The 2017 Immersion trip to Washington DC could be described in one word: unpredictable. From the morning the group was supposed to leave the airport, to the roof of the building we were supposed to stay in being ripped off by a tornado. This unpredictability did come with some negatives, although almost all of those negatives had a way of ending pretty positively. However, the unpredictability put our group in situations that bonded us and created memories I'm sure none of us will ever forget. This aspect of community helped our group not only tolerate each other for a whole week, but get to know one another on a level I'm sure we wouldn't have believed possible going in to the trip. We reflected as a community and truly immersed ourselves in our purpose for being in Washington during that time. We experienced simple living both personally and saw it in the streets of DC. Lastly, we experienced and then contemplated the meaning social justice and how to implement into our own lives during the trip and beyond that. Unpredictability helped make the 2017 Washington DC immersion trip an immensely special one.
Our group worked in the Fr. McKenna Center located on the Gonzaga High School campus in downtown DC. The shelter serves men struggling with homelessness from the hours of 8AM-1PM. While there they can get a meal, shower, get laundry done, look for a job and place to live, and attend meetings aimed at motivating the men to turn their situations around. I was blown away with the professionalism of the volunteers there and their genuine sincerity and willingness to help. The work they do day in and day out year-round definitely motivated our group to work hard for the week we were there.
One major aspect helped our group grow and learn together for a whole week -- community. Our group had a tremendous rapport by the end of the week. Everyone carried their own weight the entire trip. When we worked in the Fr. McKenna Center, everyone was juggling many different jobs. We were running the food pantry, serving breakfast and lunch, cooking meals, and conversing with the men in the shelter. However, someone was always willing to lend a hand wherever they were needed. We cooked and cleaned in rotation so no one felt overwhelmed. (Some of us were better cooks than others.) One area where we really stood out was shopping for those meals. We were on a limited budget and we had to plan meals for 6 days while on that budget. We carefully planned out each meal and shopped in the nearby Walmart using value brands and creating cheap combinations. In the end we created affordable meals that everyone was able to agree on and that came out pretty yummy. All in all, it was the little things that our group did that helped us become a strong community.
Our group had some amazing reflections during our week in Washington. The majority were outside in the Gonzaga High School campus. We were surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a large city yet closed off in a beautiful place where we could talk about what happened during our day. We talked about what we saw and experienced and how it touched us. I think a lot of us took similar things away from these experiences and we connected even more through that shared experience. At the same time, at the end of each day, someone had something new to bring to the table. Something Ryan Schultz '18 said has stuck with me. "Don't look into your neighbor's bowl to compare how much he has. Look to see that he has enough." I think that quote really resonated with our group. We kept building off of group members' conversations. The hour or so we had allotted for reflection went out the window and we would talk for two hours. On our last night we did our reflection at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was surreal to be reflecting in such a place. It was at night and the entire building was lit up and there the weren't many people so it was relatively quiet. It was a great way to close out the trip. The last form of reflection we did was with the men in the Fr. McKenna Center. We were each paired up with another man who told us his story. What the men had to say was at times heartbreaking, but at the same time it was so uplifting to see the ambitions these men had for their lives once they were no longer homeless. The man I worked with wishes to attend college and get an engineering degree. Hearing his drive to succeed even while at his lowest point in life was so eye-opening and inspiring to me. Another aspect that helped immerse us even further was living simply.
Simple living is another major component of Companions trips. This wasn't just the allotment we had for food. We slept on church pews inside of the Fr. McKenna center. The showers we used were in less than ideal condition. Our group had a bit of a culture shock. However, as the trip went on we acclimated ourselves to the conditions and made the best of it. Personally, living like this was an incredibly humbling experience. I went a week without being able to sit on a couch or sleep in my own bed. I couldn't believe how much I take living like that for granted. It was so eye-opening how even the pews we slept on would be considered glamorous to someone. It gave me a new appreciation for the life I live.
The fourth major component of Companions trips is social justice. Our group was presented with the question of whether or not everyone has equal opportunities to succeed. After this trip, I would have to say that's not the case. The second place we worked was the Perry School which is an after school program for underprivileged kids. Even though we were only there for two afternoons it was clear to me that these kids have had a much rougher childhood than mine. The children have volatile tendencies, and it was clear they had been through things no person should have to go through, especially at that age. I worked with a girl named Samarja. At first, she wanted nothing to do with me. She seemed to put up barriers whenever she met anyone new. The second day I worked with her I was surprised at the way she embraced me. Her eyes lit up and she ran up and gave me a huge hug. I knew I had gotten through to her. The rest of the afternoon we played board games and laughed, and for a few hours I was able to give her a glimpse of the childhood every kid should have. This was such a fulfilling experience, but it also showed me the disadvantages many people have in life compared to myself. This experience helped define social justice for me.
Throughout our Companions trip our group grew tremendously as a community, reflected in ways that immersed us deeper into the trip, lived simply and gained new perspective on how we live our lives back home, and experienced social justice firsthand in ways that touched everyone deeply. Personally, I have taken these experiences with me in the past few weeks. I now look at the homeless and marginalized with a better sense of understanding and compassion. I used to believe it was those people's fault they're in those situations. I learned that really isn't the case. I have found myself praying more. I have a newfound appreciation for my family and the way way I get to live. I am more appreciative of the education I receive, especially since without Canisius I would've never been able to go on this trip. I will never forget my experiences at the Fr. McKenna Center and Perry School and am so thankful I met so many people who taught me lessons that have changed my life.