Friday, April 15, 2016

the work of our hands: welcoming the stranger

As many of you know, before I made the Flying Leap Of Faith into the life of a musician and teacher, I was a bicycle mechanic and bike shop owner for almost twenty years.
As we prepare for Pesach (Passover), the Feast of Freedom, my local synagogue community is involved in a project I want to tell you about.
Havurah Shalom is partnering with Catholic Charities of Portland to provide household items and assistance with cultural navigation (more on that later) for refugees who have recent been resettled in Portland, from place like Somalia, Nicaragua, and other places where civil war, famine and sectarian violence have made it unsafe to work, play, raise a family or educate one's children. Once these families are vetted by the US State Department and granted asylum, social service agencies like Catholic Charities help them obtain affordable housing and jobs. Havurah Shalom is gathering household items (kitchen supplies, furniture, etc.) to furnish these apartments for families who have arrived here with little more than what they're wearing. Several of us will also be training as Cultural Navigators, helping our new fellow Portlanders learn their way around town, how to use public transit and how to utilize local job-search resources, etc. While we're doing this, we're also building relationships with these folks as they settle into their lives here in town.
While Portland's public transit is quite good, among the best in the country, bus far may still be expensive for new arrivals until they've found employment. So on a whim, I began asking friends at shul to donate old bicycles they no longer need, and I've been tuning them up and passing them along to be distributed to newly-arrived families.
Each bike has been equipped with lights, a lock, a small repair kit and a Portland bicycle map.
I've repaired five bicycles so far, and have another ten or so in the queue.
It's been a lot of fun to gather up these old bikes, some of which were outgrown, and others which were destined for a landfill because they'd gone unclaimed in an apartment basement for over two years, and turn them into useful transportation again. It's nice to keep my hands knowledgeable, to keep the muscle memory going, about the niceties of bicycle "mechanistry", as a fellow mechanic friend calls it. And it feels great to use something that comes so easily to me to make it possible for someone eles to get around town cheaply and easily.
I am planning to train as a cultural navigator, to help the new arrivals find their way around town on the transit system (because I've used Trimet for over forty years and I know the east side surface street grid like the back of my hand). I expect I'll learn at least as much as I may teach. I hope so.
The Passover Haggadah reminds us that when our ancestors left Egypt, a number of non-Israelites left with them. We were told that, as fellow sojourners, they were to be welcomed as part of our community.
And so it continues down to the present day.
Even now, our tradition reminds us that we must protect the widow and the orphan, and to welcome the stranger in our midst, so he or she won't be a stranger anymore.
I would love to hear from you what sorts of things you keep in mind as you welcome the strangers in your midst. Please feel free to leave me a comment below!
May you and yours have a sweet spring, and if you celebrate it, a joyous Pesach.
(Below: in my previous life as a shop mechanic, volunteering at a local bike event, 2008)

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