Camp Miller, Part 3: The Fence

One recent Saturday morning at Camp Miller, I sat and watched as half a dozen teenage inmates helped lead a worship service. I listened as they spoke of their gratitude for family members, life, and the opportunity to fellowship with the volunteers who had come to visit them that morning. I listened even more intently as a few of them expressed their hopes of finishing school and becoming doctors, chefs, or volunteers themselves. Later, I tried to capture a bit of the awe, joy, hope, sorrow, and fear that had washed over me during that sacred hour.

The Fence

Bearers of the divine image
in their scars and sorrows
     as much as in their irrepressible dreams
          of doing good
          as well as doing well,
they wear the green and gray garb
     of incarceration
with a restless resignation—
counting the days that stand between them
     and freedom,
the minutes that still must transpire
     before they will breach the barbed-wire boundary
     that keeps them from home.

This fence, I’ve been trained to understand,
is a just necessity,
put in place to protect the bodies and belongings
     of the law-abiding
from the reckless young men
     now caught within its confines.

But what will protect the minds and spirits
     of these wounded warriors
from those on the outs
who cannot or will not perceive
     among defiant tattoos
     and other marks
          of a rough-and-tumble existence
the indelible stamp
     of a Creator
     who makes no mistakes?

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 2: Gang Intervention

Early in my poetry-writing days, I spent a lot of time writing about the apostle Peter. I identify strongly with this impetuous, stubborn follower of Christ who had a special talent for putting his foot in his mouth, biting off more than he could chew, forgetting things he had learned, and otherwise stumbling his way through a life of faith and service.

Recently, I was inspired to consider one of Peter’s interactions with Jesus from Jesus’ perspective (or as close to Jesus’ perspective as I could get, anyway). During a Saturday morning mass at Camp Miller, one of our leaders guided us through a meditation focused on Peter’s water-walking misadventure (see Matthew 14:22-36).

I thought about how the young men at the camp could be described as at-risk for sinking in stormy waters, and about how desperately I wanted to help them keep their heads above the surface, and about how inadequate I felt to do that. An hour or so later, after some fellowship time that I thought might or might not have been “useful” to the guys, one of them stopped me on his way out to give me a hug and find out when I next planned to visit.

While I still feel a lot more like Peter than like Jesus, it was good to be reminded that the simple presence of someone who cares matters to someone who is struggling—and that while I do in fact lack the capacity to pull these young people from the waters that seek to swallow them, I can at least hold their hands for a moment and assure them that there is One whose grip is much stronger than mine.

Gang Intervention

I visualize the grip
     of the carpenter’s son:
strong, sure, yet infinitely gentle
as he grabbed hold of Peter’s
     flailing limb
and hoisted his drowning friend
     to safety.

How I long to possess a hand like his!

But my arm trembles and strains
as I strive to maintain my hold
on youthful fingers
that I fear are not completely committed
     to the clasp.

And why should they be,
     I interrogate myself,
when the rushing winds that terrify me so
     that whip the waves around us
     into such a treacherous frenzy
carry on their breath a siren’s song—
a seductive strain
whose lyrics of love and loyalty,
     set to the harmonies of home,
beckon with a power
     and familiarity
I cannot begin to match?

Then, just as it seems I will lose my grasp entirely,
     consigning us both to a watery end,
earnest eyes meet mine
and a grip of steel tightens around my wrist
as a soft, incongruous voice
entreats me to hold on
     for just a little while longer.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Camp Miller, Part 1: Free

About six months ago, I “accidentally” got connected with a ministry to youth in a Malibu probation camp (while trying to get connected to a literacy program in Watts–life can be funny that way…). The ministry is sponsored by the local Catholic Archdiocese’s Office of Restorative Justice; each Saturday morning, a team of volunteers joins incarcerated teens (many of whom are gang-affiliated and treading a very dangerous path) for mass and an hour of visiting/fellowship.

I was invited to participate in the program by some kind new friends who thought my poetry might encourage the youth–but of course, what I found as I began to interact with the young men at the camp was that God was using them to encourage, challenge and stretch me. I hope that my presence and my words have been some small blessing to the guys at Camp Miller; I know that their friendship and stories have been a huge blessing to me.

Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has been a hero of mine for some 15 years. In his 2010 book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg shares some of the stories he has collected over his two decades of working with current and former gang members in Los Angeles, and he asserts that “the day simply won’t come when I am more noble, have more courage, or am closer to God than the folks whose lives fill these pages.”

This is how I am coming to feel about the young men at Miller. I am inspired by their bravery, their resilience, and their willingness to welcome people they have no particular reason to trust into their lives and hearts. At the same time, I am grieved by their pasts (both by things they have done and by things they have endured), and I am absolutely terrified about their futures. This poem was written the day I learned that one of “my” kids was going home.

I believe in God. I believe He is good. I believe He is powerful. I believe He loves these young men far more than I ever will or could.

But trusting Him with their lives? I have to be honest. It’s really hard.

Free

The sweet mustachioed boy
who calls me “Miss”
and thanks me for my visits
is all smiles as he informs me
     that he goes home this week,
leaving behind the barracks and barbed wire
that have circumscribed the last few months
     of his existence.

I smile, too,
offering a hug
     my congratulations
     and the heartfelt hope
          that freedom will treat him well.

But later, when I sit alone,
recalling his eager anticipation
     of once again kickin’ it with his homies,
I find that I can barely breathe,
and bitter tears flow—
even as a stabbing pain alerts me
that my innards are attempting
     to twist themselves
     into the kind of knot
that would fill any grizzled sailor
     or gung-ho scout master
     with pride.

Lord, help my unbelief!

Forgive this fragile faith
     that trembles and bows before the fear
     that the odds facing my young friend
     will prove to be too long—
     that the hand he has been dealt
          from a severely stacked deck
     will play out in devastating fashion
     because knowing when to fold ’em
     is a skill neither much prized
          nor often practiced
          at this table.

Teach me to bear the growing dread
     that my heart will be broken
          many times over
and enable me to love
     as though the specter of loss
     did not have its bony hand
     pressed hard against my throat.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Pacific

One of the benefits of living in California again is the frequency with which I have the opportunity to drive up and down the coast along various stretches of Highway One. I have always loved the ocean, so catching glimpses of it from the car window, or stopping from time to time to take a more extended look, brings me great joy.

On one recent road trip, I paused at a scenic overlook to savor my proximity to the mighty Pacific. As I watched the waves crash and recede, I felt the familiar urge to put pen to paper, and I started trying to capture my fascination with this great body of water.

Not surprisingly, even as I attempted to craft an homage to the beauty and magnificence of nature, my mind turned to the realities of city life. As I observed the ceaseless repetition of the water’s motion—and thought about the daily ebb and flow of the tides—I was reminded of the heartache and frustration that so often come with community development work, when you pour yourself into people and projects over time, but fail to see the tangible positive change you hope for so fervently. (This is not to say, of course, that I claim to know the best path for any other person’s life to follow, but I imagine many of us share the gut sense that, to give just a few examples, incarceration, drug addiction, and unplanned pregnancy do not generally represent the most positive outcomes for our young people.)

So while I recognize the inherent differences between what the ocean “does” and what community developers do, I still felt inspired to renew my commitment to labor faithfully, whether or not I can observe “net progress from day to day.” I was also reminded how much there is to value and celebrate in the incremental advances; in the shared striving toward a common—if elusive—goal; and even in the growth that comes when we are forced to fall back, regroup, and try again.

Pacific

This ocean has a gravitational pull
     all its own,
drawing me inexorably
     to its edge
that I may listen to the rhythmic pounding
          of the surf
     breathe in the invigorating scent
          of salty sea air
     and watch with rapt attention
          the boisterous charge and slithering retreat
          of waves beyond number—
wondering all the while
if I shall ever possess
the patience and fortitude required
     to persevere so faithfully
     in a given task
when faced with such a dearth
     of net progress
     from day to day.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Art Imitates Life

While I love working from home, every once in a while I’m reminded that just because I don’t leave the house to go to an office every morning, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t/can’t ever leave the house at all. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I did not immediately head outdoors after writing this poem, but I have been out and about some in the weeks since—to a graduation, a Giants game at Angel Stadium, a picnic in the park, and a few subway rides and neighborhood walks, among other adventures—and it’s been a lot of fun! Perhaps I’ll make a habit of this leaving the house thing…

Art Imitates Life

Outside
an assortment of sounds and smells—
animated chatter around a smoking barbecue
the bolstering strains of a looping playlist
     that could justifiably be titled
     “Disco Faves”
children’s laughter
     shouts
     and rapid footsteps
as a paneled Pied Piper
     cruises down the block,
     blasting its maddening
          and infuriatingly hummable
     jingle
     as it goes.

Inside
the gentle whir of a computer fan
and subdued clicks of a modern keyboard—
evidence of my attempt
to recreate on one flat screen
     what I perceive through another
as I sit at my desk, oblivious to the notion
that I could, instead, venture out of doors
and experience it all
     in living color
     surround sound
     and three dimensions.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Construction

For the past eight months or so, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with a mentoring program here in Los Angeles, which means that once a week, I get to hang out with a few other adults and a group of students from one of L.A.’s public middle schools. It’s been a wonderful experience all around, and I’ve been deeply impressed and encouraged by the young people’s creativity, intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness and resilience (among other positive attributes).

Their approach to one activity in particular caught my attention and inspired these reflections:

Construction

Seven inner-city seventh graders—
constituents of an educational system
struggling to maintain a tenuous grasp
on teachers, funds and hope—
are charged with building
the tallest tower possible
out of the flimsiest scraps imaginable:
paper, straws and pipe cleaners—
the kinds of materials one might reasonably expect
to buckle under pressure.

Though the supervising adults
murmur words of caution,
advocating a careful, conservative approach,
the youth set their sights
on a loftier goal,
taking as their model
the highest-rising edifice
that scrapes the sky
above their corner of the world:
the U.S. Bank building
in downtown Los Angeles.

In a flurry of breathless ambition,
they set to work,
adhering components to one another
with tape and sheer will power
and contriving an impressive something
out of nothing—
demonstrating that a structure is as strong
as the faith of its builders
in their ability to create.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Life Cycle of a Dream

Back in January, I was doing a lot of thinking about dreams—the visions for our lives that we may or may not have, and that we may or may not chase if we have them. The poem I shared then was a lament about the apparent inability of some young people of my acquaintance to imagine realities beyond the familiar.

Another strand of the topic I’ve been pondering in recent months is the idea that sometimes we have dreams, and we chase them, and they come true…and that’s not the end of the story. By way of background…my dear friend, Lee Harper, and I spent eight years pursuing the dream of opening a coffee house in our inner-city Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood. That dream came true on June 6, 2008, when Koinonia Coffee House celebrated its Grand Opening—and in the months and years that followed, as Koinonia became the racially, socio-economically, politically and otherwise diverse community gathering place we had so fervently longed for it to be. (For more about Koinonia, visit the coffee house’s Facebook page or website.)

But a couple of things got in the way of a simple “happily ever after” conclusion to the coffee house saga. One was that by the time we finally opened our doors, my imagination had been caught by a new dream: the hope of making a writing life for myself (and for some reason I didn’t think working full-time-plus co-managing a coffee house would facilitate my literary aspirations). Another was that although we received tremendous support from our community, money didn’t exactly roll in, and there have been multiple occasions on which Lee and I (and since I moved back to California to chase my next dream, just Lee) seriously considered shutting the whole thing down. (Lest I send any of Koinonia’s customers into a panic, the coffee house has weathered each of those storms and remains alive and kicking as of this writing!)

It was after one of those “maybe it’s time to close the doors and move on” conversations that the thoughts shared below began swirling around in my head and demanding to be given a home on paper. For the record, my answer to the middle question is no, I absolutely do not believe something should be called a failure simply because it doesn’t (or may not) last forever. Seeing a long-cherished dream come true—for any length of time—is really quite a wonderful thing!

Life Cycle of a Dream

How does that first glimmer of an idea—
that inspired aspiration so lofty
and compelling
that its attainment seems as impossible
as its pursuit is inevitable—
become one more chapter
in a storied past?

Do you count it as a failure
if that which has been
so painstakingly envisioned
appears
and then vanishes again,
Brigadoon-like,
replacing hours, days and years
of working and waiting
praying, hoping and striving
with a rumpled patchwork of memories
joyful, painful and ordinary?

Or is this the nature of dreams:
to be so ephemeral
that they can be grasped only briefly—
spoiling like manna
if held onto for too long—
and so richly satisfying
that a mere nibble is sufficient
to nourish the soul
until the next captivating notion
comes along?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers