“When we go…to bear witness to life on the streets, we’re offering ourselves. Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves.”
â€“ fromÂ Bearing WitnessÂ by Bernie Glassman
On Bernieâ€™s 55th birthday in January 1994, he led the first street retreat in Washington D.C., contemplating the question of what to do to serve those rejected by society, those in poverty and those with AIDS.Â Upon returning home, he discussed his vision of a container for people wanting to do spiritually-based social engagement with his late wife, Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes.Â They decided to develop the Zen Peacemaker Order, a religious order with a strong social action component that would bear witness on the streets, at sites of atrocity, and meet the troubles of the world.
Street Retreat participants spend the week on the street, begging for money, finding food, shelter, and bathrooms. In doing this they are given a powerful opportunity to reflect on themselves and others.Â By spending this time on the street, participants come closer to the lives of those who live on the streets, reflect on giving and impermanence, and recognize the humanityÂ allÂ people share.Â Street Retreats deepen the experience of interconnection, and inspire compassion.
All retreats share some features: participants will be together most of the time, breaking into smaller groups for short periods during the day, always secured by buddies; the full group gathers twice a day for meditation, the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy, and sharing circles using the Way of Council; nights are spent together as a group.
Street retreats have been conducted in many cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Jerusalem, from Paris to Piraeus.Â Sometimes they are coupled with a theme, such as bearing witness to refugees or tracking the path of arms and wars.Â Street Retreats are often referred to as ‘Plunges,’ and from them spring many other practice forms, including the Bearing Witness retreats in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Native American plunges.
“I want to figure out how to learn from those who have suffered in a certain way, even though I canâ€™t fully enter that realm. So we go on the streets. I know we arenâ€™t homeless and I make that quite clear. At the same time those who came will experience something that is closer to that world than those who havenâ€™t been there. This is the meaning of â€˜bearing witness.â€™ Itâ€™s like entering a church knowing youâ€™re not God or the priest. But you will experience something different from someone who stays out of the church or someone who is just hired to fix the roof.”
â€“Â Bernie Glassman (1999 interview)
Common guidelines used on street retreats:
â€¢ Do not shave or wash your hair for five days before the retreat.Â This way the retreat experience begins before leaving home.
â€¢ Besides the clothes you are wearing bring only an empty bag (shopping, plastic) or small, not-new day pack for collecting food from shelters.Â Women may bring one change of underwear and women’s hygiene products.Â Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate for the time of year. Bring or wear a light blanket that will roll up.
â€¢ Bring a poncho or some kind of rain gear, preferably something old or makeshift.
â€¢ Wear good, but not new, walking shoes. The retreat involves a great deal of walking.
â€¢ Bring one piece of photo ID only, your driverâ€™s license or a state ID.
â€¢ Do not bring any money, credit cards, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, or cellphones.
â€¢ Do not wear any jewelry, including earrings and watches.
â€¢ Bring no books, conveniences or personal items like toothbrushes.
â€¢ Prescription medications are fine.
â€¢ Bring a plastic water bottle if you like, or grab one from a trash can.
â€¢ Participants will sleep on the streets and avoid shelters in order to preserve beds for those in need.
Registration fees and how they are used vary.Â Usually, most of the fee is donated to homeless services that supported participants during the retreat, with a portion offered to the retreat’s guiding teacher.Â Sometimes participants are encouraged or required to raise the money for their registration fee by asking for support from friends, family, and associates, so begging can start right from the beginning.Â In the Zen Peacemakers tradition this kind of begging is called MalaÂ practice, since the practitioner “wears” the support of everyone who donated to their cause like a mala necklace.Â When doing a malaÂ you explain to your supporters your reasons for attending a Street Retreat, and are encouraged to report back to them afterwards as a way of returning their gift.Â Â MalaÂ practitioners are often surprised at the messages and support they get.
To learn more about bearing witness to homelessness, readÂ Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons on Living a Life That MattersÂ by Bernie Glassman.