By Gerard Berry, Oakland 77, San Francisco 78. This story about his experience as a Jesuit Volunteer is included in his memoir.
For the sixth grade teacher a Friday afternoon in class can be like the raucous build-up of a Chinese New Year. At 2:45 pm I dismissed my students and did not hold anyone after school. Twenty-eight children ganged out of Saint Columba’s and down the hill.
The school is a pink plastered building set on a sunny lot in inner city Oakland, California. I stuffed a pack full of books and homework papers and walked four blocks to the bus stop at the corner of San Pablo and Alcatraz avenues. The sun was shining. It warmed those of us who were standing in front of the shoe repair shop. I felt tired and happy. It was an unthinking kind of happiness.
I boarded a #72 San Pablo bus that was on its way downtown. I glanced at the people sitting around me. I took satisfaction in their presence. They were known forms and shapes to me. I did not view them individually. I was glad that they existed. They evoked an easy and comfortable awareness.
Amid the hum and hiss of the electric bus, the shuffle of bodies and whish of mechanical doors, I slept and woke. I noticed that a gaunt man lay sleeping in front of a doorway. He had extra belongings and wore a coat too large and heavy for such a golden day.
My field of perception grew as we reached downtown. The world outside my window was alive with motion. Slowly and deftly, the driver guided the bus through colorful bands of bodies and objects. I looked at an outer field of human activity.
Mine was a horizon of familiarity. I knew nearly all of these phenomena by name. Streets were conveniently named after numbers so that when I passed them—9th, 8th, 7th, I knew where I was. There were buildings of yellow or brown-colored stone or tall dark glass which stood out with clarity in the blue sky. Their names too, were in place, under the pediments, over the doors: Caldwell’s, the Oakland Tribune, Saint Andrew’s church, the Hall of Justice, Wells Fargo bank. I knew that the shapes near the streets’ edges were trees and that the specific names for these trees were locust and sycamore.
The sight of so many bipedal creatures, male and female, young and old, black and white, adult and child, each of them different, gave me a sense of joy and belonging. Their presence suggested that they existed and were a part of this world. I did not scrutinize them. I simply took indifferent pleasure from their presence.
I, too, was a part of this world. I was aware, on this afternoon, of the things themselves. It was a world of concrete images, colors, and senses which I understood. For now, this was the place I knew best on earth. I had a relationship with the place I knew.
I was a person in a particular time and place. There were many people with whom I was involved who were known to me as friends. I took satisfaction in who I was: a teacher of children. I knew by the weight of books on my back that I had put in my time. Not for nothing had I worked through this week that was at the end of its repertory. Now, I was grateful and happily indifferent. This afternoon I began to drift and let go. Identities such as “teacher” slipped away. Falling away, too, were “white male twenty-three year old”, “Catholic”, “volunteer”, “home address,” “son,” brother”, and any physical features or intellectual qualities. I felt a liberation from attachments.
At 12th and Market I left the bus with many others and began to wander the streets of downtown. My mind was not centered on any one idea, event, or phenomenon. I simply passed through, and with, and into, and among the world. I did not really think about my mood. I did not much consider this past day or this evening ahead. I walked down 12th Street among humanity. I am one who loves loving everything and nothing; sees love in eyes and looks, in skirts red and shirts plaid, in bodies supple and conversations various, in alleys vacant and sidewalks littered. Glad the possibilities of love are a part of existence. I am one who loves slowing down on Fridays, not caring when or if I get home, when I eat or sleep; not caring what the time is, not caring about worries or responsibilities or tomorrow.
It was, on the one hand, a place on earth, one of familiarity and clarity. I knew things by their names. It was a world I understood through concrete images, colors, and sensations. It was, on the other hand, a world pierced with mystery. I wandered by an open news stand. There my eyes briefly met the eyes of another. I saw in them great depth and wonder and beauty. A few seconds, then gone. The source of longing and the heart of encounter. I marveled at this great mystery of another. Our: I and thou. I felt I was in Walt Whitman’s world, when he rhapsodized in “Song of Myself”:
“Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade,
what is it that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me to be more than all the print I have read in my life.”
I moved on, a solitary wanderer in a city that seemed to be yearning for life, especially in the rising young. Ahead of me walked a person whom I thought I knew. I quickened my step, and she vanished into the dimness of a stairway. She had gone underground. It was a way station for trains. I stared into the tunnel’s gray light. I was free to go below or stay in the bright, limpid air. A world glowing with mystery, pulsating with life.
The civic center renewal project was an attempt to give two blocks of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue a new face. I sat and leaned back upon one of the benches encircling a dry fountain. I waited for the #88 Market which would take me to the place where I stayed. The city was lighting up. The clouds in the west were fiery. I sat quietly and watched the people who were waiting with me. Twilight filled us as it filled the air. I felt the calm power of the moment. There I lay in the living moment where, as a surfer sliding along a wave’s crest, nothing is lost and time feels like it has no chronology.
Jeweled Venus dangled above a crescent moon, which dipped its horn of pearl into the bay. A world blazing with mystery, burning with energy. I looked on this world with reverence. The substance of my life was in the fabric of the sidewalk in front of me, the people around me, and the sky above me. We were in direct and ever changing relationship.
My bus arrived. I let it pass.
A youth walked by, holding a boom box to his ear with volume turned up. The lyrics that blared were those of a popular song by a black funkadelic band. They expressed the funky fun of dancing and grooving.
“One nation under a groooove, one nation on the mooove….”
It was a great song for dancing, and it played everywhere that year. But if you listened closely to the lyrics you could hear something more. They spoke of dancing as a way to freedom. Grooving a metaphor for breaking out of harsh, imposing boundaries:
“Here’s a chance to dance my way
Out of my constrictions…”
“Ready or not here we come….”
“One nation and we’re on the move;
Nothing can stop us now….”
The song was familiar to me. The children at school sang this song and knew the words by heart. It was an important part of their world. I had explained to my class how music could be empowering, and that “One Nation” was a good example. The song was played again on this evening by an expressionless black youth, who looked straight ahead in dark glasses and fatigues, and marched past all of us at the bus stop. Surprisingly, this brief encounter was to be one of my watershed moments that year, evoking in me compassion for the world as it is, and desire for the world as it could be. A crack opened in my Friday afternoon reverie. (To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.) My inner life had just intersected with my outer life. Neither can live for too long without the other.
A funky song, a band of sixth graders, a militant young man, a mystical experience in the heart of a city, were parts of a story and a mission. They formed a composite picture of my year as a Jesuit Volunteer teacher in the inner city of Oakland, California. I worked with others who shared the same goals of service: to live in community with the poor, organize with neighbors for change, improve education, develop youth leadership, and bridge the wide gulf of racism. He was, in one sense, a young black man. But he, like all of us, was more than his descriptors. I don’t know who he was. He too was mystery, and he walked through an electrified world that was charged with desire and passion. The song, “One Nation,” was funky music, smooth and sweet. But this song punched more than one number. It was emblematic of what we were all there for. It signaled the tooth-and-nail struggle for justice and liberation taking place in neighborhoods around us, and I was achingly aware that I was part of it.
Night had fallen. The young man with the boom box had hopefully reached his destination. I had just experienced a return to the world of attachments. I stood as another #88 Market pulled up. I picked up my pack and moved toward it.