In the Moment

by Jeff Strogen (La Verne Church of the Brethren)

Earlier this summer I was given the opportunity to take five women from Crossroads, Inc., on a bird watching outing at Bonelli Park. “Crossroads, Inc. provides housing, education, support and counseling in a homelike environment for women who have been incarcerated. The organization’s goal is to empower women to take control of their lives and to help them step out of the revolving door of prison and jail.” (from the Crossroads, Inc. website). Melinda Jones, who I’ve birded with in conjunction with LVCOB’s Lenten Interest Group series, is a volunteer at Crossroads and came up with the idea to have some members of LVCOB bird with women from Crossroads. This opportunity had many things I found appealing: I love to bird, I relish the idea of introducing people to birding, and I thought it was a nice thing to do. In my mind, this was a win/win/win but there still was the tiniest mite of doubt, on the day that we actually had our excursion. Since none of the women had ever been birding, I must admit that I felt a little nervous, and even vulnerable that they would not like it or, worse yet, think it was a stupid thing to do. This feeling intensified as I pulled into the parking lot, stepped out of my car, and walked over to the van where they were waiting. However, the feeling immediately vanished when one of the women gratefully exclaimed “Wow, you brought binoculars for all of us!”. When it was all said and done, I was given gifts greater than I could have imagined; some of these gifts came directly as a result of the birding outing and some came later.

The first came in my attempt to find some Western Bluebirds for

the group to see. The males especially, when bathed in the right light, are a spectacular electric blue, and I wanted to share the experience of seeing one up close. We went to a spot where I thought we might see one and, as luck would have it, there was a male and female in the area. I was able to point out the pair, but they were at a distance that left them looking pretty unremarkable. But if one has binoculars, or even better, a spotting scope, it’s a game changer. We had both. To understand the magnitude of this, consider the following: imagine somebody holding a marble between their fingers at a distance of 25 yards and them asking you to describe it. Now imagine the same scenario, but with a beach ball; that’s the difference between looking at a bird with your naked eye versus looking at a bird through a spotting scope. I was able to fix the spotting scope on a perched, male Western Bluebird basking in the morning sun. It was there long enough that I could invite others to see it for themselves, including Maria from Crossroads. She stepped to the scope, peered in, and then gasped, “Sweet Jesus, thank you Lord!!!” (while performing the sign of the cross). My friend Glenn Mitchell has written, “There are times when we see birds and they are not just “pretty” but stir awe, and open and turn one aside”. This was one of those times. For me when this happens, I feel a connection to God. Now, I also felt a connection to Maria because we both felt a connection to God.

Later in the outing, there was a second comment made about birds that took me to a place I hadn’t anticipated. We were looking at some gulls on the wing, out over the lake and it reminded one of the women about a specific moment of her incarceration. She had just arrived at a facility unknown to her and It was daybreak. She remembered seeing gulls circling in the sky and wondered, “Am I near the ocean?”, “Near a lake?”. She had no idea where she was. She would find out a few days later, after a phone call to her mother, that she was at the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, just north of Fresno. That really struck me. What must it be like to wake up one morning and have no idea where you are? I spoke of vulnerability earlier, for myself. How vulnerable must this woman have felt? It made me realize how far these women have come and what vulnerability it took to even participate in this outing. Curiously, with this vulnerability, there exuded such a sense of courage.

A couple of months later, Melinda would organize a 2nd Crossroads event at the 2nd street pool in La Verne. It was a simple affair: fellowship that involved some pool time and finger food. During the course of conversation, we, from LVCOB, had earlier been politely reminded from Melinda, not to initiate the reason for incarceration in the course any discussions. This request was of course understood and honored, but in the routine of polite conversation, the following question was asked: “Where are you from? “. Seemed like an innocent question, but there seemed to be a pregnant pause in the air before anyone responded. And then it hit me: asking somebody where they are from is, essentially, asking somebody to talk about their past. I immediately got the sense that the past was something that these women did not necessarily want to spend time reminiscing about. Despite its initial awkwardness, the conversation continued and ultimately was the catalyst for some much deeper discussions later in the evening. Much of it had to do with “the now” and optimism towards the future. The outing at the pool, I believe, was looked upon favorably by all who attended it (combined with the birding outing had powerful effect on me). I learned from these women, many things, but four themes, in particular, stood out.

Be willing to be vulnerable. Consider the initial balance of the relationship between the women from Crossroads and those of us who attended events from this Church. These women knew nothing about us and we (at least initially) knew only one thing about them- they’ve formerly been incarcerated. How’s that for vulnerability?

Don’t dwell on the past. It may have been a factor (good or bad) in where one is today, but how much does it really matter? We are still where we are right now, in this present moment. Learn from the past, perhaps, but don’t dwell on it!

Live in the present moment. Do something you haven’t done before, even it seems weird- Go birding. Enjoy something that some may take for granted- like sitting and talking by a pool.

Look to the future and be optimistic about the opportunities that sit before you, and remember the past is the past

This all brings me to something Thomas Merton once said, “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone- we find it with another” Along with that, I would also argue that each one of us is perpetually at a crossroads. I will leave you with this, something I plucked from the Crossroads website:

Crossroads: The name is simple, it suggests decision.

Crossroads is not a place to settle in or become dependent, but a place from which to go on.

Crossroads is not the beginning or end of a journey, but rather a place in the midst. It is a place to stop and consider.

So as I look into the figurative spotting scope at the Women of Crossroads I say, “Sweet Jesus, Thank You Lord!”