35 Backpacks

ZPI encourages reflections from retreat participants, staff, members & others touched by our work and doing similar work from around the world, as part of the practice of bearing witness. Sensei Edward Sangetsu Sullivan,a teacher in the White Plum Lineage, discusses how even in a time of pandemic a small group of highly motivated people can still accomplish something.

During a recent virtual ZPI meeting, one participant talked about the difficulty in implementing the Zen Peacemaker’s Tenets during the pandemic. I wanted members to know that actions were still possible even when movement is restricted. The key is realizing that you’re not alone, and that others are often ready and willing to take up the cause.  

Our sangha knew one thing: we wanted to help the homeless.  In Lancaster, PA—located in the heart of Amish country—homeless men, women, and families are encamped in surrounding parks and vacant lots. Lacking masks, gloves, and basic hygiene supplies, their squalid living conditions make them particularly easy targets for the Coronavirus.

Our community, the Red Rose Sangha, is a fairly small group with about sixteen active members.  None of us have much experience in social work. So, already, we were inadvertently following the Peacemakers’ first tenet of not knowing.  Fortunately, one of our members had a contact within the Lancaster Homeless Coalition (LHC), and they know plenty.  

Backing up slightly, we have sangha friends in another city who were filling backpacks with necessities and leaving them for the homeless around their city. We wondered if the LHC would want to work with us on a similar project.  Their response was immediate: when would you like to get started?

First, we asked them for a list of items that would be useful for the homeless. Oh, and if they could, please prioritize the items.  That way we could determine how best to spend our limited budget.  Asking those who bear witness to the daily needs of the homeless obviate the need for our sangha to become experts in the matter and allow us to collect dana donations.  Our little sangha raised $1,145.  We added another $55 from our treasury to have a budget of $1,200.  We wanted a nice, round number to work with.  It would make long division easier when determining the number of items to be purchased. 

Fortunately, our sangha is blessed with some very savvy shoppers who know how to stretch a buck.  Armed with their lists for toothbrushes, socks, underwear, and other sundry items, our “purchasing agents” scoured the internet and dollar bargain stores for the best prices.  One of our members volunteered his garage to serve as the collection point, as we waited for our purchases to arrive.

A few days later, some sangha members, decked out in masks and gloves, arrived at the garage  and prepared the backpacks.  Initially, we thought we could fill thirty backpacks; we filled thirty-five. Once done, the packs were taken to LHC, and distribution started that very day.  From start to finish, our project was completed in less than three weeks.

Did we solve the homeless problem in our town?  Of course not.  We hardly made a dent; there’s much more to be done.  But, that’s not the point.  We did what we could by consciously, or maybe unconsciously, using the Peacemakers’ tenets.  We knew what we wanted to do but didn’t know how to do it. We talked to those who worked with the homeless and did know.  Then, we acted.  Also, we demonstrated that a small group of highly motivated people can accomplish something even in a time of pandemic.

I have a poster with a quote from the American folksinger and activist Pete Seeger that reads, “I think the world is going to be saved by a million small things.”  Indeed.

Sensei Edward Sangetsu Sullivan is a teacher in the White Plum Lineage and the Spiritual Director of the Red Rose Sangha in Lancaster, PA.

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35 Backpacks

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