Five weeks ago I waved good-bye to the last of my seven companions. We were parting ways after four days and nights of living on the streets of Boston and Cambridge. Peter stepped onto the subway platform, the doors closed, and as the train resumed its journey I wondered about my own. I’d been taken to a new space where old rules and outworn habits had been stripped away.
I’m still answering that question several weeks later. Our facilitator Joshin Byrnes recommended a soft landing of spaciousness instead of creating a narrative prematurely, and I’ve taken that advice to heart.
How long does it take for a rose to recognize the effect of a blind woman dipping her nose into its bloom and breathing deeply? When does snow understand how it has changed after a skier lays parallel tracks through pine trees?
At this point I have inklings, which I’ll share in blog posts as they form a more definitive shape. Before I offer my first inkling, I think it would be helpful to explain what, exactly, a Street Retreat is.
In 1994, a Zen Buddhist named Bernie Glassman led the first street retreat in Washington D.C., contemplating the question of what to do to serve those rejected by society, those in poverty and those with AIDS. Afterwards he and his wife established the Zen Peacemaker Order, “a religious order with a strong social action component that would bear witness on the streets, at sites of atrocity, and meet the troubles of the world,” as described on the Zen Peacemakers website.
“I want to figure out how to learn from those who have suffered in a certain way, even though I can’t fully enter that realm. So we go on the streets. I know we aren’t homeless and I make that quite clear. At the same time those who came will experience something that is closer to that world than those who haven’t been there. This is the meaning of ‘bearing witness.’ It’s like entering a church knowing you’re not God or the priest. But you will experience something different from someone who stays out of the church or someone who is just hired to fix the roof.”
– Bernie Glassman
Joshin Barnes, the founder of Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community and a former student of Bernie, has led many, many Street Retreats throughout the United States. As the facilitator of the Boston Street Retreat in August 2023, Joshin brought a calm, mindful and clear consciousness that almost immediately helped me to feel at ease. Sitting in a circle on the Cambridge Commons with my new companions that first day, meditating and then sharing during Council, the earth beneath me felt solid, the trees around me protective. Trust surprised me with its gentle bloom.
That’s not to say I thought the experience would be easy. In my backpack I carried a blanket, a print-out of the chants we would use throughout the four days, a pen and small notebook, a tube of sunscreen, a floppy hat, Nanopuff pullover and rain poncho. No money. No credit card. No phone. No change of clothes or hygiene products. Not even a tooth brush. I was entirely at the mercy of Joshin, my companions and the citizens of Boston and Cambridge. What would that mercy look like?
Although we intended to find nourishment at soup kitchens, we would not stay overnight in any shelters, even if eight beds had miraculously been available. We would sleep on hard surfaces. Or at least attempt to sleep. I was pretty sure sleep would not come easily for me. How much of a zombie would I be after being deprived of sleep for four days and nights? None of us had a tent. We would be exposed.
At this point you may well be wondering why I signed up for this experience. When I first read about the Street Retreat, deep down I knew I needed to participate. For more than a decade I’ve served people on the margins, including those who are homeless, offering a loving presence, food, beverages and an ear to hear their troubles and celebrations. In return I’ve received a greater understanding of homelessness and contributing factors. And I’ve always returned to a home with a refrigerator, running water and a cozy bed. I’ve wondered how people manage to live on the streets. And what it would be like to beg. As I imagined the Street Retreat, my enthusiasm quickly shifted to apprehension.
It took four months for me to work up the courage to sign up for the August 2023 Street Retreat in Boston. How many months will it take to gain a full awareness of the significance of this retreat?