Ramadan: A spiritual journey of purification & compassion

Editor’s note: As we approached Ramadan this year, I realized that I was woefully ignorant of how Muslims celebrate this important holiday and why. I reached out to see if someone from the Solid Ground team would write about their experience of Ramadan. Abdel Elfahmy volunteered! Abdel, a practicing Muslim, is an Operations Supervisor at Solid Ground Transportation. I am grateful to him for sharing his perspective. 

Ramadan MubarakWhy are they fasting?

Whenever the month of Ramadan begins and the sighting of its crescent is affirmed, this marks the celebration of the willpower and strong determination of every Muslim. (This year’s Ramadan began the evening of June 17 and is over the evening of July 17.) Muslims fast from sun rise to sun set throughout the month of Ramadan out of obedience to their Lord and their urge to benefit from such a great spiritual experience. Muslims embark on a month-long spiritual journey of purification, hoping to disclose the wisdom behind fasting and obtain the abundant rewards of this blessed month, the fasting of which is one of the pillars of Islam.

The following are some of the rationales for fasting in this month:

1) The month of Ramadan is a practical self-training process on the sincerity and honesty of the believer: The one who breaks the fast is breaching the pledge with Allah, therefore fasting improves and increases his sense of honesty when he refrains from anything that could break his fast even whilst in seclusion. Of course one is not forced to fast in the month of Ramadan (there is no authority to check man’s behavior or compel him to observe fasting). One may pretend to be fasting in front of people, if his heart does not have any fear of his Lord. Fasting is an act of worship that is offered to the Creator with full devotion and sincerity, hoping only for the rewards from him.

2) Strengthening one’s willpower and determination: One who can tolerate the pain of hunger and thirst, and controls himself from having a sexual relation with his/her spouse whilst fasting, will strengthen determination and willpower. This frees the person from being enslaved to lusts and desires that are harmful. The month of Ramadan grounds a person in self-control. It is the month of radical positive change. When one fasts, one is in control of themself and exercises full control over habits and desires. Some people lose their temper and become ill-mannered if their meal was delayed from its normal time or if they do not drink their morning coffee or afternoon tea. They have become so accustomed to a certain routine that changing it creates a problem for them. Such people are slaves to their routine and habits, and fasting helps the person overcome this behavior.

3) Fasting is a holistic spiritual experience that poses a huge question mark for those who grasp the wisdom behind this obligation: A fasting person should ponder on the spirit of caring and sharing which fasting develops in Muslims. All fasting Muslims share the same pain, hunger, thirst and bitterness of deprivation while fasting with the poor and needy. Ramadan creates a social and humanitarian context that fosters compassion for the needy around the world. By our voluntary hunger and thirst, we realize what it means to be deprived of basic necessities of life. Ramadan is a time to remember and help those who are less fortunate. Moreover, all Muslims also feel the joy of breaking their fast and relish thankfulness to God. The poor people rejoice at their wealthy brothers who are sharing their pain and suffering with them. They rejoice at the thought that their wealthy brothers help them to ward off the scourge of hunger and bitter deprivation. Fasting rejuvenates the concept of social solidarity among the community.

4) Fasting generates in humans feelings of happiness, peace of mind and spiritual satisfaction, and fosters the unity of the community: It inculcates the real spirit of social belonging, of unity and brotherhood. When one fasts, one feels that he/she is joining the whole Muslim society in observing the same duty in the same manner at the same time for the same motives and to the same end.

5) Fasting is one of the greatest means to obtain forgiveness for sins and removal of misdeeds.

6) Realizing the size of the bounties of God: Fasting makes rich people appreciate the favors of Allah, because Allah has granted what He has deprived many other people from. Refraining from such bounties and blessings for a short period through fasting reminds the rich of those who are continuously deprived, and they thus become grateful to Allah and more merciful towards the needy.

7) Fasting has clear health and psychological benefits: These were disclosed after scientific discoveries were made, and from the insights of those who were blessed with insight and good understanding of the divine obligation. Some of these benefits are:

  • It organizes the person’s heartbeat and relaxes it, since no blood is needed for digestion.
  • It purifies the blood from fat and cholesterol and acids.
  • It relieves the liver from the regular pressure.
  • It reduces the production of the digestive glands, which is usually the cause for ulcers.
  • It protects the person from weight gain, diabetes and kidney stones.
  • It reduces the pressure on the heart arteries.

A fasting person spends his days in carrying out one of the greatest acts, devoting his days and nights during that holy month in remembrance, glorification and worship of Allah, and willfully rejecting all temptations, abominations and the cravings of the human body.

Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

Skool Haze: Part 1

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

White teachers scare the hell out of me – or did anyway. Several made life difficult for me, and some did thinking they were doing genuinely good work. Mr. Hagen was my 6th grade teacher, and he was one of those people. He was a tall man with a booming loud voice and a disarming laugh. When he was in the room you knew it. He was always joking with students and having fun creatively teaching them how to learn lessons. He was all energy. I really liked him. But the day he put his hands on me, all that changed.

I can’t remember what triggered the incident. Was I talking too loud, or was I talking during a movie, or was I just horsing around with a classmate? I don’t know, because all I can remember are two emotions: his rage and my naked terror of it. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about what I was doing wrong like I couldn’t change it. He pulled me into the hall like a bag of trash bound for a dumpster, and I could feel the anger in his hands as he slammed me against the wall. I was pinned, berated and made to feel worthless. These are feelings that linger and take years to figure out.

What does it mean to have an adult that’s “trusted” render life-altering judgments and lay hands on you? But in that moment he didn’t see that he was white and I was a scared black kid; it missed his notice that a terrible event was being burned into a young brain. I was being taught not to trust people that looked like him. And to fear not just whites but institutions as well, even ones like public education, which supposedly work for the greater good of everyone.

I don’t know what was in Mr. Hagen’s heart, but the net effect of terrorizing a child was debilitation. I stopped wanting to learn. The trip to school from that day forward was long, and I didn’t live far from my school. My time in class was uncomfortable and boring as I tuned out my teachers’ voices. I drifted farther from my potential and closer to statistics that lead too many young black men to early graves. I became destructive and was frequently in trouble with the law. Eventually I saw no pathway for me in school – and definitely none to college – so I dropped out and tuned out.

Why would we expect black children to learn under conditions like that? Why would it be acceptable to us to condemn even one to the feeling of not belonging? Is our desire for social justice so all-consuming it fails to see the obvious or create any semblance of the world it imagines? Children are supposed to be protected, and I wasn’t protected. As a society, we should be going to extraordinary lengths to protect our black children if we suspect they are being harmed, even if the harm is inadvertent.

Back on the road to home

Bruce Perry with his truck

Bruce Perry with his truck

Truck driver Bruce Perry is a veteran and a resident at Santos Place on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus. He has lived in many different places – from the deep south, to California, to the Pacific Northwest – and he has worn many different career hats. From a young age, he has known exactly what he wanted to do with his life – several different things, to be exact – and one by one, he has achieved those goals.

Bruce says, “I’ve done pretty much all I wanted to do in life, career-wise. I knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to go into the military. I’d see the convoys of military trucks and “I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s going to be me one day!’ ” And sure enough, he served in the US Army from 1975 to 1979, a Vietnam-era vet who was fortunate to enlist three months before the end of the active conflict, so he never saw combat. Also, he says, “I wanted to be a mailman – which I did for 19½ years – and at the age of 42, I retired, in the Bay Area.”

Finally, he says, “I wanted to be a truck driver.” He first got his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in 2005 and worked as a cross-country freight driver for several years. “I’ve been to 48 states, Mexico and Canada.” This last goal, though, had a serious hiccup: In 2009 in Louisiana, he received a ticket, which he paid with a check that didn’t go through. Unfortunately, the check was returned to an old address and he never received it, causing his license to be suspended for a year. “And each time you get a ticket,” he explains, “it’s another violation that counts for one year. Another violation, another year. So that’s how I had to do three years on suspension. That’s three years without driving at all.”

Starting over

In 2011, with his final dream job on hiatus, his funds dwindling, and very few veterans resources available to him in the south, he decided to relocate to Washington state where he could get housing through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH). “That’s one reason I moved here; and another reason was I’d be close to my girlfriend,” he says with a shy smile. (She lives in Vancouver, BC, and thanks to Amtrak he gets to meet her in Bellingham a few times a month.)

After a stint in VASH temporary housing, Bruce was placed in transitional housing at Santos Place. A self-described loner and very independent man, he says, “This place is for people able to take care of themselves, ‘cause nobody gonna come knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, are you ok?’ You have to be able to take care of yourself here.”

During his stay, he says, “I kept myself busy.” So while living at Santos and waiting out his suspension, he worked at Whole Foods Market and received job training through AARP – and just as soon as his suspension was up, he went straight back and got recertified as a truck driver. In June 2014, he was back on the road, and he couldn’t be happier. He drives up and down the coast, from Kent, WA to southern California and back, with weekends at home. And come December 1st, five days before his birthday, Bruce will finally move out of Santos Place and into permanent housing.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Bruce outside of Santos Place

Bruce outside of Santos Place

To others struggling to get back on their feet, he urges people to “ask for help. Solid Ground has people to help you with that! Depression, shame stops people from doing what they need to do. It’s scary. You get in this environment, it’s all you know. You stay here and you feel comfortable, and it’s hard to get up and walk out that door and go out there and get a job again, because a lot of people are scared of failure. But you got to start somewhere.”

He recommends that people “Go to training school while you’re on low income. Go to WorkSource. Go to the library. We got two brand new computers here and a whole computer room. Take advantage of that! Go to junior college. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do.”

Home for the holidays

This year, Bruce will be in his own home for Christmas for the first time in a long time. A devout Christian, he believes God played an important role in his success: “If you open your heart up to God, read your bible, pray – put your trust in God, not man – then it will start working. If you have the right attitude, things will work out for you. It may take a while, but it will happen.”

And while Bruce is technically of retirement age, he’s not at all retiring. “The only thing I want to do now is just continue working and, God willing, work to the age of 66 and collect my social security. I got a chance to retire; I know what it’s like to retire. I got a chance to be blessed to start back over again. So it’s like a big burden lifted off of your shoulders.” But, he says, when he finally does “retire” from truck driving, he still intends to drive a truck two or three days a week. “I’ve talked to older people,” he says, “and lots of people have told me, the worst thing you can do is just sit around all day and do nothing. Once you sit down and start doing nothing, your muscles and your mind, everything’s all fading away. You lose everything.”

And he has absolutely no regrets. “It’s hard to explain to people; very few people can look back and say they’ve done everything they wanted to do in life. I’m one of those few people. And how do you know that you’ve done everything in life? If the doctor said, ‘You only have two months to live?’ I’ve done everything I wanted to do!”

Driving from the heart

Ninus and Kathy Hopkins represent everything that is good about Solid Ground. Our longest-tenured Access bus operators, they are a mixed-race couple who have endured a lifetime of prejudice and racism, yet what shines through in their work is the clearest manifestation of building community that you will ever see.

Kathy Hopkins, circa 1989

Kathy Hopkins, circa 1989

When Ninus and Kathy started, Seattle Personal Transit was a small paratransit service launched by one-time Jesuit Volunteer John Rochford, who pioneered special transportation services for people living with disabilities who can’t access the fixed-route system.

In 1987, the program combined two small independent services in North Seattle. Renamed Solid Ground Transportation in 2013, it is the only nonprofit service provider of Metro Access Transportation.

Last year, Solid Ground’s Access buses provided over 330,000 rides to link people to essential resources, enabling them to continue to live independently. Even more than rides, Solid Ground’s transportation provides connection and compassion for its customers.

 

1 Year Later: Remembering my mom & a call for action

guest columnThis post was contributed by Solid Ground Board Member Lauren McGowan and was originally published on July 15, 2014 on her personal blog, Now is the Time: Ending hunger, homelessness, and the cycle of poverty…in heels. Lauren has served on the Solid Ground Board since 2006, including four years as Board President. This piece is a followup to When homelessness hits home/Love you, Love you more, which she wrote when her mother passed away a year ago.

LaurenMcG-MomPlaqueIt’s been exactly one year since I received the worst possible phone call. My mom Fran, who struggled with homelessness for many years, died on the beach in my hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. For much of my childhood my mom was like any other mom – she struggled to balance work, family, and bills. She proudly volunteered for field trips, hosted sleepovers, and beamed with pride at dance recitals and strikeouts. She carried a deep love for my dad, her high school sweetheart, with her day in and day out.

And then something happened.

A combination of stress, anxiety, depression, chronic substance abuse and mental illness led her world to crumble. Instead of enjoying the wisdom and balance that comes with middle age – she spent her 40s and early 50s battling demons, bouncing between hotels, rehab facilities, shelters, transitional units, couches, apartments and – more often than my heart can admit – the streets. Her favorite resting spot was behind the church where I made my confirmation – she thought god would keep her safe.

100ILoveYousI’m not a religious person but my mom was. She believed the church would save her when nothing else could. Since she passed I’ve said the “Our Father” every time I see a pink sunset. I like to think she’s watching over us. Since July 15, 2013, there have been more than 100 sunsets, 100 reflections, 100 “Our Fathers,” 100 I Love Yous.

When I first shared her story, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew about her struggle. Homelessness is deeply shameful, embarrassing, and isolating – both for the individual and the family. I carefully protected that secret because talking about it – naming it – made it real. It meant talking out loud about the things I wrestled with…

Do I move her to Seattle where there are more resources for people who struggle with homelessness?”

“Should she move in with me?”

“Should I buy her a place in CT?”

“Isn’t there one more social service agency I can call, one more wait-list to be on?”

“Why can’t I fix this?”

Sharing her story was a leap of faith – a quest for a better outcome for other moms. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best possible friends and family, and what I’ve learned over the last year is that there are many people in my circle who’ve carried their own secret black cloud. The stigma of depression, substance abuse and mental illness keeps too many people quiet. The shame and blame of poverty, job loss and homelessness too often rips families apart.

But it shouldn’t be this way. No one should die on our streets alone. No one should struggle alone. No one should go from provider to provider, hospital to hospital, treatment center to treatment center, and walk away empty handed or land on a wait-list miles long. Despite years of interventions, tens-of-thousands of dollars and a lot of system knowledge, I couldn’t fix my mother’s situation. And for too many friends who’ve lost siblings, parents or partners, they couldn’t fix it either. No, we can’t fix it alone, but together I believe we can.

Significant policy reform at a national level is needed to create a more robust, effective, and compassionate safety net. To get there, we must engage and mobilize people experiencing homelessness, business leaders and caring neighbors like we’ve never done before.

Everyone deserves to have a safe and decent place to call home. When people fall – and it can happen to anyone – they need holistic resources that will help get them back on their feet. When moms need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse, level of need – not financial resources – should drive treatment options. We need to break our silence.

I look forward to the day when the voices of people who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness are as strong as the NRA lobbyists, because that is what it will take. Yes, it takes resources. So does ignoring the problem. So does funding a war. For the 600,000 Americans who struggle with homelessness – many due to mental illness – every day is a struggle, every day is a war.

Homelessness is solvable. Big foundations and local governments – even the Veterans Administration – are providing that it can be done. So let’s take it to scale and make sure no man, woman or child goes without a roof. As taxpayers, voters and engaged citizens, we make choices every day. Today we must choose to stop being silent and help move the most vulnerable in our community to Solid Ground.

In Memory: Sandi Cutler

“Sandi Cutler -- a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change.”

“Sandi Cutler — a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change.”

Sandi Cutler, Solid Ground’s Chief Operating & Strategy Officer, died unexpectedly during the first week of July from natural causes. He leaves behind many loving family members, dozens of grieving colleagues and a lifelong legacy of social justice work. While not a publicly recognized figure, Sandi made significant contributions to the political life of our region, our nation’s health care system, and the stability and success of Solid Ground.

Sandi grew up in the Central Valley of California. His father was a school district administrator who worked to desegregate the public schools that employed him – which meant that he was often fired. So the family moved on, taking their active commitment to social justice to another community.

As a young man, Sandi was an effective political organizer. He was a major force in moving San José, California to change from at-large elections to City Council districts, which helped communities of color gain representation. He worked tirelessly to raise funds for candidates of color to ensure they maintained their political power.

Later in his career, Sandi became a nationally known leader in natural medicine and the public policy issues related to the integration of natural health sciences into health care. A brilliant strategic thinker and deeply knowledgeable planner, he helped turn Bastyr College into Bastyr University, one of the world’s preeminent natural health sciences institutions. He also guided the expansion of DeVry University’s medical school, turning it into the largest provider of new physicians into the U.S. Health Care system.

When Sandi came to Solid Ground in 2012, he brought more experience in developing and implementing strategies, operations management, organizational development and leadership than most people could gain in many lifetimes.

And still, he was at heart a gifted community organizer who believed that it was a successful day only if he had helped make the world a better place.

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with Sandi Cutler at Solid Ground's 2014 Stand Against Racism event

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with Sandi Cutler at Solid Ground’s 2014 Stand Against Racism event

“Sandi took great pride in his Italian heritage and a culture of living life to the fullest, characterized by love of family and community,” said Gordon McHenry, Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground. “He was always mindful of his white privilege and careful in his role in Solid Ground’s hierarchy.

“The opportunity to be employed with Solid Ground was both inspirational and motivating for Sandi. He felt honored to continue working on behalf of those suffering from oppression and poverty, as well as from the impacts of societal barriers to justice, equity and the opportunity to thrive.”

“Sandi will be remembered as a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change,” said Lauren McGowan, past President of Solid Ground’s Board of Directors.

“Sandi’s kind nature and compassion had an impact on everyone around him,” said Kira Zylstra, Stabilization Services Director. “He had a profound and genuine care for the community that we serve as well as the team of dedicated staff here at Solid Ground.”

Solid Ground extends its deepest support to Sandi’s family and friends. We know that for all the loss we feel, yours is deeper and even more profound.

And as we reflect on the incomprehensible fragility of life, we are reminded to be kind to one another, to find the beauty in each day and to make sure we express our love to those we cherish.

A public memorial service will be held Sunday, July 27 from 1–4pm at Bastyr University Chapel (14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore).

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