Oct. 28, 2008
By Sally Martin (from the Oct. 17, Street Roots)
Not too long ago I came across the story of Vedran Smailovic, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who became famous for his artistic protest during the Siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1992.
Smailovic felt called to take a stand after 22 of his fellow countrymen were shot to death while waiting in a bread line. He chose to play in the bombed-out ruins of The National Library at 4 p.m. sharp for 22 consecutive days, to honor each person who died as a result of sniper fire that day.
From time to time I wonder about this man: Why did he choose to do this? What makes a man, who is surrounded by fear and violence, decide to fill a space with beauty? What kind of courage does that take?
I’ve been thinking of Smailovic these past few days, as the arrival of cooler weather and longer lines for our services have produced a feeling of slight panic among those we see here. Because of the recent financial crisis, Americans from all different income brackets are grasping the reality that folks in our neighborhood have been facing for months: times are tough. This has been the reality for anyone who visited The Downtown Chapel for a food box this summer when, during the food shortage, we were extremely low on basics like rice and cereal. And the reality for any of the 90 people who visited our Hospitality Center this morning – normally the first few days of the month we see no more than 60 guests. In times like these, our challenge as a community becomes this: How do we call each other to a place of hope rather than fear?
Sometimes I forget that the world outside of our doors is one in which it is often the survival of the fittest. Earlier this week, this world entered our lobby when two of our guests got into a dispute. I was quite shocked to see that they both had makeshift weapons on them; one had a screwdriver that he was swinging around, and the other was clutching a stick defensively. These are two of the most gentle, timid souls I’ve come across in a long time, the last men I could imagine harming anyone. It then dawned on me that these men were the most likely to have weapons, because they are two of the most fragile folks out on the streets. Due to various mental health issues that they both live with, it is understandable that the reality they are interacting with at any given time might be drastically different from what is actually happening around them, making them more vulnerable as targets of violence.
We can do everything in our power to work together to create a safe, drama-free, peaceful place within our walls, but we have no control over what happens to folks once they leave us. To me, it is nothing short of a miracle to witness someone who must constantly be in survival mode begin to feel comfortable again in their own skin. Even if it is just for a few short moments while their feet are being washed here in our Hospitality Center, or over a cup of coffee at Sisters Of The Road Café, or while being served a meal at Blanchet House. I am constantly blown away by the simple, yet powerful act of a person turning to hope instead of to fear, of reaching out to others around them, instead of retreating into isolation. My heroes then become the woman who, after being assaulted and having her belongings taken from her yet again, has a smile for me when she asks me how I’m doing, and the man who shares his dinner with another who would otherwise go without, because he knows that he is just as unsure of where his next meal is coming from. The only thing that I can put a name to that makes acts like these possible is love. St John of the Cross once said, “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” I am convinced that we must answer the call to put love where we find hate and hope in those places, within us and around us, where fear resides.
Sally Martin is the front office manager and pastoral assistant for The Downtown Chapel of St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Parish in Portland.