DC Immersion Trip Reflection by Katy Telling

    I packed for D.C. with all the sentimentality of a traveling business exec.
    Recently returned from visiting another cold-weather destination, I zipped open my fraying black suitcase and shoved a jumbled ball of long-sleeves and slate gray wool into the washing machine, patiently waiting for the dryer to ping “DONE” so I could re-stuff the jumbled ball back into the worn case.
    Fold. Pack. Fold. Pack. All the while, I kept pushing away the looming reality of opening myself up to the confusing mix of excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty squirming in my stomach, pushing away the looming reality of entering The Great Big Unknown. And D.C., the work and relationships that were waiting for me there, they were dictionary definition “unknown.”
    We settled first into the Church of the Epiphany, the service-oriented Episcopal Church nestled in downtown D.C. Over the next two days Josh, a Jesuit service leader who served the homeless community through Street Sense (produced and sold by D.C.’s homeless neighbors) newspaper, led us through difficult conversations and, afterwards, through filled to capacity parks known for being home (as best they could) to our D.C. neighbors.
    These first few days were difficult. Beyond any doubt, there was joy and gratitude and community and dense radical love among those we met, among those we broke bread with, those with whom we worshiped. And yet, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was an invader, a trespasser of sacred pain. How could I stand before our neighbors, before my brothers and sisters in Christ and in humanity, and face the pain and challenges they knew while I could never imagine a like experience? How could I even begin to help?
    Things began to change the next morning. I looked out at the congregation from the nave and saw a room full of neighbors laughing and praying and sighing and hugging and helping and just being in this sacred space. Sacred beings in a sacred space together. We weren’t there to make everything better. We weren’t there to assert “don’t worry, I’m here to help you!” Truly, there was something so utterly unifying about that morning’s service. Eucharist is a ritual of transformation, of turning humble bread and wine into something holy to sustain us beyond our earthly needs. In true Eucharistic fashion, this was a transformative morning. “Us” and “them” transformed into “we,” a transformation that persisted.
    Following our stay at Church of the Epiphany, we relocated to The Pilgrimage, a Presbyterian youth service hostel in DuPont Circle. There, we met with two members of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Karen and Robert, who shared stories of their personal experiences with homelessness and the work they had done, humanity stitched into every word they spoke. Following this, we sought relationship among our neighbors again while walking with homemade meals, trudging through the frigid D.C. cold (a bitter constant reminder of one of the many challenges our neighbors face) to enter into small powerful moments of connection. After one anecdote Karen told us of a neighbor who hadn’t heard his name in three years for lack of anyone asking, these moments of connection seemed to feel especially humbling.
    What followed was a series of eye-opening conversations, a group split between Capital Area food bank and a home for the elderly, and a sober walk through a neighborhood undergoing gentrification and facing the reality of economic disparities whilst we absorbed the guidance of activist, community leader, and force of nature Ms. Debra Fraser. Rounding out the trip was a final meal serving at Charlie’s Place, an Episcopal ministry dedicated to feeding and clothing D.C.’s homeless and bursting at the seams with warmth and welcome.
    I emerged from the trip overwhelmed with emotion. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I felt exhausted, overcome by who and what I had seen over the past five days. The relationships that had been built up throughout my time in D.C. left me with a sense of togetherness and community. And it was not only the relationships built with our leaders and neighbors that left me fulfilled, but also the relationships built even stronger within our own ESC community. Indeed, it was this ESC bond that sustained me throughout the entire journey. Now, returned to Austin, I feel encouraged and inspired to address the issues we have here at home, refusing to leave the experience back in D.C.
    One lesson in particular stayed with me long after I exited the return flight: we are all knit together in a common humanity. I cannot let this truism become a mere cliché. All of us, homeless neighbors, ESC members, leaders, the quiet, the bold, the weary, the ready, are in community, made whole through the promise of godly love. In this time of Lent, I seek to consciously honor that truth in all that I do. How grateful I am to have truly seen this truth play out before my very eyes in D.C.