Sunday, July 10, 2016

How Long, O Lord?

I had the difficult task of preaching this morning after a week where every day brought more news of senseless violence and tragedy.

Those of you who were not able to be with us at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church this morning are welcome to watch the video of the service. The scripture reading and sermon start at 18:18 and end at 38:25, but I encourage you to participate in the entire service. The texts for the sermon came from Psalm 82 and Luke 10:25-37. I invite you to watch along as you read the manuscript posted below.

How Long, O Lord?

Each day this week has found my lungs heaving with sighs too deep for words. Each day this week has found my eyes welling up with tears over the tragedies of the world around us. I have a feeling I am not alone in that. Let us start by taking a time of silence to sit with the feelings this week has stirred up for a moment.


As I near the end of my second year as a Young Adult Volunteer, I have been reflecting on where I was when I started in August 2014. I was only beginning to open my eyes to the racism and white supremacy that pervade our society. It started with Michael Brown in Ferguson, and then Eric Garner in New York City, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Paris, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, and McKinley, Texas, and Aiyana Jones, and Sandra Bland, and the Mother Emmanuel 9 in Charleston, and Jeremy Mardis in Louisiana, and San Bernadino, and Istanbul, and Brussels, and Syria, and Baghdad, and Israel, and Palestine, and then Orlando, and now Medina, and Bangladesh, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and the Dallas police shooting, and I am tired. I am weary. And I am not the weariest one sitting in church today. No, because of the color of my skin, the country of my origin, the level of my education, the language I speak fluently, and the social class I come from, because of all of the various privileges I carry, I am able to opt in and opt out of these tragedies. I do not always have to pay attention to the world’s events as some of you do. I do not have to recognize my place in society every day if I do not want to. I do not have to worry if a loved one is going to come home safe every night due to the color of their skin or their line of work. Some of you can relate to my perspective, but it is not true for every one of you worshiping with us today.

Today’s Psalm is a report of a prophetic vision in which God takes a seat on the divine council of gods, little g. The words in Hebrew tell us that God is there to rebuke them. The psalmist cries out for justice. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” In today’s world, who would make up the divine council of the gods? The US legal system? Congress? Multinational corporations? The NRA? Oil companies? World leaders? The system of white supremacy that paints white culture as the norm against which all else is to be measured?

The Psalmist continues, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Those are the same laments we are raising today. Give justice to the weak and the orphan, to the children who are without parents after the violence this week. Deliver them from the hand of the wicked, the systems that allow black men to be murdered simply for being black; the systems that enable people to have access to automatic weapons and large amounts of ammunition to murder many children of God in an instant. Like the Psalmist, I feel the foundations of our earth have been shaken this week. More victims of police brutality, both black and Latino. Another mass shooting. And more suicide attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. How long, O Lord? When will you judge justly? O God, when will you rise up?

Perhaps we need our foundations to be shaken, need to be awakened from the slumber of oblivion that does not care about something if it does not affect our lives directly. Friends, this is a wake up call. This is a tragic, heartbreaking, grief-stricken wake up call. We may say How long, O Lord all we want, but nothing will change until those of us with our varying levels of power step out of the shadows into the light and use our voices to dismantle these systems of injustice. Until we acknowledge and own our complicity in these systems that allow violence to occur in our midst.

For me, that took joining the YAV Program. In the first month of orientation in the Philippines, I met with people who had lost family members due to extrajudicial killings by the military because they stood up for the poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited, and suffering. If they were willing to put so much on the line in their context, why wasn’t I doing more to stand up against injustice in mine? In November 2014, I attended a memorial service remembering the 12,000 lives lost during Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) one year earlier. That service morphed into a march to protest the government’s misappropriation of relief funds. Despite receiving billions of dollars and pesos for rehabilitation purposes, less than one percent of the displaced population was permanently housed. In that moment, I felt the call to activism, community organizing, and advocacy in a place where my voice could impact more change. I felt called to Washington, DC, to act for justice for all of my neighbors.

But what does that mean? All of my neighbors? That’s exactly what the religious scholar asked Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today. He was trying to find a loophole on who exactly he needed to love to find eternal life. Jesus tells the story of a man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho, an 18 mile journey that was notoriously dangerous. Try to place yourself in this man’s shoes. Depending on your intersecting identities, you may feel more or less safe on this road. Are you a black man traveling on a road between rival gang territories? Are you a Latino gay man showing affection to your partner in a dance club? Are you a person of color afraid that you will get pulled over for a broken taillight? Are you a woman afraid of catcalling, sexual assault, or rape? Are you an immigrant fearing that immigration officials will find you and deport you? Are you a straight, white man nervous about the possibility of encountering “the other” on the journey through the wilderness? Are you a police officer confident in your ability to protect yourself and the community around you?

Who are the robbers? Are they the boys who had no social or economic support and turned to a gang for community? Is it a man with a machine gun who wants to terrorize the LGBTQ community? Are they law enforcement officials who shoot first and ask questions later even if you comply with their orders? Are they men who find power in dominating space and objectifying women? Are they immigration officers who will take you away from your children and family? Is it a straight, white man who lashes out in fear and has a license to carry? Is it a single man who, on his own, deliberately trained and planned an attack to target police officers serving and protecting a community demonstration?

Now imagine all those hypothetical scenarios happened. You are left half-dead on the side of the road, stripped of your humanity, not fully alive but not dead yet. Two people who are a part of your community, who share a piece of your identity, who are your neighbors, your friends, your family, pass by leaving you to die alone. “How long, O Lord?” is your cry as you lay on the side of the road dying. Who is the good Samaritan in this case? Amy-Jill Levine says, “We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, ‘Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us?” That is the only way to modernize the shock and possibility of this parable. Depending on your identity, the Samaritan could be a harsh dictator, a trans woman of color, an NRA member, an Israeli, a Palestinian, a homophobic bigot, a Muslim, a black man, a person experiencing homelessness, a Latina woman, someone who flies a confederate flag, an undocumented immigrant, or a Donald Trump supporter. This parable has a scandalous edge, as it seeks to humanize and embrace the “other.” As James A. Wallace notes, “The power of God is at work in those who travel the dangerous roads, moving us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.” The Samaritan, the proverbial other, helps the person in the ditch just as Christ is the life-giving Spirit who leads humanity through death to resurrection life.

Even though we read about these dangerous journeys on the news, there are plenty of roads from Jerusalem to Jericho in our own communities and neighborhoods. Every Sunday morning, I get to be in the Radcliffe Room with some of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. I have the privilege of hearing some stories of hope and sorrow, of joy and challenges. From these interactions with beloved children of God, I see how our society treats those returning from prison, searching for work in a new country, or living with mental illnesses.

During the week, my responsibilities have included administering our benevolence funds to individuals and families in need. I hear stories of grave injustices happening in our communities. A family speaks up when their apartment building does not have hot water during the winter and receives an eviction notice the next month, which renders them homeless. A woman escapes from an abusive marriage and falls into the hands of loan sharks while trying to put the pieces of her life back together. A family is evicted and faces homelessness for nine months because the father stopped paying rent. A single mother cannot afford to stay in her apartment because her temp job keeps cutting her hours. Another single mother caring for extended family members is unjustly terminated from a living wage job and falls behind on rent and utility bills while she takes her employer to court with her union. An elderly woman takes in family members when they have fallen on hard times but cannot afford to care for them and pay the power bill while they are in the house and faces a cut off notice.

These are the stories I hear week in and week out, stories of crisis and mere survival; stories from close to home. These stories show the continual trauma of living in poverty and on the margins of our society. When we speak on the phone, I hear the cries, “How long, O Lord?”

Where is God in these stories? Shelley Rambo’s theology of redemption from the middle says that God is right there, in the midst of the suffering. As Jesus died on the cross, the redemption was and is in the middle space, the descent into hell. It is there that we find redemption and healing. After a trauma occurs, the murder of a black man, the slaying of police officers, the death of Christ, we feel the haunted void. In that haunting is the transmission of the imperative to love, the call for something to be done. Rambo says, “The healing comes not from the death and violence narrative we hear and see on the news and on our social media outlets, but it comes in the brief and fleeting glimpses of the divine presence in the aftermath.” It is the persistence of love in the midst of the suffering. It is Diamond Reynolds praying “Please, Lord, you know our rights, Lord” after witnessing her boyfriend, Philando Castile’s, murder. It is in the words of Diamond’s four year old daughter, Dae’Anna, when she comforts her as her mother is handcuffed in the back of the police car, “It’s ok, mommy. It’s ok. I’m right here with you.” It is in the arms of men holding Cameron Sterling, as he languishes, “I want my daddy.” It is grieving by singing “We Shall Overcome” with thousands of people as two black men kneel in front of a police car mere feet away from the U.S. Capitol.

One of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching moments of the Black Lives Matter march from the White House to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday evening.
Even as we survive, grieving in the ways we need to, preparing to act for justice, but still asking “How long, O Lord,” we must cling together to be witnesses to the divine love that remains. Without each other, we may not make it out alive.

May we find words of comfort in the PC(USA)'s newly adopted Belhar Confession:
We believe that the unity of the church of Jesus Christ must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted; that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another.


Monday, May 30, 2016

It's Been a While...

I have not posted on my personal blog for quite some time, but it is not because I have not been writing! I have realized that my posts are fewer and farther between this year. As an extreme external processor, I am so grateful for such an amazing community of family, friends, supervisors, and fellow YAVs that are willing to listen to me process the difficult parts of this year. Since I have been able to do that processing elsewhere, it has felt less important to set aside the time to write specific reflections in a blog post.

Thankfully, my wonderful supervisor with NEXT Church, Jessica Tate, has given me a platform to write about some of my experiences with community organizing. One of the most poignant calls to action that we heard at the NEXT Church National Gathering in February was using our faith to serve God by bettering our communities, wherever we are. I have had the wonderful privilege this year to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk, living out the call to go and serve. I have the opportunity to serve in a parish ministry context, as well as thinking broadly and critically of our work in our communities...and then I get to act on it!

In April, I wrote a series of blogs reflecting on community organizing and how it can work with the church. As I continue to discern, I am increasingly hearing God call me to serve and minister through community organizing. I invite you to peruse them at your leisure!

In chronological order:
Community Work, Transforming the World: A brief intro about why community organizing
Activism vs. Organizing: Processing the time I almost got arrested (on purpose)
Challenges of Organizing a Movement: The reflection that took a surprising turn to thinking theologically about community organizing
The Art of Meeting: If we are going to spend so much time meeting, we may as well do it better. For me, that means we meet in relationship with each other.
Victory! Now What?: The work doesn't end just because you got a win. What are the next steps?

I promise more posts will be coming soon! Lots of good stuff is just percolating in my head and is about ripe enough to put to text!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Come On In

"Come on in, grab a cup of coffee. Take a seat and stay a while. You'll hear stories you've never imagined."

These are the words my friend Bobby* said to a group of tourists who stopped by a few Sundays ago to visit the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The women walked into the open doors of the Radcliffe Room during the height of our Sunday morning activity. They were seeking spaces where former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams worshiped. They likely wanted to take pictures of the iconic stained glass windows that line the walls of the sanctuary. When they walked into the first set of open doors, they likely did not expect to see almost 100 men and women experiencing varying levels of homelessness eating breakfast, drinking coffee, singing hymns, waiting in line for clothes, and fellowshipping with each other and volunteers.

I welcomed the women to our church but recognized that they likely did not come to New York Avenue to see the Radcliffe Room. I directed them to the front desk, which they could access either by staying on the sidewalk and entering the next set of doors or by walking through the Radcliffe Room, through the hustle and bustle of life happening in the space. They hesitated, and ultimately opted to leave the foyer and continue on to the main set of doors. Bobby welcomed the group but looked at me to say what we both knew would happen: they would go around. Bobby is one of our guests who doubles as a volunteer. 

When I started working in the Radcliffe Room seven months ago, I found my home in the clothing closet. Each Sunday, I arrive at 7:30 am and take the next forty-five minutes to prepare the men and women's clothing closets while the other volunteers prepare the food. This involves hanging up whatever donations we received in the last week, bringing down supplies from our storage room three floors up, rolling the racks of women's clothing out to the stage, our designated safe space for women, and arranging racks and bins so guests can easily navigate the spaces. That takes a lot of work, and I often found myself frustrated that I carrying the burden alone. Many guests would offer to help me out, but I always politely declined. I'm a YAV; I can do anything.

At some point, my usual helpers started showing up the same time I did, and I finally decided to surrender my self-sufficient ego to accept assistance from those I thought I was supposed to serve. All of a sudden, the burden seemed lighter, and my mood shifted. I could come to the Radcliffe Room every Sunday and be confident that the clothing closet would be ready to open at 8:15 thanks to the help of Bobby, Jaq*, Lee*, Darwin*, and many of the other guests who offer their hands every week.

In January, my supervisor, Jessica, and I read Toxic Charity by Bob Lupton, in preparation for the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering, where he would be a keynote speaker. I found myself questioning my work and mission in church settings, particularly in the Radcliffe Room. Despite the critique he has received, his fundamental shift of how we approach mission resonated with me. Why not welcome guests who want to give back to the ministry? Why not welcome internal investment? Perhaps that was the nudge I needed to truly partner with our guests to blur that line between volunteer and guests, us and them.

At the NEXT National Gathering, Aisha Brooks-Lytle powerfully brought the Word, reminding all in attendance that we can't go over it, can't go below it, can't go around it; we've gotta go through it. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ also means that we have to be willing to accept it from others. Living out the Gospel requires us to get messy and be in real relationship with God's beloved Creation. When we tell the story of a historical church, we can share tales of giants of the faith who advised Presidents, Congress, and the Supreme Court, but we should also include how the fabric of the church is intertwined with our neighbors in places without power. We are called to go through it in proximity with those who are poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited, and suffering. The next time someone walks through the first open door, why don't we invite them to come in, grab a cup of coffee, take a seat, and stay a while? We all may hear a story we never imagined.

*Names have been changed.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Oh, the Irony

Yesterday I had the great opportunity to work from home. The only reason I left my house was to attend a training session for the Point in Time Homelessness Census. Next Wednesday night, weather permitting, I will join about fifty teams of people to canvas every neighborhood in the District, surveying those experiencing homelessness on the street that night. The training consisted of an overview of the survey we will administer through relational conversations and explanations of how to keep ourselves safe and care for those we encounter who need emergency services for problems like hypothermia. We were told to prepare to be outside for four hours 10 pm until 2 am at the end of January. It will be cold. It will not be an easy night.

Five months ago I may have had a few more reservations about this work. Despite my extroverted, friendly nature, I may have been more hesitant to wake people up to ask demographic questions. However, I have been having these conversations on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Depending on where my team is assigned, I could even run into some of our Radcliffe Room guests. I am genuinely excited about this event, what data we will collect, who we will connect with more resources, or just a McDonald's gift card.

As I rode the bus down toward Logan Circle, I saw the snow start in small flurries. Immediately, I told my roommates.

"It shouldn't be too bad," they said.

I left the training at around 8, and the snowfall had covered the ground with a nice solid dusting. I waited inside until my handy dandy NextBus app told me I had five minutes until my bus came. All bundled up with my leggings, yoga pants, socks, tennis shoes, t-shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, jacket, scarf, headband, hat, gloves, and hand warmers, I confidently walked across the street to the bus stop. I even paused to take a time-lapse video of the snow, which I still considered beautiful and mystical.

This was nice and cute when I thought I would get on a bus in 4 minutes...not in an hour. DC, why are you struggling so hard with the snow this early?! #snowmageddon #notquite

Then five minutes turned to four...for over ten minutes. Then the sign at our stop went to eight minutes. About twenty minutes later, the first bus passed us by, completely full, without stopping. It's ok. Another one was coming in three minutes. That bus flashed the "NOT IN SERVICE" sign. After waiting for thirty minutes, I decided to start actively walking toward a different route rather than passively waiting in the cold to watch buses pass me by.

From 16th and P, to 14th and Q, then to 14th and Rhode Island, and 14th and N, and finally 14th and L, I walked trying to meet a bus at a stop that would actually let me board. According to my phone, those maneuvers added 2 miles to my daily distance. I had waited in the cold for an hour when I was finally able to board a bus that would take me closer to our house, rather than walking farther away from it.

I felt frozen and incredibly angry. Come on, DC! You're not South Carolina! You have to know how to deal with snow better than this. Meteorologists exist for a reason! We knew this was coming...where was the salt? Why couldn't the buses be on time? What good is public transportation when it doesn't run the normal schedule or pick up everyone who is patiently waiting? Why were all of the transportation apps (Uber, Lyft, Split) busy or incredibly overpriced? Why didn't I wear better shoes? Why couldn't I just get home to my warm bed? Why did I even decide to leave my house tonight? Ugh.

In the midst of my angry mental ranting and curse-filled texting, it hit me. I left my house to be proactive about caring about our neighbors who experience this on a nightly basis. If I could barely stand an hour in this cold, what about our guests who will be sleeping in this or trying to find a place warm all night? What about when they get kicked out of a McDonald's or CVS for not being a customer? Would I receive that same treatment?

The bus ride was slow-going because of so much traffic, ice, and the panic that always induces. The hour I spent on the over-heated bus gave me plenty of time to thaw. As we rode along, I saw that the bus I would normally transfer to had stopped operating for the night. Curse you, E4. So I walked the remaining 9 or so blocks back to the house. I opened the door feeling cold, but not as cold as when I had first boarded the bus. Immediately, I took off my snow-filled shoes and yoga pants and peeled off all the extra layers. I was able to come into a warm house with freshly clean sheets to put on my bed, a computer where I can write this blog to help process this experience, and a functional intentional community full of people I love dearly.

Ok, got it. Privilege: checked.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Holding the Tension

Even though I am no longer a college student, I had the great privilege of attending College Conference at Montreat earlier this month on behalf of NEXT in order to host two listening sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed this time of personal and professional renewal that I had experienced as a college student; however, I came to College Conference from a different place than I did previously. For the past four months, I have been thrust into the professional church world. I am so grateful to be a part of the NEXT Church network that is truly on the cutting edge of moving the new church awakening forward. Simultaneously, I am experiencing what it is to work for the church and not simply be an enthusiastic, active member for the first time on my journey.
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Recently, NEXT Church director Jessica Tate and I discussed where NEXT fits in Diana Butler Bass’s Arc of Awakening. We came to the conclusion that NEXT is in the thin space at the base of the arc, where we are free to imagine and experiment. NEXT must work with those who find themselves on all points of the arc, whether they are grasping the loss of the old way or already marching forward with new visions in hand.

Personally, I feel as if I have a foot on each side of the arc. I get to imagine the future of the church with NEXT at the same time that I work with incredibly valuable ministries of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that have been spreading God’s love for over fifty years. In each of these placements, I am working closely alongside other humans and all of their beautiful messiness, some of whom are mourning the church of their childhood, others who cannot wait for the church to catch up with their ideas.

So it was with this mindset that at College Conference, I heard amazing preaching on John 3:16 from NEXT Church strategy team member Carla Pratt Keyes, the story of a football player who left the NFL to follow his calling to become a farmer, creative accounts of witnessing from Nadia Bolz Weber, and tales of transformative mission from leaders across the country. Through the listening sessions, I heard invigorating narratives of presbyteries that energize local congregations to meet the need in their communities. I also listened as some expressed hurt that a denominational program with so much potential fizzled. If I learned anything from these sessions, it is that we are not alone in the struggle to follow the Spirit through times of tension. Any questions I have about my ministries have found a home in others’ hearts, too. That solidarity that we found in an hour of relational conversation energizes me to keep imagining, while holding the tension of the church that was, the church that is, and the church that is to come.

This post originally appeared on the NEXT Church Blog.

Monday, January 11, 2016


I had the great honor to write a music review for the Presbyterian Outlook recently. Although this piece does not directly discuss my YAV year in DC, Adele's latest album, "25," has definitely become a soundtrack to my life, mostly because I have been listening to it so much. Many thanks to the Outlook for the opportunity to have my music critic debut. Below is the text of the article that you can find originally posted here. Hope you enjoy it!

Hello, it’s me.
She’s back. Finally, after a four-year hiatus, Adele has graced the world with more ballads that are sure to become instant karaoke classics. She explained that while “21,” her sophomore album, was a break-up album, “25” is more of a make-up album. This record clearly comes from a place of more life experience and maturity, something that particularly resonates with my own life’s path. I remember belting out “Someone Like You” before I was ready to acknowledge that an ended relationship was never going to have a resurrection. While I have not become a mother in the past four years, I have seen and learned more about the world that has also allowed me to journey toward a place of healing, wholeness and self-love, ready to let go of what once was. Even as Adele acknowledges that it is time to move on from the past, she still yearns for the positive aspects of those times, places and relationships.
Listening to the lyrics of “Hello,” it can appear that she is singing to a former lover, but I hear it more as a letter to her younger self: Hello from the outside/At least I can say that I’ve tried/To tell you I’m sorry, for breaking your heart/But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore. She has moved on past the heartbreaks that used to keep her up at night. As indicated by the overnight success of this first single, Adele is still making people experience all the feelings they forgot they had.
My personal favorite on the album is “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” which has a playful bounce and pop feel that can be compared to Taylor Swift’s sound. When writing this track, Adele expanded on something she wrote as a 13-year-old girl after a break up. That inspiration definitely comes through in the sound reminiscent of listening to No Doubt on the playground in middle school.
The driving beat under “I Miss You” was extremely motivating as I streamed the album at my desk at work; you have no idea how many emails I cranked out to this song. Her angelic high notes floating over an entrancing refrain give way to her second single from the album, “When We Were Young.” The lyrics drip with nostalgia and yearning for the past: You still look like a movie/You still sound like a song/My God, this reminds me/Of when we were young. As a young adult still trying to figure out this whole adult thing, it is easy to wish I were back in my college years, but I know that transitions and life experience have taken me further on my journey than was possible in that context.
“Remedy” is the song I would send to a close friend or family member in need of special care. Its vocal and lyrical warmth seeps into the soul in a way that it seemed clear to me that when writing the song, Adele was thinking of her love for her close friends and family. Turning the tables, “Water Under the Bridge” has a chill tropical groove, but a very different message: If you’re gonna let me down, let me down gently/Don’t pretend that you don’t want me/Our love ain’t water under the bridge. She wants to be given a respectful ending to their relationship so she can continue on in grace, valuing each other for who they are but knowing that what they have is only for a limited time. This request transcends the romantic realm of relationships and can venture into friendships or working relationships.
We find the ode to her roots in “River Lea,” a gospel ballad set to organ and hauntingly beautiful backup vocals. She explores tensions between the influences cast by where we were formed and the reality of never returning the same as when we left – a different tone from “Hometown Glory” on her first album, “19.” The farther I go from my own hometown, the more I realize how much it has shaped my story on a fundamental level, – but through my years as a Young Adult Volunteer in the Philippines and now in Washington, D.C., I know that I am still growing and have much to learn.
The album’s theme is a yearning for wholeness, healing, flourishing and closure. This is especially poignant against the strings in “Love in the Dark.” The acoustic guitar in “Million Years Ago” gives a nod to Spanish classical music and places the listener in a sleepy cafĂ©, pondering past experiences and choices after exploring the streets. While listening to “All I Ask,” it might be difficult to discern if it is the last song of the night at the piano bar or the final night of a relationship. Perhaps this is a prequel to “Someone Like You.” The finale of the album is a pledge of “Sweetest Devotion” to a relationship. The percussion, electric guitar and swing-three-beat feel drive the song forward so that listeners are ready to proclaim that devotion to the next person they see. All in all, by the time you reach the end of the album, it is tempting to go back and experience it all again.
Rumor had it that Adele was not going to continue writing music, as she experienced severe writer’s block and health issues after achieving worldwide success with her last album. However, the birth of her son and the transition that comes with welcoming a new life into the world gave her the inspiration she needed to make up with herself and her past through “25.” We, her fans and avid listeners, thank her for this new album that speaks to our inner beings, passing through the transitions of life but yearning for the comforts of our past.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

First Day

It was ten minutes into my first day of work in the Radcliffe Room, the homeless ministry of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, when it happened.

A fight erupted right in front of me. I had been placed on the stage where we keep the women's clothing. No men allowed, but I did not know that at the time. He was looking for a sister or girlfriend or mother or friend or does it even matter? I had just met Cheryl*, a guest who wanted to volunteer to help organize the clothing closet during the week. On our way to find someone who knew more about this than I did, she stopped to look at a shirt that he was holding.

That's when it started.

"Bitch, you're too fat to wear this."

"This is way too small for you."

"You better lose some weight, fat ass, before you can have this shirt."

On and on and on and on.

Fat shaming and general degradation of a woman who was simply asking to look at the garment. I was in shock. He continued to agitate her, and she defended herself, as is a necessity when you are experiencing homelessness. She was not going to tolerate his insults that escalated into threats of physical violence, and rightfully so. When she raised her phone to take his picture so she could show his face to the police, he lunged at her, throwing the phone out of her hand to the ground two feet away from me. They rushed to be the first to reach the phone and squeezed their bodies into the narrow space between the pew on the stage and the railing guarding the edge of the stage. I felt trapped. The scuffle continued with the man spitting attacks and Cheryl screaming that he had her phone. 

I stood petrified. I was definitely not the calm, de-escalating presence I always thought I would be in tense conflicts. The only thought running through my head was what my supervisor, Alice, had told me a few days prior, "Whatever happens, do not physically put yourself in the middle of a fight. Do not put yourself in danger." I did not even know the names of any other volunteers I could call to help with the situation. Eventually the noise drew the attention of more experienced leaders in the Radcliffe Room. Other guests noticed the incident and pulled the two apart. Cheryl got her phone back, and other women came forward with claims that he has done this before. He has antagonized women in their space and caused trouble. Eventually others diffused the tension, and the two left the building.

I was left shaking with my eyes filling just to the brim with tears. This is not what I do. I keep calm in stressful situations. I am a strong leader. I have broken up fights before. But being a counselor to middle school campers is very different from being a first-time volunteer working with adults experiencing homelessness.

"Have you ever worked in this environment before?" asked my angel of the day, Sandra.

Of course I have. I have been doing community service for much of my life. I have served meals, done street outreach, cleaned houses after natural disasters, and built relationships with plenty of people all over the world. I got this.

Nope. Not even close. No. I have not worked with people experiencing homelessness over an extended period of time until this year.

As long-time volunteer, Sandra, showed me the ropes, I tried to process the violence I had just witnessed and learned more about the authority I have as a volunteer. Soon, Cheryl returned to the Radcliffe Room with a police officer in tow. On my first morning of work, I watched a fight break out in front of me and then became a witness in a police report. Not how I imagined the day playing out when I woke up that September morning.

A dynamic I have neglected to mention so far is that Cheryl is a white woman, and her aggressor is a black man. A black police officer was asking me detailed questions about the incident, including the specific shade of the skin of a man I had seen for maybe five minutes. Even though I knew that he had done something wrong, I felt so uncomfortable contributing to putting yet another black man into the prison industrial complex.

Radcliffe Room on a pretty full day
Photo by: James Wall
As it turns out, I have not seen the man since that first day. I honestly would not be able to recognize him if he were to return. However, Cheryl and I have developed a relationship that started when I was able to validate her story to keep her safe. I sat next to Cheryl as she gave a beautiful eulogy at the memorial service for a long-time volunteer. We have discovered that Cheryl is from Kentucky near where I volunteered for two summers. Cheryl has introduced me to her friends, and they are always a welcome light to my early Sunday mornings. 

Even when we feel helpless and incompetent, God is making all things new in this world. Even in the face of sexism and violence, God is with us. Even on our worst days, God sets the stage for redemption and resurrection. Together, as co-creators, we work to bring heaven to earth, to make this world as it should be. The work is difficult. The struggle is long. But together, we shall overcome.

*Name has been changed