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Bearing Witness: Denver Street Retreat 2005

These are reports I sent out (by email from the Public Library) during the Zen Peacemaker Community Street Retreat I led this past week. The retreat is also part of the Naropa University Masters in Engaged Buddhism program I teach in. We spend 4 nights and 5 days on the streets with no money, gathering together 3 times a day for meditation, liturgy, and sharing in a council or wisdom circle format. We eat in the soup kitchens and shelters, but sleep in the streets, not wanting to take beds from the homeless.

There is actually plenty of food on the streets but no where near enough beds. We beg or panhandle for our return bus fare ($3.75). It is an amazingly powerful practice. In the Peacemaker work we call this, and other retreats like the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau, plunges; because the experience plunges us into the state of not-knowing. Our peacemaker work is grounded in what we call our three tenets: Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action. — Fleet Maull

Street Retreat Report Day 2: 15 of us left the Boulder bus station for Denver yesterday at 12 noon, my co-leader Annie, me, and 13 undergraduate and graduate students, 12 from University and one from Colorado.

Landing at the Market St. bus station in with no money and a great diversity of expectations, fears, hopes, projections and scruffy clothes and bedrolls, we walked north to the rescue mission area.

After hanging there awhile and allowing the homeless scene to soak as much as it can in a short time, we walked to a nearby small park for our first meditation and council (wisdom circle) session.

We gather three times a day for meditation and council. During the morning and afternoon sessions, we also chant the Gate of Sweet Nectar, the core Zen Peacemaker Order liturgy adapted from the Kanroman of the Japanese Zen tradition, a liturgy having to do with nourishing the hungry spirits (hungry ghosts) in the world, including our own.

We had our first soup kitchen meal at the Volunteers of America … mystery meat ravioli that somehow tasted good under the circumstances. Half the group visited a homeless hangout called the Network Cafe. The other half wandered on East Colfax and on the downtown mall, hanging out and beginning to engage in begging practice. We warmed up in the Greyhound bus station after our evening sitting and council on the mall until midnight, when we headed north again toward the rescue mission looking for a place to sleep on the streets.

The night was cold but passed uneventfully, with the 15 of us lined up along the side of a factory building in our bedrolls. Today everyone is out wandering and begging in pairs (with their retreat buddy). We rendezvous at 1:30 pm to plan the afternoon and evening. We are all having lots of encounters and the homeless people here in Denver are working their way into our consciousness and hearts. A strong part of the practice here is bearing witness to the continual opening and closing down of the heart.

Street Retreat Day 4: No email access yesterday. Today’s our fourth day out … having survived 3 cold nights on the streets. What are most alive for me right now are the visiting angels who join our circles. We gather three times a day, once in a small park in N. Denver, once in the Civic Center Park downtown near the capitol, and then in the evenings on the 16th St. Mall. Inevitably we are joined by beings who connect with us and defy any sort of box we might want to put them in. So far we’ve been joined by Jaime (on a regular basis), Chris, Trace, an elderly homeless man who offered right on meditation instruction, and several more who names have faded into the haze of my sleep deprived brain. We get a few inebriated hecklers to, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Yesterday we visited the Francis Center, one of the places we raise money for through our mala practice on the retreat. They put on a great meal every Wednesday in collaboration with the Catholic Worker house, feeding 200 to 400 people. Being there is an intense experience. The place is very down and out and the staff are beautiful and giving. They let anyone in, so the atmosphere if both dignified by the giving of the staff and made very edgy by the states of mind of many of the men. It’s especially intense for the women who have to deal with a lot of less than conscious energy.

After our afternoon council we spent the early evening hanging out after dark in the most hardcore rescue mission area … way beyond edgy. Some how though we manage to connect and find the scene increasingly human and increasingly hellish the longer we stay. The streets have been exceedingly generous with an abundance of deeply human and deeply disturbing and touching experiences … and the food. Food keeps showing up from everywhere.

This morning as we were meditating, a man passed through the park walking his Great Dane on a leash. After leaving the park, he turned around and came back, getting close enough to call out, “Thank you so much for the peaceful energy you bring to the park.” We all almost burst out crying … one of us did. Our raw and vulnerable hearts were just pierced … basic goodness recognizing or acknowledging basic goodness.

Our councils grow deeper and deeper … sadness, confusion, joy, grieving, fear, and out of control belly laughing … quite an amazing group of young people. The women are all visiting a women’s day shelter today, we join up again in another hour for our afternoon council. I look forward to their sharings. Tonight is our last night on the streets. Wish us well.

Street Retreat Day 5 – Final Report:

The sharing by the women in our afternoon council after their return from the women’s shelter called, “The Gathering Place,” were more than I could have imagined. They seem to have shared an experience of having a direct encounter with the divine, manifest through the women then met at the shelter, both the staff and the clients, and in particular one homeless woman they shared lunch with. They came back from the shelter beaming and in tears. Having been on the streets for 4 days, spending time in very rough environments around mostly men, some of whom act in very unconscious and aggressive ways toward women, the safe, nurturing and empowered environment at the women’s shelter was not only a relief, but a revelation … by their accounts. I will leave it to the women to write further of their experience.

For our last evening, we divided the group. We had been invited for dinner and the Thursday night service at the Catholic Worker house. Not wanting to overwhelm them with our numbers, we sent eight, and the other seven of us spent the evening hanging out at the Network Café. The group who went to the Catholic Worker came back again beaming and in tears, after spending an evening full of love, spirit and authentic presence with the wonderful Catholic Worker community. Our friend, Father Tom, who we always see the Francis Center for the big Wednesday meal, said the Mass in such a way as to include people of all faiths and all stations and circumstances in life. Fr. Tom who models for me the contemplative life of engaged spirituality teaches a course in Contemplative Christianity at Naropa University.I went with the group to the Network Café, a wonderful little gathering place about six blocks east of the state capitol building open to the homeless in the evenings, 6 to 8:30 pm most evenings. I listened to a very interesting character for about 2 hours who said he has been called the voice of the homeless and who apparently has attempted to run for Mayor of Denver. He has a place to live now, but still hangs at the Network Café and certainly knew the homeless scene inside and out … a lot of interesting history too. We all met up again on the 16th street Mall around 9:30 pm as usual. We were approached by two different groups of young Christians. One group was inviting us to a soup line they do on the streets, at Champa and 15th just a block off the mall every Thursday. They’ve been doing it for three years now. The other group offered water bottles and power bars and offered to pray for us. We asked them to pray for our Ethiopian friend Daniel who was hanging out with us and needed help finding a job.

We then went to see the other group doing the soup line. They served us tacos and hot chocolate, an interesting and at the time delicious combination. We ran into a number of our homeless acquaintances at the soup line, and the women in our group had enjoyed conversing and connecting with the young Christian women among the group serving the tacos and hot chocolate. From this and many other encounters during the week, we all discovered a new found appreciation for Christian ministry. One can say what one wants about fundamentalist or “born again” Christians, but I tell you, they are the ones serving and ministering to the poor and homeless on our streets. Some lay on the preaching a little strong, but most offer only food, caring and love. Many of the mainstream churches offer meals as well. The Trinity Methodist church at 18th and Broadway serves a very wholesome meal three days a week with no preaching at all, just smiles and words of encouragement. Young children come hand you your plate as you walk in … I’m just about to burst into tears now remembering how sweet those children were. A small Episcopal church offers a wonderful meal on Tuesday evenings, preceded by a service where the priest, a woman, comes out into the pews and holds everyone’s hand letting them know they are love with amazing genuineness and authentic presence.

Our last night on the streets, we didn’t feel comfortable returning to our sleeping spot of the previous three nights. Too many people on the streets were aware of us now and some of questionable intent may have been aware of where we were sleeping. We found a new spot down alongside the South Platte River, which turned out to be a very cold spot on the coldest night out yet. A lot of us shivered as much as we slept. We arose to beautiful blue skies though, packed up our bags and picked up our cardboard to return it to the dumpsters and headed downtown for our last meal on the streets. We went to a ministry I’d never been to before that serves a pancake breakfast on Friday mornings. The atmosphere was quite and subdued, even reflective as the 75 or so homeless men and women waited and then ate their breakfasts. The Christian volunteers served the meal through a window opening between the small kitchen and dining hall. They had two griddles going cooking the pancakes. When you arrived at the window, you stood their while they served you blueberry pancakes right off the griddle to go with the eggs and sausages already on the plate. The kindness and love that this food carried was amazing. We had all come to the realization over the days of the retreat, that while the quality of the food varied considerably and much of it might be considered not so great under other circumstances, it was all Prasad … blessed or holy food.

We held our final mediation and council from 10 am to 12 noon at Civic Center Park and we’re joined by Michael, the elderly homeless man who had give us meditation instruction days earlier, and our friend Jaime, who has sat in many of our circles. Michael sat with us and chanted the Feeding the Hungry Spirits liturgy and then shared beautifully in our council, talking about his own struggles with drug addictions and sharing his insights about the path … being quite well versed in Buddhist teachings.

Before closing, I would just like to mention some of the names of our sangha, street retreat participants and those who joined us during the week: Annie, Ari, Melissa, Kelly, Rob, Kuba, Liz, Allen, Tim, Amelia, Viktoria, Nines, Wren, Lisa, Jaime, Michael, Jersey Mike, Chris, Louie, Fr. Tom and Anna … and many more. My fellow retreatants could name many more and I hope they will as they write their journals and reports of the retreat. We saw and experienced so much suffering on the streets of Denver this week …so much suffering; and yet we saw and experienced so much goodness and beauty at the same time. Threads of basic goodness seem to run through everything, not in any way diminishing the suffering and the systemic injustices underlying some of that suffering, but producing and undeniable experience of basic goodness … something about the contrast illuminates basic goodness beyond the conceptual into the experiential. The all but choiceless burden of carrying this suffering in one’s heart mixes with profound appreciation for this powerful affirmation of the truth of basic goodness … in ourselves, others, and the world.

Peace, love and blessings, Fleet Maull

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