As a writer, I am often faced with a conundrum after meeting profound individuals—namely, every detail of their stories feels essential to describe at length, and yet there is also a great deal that cannot be told. Much of the inspiration they evoke is beyond words. Adam Bucko is one such soul. Though we spoke for a mere 50 minutes, his reflections on a spirituality that is multidimensional and “this-worldly” had an enormous impact on me. I was encouraged to hear him speak of a spirituality that does not shroud the individual practitioner in bliss alone, but also touches on human brokenness and vulnerability—a practice that responds to suffering.
Bucko is a Christian contemplative, a spiritual activist, and author of Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation (North Atlantic Books 2013) and The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living (Orbis Books 2015). His activism is informed by contemplative prayer, which he defines as “being in a state of receptivity” to God, beckoning him to see every event, heartbreak, and person in pain as “a calling to respond to.” Over the past decade he’s worked to transform the lives of homeless youth in New York City through The Reciprocity Foundation, an award-winning nonprofit organization of which he is cofounder with Taz Tagore. The organization's primary focus is to break cycles of poverty and heal emotional trauma by providing homeless youth with internships, job training, access to higher education, and holistic health care services.
As we talked over a breakfast of oatmeal and scrambled tofu one morning, Bucko explained that, for him, God is everywhere, and that he witnesses God most on the streets of NYC. “I went to monasteries and wanted to be a Christian sadhu (a traveling holy person). But I really learned [to experience the presence of God] by sitting with homeless youth who are breaking because of all the abuse, all of the oppression, all of the violence that they’ve experienced in their lives. The impulse was to accompany them into the depths of their pain and be there with them—holding their pain and breaking with them. That’s kind of how I discovered that God is there underneath it all—comforting us, loving us, transforming all of our pain into something that we can offer the world.”
Bucko explained that, for him, God is everywhere, and that he witnesses God most on the streets of NYC.
One could say that spirituality is rooted in such sentiments. Compassionate action is clearly outlined in the teachings of Christ and Buddha. Nevertheless, witnessing an individual integrate spiritual ethics into their life so authentically feels rare and remains astonishing. Surely it must be the work of a lifetime. And there were many determining turning points in Bucko’s life. Growing up in totalitarian communist Poland, he witnessed many of the people around him develop drinking problems, commit suicide, and engage in other violence simply to escape the pain of oppression. In reaction to this, he built an altar in his home as a child, and held his own very personal mass. He claims this was his first experience of prayer, and also a way for him to emulate activist priests he had met. “From them, I got the message that saying 'yes' to God meant saying 'no' to everything that violates God’s love and justice in the world.”
Years later this choice to say “yes” re-emerged, but this time in India, where he met a young girl in the slums of Delhi—abandoned, starving, and covered in cigarette burns. “After meeting that child it felt like [working with the homeless] was not really a choice. I mean, I could make other choices, but it would be like making choices against life.” Soon after, he began working at the Ashram for the Poor in Delhi. And since returning to the United States (Bucko moved to the U.S. when he was 17), Bucko and his colleagues have helped thousands of homeless youth.
During our conversation, one person in particular came to Bucko's mind—Gregory, a teenager born with HIV whose mother had died of AIDS. “It took us two years to convince him that he has something within himself worth committing to,” Bucko explains. Finally, Gregory found that his calling was to counsel others. “I asked him whether or not this was really the work that he felt called to do, you know, because I didn’t want him to feel that just because he was born with HIV it meant that he had to do this,” he continued. “And he told me, 'Every time I am in front of young people—sharing my experiences with HIV and talking with people who are newly diagnosed—I feel like I have an angel sitting on my shoulder.' And that’s how he knows this is the work he was born to do. It moved me so much.”
During our conversation, one person in particular came to Bucko's mind—Gregory, a teenager born with HIV whose mother had died of AIDS.
Gregory's poignant story is not only touching, it's also evidence that homelessness is a complex matter that cannot be easily explained away by prejudicial stereotypes (example: “Homeless people don’t want to work,” or “They’re just ‘bad’ kids.”) In fact, 44% of homeless people do have jobs, many chose to leave their homes due to abuse at home (37% of homeless youth report abuse), and one out of five identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender (indicating the likelihood they were thrown out of their homes). Many, like Gregory, are orphaned. And, according to Bucko, they are all “some of the most amazing people you will ever meet.”
Many of the Reciprocity Foundation’s projects attempt to introduce society to the stark realities of homelessness. A particularly beautiful example is SEE ME, a book featuring compelling images from the Foundation’s artist-in-residence, Alex Fradkin, that portray a rare window into quiet moments of homeless youth. “Invisible: Diaries of New York’s Homeless Youth” (an Emmy-nominated film) is another, which was co-created by some of the foundation’s youth (alongside Bucko and others). Through their “Whole Person” approach, the foundation attempts to introduce homeless youth to themselves—that is, to their fullest potential. At the Reciprocity Foundation, dreams (of becoming photographers, fashion designers, rappers, you name it) are honored and cultivated. Along with cultivating dreams, Bucko and his colleagues at the Reciprocity Foundation also mentor and inspire youth to be of service to their communities (and Gregory is a perfect example of this).
“Heartbreak takes us into places that transform us and empower us to give all that we have. And if we are honest, we're all broken.”
So, what can we—those of us who identity as spiritual seekers and yoga practitioners—do to be of service? To perhaps even, as Bucko puts it, “respond to a call” (however that “call” might manifest for each of us)? To begin to make real change, in earnest, Bucko encourages us to look beyond notions of personal fulfillment and happiness, and toward the suffering within ourselves and the world: “Heartbreak takes us into places that transform us and empower us to give all that we have. And if we are honest, we're all broken.”
And we are also connected by a “quality of the heart,” Bucko suggests, a quality he described as ineffable but fragrant; so potent, in fact, that developing a sense of it—saying “yes” to it—could guide us into becoming agents of love itself.