Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Bahá'í Temple: Revisiting Peace

A lot has been happening the past few weeks. Everywhere I turn, it seems there is more news of conflict and killing. In today’s newspaper, the front page alone featured follow-up stories to the Paris terror attacks, the shooting death of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by gang members in Chicago, and the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer (and subsequent protests).

On our field trip, though, these sad events were the furthest thing from my mind.

This past Monday, Sister Mary, Fabienne and I took our ESL class to the Bahá’í House of worship in Evanston, which is only a ten minute drive from where we live. Built in the 1950’s, the Bahá’í Temple is the only one of its kind in North America. Its huge white, dome-shaped structure with nine entrances and vast, lush gardens and ponds reminded me of the Taj Mahal. The inside of the Temple is cavernously beautiful, radiating light and peace.

For the past few weeks, our students (who all happen to be stay-at-home moms from Michoacán, Mexico) have been practicing constructing indirect questions, like “Could you tell me where the bathroom is?” instead of “Where is the bathroom?” The idea behind the field trip was that it would give the students a chance to practice indirect questions with a tour guide or information desk person rather than just their usual teachers.

By a stroke of luck, we were some of the first people to arrive at the Temple, so we had a tour guide all to ourselves. The tour guide also happened to be a Bahá’í from the Chicago area who had spent five years teaching English in China. When he found out that we were an ESL group, he gave his presentation at an even, understandable pace and kept it free of unnecessarily confusing words and constructions.    

He explained the Bahá’í Faith, how Bahá’ís recognize the legitimacy of prophets from all major world religions, including Krishna, Moses, Mohmmed, Jesus, Buddha and Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith. He described the Bahá’í’s belief in the unity of all humankind, and how that is expressed in the beautiful architecture of the building.

A view of the Temple from the outside
Sister Angelica on the Temple steps

The Temple's intricate ceiling; the gold inscription in the center is Arabic script for "Greatest Name" or "Oh thou Glory of Glories"

The Temple windows, opening to a view of Lake Michigan

I know I’ve said this before, but my students continually amaze me. Our guide had hardly finished speaking before Olga jumped in with her first question, perfectly constructed. “Could you tell me,” she asked, “how long you have been here?” When he finished answering, Consuelo asked about which holidays the Bahá’í people celebrate. Everyone had notebooks or scraps of paper on which they had carefully prepared their questions.

I always expect the students to be shy and reserved about speaking English, because that’s the way I am about speaking other languages that I haven’t fully grasped yet. I’m always trying to form a construction in my head before saying it out loud, but by the time I have it perfect, the conversation has already moved on and I never get a chance to say my beautiful, perfect sentence.

Consuelo in particular bypasses this problem by making some kind of interjection into the conversation like “Oh!” or “Hmm” or “Well I think..” when she has an idea she wants to express. Then she takes her time getting the words in the right order while everyone waits politely to hear what she has to say. Sometimes it takes a couple minutes for her to search around for the right words, but she always succeeds in getting the idea across in the end.

I find this to be an incredibly bold thing to do. I think it’s the most terrifying thing in the world to start speaking without knowing exactly what you’re about to say, if you’re going to make mistakes, if people will even understand you. My worst fear is saying something that nobody understands and having to stare at each other awkwardly until somebody figures it out. And even then, they might laugh at you.

If Consuelo is afraid of this too, she does not show it. She has no qualms about bringing the conversation to a halt while she figures out how to say what she needs to say. I think it shows a huge amount of confidence in herself and the value of her own ideas. While language teaching is an important skill, I think language-learning is itself a skill, and one at which my students are experts. I hope to someday be as bold and as fearless in my Bengali / German / Spanish learning as they are in their English learning.

Everyone enjoyed the trip and learned a lot. After all the depressing things that have been happening lately, the Temple trip left me with a feeling of hope.  

All of us enjoying our guided tour

Fabienne listens to the tour guide with Georgina's daughter on her lap while the others take notes

Consuelo in the Temple

Olga taking a selfie with the live orange tree growing inside the Temple

Consuelo, Olga, and Fabienne watch the Temple's introductory film together

Monday, November 16, 2015

Just for Fun

In my past few posts I've been talking a lot about my service work. But I promise I haven't spent all my time working! In this post, I want to talk about all the ways I have been having fun outside of my volunteer sites here in Chicago.

When I started helping Sister Mary with English Language Learner classes at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center (located only a few blocks from our monastery) I was delighted to find that the Holy Spirit Sisters had a volunteer of their own: Fabienne, who came all the way from Germany to do a year of service in Chicago.

Because this fall has been unseasonably warm, Fabienne and I were able to make several trips to the beach on Lake Michigan. Because her hometown is located on Germany's northern coast, Fabienne was excited to find herself so near "the sea" here in Chicago. Our many other adventures have included: attending a free outdoor slam poetry event, stumbling upon a colorful festival in Chinatown, and (of course) shopping at the many stores in Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" shopping district.

Me and Fabienne exploring the beach

Fabienne took this picture of me wading in Lake Michigan
Fabienne took this picture of me downtown

A view of downtown from the old watertower

Fabienne and I, I soon discovered, have a shared interest in learning Spanish. In October we both signed up for beginner level classes at the Latin American Learning Center in the Lakeview neighborhood.  In addition to my other volunteer work, every Friday night, I take over Fabienne's childcare duties at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center while she goes to Spanish class, and then I attend the Saturday morning session. On most afternoons, you can find me in the monastery library studying my verbs or making vocabulary flashcards.

Getting cozy in my favorite chair in the monastic library

When she's not helping with Sister Mary's ELL class or taking care of children, Fabienne is planning holiday parties for the Center. In October, she did a marvelous job of organizing the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center's annual Halloween party. All the kids showed up in their costumes (I came as the superhero Flash) and there were enough food and games to keep everyone entertained for the evening. 

It was a full house at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center's Halloween party
Left to Right: Sister Therese, Sister Ina, Sister Agate (all Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters), a little angel, me, Sister Mary

Two girls I babysit on Friday nights (dressed as Elsa from "Frozen" and spidergirl) with their mother at the Halloween party

Besides finding a new friend in Fabienne, I have been lucky enough to reconnect with old friends as well. Hannah and Heather are two incredibly awesome women I met in college. Not only did we graduate together, but we also all lived on the same floor during our first year at CSB. I  more or less lost touch with them for the remainder of our time at college but was able to reconnect with them when I found out that we were all living in the Chicago area. Some of my best times in Chicago have been when we get together for a day at the zoo or an evening out for deep dish pizza. 

Hannah, Me, and Heather out for pizza

Last weekend, Heather also invited Hannah and I to her parents house in Lake Geneva, WI. It was our first time traveling via Chicago's commuter rail line (the Metra), and we both nearly missed our train. It was an adrenaline rush, to say the least. In the end, though, we had a lovely weekend, which included a seven mile walk around the lake and chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast (made with love by Heather's parents). Again, the beautiful autumn weather was our friend. 

Hannah, me, and Heather all bundled up for our walk around the lake

Lake Geneva's "miracle house" includes a walkway painted with inspirational quotes

Me and my new friend, on the shore of Geneva lake

On a different note, last Monday I joined my Indo-American Center coworkers at a protest downtown. The purpose of the protest was to encourage the state of Illinois to pass a budget, which is months overdue because of political gridlock in the legislature. Because no budget has been passed, organizations across the city have been forced to lay off employees and shut down important services, including citizenship preparation courses, ESL and GED classes, after-school tutoring programs for kids, and the list goes on. Luckily the Indo-American Center is still open, but other organizations have had to shut down, causing an overflow of people seeking services elsewhere and straining the resources of places (like the IAC) that have been able to stay open. I find it maddening because most of the immigrants I work with desperately want to learn the language, land a job, and help their children be successful in school.. which is not possible without the help of adequately funded service organizations like the ones I work with.

Me marching with the Indo-American Center, protesting the budget impasse

Some of my fellow protesters with a poster of Gandhi, whose work I analyzed for my senior political science thesis at CSB

Me and IAC staff members at the rally, protesting the budget impasse
As you can see, I've been keeping myself busy.. meeting new people, learning new things, and having as many experiences as I can get my hands on.