30 January 2009

An Aunt Who Begs For Money

It's funny that yesterday I wrote about serving a community and wondered how people come to serve communities very different from the ones in which they've lived. Today I had an opportunity to ask someone that very question, but didn't. However, I suspect the chance to ask will present itself again.

Today I talked with Father Louis Braxton, the founder and director of Carmen's Place. We first encountered each other at the Transgender Remembrance Day service Dominick and I attended two months (!) ago, but I didn't really talk with him until the brunch Dominick and I attended two weeks ago.

Even in his large body and face, his eyes dominate. They are deep brown but as full of light as any others I have seen. They don't so much express and command as they register and suggest--and radiate respect and empathy at the same time. Seeing them, I'm not surprised that the teenagers in Carmen's House love and respect him and that those who are helping him aren't the ones one might expect. I think now of Nina, who wasn't there today, and a young woman who's a graduate student at NYU and was there when I came into the house.

That's exactly what it is: a row house that was recently built. Across the street from it is a mansion, and on the block, which slopes downward, are the kind of brick row houses one sees all over the parts of Queens that lie west of the Van Wyck expressway. At the top of the hill on which Carmen's house sits, you can see the RFK Bridge and, when skies are clear, Long Island Sound. I jokingly refer to the neighborhood as "the San Francisco of Queens."

Inside Carmen's House are two bedrooms shared by the six young people who stay there at any one time. The one I saw was cluttered, as was the rest of the house. But that is to be expected in such a place. Father Braxton lives in the house, in a smaller room. Last year, he left the pastorship of a church to become the full-time director of Carmen's Place. Now he has a makeshift altar in the living room, where he leads the young people in morning prayer services.

He needn't have told me all of that for me to sense his commitment to what he's doing. I wondered, but didn't ask, why he chose to work with transgender people. He would probably say it was a "calling," that God led him to it. Of course, there are lots of people who don't believe that God (or whatever they call whatever they worship) would entreat anyone to work with transgenders. I won't argue with them, any more than I would try to talk Father Braxton out of what he's doing (as if I could!). He seems to be the sort of person for whom doubt, if and when he experiences, is part of growing in his faith.

OK, so you didn't open this blog to read what I think about religious faith, right? Well, we talked for a long while, and he asked, "I'm hoping to recruit you." The truth was that I was already recruited at the brunch: I had made up my mind that somehow or another I would be involved with Carmen's House. The only question was what I would do.

It looks like I'm going to be an aunt who begs for money. In the parlance of the house, an "aunt" is an older female like me who will be a presence most of them haven't had in their lives. According to Father Braxton, most of the young gay and transgender people who live at Carmen's Place grew up in foster homes or with violence or other kinds of severe dysfunction in their homes. They have never known someone who leaves home to go to work, an adult who's not abusing drugs or alcohol or anyone who hasn't been in the criminal justice system. So, I could be mentoring, exhorting or nurturing them--or, possibly, doing all three.

And I'm going to write materials for the house's fund drives, and to work with other volunteers to make those drives happen. Hopefully, my writing will entice people to write checks and otherwise support Carmen's House.

Oh well. This aunt is geeting sleepy now. I'll talk more about this later.

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