Families are like branches on a tree. We grow in different directions; yet our roots remain as one.
Before going to East St. Louis, I never really understood how stereotypes can influence a person’s perspective. I was told that East St. Louis wasn’t a safe city, and that it was a city known for violence.
Yet, hearing and believing is different from seeing something for yourself.
Arriving at the Hubbard House in East St. Louis, we were greeted by Diane who runs the Hubbard House as well as Catholic Urban Programs. Despite knowing the city’s reputation, not once did she ever mention violence or crime, but instead focused clearly on aspects of community and love. Throughout our interactions, Diane’s love and compassion towards the community slowly made me realize that this city is more than what meets the eye.
On Sunday, we had a chance to go to Mass at St. Augustine of Hippo Catholic Church, and I remember feeling awkward and intrusive. This feeling quickly dissipated throughout the mass as songs filled the air. I found myself becoming more and more observant of the interactions of the community. The biggest turning point, that instantly took away any nervousness I was feeling, was during the sign of peace. Unlike typical masses, where I was used to where it was a short peace among neighbors, the community of East St. Louis sign of peace was filled with love and compassion. I remember seeing everyone get up out of their pews as I stood there watching how the community went around the church smiling, hugging and shaking hands as if everyone belonged to everyone. This one moment instantly set the precedent for the rest of the trip, and I couldn’t help but smile as it reminded me that we are all family.
Over the course of the week, we had a chance to serve at Sr. Thea Bowman Catholic School, Holy Angels Shelter, St. Vincent De Paul Thrift store and soup kitchen, and DeShield Griffin Centre, an afterschool program for kids. Overall, my experience will forever be ingrained in my heart. In the morning, I was assigned to serve at St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store/Soup Kitchen, while in the later afternoon, I transitioned to DeShield Griffin Centre. During the week, I began patiently observing the community and found myself in constant state of happiness and wonder as each individual carried a hidden light inside them. In particular, I spent most of my time organizing supplies, serving at the soup kitchen, passing out desserts to the community, and interacting with the kids of the community.
What I noticed during this time is that each and every person in the community treated me with respect, and not once did I carry with me fear or witness any attempt at violence. Although a small gesture, every person I served at the soup kitchen always said, “Thank you” and happily received their food without complaint. It was sweet to see as the week went on polite attitudes, respect, and trust of the community was carried with each other. I began noticing myself becoming more and more ingrained in interacting with the community as if they were members of my own family.
One individual that stood out to me during this trip was Reggie. He was a compassionate and kind man who has experienced homelessness. Through his eyes, one can see the amount of struggles he has faced yet, his humbleness and wisdom really drew me to him. I will never forget the time during lunch when we had a chance to sit down and talk to him. He explained to us his wisdom and told us how grateful he is to have had a chance to talk with us. He began telling us how life is difficult but it’s not the mistakes that define us, but how we rise above those mistakes. He went on to evaluate each of us asking us what our goal in life is, which led him to analyze us through cold readings. Some of the cold readings involved him pointing at a member of our group and saying words of affirmation such as “you are kind,” “you are someone whose going to make a difference in the world” etc. During our conversations, I began seeing aspects of my father in him as every word of affirmation, wisdom and his thoughts began resonating with me. I didn’t realize how closely similar the world is and how similar we all are to each other. Our talk brought me to tears as I began realizing how a person with so much wisdom who has gone through so much hardship and pain can reflect on his life to tell us that he doesn’t have the ability anymore to make a change. But we can.
As individuals, we struggle throughout life continuously searching for something that might ease our struggle yet, Reggie taught me the importance of family, love, humbleness, patience and gratitude. Knowing he doesn’t have much, he prides himself on doing small gestures to show gratitude and to help the community. It’s not about what you say, but it matters on what you do. Family continues to thrive in East St. Louis and unconditional love remains at the forefront of the hearts in the community.
The family of East St. Louis has taught me that this city isn’t a city of hopelessness and despair. This city is far from it. East St. Louis is a city filled with gentleness, hope and love. All it needs is just a little push in the right direction. Through my interactions, I’ve learned that struggle and pain are important to understanding and becoming self-aware. It allows you to grow, change and become who we are meant to be. We are all family and all of us are rooted in love.
I would like to end with two quotes from Reggie that I wrote on a napkin that I still keep in my wallet to this day:
1. “You can’t have someone ride your journey, but you can be together in your struggle” – Reggie
2. “You can’t touch a flame, you can’t put your hand on the fire, but you can spread love you hold to others. (hand gesture heart) – Reggie
Timothy Cruz, Class of 2020