Looking For Flowers In The Dumpster

May 17th, 2007

I am still running the Center for the Working Poor (aka the Burning Bush Community), delivering food to families of the working poor, writing and speaking about issues of poverty, and supporting local living wage and immigrant rights campaigns. In the last seven months, there have been some big changes at “the Center.” Then again, the whole journey thus far has been a whirlwind. It was just a year and half ago that I left my professional career at a labor union (running boycotts and organizing workers), donated my money to the common good, and started living in voluntary poverty. The result was the start of this intentional community, based on Gandhian principles and the lessons of the Catholic Worker movement. Shortly thereafter a new immigrant rights movement erupted, opening the minds and hearts of the union leadership to a vision of bigger protests for living wages. Finally, some of my dreams of massive non-violent civil disobedience were actualized. Only a few weeks later a good friend of mine flew me to her wedding in India. It was an honor and an adventure, and I could not have anticipated what all it would involve. In the end, I talked with the Tibetan prime minster in exile. Two months later, I was back in LA. We moved into a larger house of hospitality to accommodate our growing community. We serve a growing number of families that have been fired from their jobs for being whistle-blowers of one sort or another.

All this kept us very busy. But the biggest change for our community has come from the trash. We started collecting from grocery store dumpsters, and now we have more incredible food than we can eat. If you are willing, we will share it with you.

Until recently, I sustained myself on a diet of primarily rice, beans, and spinach. I was touched when people wrote to me to express concern about my diet. When an older couple sent me 20 dollars a month with the expressed wish to expand my diet, it felt like my grandmother lovingly scolding me. Well, they don’t have to worry anymore. My life has been transformed by a harvest of food from the trash. I am serious when I say that 95 percent of all the food I eat now comes from the trash. Once a week we go to dumpsters at a few, mostly organic gourmet grocery stores. Having eaten rice and beans every day for so long, the first time I went to the dumpsters I was eager to expand my diet to include bread and more vegetables. I had modest expectations.

They were wildly exceeded. In just matter of hours we had crates and crates of food. More than just a wide variety of vegetables, we found tons of gourmet food: Crates of breads pastries, pies, vegetables—even expensive vegetables like eggplant and portabella mushrooms—plus cheese and tofu eggless salad. Last but not least, we found endless amounts of frozen fruit; soon I would have the makings to fuel a full-on smoothie addiction.

I know many of you must be thinking that this stuff is repulsive. You’d be surprised. Our society’s system is so wasteful. The globalization of our food supply, combined with the rise of processed food, has created a system where food is wasted at every level. So much of it is perfectly good by any reasonable standard. Take, for example, Trader Joe’s (a gourmet grocery chain, also known as dumpster diver heaven). This chain processes and pre-packages everything in saran wrapped packages–everything from sandwiches to fresh fruit and vegetables. If it is not selling fast enough, taking up too much space on the shelves, or, God forbid, is approaching too near the expiration date, the food gets tossed. For us to pick up the mostly air-tight containers, then wash and inspect anything we want to throw into our fridge, is easy as can be. There is nothing better for the environment than dumpster food. Instead of consuming a massive amount of energy to produce more unneeded food, we are instead eating the discarded excess of the system. We are like environmentally friendly, human-sized bacteria processing some of the waste produced in putting food on America’s tables.

I’m not such a picky eater by nature. But it feels all right to be choosy when I am saving food from the trash. These days I am a dumpster snob. I want more than carefully packaged whole grain bread, pomegranate juice, and flourless chocolate cake. That stuff is easy to find. These days, I want pretty flowers. To my amazement, the dumpsters will provide an occasional score of cut flowers–dozens of bouquets with only a few bent flowers in the bunch that apparently make them unfit for sale. In a short time, I cultivated a bourgie interest in arranging flowers around our house, and on a few occasions I have been able to surprise the families we serve with beautiful bouquets. I cannot tell you how much having so many flowers around—not to mention an infinite supply of gourmet organic food from the dumpster–has changed my life. I am constantly cooking, eating, and organizing big dinners. We always advertise: “food fresh from the dumpsters.”

Going to India

Soon after the major civil disobedience I helped to organize on September 28th, a good friend asked if I would go to her wedding in India. Aware that I did not have any money, she offered to fly me there, making use of her immense accumulation of airline miles from her corporate job. I realized that this trip might seem like a total contradiction to me living in supposed “voluntary poverty.” Her offer provoked me to reflect on the nature of voluntary poverty in the light of my new life.  “Voluntary Poverty” has given me a nice (although crowded) communal house, tons of gourmet food, flowers from the dumpster, and, last but not least, “a free trip to India.” True, voluntary poverty is an act of profound renunciation. It means letting go of our will, our plans, and our ideas —even our survival instinct to do as Jesus said when he told us, “do not store treasures here on earth.” But in doing this we receive the grace of God; we enter into the abundance of his kingdom, which is expressed in a beloved community of sharing and in countless acts of spontaneous generosity. Imagine that in the heat of the moment you donate your brand new 2007 Ferrari Testerrosa to charity. It’s a great feeling, but you soon find yourself stuck on the side of the road. But if you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you’ll probably soon hear a whistle blowing—it’s God’s train coming around the bend, and this is your chance to jump on board. We often cry like little babies because God’s train leaves at weird hours or doesn’t go where we want it to. But boy it is sure a fun and wild ride, and it will take you places the Ferrari never could.    One of the most horrible aspects of the involuntary poverty of the workers we serve as compared with our voluntary poverty, is the horrible immobility that confines them physically and psychological to urban ghettos.  In contrast, within my voluntary poverty I have found a strange new freedom. This confirms that experience of the early Christians and Franciscans who took seriously Jesus’ explicit order to his disciples to travel far to serve “without payment” as well as “take no gold. . . in your belts, no bag for your journey, or (even) two tunics. . .”  It was their willingness to own nothing and ride God’s train that made it possible for them to spread their beloved community all over the globe. In fact, Saint Francis made many international trips. These included his famous effort to single handedly end the world war of his time by making himself a human kamikaze bomb of pure love headed for the Muslim Sultan in midst of the Crusades. As for me, the freedom still feels scary. My faith remains so limited. I sometimes find it hard to be at any peace when my bank statements show that my community will go bankrupt in 10 months. However, spending some time in prayer, I discerned that this was all part of God calling me to jump on his train.    When I accepted April’s invitation to attend her wedding and departed on my travels, I was still committed to living on only the $200 monthly stipend that each volunteer living at the Center receives. But when I arrived in India, this turned out to be a fortune. April was marrying into an amazing Indian family. Because April career had moved her all over the country, I was one of her only friends from Iowa (where we grew up) to meet her Indian family. She was so excited to have some old friends to represent her in what would be a small Iowan cultural delegation amid the hundreds of Indians that would show up to the wedding.  I was literally and figuratively adopted by April’s in-laws in India. I lived and ate with them, and I ceremonially played the role of April’s older brother at the wedding service. I sincerely love April, her husband Bunny, and their Indian family. The hospitality they offered was deeply touching. At times, I wanted to cry because I was so grateful to receive their hospitality. It truly felt like an expression of God’s grace.

Visiting Samdhong Rinpoche

I arrived in India 3 weeks before the wedding, so I decided to go to Dharamsala, a place renown as a center of spiritual practice. It is home to dozens of prominent monasteries of different religious traditions including the Dali Lama’s. It is also the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Tibetan freedom movement. I rented a room at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and settled into a strict early morning schedule of long hours of meditation, broken up by a late afternoon visit to the cafés. Although I consider myself a contemplative Catholic, I went to India expecting immersion in my religious practice; I pictured myself mediating for weeks, sitting half naked on a mountain top next to long-haired swami. But instead, I was surprised to find myself being born once again into the life of a political non-violent warrior, spending hours at loud bars drinking Tibetan butter tea talking strategy all night with a dozen young activists who had just gotten out of jail after serving two-week sentences for protesting the visit of a Chinese official to India.

Because my college had an exchange program with a Tibetan university, I knew a few Tibetan activists. Owing to these contacts, I was quickly adopted into their scene in Dharamsala. It was amazing to be half a world away from Los Angeles, thinking “these people are just like me.” But there was one person that I had impractically dreamed of meeting:  the Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche.   As you may know, I am a Gandhi nut. I read Gandhi’s work as often as I’m able. In India, he has become such a cultural icon that almost all politicians claim Gandhi as their own. Yet few share Samdhong Rinpoche’s dedication to Gandhian ideas, which, if followed with dedication, will leave you poor and might just get you killed.   A word about Samdhong Rinpoche. Maybe my admiration is a bit naive, but I feel like a screaming girl at a Beatles concert when it comes this guy. Why? Well, he is one of the most prominent Gandhian scholars alive, having written and spoken widely about nonviolence. He is a high-level incarnate Lama and very respected religious leader in Tibet, and many suspect the Dali Lama is grooming him to replace him in his politically role after his death. But what I love is that he is an amazing political radical, regularly challenging Tibetans to maintain their non-violent resistance and their spirituality. He has advocated going to non-violent war with the Chinese government and has volunteered to be the first to sacrifice himself as a human kamikaze bomb of pure love to likely death at the hands of the authorities in order to create massive non-violent protest in China. In other words, this guy is hard core.   Before he started forming his “non-violent army,” which was to be made up primarily of monks, the overwhelming majority of people in the Tibetan community voted for him to be their highest elected political leader: the prime minister in exile. He now is responsible for all the schools, cooperatives, and institutions of the Tibetan government in exile, and he runs them with open dedication to doing so as Gandhi professed.   A few activists I knew put in a good word for me, so I could get a meeting with him. Just as I had dreamed, a week later, we were sitting together in his office and having an intense conversation about non-violence, Satyagraha, and his vision of a non-violent army.   For so long my own visions of a nonviolent army kept me up at night, got me in lots of trouble in my professional career, and gave me a sort of “crazy Paul” reputation. This developed an insecurity within me, a kind of dam around my heart. Sitting in the presence of such a wise and respected man, listening to him share a non-violent vision almost identical to mine, I felt that insecurity washing away at long last. I know now that it might take years, or decades, to realize this shared vision of non-violence, for which the. The Center of Working Poor is a vehicle. But I believe that God has put me here to make my humble contribution to making a  vision of a community of non-violence and love a reality. For so long I have been wondering alone for this place of my dreams. But I have faith that, although the pathways may be long and windy, this place is a  sure destination on God’s train.

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