Love Is Building Bridges, Not Walls

By Colleen Sinsky

This past week I had the opportunity to be part of a delegation of high school students who chose to leave their more comfortable lives to spend seven days on an immersion trip with the goal of building bridges between themselves and the homeless community ofPortland.Sponsored by JOIN, the Portland Plunge has been an annual summer experience for Oregon teens for the past 20 years.

JOIN’s Immersion Coordinator, Daniel, spent months organizing volunteer placements, reviewing applications and coordinating logistics.He and six young adult volunteers (myself, Amanda, Sinclair, Kelly, Jess and Neil) joined the teens in sleeping at St Francis, in inner SE, walking to daily volunteer placements, and abiding by a set of “simple living” guidelines that the whole group decided on.

“Simple living” we decided for the week, would mean challenging ourselves by limiting what we wore to just two outfits, showering once or not at all, eating simply, and a “sleep challenge” on the last night we spent at St. Francis.Originally this last challenge meant giving up a pillow or sleeping pad, but the leaders secretly decided to include a “sweep” at 2:30am. Without warning, we came into the boys’ and girls’ sleeping rooms with flashlights and even a siren yelling “No camping here! move along! you’re in violation of Oregon code yadda yadda yadda…”We prodded the poor bleary eyed, and rightfully pissed-off teens down the hall to switch rooms and let them continue Thursday’s “sleep challenge” until 6:30 when it was time for a quick breakfast and a neighborhood clean up and BBQ with the Volunteers of America Mens Rehabilitation Center.While the “sweep” sounds a bit sadistic at first, the valuable lesson was an experience in what occurs regularly to homeless folks, when made to “move along” from a doorway or illegal camping spot in the middle of the night.

The Plungers also got to volunteer at 15 organizations around town that serve not just the homeless community, but other marginalized groups.Some examples of where we spent a morning or afternoon working are Downtown Chapel, Dignity Village, Rose Haven, Housing Transitions Program, the Oregon Food Bank, Sisters of the Road Café, and even sorting donations, gardening and hanging out with folks at JOIN.The week was a whirlwind tour of many aspects of homelessness, and we had evening speakers who shared their perspective of working for the Portland Police Department, or p;ear, or JOIN.

Lio came to debrief the large group after their first day of placements. His talk prodded everyone to think about the larger picture of their place in service and solidarity.He shared stories from his 14 years of doing Outreach at JOIN, and challenged the group to learn names, the stories behind the faces, and not to be afraid of making a human connection with people who we’re usually more comfortable avoiding eye contact with.We also got to hear from Marc Jolin who talked about the legal and practical side of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. In discussion afterwards, my small group (named “Jesus! And the Jive Turkeys”) talked about how important it is to have the “big picture” numbers in addition to conversations with folks on the street.

We all came into the Plunge from different places, but we were all challenged and grew together.I heard so many amazing insights come out of my teens, one of which came after a few days of volunteering in Old Town.“I can’t believe that I always go to concerts and restaurants around there, but I had no idea that any of this was here.Like the Red Doors? [Downtown Chapel]? I’ve seen that a million times and never known what it was.”This week was about opening the door to shift our perspective, and see new things in our community.All of us involved in the Plunge laughed a lot, made or cemented friendships with each other, and learned valuable lessons from folks affected by homelessness.I was moved, and continue to be touched by how open everyone, and especially my small group was.I learned that we are all hungry for a human connection, and that experiences like the Plunge really can take us out of our comfort zone and into that place where love can transcend social barriers.

Thank you participants! You all rock. See you at the reunion! Feel free to weigh in here with any memories or comments you want to share!