East Coasters have a strange fascination with the sunshine state. Flights leave out of northern airports as frequently as the Shuttle trains in New York City, bringing the pasty and the overworked to the land of vitamin D. It’s almost as if the entire state is coated in some malleable plastic, allowing retired folks and young travelers alike an opportunity to shape the topography of Florida into whatever it is their heart may wish. If you want your community to look like the Cape Cod you grew up in, so be it. If you would rather get lost in a decadent beach side city, be our guest. And if Florida is a strange animal, than Miami, where I, 10 female students, and one male colleague traveled together, is the ultimate anomaly of the fake south.
The women sitting in front of me on the plane down, middle aged Italian-Americans with jet black hair and grey sweat suits, were learning from one another the art of group text, reminding all of their family members of the fun they’d be missing out on back in snowy Staten Island. The hip socialites to their left, wearing chucky wooden sandals over colorful ankle socks, act nonchalant about their plans to explore the design district and the galleries north of Little Haiti. There is an older couple sitting in first class watching a midcentury film on their iPads that I noticed while going to the tiny bathroom, and a Russian flight attendant explaining how to use oxygen masks while passengers pretend to power off their phones. We sit in the middle of the aircraft. We weren’t going there to party with the Kardashians, rather, we were traveling on an alternative spring break, hoping to spend our time engaged in community service, creating more authentic human postures as we worked with diverse populations and cultures in the salty American heat. This wasn’t exactly the film Selena Gomez had been casted for, but the climate of our south bound surroundings already alluded to the peculiarities to come.
These types of service trips are always tricky as it is often you find a group of altruistic young people wanting to make a social impact to justify their idealism, and yet, many of the structural agencies set up to offer such opportunities are of the devote religious living in the most extreme of circumstances. Although my students were for the most part Catholics, at least by upbringing, they were not prepared for the polarizing experience of encountering Christians in the city of Miami.
The city itself is polarizing. South Beach, the isle off the right coast of the state is a glitzy, sun bleached, fantasy place. There is a constant bump of music that punctuates the free beaches lined by expensive hotels. We stop here on the way to the Church we will be staying at. We are covered in white sand and crystal waters. We have to go shopping, almost as a ritualistic impulse, purchasing neon colored shorts and tanks, shot glasses, and bracelets. Everything seems cheap and expensive at the same time. There are men in gold speedos casually next to us in line. Although I am six years older than the students, I feel myself becoming even younger than they are, a punch drunk illusion caused by the hot sun. It’s hard to believe yet that we have come here to help anyone, we ourselves barely able to locate the spending cash at the bottom of our beach bags that we thought we’d never spend.
Three hours later we are in South Miami, south of Government Center, being led around a Church basement by a devoted Christian program leader. The neighborhood is Pinecrest. All of the houses around the Church are Spanish architectural marvels, the McMansions of the south. We are going to be sleeping on the floor. Next to our room there is another group staying from the Southwest. They will try to teach us dinner prayers that involve singing the praises of Jesus in a slightly juvenile way that’s sick sweetness reminds of the desperation of the movie Enter the Void. Or maybe Bambi. It’s hard to say for sure. They too have come to help the less fortunate, but it seems that their motives may be different, less human, and more divine.
The week would take us around the city on public transportation, a resource that determined taxi drivers repressed for years. We found ourselves in the presence of Sisters of Charity, the order that Mother Teresa began, watching small women command a room full of men ages 20 to 90+ who were experiencing homelessness in the city, all of whom had been waiting outside the humble convent since 7am to receive the 10am meal. The courtyard outside was made decorated with old plastic toys and a small playground kit for the children of the battered women who would begin to check into the convent around 7pm. The shiny glimmer of South Beach seems ions away from this place, yet the real glow of some kind of true humanity is apparent. The sisters pray with their visitors for fifteen minutes in English and Spanish before they serve the meal, a procedure that some of us see as a forced stipulation for these people who have been waiting for food for three hours, but this is the way it goes each day.
We travel through artistic warehouses by bus to arrive in Little Haiti to visit a place called Yvonne Learning Center that is run by a husband and wife from Haiti to serve Haitian and other immigrants living in the area. The code of the school is discipline, but it is dressed in a deep love and concern for the community. The classrooms are separated by partitions similar to the ones young kids in Brooklyn use to create the illusion of separate spaces while living in lofts with more than the number of allotted roommates. The children here are all dressed in uniform, displaying the behaviors of school, and high school aged, children. At lunch a woman brings them into a small courtyard and serves them rice and chicken that she has just prepared that afternoon for the entire school. There is a system of simplicity and rigor here that works well, many students leaving public high schools to attend this small center tucked in a residential neighborhood. I notice one young man sitting by himself with a curious look on his face, wearing a blue camo thermal under his uniform shirt. I find the angst of teenagers particularly strong in him so I ask him if he would like to draw. He does. We draw for a while and then he tells me he likes to write love songs. I say, ok keep writing them. He says he doesn’t have anyone to sing them to, but I assure him that someday he will. He then tells me he doesn’t have art class at the school, a reality of institutions across the country. This is when I experience a moment of deep concern and depression, perhaps a bit exaggerated, as I see my former teen self in this student, needing and longing for an outlet.
Throughout the week my students and colleague who subscribe to a socially just brand of service are challenged by the group that is staying with us who are more fundamentalist in their beliefs. A former prostitute, who was involved in human trafficking, comes to talk to us about how she has now dedicated her life to helping women to find alternate avenues to sex work. She has an impressive story, and talks with confidence about how she visits the backrooms of strip clubs weekly to talk with young girls. Just talk. Then she begins to describe how she found Jesus, which our group is a little bit turned off by, hoping that she would still support these women, even if they didn’t want to turn to God as their salvation. She and her husband, a former porn star, hold masses in strip clubs, right on the stage with the poles. I ask about prevention of sexual violence, and helping the ladies to report rapes, trying to steer the conversation to a more familiar arena for my students. She says how this is hard to do, with sincerity, while some of the Christians in the room turn their eyes to the ground, or on their cell phones. It’s hard for me to tell if we are having the right conversation at all. These cultural conflicts continue throughout the week, seeming to reach a climax as the new Pope is elected by Wednesday. He is a Jesuit, the tradition our school represents. This event somehow reinforces the superiority complex of the Catholic Church over the Christians we have been encountering, reflective of our rolling eyes at their dinnertime prayers. They congratulate us on our new leader, a gesture we find slightly bizarre.
The students are aware of the oddness of the area. In each neighborhood there is a different relationship to wealth; some have it, others want it. There are a lot of luxury cars and homes bought on credit, desperately trying to mirror the appeal of South Beach. We take a walk around Pinecrest after sundown. We walk down a side street five minutes from the church with gorgeous white, pink and stone mansions. We see the red and blue lights of a police officer pull up behind us not after too long. “This is a private community” he says. “Ya’lll needs to go home.” I think about Trayvon Martin in that moment, and the idea of feeling like an outsider. We oblige, without much hesitation, and head back to the Church.
The week closes with much confusion of the isolation and compartmental nature of Miami. I am impressed by my students patience and openness, creating a cultural map in their minds about the area, witnessing the division and mixing of dozen of areas from Little Havana where we buy Cuban cigars, to Little Haiti, to South Beach. The confusion is heightened by our somewhat failure to truly understand our Christian counterparts, who somewhere in the middle of the week call us out for being gossips, an apparently un-Christian trait. The trip has had deep context, my colleague and I wanting to find a jump off for our students to begin to plant the seeds of experience to instill the importance of authentic social justice, our students giving up their vacation to serve other people. Beyond that though, they, and us too, are given an even deeper context, a true picture of the vast diversity, and conflict, that paints the United States, in politics, in religion, and in economics. It seems hard to imagine the US as one united country when walking through Miami, even though we were always suspect that it was to begin with. Spring Breakers flocking to the city for Ultra that same weekend have had a different experience of the city than us, one guarded by the glamorous pump of house music along the gorgeous coastline, dotted by Prada and LV stores just moments down the road from an entirely different world. We aren’t sure our exact purpose there, but we know we’ve learned something vast, watching the last Mercedes drive away alongside us.