A Day of Service

There were three UPS trucks parked on the sidewalk, rapidly filling up with donations. Cars were double-parked, quickly loading up with supplies and people. Volunteers moved fast, urging onlookers to keep the walkways clear.

I stood on the edge of this sea of activity, reached into my bag, and pulled out a hastily scribbled sign: SHAMBHALA VOLUNTEERS. Almost as soon as I unfolded it, volunteers walked over, smiling. The day had begun.

More than 50 sangha members signed up to help with Hurricane Sandy relief on November 10th, although the scale of this Occupy Sandy distribution center made it impossible for all of us to find each other. Based out of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, hundreds of volunteers were processing truckloads of donations and preparing thousands of meals. Hundreds more were dispatched to about 20 different outposts in the neighborhoods Sandy hit hardest. Members of our sangha were drawn into all of these efforts.

Reading stories shared afterward, it becomes clear that despite the variety of experiences — from staffing the coat check to serving meals in the Rockaways — we were joined together in one common story. It seems to be a story about the powerful coexistence of suffering and compassion, cast in staggeringly sharp relief. On that day, hearts broken and bursting, far away from any shrine room or teacher’s chair, core teachings about the world we live in, and our role in it, have rarely felt more immediate and direct.

The experiences and images shared below paint a picture of just one day. May it be the first of many, many more. And may they be of benefit.

Rosario Fernandez:
After a few minutes of systematically destroying onions in the kitchen, I was asked to open a coat check, a decidedly unglamorous assignment, but a necessary one nonetheless. Having worked in the field last week, it was time to let someone else take the more hands-on jobs. From my vantage point upstairs, I could see the whole operation: the different stations, the volunteers coming in and receiving a 1-minute orientation. OK, maybe it was 5 minutes, but the length was not important, the content was. And the content was fantastic. A reminder of the principles that had to guide us: no kind of exclusion, no sexism, no racism, no classism, no homophobia. Mutual aid, not charity. I was actually moved, really moved, knot-in-my-throat moved, watching the action downstairs, the enthusiasm, the cooperation, the amount of work. I had the opportunity to slow down and take it in. It was beautiful, it was necessary, and, to us, it was clearly basic goodness coming through.

Christy Rupp:
Had an amazing day in Far Rockaway, distributing. This video is from the church, when we were loading the trucks. At the other end, we unloaded and organized the donations in the community room of Redfern Houses, with a lot of other volunteers.

Todd Amodeo:
I was with Jason Russo and my wife Laurie Amodeo on Saturday in the Rockaways. We were assigned to a minivan that was bringing supplies to a distribution center in the community. The area is ravaged and as you hear in these cases, you really have to see it with your own eyes. Equally as moving were the people on the ground. Volunteers, police, national guard and the folks living in those devastated communities were all working together in a moving display of interdependence.

After dropping off our supplies at the St. Francis church, we each took some supplies in our backpacks and fanned out into the area to see who else might need help. We met people who had lost everything. All of their possessions were water damaged and sitting in front of their homes. We spoke with them and asked them how they were doing and what they needed. The volunteer training we received at the Occupy Sandy center skillfully emphasized this approach. The need for human interaction and support seemed to be as important as material needs. There was obviously lots of appreciation for the volunteers that had come before us.

Next, I received a text saying help was needed at a home on 92nd street. We arrived to find a man whose backyard was filled with sand from the beach. We joined the crew there and worked steadily on this mountain of sand with shovels and buckets. Pretty quickly we started to realize that most of these folks were strangers. Strangers to each other and strangers to the man whose yard we were digging out. And the huge piles of sand were dissolving in front of our eyes with each shovel full and each bucket. Teamwork made it happen. When it grew dark, our team gathered again at the mini-van and drove back to Brooklyn. It had been a long day but we all felt pretty good. We felt pretty good to be a part of the larger sangha of humanity. In the face of so much loss, we were inspired by people’s natural ability to come together to help each other. I think we also felt that the people in the car we traveled with, and the people in the homes we interacted with all felt a little bit less like strangers.

Laura Heldt:
The sign outside Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew reads “Occupy Sandy: Mutual Aid Not Charity,” the black “A” of “Aid” at the center of a circle drawn in blue ink. Once inside, this sense of community, of taking care of each other, was infused into every aspect of the operation. As we worked together towards common goals, innovation and creativity were encouraged, along with skill sharing and laughter. In the kitchen, where I chopped vegetables for the food prep station, instructions were offered gently and with flexibility, allowing volunteers to collaborate and evolve ever more efficient methods for our assembly lines; cooks transformed the random assortment of food donations into inventive, colorful, hearty meals, which were sent to Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Staten Island; children drew pictures at a table devoted to making art as a recognized component of the care packages being distributed. By the end of the day, it did not feel as though we, the volunteers, were the “us” mobilizing to offer charity to an abstract, needy “them” somewhere out there; it felt as though we were gathering together to care for more of “us,” more examples of the generous, dynamic, gifted people we had counted as strangers before walking into the church that morning, before we expanded our “us” to include all of “them.”

Emilie Laperriere:
From 520 Clinton Avenue

Meghan Sultana:
It was very moving to see everyone get together and work so cooperatively and efficiently. I never knew spreading peanut butter for a few hours could be so meditative! A lot of love and smiles went into those sandwiches :)

Sam Dulberg:
We left from Clinton Avenue with a carload of blankets, etc. We were dispatched to Coney Island. We met up with a group of volunteers called Mercy Chefs. They had a huge trailer and prepared hot meals. We served meals to about a thousand people. Coney Island is still a devastated area. We were humbled and blessed to be able to serve people that had nothing. I am still processing the experience and trying to put in context what i saw and felt. What a human-to-human opportunity.

Jason Sebastian Russo:
I wish it didn’t take destruction and intensity to keep me in present. From Rockaways:

Laura Bilodeau:
As a person who came out unscathed by Sandy, I felt like I had to give back.  I felt lucky, but also I felt a responsibility to those fellow human beings (and fellow New Yorkers!) who were suffering.  I also was curious about what role Occupy has been playing in our society since the media has ceased discussing them much at all anymore.  When I got to the church and heard the familiar call-and-response check-in system that I heard in the streets of New York City, I felt happy…happy that they were here, and happy that they occupied the space of the The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in such an organized, positive, and highly focused way.  It was very fast-paced, though, which I don’t consider that bad of a thing, but I did notice that if you were not on the ball, and focused on what needed to be done at all times, you could easily fall behind.  I noticed that throughout my time there in the church in Brooklyn, and in the church of St. Margaret Mary in Staten Island, that if you were vocal, highly motivated, and always contributing in some way to the effort of Occupy, the more you got out of it, and the more you were able to contribute constructively.  You definitely need a lot of consistent, extremely focused energy.  I really loved seeing everyone working together in this way, where everyone’s individual voices mattered, and that they were devoted to being there for people in situations where bureaucratic red tape was denying people help…people who were living in unlivable homes, or had lost their homes altogether. People who had lost everything and were struggling. I liked the grassroots feel of it, I liked that these were people uniting for the benefit of other people, with a fierceness driven by the knowledge that we are all in this together. It excited me, and I was so happy to be a part of it. When the nuns started calling people in the tight knit community there in Midland Beach that they now had access to any supplies they needed, from construction materials, to baby care items, to toilet paper and everything in between, I was overjoyed.  I felt like I had made a difference, seeing people being able to shop and take what they needed. And those shopping only took the bare necessities. They were being mindful that there were other people out there that also needed these things. It was such a pleasure to be involved, I am so happy I did it. This is what being a human being is all about.