storefront, I reflect on the words I thought of when I first arrived to Cleveland. Anxious. Different. Uncomfortable. Uncertain. Those words are now foreign misconceptions that I can no longer relate to. Instead of an outsider looking in, I saw myself in those moments as a part of the Cleveland community. There are other words that are more fitting to the community who had so readily welcomed us in with open arms.
Connected. Alive. Kinship. Love.
When I think of Cleveland now, I think of the light the Catholic Worker Storefront radiated, the faces of those experiencing homelessness, and the community so deeply rooted in these four words.