St. Anthony’s Junior Retreat: A Reflection

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Rachel Banta '16, Writer

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The Tenderloin is an area many of us tend to overlook, simply because we don’t recognize it beside the glint of all the lavish things the world-class city of San Francisco has to offer. The Tenderloin community is most commonly defined as one of the worst areas in San Francisco due the drug dealers, addicts, and mentally unstable and homeless people who reside on its streets.

As a junior at Marin Catholic, I’ve come to understand what a community really is. We’re taught more than simply to pick each other up, or catch each other when we fall. As Catholics, we’re taught one of the most important lessons of all by our Theology classes: to go out and preach the good word of The Lord while living as a disciple in His kingdom.

Each year, juniors at Marin Catholic partner with St. Anthony’s Dining Hall in the Tenderloin for a hands-on experience and opportunity to live out each year’s school theme — “Love one another as I have loved you,” or “With God, all things are possible.” This day enables classes to build unity and to develop empathy for the people who are less fortunate than they.

October’s retreat began with attending a beautiful morning mass and then arriving to the headquarters of Saint Anthony’s to learn about the different types of people we would be interacting with in the Tenderloin. This was a helpful and informative way to ease into a situation where many felt uncomfortable. After the presentation, the two classes that attended broke off into smaller groups. I was placed into one of the two groups that got to directly interact with the elderly. Students either were assigned to the warehouse to fold clothes donated to the Salvation Army or to deliver food to homes. Quickly I felt nervous and reluctant when I was told we would have to walk a couple blocks on our own to the elderly home.

Walking down the streets, I saw people dealing or ingesting drugs, people lined up early for the Dining Hall to open to get their free hot meal, people talking to themselves, transvestites, and just about anything you could imagine. Entering the elderly facility with my group of 8 other students was overwhelming. The majority of people didn’t speak English, and they were mostly older Asian or Chinese women. The room became silent as we walked in, as they weren’t used to having many visitors, especially a group of high school students. I was placed at a table with two Asian women, one in a wheelchair, with no teeth and no ability to speak, and the other who spoke a little English and Russian, but primarily Chinese.

Along with another classmate, I was soon placed into a chair aerobics class to participate with some of the people. Walking into the class, I was given a chair. The instructor led stretches timed to music by the Beatles, which the people would all chip in to sing during certain times. When I went back into the main room with everyone else, I laughed watching everyone copy moves from an 80’s exercise video. I soon found myself joining in.

After the video was finished, I went over to join a conversation that one of my friends was having with a woman named Mariya (pronounced like Maria). She was telling us that she had written poems all her life and had them memorized in her first language — Russian — but now was trying to translate them to English. She moved from Ukraine to the United States in 1991 with her husband and two sons in order to escape the Soviets and give her children a better life. She said she still loves her country and would like to go back. Her eldest son became a newspaper writer; she hardly sees him or his younger brother anymore.

Soon the Karaoke machine was turned on the big screen, and I sang along with an older man to Dancing Queen, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers. I wanted to think that I was entertaining the others in the room by singing really loudly, skipping, and dancing around the room, but it wasn’t until after that I realized that they were all laughing at me. It brought a smile to my face knowing that I could do something so simple to make these people happy, even if it was for a short period of time.

After leaving the elderly home, each group was taken into St. Boniface Church to have some reflection time and see first-hand the homeless that are allowed to sleep in the pews during the day. Shortly after we were guided into St. Anthony’s Dining Hall, where we waited our turn in the line, received the same food as the guests, and sat among them at the tables.

I sat at a table with two other students on the retreat and Sr. Teresa Benedicta and we had some interesting interactions. First, a man named Martin came and sat at our table and told us about an online gaming program he was trying to get started up. Then came a man named Jamal, who told us he had had around eight children by four different women.

My last interaction a profound impact on me. A young girl named Claudia came up to Sr. Teresa Benedicta and asked her when she thought the apocalypse was going to happen. She told us she hoped it would happen soon because she wished to start her life over again. Claudia spoke poor English and told us that she was 18 years old and had come to San Francisco from Canada the day before. She had recently graduated high school and wanted to come to the city to start over, but she was robbed and had no money. All she had was what she was carrying on her back and her two skateboards. I remember her most vividly saying, “I’m just going to go with the flow and see what happens.” She suddenly vanished, saying, “Oh, and have a beautiful day.” It was weird for me to meet this girl who was so genuinely happy with the lack of things she had. I didn’t know how she could be so positive. It made me feel awful not being able to do anything to help her, as she was barely older than myself. Thinking that I wouldn’t see her ever again was scary. Knowing what the Tenderloin is like, I am afraid for her safety and continuously pray to God that she won’t be harmed.

After lunch all the groups arrived back at the St. Anthony’s headquarters to listen to a speaker. His name was José and he told us about how he used to live in the Tenderloin, dealt drugs, was an alcoholic, and had been to prison 5 times, serving roughly 14 years. He talked about the son he put up for adoption years ago, how he successfully has made it through rehab, and has been sober for many months. He constantly reminded everyone to make good choices and stay away from drugs, repeating, “You don’t want to end up like me.”

Visiting the Tenderloin was an eye-opening experience. This day helped me reflect on all the amazing opportunities we have: a great school, loving families, and a safe environment. I understand after going on this retreat that God calls all of us to make a difference in the lives of others, no matter how big or small the act may be.

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