"We spent our first day in New York City in a soup kitchen at St. Francis Xavier Church in Lower Manhattan,” said Sabiha Ahmad. “I felt the sadness of the hundreds of hungry people gathered there as I buttered stale bagels and sorted used clothing,” she added. A graduate student and an assistant in the campus ministry office at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., Sabiha was telling me about her semester-break immersion week in January. “We served 900 people that first day,” she continued, “and as I looked around the hall where the people were having their meal, I realized that every individual there had a story, and that most of them wouldn’t have chosen to be there that Sunday afternoon if they had enough resources of their own.” As Sabiha and the others discovered during their service week, poverty can make harsh demands.
Sabiha was one of four dozen students who came as volunteers to work in a variety of facilities that provide aid to people in need—and not always material aid. One site, for example, was Steps to End Family Violence, an organization in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan. It is located on East 106th Street, a kind of dividing line between the housing projects, where some of the city’s poorest residents live, and the luxury apartment houses that increasingly dominate the Upper East Side. Most of those who come to Steps to End Family Violence are in the former category—women who are trapped both by poverty and by domestic violence.
Volunteering there, Sabiha observed, “was another experience that changed some of the stereotypes I’d held.” For example, she met a woman charged with killing her abuser. “I had expected her to be a large older woman with a tough personality, but the woman who walked into the room was this tiny young girl with a beautiful smile and an amazing personality to match. I guess,” she added, “it was hard for me to imagine that she would hurt a fly, much less kill someone.” Sabiha and other Canisius students assigned to STEPS accompanied the young woman to court one day, and throughout their stay served as a supportive presence for her and other abused women.
The different service experiences—which included prayerful evening refection on each day’s happenings—opened the students’ eyes to many of the mistaken assumptions they had held about issues of poverty and violence. As the two campus ministry staff coordinators put it, exposing them to complex social issues, seen at close range in a huge city like New York, was meant to help them challenge stereotypes they had grown to accept as part of their middle-class backgrounds. One of the coordinators observed, “We were hoping that at the end of their service week, they would be leaving with more questions than answers.”
Sabiha and three other students stayed in space lent by the Holy Name Center, an organization that serves homeless men. Depending on how early they left for work each morning, they would pass a line of homeless individuals waiting on the sidewalk for showers, clothing and other services that Holy Name offers. Then they would enter a nearby subway station—itself a learning experience, with its mix of people from different cultures and social-economic backgrounds. Both in the subway and on the streets themselves, they were struck by what Sabiha called “the various forms of economic segregation within the city,” as they brushed shoulders with people begging and upscale men and women wearing designer clothes.
New York City itself, in fact, served as a key part of the students’ immersion experience, filled as it is with sharply defined contrasts: those in limousines oblivious to the destitute lying in doorways. They also became more aware of the struggles of immigrants who had come here in hopes of living the American dream, but now barely survived in minimum-wage jobs that could not cover the cost of housing, food and other necessities. Their struggles are often made worse by unscrupulous employers who exploit them, aware that the undocumented status of many immigrants makes them afraid to complain to the authorities about the abuses they suffer.
For some in the group, the winter immersion experience did not end with their return to the Canisius campus. Sabiha herself, of the Muslim faith, was to return to STEPS this past summer to help the organization “extend its services to the South Asian and Muslim populations of the city.” But for all, as a coordinator put it, they saw what they might never have otherwise seen, giving them the kind of learning experience that leads to fundamental life questions.