By Elizabeth Davis
I’m not going to lie- I did not have high hopes for Philadelphia as a city. My placement? Absolutely. Living in intentional community? You bet. But Philly? The thing I was the most excited about was the fact that I did not have to drive for a whole three-hundred-and-sixty-five days. I have now been here for almost five months, and as is generally the case with moving halfway across the country and starting a new job, it has been much more than I expected (shocking, I know.).
I have been somewhat biased against the Northeast as a whole, and there was not much I had ever heard about Philadelphia that prompted me to look closer. I arrived in the middle of July, when the free outdoor events were in full swing- concerts, movies in the park, yoga by the Schuylkill, beer gardens- this painted a much more lively and exciting picture of the city where my highest expectations were of reasonably well functioning public transit (we’ve escaped one SEPTA strike so far, I’ll keep y’all updated). It turns out that Philadelphia is actually a really cool city, with some rich history and interesting organizations to boot.
My placement as a case manager has been an incredible learning experience, and there has never been a dull day. I am the first full-time case manager at my placement, which means I have not only been learning the ropes of my position, but working with the house’s program coordinator to shape my role in the house. This location is home to sixteen formerly homeless women with a history of mental health diagnoses and/or substance abuse. My day-to-day role includes working with residents on creating care plans, assisting with daily living skills, interfacing with social service agencies, planning community building events, and dealing with mental health crises. Working with the women at my placement has taught me some valuable skills that I will be able to take with me to practically any career, as well as cemented my desire to continue my education and eventually earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
The third piece of my move to Philadelphia that has gone above and beyond to exceed expectations is the community living aspect of the program. Our housing placement is currently home to four SY members (as well as two rather exuberant yellow labs whenever the Rector is out of town). We all rapidly bonded on move-in day over a mutual love of Harry Potter. Never actually having read the last book (I know, I know, but I’ve read them now, okay!), I spent the month of September re-reading and reading all seven of the books. We have also bonded over a mutual love of Disney and puzzles, and rather quickly formed a tight-knit group. We all have different placements (and work schedules), and it has been great to come home every day to such a supportive community. We have some established routines and guidelines that make our community living more “intentional”. We try to eat all our meals in the kitchen instead of our individual rooms, we have community dinner on Tuesdays, and we say compline together on weeknights.
It has become clear to me that I rather underestimated both the city I now call home, and the program that brought me here. I fully expect for the rest of my months here to continue to exceed even the revised expectations I now have for my year of service.
Elizabeth Serves as Case Manager at Bethesda Project.
By Chris Neville
I think my experience in Servant Year thus far can be boiled down to these two realizations:
Take this, for example: I remember, during orientations at various retail jobs, my new employers telling me that I was going to gain customer service skills that would be valuable in my later career. I nodded politely, thinking to myself, But actually no, because I am not planning on making retail a career. Heh. Guess what?Those grueling shifts at Arby’s and Bath and Body Works really did hone my customer service skills, and I really am using them. Thanks to those experiences, I can throw myself into a Saturday morning grocery distribution at St. Peter’s and manage to be kind and present to every client and volunteer, no matter how crazy the last one I met was. If I can exude positive energy toward a woman ready to take me to court over an expired coupon, I can be positive toward a grumpypants who needs some food. My service sector supervisors were right, after all. Wow. Thanks, guys.
As a student, when I would have to work with or talk to people who got on my nerves for one reason or another, I would do my best to appreciate their good qualities. Always in the back of my mind, however, was a thought akin to: This person needs to learn ____, or she will not make it in the real world. You just can’t act like that! I think I assumed that all “successful” adults possess a fully formed array of social skills. That, it turns out, is not true. Lacking social skills does not mean you lack marketable skills. As a result, difficult people do not disappear from your life after college. Darn.
My senior year of high school, when I was applying to colleges, a few people recommended that I take a gap year. The thought terrified me. A year of aimlessness? How about “no”? My life needed to follow a defined course of action. So I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I admitted that was a problem, but delaying college and taking a mysterious unstructured year in which to “find myself” would have been a much bigger problem. You see where this is going.
Servant Year is very much like a gap year (for some people, it is one). I am not working toward a structured, multi-year goal. I am exploring career options, going to discernment meetings, and trying new things. Wonderfully, I have become ok with this. Even through the end of my last year at college, I was working fervently to nail down exactly what my vocation is and to make it happen.
Through the readings we have had for spiritual formation meetings, I have come to accept that my vocation is not one thing that I have to find before I can fully live my life. Rather, I have come to respect that I will find my vocation by listening to my inner leadings. I can appreciate God at work in my life now instead of trying to envision what a God-filled life would look like. I am finally at a place where I am comfortable spending years exploring different careers and lifestyles. Alleluiah.
Chris Serves as Program Manager for St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.
By Catherine Shaw
My bed in the House of Prayer rectory is a comfortable full-size mattress, but my sheets don’t quite fit, since I was told I would be sleeping on a queen bed. This isn’t a big deal; I’m only mentioning it because I’m going to use this image as an analogy later on, so bear with me.
I moved to Philly from a Cleveland suburb, and, before I moved, everyone was telling me that I was in for a really big change, that I would probably be dealing with culture shock for a while, and that I should prepare to be bewildered. Well, they were right, but not in the way they thought they were. I’ve been in Philly for about six weeks now, and I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the city itself: I’m jaywalking like a pro, SEPTA and I are tight, and I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring sirens. So the city and I are good, at least as far as I’m concerned.
However, my experience in the Episcopalian world is a different story. Although I currently consider myself nondenominational, I grew up in the Methodist Church, and my thinking about Episcopalian worship and practices before Servant Year went along these lines: “We’re Protestant, and so are they, so it can’t be that different.” Yeah, right. I’ve attended nineteen Episcopalian masses since I arrived in Philly, and I feel a bit like a full-size mattress trying to fit into queen-size bedding.
Eleven inches. That’s the difference between a full and a queen. It doesn’t seem worth noticing, but those eleven inches (five in width and six in length) lead to a difference of 730 square inches (roughly thirty square feet), which is a significant difference. In the same way, the short, “it’s all the same” distance between the Methodist and Episcopalian traditions has morphed into a vast and bewildering gulf that I cannot bridge.
Here’s a short list of some the things I’ve found discombobulating: saints; praying to saints; real wine at communion (gasp!); incense; chant during mass; it’s called mass; crossing oneself; the eerie proficiency exhibited by Episcopalians while reading responsively; bowing left, right, and center; the hymns don’t have titles, which makes finding a familiar one difficult; even familiar hymns often have a small difference in words or music that throws me for a loop; the Book of Common Prayer; etc. (Note: some of these are listed because St. Luke’s, the parish where I work and worship, worships in the Anglo-Catholic style; not all Episcopalian churches use incense or chant.)
Much of what I’ve listed is superficial, but, combined with the more profound differences, it has made finding my footing in the Episcopalian world difficult. I wish it were as easy as solving my sheet problem: I just stuffed the extra material tightly under one side of the mattress, and now I’m good to go. Unfortunately, becoming more comfortable with the Episcopalian tradition will probably take a little more effort. I’ve mostly figured out when things happen in the service (i.e. crossing, bowing, etc.), and the conformist in me wants to be satisfied with that and just assimilate as quickly as possible. The rebel in me disdains such an approach and thinks I should refuse to “give in” to assert and maintain my independence (yes, I know it’s petty). I’m hoping that they will duke it out, while whatever rationality exists in me tries to understand the questions that face me now: Where do these Episcopalian practices and beliefs come from? What is there meaning and significance? Which ones do I want to integrate into my own spiritual beliefs and practices and which ones do I lay aside?
I probably won’t have figured everything out by the end of this year, and I also doubt that I will fully embrace the Episcopalian tradition. So I will still be a full-size mattress amid a company of queens, but I hope that, instead of trying to fit into the wrong size bedding, I will be at peace with being a misfit and able to say: “This is who I am. I don’t quite fit, and that’s okay because I don’t really need to.”
Catherine Serves as Outreach Coordinator at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
BOATS, VANS, AND AUTOMOBILES (ON SHIPS)
By Trish Johnston
The Maritime industry is a unique world of its own. Through working with the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey over the last two months, I’ve gotten to learn about this world that not many people get to see, or even know exists. 90% of the consumer goods we use each day come to us through international shipping. Take a look around you: your cellphone, the banana you brought with lunch, the chocolate bar sitting in the candy dish. You have all of these things in part thanks to international shipping and, if you’re in the greater Philadelphia region, our port.
SCI is an agency that helps the workers that keep the international shipping industry running. Annually, we see 30,000 seafarers who dock in our terminals from countries all over the world. So far, I have personally met seafarers from the Philippines, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, India, Romania, China, Latvia and Georgia. The ships these seafarers work on are massive floating structures. Two days a week I get the opportunity to actually board huge cargo ships to visit the crew members.
You truly never know what you’re going to get when you head to a terminal for a ship visit. One day I boarded a ship to discover what looked like aliens out of a movie moving slowly down the hall towards me. Turns out it was just the coast guard in full fire-proof gear, doing a drill. One day I boarded my first car ship. Imagine a twelve story parking garage that floats. That’s what this ship was. It even had an elevator on board. But I happened to board during the offload of 1,600 vehicles. Longshoremen board the ship, get in a car, drive it to a lot close by, hop in a van, get driven back up to the ship and do it all over again. It’s chaotic, overwhelming and loud as you’re standing in the hull and it was quite an experience for my first time on the auto ship.
While working for SCI gives me great stories to tell about the Maritime industry, the best stories come from the seafarers we serve. 98% of them are male and usually work a 6-9 month contract, have 3 months of vacation and then are back out at sea. They live a hard life, away from their families for long stretches of time. SCI provides little things like phone cards, transportation, and home cooked meals, to try to make these guys’ lives a little better.
On one of my first days out visiting, the seafarers asked to be taken somewhere they could transfer money. It had already been a stressful day and then we got lost trying to find the Western Union. When we finally arrived, we sat in the van so the seafarers could go inside. It felt like it took them forever to go what they needed to do. My fellow visitor Sharon and I fervently discussed how much gas we were wasting idling outside the shop, how much time we had spent waiting and how many more stops we had left in our day (it was several). We were anxious to get moving so that we could get everything done. In a later conversation with the seafarer I learned that he was wiring money home because his 7 year old daughter was in the hospital and his wife needed money to pay the doctor. He assured me that she was going to be ok, that it was just a high fever and that he was very appreciative of the van ride. It was a nice reminder of how much our work means to the people we serve. It didn’t matter how long we waited or how much gas we burned. We were making a difference for someone who really needed it.
Another day, we got word that a Filipino seafarer who had family in Philadelphia was coming into port in Camden, but lacked the proper visa to get off the ship. We worked with the security of the terminal and family to get them access to the ship. We were able to facilitate a reunion between the seafarer and his sister and nephew. It was the first time they had seen each other in 11 years, since before the sister and her children emigrated to the United States. I was able to be there as they came on board, hugs were exchanged and tears flowed (maybe a few of mine too).
Its experiences like these that make me so grateful that I was placed at SCI. Every day when I hop into the van, I never know what’s waiting for me, every day is an adventure, just the way I like it!
Trish serves as Volunteer Coordinator at Seamen’s Church Institute.
PRESENT OVER PERFECT
By Michelle Day
Earlier this week a student left a note for me in my mailbox. The topic of the note consisted of self-esteem troubles, arguments with peers, and other typical thirteen year old challenges. Towards the end of the note though, this student wrote that they wished that they had “a perfect life like [me].” I let out a sarcastic laugh when I read that sentence.
I’m now two months into my placement, and every day continues to present its own challenges (in addition to dealing with coffee stains). In case you’ve blocked out ages 11-14 from your memory, life for the average middle schooler is a constant battle of juggling school work, sleep, extra curriculars, and of course, socialization. Now add in factors such as poverty, violence, abuse, limited food, lack of sleep, death, sickness, and a public school system that continues to fail into that equation. The world has been against most of these students for their entire lives, and now it’s up to a small group of passionate and determined teachers and staff at a small school with a bright red door to take these students who have been living tragedies and show them that they can make their stories into an epic, if they’re willing to push through the pain and suffering in order to get there.
As a bright eyed and optimistic 22 year old recent graduate, it’s easy for me to dream about a future where underprivileged children overcome the obstacles placed before them and become the world’s best readers and write stories that get turned into movies and go on to graduate college and become doctors, lawyers, and teachers; creators and dreamers and world changers in their own right, all because of what education was able to do for them.
Before moving to Philly over the summer, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to use the phrase “present over perfect” as my motto during my time of service. Throughout my time so far at Saint James, this simple idea of being “present over perfect” has morphed into my mantra, my battle cry, and my whispered prayer on days filled with chaos, spilled coffee, bruised hearts, and tired eyes.
In order for these future world changers to become successful, I now understand that there are going to be days where I feel helpless, where I feel like I’m failing and wish I had stayed in bed. There are times when the future violinist decides he doesn’t want to do his reading homework, and the future doctor gossips about the future actress and the future athlete lets a moment of anger and frustration turn into a half hour long temper tantrum.
Vowing to be present over perfect means that I still get out of bed on days when I feel sick and dread the long day ahead. It means saying “Good Morning” and shaking a student’s hand even when they refuse to say hello back to me and accuse me of not caring. And when a student brings me to the point of tears, it means that I have the courage to walk away, take a deep breath (or a hundred), and try again the next day.
Throughout my time at Saint James School so far, as I focus my time on being present in the moment, I’ve discovered that even with the long hours, sore feet, and stuffy noses, I’m learning how to appreciate the journey in front of me more and more. I still have goals and I still have hopes and dreams, but the stories of the kids who can’t read or who break down on a daily basis, the ones who hate math and refuse to write-they are a part of something bigger, and I get to play a part in this story.
I’ve found that when I take the time to pull the future nurse aside and talk to her and ask if she’s okay, when I eat lunch with the fashion designer and sit next to the artist in class and work besides them on their level, I am able to show them that I care-that their progress each day fills my heart with joy. And as a result, we all move a step closer towards healing and creating a better future filled with real life superheroes and world changers..together
Michelle’s Ministry Placement is at St. James School as an Instructional Assistant.
ON SPIRITUAL DIRECTION
The Rev. Cathy Kerr
Once a month Servant Year members have the opportunity to gather for group spiritual direction. The foundation of this experience is the belief that God speaks to us through ordinary experiences that we can help each other to notice and understand.
The term spiritual direction has a long history, but unfortunately it can be misleading for modern people because it seems to suggest that someone else will tell you what to do, or what to believe. It might be more helpful instead to think of it as spiritual companionship, a relationship in which another person listens with you as you sort through the thoughts and feelings that accompany your experiences, looking to identify where God is leading you. While spiritual direction in its traditional form involves working with an individual spiritual director, this process can also take place in a group setting.
Here is how it works in Servant Year: We gather and share a few minutes of silence to help us settle into being present where we are, attentive to each other and to the ever-present God. After a brief check-in, we turn our attention to a reflection question or exercise for the day. Then, speaking out of the silence, those present have the opportunity to share their thoughts – or not. Members of the group listen carefully to each speaker and may ask open, honest questions in response. These questions – which may be answered out loud, or not – are never intended to challenge or elicit information out of idle curiosity, but rather to open the possibility of new or different understanding. The answers are accepted as offered; we own our own experiences, and there is no cross-conversation about them. Later, toward the end of the session, there is time for wrap-up discussion and feedback offered in a general sense. Finally, we end in silence.
Anything that happens in life can be considered in spiritual direction, but some basic questions tend to come up again and again: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want to become? What do I believe? Who is God to me? What are my values, and how can I make a difference in life? What am I good at? Where do I find deep joy in my life, and what gives me the deepest satisfaction? When do I feel that I am my most authentic self? When do I feel most alive? Where am I experiencing growth?
Although we might experience a jumble of ideas and emotions when we first come up against questions like these, patterns and understanding gradually begin to emerge as we sort through them and talk them out, and the way ahead begins to seem clear. This kind of meaning-making is important at every stage of life, but it is particularly relevant for Servant Year members who are living an experience that will come to an end within a limited period of time. “What’s next?” becomes a question that each one will have to find a way to answer.
As an Episcopal priest I feel comfortable using traditional religious language, but I think it’s worth noting that spiritual direction can be a helpful process for those whose beliefs are different, or who aren’t exactly sure what they believe. Our spirituality has to do with the basic driving forces of our lives, our deepest desires and dreams, and as such it is the source of all that gives our lives meaning. Whether you call it “listening for the voice of God” or “listening to your own inner leadings,” or “recognizing your own deepest wanting,” I believe you are describing the same process. Our goal in spiritual direction is to make this awareness an ongoing way of life.
The Reverend Cathy Kerr is Servant Year’s Spiritual Director.
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
By Annie Salorio
I’m spending this year serving as the Youth Ministry Assistant in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Along with the routine administrative work expected in an office setting, I provide assistance with some more creative projects. At the moment, I’m working on a series of daily devotions for the upcoming Advent season. Interested parties can sign up to receive two text messages every day, from the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November, all the way to Epiphany in early January. In the morning, they receive a relevant scripture verse to consider for the day, along with a related prayer in the evening. My job is to select the scriptures and write the prayers. And, to make things especially fun, these texts must be 140 characters or less. No easy task, but I’m very much enjoying the challenge so far.
As I was selecting scripture passages, I came across one that was very familiar. It is one of the opening passages of the Gospel of John. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Not only is this passage familiar, but it’s short. Perfect for the requirements of my project, but also something to watch out for. Short passages are easy to gloss over and forget about, especially ones as familiar as this. We think we know what this passage means. We’re convinced that it’s simple, too obvious to spend too much time considering. But let’s pause for a minute. There are many things that this little passage does not say. For example, it asserts that the light shines, but it doesn’t promise that we will see or appreciate the light when it comes. Need a real world parallel? This wonderful job I’ve been given for the year. It’s giving me valuable work skills, introduced me to hard-working, kind people, and makes sure that I’m always busy and fulfilled, which fends off boredom and loneliness. But on days when I’m stressed and tired, robbed of an opportunity to lounge on my bed with a book or reconnect with old college friends, the “light” of these benefits may go unnoticed. This passage also doesn’t promise that there won’t be moments when it seems like the darkness is winning. We in Servant Year have probably noticed this already. Many of our placements involve work with vulnerable populations. Despite their hard work, good intentions, and desperate need, people continue to suffer. We pray that our little bits of help may be a “light” to them, but cynicism can make it all seem pointless.
Obviously, this passage has great theological meanings for Christianity. But Servant Year has made me see it through the lens of our experience this year. You come into a program like Servant Year so optimistic. Optimistic about yourself and the personal growth you’re sure to accomplish. Optimistic about the people you’ll meet and the impact you might have. And then you come up against all sorts of darkness. The darkness of the world around us, that makes our idealistic vision hard to achieve, and sometimes, even as our hearts break to say it, impossible. The darkness of our own flaws, when we’re forced to admit that sometimes, even when people we’ve come to value and respect need our help, we sometimes just don’t want to help. In these moments, the message of this beautiful scripture can seem hollow. “The darkness did not overcome it.” Really? Because that darkness is seeming pretty darn powerful. Not to mention stubborn, since it keeps. Coming. Back.
That’s why we need to reexamine this piece of scripture. It’s not so simple. The presence of darkness in our work and lives is not a sign of tragic failure, or that the world around us is crumbling. This year, we must remember that darkness is an opportunity for light to show itself.
Now, I say this as though it’s easy. I know it’s not. And I also know that I haven’t suggested anything terribly radical here. We all know this to be true. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. We know it. It’s a cliche. We’re probably sick of hearing it. But here it is again, for those moments when you need a little reminder. In darkness and light, we’re in this together.
Annie is serving as Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania this year.
GOD DOESN’T MAKE MISTAKES
In the beginning of the program I felt an overwhelming sense of I CAN NOT DO THIS each work week. The job seemed like it would be too much and I wouldn’t be beneficial to the kids that had been put into my charge. Fast forward a year and I’m sitting in the principal’s office going over my final evaluation and she’s telling me what a wonderful job I’ve done, despite all the challenges faced.
I didn’t meet every goal as well as I would have wanted to, but the most significant thing I walk away with from Servant Year and my time at St James school is that GOD DOES NOT MAKE MISTAKES. This meaning that where God puts you is where you are meant to be. I was reminded by my fiance about the story of Gideon and how he tested God and wanted to verify that he was indeed selected to lead an army to victory, even though he felt he was not qualified for the job. We see in this story that God was with him every step of the way and equipped him to do the job he had assigned.
In the last couple months the word EQUIPPED has been something that has stood out to me as a lesson in my time here. Even though I felt inadequate and unworthy of my position, the Lord saw it fit to place me among people and give me strengths that would equip me to accomplish that which was assigned. This was a great lesson of faith to me and finally brought about understanding of how much love and favor God gives us. He does not give us this just so we can be prosperous, but for his glory in the world.
We all know nothing is more astonishing or awe-inspiring than a story of someone thought to be a muddy rock, that with time turned into a shining diamond. This is what God does for us; he turns dust, mud, dirt, grime into beautiful things in order for others who feel unworthy to look upon this new beautiful thing and think I wonder if he can do the same for me. The truth is yes he can, and if my life and work at St James and with Servant Year is any indication, he will.
For me it was the wonderful people of St James who helped every step of the way and taught me so much about what it means to truly care for youth. It was the Servant Year peers and leaders who always had an uplifting word to say about me and the work we each were doing. It was the people of Philadelphia so vibrant,colorful,loving,and open despite outside views. It was my loving fiance Bella, so supportive and cheering me on through all the ups and downs, and lastly God being with me. His persistence- being ever present through the curve balls and triumphs life threw at me this year, cheering at me getting things right, and comforting me when I missed the mark.
So even though I am still not sure if I was the best for the position I was given, I am coming away with three things from this year. I AM EQUIPPED FOR WHAT IS TO COME AND WHAT IS ASSIGNED. I AM THE ONLY PERSON THAT CAN DO WHAT HAS BEEN ASSIGNED TO ME DESPITE HOW I FEEL ABOUT IT. GOD WILL NEVER BRING ME TO A PLACE WITHOUT SUPPLYING ME WITH WHAT IS NEEDED TO ACCOMPLISH THE GOALS SET. I urge future Servant Year folks to remember that.
You are where you are because you have been given the means to do what is given. God does not make mistakes, instead he makes beautiful things out of that which was thought to be ugly. Thank you all for being a part of my experience, and thank you all for being so supportive of me. I owe a great debt to my Servant Year and St James families. I will carry this experience through my missions work and life forever.
Freddie’s Ministry Placement was at St. James School as a Teaching Assistant.
By Lindsay Barrett-Adler
“What do people do after Servant Year?” This is one of the most common questions asked during initial interviews and throughout the Servant Year experience. Here’s the data answer:
Snapshot of Servant Year’s Class of 2013-2014
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (M.D.)
Yale Divinity School (MDiv)
University of Pittsburgh (MSW)
University of Maryland (PhD)
Cairn University (MEd)
Bethesda Project (Case Manager)
Second Year Servant Year Fellows:
St. James School (Volunteer Coordinator)
Episcopal Mission Center (Coordinator)
Good Shepherd Volunteers (Thailand)
Word Made Flesh (Argentina)
For me, the question is more interesting when thought about theologically. Vocation is not just the data of a career or the title on someone’s business card. John Neafsey writes, “Vocation is less about the particular things we do and more about the spirit with which we do them.” How will the Servant Year experience influence members to act differently toward God, themselves, and the world?
We hope that after Servant Year, members will “do” reflection. Throughout the year, we gathered to reflect on our experiences and delve deeper into our world’s brokenness. We learned about human trafficking, addiction, and poverty. Unsatisfied with the quick, easy answers often provided, we asked what was going on below the surface. How can we best report suspected human trafficking if we are unsure that victims will not be prosecuted? Are there any universal maxims across societies and communities, or are every society’s values contextual?
We hope that members will “do” community and simplicity. Every member of the program learned to live on a $500 monthly stipend while working alongside extremely impoverished populations making much less. We gathered for weekly potluck meals and monthly program dinners, getting to know each other more fully. How will the experience of stares and disapproving looks when using EBT/food stamps shape our ideas of poverty and food justice? We have talked about opening ourselves up more fully to others and healing old wounds…are we still allowing ourselves to be fragile and vulnerable, trusting others to be loving and kind?
Finally, we hope that members will “do” service. We hope that Servant Year members have formed meaningful relationships with their clients, students, or guests. Each member volunteered over 1,700 hours this year at St. James School, Bethesda Project, St. Mark’s Church, The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, Diversified Community Services, Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norristown, and Covenant House. That’s nearly 20,500 hours total!
What do people do after Servant Year? As Frederick Buechner so beautifully puts it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Lindsay serves as Program Director and Associate for Young Adult Ministries.
LINES TO LEAN ON
I’ve spent the year working as a case manager in a shelter-based program for homeless 18-21 year olds. The setting is chaotic: 60 young men and women, coming straight from the streets, foster care placements, hospitals, juvenile justice centers, and a variety of family arrangements, to live with us for a couple months, looking for a new start, or at least a stepping stone to a more stable life.
The challenges are tremendous. New youth come every day, needing IDs, clothes, healthcare, food, and showers. Youth are quickly expected to seek and obtain employment in order to move into more stable housing. Frustrations run high, money runs low, arguments ensue, old demons surface frequently, and street survival habits die slowly.
As a young staff member, it can be difficult to comprehend the chaos of the many lives that intersect in our building, let alone respond in a helpful, caring, first-do-no-harm manner. We rarely have the luxury of black and white decisions when tackling the complex psychosocial puzzles we face daily. Below are a few memorable statements that I’ve heard that have most shaped my approach to our youth this year.
1.) “Being non-judgmental also means not judging a youth’s decision to return to the street life”
Our organization has a stated mission of treating all youth with absolute respect and a nonjudgmental, unconditionally loving attitude. For months, I thought of this as accepting youth “where they’re at” and not thinking poorly of them as a person for past decisions, trying as hard as possible to keep shame out of the room when discussing a youth’s past mistakes. One of the youth I admire most beat his girlfriend. He’s a good person, but he’s made some regrettable decisions in difficult moments.
However, we all have blind spots to our nonjudgementalness, our ability to accept youth as they are in all situations. In a training several weeks ago, one of our senior directors, a 15-year veteran of helping homeless youth, made the point that being nonjudgemental, also means not judging youth who opt to leave our path for them towards a decent, honest, working life, in favor of returning to the streets, which very possibly means surviving by means of theft, drug dealing, and/or prostitution. We try to talk them out of it, but, in the end, we are to send the message that, even if they make such a decision, we will support them and not think any less of them when they return to us a few months later to try the program again.
2.) “If we let a youth lie to us, it will probably not hurt either of us too much in the long run. However, if we accuse a youth of lying when they are being honest, it could cause irreparable damage”
Lying is an effective survival skill for the street life or residential placement life that many of our youth come from. Staff members in residential programs sometimes subscribe to a concept of not letting a client “get one over on you,” believing that “falling for” a client’s lie makes you a weak or disrespectable adult. Being an optimistic, trusting, probably somewhat naïve, young staff member, I found lie detection as difficult, and seeing youth as liars even more difficult.
The advice quoted above probably guided me through situations on a daily basis. We never need to assume someone is lying, which would be the opposite of “holding youth to high expectations,” a mantra for fostering resilience. To minimize people’s getting away with lying consistently, we can collect as much information as possible, and make decisions somewhat objectively, without assuming we can make decisions about someone’s integrity with our intuition in an effort to protect our pride from having someone “get one over on us”.
3.) “In a line, trauma-informed care is shifting from thinking ‘what’s wrong with this person?’ to ‘what happened to this person?’”
Our organization, like many other human service sites, has attempted to shift toward a trauma-informed approach. It seems that no one really agrees about what “trauma-informed care” means, but everyone agrees that it is important. I think, at its core, it’s a way towards empathy. It’s seeing “difficult behaviors”—poor impulse control, irritability, hypervigilance—as the result of ongoing physiological and neurobiological responses to the incredibly stressful past environments that our youth have navigated successfully, and helping to foster safety and connection as the foundation of any other goals in this world.
The line above seems to explain trauma-informed care succinctly. It shows you how to respond to the big young man, who upon being placed on hold by a welfare office employee, slams the phone down, curses, and storms out of my office. It’s easy to react with “what’s wrong with that dude? We must correct such maladaptive behavior,” but it is more helpful to think to yourself, “what happened to that dude that makes him react that way” and “how can we provide the safety and appropriate redirection to help make a slight, positive shift in his developmental trajectory?”
Tim’s Ministry Placement is as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.
CONNECTING CHURCH AND COMMUNITY
St. John’s struggles with a problem familiar to many churches. The congregation at St. John’s has dwindled and aged while the community that the church exists in has changed dramatically in completely new ways. Once more affluent and predominately Caucasian, Norristown is increasingly multicultural and has a higher poverty rate than neighboring areas. While I am not an expert on the ins and outs of religious affiliation, these facts point out that St. John’s lost its relevance within the community. Once the community began to change, St. John’s stopped seeing as many new families join the church and as time went on, the already established families within the church grew older and the kids went off to college or moved away from home. Fewer and fewer children were among the congregation until we reach present day, in which St. John’s has almost no youth and no youth programs.
I realized this fact as soon as I began my year here in Norristown and I wanted to do something that would change this reality. In a situation like this, however, a slow start is not an option. Many churches have Sunday school or a youth group for children but starting a program of that type would never get off the ground. Any new program at St. John’s must be big enough and exciting enough to draw the attention of parents in the community. It must appeal to the children, but also fulfill a need for the parents.
As a member of Servant Year, a program run by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, I find out about the Diocesan programs and events that are the benefit of existing not in isolation but in a supportive network of churches that work together under the Diocese. When I heard about the City Camp program, I knew it was my ticket to reaching the youth of Norristown.
My hope for Camp St. John is just that. My hope is that the community will be open to our invitation and send children to the enriching, safe, loving environment that we cannot wait to provide. It seems strange to me that a desire to help the community like St. John’s has can go unfulfilled because of a disconnect between the church and the community. However, this is the case. The community has changed and the church has to reintroduce itself in a relevant way in order to reconnect. This camp is our opportunity to do that.
Karitsa’s Ministry Placement is as Outreach Coordinator at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norristown.
ONE MORE YEAR?
After a year of service in Philadelphia, I find myself preparing for another year of service – only this time it will be in Thailand. I guess some might call me a glutton for punishment, others might call me an adventurer, and still others might call me a servant. I would say that I am a woman who has a sense of what she wants to do with her life, but feels she needs a few more life experiences before she gets on with the ultimate goal and calling. After all, God doesn’t call the equipped, but He equips the called, right?
I am going to Thailand through an organization called “Good Shepherd Volunteers.” I stumbled upon their website one day when I was filling out my hours for AmeriCorps. I accidentally clicked on a link that led me to Catholic Volunteers Network inquiry page that featured a form that matches service programs to your skills and preferred living situation. After filling out all of the necessary information, Good Shepherd Volunteers international program was one of two programs that matched my desires. They advertised a position working in Malaysia working in a residential facility for young women who have faced trauma. It has been my dream since I was 15 years old to become an aftercare counselor for girls who have faced sexual trauma, so it seemed like the exact kind of experience I was looking to get before going back to school. I immediately began the application process, and over the next few weeks poured myself into 16 pages of essays. Good Shepherd does not mess around with it’s application process!
About three weeks later, Good Shepherd contacted me about an interview. I was a mess of excitement and nerves when the interview rolled around, but it went well. We made good connections and left off on a very positive note. I was almost certain I was going to get it. About two weeks later, I received a call in which Good Shepherd informed me they would no longer be offering positions in Malaysia, but that I was still a very good international candidate. They told me that they thought I might do well in their Thailand placement, but that they couldn’t tell me too much about it for another few weeks. At this point, I was feeling like Good Shepherd was not going to work out. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, so I told myself not to worry about it and to think about what other options I have for the coming year.
Servant Year previously offered me a different position for the coming year, so this seemed like a viable option. I would be able to stay in this city which I have grown to love and call home, I would be near family and friends, and to top it all off, I would have a really cool job working as a church outreach coordinator in a difficult part of the city. It seemed like a great option and with Malaysia out, I began to get excited about what the coming year would hold.
That is, until I spoke to Good Shepherd again. They were able to tell me more specifically about what the job would hold in Thailand to work with the Hands of Hope Project. This is an income-generating project that began in 2005 for those living with HIV/AIDS. Due to their illness, the workers at Hands of Hope find it very difficult to find work and have often faced discrimination in their village communities. Hands of Hope provides a place for these people to work together to produce beautiful handmade crafts. These fair trade crafts are sold locally and to international partners in Australia, Europe, and the United States. They said it would be my job to connect these producers with companies that will buy their products. More than anything though, they said my job would be about making relationships and being present with those who have been disdained by so many before. This is not at all what I was looking for, but exactly what I’ve wanted all along. I didn’t know that right then and there though. The opportunity made me giddy, but terrified me at the same time.
It seemed too big a decision to just say yes, so I worried. I worried some more and whined a lot. I wrote a pros and cons list. I prayed. I talked to everyone about it. And then something flipped in me, I didn’t really think it, I just spoke it out loud. I was sitting at my desk at work and I simply said, “I’m going to Thailand? I’m… going to… Thailand. I’m GOING TO THAILAND.” As soon as I just exhaled and said it out loud, I felt an incredible sense of peace.
So, as of now, the plan is that I will finish Servant Year at the end of July and then just two weeks later head off for ten days of orientation before I fly to my new home in Thailand. Again, I am a mess of excitement and nerves, but I feel at peace about this decision… Who knows what adventures this coming year will hold?!
Tamarah’s Ministry Placement is as Case Manager at Diversified Community Services.
CREATIVITY AND DISCOVERY
One of my greatest joys through the Servant Year program has been discovering the people and culture of breaking in Philadelphia. In my Servant Year placement with the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative, I oversee the Houston Center Teen Lounge, an after school drop in center for youth ages 10-23 years old. The Teen Lounge’s genesis as an undefined space for teens has been shaped by the desires and creativity of neighborhood youth to ultimately become one of the proving grounds for the breaking community across Philadelphia. In my brief exposure to breaking, most commonly known as ‘break dancing’, I have come to realize how much deeper this improvisational culture goes. Much more than someone in parachute pants doing the ‘worm’, breaking melds together various cultural influences not limited to Spanish salsa, African American Soul music, Irish step dancing, Asian martial arts, and Brazilian capoeira.
Breaking breaks down into four different categories of moves. Toprock represents anything preformed from a standing position. Footwork is anything done on the floor involving feet and hands for support. Power moves are more acrobatic maneuvers that utilize momentum, speed, and strength. Finally, freezes are any position where the breaker holds a pose and does not move, often supporting themselves with their hands or feet. In this framework, b-boys and b-girls craft together routines and rounds that build off a foundation of commonly known moves and integrate a person’s own unique style and inventive maneuvers.
Due to the closure of a major high school located near the Teen Lounge, our program’s focus has shifted from high school aged youth to local middle school and elementary school students unengaged in traditional after school programs. A lot of these students have not fit into the formal regimented after school programs funded at most public schools. Most of the students who we serve now, we met playing in the streets outside our center. They wanted their own freedom and choice after school rather than following another schedule of snack-time, homework help and club activities. I strongly believe that breaking has been an ideal fit for these students’ desires. They want to learn, they want community, they want to express themselves, but they do not want to be told how by an adult. They want to discover. They make me think about jazz and it’s similar origins as an improvisational art form that came out of the desire from African-Americans to reimagine classical European instruments into new vehicles for self-expression by blending various cultural influences and breaking the existing structures of music. Each day in the movements of our budding b-boys and b-girls, I see my heroes like Coltrane, Miles and JJ perfecting their craft.
Being in this laboratory of expressive experimentation and improvisational creation, I could feel my soul being tugged back to the creative arts I have been blessed to receive in my life. In the early months of my year I had a stronger desire to practice my trombone than probably any of the twelve years previous when I tangled myself in jazz bands and concert bands. Something about being around that creative energy was contagious and pulled me back to that part of our God-given identity that calls us co-creators made in the image of a creator. We are creative beings designed to create and share of ourselves with others. We just need to find our vehicle of self-expression and sink our roots into the river banks of our Creator’s flow. The great fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien emphasized the idea of “sub-creation.” In producing his fantasy works he sought to develop a coherent, consistent secondary world. He described this process of sub-creation “as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators.”
This past holy week, a great friend and I took part in a Good Friday tradition of pursuing another one of our shared creative vehicles. We took our addiction to winter sports exploration to one of the remaining wildernesses for snow schussing in the Northeast. Nine hours of driving and two hours of hiking brought us to the Shangri-La of spring east coast shredding, Tuckerman Ravine. It was my fifth journey into the glacially carved bowl that snuggles up to the tallest mountain peak in the Northeast. Here a series of gullies and snow fields hold on to the last canvases of winter awaiting the brush strokes of the few ski and snowboard junkies looking for a final space to carve out their masterpieces. We channeled our creative energies and painted a few lines down two of the rock walled gullies to seal our final memories of the 2014 winter season. We left exhausted, but filled with a sustaining sense of satisfaction that has stayed with me through these past two weeks. It encourages me in light of our over-worked and over-stressed society, the importance of remembering whose image we are made in and to embrace the worshipful life-giving activity of creating!
Nate’s Ministry Placement is as Community Outreach Associate with The Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative.
By Pauline Samuel
In the gospel of Matthew, chapter fourteen, Jesus had heard that his cousin, John the Baptist had been beheaded and he withdrew to a deserted place to be alone. But a large crowd, who also heard the sad news, had followed him. He had compassion for this large crowd. He put aside his own grief and pain and healed and cured their various sicknesses. He took the time to minister to their pain. The hour was late and his disciples urged him to send the people on their way so they could feed themselves. However, Jesus saw this as yet another opportunity to be compassionate. He didn’t turn them away as his disciples were quick to do. (How often do we turn a blind eye to those in need?) He instead told his disciples to feed the people.
The disciples brought him five loaves and two fish and Jesus fed 5,000 men and countless women and children. That does sound miraculous that that many people ate and were filled on such a small amount of food! The miracle is not necessarily the amount of people that were fed, but rather who was called to feed them.
Time and time again we are faced with situations where God is calling us to have compassion and help those in need, to “feed the people”. Like the disciples, many of us respond by telling God how limited our resources are. God knows what we have and what we don’t have. Our job isn’t to present to God our list of limitations. Our job is to simply trust; trust that God will take what we do have and use it and multiply it.
Every day we are confronted with human need and challenges and that means that every day is an opportunity for a miracle. That miracle could be praying for someone in pain, feeding a homeless person, starting a food pantry, volunteering at a shelter, visiting the sick or shut-in, etc. Don’t think that God cannot use your “limited” resources. God’s hands are your hands, his feet your feet. You are well equipped! Be aware, be compassionate and remember you are a miracle waiting to happen.
Pauline’s Ministry Placement is as a Ministry Resident at St. Mark’s Church.
RADICAL HOPE AND THE NARROW GATE
By Don Hopkins
In the past month I had the exciting opportunity to visit The Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill to organize a food drive for the food cupboard and give a presentation on poverty and the Saint Mark’s Outreach Ministry. I always enjoy the chance to educate people on the moral crisis of need in my home city and to highlight what we are doing here at Saint Mark’s to alleviate it, in hopes of provoking other people to take part. I believe part of our ministry to the poor should be to work to build up a community devoted to service on the part of the marginalized and vulnerable.
We live in an era in which cynicism and complacency often seem to be the pervasive mood of the time. I often find the cure for this heavy atmosphere of cynicism, which often masks itself as realism, is to work with students, who in the midst of their adolescence, still feel free enough from the bonds of every day adult life and toil, to engage in a search for authenticity and are often still willing to take a chance and pin their hopes on some sort of idealism. Young people, trying to find their own identity as distinct from their household, are often more willing to take a chance and risk embarrassment, disappointment, or failure in the pursuit of something grand.
In this regard, the Crefeld Students did not disappoint. They were very eager to learn about the nature of poverty in Philadelphia, the rate of homelessness, and the profound physical and spiritual hunger that can be found all throughout our city. Not only were they excited to learn, they were inquisitive about ways they could get involved to help. Questions about where to volunteer, what kind of items were in demand, and whether there were larger, more abstract issues of justice and ethics, were at play in our discussion of poverty and need. Some might be a bit put off by their willingness to dream up big ideas, considering that poverty is a concrete concern for so many but I was inspired by their enthusiasm.
It is easy to get cynical and bogged down by the seemingly unending hunger in our city. With rising costs from healthcare to housing, a public education system that doesn’t seem to offer an avenue of opportunity, and the ever growing numbness to the pain and suffering of the marginalized and vulnerable by those in positions of power and wealth in our society, we can lose sight of the call to us by Christ to pick up our cross and follow him. To be a Christian is to make one vulnerable and there is a great vulnerability that comes with idealism, with putting oneself out there for the sake of a big idea, for a big dream. The road of radical hope is through a narrow gate, indeed. However, please remember, the words of our lord: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” May these words remind to remain ever hopeful for a better and more just world. God Bless.
Don’s Ministry Placement is as Outreach Coordinator at St. Mark’s Church.
LEARNING ABOUT HOPE
By Virginia Wilmhoff
I work as a case manager with Bethesda Project. I serve 20 men living at Bainbridge, a permanent supportive housing facility. Each resident is formerly homeless with addiction and/or mental health diagnoses.
Since I started my position, I have learned more about hope. Over the years, many of the Bainbridge residents have struggled with addiction, mental illness, intellectual disabilities, or health problems, all of which can be extremely frustrating or even debilitating. Now, when they are faced with filling out complicated forms, navigating systems, managing money, or performing daily living tasks, they can be overwhelmed by the skills they lack to face these situations.
The residents, though, are all capable of accomplishing their goals. They got themselves off the streets, conquered drug and/or alcohol addictions, and have obtained treatment for health and/or mental illness diagnoses. Still, dealing with forms, systems, finances, and daily living can be difficult and, therefore, can take huge leaps of faith to accomplish. I have witnessed them take those leaps, and through the process, I have seen them gain greater independence.
The residents may gain confidence in themselves, but by sharing a house, they continually are confronted by the shortcomings of others. Many of the residents are struggling in a variety of ways, and when they encounter others who are also struggling, conflicts can arise. At the same time, the residents still enjoy each others’ company. When they are together even when they don’t always like each other, they are demonstrating hope.
Hoping in a broken world may be harder still. The residents can be overwhelmed by larger problems that seem like they are never going to change. Whether it’s high prices, not enough low income housing, or confusing health care and benefits systems, it often seems like the world will never be on the residents’ side. Yet, despite the fact that the world isn’t perfect, they have all overcome challenges to find a safe, stable place to live. They are all seeing the beauty in a broken world, envisioning the good in the struggle.
Witnessing hope at Bainbridge has challenged me to be more hopeful. I can be negative about my own life and where it is going. I get discouraged when I consider what I do not have and where I am not. Since the new year, I have challenged myself to be more positive, and I am trying to be grateful more often. Instead of being negative about what I don’t have, I have been trying to focus on what I do have. This discipline has helped me be more hopeful about my present and future.
I love taking photographs, and one of my favourites is of crocuses, stretching up to the sunlight. I wish the sun beamed like that all the time, but it doesn’t. It’s often hidden behind clouds of various kinds. In Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, a man watches a thrush sing ‘of joy illimited’ as dusk overtakes a cold winter’s day. As a case manager, I’m learning how to sing ‘of joy illimited’ even when there are clouds overhead. Because of the gleams of light already shining through the men at Bainbridge, I am inspired to continue singing.
Ginny’s ministry placement is as a Case Manager at Bethesda Project.
MIND THE GAP
By Noah Stansbury
Before 2013 had quite come to an end, I had 2014 all worked out. I had just finished pulling together my application to Episcopal Service Corps and clicked “submit”. It was out of my hands, off into the world. I’d wait to see who offered interviews and before long I’d have a plan in place for August. After a few years of working in customer service, I was ready to move on with my life and put in some time figuring out my ministry.
A few interviews were scheduled, Servant Year among them, but I didn’t know that much about the program and my sights were set elsewhere. On top of it, I didn’t feel like my first interview with Servant Year went that well, so I prepared to write it off and narrow the field down. I was taken aback when at the end of the call, Lindsay suggested I talk to the director of St. James School about an immediate opening they had. It was unexpected, and I had never envisioned myself working in a school, but why not? In any discernment process, it seems foolish to say no when you can say yes. Less than a week later I was accepting the job and preparing to uproot my life and move to Philadelphia, sight unseen. I didn’t know what had just happened, but I had boarded the train and was along for the ride.
I don’t put a lot of stock in making big choices based on gut feeling. Approaching things with calm and rationally is the preferred method of doing these things, right? Keep everything in order, logical, and sanitized and you’ll arrive at the right conclusion. It’s science. But the way God comes to us unbidden, that thing we call “grace,” is messy, often ill-timed, invasive, and above all hard to ignore. It rarely shows up in ways we expect or prefer, but if you’re paying attention, you know it when you hear it. And if you heed that call — like Abraham and Sarah, like David, like Mary and Joseph and Peter and Matthew, like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King — it will change everything and it’s going to be uncomfortable.
As I talked with the head of school, I had an unmistakable sense of the school’s role as an oasis in a desert of poverty, crime, and violence; an inbreaking of the reign of God in a place that desperately needed it. After that phone call, I found myself giving serious consideration to a job in a field in which I had no pre-existing interest, at a place I had never heard of, in a city I had never visited. It was weird. I kept vacillating between, “Oh my god, this is incredible and exactly what I’ve been looking for,” and, “Oh my god, this is insane; what are you doing?”
“God, make me good, but not yet,” goes the saying. Transform me, but wait until I say I’m ready. We look for God to show up, and then we’re surprised when it happens. This is, in itself, entirely unsurprising. God’s work in the world involves human effort, but it can’t be predicated on it. I’ve been thinking about doing a service year for a long time, but in those periods after I found an excuse to put it off again, I can see the ways in which I was being prepared, even when I didn’t realize it. And then wham. “You don’t feel ready, but this is it. It’s time. Go.” That’s the beauty of grace: sometimes it’s quiet and mundane and hard to grasp, and sometimes it really does arrive in your world with all the subtlety of a train.
Noah’s ministry placement is at St. James School as Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator.
WHAT IS MISSION?
By David Kilp
“Mission: the vocation or calling of a religious organization, especially a Christian one, to go out into the world and spread its faith.”
The above definition is what came up when I typed the word “mission” into Google. I think we can all agree that it is not really the idea we had in our heads…at least it wasn’t for me. When I think of “mission,” I think of going somewhere in South America or Africa to help poor people in need, but not going out to spread faith.
While mission work that involves helping people is not wrong, it is much more meaningful when you are building relationships with those you are helping. Mission has lost a lot of its meaning in the past years. Mission should not be looked at as a mandatory “if you don’t do this you’re a bad person,” or, “if I do this it will look good on my college application” type of work. It should be looked at as an intentional decision to help others and form new believers in Christ.
I know that the Five Marks of Mission are used fairly often in the Episcopal Church but there is a reason behind it: they hit the nail on the head.
Here are the Five Marks of Mission:
Most people look at these marks the way they are numbered: 1,2,3,4, and 5. I like to look at them in a little bit of a different way. We as Christians are called to respond to human need by loving service, safeguarding the integrity of creation, transforming unjust structures of society and pursue peace and reconciliation. Through these things we can proclaim the good news of the Kingdom and teach, baptize and nurture new believers. When we look at the Marks of Mission as one being we are unlocking the door to a real and true mission experience. The marks are not for picking and choosing what you want to do; the Marks stand together and when you are doing one you should be doing them all.
Integrating community, mission and teaching into one experience will change the way we look at mission. It will change the way people act towards it. We will not longer expect praise. We will no longer be serving inauthentically. We will be serving God and his church through a meaningful and authentic way.
David’s ministry placement is with the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as the Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE).
THE WINTER OF SPECULATION
By Lindsay Barrett-Adler
Maybe some of you have seen us on the news in the past couple of weeks. We have been the ones with layers of outerwear, wrapped up in scarves, busily shuffling along snowy sidewalks. Occasionally a bored television meteorologist will take a ruler and show you just how much snow has fallen in the past x amount of time. At the same time, loud television advertisements proclaim an oncoming “snowmageddon” or “snowpocalpyse”, only to have a couple of inches arrive.
Winter is anything but predictable.
Growing up in Midwest farming communities, winter was a time between two colossal tasks: planting and harvesting. I remember many conversations during January and February that almost always included the following exchange:
Farmer A: “Got a lot of snow the past week.”
Farmer B: “Yep, should make for good soil. Corn should grow nice and high in that soil.”
Farmer C: “Hope not too much water though, don’t want too much water.”
The reality was, farmers couldn’t really do a whole lot after harvest and before planting. Spring through fall brought the majority of their workload, pre-dawn to post-dusk labor in the fields. But winter? Winter was a season of speculation. Farmers, strong coffee usually in hand, stared out kitchen windows onto white, barren fields and wondered. They speculated, over a card game with friends, about the price of soybeans and amount each would harvest when the leaves turned bright orange and red the next fall. They wondered if, under all of that snow, the soil really was absorbing just enough or far too much water.
Winter is anything but predictable.
As Servant Year reaches the halfway mark in our year, I feel our members living in the same winter of speculation. They are completing seminary and other graduate school applications, continuing interviews for medical school, and updating their resumes. Our members have spent years planting seeds, nurturing relationships, and praying that God would show them when and where to go next. They are excited to experience the harvest and look forward to enjoying the fruits of their labor.
But they also may find themselves staring out the kitchen window wondering, and praying about, that harvest. Did I put enough time into that personal essay on the application? Have I opened myself up to those around me and experienced any transformation the past six months? What if the harvest isn’t as big as I thought it would be; what if none of my speculations prove true? I have a plan B, but do I need a plan C…or D?
These concerns are shared by applicants in their interviews for next year’s class of Servant Year members. More than once I have heard, “I went to college for four years and now I’m not sure what to do. I’ve put in so much time and effort, but I don’t know if there’s a job for me after graduation. Even if there is one, I’m not sure that’s what I really want to do with my life after all.”
Winter is anything but predictable.
Thankfully, we know that spring will indeed come. As we walk down rows of hard, cold dirt, we will begin to see tiny shoots of bright green hope that will flourish and provide sustenance. In a way, the winter of speculation is a kind of blessing to us and the Church. This time between the planting and harvesting allows us to prayerfully take stock. We now have the luxury of slowing down, of thoughtfully reflecting on what happened in the past and what awaits us in the future, of listening for that still small voice in the darkness.
The upcoming season of Lent invites us to do this very intentionally, pondering what it means to bear the cross of Christ in today’s world. And yet there is no reason we cannot keep this in mind even past Lent, into spring and summer. Maybe there is space to take time between planting and harvesting throughout our lives. Perhaps pondering what God’s doing beneath the surface of our lives is a helpful practice at any time.
Winter is anything but predictable; so is a life of faith.
Lindsay serves as Program Director and Associate for Young Adult Ministries.
Living in Philadelphia has greatly changed the way I view relationships in a lot of ways. The people that I have met and the lessons I have learned through my service site, Friday Formations, walking around the city, and attending a True Vine Community Church have shown me the importance in regarding everyone you come across as a child of God. Seeing everybody as a the person they are, and not just a face that you will simply forget in the folds of your memory as you walk past or muster a hello to on public transport.
I have always regarded myself as a friendly person but as my heart continues to grow for this city and my understanding of the word of God does as well I am realizing there is a difference between being friendly and being a friend. Being friendly is pleasant but that does not mean that it can create a lasting impression on those you come across, but being a friend even if its for a short interaction can create beautiful things and make life so full for both involved. Being friendly is the world’s basic template for being civil to one another, but being a friend is going above and beyond that. It is showing true concern for the person that you are currently connecting with and regarding them as an individual and a child of God. This to me is an important part of not only being a human but being a christian.
If one truly looks at their day to day interactions can they truly say that they saw in everyone the came across a child of God or did they simply see a passerby who they will never see again? In the beginning of my time here in Philadelphia the passerby was a very common theme. I often did not attempt to make new relationships with people simply based out of the awkwardness of interacting and the feeling that I would never see them again. The people of the city seemed to move too fast to even attempt it and their faces to me seemed less than friendly. It took courage, prayer, and a healthy dose of humility for me to realize I was looking at people in a way that wasn’t as God intended me to. I was simply judging them for what they happened to look like on that day, in that second, on that block, on that particular street. I realized soon after that it would take a long process for me to get out of that state of mind.
However, over time the more interactions I had, the more I began to become more open towards people. Learning more about who God wishes us to be to people and how our interactions both in short fraction of time or life long are important in advancing the Kingdom was something that sparked my love for building better relationships. Though it is still incredibly uncomfortable for me to attempt interacting with strangers, especially in a city I am not familiar with, it has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my time here.
I encourage all of us to ask God everyday to see who we can interact with and how to best minister to them with our words and actions of authentic relationship building. I encourage all of us to keep each other accountable of how we measure up people before we understand who they truly are. I encourage us to hold each other to a higher standard of social interaction. Lastly I encourage all of us to look upon every new interaction as a chance to build a new bridge, a new bond, a new piece in the chain of love that this world so desperately needs. I urge all of us to be mindful of being a friend to all we come across not just friendly.
After all we have nothing to lose by giving our time and minds to people and so much more to gain.
Freddie’s ministry placement is at St. James School as a Teaching Assistant.
WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO?
The Rev. Erika Takacs
It’s amazing what you can get used to. An example: last week I was on my way home, walking down Broad Street, lost in my own musings and enjoying the crisp fall weather. As I crossed South Street, I looked up to see a man about halfway down the block, walking in my direction. Immediately the great question that haunts all city-dwellers popped into my mind: do I make eye contact and smile, or do I pretend like I don’t see him at all? I usually opt for the former, even if it makes me seem less cosmopolitan and chic. So as the gentleman and I approach one another, I look up, ready to smile, and suddenly he says, “Right…right. That’s exactly what I said. What in the world is she thinking?” At which point, I realized that he was, in fact, on the phone, and I laughed to myself and continued on my way.
These kinds of surprise outbursts are so common anymore that I barely even notice them. Remember the good old days, when to talk on your cell phone, you had to actually, you know, talk on your cell phone? Remember how strange it was at first to hear these one-sided conversations in public, as you sat in the train station or did your grocery shopping? But by now we’ve been through the era giant blue-blinking earpieces and the speakerphone, where people just kind of yelled in the general direction of their phone and moved on to the era of the headphones with the attached microphone. The man I saw had no visible communication device at all – no earpiece, no headphones, no phone to be seen. For all I could tell he’d had a microphone surgically implanted in his face. Nonetheless, I didn’t think a thing of it. That man who appears to be talking to himself as he walks alone down the street? Why, of course, he must be on the phone. Amazing what we can get used to.
That man who appears to be talking to himself as he stands in the midst of the temple compound? Why, of course, he must be praying. We are, of course, completely used to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We have heard this story so many times that the behavior of the Pharisee hardly strikes us as odd. The fact that he stands alone in the middle of a crowd and talks out loud is no surprise to us, because we have long ago realized that he is really talking to God, trying to pray. He gets it wrong, we know this; we’re used to watching him boast about his piety, his holiness, about how much he tithes and fasts. We’re also used to the actions of his foil, the tax collector, who stands far off and cannot even lift his eyes for shame. And, of course, we’re used to Jesus’ punchline: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other….” These two men, who appear to be talking to themselves in the courts of the temple? Why, of course, they must be praying – one of them well, and one of them not-so-well. We’re used to it.
This is, of course, dangerous. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that we “get” a parable, we should take a breath, take a step back, and sit at Jesus’ feet once more. Because we know that the parables of Jesus were intended to be shocking, to describe a world that was unlike anything his listeners were used to. Those to whom Jesus told this tale would have never seen this punchline coming in a million years. It would have seemed to them entirely outlandish, nonsensical. They would have walked away shaking their heads, wondering what color the sky was in Jesus’ world, this world where a lowlife like a tax collector, a corrupt, abusive, puppet of Rome, is held up as a model over and above a Pharisee, a faithful, righteous, strict keeper of the law.
And why is it so dangerous for us to think that we know better? After all, we have the gift of hindsight; we see the whole story, and we know how it ends. We see the color of the sky in Jesus’ world because we’re trying to live in that world, too. We know a bit better, don’t we? Ah, dangerous thinking. The risk here is two-fold: first, that we might get so used to this story, so comfortable with the caricature of Pharisee as fool and tax collector as diamond in the rough, that we will fall headlong into the parable’s trap by saying something like, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” Dangerous.
But the second risk here, if we are too quick to get used to this parable, is that we might miss the fact this Pharisee is not, actually, like the man I saw walking down Broad Street. That man looked like he was talking to himself but was actually talking to someone else. The Pharisee in this story looks like he’s talking to God but is actually talking to himself. He doesn’t speak as if God is actually listening; he’s just thinking out loud, talking to himself about what he’s done, and how he feels about it. God doesn’t have much to do with it. Even the text itself is unclear here. The Greek phrase which describes his prayer translates to something like, “he prayed thus to himself.” Does this mean he prayed under his breath so that no one else could year? Or does it literally mean that he was praying to himself? Or, perhaps, does the ambiguity simply lie there, challenging us to think differently, about him and about ourselves?
There are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves praying thus to us? It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s easy to get so used to our prayers that we are blinded to the fact that they actually do ascend to heaven like incense. We pray without actually praying, start a conversation with the expectation that no one is really listening. An example: we confess our sins often in this place – every Sunday, every day, in fact. We offer a weekly opportunity for private confession. But do we say those words as if God is actually listening? When we say, “Most merciful Father,” do we feel, in the speaking of those words, that we are demanding the attention of Almighty God? When we pray, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” are we just talking to ourselves, going over a list in our own heads and for our own sakes, waiting for the priest to turn around with words of absolution, waiting to get up off our knees? Are we talking to God, or to ourselves?
This parable reminds us that whether we recognize it or not, God is listening. God is always listening. God does hear us talking. This confession that we make week after week, day after day, can never be an empty gesture, because it’s real. It’s efficacious. It matters. We have really sinned, you and I have sinned, the Church has sinned, the country has sinned, our forebears have sinned. And God knows it, knows all of our sins already, even those that we are too afraid to bring to mind. God listens. If we were able to really grasp this, if we were to feel the sharp reality of this conversation, to acknowledge God’s Almighty, Omnipotent presence, our regular confessions would feel far different. We might even find ourselves beating our breasts, kneeling with heads bowed low, foreheads on the ground, unable to speak at all. We might find ourselves echoing the words of God’s people in Jeremiah, praying that God will not completely reject us, hoping that God does not loathe us, longing for peace and healing, hoping against all hope that God will continue to be righteous, that God will continue to forgive.
But this is not meant to scare us. Because the truth is that if we let ourselves become so used to speech of our confession that we are only really giving it lip service, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunity to feel the transformational grace of God’s mercy, the unearned and unmerited gift that God gives us when he says to us again and again, yes, I hear you, yes, you are mine, and yes, I forgive you, I cherish you, I see you and seek you out, and yes, through the merits of my only son, your beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, I even exalt you.
So go ahead. Make your humble confession before Almighty God, devoutly kneeling. Pray as if he is listening, talk not to yourself but to him, and know his infinite mercy and love. Speak, you humble, beautiful sinners, speak you servants, for your God is listening.
Mother Takacs is Associate Rector at Saint Mark’s Church and serves as Servant Year’s Chaplain.
AN ANSWER TO PRAYERS
By The Rev. Dr. Scott Albergate
When I was called to serve St. John’s, Norristown in November 2012, I was struck by how richly blessed we are in resources for ministry: a small but strong parishioner base, excellent buildings, and the well-known feeding ministry of St. John’s Soup Kitchen that has served the hungry and homeless of Norristown for over 30 years.
Nonetheless, it had been years since St. John’s had taken a fresh look at developing new urban ministries to serve a changing Norristown, where the Hispanic population has grown to 30%, and the poverty level is now 76% greater than the Pennsylvania average.
At a vestry meeting last spring, we prayed for guidance on how we could better engage God’s mission imperatives for Norristown right now. Not long after that I happened to receive a newsletter from ECS that featured our Diocese’s Servant Year program. As I read the article, it struck me that having someone serve full-time as an urban missioner could help jump start St. John’s to strategically build upon our current ministries and serve our community in new ways. Our Servant Year Member, Karitsa, has perfectly fit this role as a collaborator in mission with our parishioners.
A richly gifted and energetic graduate of the University of Maryland, Karitsa spends half her time working in direct service to our neediest citizens – those suffering the effects of homelessness, impoverishment, and mental illness – through Norristown Ministries, one of St. John’s community partner organizations that operates on our campus to provide case management, counseling, meals, and respite from life on the streets. This work also enables Karitsa to help St. John’s better understand our community today and strategically plan new avenues of service.
Karitsa is also engaged in a wide variety of urban mission initiatives, including: serving on the Diocese’s Latino Hispano Ministry Task Force to start an outreach ministry to Hispanics at St. John’s; developing a partnership with a local psychiatric emergency services hospital to address the mental health needs of our community; and preparing to serve as the site director of Camp St. John’s, a partnership with Diocesan Youth Ministry office to reach out to children in our neighborhood through a camp on the grounds of our church this July.
Speaking for all of us at St. John’s, we are grateful for Karitsa’s presence as a force for renewal among us. None of this would be possible, however, without the foresight of the Diocese in supporting urban ministry initiatives, the support of Canon Andrew Kellner and the Office of Youth Ministry and, most especially, the Director of our Servant Year program, Lindsay Barrett-Adler. It was Lindsay who responded to my request to consider a Servant Year intern for Norristown. Lindsay believed in the vision for ministry that we presented and made all the rest happen.
My hope in sharing these thoughts with leaders of congregations and future Servant Year members is that you, too, will consider the creative possibilities for mission and ministry that the Servant Year program offers.
Father Albergate is Rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norristown.
If there is one thing that Servant Year does well, it is the amount of support we have in our placements, in our house and just in life in general. Between prayer partners, the wonderful people with whom we get to live in intentional community, the loving and always available Mother Erika (our chaplain and the Assistant Rector at Saint Mark’s), and our ever-faithful leader, Lindsay, we are surrounded by people who desire the best for us and would come running at the drop of a hat.
To top it all off, Servant Year also requires that its members meet regularly with a mentor; someone who is older and wiser than us. Several weeks ago I met with mine for the first time. She asked me what some of my goals were for the year and I mentioned one of them was getting better at working with and engaging teenage boys.
A large part of my job is interacting with at-risk youth who have come from a variety of difficult homes and have varying struggles such as mental illness, substance abuse and truancy. I have found working with the boys particularly difficult because some of them remind me a lot of some other boys I encountered when I was younger. I won’t go into detail, but those other boys hurt me very deeply and I am finding it hard not transferring my feelings towards those boys onto these new boys.
After having explained this to my mentor, she wasted no time. Earlier I mentioned to her that I find writing very therapeutic, so she asked me to write down my story. She wanted me to verbalize what happened and to work on forgiving the past, so I could move forward and work with these boys in the present. Writing about the past hurt more than I expected. In fact, I still don’t feel completely satisfied with what I have written, but I am thankful. It is a wonderful thing to have someone come alongside me in this struggle and push me to do the hard things that will make me better.
Hm… “Push me to do the hard that things that will make me better,” that is what this year is all about, isn’t it? A year of servanthood. A year of humility. A year of coming up against the dirt inside ourselves. A year of learning to turn that weakness into strength as we lean into God and the support with which he provides us. I am so thankful for all of the support that is intentionally built into this program.
I love y’all, for real.
Tamarah’s ministry placement is as a Case Manager at Diversified Community Services.
MAYBE THIS STUFF AIN’T SO CRAY*
I hate brokenness. I hate brokenness and I really, really hate seeing people in pain. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), my days are spent surrounded by both. My 45-minute commute takes me from my home in Germantown, smack through the middle of North Philly, to my workplace– situated between Chinatown and Kensington. It would be so much easier if I could hide from all of this, right? Maybe I could take a job or live in a neighborhood where I don’t have to encounter these realities daily. Like the Jars of Clay song says, “If I don’t want to, I can drown this out.”
Welp, I’m not doing a very good job of that this year. My placement is at a men’s homeless shelter. My time is mostly spent coordinating volunteers and donations, but I also get to spend time with the guests who live there. Each guy has their own story of how they ended up at the shelter, and each has their own (very) unique personality. There is a lot of brokenness, but also a lot of hope and joy. In addition, I facilitate a group of residents that meet once a month. It’s a loosely structured group that gives the members a chance to address things that are on their mind. This could be anything from a vent session about chores not getting done, to telling the group their life story. These stories are often brutally, painfully honest. I’ve noticed a common theme in many of their stories is how important their faith is to them. Because of their faith–many of these guys would say– they are able to stay in recovery or begin to mend broken relationships.
So what’s my point? Actually I have two. First of all, brokenness is a part of life, and hiding from it isn’t going to make it go away. We are not called to put our headphones on, and “drown this out” (Jars of Clay, again). We’re called to be with the poor, and do something about the brokenness around us.
Second point: Jesus is really good at showing us that our social structure is all messed up. The fact that I went to college, have a supportive family, and am privileged in so many other ways, means that society sticks me higher on the social ladder than many of the residents. But. But. But. Jesus does this crazy thing where he places the same value on everyone. No matter what. He sometimes even flips the social ladder around. That man who is telling me his story of addiction and recovery probably has a better understanding of just how gracious and loving our God is. His faith could be stronger than mine, which, in that crazy role-reversal thing that Jesus is so good at doing, means I should take notes from him.
So maybe being surrounded by pain and brokenness ‘ain’t so cray’ after all.
* I give credit where credit is due. Thanks, Kanye. This title is totally a riff off your lyrics.
Emily’s ministry placement is as the Community Life Assistant at Bethesda Project.
POVERTY AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
Growing up in the United States can be harsh. Growing up in Philadelphia can be debilitatingly harsh. The United States and Somalia, that bastion of human rights, share the dubious distinction of being the only countries not to have ratified the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a commitment to a child’s access to the necessities of healthy development—a name, food, physical, social, and spiritual safety, play spaces, housing, medical attention, “an atmosphere of affection,” and education (1). Among developed countries, the US is second only to Romania in prevalence of childhood poverty (2). In Philadelphia, supposedly over 40% of children experience or witness violence (e.g., gunshots, stabbings, rape) before their eighteenth birthday. The youth we work with, at Covenant House, an adolescent crisis center for homeless and marginalized youth, have experienced many forms of pain and become stuck.
Many costly and painful conditions and major causes of death vary along racial and socioeconomic lines—diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer, mental illness, etc. A growing literature on Adverse Childhood Experiences has linked childhood exposure to stressors to most major health disparities in the US. These stressors include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional neglect, parental illness, among several others, and affect a whopping 60+% of the population (3). Stressful experiences disrupt the normal development of critical brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. Mismodeled brains become less able to regulate emotions, control anxiety and aggression, think creatively, learn, and remember. These physiological and behavioral challenges often lead to unhealthy behaviors (e.g., unhealthy diets, substance abuse, risky sex), costly chronic diseases, and physical and psychic suffering. Among the gloomy data, one fact shines. The aforementioned negative outcomes of childhood stress are significantly buffered when the child has a stable, supportive, unconditionally loving relationship with an adult (4).
Given the developing understanding of the profoundly negative impact of unhealthy developmental contexts on health outcomes, we will hopefully begin seeing increased funding and attention for childhood programs. The American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed preventing toxic childhood stress as a primary concern of pediatric care and policy in upcoming decades (5). Healthy childhood environments, especially during the critical developmental period of the first three years of life when the brain matures rapidly, are critical in ensuring the future economic and social stability of the country. However, what about the many, many adolescents who have already experienced a traumatic childhood and developed the physiology and behaviors that result from it? The youth whose 0-3 critical developmental periods did not nurture them sufficiently? The youth who have been removed from abusive families, locked up, sold drugs or their body to survive, and tried to survive on the streets? The youth we work with at Covenant House, 24/7/365?
Fortunately, adolescence provides another critical developmental period, when the brain is still developing and being “rewired”. Youth who have been injured, developed bad habits, lived in hostile and impoverished environments, and survived receive a second chance from biology. Where do they get this chance from society? Schools? Not with behavior and attention problems. Employers? Not with a criminal record and drug habits. Family? Maybe. The state, via foster care? Only until your eighteenth birthday. These are the youth who come to us. Our job is to get them on their feet, by helping them become legal with IDs, helping them navigate legal and medical systems, and helping them find and maintain employment and housing. However, do yourecall that powerful buffer that protects developing brains from the negative effects of the stress that is inescapable at that point in their lives? A strong, supportive relationship with an adult. That is the critical part of the ambiguous job description that comes with all social service jobs. That is what enables the brain, creativity, learning and memory, and hope to thrive.
The power of positive relationships was underscored to me a few weeks ago during a conversation with our site’s pediatrician, after I asked how he saw the role of Covenant House in the greater medical/ social services infrastructure of the city. He drew a picture of a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff, were hospitals, ambulances, and life support to catch youth who had fallen all the way down the cliff. Between the top and bottom of the cliff, he drew a trampoline, to represent Covenant House, and said “our role, here, is to help youth bounce back.” Then he looked me in the eye and said “and the way we help them bounce back, is by falling in love with them.” The actual, daily challenges of this—of providing structure and boundaries, finding youth’s individual strengths and admirable qualities among red flags, and building a supportive relationship with someone who has had little experience to develop an internal model of that—those topics will have to wait for future posts.
(1) UN General Assembly. (1959). Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Resolution 1386 (XIV).
(2) UNICEF. (2012). Measuring Child Poverty. Report Card Series, 10. <http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc10_eng.pdf>
(3) Bornstein. (2013) Protecting Children from Toxic Stress. NY Times. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/protecting-children-from-toxic-stress/?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0>
(4) Shonkoff, Boyce, and McEwen. (2009). Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities: Building a New Framework for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. JAMA, 301, 2252-2259.
(5) Shonkoff et al. (2012). The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress. Pediatrics,129, e232-246.
Tim’s ministry placement is as a Youth Advisor at Covenant House.