I spend more time than your average person in fast food restaurants and coffee shops. Not to disparage any of you who enjoy some McDonald’s fries or a Starbucks cappucino, but I don’t eat there. I spend most of my time there taking notes.
You see, for my job, usually once or twice a week, I go to meet a respondent from the research study that I work on. Our respondents have recently been released from state prison. When we ask them for a good place to meet, the location is usually a coffee shop or a golden arches – some place where the manager won’t be upset at us monopolizing a table for an hour.
In the hour of our meeting, I ask our respondents all sorts of very personal questions – who they were with for every waking hour of the past week, how much money they made last month, what they spent it on, who they confide in, whether they experienced abuse or witnessed violence growing up. Their responses are audio recorded, and myself and another interviewer take copious notes. I am often amazed by how open our respondents are willing to be (though not all of them are). It is a real privilege to have their trust, and to hear their stories.
The stories these men and women share are deeply human – stories of loving parents, and of absent ones; stories of accomplishment, and of failure; stories of support, and of abuse; stories of opportunity, and of prejudice; stories of violence, and of healing. Many look as though they could be students at my school – fashionable, self-possessed, confident. Others fit a more stereotypical image of ex-prisoners. All have experienced far more than our questionnaire can elicit.
At the end of every interview, we always ask the same question: “Could you tell us why you decided to continue to participate in the study?”
The answer, often, is some variation of the following:
“It’s nice that you guys are willing to listen. I hope it helps somebody.”
In this week’s Gospel reading, Joseph was presented with a situation: a pregnant fiancée, a potential scandal. He didn’t want to cause her shame, but assumed she’d been unfaithful, so he planned to divorce her quietly. He was being charitable. But he hadn’t listened, or maybe he hadn’t asked. It took an angel for him to hear the other side of the story - Mary’s story. And it is compelling and glorious that he did listen, eventually.
Taking the time to listen, with the men and women in the study, is just my job. I try to do it with compassion; to understand, without judgment. I don’t, often, take this same care with others in my life. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But listening to someone’s story, asking rather than assuming, is one of the most dignifying things I think we can do for another person. It is deeply humbling. During my time with the AVs, my housemates helped me to cultivate the patience to listen, to soak in the stories of the people we were fortunate enough to meet in the Bronx. They, and our neighbors, helped me re-imagine what the Bronx was, what that community was. The men and women in the study have helped me re-imagine “ex-cons”. I hope we all can try to listen better, and to see more opportunities to listen, to re-imagine the communities we live in, and those you will return to.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a joyous New Year.
AV Alum, Bronx, NY 2008-2009
Questions for further reflection:
How much time do you take to listen to other's stories? How often do you share your own story?
Have there been times when you judged someone based on their past?
How can we become more compassionate and understanding this Advent?