Monday, June 23, 2014

Update on the Philippines

As many of you know, I will be spending the next year serving as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in the Philippines. This is a wonderful program through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that I am proud to call my own. I will be leaving for a week-long orientation in Stony Point, NY, on August 18th. On August 25th, I will leave New York for the Philippines, which includes a 3-hour layover in Tokyo (which is cool because I can technically add another country to my list!).

During my year of service, I will likely be working with child development centers in and around Dumaguete City. The structure of the year includes a month-long orientation, three-month homestay, and living on my own or with other YAVs in an apartment.

The program expects us to "live simply," which I completely buy into. In order to do this, we receive small stipends relative to our sites and costs of living. Another part of the program consists of building support before we leave. We are building up our cloud of witnesses who will support us through prayers, pledges, and gifts and who will share in this wonderful journey with us.

It costs around $24,000-$28,000 to send one volunteer abroad for a year. Thankfully YAV and PC(USA) absorb most of these costs. However, as YAVs, we are expected to raise $4,000 of support as individuals and to work toward a team goal. The team goal depends on the number of YAVs assigned to a site. I actually just recently learned that we will have 5 YAVs in the Philippines, two more than the 3 I expected. The team goal is an additional $4,000 per volunteer after the required $4,000 of individual support. The deadlines we were given were that we needed to raise $2,000 by July 15, 2014 and $4,000 by January 1, 2015.

This week I received my first fundraising update since I started at the beginning of May.

I am ecstatic to announce that I have already achieved my individual fundraising goal!!! As of Friday, June 20, 2014, I have received $4,915 in support for my YAV year!!!

This is absolutely wonderful news! I am so thankful to everyone who has already pledged their support, financial or prayerful, and to those who have yet to give their support.

Tonight, I was at worship at Bethelwoods. Our worship leader gave a message on creation and community. He told us about how the largest trees in the world, the redwood trees in California, grow so large, yet have such shallow root systems. They support themselves by intertwining their roots with the roots of the trees around them. He also addressed the belief (that I share) that God doesn't give you anything you can't handle. He added onto that by saying that God also expects others to help you.

That is exactly what has happened here. I am so incredibly grateful for everyone I know, and even some I don't, who have used their resources to support my YAV year. I feel so supported and loved right now. I know that it with God's help that I am doing this year of service and that God's will is working through so many people who feel a call to support me, this experience, and this program.

This is still just the beginning! The next goal is getting to the $20,000 team goal!

Thank you so much for your prayers, well wishes, and support. It is truly a blessing to have such a network.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I Should Be Dead

It has been almost a year since the day I should have died. It was Friday, June 21, 2013. I was on a camping trip with some of the counselors from Camp Shawnee, the camp in Eastern Kentucky that I volunteered with for the past two summers. We had driven out to the Whale's Watch overlook at Red River Gorge in Kentucky. I had been there the year before and found a great quiet place about 20 feet directly under the main overlook. I had decided to go back to that place. As I was coming out to return to the group, I heard seven of our group of eleven counselors calling to us to come back up. They were ready to leave. I had come around the rock to find three other counselors a little lower than the main overlook. The only thing separating me from them was a 30 foot rock face. I talked to one of the counselors who knew my abilities and experiences the best and asked him if he thought I could/should come across the face that way. He said it would be a lot of small fingerholds, but he thought I could do it. About 20 minutes later, I find myself about two-thirds of the way across this rock face and in the following position.

My dear friend Owen took this picture moments before my ~30 foot fall
As you can see, I am not using any equipment. I have no harness, no cables, no ropes, no nothing. It was a very dangerous situation. I was definitely foolish not to turn back to find a safer way to get back to my friends. I let my ego and desire to please others get in the way of my safety. I didn't want to keep them waiting, so I wanted to take the quickest route to reunite with the group. Clearly that did not end well for me this time.

Eventually, I exhausted my physical and mental strength holding on to that rock for dear life (literally). I had held on waiting for my friend to come closer to spot me and advise me on the next moves. Unfortunately, it took too much for me just to stand in that one "safe" spot. I did not have the energy or trust in my own abilities to make it over the protruding rock to my left.

When I fell, I hit my legs on a rock that was wedged between this rock face and the neighboring one. People who watched the fall (I'm still sorry that you had to see that Greg, Owen, and Eleasha.) say that rock acted as a spring board for my body. I fell again to a second rock below, where I hit my chin, arm, and the right side of my rib cage. From that point, my friend who was chasing me as I fell says he could not see how I landed. I remember tumbling a bit until my feet got stuck in a slanted position enough to stop my body. Once they stopped, my body completely slumped into itself. I was knocked unconscious for about 30 seconds as my friend tried to scramble safely to get to me.

As I regained consciousness, I started moaning. My lifeguarding/first aid skills went into action. I didn't move anything for fear of a head/neck/back injury. I cautiously moved my fingers and toes so I knew I was not paralyzed without disturbing my spinal cord. Eventually I was able to examine myself and stand up on my own. Nothing was broken or severely sprained or strained. I was covered in blood and dirt. My clothes had holes torn in them from the jagged rock I landed on. My red string from Tsfat was torn from my wrist during the fall.

After a 45 minute walk/hike to try to find a way to get back up the now ~50 feet to the top of the overlook and the rest of the group, we made it to the van where my wonderful friends bandaged my scrapes, tried to stop the bleeding (which was only from surface scrapes), and made a sling for my arm, which prevented me from hurting my bruised ribs.
Walking in as-is to the Emergency Room in Lexington, KY

I was immediately thankful to be alive. I coped with the pain and shock by talking and joking. Whenever I stopped that, I would feel the pain. A very long night later, I was back at camp with no concussion, broken bones, nothing worse than a bruised tailbone and ribs, and some surface scrapes.

Humor was the best coping mechanism for this situation

It was a miracle.

I did not believe in guardian angels. Now, I have to. There is absolutely no way that I made it out of that accident with relatively no injuries without some divine intervention.

That fall has definitely impacted my life since that day. In camp circles, it's a good fun fact and perhaps the best story I have so far. In school/the real world, it doesn't really come up. I thought I had dealt with the emotions of that day and given my thanks to God for saving my life enough last summer.

Until I got to staff training at Bethelwoods. I went to write in my journal the second night of staff training. The last entry was from the middle of July 2013, when I tried to journal about the experience. For whatever reason, I had not finished the story. I decided to finish writing and processing it that night.

I still thought I was good. Completely processed. Nothing left to see here.

Boy, I was wrong.

Today, we did the high ropes course for training. I've done this course plenty of times before. I'm not afraid of heights. I trust myself, my lobster claws, the ropes, my facilitators, and the trees. I felt rushed today. I was the last to go up in the trees. I did not put on the butt strap of my harness, which caused my leg loop to slip a little bit throughout the course. I was careless. I tried to start climbing up the tube net before my partner got there. I was impatient.

After lunch we processed the high ropes course. I've also done that plenty of times. However, this time it hit me like a ton of bricks. All of the real world and faith applications also fit with my experience last summer. I climbed out on that rock face alone. With no support. Yes, I had friends who cared about me around, but I had complete trust in myself to get across that rock face. I had left God, my support (harness, ropes, etc.) behind. I truly realized how much I had messed up on that risk management.

I was thinking about what would have happened had Jacquie been on site. First, she would have killed me. Just like Julie and so many of the other staff from the past three summers would have done had they seen what I was doing.

I had messed up so much. So why is it that I was spared? Why was I allowed to live? Why did God save me from impending doom? Earlier, I believed it was because he has a greater plan for my life. It was not my time to die.

This year, I have experienced way too many (and one is too many) deaths of young people, both near and far to me. Gus Deeds. Kelsey Durkin. Lara Gass. Eric Alter. Hendon Poe.

Each of these deaths has affected me on varying levels. Each of these deaths (as well as the lives these people lived) is different. It wasn't until tonight that I truly understood a greater reason why I was so deeply affected by the loss of these wonderful young people.

I should be with them. I should not still be on this earth today. But I am. I am still alive because this omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God I love has some sort of plan. Not that Gus, Kelsey, Lara, Eric, and Hendon did not have bright futures. I just know that as a human, I cannot fathom or even try to understand God's full plan for the universe and each of us. For whatever reason, I am still here, though. The same God who created the entirety of the universe did not let me die on that mountain.


I don't know. I can't know. All I can do is be thankful. All I can do is hope that I live a life that is even partially in accordance with God's will. All I can do is count the many blessings I have experienced and will continue to experience because of God. It is because of God's amazing and wondrous grace and love that I am here today. Everything that has happened in the past year may not have happened had I not been saved that Friday last June.

Tonight for staff worship, we wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and burned them together. I was already becoming a mess before we even started writing. I was simply so overwhelmed with emotion and feeling God's love for me.

As we waited for everyone to finish, I realized that had God not saved me that day, I would not have returned to my home. I would not have met all of these fantastic staff members. I was so appreciative for the hugs, back rubs, gentle squeezes, and all signs of comfort I felt from everyone around me. We have been together for a week. Already, I feel God's love surrounding each and every one of us. I feel Christ's light shining through each of us to others. I know that whenever I am down or emotional, I have people to go to, as well as people who will know to leave me to cry alone whenever I need it. This is what makes camp beautiful.

I'm so excited to continue to discern God's will in my life for the present, the immediate future, and the distant future. Praise be to God who loves and cares for all of God's children.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Originally written Wednesday, April 23, 2014.

Yesterday, Tuesday, April 22, 2014, a VMI senior took his life. This marks the third student death in Lexington this year. The first, Kelsey Durkin, a Washington and Lee undergraduate senior, lost her life in a drunk driving accident December 3, 2013. The second was Lara Gass, a third year law student at W&L who was killed in a car accident on I-81 on March 18, 2014. The most recent was Eric Alter, who was supposed to graduate, commission as a second lieutenant in the Marines, and get married to a brilliant W&L senior in the next two months. It has truly been a tragic year for students in Lexington. Each of the university communities has experienced a great and untimely loss.

Fortunately, we are all members of a strong community. Divisions and differences may exist from day to day, but we all come together in times of crisis. That is the beauty of humanity. As I reflect on each of these deaths individually and as a whole, I do not wish to say that any loss is more or less tragic than another. It is impossible to put a measure on the worth and value of any human life. Each loss brings with it certain questions and misunderstandings. At the heart of this is "Why?" Why would this happen to Eric, Lara, or Kelsey? How could God/a superior being/the universe let this happen? How could anyone deserve to experience this? At the end of the day, I don't know. I cannot know. No one can.

Death, loss, grief is so difficult to deal with, particularly in the case of young people. Definitely in the case of suicide. As a part of the grieving process, we can ask ourselves, "What if?" What if I could have done more to prevent it? We can torture ourselves with these two words.

As can be expected, I was most affected by Kelsey's death, and I still am. I took some time to mourn Lara's passing, but it did not severely affect my functioning. I simply did not have a connection to her. I was in shock and numb upon hearing of Eric's death. I had heard of suicides at VMI before, but not someone my year. Not someone my friends knew. Not someone who was engaged to a fellow senior psychology major. Not someone who seemed to have so much to live for. Each of these students had so much going for them. Each was set to graduate with me in May. Each life was cut so short.

Up to this point in my life, I feel that I have dealt with plenty of death, too much in my opinion. However, I know that it is only going to continue. Such is life...and death. It never gets any easier. It never makes any more sense. How do you continue to try to make sense of the nonsensical?

Interestingly enough, God always finds a way to make the Spirit's presence known. Sunday was Easter, and I went to two church services. My dad gave a wonderful Easter sermon on not living in fear, despite the fact that we have so much we can be afraid of. This is a sentiment that I have been fortunate enough to experience and learn from both of my parents in all of my life experiences so far. We then went to Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church, my home church for the second service. Our interim pastor, Bill Wood, gave a different sermon that focused on 1 Corinthians 15:12-17. He emphasized that if Christ were not raised, then all preaching and faith is in vain, and we are still living in sin. The tone of his message was a bit more somber than what I expected from an Easter sermon. He mentioned two stories of pastors who had family members die unexpectedly and their reactions to those deaths. I had come to the service expecting a more optimistic sermon about the joy of Jesus's resurrection. Little did I know that the sermon would thankfully stick with me and help me to process the events of this week.

Today, I had the great fortune to visit Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. It was an absolutely wonderful time of learning, discernment, and getting to know the welcoming community. I was able to participate in their weekly community worship service. It was a vibrant service with a great variety of music and a powerful sermon given by a graduating student. He began with a metaphor of graves as books. We try to fill something as huge as a life into a small grave and a whole story into the pages of a book. As we read books, we become invested in the characters and eagerly turn the pages to read more of the story. However, as we near the end, we realize the inevitable end of the characters' lives when the pages end, and we place the book on a shelf somewhere. Maybe we come back to flip through the book in remembrance of those characters' adventures, but it is only a memory. Much in the way that we visit the gravestones of loved ones to remember their lives and legacies.

Mark's gospel "ends" (This is up for scholarly debate. At Union, apparently Frances says it ends at verse 8.) with Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome afraid after finding the tomb empty and not telling anyone of Jesus's resurrection. His explanation for Mark ending here is that he acknowledges that it is scary to deal with Jesus's resurrection. Mark does not give us that resolution for a reason (so others had to fill in the gaps to give the resolution because we can't handle not having closure). He then challenged the students, staff, and faculty to face the fear of the resurrection, to keep alive the Easter story into the Easter season that only begins with Easter Sunday. It is our job to continue to show the joy of Christ's resurrection throughout the world after the church service ends every spring. All of these messages brought together in these few days have truly given me the tools to be able to process Eric's death.

One of the most memorable sermons I have ever heard was given by Laura Smith Conrad many years ago. She challenged us to treat every person we met as though they were Jesus. See the face of Jesus in all those around you. If only we did that, how this world would be different. If we reacted to every death the way that we react to Jesus's death and resurrection, it wouldn't make it so much easier, but it may be a more positive coping mechanism. If we learned from their legacy and lessons they taught us and told the world how they changed our lives for the better. Life goes on, and we should remember them by remembering and living out the lessons they taught us, not by dwelling on what we cannot change. We have hope and joy from having faith that we will see them again.