Second-year M.Div. student Shari Woodbury reflects back on the first year of the Touchpoint program
“We act ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Meadville’s Touchpoint curriculum is built on this foundational insight about learning. That’s why first-year students spend eight hours per week volunteering at community agencies: feeding the hungry, offering companionship to elders, supporting those struggling to break free of addiction, assisting refugees with job searches.
Each community site serves as a microcosm of humanity – a living, breathing, loving, aching “text” – through which the other assigned texts of the Community Studies seminar may be filtered and applied. “Where do you see beauty, brokenness, hope, religion at your site?” “Give some examples of the five faces of oppression.” In our cyber-connected student Dialogue Triads, we drew on our sites to engage such topics weekly.
I chose to volunteer at the Shalom Community Center, a day shelter serving homeless people. This brought me face to face with a level of misfortune and poverty that I have never personally known. At the hospitality desk, I handed out toiletries and checked peoples’ mail folders. I also wandered around wearing a badge with a picture of an ear and the words “I’m here to listen.”
People spoke of estranged relationships. Job interviews. Car problems. Growing up in foster care and the juvenile justice system. I heard about hopes for a new apartment. Diabetes and bi-polar disorder. Worries about a teenaged son skipping school. Some confided in me about their struggle to quit drinking. Their loved ones taken by cancer, by murder. The challenges of caring for a newborn. Their history of suicide attempts.
Now we all know that homeless people struggle to meet basic physical needs for food, shelter and safety. I witnessed a struggle, no less significant, to meet basic spiritual needs for hope, love and respect. I also saw firsthand both the love and fear, the judgment and generosity, through which different community members responded to homelessness.
The final project for the class was to help us integrate what we had learned over the year. I chose to write and record a song. The stories and struggles I witnessed were so personal and poignant that music seemed the best way to evoke them. (You can find the Shalom song at http://youtu.be/kUsrb_Gku7g). My classmates’ final projects – slide shows, rich papers, visual art creations, poems and more – likewise bore powerful witness to the people we served – people who have indelibly shaped our sense of community, love and accountability.
Lived knowledge is different than book learning. It goes deeper. It gets under our skin, slips around our egos, punctures our preconceptions, opens our hearts. It makes the once invisible, forever unforgettable. It can turn pray-ers into prophets, listeners into leaders.
Community Studies enriched my understanding of community, brought me closer to my bright and tender peers, and nurtured my nascent pastoral identity. Just as importantly, it deepened my conviction that to live up to its promises of unity in diversity and love without borders, Unitarian Universalism must put its values into action in the community… and not only that, but we must invite the silenced voices to speak in our spaces and to transform our faith, from the inside out. Together in community, we can act ourselves into new ways of being and make our world more whole.