Friday, August 29, 2014

Feeding the Five Thousand in Harlem

Last week, we had a week of (dis)orientation at Stony Point Center in Stony Point, New York. It’s only about 30 minutes outside of New York City, so we spent one of our days exploring the city.

We traveled as our small groups of six YAVs and our YAVA (Young Adult Volunteer Alum) facilitator to four different sites in and around the city. Three small groups went to each site. We were sent out to the Presbyterian Office at the United Nations, a Hindu temple in Queens, a Sikh Gurudwara in New Jersey, and Church of The Master in Harlem.

I was in the group that went to the Church of The Master in Harlem. The church developed when white flight caused Morningside Presbyterian Church to close its doors. Rev. Eugene Robinson saw it as an opportunity to begin a new church for the new residents of Morningside Heights in Harlem. Church of The Master was able to use the building to develop what has become a thriving ministry.

We heard about a summer day camp program, the Federal Credit Union that is operated out of the church, the community children’s choir, a young men’s basketball league, and an expansive music and dance ministry.

As we walked from the subway station to the church, we tried our best to “be cool,” as Lydia told us, and not seem like lost tourists. We were some of the only white people walking the streets. As we walked past one street vendor he yelled out to my small group, “Hey white people who speak Spanish and French, this is Harlem. Just because Taye Diggs won’t speak to us doesn’t mean that you can’t!” Don’t ask me what that means. I didn’t know. I still don’t know. We all awkwardly stood at the corner until the light changed and we could walk across the street, but we did not talk to him.

That was the difficult part of this trip. I’m used to smiling, waving, and saying hello to people as I pass them. “Being cool” meant keep your gaze forward, walk with a purpose, and don’t look lost. In work that I’ve done with homeless populations, one of the biggest takeaways has been that we should acknowledge the homeless and not ignore them, as it can feel like an invalidation of humanity if they are invisible to the public. However, I did not know if my greetings would be misinterpreted simply because I am a young white woman. Would it make me more likely to be a victim of pickpocketing? My sentiments may not have been received well due to my privileged status based on my race and the perceptions that come with that. What was the right thing to do? I’m afraid I still don’t know, but that’s ok.

When we arrived to the church, they fed us lunch and began to talk to us about the church. Rev. John Belle is the current pastor who gave us a bit of history about the church. We then heard about the summer day camp and federal credit union from Elder Effie Bynum, the matriarch of the church who has been involved with anything and everything in the church. Elder Rory Scott then told us about his community children’s choir ministry. Lastly, we heard from Elder Will and his involvement in the Harlem Council of Presbyterian Church’s youth basketball league.

One of the first questions we asked was where the name of the church came from. The Church of The Master. Given the history of race relations in the United States, it seemed unusual to me that the African-American congregation would choose to include in the name of their church a word that has such an association with the times of slavery. However, Elder Effie explained to us that it was named Church of The Master (Yes, the T is capitalized) because they only serve one Master, who is God. Anyone who tries to call it Church of The Masters will be swiftly corrected because God is the ultimate Master, and God is One.

The mime and dance ministries incorporate almost every generation in the church. The children dance in the mime ministry. The more experienced women of the church dance in the Silver Streamers ministry. As Rev. Belle put it, “Don’t think that because you see smoke out the chimney that there isn’t a fire in the furnace!” This congregation is definitely dedicated to serving people at every stage in life and throughout the lifetime.

As anyone knows, ministries cost money. Money for supplies, resources, music, food, etc. The really awesome part of this church and all of its ministries is that they do not come out of the church’s budget. A lay member feels a call to start a certain ministry. The member then lets the congregation know of this ministry and the need for funds. Somehow the funds come through in order for the ministry to happen, and it does not affect the church’s operating budget. Time and time again, we heard of examples of this; hence, the title of this blog. When the Spirit wills it, the resources will be there in order to support God’s work in the church, community, and world.

As we heard about all of these ministries, we were sure that the church had to have several hundred or thousand members. Nope. This church has only about 130 members. They take very seriously the idea that whatever God gives, God expects back. It is a church that relies on its strong community as a support system through which they can do God’s work. They truly believe that God will provide, always. It was amazing to see new ideas welcomed and begun so quickly. As Elder Effie put it, “What harm is in new things?” I think that’s a lesson many Presbyterians would do well to learn, including myself. Hope clearly abounds in this church.

Rev. Belle also had some words of wisdom for us as we ventured out into new cultures to live and serve. As he learned from his move from North Carolina to New York City, you don’t have to bite the apple, just nibble. Eventually you will feel comfortable in your community within the greater context and can expand your horizons throughout the city. These are good words for me, a lover of small towns and communities. He also advised us to “Learn the culture, respect the culture, but be your authentic self” and to “Meet people where they are.” These are valuable words for encountering any culture, whether familiar or different.

We ended our time at Church of The Master with a powerful anointing service. Elder Effie, Elder Will, and Rev. Belle came to each table and anointed us with a mixture of frankincense and myrrh by marking us with a cross on our foreheads. I think this was a first experience for some, if not most of us. For me, it was a remembrance of the last, and only, time I was anointed. That time, a woman who went to Duke Divinity School and was in my small group at Triennium 2007 anointed and prayed for me following a fire drill in the building where our small group met. It was the first time I had heard a fire alarm since my house had caught on fire a few months earlier. (For those who don’t know the story, it was only on the porch, and my dad contained it with a garden hose. We were all safe and able to repair the damage.)

During this particular anointing, it served as a commissioning. The wonderful people we met at Church of The Master were sending us out to our volunteer sites with love, prayers, and blessings. Rev. Belle prayed as we stood in a circle, holding hands. During the prayer, he mentioned the words of one of my favorite hymns. God has asked, “Whom shall I send?” We have answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

Monday, August 25, 2014


Tonight ends this wonderful week that I have had to build community with my fellow Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) and be inundated with information that will be useful in this year of service.

We closed with an amazingly powerful worship service. As many of you know, music is a big part of my life. I love to sing and be moved by music of all kinds. As many of you may not know, my love language is Words of Affirmation. This, combined with my love of music, makes lyrics of songs extremely important to me. Here is a collection of lyrics from tonight's service that were particularly meaningful to my spiritual experience in this service. None of these lyrics are mine, and some pieces come from other countries and cultures.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me.
Your right hand will hold me fast.
-Psalm 139

During the Invitation for Communion:

"Please join as we sing as they have through the ages...

Sanna sannanina, sanna, sanna, sanna!!"

Take, O take me as I am,
Summon out what I shall be,
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.
-Take, O Take Me As I Am

Let the rains go,
Let the healing river flow,
Let justice roll like water.
Let the days begin,
When new life enters in,
And let your kingdom come.
-Prayers of the People

This is the moment,
This is the moment,
This is the moment, now,
This is the moment,
This is the moment,
This is the moment,
And it belongs to God

Este momento,
Este momento,
Es el momento en punto,
Este momento,
Este momento,
Este momento,
Es el momento.
-Este momento, This is the Moment

This last one has become such a central part of my spiritual and religious life and my discernment journey. We sang it at the end of the discernment event in March where I found out about my site placement in the Philippines, and it truly stuck with a group of us. After worship, a group of us took a guitar outside and sang together at the top of our lungs this wonderful song.

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the "you" you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.
-The Summons

This last part is a collection of phrases from worship that stuck with me and will comfort me as I live this year.

Richard Williams, the director of the YAV Program, served in the Philippines and shared a story with us tonight that someone else told him as he was about to leave. "You will go there (the Philippines in my case), and your heart will be broken. But God will be there with you to fill it again."

We recognized each site and presented them with prayer cards that we have been signing all week. Then, we confirmed our commitment to this unbelievable community with the words "Go with God and with the love of this community."

I have now been commissioned five different times for the work of this year. I am feeling so humbled by the incredible sense of mutual support from each of these commissions. Each faith community is different and knows me in a different context, but I am constantly amazed by the words from two of these commissions: "Serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, relying on God's mercy and rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit!"

It's time to go out with joy, peace, humility, and love.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A New Religious Experience

As many of you know, I worked as a camp counselor at Bethelwoods Camp and Conference Center in York, SC, this summer. The week of July 4th, we had a different sort of camp experience. The high school youth program of Covenant Love Church in Fayetteville, NC, brought about 150 high school students to camp Saturday-Tuesday.

They had been setting up at the end of the previous week, and I could hear their worship team practicing in Horton Lodge late into the night every night. It sounded like we had a concert or huge music festival at camp, something I've never heard in my 15 years at Bethelwoods.

I had heard that this was a different sort of church, different from my strong Presbyterian roots or anything I had ever experienced before. I was a little skeptical about what this would mean, but I was open to showing extreme Christian hospitality to a group that was using our facilities.

We would help to serve them meals and facilitate activities for the kids each afternoon. Many of the leaders were college students, like me, who cared about sharing God's love with youth, like me. They had a passion for the kids and for the ministry they were doing, like me. However, the youth and leaders were also different. This was the first time I could truly be a fly on the wall and observe a truly multicultural and multiracial church. I saw so many different tints of pigmentation that were not simply fair, pale, or tan. It was a breath of fresh air to see what the Church could be. Clearly, it was a successful ministry. How else do you convince 150 high schoolers from all different backgrounds to go to a camp three hours away for a few days to be outside and, you know, learn about Jesus and stuff like that? Crazy talk.

Monday night was the final night of worship, and a few of the staff decided to head over to at least check out this contemporary and charismatic worship service we had heard so much about. I was open to what would happen because I can find nothing but benefit from experiencing different religions or expressions of faith; however, I came to the service with a certain amount of skepticism. I was open but ready to critique and analyze anything I saw.

We lingered toward the back as the worship team played songs and the words were projected onto a screen. So far it was a typical contemporary service. The folding chairs were filled. People swayed with the music with their hands at various levels in the air, and a group of youth were at the front jumping up and down, sometimes yelling and screaming, worshipping together as if they were at a concert. Again, not my personal preference of worship method, but I was not there to judge. If I want to take myself seriously in any form of interfaith dialogue, I know I need to be open to experiencing Christian traditions that are not my own. It was with this attitude that I began to observe and then participate in the worship service.

As I read the words on the screen, I could find no fault, theological, factual, or spiritual, in them. We sang, asking the Holy Spirit to be in this space of worship. I agree with that. We sang, asking the Holy Spirit to break down our walls so that we could fully experience the Spirit's presence. We all have walls and barriers that we need to allow God to break down. We sang about God's love and our love for God. That's a pretty key foundation of my faith. So far, I was feeling pretty comfortable.

Then, the music continued in the background, and leaders of the church came into the crowd to pray with/over worshipers. A leader would talk with the person very closely before asking to pray for them, always asking consent. Another person would move chairs and other obstacles out of the way and stand ready to spot the person if/when they fell to the ground. I was amazed by what was happening. It seemed as though everyone ended up on the ground in positions that seemed unnatural to me. I was somewhat skeptical of this because I did not, and still do not, fully understand the theology behind this practice. At the same time, my heart yearned for someone to come pray over me. Even if I had never experienced prayer in this way, it was still apparent that it was powerful.

Eventually, the leaders made it back to our safe counselor corner. They knew that we had just drifted into the service and probably had never experienced worship and prayer like this before. Eventually, one of the leaders made his way to me and asked if he could pray for me. I said sure. He told me that I didn't know why I had wandered into their service but that God had called me to be here for this experience on this particular night. I should write this down that night (Monday, June 30th, 2014) and make sure to tell people what God did for and through me that night.

Well, I'm about 6 weeks late, but I think it still counts.

I still did not know exactly what this night held in store for me. He held my head and a woman had her arm on my upper chest/shoulder area. Both of them prayed over me with such conviction, and yes, sometimes they spoke in tongues. I did not fall backwards or lay down on the ground. I did feel an intense spiritual presence in this time, though. I cannot explain it, but I believed his words.

After they had a chance to get to each of the staff, the youth pastor gathered us and thanked us for coming to check out their worship even though it may be strange and/or different from our comfort zone of worship. He was not speaking some crazy talk. He had biblical passages to support his arguments, but he was not pushy. It was actually quite comforting.

Later in the service, I felt myself becoming quite emotional. It was clear that God was telling me something. I moved to a chair, sat down, and burst into tears. Sometimes God puts things on your heart that you are not ready or willing to face. God was telling me to face my fears and anxieties about my year serving in the Philippines. I cried and cried. This was the first time that I had actually allowed myself to think about the tragic possibilities of my year of service. I could be swept away in a typhoon. I could fall off a jeepney and die. I could miss a significant life event in my friends' or families' lives in a year. I could find it difficult to do my work or lose sight of God or feel absolutely and completely alone in a new culture. I could get sick from food or some virus to which my body is not accustomed. I knew that no matter what, God would (and will be) with me through any and all of these scenarios, and that I would never be alone truly. However, this was my time to acknowledge these fears that I had pushed out of my mind whenever I thought about the Philippines or anyone asked me if I was scared. After I cried it out, I remained in my seat to continue to observe the service.

I didn't know what I was going to get into as I watched the next part of the service. They started talking about Baptism in the Holy Spirit and how certain people receive this gift. They asked anyone who wanted to be prayed over to come to the front to meet with a leader. I saw two other staff members, my friends, walk to the front. I decided to go up, but I was just going to watch.

Not quite.

One of the leaders asked me if I was heading to the front. I explained I just wanted to watch. He asked me if I wanted someone to pray over me. Hesitating, I said, "Sure?" He then led me to the front and brought me to a prayer leader. She explained what was going to happen and told me to raise my hands, close my eyes, and let myself be open to the Spirit. I felt a hand on my stomach, my shoulder, and head. I knew multiple people were around me, and I heard lots of speaking in English, as well as other sounds. As I stood there, I tried to be open. I felt my arms kind of go numb, but I could not put them down. I definitely felt a presence of some sort within me. Eventually, I let out something that sounded a bit like the gibberish I speak with my friend Julie. After a while, we stopped praying like that, but I still felt an overwhelming sense of the Spirit. I continued to pray silently.

At the end of the service, they asked all to stand who had been baptized by the Holy Spirit. They also asked for people who had given their lives to Christ and wanted to be baptized. We headed over to the pool, and I lifeguarded for the baptisms of 40 people. Some were students. Some were leaders. Some were re-dedications, Some were for the first time.

Now is this fully in line with my personal theology and faith? Does it really matter? It was clear that a religious experience occurred during that worship service. Hopefully, that will lead to lives changed for the better in order to further God's will in this world. That is what matters.

I am still a skeptic, but in that night, I experienced God in a new way. Nothing can change my mind about that. I believe I will have to take this understanding and expand it on a case-by-case basis. For this instance, though, I could find no theological fault with the preachings and teachings. I did not observe anyone forced into anything or any condescending tones if people did not have the same experiences. I observed and participated in a group of people worshipping God in a way that was different from what I normally do. I now have a newfound respect for different expressions of worship to the Triune God.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

12 Days and Counting

For those of you following the transient life of Angela Williams, here is an update.

As of July 31, 2014, the YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) office has received $6,395 in contributions toward my year of service!!!!

This means that I have surpassed my individual fundraising goal of $4,000 and have contributed $2,395 to our team goal of $20,000 (an additional $4,000 per volunteer going to the Philippines). That is super exciting, and I am beyond grateful for each and every one of you who has shown financial support so far. I am really behind on writing my thank you notes due to this little commitment of mine called camp. I'm sorry, the children demanded more of my attention and energy, but I promise I will get those out in the next week and a half!

For those of you who have not yet donated but would like to, please click here. Don't worry about getting it in before I leave. You can continue to support me financially throughout my YAV year.

Now for some logistics. On Monday, August 18, I will fly from Charlotte to Chicago to Newark to end up in Stony Point, New York, for a week of YAV orientation. From what I know, it will be much like the discernment event was in March, where I found out that I was going to the Philippines. We will have lots of personal and group time to process and prepare for the year of service with a wonderful support system of other YAVs from each site, YAVA (YAV alums), YAV staff members, and other representatives from the PC(USA) community. I am excited to reconnect with the people I met at the discernment event and meet all of the other YAVs who will be serving this year.

Monday, August 25, I will leave for the Philippines with my four other YAV companions who will be serving with me. Seventeen hours of flying and three hours of a layover in Tokyo later, I will be in Manila. Unfortunately, that is not our destination. We will then have to travel by air, possibly sea, and land in order to get to Dumaguete.

I have finally received some more information about the work I will be doing throughout this year. I will be working with the National Heroes Institute, a Christian school located in Kananga, Leyte. Google Maps told me it was a 5 hour trip northeast from Dumaguete to Kananga, which involves driving and two ferry trips. Needless to say, I don't think I will be living in Dumaguete as I serve this school. Kananga is across the island from Tacloban City, which was wiped away by Typhoon Yolanda. The storm also did significant damage to the school by destroying many of its classrooms. If you want to know more about NHI, watch this video, which features my supervisor, Dobert Moriles.

I do not know exactly what work I will be doing in the school, but I am still very excited! Dessa, my site coordinator with YAV, told me that I am God's answer to their prayers because of my background in religion and psychology. I would call NHI the answer to my prayers, as I know God will use this experience to guide me on my journey of vocational discernment. I am already thinking about how I can use my camp counselor experience in a school setting. I wonder what different vegetables Filipino children would come up with if I taught them the vegetable game. How can I incorporate the camp fire experience (read: songs) into a classroom? Will sleeping lions still work to get the younger ones to rest? What games and songs can the children teach me? Is this God urging me to pursue Christian Education along with the Master of Divinity in seminary?

These answers and more to be answered in a later blog post.

Now to get away from the soap opera style.

This summer, and more so this week, I have started to acknowledge my anxieties toward this adventure. Those range anywhere from fears of being washed away in another super typhoon to making sure I don't pack too many t-shirts. For most of the summer, I simply pushed those thoughts away. I didn't have time to think about them or worry about the future because the day-to-day happenings at camp took up my time, energy, and attention. However, I did have a pretty unique religious experience this summer that forced me to acknowledge and at least partially process my nerves. That experience will be coming out in a blog post a little later this week.

Until then, salaam, peace, and shalom, my friends. May God's grace follow you wherever you may go.