What I have seen vs What I have felt

My year of service has brought me to become a part of a very different world than I have been a member of in the past. A world in which sometimes, I feel like no more than an observer.

Each day I pass people who are homeless, camped at the river that is just down the hill from our house. I listen to the interchange behind me on the bus as a woman vents about her frustration with her probation officer and how he will most likely put her back in jail since she didn’t make their last meeting. On the way home I see the drugs being passed as people prepare to deal with the long, lonely night ahead of them.

At work the children flit between the energy they get from finally being noticed and the anger that comes when they have to keep responding, “No.” No, they can’t read that word and no, they don’t want to talk about how many reading levels behind they are. I watch weary hands and pained eyes as caseworkers and interns pour themselves out another night for the children and families they care about so much. They will go home tonight and read articles online about how little of a difference their endless work will make thanks to systematic poverty.

Ignorant rich people pretending to care, child abuse billboards, and an elderly woman muttering to an invisible person only she can see will pass before my eyes sometime this week or even just today, occupy my thoughts for a second or two, and then move along with all the other things that are now just normal and routine to me. It doesn’t mean that these things don’t transform and mold my theology and my heart.

Even letting yourself adapt to something still means that you are changing.

And this would be a perfectly fine place to land by the end of this year. To have been exposed to racism, economic depression, homelessness, childhood trauma, and my own white privilege all around me and be equipped with resources to have conversations with others on these topics makes me feel accomplished. To experience a day similar to the one I described above makes me feel trendy, on-topic, and social justice-y. To see the people around me and feel compassion on them makes me feel kind. And having all these feelings and ideas, processing them and then compartmentalizing them so I can use them as tools after this year makes me feel safe.

But then, there are a few of the memories I carry from this year that I can’t quite pack up in safe little boxes for later–for coffee shop conversations. They are the memories that hurt too much to think about. The pictures that swim in front of my eyes when I least expect them to at work. The feelings that words fail to capture.

When I watched the homeless man weeping as the cops arrest him for trying to find a place to sleep inside, away from the snow. And then I just got on the bus and went home.

A child screeching, looking with unseeing eyes as he declares with certainty to me that he will kill himself and nobody will even care.

The strangers hand print on the 10 foot wall that separates them from the job that will sustain her starving children so many miles back home. I have no idea if she lived.

A young boy from my home state shot to death for carrying the same toy gun my brother had when he was that age. The boy’s sister roughly restrained and arrested as she wrestles, trying to be by his side so he’s not alone when he dies.

These memories, names, and moments I do not just see like the rest. These are the ones I feel.
I am rocked.
I lose my center.
I question God.
I sit for days with weary tears.

There is nothing magical about these moments in comparison to the others. Only that my heart deeply felt them instead of just noticed. I let myself sit with them and not feel safe for awhile. And in the world where we live today, I think many Christians are trying to figure out this place. Our days are filled with lots of heavy things, whether we see it on the news, watch it happen at work, or experience it ourselves. We see hurt, loneliness, sexism, anger, oppression. You don’t have to be in a year of service to see it all.

But are we letting ourselves move into the gray space between having to “fix it” and turning our backs and moving on? In this in between space of just being, we are going to feel things that cannot be managed. We will be intimately connected with people very different from us. The space where loving our neighbors deeply with no strings attached happens.

This space may look like stopping and listening and asking questions to the guy who is homeless on the street as he talks about his crazy life story. It may mean you let yourself feel more than sad for the hundreds of girls impregnated by Boko Haram’s men. Sit and feel angry. Let yourself cry. Take awhile to remember these are our sisters in Christ. Maybe even be spurred to action.

Practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, community, Lectio Divina/Visio Divina and more have given me space and time to remember to feel as I go throughout my days. On the bus, at work, and even on my weekends. These practices help me pay attention. They also help give me strength for the pain that comes from feeling what is around me.

Habits of sitting in prayer over stories from the news, practicing hospitality for new acquaintances, and living a simple lifestyle has kept my heart soft so it is easier to be opened and used. It is what has allowed me to pick out those moments that are more than just routine.

Because love of my neighbors and community should be a physical experience, not just a glazed over moment. 

May God bless us with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
so that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war
so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
to believe that we can make a difference in the world
so that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.

A Franciscan Benediction

Photography credit: Anne Nesser

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So What Do I Take With Me?

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It may be my planning ahead tendencies or the increased volume of questions we’ve received from family and friends, but my husband Tyler and I have given ourselves times to dream and wonder and lightly search for what may come for us in the next few months.

For those wondering, we still have around 4 months left–the program ends the first week of August–and we have so many more things we want to do and learn before that time comes. With summer coming, opportunities of outside adventures begin (like climbing some 14ers) along with our involvement in the weekly mission groups that will come from all over to learn about what is happening here in Denver.

While making bucket-lists for our last few months, we have also spent time reflecting on how much we have done so far and how much we experienced. It is definitely clear that we will be walking away from this year as different people than when we first started. I look back at the things I had to transition into getting used to at the beginning of the year:

  • Using Public Transportation. From learning numerous bus and train routes to learning to fit into the culture of those who ride the bus to learning my life had to rotate around a bus schedule, I will never just ride in a car the same ever again.
  • Living with five other people. Oh the naiveté my little Residence Life brain had when I figured I totally had the community living aspect down. Things I will never look at the same way again: chores, grocery shopping, choosing movies, calendars, game nights, communication, and the list goes on and on.
  • A budget of $100. Yes, we are asked to live off $100 each month—apart from the money we are given for groceries, which is also budgeted. Let’s just say I haven’t walked into a Target in a very long time. It’s too risky.
  • Social Justice Issues. Nothing can prepare you for the transition your mind, body, and heart have to make in order to experience first-hand heart breaks that come from systemic injustices. It is definitely one that I have not “gotten used to,” only learned how to keep going in spite of it.

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A picture of us on Public Transportation

So much of this is newness that has now become habit. Each part of this year—these examples and others—has had a part in transforming me in specific ways. And with so many deep changes made on my heart, it would seem that nothing could ever be the same and these will always be my new normals.

That this is what the rest of my life will always look like now.

But even surrounded by these opportunities and mentors, there have been moments where I have struggled with the normal I had up until now and this year’s normal. So many moments I have cluelessly been walking down a path, only to have someone point out that it may not line up with what we are learning this year.

I mean, there really is something frustrating and suppressing that can be felt at times when living on the budget we have been given. Have I experienced great solidarity with most of the families we work with and those with whom I spend most of my time? Yes. Do most people I know have to follow a semi-strict budget? Yes. But the strength of frustration sometimes births dreams and conversations of the future where I don’t want such restrictions and where spending money without guilt or fear is one of the first things I want to do.

So where is the balance? With whatever we are receiving next year, how do we use the useful habits we have from this year of simplicity to be grateful for what we will receive and celebrate that, while also remembering from this year how much easier it is to connect and learn from your neighbors when you can choose to live more simply.

And what about the great job search? Definitely part of the future that I have a major love/hate relationship with. As we search for things that somehow fit with our experiences and past education, I have been made aware of how important it is for Tyler and I to spend time reminding ourselves what we really want out of our jobs. Whatever job we get, how can we use our habits from this year to combat toxicity that is the American Dream. We have felt the nudge for bigger and better as we watch our generation check off each stage of the American Dream success list. We have also felt our hearts grow this year as we learn to choose time to deepen relationships with our neighbors and friends, living within our means, placing ourselves purposefully in communities of diversity and cultural experiences, and finding ways to incorporate social justice into our everyday life.

The beauty of this Door program is that, as we try to dream and eventually create our after-service life, we have been offered tools, Scriptural foundation, and habits as a structure for a meaningful lifestyle for a couple trying to listen to what Jesus asked his followers to do. I think we all long for that—to know that our faith is interacting with all areas of our lives, which makes us live a certain way.  And gratitude fills me that we have been given this year to try to grasp what that means for us.

Here are some pictures of what we have been up to lately:

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Coloring eggs for Easter!

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Cheering on the Colorado Rapids—Denver’s MLS team

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Posing with the hundreds of caterpillars in my office at my placement

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Easter Sunrise Service at Red Rocks Amphitheater

New Placement, Same Needs

There has been a space of a few weeks since you have last heard from me. After returning to Denver from Christmas, the last few weeks have been full of transition and relearning. I transitioned out of my position at Sun Valley Youth Center in mid-January and was then placed a bit later at the Bridge Project. The Bridge Project was in major need of an Administrative Assistant and I was glad to help them out in that way. Data entry is now my specialty and lots of paperwork. But I will get to my day-to-day moments later.

First I would like to introduce you to the neighborhood I now find myself in and the wonderful people there. Westwood is—imagine this—on the west side of Denver neighborhoods. It is the same neighborhood where Tyler’s other nonprofit placement Revision is trying to address the fact that it is a major food desert—there are no grocery stores (except 7/11) for a 3 mile radius. There is much life and energy in this diverse neighborhood.  80% of the residents are Latino and 35% of those in the neighborhood were born in another country. As I walk to work each day I pass Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants, some of the most beautiful graffiti of lotus flowers and elephants of India, several shrines on the front porches of the homes, and even some gentrification. Unemployment in this neighborhood is double the Denver average and 35% of residents live below the poverty line. In 2013 Westwood was “rated second-most-vulnerable neighborhood in terms of being prepared to help children thrive.” It is a beautiful place and the people are slowly stealing my heart.

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A picture of some graffiti done by students in the area to display their cultural background.

The Bridge Project is an after school program that is run and funded by the University of Denver which has a branch housed in Westwood DHA building. In our few classrooms we keep watch on 75-85 students a night, leading groups for them like Zumba, science, literacy, and girl scouts. These participants, ranging from 5 years old to seniors in high school also have an opportunity to be tutored by university students while they are with us. With that many kiddos the place can get crazy at times, but our Director runs a tight ship and we have resources that really allow the kids to really enjoy their time and learn so much while they are with us.

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Some of our students and their tutors hard at work in our tutor room.

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She was very excited to show off her hat from our Dr. Seuss Day activities.

As for my life as an Administrative Assistant, I spend all my morning hours doing data entry and paperwork and sometimes going to meetings. Because of all the classes we offer and volunteers that come in, there is definitely a lot of paperwork, but I enjoy it and how it keeps the place afloat. I also adore my office buddy Diana. She grew up going to the Bridge Project in her neighborhood and is now using her education and the opportunities given to her by Bridge to give back to kiddos just like her.

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This amazing woman gives so much of her love and energy for our students. She is truly incredible!

Once our students come at 3:15 I run the front desk where the students sign in when they first get there and let them know the schedule of the day.  Keeping the tutors on schedule is also a part of my front desk job. I really enjoy getting to meet the tutors and volunteers each day, finding ways to encourage them and give them larger glances into their tutees’ lives.

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Some shenanigans happening at the front desk. They were impressed I knew what a selfie was. 

As I have waded through transition and newness and 75 different kids’ names, I have noticed moments of familiarity. Like muscle memory, I have conversations with students, watch certain behaviors, and deal with hard moments and realize that though my setting has changed and the students are different, I am experiencing the same things that I have been this whole year. There is still way too few resources for kids in lower income neighborhoods in terms of their schooling, their safety, their health, and with preparation for their future. An overwhelming number of families are impacted by immigration, relocation, and refugee laws, which strip them of everyday resources most of us are used to having. And the burdens the children carry. These kids have it rough because of where they live and where they go to school. By no fault of theirs, nor their parents most times, these children have been oppressed by the systemic injustices found in our cities and they must constantly march against that tide.

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Writing a letter to Obama about changes she would like to see in her neighborhood. This girl is gonna change the world!

This is the reality of where I am working and I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from places like Sun Valley and The Bridge Project of how my own privilege plays into this and what we as the church are called to do about it. And I hope that as you read these many stories I share, that they encourage you to create space to listen to where God is nudging you toward.

Statistics of Westwood found at:

A ULI Advisory Services Panel. A ULI Advisory Services Panel Report. “Westwood Neighborhood: Denver, Colorado.” Urban Land Institute and The Colorado Health Foundation, May 5-10th, 2013. http://uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/WestwoodPanelReport_finallo.pdf>.

A Community That Exposes

Coming back from Christmas break in Ohio with my friends and family, I have taken some time to mull over some of the questions Tyler and I were asked. From the Denver weather to what we will be doing next year, people wanted to hear about our adventures.

But some of my favorites were the questions about what it is like to live with 5 other people in an intentional community. They were usually followed by laughter and funny stories.

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But if I could go past the funny stories, the explanation of sharing chores, and trying to get SooHwi to understand American football (to no avail), I would say:

My time in community has been spent watching the excessive, selfish, and protective layers of myself be chipped slowly away to expose what is underneath. 

I walked into this community as a person sure of who she was. Strong and confident. Excited for what I had to offer my community. Someone whose life experience and story has shaped how the big and small areas of life are done. This is not a bad thing! But the result is a set of life patters that I follow thanks to mentors who have spoken into my life, mistakes I have made and learned from, and previous communities I have been a part of.

But what I didn’t realize was that I was moving into a house full of other human beings who have been molded by their own stories and who do life according to their experiences. And they are better and deeper people because of those things.

But they also live life different than me because of those stories.

It’s a deep concept that we each move and act in life based on how we have watched others go before us. We each make decisions based on what we are passionate about and what is meaningful to us. And I see this carried out in everyday ways in our house. For example:

  • I have never seen the dish washer loaded so many different ways. But it is. Usually based on how our family did it back home.
  • We each have different ways we want to approach our weekends based on how we want to relax or get stuff done.
  • And the always beautiful experience of what 6 people are like when they are hungry and running out of groceries!

In each of these examples, I know how I would respond to them (since clearly, my way of loading the dishwasher is best.). And I do self care and planning and cleaning and hospitality based on what I am used to, my life experiences, and what is meaningful to me.

But our community cannot thrive if I am constantly trying to convince them to do things my way just because it means a lot to me. Then I am smothering the ideas and actions they have that are just as meaningful to them. A community is nothing if the members do not feel invited to be who they long to become.

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says about community:

“God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom…God made this person in His image.”

And this is where the chipping away part happens.

  • When I see that it is pride that makes me think that I know the best way to clean the bathroom.
  • When I see it is my fear of being uncomfortable that keeps me from accepting plans made by someone else.
  • It is selfishness that keeps me from admitting my role in the blame.
  • And it is my love of indulgences that convinces me to spend my extra time on myself instead of with my community.

These layers I have built up have made me think I am bigger, more influential, and have more to offer than what I really do. And what my community even needs from me.

But as I choose service instead of selfishness.

As I lean into my fear and let others plan my weekend.

I can feel these excess layers give way and begin to crumble.

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It is scary to not have those layers to protect you and make you feel important. But with these layers gone I have heard the Lord’s voice much more clearly, reminding me who I am underneath it all. This new raw and exposed version of me.

And I can see myself beginning to love this me that I am meeting through my community. 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. New York: Harper & Row

       Publishers, Inc. 1954.

My Week 3 Advent Word

We are now into week 3 of advent. We have lit the third candle and began forming our advent practices and daily meditations to transition into Joy.

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This is the week when we begin to see Joy or at least we begin to search for it. We have walked from hope to preparation to joy, now knowing that “something” is happening; something is beginning. And this week of joy allows us to confidently look ahead and claim the promise that is coming so soon. The promise of Emmanuel. As a runner, when I think of this third week of advent, I think of coming around the corner of your race route and catching a glimpse of the finish line for the very first time.

But I have to admit that if I was choosing a word to describe my advent journey here at week 3, I would definitely not pick joy.

Joy is not the word of my heart this week.

And can you blame me?
I feel some comfort knowing that I cannot be the only one struggling with the practice of Joy this week. Our Holiday and Advent season has been intruded by death, anger, racial injustice, heartbreak, loneliness, and betrayal. Whatever your processing looks like during so many of the recent events in the world–from Ferguson to the Peshawar school children–it has been a heavy Advent.

Even as I think about what my advent has looked like while doing a year of service. The last few weeks have brought some deep heartache and some really hard stuff as my time here involves learning to live in community with 5 other people, the exhausting experience of working at a nonprofit, and the harsh realities of working with kids from hard places. Joy is definitely not how I would describe these moments.

A few days ago our house had our Advent/ Christmas party. We went ice skating downtown, had a huge dinner, and even a white elephant gift exchange. At the beginning of the day I lead an Advent activity where we did some reading and then were given space to think through what word, any word, best described where we were right now in our processing and journeying of Advent. It was great, and I loved seeing how each of us were experiencing Advent differently.
I chose the word Watch.

When I think of this word and how I feel about Advent right now,I think of

Hesitancy
Skepticism
A glimmer of Hope
But Hope and Joy held cautiously at arms length.

Watch isn’t quite Wait, because a part of my tired heart is not quite sure whether it will find and feel that Joy this year.
There is even some waves of frustration and guilt that wash over me as I think about trying to claim joy right now. My heart is not in it….yet?

And yet, in the midst of my one arm out, crispy heart, the purpose of Advent is pursuing me. Even as I consider throwing out the word Joy altogether. Because I know that Christ pulled on flesh and  showed up to be with us–our Emmanuel–for those who were anxiously awaiting his coming. Like the Prophetess Anna who faithfully claimed Hope and Joy and took them with her to the stairs of the Temple everyday, waiting for her beloved Savior.

But Christ also came for the tired souls. The ones who were too burnt-out to get out of bed.

Christ came for the those who have been waiting to share deep Joy and Love with their neighbors this Advent season.

And he also came for those whose Advent is too heavy to hold this year.
Who might be surrounded by a little more darkness at this time than light.
The people who don’t feel worthy of claiming Joy.

Emmanuel came to be with those who aren’t actively searching for joy right now. Maybe they have even turned their wearied shoulder away. But I know for myself, we are still peaking over our shoulder, longing for that glimpse of light.
Which is why I will Watch at week 3 and see how the rest of my Advent unfolds. And I am grateful for dear friends and loved ones “in my corner” who are Watching with me.

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Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in Thee

Photo cred: Anne Nesser

A Moment at the Wall

Two weeks ago I found myself on the US/ Mexico border. For a handful of days I met with ministries and nonprofits on both sides whose entire love and attention goes to families and individuals affected by the crude wall that separates these countries.

As I think back on those days, my mind and heart begin to swirl with all the information, stats, arguments and facts we researched and saw for ourselves. All this content followed us as we crossed back and forth over the border each day. It followed us as we met with border patrol agents to talk about what their job is like, as we shared a meal with families preparing to cross the border within the coming days, and while we listened to men and women share how they give their time and money to protect families that are threatened by the violence and economic deficiencies within Mexico.

Lets just say I took a whole lot of notes while I was there so that I didn’t forget all the information being tossed my way.

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*A picture of actual hand prints and footprints of people who have already climbed the wall to cross over to the United States.

I felt like a sponge in the ocean.

And yet, there was one moment from my journey that stuck with me the most.

No notes.
No stats.
Just a thin moment.

Thin moments: “Where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin…where we can sense [God] more readily.”

On this day, we met with a group from a recovery center in Mexico where men and women can come to receive counseling and medical help for their addictions. It was a kind place, full of hope. After touring their facility, we jumped into our vehicles and rode off into the desert with water barrels ready to be distributed.
Every 10 days or so, this group drives around an hour out into the desert to fill water barrels in some of the most dangerous areas where migrants are known to be trekking through on their way to the border.

Side note, the US/ Mexico border is not a full wall that covers from Texas to California. The actual wall is built mostly where towns and main roads are. The Government’s hope is that the wall directs migrants away from cities and roads, into the desert where either they will die or give up. Not exactly humane.

In the back of a pickup truck, squeezed beside a water barrel, I rode with some of my housemates and Jose*, a man from the recovery center. During the hour-long ride we talked about why we were there and parts of our stories in Mixed Spanglish. And then Jose told us his:

Jose was born in Mexico, but no matter how hard he worked he couldn’t get enough money to pay his bills each month. Economic depression in Mexico and unfair business deals with the US make it nearly impossible to scrape by financially. He crossed the border and lived in Los Angeles for a large chunk of his life. He got married and had several kids. Suddenly, with no warning, he was deported back to Mexico. The country he barely remembered. He was separated from his ex-wife, children, and extended family abruptly, with no time to plan. “I think that is why I did those drugs,” Jose said. “I was lonely. I was very alone.” Months later, Jose is recovering well, using his extra time to see this all as a second chance and to love on others who are like him when he was a migrant.

It was the first time I had spent time listening to someone share their story of deportation. And it was heartbreaking. He was the most courageous, kind man, and I saw so much of my Dad in him.

After setting up the water barrels, we eventually made it to the wall. To get there we took a trail that is used by many migrants in that area to get to the wall undetected. Though, we were seen and were followed by a US Border Patrol helicopter for most of our half-hour hike–but that is another story.

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*This is a view of the trail we took to get to the wall.

As we stood by the wall, listening to stories and being given more information, I witnessed the beautiful, thin moment. I had watched Jose for awhile after we got to the wall.

What would it be like to stand beside the barrier that tauntingly separates you from your entire family?

He shuffled back and forth for most of our time at the wall, not really listening to our conversation and not really getting too close to the wall. Suddenly he picked up a rock and stood about 20 feet from the wall.

He stared at it for awhile.
He lightly tossed the rock up and down a few times.
And then, with a good amount of force, he threw the rock straight at the wall.

There was a giggle and a flash of a smile from him. Then he walked away and never looked back at the wall the rest of the time we were there.

Such bitterness and playfulness mingled in that moment of him throwing the rock; I could feel the tension of it all. And it all became very real and deeply rooted into my heart. There were no “aha!” moments or solutions that came to me in that holy moment. But my heart was shaped and deeply transformed. I saw how my life and Jose’s were tied together in this lifetime, though our two worlds look very different. I saw bitterness, hope, anger, relief, and courage at the same instant. And it was beautiful.

What other way is there to experience Scripture and truth than in those moments and in God’s peoples’ lives?

I will probably never know how Jose’s story unfolds and ends, but I do know that a lot of his life has been unfair. And though it is hard for me to understand because of my privilege, my hope is that this thin moment has given me (and maybe others) a new lens to see through. That we can hear and learn from people different than us in a very real and deep ways.

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“For He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Ephesians 2:14

*Name has been changed for safety and privacy purposes

Photo cred to Grace Dover and Tyler Schrock

The Heartbeat Within Immigration

This past week, someone told me that “The problem is that most Americans don’t believe [or know] that the US deports parents from their children and breaks up families.”

Wherever you lie on the issue of immigration, what you hear when Scripture speaks about the topic (because it does), and however you feel when the topic comes up, I do not know. I have friends and acquaintances that land across the spectrum on the issue. What I do know is that this conversation looks different when the stats people whip out to support their position are given names, stories, and heartbeats.

When that “illegal alien” is instead a father of three girls who adore Frozen and watching baseball with their Daddy when he gets home from work.

When that “fence-hopper” is instead a woman with the kindest soul you’ve ever met, and a courageous spirit that has led her to leave everything behind to find work in America so that she can sustain her mother and keep her sons from having to join a gang to support the family.

And I was fortunate enough to meet some of these brave and lovely people on Monday outside the Denver Immigrations Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center.

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The Denver ICE Detention Center is a for-profit facility. This means they are owned by someone who knew if they built a facility, they would make money (from the government) based on the number of people they incarcerate. The people can be locked up for any reason if they are unable to present the proper paperwork, which for some is impossible to obtain. Most of these people who find themselves there have lived in the US for several years, have numerous family members also living in the US, and can be some of the most consistent tax-payers found in this country.

Humans with a heartbeat and a dream.

The first Monday of every month a diverse group of faithful people, led by the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee), gather for a prayer vigil outside the ICE Detention Center to pray and spread awareness about the Mothers, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters, Aunties, and Uncles that are detained inside.

And there I heard the stories of three amazingly brave people. Stories that allowed me to see past statistics and news headlines and capture the truth of these families’ experiences as undocumented people.

Like Louisa. A quiet but valiant spirit who timidly walked to the front of our vigil group to share that she was battling getting deported at any minute, which would separate her from her four children and her favorite role in her life which is being a loving, stay-at-home mama. She grew more secure and lively as she spoke about the first time she was detained in that ICE center. Her husband had been pulled over for going 8mph over the speed limit, and before she knew it, them were cuffed and put in the back of the car. For four days she was detained with no permission to use the phone and tell her children where she was. They had no idea what had happened to their parents.

Now Louisa is fighting to extend her visa and eventually become a citizen. If not, her and her husband and oldest child would be forced back to Mexico, while the other three would be left with family and friends in America. Her case is on hold indefinitely because there are not enough judges to hear the cases of the people currently locked up. The influx of immigrants over summer has flooded the system and made everything take much longer. (Though I don’t know how they’re all helping there but nothing is actually getting done.)

So Louisa lives in a constant state of uncertainty, not really knowing if the Christmas gifts she is starting to buy will be given to her kids by herself at Christmas or other family members. How do you plan for possibly being thousands of miles away from your children–usually within a days notice. She doesn’t know.

And then there is Sofia. You could tell she hadn’t been planning on speaking in front of the group until she had heard Louisa’s story. With the confidence of a young soul who has found people who are similar to herself, Sofia stepped up and spoke with deep gratitude about her journey on this topic. She was born in America and now attends a local, Denver University–living a rather normal twenty-something life–but over her summer break, instead of driving to beaches or napping all day, she spent the whole thing researching how to help her father become a US citizen. Making lists of the money that is needed, the piles of paperwork, and the homework that comes before the test, Sofia spoke very hopefully of how important it was for their family. As the only breadwinner of the family, with a child in college, she couldn’t imagine saying goodbye to her daddy without an idea of when she would ever see him next. And she is reminded of this every time she passes the detention center. She lives a few blocks away.

These are people who have loved ones. Who are needed. Who you probably pass each day without realizing it. (Yes, it is a good idea to throw out the out of date stereotype about what undocumented people do and what they look like.) They are human beings made in the image of God and created to do something beautiful in the world.

And the best way to remind yourself of the humanity of a people who are constantly stripped of it by media and ignorant folk is to spend time with them. There is great power in listening and watching. How many times have you been wrong about someone until you heard their whole story or their reason behind something?

I can only believe that as Jesus dined with all those different outcasts, he was handing them back their humanity and reminding them of their life-giving heartbeats through his deep listening. And now we are called to do the same.

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus 19:33-34

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For more true stories from undocumented people and their loved ones –> http://afsc.org/video/immigration-stories
Click on: View More Immigration Videos

*All information used is from AFSC personnel
*First photo used by HuffingtonPost in “Immigration Detention: The Golden Goose for Private Prisons”

What I Want To Tell Volunteer Groups

I have only been here in Denver a few weeks, and I feel like the non-profit world is breaking down so many of my expectations and paradigms. One of the experiences I have had that feeds into this is my work with volunteer groups as they come in to Sun Valley. My organizer-self really gets excited when volunteer groups come because it means for me, making lists, delegating jobs, and watching people make things happen that I could never do.

Volunteer groups can be a deep breath of fresh air for non-profits.

They bring us space to breath and reflect.
They bring reminders of hope and mercy.
They bring new energy and calling.

However, sometimes, unfortunately, volunteer groups can also bring things with them that aren’t always so helpful. And I’d like to share my thoughts on what those things can sometimes be:

Bringing expectations that you are bringing us a day off
Unfortunately this is not the case. Though volunteer groups can give us laughter and hope and cross things off our lists that make us want to cry, they also bring the most exhausting days for us. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come! Non-profits can rarely keep going without volunteer groups, but being mindful of what your presence for the day or week means for the full time workers can make a huge difference.

What does that look like?

A meaningful thank you can be the connection point for an amazing partnership or friendship. Bringing your own snacks, supplies, and supervisors are tiny things that make a huge difference. Also, being proactive while you work will define what kind of day the full-time staff has. No staff person wants to do laps all day in the midst of their work to constantly point out new things to do. Have new ideas or see something not on the list that needs done? We will rarely tell you no!

Bringing fear of the place that we care about
A time I occasionally feel myself cringing, is during the introduction and safety instructions before a group begins. In a very well-meaning way, the group leader usually makes a remark about where our youth center is located and what that means. I have heard great leaders describe our neighborhood in an intelligent and caring way, but I have also heard leaders pretty much scare the kids into assuming that if they leave the building without an adult their life will turn out like the next sequel of Taken (the movie) without Liam Neeson to save them. Or that every single person is holding a gun under their clothes ready to shoot at any innocent upper-class volunteer who looks at them the wrong way. These types of neighborhoods are not festering pools of people with no morale code.

Mothers live here.
Fathers live here.
Children thrive here.

Instead of fear, we need more volunteer groups to bring respect. Taking into account the past history of the neighborhood and the stats that try to sum up a grouping of humans, but also appreciating the stories, abilities, and characteristics, that these community members have brought to this area. Maybe the neighborhood is a little scary and new, and maybe there are things to be away of. But this is also the neighborhood we love! Our neighbors love and protect, and our children call home.

Bringing a close-minded attitude toward our process
So if you have ever volunteered or partnered with a non-profit, you might have noticed that they are their own species. They don’t always look or run the way you are used to seeing businesses look or run. Most non-profits are held back in a lot of ways because of their monetary needs, and rely on creativity and resourcefulness to stay thriving and impactful. So when you walk into a non-profit and they seem disorganized, stuck, focused on things you aren’t used to, small, or taking the hard route over the seemingly easier one, please try to remember that the life of the non-profit is one where the odds are stacked against you.

Though it may seem silly to you that we are trying to sell you a bumper sticker with our name on it, please believe us when we say that the money from it truly feeds our kids for several days or allows them to go on a Friday field trip. And when a non-profit may be using old technology or resources, remember that it is not usually the choice of the non-profit what they are donated.

This seemingly confusing place that you, maybe, think you could run so much more effectively, is here because of passionate, Jesus-loving people who are creating safe places like that one, for others to flourish.

And finally,

Bringing the need to feel good at the end of your time there
In most instances, when I am wrapping up time with a group, there are those cool, jubilant moments when the kids or adults get to walk around and see the “after” affect. There are inside jokes and high fives, and tired but smiling faces. It is one of my favorite times. However, there is almost always someone–or a few someones–who look out and only see what still needs to be done. Or I have even see some walk away looking plain defeated after spending a day in a new, hard environment like the non-profit world. Now, I am almost always that person that sees the looming list of to-dos at the end of the day, so I understand.

The fact is that you really shouldn’t always feel good after volunteering in a hard and different place. Should you feel grateful for what was done and the time spend there? Yes, sure. But I think when the focus is feeling good at the end, it means that we weren’t allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable enough while we were serving. And maybe we didn’t take time to let our hearts break for where we were and what we saw.

Every day that I am at our youth center I have to choose how much I am going to let the kids effect me. It is so much easier to feel awesome about cleaning and organizing the entire kitchen area, then sitting down with a kiddo from a really hard place and listen to them and try to love on them. As a volunteer it is so much easier to walk away from a place you do not understand and feel uncomfortable with when you have at least fixed something or dirtied up your hands a little to change it. We then feel the permission to brush of the dirt and say we did or part, without allowing ourselves to feel anything. We Americans are pretty good at that.

The most effective volunteer, in my opinion, is the one that comes ready to learn and ask questions more than get stuff done. She is the volunteer who is kind of grumpy afterward and doesn’t know how to process the fact that her life, for some reason, looks so different from the lives of the people in our neighborhood.

Feeling uncomfortable means you are letting yourself be changed and molded by that experience.

In conclusion, please know that volunteering is a powerful thing. It can bring with it some amazing things. But being mindful while volunteering creates an experience that completely changes the way you see your world and the people in it.

 

“It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” –Mother Teresa

 

photo cred: childrensministryleader.com

A Year In The Life

GREETINGS from Denver, Colorado! 

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We have officially ended our first week of work and real life in Colorado–and we are just loving it! Now, I wasn’t exactly feeling excited about Denver when I got lost on the public transportation (bus) earlier this week, but with highs come a few lows, I guess.

From the mountains in Western Colorado to random alleys downtown, one of our goals as a house has been to experience as much as we can, take it all in, and learn. And then I get to share with all of you!

Some things we’ve done since first getting to Denver:

  • Visited each house members’ job placement to see what we’re all doing.
  • eating delicious Korean food and learned about Korean culture from our house mate SooHwi
  • climbed a mountain (Mt. Elbert–tallest 14-er in Colorado)

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  • Shared our faith stories and learned about each other
  • Started learning how to grocery shop, cook, and plan on the budget we have each month.
  • Explore art studios downtown and all the different neighborhoods.
  • experience college football Saturday together (we have a few Oregon fans, Iowa fan, K-state fan, Ohio State fans, and a Korean who thinks American football is goofy.)
  • image (Our house enjoying some football)

 If you are wondering, yes we have also gotten work done around all of these adventures!

This year I will be working at Sun Valley Youth Center (<– check out our website!) an after school program located in the poorest neighborhood in Denver–Sun Valley.

Our kids are 5-10ish year olds who go to a local elementary school. While at our program the kids are tutored and have space to do all the homework that was assigned to them that day. We work on classroom behavior skills like how to stay in your seat, how to ask for help, ways to remember and study, etc. plus, we also like adding space for the kids to get out their wiggles and expand their horizons, so we have Karate lessons, dance lessons, and other things for them to participate in.

So what makes Sun Valley the poorest neighborhood in Denver? And what does that mean for our students?

Denver has an identity as being incredibly inclusive and open-armed to refugees and immigrants. Colorado was the first state to list itself as a place that wanted to help house and support the thousands of innocent, unaccompanied minors running from their home hoping for safety and possibilities. And Sun Valley is a neighborhood where many immigrants and refugees find themselves.

This means English is a second language to many, American culture is confusing, frustrating, and can sometimes be hostile. So then force a kid into a school where we know the testing is completely unfair and teachers do not have enough time for so much individualization.

Most Sun Valley families live in public housing and 62.4% of them are living below poverty level. There are no jobs within the Sun Valley neighborhood, and until recently no real public transportation to help the adults get to where jobs were. It is a food desert, and home to elementary school with the worst test scores and highest drop-out rates.

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With all of these injustices and barriers swirling around the head of our students, sometimes without them even knowing, Sun Valley’s hope is to be a safe place and a hopeful place.

  • A place where these kids are not told that if they can’t read comprehensively by 4th grade they will most likely be in jail within the next few years–stats here
  • A place where pregnancy is not the only option to help pay for your families bills.
  • A place where membership into a gang is not the only way to be supported, safe, and a part of community.

And I hope I can share their stories well and tell about their joy in a way that does them justice. Thanks for being a part of their story too. I am sure these kiddos would love to hear that there are people cheering them on all the way in Ohio!

 

Keep us in your prayers as:
We still have a little bit of fundraising to do in the next few weeks.
We keep getting used to our new jobs and coworkers.
We work to establish space–and date nights–for ourselves as a married couple.

Remain in the Tension

The adventure has begun! Tyler and I have been in Stony Point, New York with all the other international and domestic volunteers for our week of training. All of these young adults will be doing the same year of voluntary service, but at all different types of places.

Other than the amazing food and the exhilarating games of ultimate frisbee, there has been one common thread that has stood out to me this week that I wanted to share. Pretty much, this week is a place where we are learning how to

“Remain in the Tension”

As information, questions, challenges, and intense training is thrown our way, we don’t have room to put it somewhere and nothing that we are learning is stuff that we can fix to be able to put it down. The things we are learning are deep and hard, and they are problems that have been around forever. Unfortunately, they are also things that are evil and not OK. See how we might feel some tension? Most of our days have been structured by sessions and guest speakers, and those are surrounded by small group discussions and lots of verbal processing at the end of the day.

So where is the tension coming from?

Most of our sessions have been on white privilege, racism and race-prejudice, social inequality, and cyclical poverty circles. Heavy stuff right?

**If you are curious about these topics or are wondering why it is necessary for us to get this training, please check out: crossroadsantiracism.org, or check out anything to do with Ferguson. Yes, that is ALL about racism, don’t kid yourself.

If you have not looked at my profile picture, I am white–actually a redhead. It is like God wanted to make it absolutely known that I was nothing but pasty white. Though I still fight equal pay, over-sexualization misconceptions, and patriarchal gender roles because I am female, I don’t have to pull out 2 or more forms of ID when using a check at a grocery store because of my skin color (true story). When I walk into a college classroom, it is assumed that my parents went to college and were highly involved in my educational journey… and are also literate because of my skin color. Growing up one of the options offered to me to give my family security and extra resources was not prostitution, because my socio-economic status sheltered me from that.

So how do I have a conversation about these things? Where do I fit in the conversation on these things? (For those who think white folks have nothing much to say on this topic, I have some links I would love to share!)

The beautiful answer is that I do have room at this table, and as a white, Christian female I should be running to those conversations–to both listen and share. But after several days of these conversations, non-stop questions swirling in your head, and innumerable stories of times when peace, love, and the gospel do not work and death and anger overcome there is major tension.

My heart longs for peace and reconciliation between white and black people, especially within the church. When weapons will be transformed into plough shares and tools. As Paul envisioned for the church:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

But for now I am surrounded by much heartbreak and anger. We are being trained on how to identify and report sexual-abuse, knowing how prevalent this is, though most don’t know how to talk about it. And we are being prepped to be self-aware of how much race-prejudice language and assumptions are drilled into us as we grow up in our white, suburban, middle-class neighborhoods. This is what my year will be full of.

But if I am respecting those struggles and engaging in those conversations intentionally I cannot just push the tension away or get scared of it. Though I might feel awkward or like I have nothing to offer because my background, I must feel that anger that the neighbors in Ferguson are feeling because a son was murdered. I must rest in the confusion I feel when trying to imagine how to end poverty. And I am called to remain in the pain I feel when I realize that jokes, comments, and assumptions I have made have added to the high walls between black people and white people in my life.

And I cannot run away. I cannot use my skin color or story as an excuse to leave this tension-filled, hard stuff.

As I remain there, I search for the Presence of the God who is love and works through peace.

 

This Taize song has breathed life into me this week while I stay with the tension, and I wanted to share it with you:
Come And Fill Our Hearts

Come and fill our hearts
With your peace
You alone, Oh Lord
Are holy
Come and fill our hearts
With your peace
Alleluia