Thursday, May 21, 2015

Energy, Intelligence, Imagination, and Love

One year ago today, Rev. John Cleghorn spoke at the Baccalaureate Service at Washington and Lee University. Rev. Cleghorn is a W&L alum and PC(USA) pastor at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. That information alone should tell you how much his message spoke to my soul. One year ago, I was saying see you later to a place I had called home for four years and a community that had become a family, one I have not seen since then. Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you... I was looking forward to a summer working at the camp where I grew up before taking off 9,000 miles around the world to live and serve in the Philippines for a year.

As he closed his remarks, Rev. Cleghorn commissioned us into the world to work toward the common good. As a good Presbyterian minister, he asked us one of the questions standard in ordaining Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders (officers and pastors in non-Presby speak).

Will you conduct yourself with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

The entire class of 2014 was standing, and most did not know exactly how to respond to this question. I firmly stated, "I will," while my Williams sister beside me enthusiastically proclaimed, "Yes!" In order to hold us accountable, Rev. John asked us to put an event in our phone for one year from that date as a check in. Have you conducted yourself with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

These words followed me at least once as various church bodies commissioned me to this year in the Philippines. Serving as a bridge connecting my W&L experience and my YAV experience, this question helps to confirm that I am where God wants me to be. I hope and pray that it continues to follow me through another YAV year and the ordination process.

For me to say that I have acted with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love every single moment of every single day since that Baccalaureate Service would be a bold-faced lie. However, I have striven to live intentionally and communally to work toward the greater good. That involves working to be in right relationship with others and with God. It means struggling with the ways that we are complicit in systems that keep people poor, deprived, oppressed, marginalized, exploited, and suffering. It is thinking critically and asking questions. On the other hand, it also includes being fully present with others during moments when the Kingdom of God is truly at hand.

The road from May 21, 2014 to May 21, 2015 has not always been easy. More often than not it has been like a back road in Rockbridge County with unexpected twists, turns, hills, and bridges that go over one lane of the interstate and under the other lane. It has not always made sense, but it has been a journey. In the words of Stephen Paulus, "There's no such beauty as where you belong." For right now, this is where I belong. Here's to more years of working toward the common good with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Most of my wonderful, loving family at my graduation last year. Missing Rachel and all of you! See you in 2 months, 10 days!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How I Got to Where I'm Going


For the 2015-2016 year, I will be serving a second year as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, DC!

For the next significant life change, I have decided to let my trusty toothbrush make the decision for me!

At the Seminary Fair during YAV Orientation, every school gave out "Seminary Swag." This trusty travel toothbrush has accompanied me everywhere that wasn't home this year.

That’s right, I will move to Austin, Texas, to begin my seminary studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary! I am interested in pursuing the four-year dual degree program for the Master of Divinity and Master of Science in Social Work with University of Texas at Austin.

Most of the time, I can’t keep a secret or wait to announce big news to save my life. I decided on Austin during Holy Week, but I didn’t want to announce anything until I finished the YAV discernment process. That may have been the longest I’ve ever kept mum about anything.

One of the central tenets of the YAV program is vocational discernment. Those of you reading this are counted in my wonderful support system, and I just wanted to share with you a little bit about my call and discernment process.

As a cradle Presbyterian and Pastor’s kid (PK), the church has always felt like home to me, perhaps a bit too much at times. I was active in anything and everything related to church from kindergarten through high school, including being the obnoxious kid in Sunday School who always won Bible trivia. I first felt the call to follow in my dad’s footsteps and go to seminary when I was about twelve years old. Throughout high school and college, many church members asked me when I was starting seminary (Some of them now feel that their prophecies have been fulfilled…looking at you, Sally Herlong ;) ).

During my years at Washington and Lee, I was a little less plugged in to the Presbyterian Church, but that gave me more opportunities to explore other ways of being the church. Throughout my two summers volunteering with Christian Appalachian Project, I learned more about the Catholic tradition, intentional community, and a year of service. Studying abroad in Jerusalem introduced interfaith relations and Modern Hebrew to me. (But now I’ll be the obnoxious kid in Hebrew class who writes in script letters rather than block. No one will be in my study group.) All of these awesome communities helped to pave the way to my post-graduate path. First stop: the YAV program.

Senior year brought a plethora of opportunities. I could go anywhere and do anything. I had already traveled to the places I had dreamed of visiting for years (Thanks, W&L Study Abroad!). I was pretty set on moving somewhere new and doing a year of volunteering before seminary. I applied to multiple yearlong volunteer programs, but YAV was clearly where I would find my home. I did not want to have to narrow my choices down. I felt God would act through others to show me where to go, since I had not felt any sort of significant pull in any direction. I was open to anywhere doing anything.

Obviously I ended up in a small rural town in the Philippines, serving as a Guidance Counselor at National Heroes Institute, a private school associated with United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

That openness to anywhere and anything bled into this year and the seminary application process. Having internet access, albeit a slow connection, gave me the sign that it was time to start applying. As I applied to 9 seminaries and at least 4 degree programs, I kept waiting for some sort of sign from God about where I should go and what I should do. Every application asked which areas of ministry you are considering for a vocation. My answer for every one of these questions was a laundry list of just about any ministry…except parish ministry. Working in a church in the traditional sense, as in preaching every Sunday, has never quite piqued my interest. I am much more drawn to the amazing work happening outside of the four walls of the church. I hadn’t really considered or planned on a second YAV year so I thought I would just go straight to seminary in the fall.

Then November 8 happened. It was the one-year anniversary after Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan hit the Philippines. I was in Tacloban with three other volunteers and my host family at an ecumenical service marking the anniversary. Thousands of people attended the service and subsequent march to city hall. To my knowledge, my volunteer friends and I were the only white people in attendance. I definitely felt like I did not belong, but I wanted to show my solidarity and anger that the government has not released the billions of pesos of international aid designated to help in the recovery efforts. Immediately after the service ended, the people got to work. This was a huge undertaking. An estimated 20,000 people from Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao had organized to take a stand and show that they would not accept a corrupt and irresponsible government. A woman standing on top of a Jeepney armed with a megaphone called out the groups as they began the procession.

In that moment, I finally felt a call, a pull, a nudge, however you want to word it. In contrast to all of my openness from the previous processes, I finally felt something stronger, something definite. God was telling me this is what I want you to do. You are going to work in activism, advocacy, and community organizing. I want you to speak truth to power. I want you to be an active participant in movements to end injustice and open space for my kingdom to come here and now. Wow. Talk about powerful.

That night, I immediately started looking at YAV sites that would offer those opportunities. I knew I was going to do a second YAV year. Washington, DC, stood out to me instantly. What better place to speak truth to power than in one of the most powerful cities in the world? As I continue through this year and discerning God’s call, I feel pulled to work for the church at a mid-council or denominational level. I truly believe that this next year of service will be a wonderful opportunity to gain experience working with the larger body of the church. 

Even though my original “call experience” was in the middle of a grassroots on the ground demonstration, I am fully aware of and prepared to do the less romantic behind-the-scenes work that is writing letters, making phone calls, doing research, garnering support, and visiting offices. Earlier this year I read David LaMotte’s new book Worldchanging 101, and his approach to social change resonated with me. 

Aside: I recommend his book to anyone and everyone. If you will be, are, or were a YAV (or not), read the book. If you are graduating (or not), read the book. If you feel stuck in a rut (or not), read the book. It’s wonderful, and I can’t give him enough praise on challenging the traditional narratives pervasive in our society. It’s not about being a hero or a strong leader. It’s about movements, which need many people doing all sorts of things, some of which are small and boring. We all have a call and something we can do, and it’s about taking the first step of showing up. Seriously, read this book.

I am so excited, overwhelmed, inspired, motivated, and slightly anxious for what this next year of service holds. I hope that you will continue to follow me, as I will struggle through navigating reverse culture shock, a new form of intentional community, and the DC bus system. I will also need to raise support for this year of service. I am so appreciative for all of the wonderful emails, Christmas cards, and financial gifts I have received for this year. They have truly helped me persevere on this journey. Next year, I will need to raise $3,000 for my site individually, and I hope we can add an additional $3,000 toward a team goal. I will publicize more details about how to give once I receive that information.

As for the rest of my seminary discernment, I decided that I would pursue the MDiv/MSSW dual degree program, which narrowed my choices down to five schools. In January, I knew that Austin had everything I was looking for in a school and city. I got to the point that I even asked myself, “If you like it so much, why don’t you just go there?” Typically, I rely on a methodical process of elimination, or at least waiting for the information (like acceptance and financial aid) needed to make that decision, so that was a pretty revolutionary thought for me!

As I continued to have conversations with so many people about my discernment process, I kept returning to a conversation I had during YAV Orientation. During the seminary fair, I met Holly Clark-Porter, an alumna who was representing Austin Seminary. We had a fruitful conversation, during which she told me, “You belong at Austin.” I remembered these words as Holly and her wife Kaci were in the news in March for their joint ordination service. These awesome women are making history, and now I have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps in Austin. I am so excited to join the community, and I am equally thankful for the opportunities I have had at General Assembly and YAV Orientation to meet future, current, and former students of the Austin Seminary community.

These next few years will be full of challenges, joy, tears, laughter, music, growing, changing, refining, learning, and a whole lot more! Even though it seems like I have done a significant amount of vocational discernment, this is only the beginning. I have only figured out the next steps, which is all I need for now. Plus, this five-year plan is more than I have had “figured out” since eighth grade.

Thanks for the love, support, prayers, and reading, friends.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Not Quite a Poop Story

It's been a little while since I've given an update on my life in the Philippines. For that, I apologize. During February and March, I got pretty busy with the end of the school year, and I wasn't feeling too inspired to write anything. Then everything got crazy! With the exception of Holy Week, I have not spent more than 4 nights in the same place since March 23. I promise I have plenty of stories and reflections to share regarding graduation, Holy Week, hanging out with some pastors' kids, communication struggles, a wedding, family vacation, and finally feeling like I belong in my community and family. I will try to make some time this month to put these thoughts into blog form. Hopefully, I can also share some exciting news in the next few weeks!

It is fairly common knowledge that anyone who does a year with the YAV program will end up with a poop story, or multiple poop stories. While I could tell you a few stories about excrement, I think this one is a bit more entertaining, and a friend recently suggested this story was worthy of sharing.

I figured it fits in chronological order and requires a lot less critical analysis than some of the posts I hope to write next. So here goes!

We had our third YAV retreat in Palawan, an island that deservedly makes a lot of the "Most Beautiful Places on Earth" lists that make the rounds on the internet. We stayed in Sabang, where the famed Underground River attracts tourists from all over the globe every day. This beach had the finest, most beautiful sand I have seen so far in the Philippines. The big blue waves crashed into the shore with enough strength to pull strong swimmers away from land, evidenced by the red "No Swimming" flags we saw all week. This was no place to relax and float the day away in calm waters.

The majestic mountain, beautiful coconut trees, continuous waves, and jagged sea rocks that captured our awe throughout our retreat

Instead, we opted for hanging in hammocks and sitting in the smooth sand. In a move that was half inspired by the part of me that remains five years old and half motivated by a desire for the smooth skin that only sand exfoliation can offer, I decided to start burying myself in the lovely sediment. I burrowed my heels into the ground so it would be easier to cover my feet. I pushed the grains to the sides of my legs and eventually on top of them. Eventually most of my lower body was buried by the sand, and I had managed to get patches of sand all over my upper body, as well.

We were heading to dinner soon, so I decided to leave our group to rinse off as much sand in the ocean as I could before showering. This is where I really start channeling my younger years at the beach. I frolicked into the crashing waves and started to try to scrub each grain off of my body. I forgot one important factor in burying yourself in sand: those pesky particles get into any and every individual crevice on the human body. It took some serious effort to clean myself off, but I was enjoying every minute of it. I had to bend over to try to reach my shoulders and back, which inevitably ended in me tumbling over as a strong wave rolled me over. Then I was back to sitting in the very substance of which I was attempting to rid myself! Oh well. I laughed it off and renewed my endeavor to clean my body.

Once I had finally managed to eliminate as much sand as I thought was possible, I started back toward the shore. As a last minute effort to clean my hands and lower arms, I hung them in the water while I walked back to the mainland. I was still being silly and splashing around until I felt it.

It was a strange sting that started in my hand and was spreading throughout my whole body. Anyone who has watched a scary movie with me knows how much I react when something surprises me. I was jumping up and down, thrashing in the sea, waving my arms in the air like I just don't care. At that point, I did not know the source of my pain, but I fully felt the effects as the sensation jumped the synapses all the way to my neuroreceptors, which sent the adrenaline pumping through my veins, rushing to the scene of the crime, my hand just above my thumb. Oh, it was a sight to see. I was shaking my hand frantically, as if I moved it with enough frequency and force the pain would dissipate. Even in my chaotic reactions, I caught a glimpse of a translucent pink tentacle contrasting with the deep blues and white foam of the ocean.

That's right. I was stung by a jellyfish.

Somehow in my twenty-two years of living on this Earth I have never felt the burn of the jellyfish toxin flowing through my body. Who would think that I would stumble into this experience on the first afternoon of our retreat in paradise?

By the time I splashed my way back onto the beach, my fellow YAVs had noticed my incessant movement and inquired about the possible cause. Continuing to shake, I called out, "I was stung by a jellyfish! I don't know what to do about it! It just stings really bad! Now there are some bumps forming! And it stings!"

I thought back to situations I had heard from other people and thought about how awkward but necessary it would be to have our lone man Tyler urinate on my hand to extinguish the fire that was spreading from my hand. Kelsey, Emily, and Kendall suggested I take a few steps back and remember alternatives I should try first. Apparently peeing on jellyfish stings is only a last resort if you don't have access to something like vinegar or Benadryl. This has never happened to me before. What do I know?

Now this particular piece of paradise was a rather primitive resort that only had electricity from about 6 pm until 11 pm every night. They bought food from the market and prepared it as needed rather than keeping a refrigerator or food on hand. Our site coordinator, Dessa, advised that I ask our hostess about how people in Sabang, Palawan handle jellyfish stings after informing me that she had no Benadryl or vinegar in her Mary Poppins bag. I signed and explained what happened to my hand to our hostess. Her response was that I should go to the CR (comfort room, bathroom) and motioned that I hold my hand down between my legs. Dessa agreed that her family has always dealt with such incidents with those conniving jellyfish in the same manner.

At this point, my burn has dulled to a mere nuisance, and red spots began to emerge at the sight of the attack. I also start to notice a strange sting coming from my calf. The darned creature got me there, too!

With as much dignity as I muster, I strolled to my room and into the CR, leaving the door open (because it gets really dark with no electricity or window), and prepare to do the deed. I situate myself over the simple porcelain pot that has no seat or flushing mechanism. Hoping not to make a mess on the floor, it begins.

Urine is a miracle worker.

At the first touch of water, excess toxins, and salt to my irritated wound, relief flooded through my body. I never thought it would work this well, but my hand instantly felt as it had before the incident! As somewhat of an afterthought, I tried to maneuver myself, with little success, in order to reach the sting on my leg. I felt like a new person! It was amazing!

As a new person, I immediately wanted to cleanse my hand from all of the germs I had just exposed it to in my search for a remedy. Obviously, peeing on the wound was one-time immediate fix, right?! I learned the answer to that very quickly. The cold water I poured over the wound definitely hurt worse than the original sting did! How does that work? I like to think it was my body's way of getting back at me for trying to get rid of part of itself so soon, as if I were repulsed by what came from within me. My hand and calf continued to burn and develop small red bumps at the site of the sting, but the sensation receded to mere memory by the time our dinner ended.

Moral of the story: Jellyfish stings aren't the worst things in the world. Yes, urine works wonders in recovery from such stings, unless, of course, you are stung by a particular poisonous species of jellyfish, in which case, you should probably seek immediate medical attention. Maybe we shouldn't fear the products of our bodies so much. Jellyfish stings on day 1 will not ruin an entire event. This is simply another example of comfort zone expansion.

Sunset from the beautiful beach we used as our worship space for our retreat