Imagine begging for money to buy food while people walk past without a second glance, brushing you off as a burden to society. Imagine a day in school where you can’t focus because your stomach is empty and, though it is only 9:00 a.m., the boys a few desks behind you have already gotten into three fights. Imagine cleaning houses for only $10 each, in a country that doesn’t want you around because of the language you speak and the place you were born.
On the other hand, envision the hope evident in the smiles and greetings of your friends around you, and the feeling of community throughout the neighborhood. This is a taste of what we encountered during our alternative spring break trip to Anacostia in Southeast Washington, DC. Organized by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the DC Urban Plunge brought students from diverse ethnicities, hometowns, and political views to learn about homelessness, poverty, racism, and immigration in our nation’s capital.
We had the privilege of sharing lunch with two homeless people who, in return, shared their stories with us. We met John, a veteran from Chicago in his 50s who hopes to sort out paperwork with the Veteran’s Administration, and Ruby, a widow from California in her 70s who is working on paperwork with the Social Security Administration and trying to uncover corruption in her hometown branch. Through these conversations, it struck us how often we overlook homeless people in the streets, stereotyping them and forgetting they are people we are called to love.
We also had the opportunity to work with students at a GED tutoring center who had not received the academic background necessary to pass high school. One woman barely remembered what fractions were in the morning, but was soon adding and subtracting them with ease – and enjoying it. She was clearly intelligent, but simply had not been exposed to the same educational experiences that we had. Hearing from our friends who assisted at a nearby elementary school helped us understand why. They reported large classes, frequent fights and other disturbances, as well as meals with no nutritional value. This experience helped us understand the obstacles many people must overcome to get a good education.
Similarly, we spent a day working at Kids Club, an after-school tutoring program in Alexandria serving 30 elementary school children, mostly from Honduran and Salvadorian backgrounds. Each of us had a student to play with, help with homework, and just spend time getting to know. The people who run this program try to help their students succeed in school and build a community in the neighborhood.
Throughout this trip, we learned a lot about the issues that people in our own backyards face, from racism to economic inequality, and from poor nutrition to poor educational opportunities. We learned about the connections between these factors, and what people are doing to eliminate them. After having the opportunity to serve the people of D.C., we want to be part of a conversation about working with and learning from people in St. Mary’s County with students who already have such a heart for service. We invite everyone, no matter what religious background, to join us at D.C. Urban Plunge next spring break. We hope that these experiences, whether in D.C. or St. Mary’s, can be as transformational for others as they have been for us.