SURRENDING IS NECESSARY
By Shontae Walker
This year I am learning to enjoy every single moment and simply do what I love to do, which is dancing, getting to know God more and deepening my relationship with Him and step by step becoming a better version of myself. I have realized that focusing on enjoying each moment and deepening my relationship with God are things that will help me maintain a sense of thankfulness and gratitude in the midst of the twist and turns and surprises in life. These things are foundational for me no matter where life takes me, which is what I am learning.
On a more practical note, I am currently in the process of applying to business school. My hopes is to work towards developing the necessary skills to create a business that functions as a non-profit, but is sustained by earned revenue. I want this business to help not only children and youth, but other organizations that are doing great work, but do not have the funds nor the resources to outwork their vision.
I hope to create a platform and safe space for communities of children, youth, and adults to learn the importance and significance of building strong and healthy relationships with one another, organizations, and their own communities. I envision a community revived with hope and refreshed with new possibilities while living beyond limitations put on them. A place where children are supported, young adults are empowered and adults are equipped, so that families are strengthened. Ultimately an organization that creates a home away from home for families everywhere. My knowledge of any type of business is very minimal, which is why I hope to learn more about the creative side of strategic business management in a masters program. My top choices at the moment are University of Pennsylvania-Wharton; Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA; and Philadelphia University.
While business school is what I am pursuing after I finish the program, I have realized that life is not as predictable as I would like it to be, so I am open to discovering a more scenic route to building this business. As some people say, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. Through it all, what I have discovered is my great need for my Father, Jesus Christ. In Him is where all the hope, vision, strength, joy, wisdom, direction, and so much more I will ever need on this journey. I have truly discovered the blessing in detours and wholehearted surrender.
“Genuine total surrender is a personal sovereign preference for Jesus Christ Himself.” -Oswald Chambers
Shontae serves as a case manager at Besthesda Project.
I AM A CHURCH GIRL
By Jill Disbro
My name is Jill and I am a church girl. Short and sweet. I am a church girl. While this may not be the first thing I say to every person I meet on the street, I find that when I am asked to describe who I am and where I come from, one of the first things that I must explain is that I am one of those people who “grew up in the church.” I went to church every Sunday, I always went to Sunday school, participated in every youth outing and volunteer opportunity, and as I got older volunteered in Vacation Bible School. My formation as a child, teenager, and now as a young adult has been defined by my experience at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio. While this may sound like the description of an angelic, Christian child, I assure you it is not- my parents could give you a much more accurate description. But what I’m getting at is that my whole life the service I do has been assumed; this call to give of myself for others has been a natural product of my identity as a church girl. But why is that? What about my faith makes service to others so fundamental and necessary?
These questions and desire to explore the intersection between faith and service has shaped my spiritual growth through college and after graduation as I explore what it means to be the hands and feet of God in this world. After “growing up in the church” in Columbus, Ohio, I went on to attend Roanoke College in Virginia where growing in the church took on a new meaning. I got heavily involved in Campus Ministry life where I began to encounter people from different faith backgrounds and define my faith on a deeper level. I encountered people who, although they also “grew up in the church,” found their experience stifling and left for college disenchanted by religion as a whole. So, I continued to question what kept me connected to church and what about my faith made service to others so essential.
After college, I continued to grow in my faith as I went on to serve as a Young Adult in Global Mission through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Throughout this year-long program I lived in the community of Tepoztlán, México, learning what it means to serve through accompaniment and working with a non-profit organization that promotes the rights of children and youth to participate in their communities. I spent the year forming relationships with people and loved getting to know the insights and capabilities of children and teenagers. This experience working with youth, exploring what it means to grow in faith and service, brought me to the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Servant Year program to serve as the Program Coordinator for the Episcopal Mission Center. I can’t wait to continue to grow in faith and help young people have positive experiences with religion and “grow up in the Church” the way I did. Youth ministry really excites me because it unites two things I am really passionate about: the formation of youth to be free-thinking, caring, outwardly focused individuals and the exploration of faith, and praising God. I am excited to grow with young people and to be involved in an environment that is supportive and simply a lot of fun. I can’t wait to share this coming year with my fellow Servant Year members and the Episcopal Mission Center while learning, growing, and discerning God’s call for my life.
Jill serves as the program coordinator for the Episcopal Mission Center.
THE VIRTUE OF INTERRUPTABILITY
By Cory Brautigam
Don’t waste your life never allowing yourself to be interrupted. I continually find it true that it is better to be a person who is easily interrupted than a person who never allows interruptions to affect them. Maybe I’m just putting in a good word for spontaneity, but I think there is something more to being a person who is attentive to interruption than just being spontaneous.
Interruption is the breaking of continuity. Whether it is the continuity of a conversation, the continuity of a walk in the park, or the continuity of life, interruptions interfere. They come in all shapes and sizes. When you’re walking down the street and a homeless person tries to engage you in conversation: interruption. When you’re writing a blog post and your housemate strikes up a conversation: interruption.
We generally consider interruptions bad. The reason for this, I believe, is two-fold. First, interruptions get in the way of what we expect to happen or what we are planning. When this happens, we are rendered somewhat helpless. We like to be in control. We like to have a plan. We feel a sense of entitlement — this is our time, and we can do with it what we want. Interruption takes this from us. Second, we are more attuned to the negative interruptions. While we notice the baby crying when we’re trying to talk on the phone, we miss the flute-like call of the Oriole as we run through the park. “Please do not interrupt” has been overdone. Surely there is a time (in fact, many a time) not to interrupt, but because we are always being told that we should not, we learn to react as if we have been wronged when we are interrupted.
My brother once found a fly cooked into his french toast at a diner, this was an unwelcome interruption to his mealtime. Bad interruptions do exist, and they take away from whatever it is they are disrupting. Negative interruptions are quite common in this age – an age of technology and consumerism. Facebook and advertisements bombard us daily, but these “fly in the french toast” moments are not the only kind of interruptions. There are times when the welcoming of an interruption will allow us to better enjoy the very continuity being interrupted.
I am very aware of interruptions as I spend most of my time in a classroom with between 14 and 18 interrupters (aka students). In this setting we often discourage interruption because it takes away from the class. However, I must admit, I sometimes wonder if the classroom should be brimming with interruption. Indeed it would take a very skilled educator to cultivate a classroom environment where this could lead to healthy growth and formation, but reimagining a classroom with formative disturbances might prove a worthwhile task. It is very important for the learner to have the “virtue of interruptability.” Yes, it is important to seek, but it is also necessary to receive, and sometimes we deny ourselves this by disallowing interruption. We must be open to receiving beauty and truth – even when it comes in the unexpected moment or form.
I would argue that the greatest interruption of all time was the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is the very foundation of the Christian faith. If you confess faith in this person, you are called to be attentive to interruptions, even to build your life upon the interruptions of Christ.
The usefulness of interruption is evident in various ways. It can humble us. It can remind us that we are not the only person with an agenda, and that other people and their cares are worth our attention. It can teach us about the world around us, about things we are not even aware are there for us to be taught about. It can guide us into new places, places we would not have imagined we would be. It is in being aware of the interruptions in our life that we are transformed – for this is often the mysterious way in which God moves. Of course, there are still interruptions that we should disregard, but if we pay attention we might be surprised by what goodness we find interrupting our lives.
Cory serves as a co-teacher at St. James School.
AFFIRMING THE SACRED AMID THE PROFANE
By Donnecia Brown
Recently, I attended The Episcopal Young Adult Pilgrimage to Ferguson, MO. It was intensely emotional in the most beautiful way possible. In Ferguson, I met a tangible God andencountered resurrection power.
I sat on the side walk across from where Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for approximately four hours, and thought “Lord, how long will we suffer?” Then, I received a gentle reminder- “He is risen.” Affirming the sacred and countering the profane. Michael Brown’s memorial was a gentle reminder of the resurrection power of God. There are many things being resurrected around and within me. I am still processing my experience in Ferguson as it was indescribable in may ways.
Lord, protect my process. Help me to affirm the sacred amid the profane. With your help, I can stand in solidarity against injustice of any kind. Help me to stand firm. Amen.
Donnecia serves at the Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project.
By Leanna Browne
I feel like this year has me questioning a lot of things so far – What am I really doing (in the fight for liberation)? Is Servant Year actually making an impact? How is the work I am doing really contributing to liberation? More importantly, what is the goal of our work? I could go on and on with questions, but I’ll pause here. I guess my inquisitive nature as a child is revealing itself (perhaps because it never left). As Servant Year members, though we earn modest stipends, we are provided with comforts. For example, we are all given places to live, placements to provide us with an enriching experience, mentors to help support us in our professional and/or spiritual journeys, small group meetings to help create communities outside of our houses, monthly speaker series to engage us in discussions around relevant topics, formation opportunities to develop spiritually, etc. I’d say we are pretty protected by all these benefits. I think to an extent it can become easy (and safe) to become insulated by these comforts and become complacent. To bask in the privileges we have been afforded. But, if we say we care about issues that affect marginalized populations, shouldn’t we be questioning and re-examining how our lives reflect that on a daily basis? Asking ourselves – Are we really about that life? The life I’m talking about is really pursuing liberation, like Jesus did. I think this is where humility is vital.
What does it mean to be humble? According to Google’s dictionary, it means having or showing a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance. I don’t think being humble means thinking so lowly of one’s self to the point of self-deprecation. But, I think being humble means recognizing that you are but one person. You don’t have all the skills and knowledge to do everything and are willing to step back to listen and learn from others. As was brought to my attention in the first Wednesday morning devotion done in our office, John Neafsey writes in A SACRED VOICE IS CALLING: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience, “Whether we are a doctor or a minister, an artist or a taxi driver, a nanny or a teacher, our fundamental human vocation is to become just, loving, and humble persons during our short lives here on this earth” (5). Just, loving, and humble persons. Sounds a lot like Jesus, right?
1 Peter 5:6-7 (NLT) says, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” I see this as saying that God calls us to humility. How can we work alongside those seen as subaltern, if we are up so high in our places of privilege? But, God also opens himself up to us because we can’t pursue humility (or life in general) alone. I realize that there will be moments when I am cynical about things going on in the world. There will be moments when I question what’s the point of fighting for liberation when it all feels like too much. But, I have to remember that the acts of ordinary people together can be monumental.
Leanna serves in the DIOPA Office of Family and Young Adult Ministry.
By Anisa Knox
In late August, I arrived at the Free Church of St. John of Kensington eager to begin my year of service and intentional community living. I honestly did not know know what to expect. My doubts about my placement soon dissipated as I was warmly welcomed by a team of individuals who were active community members. The vicar of Free Church, Padre Jose taught me step-by-step about the various community services Free Church provides, including the Food Pantry and the After-school program. Not only do I work directly with the community but also with local officials to obtain funding and help address some of the needs of the community.
Several communities in Northern Philadelphia, especially Kensington suffer from high crime rates, poverty, and hunger. My social responsibility is to partner with local organizations and churches to provide quality services in the areas of education, nutrition and sports that will motivate children, youth, adults and seniors. My overall purpose of working with other community stakeholders is to improve the overall well-being of my neighbors by providing resources and tools for our neighbors to improve their mental, social and physical attributes. As a privileged college graduate, I realized that I can not solve the problems the people in this neighborhood face everyday: homelessness, joblessness, hunger but I can contribute as an ally of this community in assisting the people. I carefully have to remind myself, my service is not about me but about the people. I provide the resources that allow them to empower themselves.
After personally speaking with community members about their vision of more accessible services and better outreach programs for the community, I have contacted three other churches and local organization for possible outreach initiatives. Some of my work included meeting with the Office of Councilman Maria Quinones to see how City Hall can provide grants for the after-school program, the food pantry and other service projects for this year. I was amazed to experience firsthand how the community can assess their own problems and seek government representatives to fortify the community. I envision my partnership with residents, the Councilman, and church advocates as a braid, constantly weaving different resources together to make the community stronger.
Last week, Padre Jose and I attended an Open House (Conocenos) at Taller Puertorriqueno, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping students deepen their understanding of Puerto Rican and Afro-Latino culture through art and educational experiences. I absolutely fell in love with this organization! The Open House included a bomba and plena dance class, students illustrations, photographs, artwork and performance. I gained inspiration from attending the various activities and am currently brainstorming different activities for students at the Free Church of St. John program. I have high prospects for this year and can’t wait to update you all with my progress!
Anisa serves at the Free Church of St. John.
Working at St. James School has been tough, hectic and time consuming. On paper, the job description blatantly outlines the mandatory 12-hours days, but considering lesson planning, material checking, and Xeroxing, 12-hours days easily turn into 14-hours days with work on the weekends, too. The learning curb is incredibly steep; I must make three large mistakes daily. I am constantly asking my co-workers for advice or for quick grading, attendance checking, and other miscellaneous tutorials. There are days I am mentally exhausted, physically sick, and spiritually stretched to my limits. I am constantly treading water and sometimes I can only do enough to come up for air only every few minutes.
But I would not trade my placement for the world, and here are five reasons why.
One: I joined the Episcopal Service Corps to become closer to my faith, and to place Christianity at the forefront of my life. Although all Episcopal Service Corps programs incorporate high levels of faith formation and intentional community, the job placements do not always fall in line. However, St. James School begins each day with a prayer, each class with a prayer, every Thursday with a Mass, and hosts fieldtrips to weekly mass services at St. Marks. Furthermore, the school has an ordained priest who spiritually guides me, and a chaplain who helps me deeply understand different Christian rituals.
Two: In most Episcopal Service Corps programs, each member has different placements, but at the St. James School there are two volunteer Co-teachers from Servant Year, and this year it is Cory and me. Because of the job description, I do not always get to check with Cory daily, but as the other person in Servant Year who understands and is also coping with the demands of St. James School, he is an incredible support system. I without a doubt am lucky to have a placement with a guaranteed support system.
Three: I purposefully applied and chose to accept the Co-teaching placement at St. James School with the intention of discovering if teaching middle school students is truly my passion. Based on the time that I have spent as a teacher, I now know that I cannot get enough of teaching! The rush of leading students and watching them understand new and complicated material is thrilling and the actual instruction is the best part of my day. Additionally, I now have an understanding of all the nitty-gritty skills I need to have to effectively have my students focused, interested in class, and prepared for transitions, and moreover I have all year to perfect and add to those nitty-gritty skills. As an immeasurable bonus I am learning to think on my feet and am beginning to archive lessons and activities for my future students.
Four: No matter how difficult the job is, or how badly I mess up, being a positive, supportive and consistent role model for the students at St. James School is changing students’ lives. St. James School is purposefully placed and services students in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, by simply being present for these students and challenging them into academic rigor the students are stepping up and opening doors to competitive high schools, which in turn alters their long term success. At the end of the day my students are what matters most.
Five: No matter how difficult the students are each day, they are changing my life in unexpected and positive ways. Simply knowing the students at St. James School and their stories is incredibly humbling. The problems they face at such a young age are real, and recognizing how they cope and survive is mind blowing.
Danielle serves as a co-teacher at the St. James School.
My Servant Year work placement is with the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown. Here at St. Luke’s I wear many hats; I am the Director of Youth Ministry and Christian Education. I will also be taking over as Director of the Food Pantry. I am very excited and honored to be in this position. My vision for the church is to ignite a familiar enthusiasm towards Christian education in youth as well as adults. In addition, I seek to implement more art, music, trips into the curriculum. My first major goal this year is to establish a solid framework for Christian education classes. I look forward to exploring Christian education with the parishioners of St. Luke’s and am blessed to be working with such open minded people. Currently, I am in the process of starting new classes after Sunday mass this November. Youth ministry is taking off this year with our “House of Chaos” Halloween Party on October 25th. I will be hosting the event and hope to see some of you there!
St. Luke’s Food Pantry has been one of the places I have found solace. The staff creates a very relaxed, homely atmosphere where we can service the community with food. When we bag food on Thursday mornings it is truly a family event. We have staff members and their kids and even grandkids helping out; the room is full of stories and laughter. On Fridays, when we distribute the bags of food, it really makes my week. Yes, we hand out food, but we also pray with the patrons too. It is a great feeling to be a part of a good cause.
This year embarks a challenging, yet rewarding spiritual journey for me. Success in every area of my life centers on me simply being happy and healthy. So I am reorganizing my life from adding meditation, journaling, exercise, positive affirmations to praying with my imagination, hugging myself and laughing at nothing. One of the hardest things for me to do right now are activities that require me to sit still (my housemates would agree!) So, I have fashioned my worship to fit my personality. I am a hardcore daydreamer and visual/kinetic learner; when I pray using my imagination I like to envision what I am praying for and feelings of the joy, love, etc. that go along with it.
I accept that my spiritual journey is going to be lifelong; I am still learning to accept the unknown. It has been one month into the program and I have had hard tear-filled days, but it is okay. We all go through ups and downs in life and it is those moments that make us stronger. I figured out that sometimes God just wants to see what I will do with what I have—will she encourage myself and still sing high notes when her day ends on a low note? Yes, I will! I will try because that is all I can do and all God wants me to. If I can walk halfway, He will carry me the rest and you too.
Ongachi serves at St. Luke’s Church.
By Deanna Pflieger
My spiritual journey and relationship with God has always been very personal to me. I grew up attending church and Sunday school every Sunday morning at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Albuquerque, NM until I moved to Fort Worth, TX for college. In Fort Worth, not two weeks into the new chapter in my journey, I found a church home at St. Paul Lutheran. Church was my time to talk to God and revel in His wonder. I had developed this personal time with God, and my time to reflect with God about my week was well-defined to Sunday morning services. I would interact with my fellow congregation, but this was a spiritual personal time for me. The time experiencing the service and worshipping had become very personal and apparently also very important to my weekly routine.
Working at Trinity Church Gulph Mills with the children and youth on Sunday morning has completely changed that dynamic of my Sunday morning ritual. Sunday mornings are no longer reserved for just my conversations with God. I have to be present mentally and physically at the Children’s service and Sunday school to nurture the children’s spiritual journey. I do not have any personal time to reflect on my week with God because I feel accountable for the spiritual well-being of the children and youth at Trinity Church. I need to be present for them and serve them on Sunday. Since starting at Trinity, I was not setting aside this time to be with God as I have been doing for the past 22 years of my life. I felt displaced.
I did not notice how much I was missing my time with God until a few weeks of Sunday mornings spent serving the spiritual journey of others. I realized that my ideals for how I would be spiritually fed would have to change. I believe I have a heart for service, therefore one of my reasons for joining Servant Year, but I had never let my personal spiritual journey and service for others fuse together as a personal time with God. Serving others was a time for community while my Sunday morning was time for personal reflection. Of course, I know God can be found anywhere and anytime. I had never considered that my spiritual journey could be impacted so greatly by this little tweak in my routine. That time I used to set aside has become to mean something different in my spiritual journey.
Even though much of my time is spent at a church and in the presence of God, I find Him urging me to find that personal time we shared before I began working at a church. I have begun to define my spiritual journey differently as I believe this is a year for service. Throughout this year of service, I hope my relationship with God will deepen as I find a new way to have my personal reflection time with God. I have not quite found a solution, but that is what makes it a journey, spiritual journey with lefts and rights that can leave me in my comfort zone or completely displace me.
Deanna serves as Coordinator for Children and Youth Ministry at Trinity Church Gulph Mills.
Ship visiting is something that gets easier as you get into a routine of it: you stop forgetting your TWIC card at the office, you have more confidence driving in a terminal you’ve been at every day this week, you are constantly in the mindset it takes to do your best when you get on board. Some days I struggle with ship visiting for just an afternoon, especially if I haven’t been out on the port in months. Today was one of those days.
We are missing some of our key ship visiting manpower who are attending NAMMA conference happening in Montreal, so I have been on call for ship visiting this week. Mesfin was alone ship visiting today, and is a saint for bearing the brunt of the work. I was assigned only one ship, an extremely light load. Still, coming off two late nights writing a paper for school and with torrential rain in the forecast, I had to psych myself up to get ready to go out. Soon enough though, I knew God had his hand on my day.
I gathered everything I needed to go ship visiting: hard hat, TWIC, safety vest, phone cards, paperwork, pen, lunchbox; and then triple checked that I had the essentials. I headed down Columbus Boulevard, thinking over everything I had to do: both on board and when I got back to the office. It was all a little overwhelming.
No visitor vehicles are allowed to drive onto the pier at Packer Ave, instead we ride a van out to the ship. Most often, the ride is a fairly silent one, the driver focusing on getting where we need to go. Today, I stepped onto the van and the driver got a big smile on his face and said, ‘long time, no see!’ I grinned when I realized he remembered me – and we chatted the whole ride down the pier.
When I got on board I had wonderful conversations with the crew – I heard about a four year old son back in the Philippines, who loves cars. Every other word out his mouth when he skypes with his dad is ‘VROOM VROOM’. I got to see the joy on the face of a seafarer who is signing off in mid-October, he said he is very ready for three or four months at home. I witnessed to the worry of the crew of this ship who is headed from here down to Wilmington, NC, right alongside Hurricane Joaquin. I got to offer the promise that we would all be praying for them.
The visit was soon over and I headed down the gangway to wait for the van to come pick me up. After about 5 minutes, a safety checker in a pickup truck came over and said, ‘Hop in, there’s no reason for you to be waiting around out here,’ so I got a swift ride back to the gate to be on my way.
Despite my slow moving reluctance this morning, today was a holy day of ship visiting. I was reminded of the good nature of all the people that work on our piers. On board, I was reminded of the importance of our work and the ministry of presence we provide. And, it didn’t rain.
Trish serves as Volunteer Coordinator at the Seamen’s Church Institute.
Life with God involves service.
“But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant … for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve…” (Mark 10:43-44).
What a good and important reading for us today, as you begin this journey with Servant Year. It’s a reading that emphasizes a word we’ve been thinking about all week and that we are focusing on as our theme for today: service.
“I didn’t come to be served but rather to serve” (Mark 10:44).
But it’s also about being surprised.
But there’s another word I want you to think about: And that word is surprise.
Throughout this retreat—during all of our engaging, discussing, and embodying— we’ve talked a lot about life with God and one another. We talked about how life together has to include formation, community, and–yes—service.
But I want to talk for a few minutes about how life with God and one another also has a lot to do with surprise.
Look at the surprising ways God acts in the Bible.
Remember our readings for today and consider the surprising ways God acts in the Bible:
The psalmist, whose suffering had him down and out, now stands in the very center of the “great congregation” praising and teaching (Ps. 22:25).
In 1 Peter, it is when “the end of everything has come” that the community of early Christians are surprised to learn they must begin living out the Gospel.
In the OT reading, the Prophet of Zechariah speaks to the few and broken Israelites who have remained in Judah during the exile. Unlike the exiles, these people were able to stay in their homes. Yes, they are still in Zion, but Zion is empty. Their temple is gone. Their families are gone. It seems even God is gone.
And then God says, “I have returned to Zion; I will settle in Jerusalem” (Zech. 8:3). God will come back. And so will their families. And there will even be new families: “Old men and old women will again dwell in the plazas of Jerusalem. Each of them will have a staff in their hand because of their great age. The city will be full of boys and girls playing in its plazas” (Zech. 8:4-5).
Where it seems there is nothing, God declares there will be something. And not just something, but everything: “The seed is healthy:/the vine will give its fruit./The land will produce;/the heavens will give its dew./I will give the remnant of this people all these things” (Zech. 8:12)
That same unexpected healing is present in the Gospel reading. Jesus has just told the disciples his extreme, confusing, and even disappointing teaching that the Messiah has come not to rule but to serve. He’s walking with his disciples, perhaps continuing this conversation, and there’s a “sizeable crowd” around him. With all of this going on, Jesus still hears Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, calling his name. The crowd doesn’t expect Jesus to respond, so they shush the man. Maybe even Bartimaeus doesn’t expect Jesus to respond because the crowd has to interrupt his shouting to say, “He’s heard you—go!”
No expects this man to be heard. But Jesus hears him. Against the odds of busy crowds, social stigmas, and Jesus’ own weighty march to Jerusalem, the Son of God surprises everyone. And while it is indeed amazing that Jesus heals this man, thesurprise is that Jesus chooses to see a person to whom the world has become blind. Jesus’ healing is surprising not because Bartimaeus cannot see the world, but because the world chooses not to see Bartimaeus. But this is who Jesus sees, speaks to, and heals. This is the one Jesus, the Son of God, serves.
Think about God’s surprising ways in your own life.
Think about when you’ve experienced God’s surprising ways in your own life:
· When has something turned out differently than you thought?
· When have your assumptions been overturned? Your horizons widened?
· When has a surprise challenged you?
· When has a surprise made something new and better than you ever imagined?
Being open to surprise is how we live in service
Each of you have bravely and willingly committed to a life of service over this next year.
But along with service, what I hope you will take with you for the year ahead is this:be open to a surprising life with God. Because these surprises are essential to service. They show us how to live out this life of service. They open us up to God’s presence; help us understand Jesus’ call to serve; teach us how to enact God’s love in the world. God surprising visions imagine—and maybe even rely on—us taking part in them.
Going back to Zechariah, God declares the surprising things God will do for those in Judah and then says, “These are the things you should do: Speak the truth to each other; make truthful, just, and peaceable decisions within your gates” (Zech. 8:16, emphasis mine).
God gives surprising help to the psalmist and the psalmist’s whole life becomes about showing that help to others: “Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!/Let all who seek the Lord praise him!/I pray your hearts live forever!” (Ps. 22:26)
The writer of 1 Peter declares our salvation has been made complete through Jesus Christ by writing, “The end of everything has come.” But that is precisely when we are called to love and serve one another most fiercely.
Jesus heals Bartimaeus. And then what does Bartimaeus do? He follows Jesus.
Life with God is call and response. Surprise and service.
So be prepared to be surprised!
So be open to a surprising life with God. Be open to a God who chooses to act through suffering and exiled people; through people like Bartimaeus who the world does not see; and through servants like Jesus. A God who says the greatest people are those who joyfully become the least.
If you’re open to this life with God, I can’t tell you exactly where God will take you, but I believe it will include incredible places marked by God’s faithfulness, justice, and love. I believe it will form you into your truest self. I believe it will include loving community. And, yes, service. I believe it will be an amazing way to live your life.
So, when you leave here to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, be prepared to be surprised.
Preached by The Reverend Sarah Hedgis, Servant Year Chaplain, at Opening Retreat Eucharist on 8/21/15.
“Here’s the truth: Life sucks sometimes.
When it hurts so bad that you can’t go on,
Life keeps moving on.
When you feel that you’ve been done wrong,
When you’re sure your world is coming down around you,
Life keeps moving on”
As Servant Year round 1 comes to a close for me, I can’t help but think of this song by one of my favorite artists, Ben Rector. This year hasn’t always been easy, and the words of this song were a comfort during those tough times. The idea that ‘life keeps moving on’ reminded me that time was out my control, that no matter what I was going through, or how long the weeks seemed, time was still passing. Even if it didn’t look like things were changing, they were. And life did move on, I made it through those challenging times.
“When it’s good
When you’re flying higher
When your feet float up above the ground around you
Life keeps moving on
When you’re glad,
When you’re fat and happy,
When you don’t need for anything,
Life keeps moving on”
As I head into this next chapter of my time with Servant Year, these words call me to remember that the good times, too, are only temporary. I am prepared to be grateful for each and every moment of this coming year; to relish in all that is going on around me and within me. I want to remember that though a year seems like a long time at the start, it goes by quickly, and it is time that I’ll never get back. I want to take hold of my next year, and make it all that it can be.
“We’re better off the sooner that we find
That life is mostly what we choose to see”
And lastly, these words encompass the most important thing I’ve learned this year: I can’t control what’s happening around me, but I sure can control how I look at it. Walking away from Servant Year #1, I’m going to be very intentional about which things that I’ve experienced this year are coming with me into the next. The moments when I was sure my world was coming down around me, those are getting left behind. But the moments when I was flying high, those are coming with me. And I’m certain there will be more of each in the next 12 months. But after year #1, I’m prepared, I’m grounded, and I’m determined to never let life move past me.
“At this pace
We’re gonna get somewhere
If it’s good or bad, if it’s slow or fast
Life keeps moving on”
You can listen to the whole song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1NKlW0t-wY
(Its highly recommended)
Trish Serves as Director of Communications at Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI).
If my Servant Year has had a theme, it’s been the theme of charity.
In itself, signing up for Servant Year Philadelphia is a charitable action — it’s donating a year of time and energy to the program. And, during the following months, as I worked at Covenant House PA, lived at House of Prayer, and completed the requirements of the Servant Year program, when my motivation would sometimes fail, I got the strength to continue by recalling and recommitting to my initial charitable decision.
By continually renewing that original charitable commitment, I have learned that the best way to put charity into action is to commit to doing a little bit over a long period of time.
At the beginning of the year, I was trying to do too much. I would be looking for extra charitable things that I could do for other people. I wanted to see that I had made a positive impact.
Covenant House seemed, at first, like the perfect place to do “extra charitable things,” because there were so many opportunities for “going the extra mile.” I wanted to really help these young men, to go above and beyond.
But whenever I got caught up in “doing extra charity” for any one of the residents in particular, I lost track of the big picture, my professional responsibilities, the reason why I was there. And the reason why I was there was to administer the charity of Covenant House. There’s no charity called Michael DeBaets House. These men didn’t come to Covenant House PA to get my help. They came to get Covenant House’s help.
And Covenant House’s help is nothing to scoff at. Covenant House — the nation-wide organization — is the largest provider of housing to homeless teens in the United States, and perhaps in the world.
When I began to realize that Covenant House was so good, I became free from a feeling of over-obligation to the residents. These days, whenever I start to wish I could do something extra to help them, I remind myself that I have already done a lot of good for them by working for the organization that shelters them. And I recommit to the structure of Covenant House, which keeps me from falling into sympathy too easily.
I don’t have to do extra charity. I am already doing charity.
Covenant House was a great place to learn this, but I have also learned this by living with my housemates and by living within the structure of Servant Year. The explicit agreements that we make — those are our primary obligations. And we keep those primary obligations, and they sustain our community.
For instance, my house wrote in our house rule that we meet every Wednesday to share dinner, and we meet every Sunday to plan the week. Rules like that are our long-term plan for house happiness. It’s a little bit of charity spread out over a year. And that’s our obligation to each other.
I’ve learned that, when I have these structures in place, I can relax a bit. I can trust.
And maybe that’s God’s little gift of charity to me.
Michael serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.
I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on that crucial question: who am I? I haven’t yet managed to answer it to my satisfaction, nor do I think I ever will, but, like most people, I’ve formed a basic sense of self from my likes and dislikes, the things I’m good at and those I’m not, my background, blah-de-blah-de-blah. (I know I’m not saying anything new or revolutionary here.) Of course, life always gets interesting when something in my life forces me to redefine the way I think of myself. College was responsible for several identity crises (maybe that’s why it’s so expensive…), many of which involved realizing I really wasn’t as good at something as I thought I was.
Oddly enough, it’s much easier for me admit and adjust to being worse at something than I thought I was than it is for me to integrate something new into my idea of myself. At least, I find it odd, since why wouldn’t I find it easy to claim a new skill or ability as something at which I excel?
If you’re wondering why you’re drowning in this morass of self-examination, you should blame Servant Year. More specifically, you should blame Servant Year’s mid-year retreat. Most specifically, you should blame the Clifton StrengthsFinder test we took prior to the retreat and which we discussed at retreat. (Yes, I had fun with that little progression. Probably more than I should have.)
Donald Clifton, a psychologist, created the StrengthsFinder test after many, many years of research. He identified thirty-four “themes of talent” and the test determines which of these are your top five strengths. Mine were:
5. Developer (my first reaction to this one: what does this even mean?)
While I generally take this kind of thing with a grain of salt, I was still pretty surprised to find empathy and developer made it on the list. Not that I think I’m unempathetic, exactly, but I’ve never considered myself particularly skilled at figuring out other people’s emotions without some sort of verbalization on their part. I definitely don’t “hear the unvoiced questions…anticipate the need…find the right words and right tone [where others grapple for words]” (Rath, 97). I’m good at listening, but I always struggle to find the right words to say. Usually all I’ve got is something along the lines of “I hear you, and I understand where you’re coming from. I’m here.” Yes, there is a degree of empathy there, but I don’t think I’ll ever number it among my greatest strengths.
According to the StrengthsFinder book we received to help us interpret our results, being a “developer” means that I “see potential in others. Very often, in fact, this is all [I] see…when [I] interact with others, [my] goal is to help them experience success. [I] look for ways to challenge them. [I] devise interesting experiences that can stretch them and help them grow. All the while [I am] on the lookout for the signs of growth…[that] are [my] fuel. They bring [me] strength and satisfaction” (Rath, 89). Umm, no. Yes, I like helping people get things done or figure things out, but I don’t do that because of the potential I see in them or because I want to help them along their journey of self-discovery/self-actualization – I have never thought of it that way. I just do it because I like to. So I disagree pretty strongly with this particular theme’s presence in the list of my top five strengths.
My StrengthsFinder results spurred a lot of introspection (hence the beginning of this blog post). While I disagreed with some of my results, it made me examine my thoughts and actions more closely in certain areas to see if I had missed some indication of my abilities in those areas. A few months later, I still disagree with the empathy and developer strengths, so the StrengthsFinder test didn’t cause a life epiphany that helped me figure everything out, sigh. But I do think it was a valuable exercise in that it prompted me to question my sense of identity and to pay more attention to why conceive of myself the way I do.
So there you go. No mind-blowing revelation of life-changing proportions, but more of a small challenge to my equilibrium with positive consequences. Not bad.
Catherine Serves as Director of Christian Education at St. Luke’s Church.
In late August, a motley group of young adults embarked on a challenging year of intentionally living together while serving at various placements such as The Bethesda Project, St. James’ School, and the Office of Family and Young Adult Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. I am proud to admit that my community initially bonded over the boy who lived, Harry Potter, as well as a mutual love of puzzles. Since then, we’ve somehow navigated situations such as the washing machine catching fire and the uncanny ability of Ozzie, the lovable yellow Labrador in residence at St Mark’s, to take a chunk out of any cake in the kitchen. I could certainly go on about the moments that our community has shared, but lately I have been pondering about what makes my current community intentional rather than just a bunch of individuals merely coexisting in the same place.
I think that Servant Year is intentional because we strive to take the time to share our joys, our stories, and our inevitable frustrations. Whether it is taking the time to prepare and enjoy a meal together, or going out for coffee, or simply listening to each other venting about life, or going for a late night walk with headphones in. I think that the members of a Servant Year community offer incredible support to each other, which has helped us to grow throughout the course of this year. Then again, Servant Year is about more than just service. Take for instance, my friendship with a fellow Servant Year member, Trish.
During the fall, Trish brilliantly proposed that a few Servant Year members join a volleyball league in pursuit of stardom. While there was some hope that we would get a good group together, in the end, only Trish and I ended up pursuing our dreams of volleyball glory. Instead of volleyball glory, we found an amazing group of people who we have built good and hopefully lasting relationships with in the throes of an eight game losing streak. While our team has finally discovered a winning formula of late, Trish has continued to soldier on with the wonderful work that she happens to be doing with the her Servant Year placement, Seamen’s Church Institute, an organization that annually aids 30,000 seafarers, who form the backbone of the international shipping industry. I’m certainly jealous that Trish has had the opportunity to engage with individuals from a wide range of countries such as Latvia, Georgia, and the Philippines. I’m even more envious of the stories that she’s managed to be a part of during her time there. She has been enabled through her service to help a seafarer who needed to wire money home to pay for an operation for his daughter. Or there was the day that she managed to be a part of a reunion for family members who have not seen each other for over eleven years. Trish has the fortune to begin graduate school at Penn part time while continuing with Servant Year as a Second Year Fellow, serving at SCI next year. Servant Year has made it possible for us to share stories that inspire us to do more at our own placements; however, Servant Year is more than just service. Another one of my fellow Servant Year members, Catherine, is a prime example of this.
Catherine just so happens to have a sister who knows my sister as both engage in some capacity at Haverford College. Small world, huh? Catherine arrived this year as a complete newcomer to the Episcopal Church having grown up as a Methodist. She serves as the Youth Leader at St. Luke’s, Germantown–a church that I had the chance to explore as a counselor there for City Camp. Catherine recently remarked in a blog post that she once questioned how different the two protestant denominations could be. She quickly was struck by a bunch of differences that we perhaps take for granted. Why is there real wine? How are these Episcopalians eerily good at reading responsively? Do we really need to cross ourselves this often? Perhaps the biggest question was why don’t these hymns have titles? For some, like Catherine, Servant Year offers the opportunity to explore a church that is unfamiliar, and to see whether the shoe fits.
The shoe of the Episcopal Church definitely seems to fit for the members of Servant Year who just so happen to hail from Georgia. I’ve spent most of the year working alongside another person returning to the program next year as a Second Year Fellow- Ellen Doster, who engages with the families and children of St. Mark’s through the Boys and Girls Choir and Schola. While she may be a little bee crazy at the moment since the arrival of a hive or two of bees at St. Mark’s, Ellen, I think, has thrived in a place where she has been able to explore in more depth what her faith means, along with discovering more about various liturgies in the Episcopal Church. While I may not be overly excited to engage in a theological discussion, it has been evident that Ellen has the enthusiasm to indulge in a long conversation about why we do things in a particular way because she cares about the way we do things.
Servant Year arranged a road trip to Sewanee’s School of Theology, and it was evident to me the excitement that Ellen had at returning to a place that she considers to be a home and it seems to me that Sewanee is a place where she can return to further her theological education. For some reason, various individuals at St. Mark’s love to ask me the question, “Is seminary in your future?” To which I often find myself replying, Not mine, but Ellen will probably be the one going down that path.
So then, where do I fit in? As a cradle Episcopalian, I grew up playing Satan’s on the Warpath, engaging with various communities on mission trips, serving as an acolyte, and going to four services in 12 hours beginning on Christmas Eve like every good little Episcopalian does. I went to college at Kenyon, a historically Episcopal school. I served for a youth leader for a local church. I was elected to the vestry at Harcourt Parish twice, I ran mission trips for Youthworks, I was let loose to run amok at Camp Mitchell in the Diocese of Arkansas. I guess that you can say that the church has been a large part of my life. Why then am I left to muse exactly when I stopped believing in God? Somewhere along the road, Jesus lost his place in my heart, and my once surefire faith disappeared. Was it after my priest cheated on his family with a member of the congregation? Was it during the summer I spent running mission trips in the closet? Was it when I was removed from being a youth leader and forced to leave a charismatic church because I was honest about the fact that I was gay? While it would be easy to place the blame of my loss of faith with a broken church or two, honestly, that doesn’t quite leave me satisfied.
I elected to come to Servant Year because I had hope that I would find something that I lost in an intensely religious community. I wanted to reflect upon the hollowness that I felt whenever I attempted to participate in any particular worship service. I wanted to rediscover the meaning behind the cross. A part of me imagined that serving a vibrant community would bring me in from the wilderness that I’ve long been wandering as I try to come to terms with all that has happened. Instead of finding God, who appears to be better at hiding than Carmen Sandiego, I’ve found something better. I’ve found myself.
I don’t know who God is right now–but that’s okay because I’ve realized that I have a purpose. I am here to serve a wonderful community in which I have had the opportunity to create wonderful relationships. Several of my food cupboard clients have realized that I’ve been dealing with hip tendonitis, which has brought several offers from various clients to come and help me unload the large delivery that we get from Philabundance every other week.
Mr. Ballard is planning on being there again next week to help me out again, which is delightful–but even more touching is the fact that Mr. Ballard asked me for advice on how to deal with a particular troublesome volunteer at another organization. Then there’s Robert, who had been an avid attendee of Evening Prayer and Masses at St. Mark’s before he reached out to get involved in the Food Cupboard and the Soup Kitchen. I remember that there would be days that the only people at Evening Prayer were Robert and I. A part of me wonders whether he would have reached out to join a valuable ministry at St. Mark’s had I not been present enough to engage with him. While Robert hasn’t been around lately due to a recent surgery, I have had the joy of being able to visit him and to continue to build a friendship with him.
While there’s certainly the irksome thought that someone else who has a firm belief in God would be better suited to working at St. Mark’s, I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get lost in the minor details. Sometimes it’s important to remember that even if something like the words I say at a mass or at the Daily Office don’t mean anything to me, they matter to someone else. These services give us the chance to be a place for someone else to enter our doors to engage with our outreach–and to be a part of something wonderful. For me, I constantly find myself lost in the laughter of an early morning at the Soup Kitchen and realize that this is where I’m meant to be for this moment–purely because the outreach at St. Mark’s can be fun. Whether it’s watching someone play chess, having conversations, walking the dogs, or changing the way that the Food Cupboard is run, or simply being present, I am here for this community. It’s funny that a part of me feels like I had to let go of my relationship with God and take a step back and remember what I love about being at St. Mark’s. I am here to serve a vibrant community full of small joys, regardless of the fact that I’m currently faithless–and that’s okay.
James Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark’s Church.
Let’s talk favorites. I talked in my first blog post about some of the ways in which Philadelphia has far exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. I thought it might be nice to share some of my favorites with whoever reads this thing, with the off chance that you might be in/end up in Philly.
The place where I spend all of my time: I discovered this place in January, and the biggest draw was that the classes were all taught in a 90 degree room. This. Was. Heaven. Now that temperatures outside are starting to soar, this is less of a draw, but let me tell you- for several months, these classes were the only time I felt warm. Even though it has warmed up outside, I’m still in the studio an average of 8 hours a week, and I love it. The instructors at Philly Power Yoga and Thrive Pilates are all really friendly and knowledgeable, and the studio is welcoming to all levels. If you are looking for a relaxed stretching class, check out the Pilates studio, as the yoga classes are power vinyasa flow classes (lots of pushups and sweat). They have a free community class Wednesday mornings, and a five dollar class Monday mornings.
The place where I completed (most) of my graduate school applications: Granted, much of my graduate school essay writing/procrastinating/stressing was done late at night in my room, but Elixr Coffee was a much needed change of scenery in the time of stress and snow. It is full of terrariums and reclaimed wood, and is worth a look for the atmosphere alone. Whoever is in charge of the music is also great, as it’s pretty eclectic but always good. The location is off a side street close to St. Mark’s, and they don’t seem to mind if you nurse a cup of coffee for quite a while (it’s also possible that they took pity on my stressed state/thought I shouldn’t have any more caffeine). That being said, their food is also quite delicious.
The best place to run in the sleet and snow: Ok, so this might be a little bit of a lie. I loved running/ sliding on the ice along the Schuylkill River Trail, but that could be related to the fact that I’m a native Texan, and just recovered from an injury that kept me from running for two years. I got the all-clear from my doctor in January, and immediately started running on the trail. The trail runs through several parks, and is a great place to run/bike/rollerblade/chase goslings. In January, I would run into another person every half mile or so, but ever since the first 70-degree day, the place has been packed! There are tons of free events along the bank during the summer (like yoga), so it’s worth a stop even if you hate running.
The best happy hour: I’m not a big drinker, but I ADORE pizza, and Nomad Roman has some of the best in the city. They have a normal happy hour, and a late night happy hour on the weekends! The restaurant itself is beautiful and tiny, and the pizzas are really, really, good. The St. Mark’s house is a big fan, and when my sister came to visit I took her there purely for the joy of the Nutella pizza. Yeah, that’s right. Nutella. Pizza. You can also go outside of happy hour, but really, on a stipend, there is not much better than a five-dollar personal pizza.
This is obviously a teensy-tiny bit of what Philadelphia has to offer, and I invite you to take the time to explore and find your own favorites! There is more to Philadelphia than cheesesteaks.
Elizabeth Serves as a Case Manager at Bethesda Project.
While we here in Philadelphia were eagerly awaiting the seasons to finally stabilize into spring, the bee yards down in Georgia were already buzzing with activity. Honey bees are extremely sensitive to climate, and in the warmer south with its short winters and earlier springs, conditions are perfect for bees to start working. While everyone else is still warming up, bees in Georgia are already being prepared for their long journeys to other parts of the country. As I eagerly awaited the arrival of Saint Mark’s bees in early April, I couldn’t help but think about my own journey from Georgia to Philly. The weeks leading up to my move had gone fast. I was saying goodbye to a place that had become my home. I was spending precious time with my family. I was preparing to start a year of service living in an intentional community. I was anxious yet ready to just be here already, tired of being in the weird limbo of doing nothing before something big happens.
While the bees were being transported, it must have been a little like being in limbo. There’s no hive to protect, no honeycomb to tend to; they don’t have much else to do but eat the syrup that’s been provided to sustain them during their travel. When they got here, our bees certainly had their work cut out for them. They had to start from scratch, making all new honeycomb and building up drastically reduced numbers. Beekeepers should always be attentive to their hives, but this time is especially crucial for giving the bees the help they need while they’re getting established. Before we know it, the summer will have come and gone, and then the bees will have the winter to face, and they’ll need our help to survive. To my utter delight, our bees soon began to flourish and continue to do so as we move into summer. What they’ve accomplished so far gives me hope that they will be strong enough to survive and thrive. If they make it through the winter, they can be even more productive next year since they won’t be starting with nothing like they did this spring.
In a way, I can see similarities between my and the bees’ journey. When I moved here, I was starting from scratch too. I had never been to Philadelphia before and I didn’t know anyone. At first it was overwhelming being in a new environment and learning on the job. But with lots of support and encouragement, I’ve been able to find my place here and thrive. I know the summer will come and go before I know it, and I’ll be moving on to other things, but the work that I’ve done here and the things that I’ve learned will be invaluable in helping me tackle new challenges. When I start my second year in Servant Year in the fall, I’ll have more to learn, but I won’t be starting from nothing. I’ll have the past year’s foundation built solidly in place, and from there, who knows how much I’ll build in the coming months. For now, the bees and I still have a ways to go.
Ellen Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark’s Church.
At 23, there are many things I’m not good at. I’m probably the worst dancer in the universe, but I refuse to let that stop me from singing and dancing along to every Taylor Swift song as if my life depends on it while my friends stand in the background, pretending they have no idea who I am. I also still get lost every time I go into Center City by myself; a few weeks ago I spent a good 20 minutes wandering the streets with a (wonderful and patient) group of friends searching for my car because I had no idea where I had parked.
It’s easy for me to laugh at myself when I fail at something I’m terrible at. What I’m learning is that when I fail at something I know in my heart that I was created to do, the bruises left from a small mistake can quickly turn into bitter scars if I give in to the deception of defeat.
Since day one in North Philly, I’ve tried to be honest and open about my experiences. There have been moments filled with unadulterated laughter and joy, and others filled with tears, frustration, and brokenness. Some days I wake up and feel like I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do, and there are other days that I seriously question my sanity and my ability to live up to the challenges placed before me on a daily basis.
When January rolled around I felt rejuvenated and prepared myself as best as I could for a fresh start. I worked hard to focus on taking care of myself so that I could embrace every day to the fullest, and for a few weeks, it seemed to work. My heart felt lighter than it had in years, and I made it an entire month without having a mental or emotional breakdown at school. I thought that if I could just make it through winter—the dark, cold, and weary months—I could do anything.
Then one particularly chaotic day, I couldn’t help a student who needed me. Several others needed help with a project, and in that moment, I chose to help the masses, ignoring the student who was crying and throwing pencils across the room. As an adult, I understand that many people needed help, and in that moment, I couldn’t be in two places at once. But an eleven year old doesn’t understand that. In a moment of panic, all they can see is someone they trust abandoning them.
In an instant, a relationship that had taken months to build was broken. After that day, that particular student refused to work with me. They moved their desk as far away from me as possible in class, said negative things right to my face, and ignored me when I tried to continue to be polite and friendly with them. I tried to stay positive and focus on the other students who I worked well with, but little by little, it started to eat away at me.
A few weeks later, the explosion came. In that moment, every last ounce that I had been fighting to keep together broke, and I ran out of the building sobbing, the door slamming behind me. I acted in a less than graceful way, and the results left me angry, hurt, frustrated, and humiliated.
In the days that followed, I completely questioned whether I really was cut out to do this job, or if I’d made a major mistake in pursuing my dreams. Everything I had worked so hard for had fallen apart and smacked me in the face. For a while I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened. If anything, I wanted to crawl under a rock and escape reality. Instead though, I found myself praying several times a day—for peace, for grace, for the broken relationships, and for God to show His work in this big mess.
Exactly one day after the student returned to school, they saw me in the hallway and asked to speak to me. Not knowing what to expect, I stopped. The eleven year old looked up at me, eyes wide, and said, “I’m sorry for what I did. Can you forgive me?”
Instantly my heart melted, and the anger, hurt, and frustration were swept away. I nodded my head vigorously, offering my hand for a handshake and said that I was sorry too, that I never wanted them to feel abandoned by me, that I wanted them to know that I would always be with them even when it doesn’t feel like it. Then I asked if we could wash the slate clean and start over. The student smiled, whispering, “I would like that.”
Something has changed since the day I decided to let go of my insecurities and mistakes, using them instead to grow into a better educator and a better person. I’m not so worn down by the student who throws pencils at the wall when they don’t get their way. I’m able to smile at the child who screams and yells because they don’t know how to express the hurt and pain they’ve seen, or the joy they so desperately want. I thrive in situations where students need encouragement and kind words, and I’m learning to let the words of others impact me only when they provide me with ways to grow or cause me to laugh and grin from ear to ear. I’m no longer clinging to the idea of perfection or success. Instead, I’m doing my best to use my idiosyncrasies and my gifts to embrace failure and success with grace.
Michelle serves as an Instructional Assistant at St. James School.
When I was applying to colleges, I toured a few of those located in Philadelphia. At each one, my tour guide said something along the lines of, “Philadelphia is a big city, but it’s really a big college town.” Working at St. Peter’s, I have definitely found this to be true. Relationships with the various institutions of higher learning in this city have been highly beneficial to me during my time at St. Peter’s Food Cupboard.
As might be expected, these institutions have been an unfailing source of volunteers. I receive emails weekly from individual students or student groups who want to serve at St. Peter’s. During my tenure here, we have had volunteer groups from Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Temple University, and Bryn Mawr College. In addition, the universities of Philadelphia have provided me with skilled volunteers who help me to improve the food cupboard. Every autumn, we partner with the Intercultural Communication master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, which provides us with five to seven students who volunteer at the food cupboard every Saturday for an entire semester, helping us to discover and overcome cultural barriers between us and our clients. Many of these students are able to provide the indispensable service of interpreting between Mandarin and English. Another skilled volunteer is Claire, a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University who chose to do her community internship with us, studying food security in Philadelphia. Claire has brought skills that enable her to serve in food cupboard leadership positions and to review and edit our grant applications.
Encouraged by these partnerships that basically fell into my lap, I began actively seeking more relationships with Philadelphia universities. At the suggestion of one of my board members, I contacted a group of Temple MBA students, requesting that they analyze how the food cupboard functions and suggest changes that could help us to operate more smoothly. We recently had an initial meeting with these students, who are excited to put their coursework into practice to help us out. I am also contacting various student groups in search of volunteer Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese interpreters.
Aside from volunteers, relationships with Philadelphia universities have provided me with amazing networking opportunities. When I mentioned that I am considering looking for a job in biological research at the close of my Servant Year term, multiple volunteers offered to help me connect with researchers at their respective institutions. Additionally, my official Servant Year mentor is a very well-connected visiting professor at the Wharton School of Business. Every time we meet, he offers to connect me with someone interesting or potentially helpful.
When talking about networking, Lindsay, our program director, once told me, “Philadelphia is a big city, but you’ll find it’s really a small town. Everyone knows everyone.” This, too, I have found to be true. Philadelphia has skyscrapers, a subway system, and 1.5 million inhabitants, but it’s also a small college town full of well-resourced people who are eager to serve their community.
Chris Serves as Manager of the St. Peter’s Food Cupboard
The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
In the name of the one, holy, and living God. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today finds the disciples in a pretty dark place. For us it’s been two weeks since Easter, but in the lectionary we’re still, really, right at the end of Holy Week. The events of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and the crucifixion are still in the front of everyone’s mind, and while something strange has been going on at the place where they laid Jesus, most of the people in the room are convinced this is just salt in a gaping, gangrenous wound. But something is afoot: the two episodes in Luke that immediately precede this passage are the Resurrection itself and the encounter between Jesus and the unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus has vanished from their midst, and they immediately go to find the Eleven and while they are still breathlessly relaying the story of their most unusual dinner guest, Jesus does it again, showing up in their midst, unexpected and unannounced. It has been a busy day.
In all of these encounters, we see the same kinds of adjectives: “they were alarmed,” “they were afraid,” “terror and amazement seized them.” I’m particularly drawn to the language in our reading today; the disciples were “startled”. What an incredibly human moment. I was turning a corner the other day and was startled by a co-worker who didn’t catch my eye at first, and that was bad enough! I can only imagine if it had been someone I knew to be dead; I’d probably fall right over. Let’s go ahead and nominate this translation choice for understatement of the week.
It’s as if the people who put together the lectionary are trying to get us to slow down and recognize something, even if they have to illustrate the point a few times: It is indeed a startling thing to be interrupted by the resurrected Christ. Perhaps in the comfort of our own lives—in a culture where these stories have been passed down generation after generation, their impact worn away to a faint echo of what it once might have been—it is easy to forget just how much calamity this news brings to those who hear it. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death; life as we thought we knew it has been completely upended, our carefully arranged lives scattered asunder in the light of this new thing being worked out in our midst. Such an encounter takes all our preconceived notions about the way the world works, about the way we expect the world should work, and casually tosses them aside. We’ve all had those moments where the rug was pulled out from under us and suddenly nothing is the same, and it’s often a deeply unsettling thing, even if after the initial shock has passed we see that it is in fact good news.
Like a lot of biblical comparisons, the ways this plays out in our own lives isn’t always as dramatic as it was for the disciples, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. People ask me what it was that drew me to St. James (and I have to admit there are some days when I’m the one doing the asking), and I remember that when I was sitting on my couch in Pittsburgh after an interview with our head of school, marveling at what I had just learned, I clearly thought to myself, “This is an outpost of the kingdom of God in a place that desperately needs it.” I came to St. James School under the auspices of Servant Year, a program of our diocese that invites recent college graduates into a year of service while living in small residential communities with each other. When I initially applied in January of 2014, I had expected to start the program in August, and I had never really considered working in an education placement. But, as with the disciples, something was afoot. 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. A few weeks later, I showed up on the campus of St. James for the very first time, having accepted a job without having ever seen the place in person. It is a place where God’s work in the world is being carried out, where light shines out of darkness. It has become for me, and I think for many, a holy place.
In this passage we also have Luke’s version of the Great Commission: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” We know the rest of the story, of course. The apostles took what had been entrusted to them and passed it on to their successors, who cultivated the young church and the disciples that came after them, on down through the centuries through saints and sinners alike, in catacombs and in darkened houses, in classrooms and in open fields and on hard pews and around the kitchen table, down to you and me, starting in our baptism and God willing continuing to the day we leave this world. You and I, too, have become witnesses of these things, tasked with proclaiming repentance and forgiveness to all nations. No pressure.
Not so fast, you say. There’s something about this idea of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness that I know conjures for me (and I suspect for many) a distasteful image of the street corner preacher, railing against the supposed depravities of the world around him, standing on his soapbox (and it is in my experience always a he), perhaps frothing at the mouth a little bit. Or maybe if you haven’t met this person, you have that one person on Facebook who always has something to say about the evils of contraception or same-sex marriage and someone engages them and then wheels start spinning and next thing you know there’s what we Millennials call a “flame war”. The imagined meaning of proclaiming repentance is not something we Episcopalians typically go in for, and why should we? Instead the Church has, in her wisdom, painted a different picture for us. The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, and that this mission is carried out by the ministry of all who have been baptized (and yes, there is a catechism in there, toward the back, but wait until after the service to go looking for it).
So what does it mean for us to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to a broken world that desperately needs it? We don’t assert there is a better way of doing things just by yelling about it and wishing it were that simple; we model it. We go where the pain is, and we walk alongside it. We look at what the way of the world has wrought, and we start to pick up the pieces. North Philadelphia’s reputation precedes itself, of course, as a wasteland of poverty, hunger, violence, drug crime, insufficient educational resources, and the list goes on. Allegheny West, the neighborhood where St. James lies, has in recent years had the distinction of having the highest murder rate per capita in all of Philadelphia. Nearly half of the students who attend the neighborhood public high school will drop out. The choices our ancestors made have brought us this far, and rather than stand at a distance and shake our heads, it is our responsibility to say, “Enough,” and do something about it. If we, as the Body of Christ, are in a society that has laid our brothers and sisters this low, then the repentance—the turning away—from the evil done on our behalf begins with you and me. We find the things that destroy God’s creatures, we let them look us in the face, and we begin to turn them back.
At St. James we use education and service as the locus for our work to bind up the broken, proclaim release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed, but it is so much more than that. It has to be. Forming relationships and community is the key part of that “restoring unity with each other” piece that lifts it beyond mere charity and makes it… something else, something better, perhaps even on a good day a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Our students’ families are an integral part of our community, and by virtue of nearly half of our staff living on the same block as the school, we are able to form meaningful relationships with many, providing access to medical services, food, clothing, and furniture. This year we are especially focusing on providing nutritious, fresh-cooked meals in an area that until recently lacked a proper grocery store of any kind, and the effects are already being felt at home by some of our students.
A couple of weeks ago at St. James we marked a milestone in the life of our community as we baptized eight of our students, the first baptisms held at the church in a decade or more. In those baptisms, we welcomed them into the household of faith, passing on the witness that we have received, and inviting them into the Church’s work of reconciliation. These eight, and the St. James students who perhaps will follow in their footsteps in the years to come, will carry out this work in their own way, but it’s easy to see where they found their example. They have met the risen Christ, heard his word and dined at his table, and seen that there is much good news interrupting the darkness that surrounds them.
As St. James bears witness to the fading darkness this Eastertide, I am reminded of the words of St. John Chrysostom writing in his famed Paschal Homily: “Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free…. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!” Alleluia, thanks be to God!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preached by Noah Stansbury, serving as Volunteer and Church Outreach Coordinator at St. James School, April 19, 2015.
I started Servant Year in February at the Free Church of St. John in Kensington. Interestingly, Free Church is located two blocks away from Mastbaum AVTS, the high school I graduate from. I believed this would be the perfect opportunity to serve my high school community and give back to Kensington.
When I transitioned out of my previous role into my current role, I made a new commitment:
“I will serve with unconditional love. I will serve with grit and persistence. I will serve with a goal in mind. I will serve with passion and dedication. I will serve through my vocation. I will serve all.”
One of my role models who cultivated my passion for education is Donna Vernick. I met her when I was in middle school, and maintained a mentoring relationship with her through high school and college. She passed away this past September but she continues to live in memories of the children she served. Donna was a servant of Christ and everything she did showcased her commitment to be like Christ. She stepped into the community of Logan and Olney, and served children who did not have one or both parents, lacked guidance or direction, experienced trauma, faced language barriers, and more. Despite the challenges she saw in her students ‘ lives, she served us all with unconditional love, grit, persistence, a goal, passion, dedication, and through her vocation as an educator and member of the church.
While my transition was quick, it was pretty smooth and I was enjoying my new position. But when there are highs, there are also lows. Last week I was dealing with a few behavior challenges and I was beginning to reevaluate myself. This past Tuesday morning, I was so frustrated with myself and overwhelmed, and decided I wanted to go for a walk. During my walk, I thought about Donna Vernick. Tears began to well-up, and I remembered the commitment I made.
“I will serve with unconditional love. I will serve with grit and persistence. I will serve with a goal in mind. I will serve with passion and dedication. I will serve through my vocation. I will serve all.”
Just like how Donna Vernick served Logan and Olney, I will to serve Kensington.
I will face challenges. I will face struggles. I will have storms in my life.
But I will also face joys. I will also face moments of happiness. I will face feeling satisfied and fulfilled.
I don’t want to be just like Donna, in fact I don’t think she would like that. Instead, I want to strive to be a servant of Christ. Just like how Donna inspired me, I want to inspire others to be servants of Christ.
Rest in Peace. Rest in Power. Thank you, Mrs. Vernick.
Raksmeymony (Rex) Yin, Out-of-School Time Coordinator & Food Pantry Assistant
“I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing with my life next year,” I told my Wednesday night small group two Novembers ago. Many of my friends were applying for internships, jobs, and grad school. I felt like I was behind, like I’d been lazy in not having life after college figured out.
I knew I wasn’t ready for grad school. I had been mulling over the idea that I was maybe being called to pursue discernment for ordination, but despite four years in a college that was a stone’s throw from an Episcopal seminary, I had no idea where to begin. I was scared I was going to get stuck.
“Have you heard of the Episcopal Service Corps?” one of the group, a seminarian, asked. “I have a friend who’ll be here at the seminary next year, and she went through the ESC program in Chicago.”
Again, despite four years at an Episcopal Church-owned university, I’d never heard of it.
After doing a little research, it felt right. The service, the intentional community, the discernment – here was an environment where I would have the resources I needed. I applied, and by February I found myself committed to the Servant Year program in Philadelphia. So many doors and opportunities had opened up, and I felt great affirmation in my decision to pursue this course and wherever it would lead. But as exciting and daunting as the prospect of moving to a completely new place where I knew absolutely no one was, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d gotten the next year planned out, so I could just relax and finish my senior year without too much worry.
And that was frustrating, because I didn’t want to be worried about the future, uncertain as it was. I wanted to be able to tell people, “I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m excited,” without being overwhelmed by the fear of being left out and left behind. I balked at the thought of feeling like I was just doing what I needed to do to get through to the next stage of my life, whatever that’s supposed to be. I wanted this to have purpose. It’s not that I was doing anything for the wrong reasons, it was just that so many years in a system that makes no time or room for anyone who can’t keep up the pace had conditioned me into that feeling of relief. It’s a vicious cycle of anxiety, building tension, a decision, and then sweet relief.
Society rarely gives us the time we need. At the age of eighteen, we have to have a plan, a road map to the future. We have to get our degrees, our certifications, and just pray that we made the right choice before we’ve gotten any meaningful experience under our belts. We might take a little time off from “the plan” to do a bit of soul-searching, but the pressure to get back on track inevitably and all too soon falls back into place.
I’ve been in the Servant Year program for about six months now, and my time here in Philadelphia has so far been wonderful, rewarding, and at times frustrating. I’ve been given time and space to just be present in my service and not worry about where I’m going to be in two years. But it’s that time of year again when we start to freak out.
Why haven’t I heard back from those grad programs?
Will I get any job interviews?
I still have no idea what to do next. Will I be able to get by until I do?
It’s a time of anxiety and pressure. I’ve made the decision to accept a second-year offer from Servant Year, and I’m really excited about the new opportunities next year will bring. But that hasn’t fully assuaged my fears. Is my discernment on track as it should be? Am I rushing, or am I falling behind? The truth is, I can’t skip the uncertain times of my life, the times when I’m “in transition.” And if I want to be really honest, life is by nature transitory, and I shouldn’t want certainty at the price of stagnation.
If this year has taught me anything, it’s that if I treat this or any time in my life as just a transition, I won’t learn anything. I won’t grow. I won’t reap any meaning from these experiences. I don’t see my work or my community as just a stop on the road to my “real” life. I feel just as called to be here in this place at this time just as strongly as I feel any other call.
Last summer just a couple of weeks before I moved to Philadelphia, I met that friend of a friend who had worked in the ESC, just as she was moving to Sewanee to begin her time in seminary. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be in that same position in a few years. We were both at the threshold of a new journey.
“I hope this is okay, but I wrote this note for you,” she said, giving me a hug and presenting me with a little envelope.
I keep this note with me, pulling it out and reading it from time to time when I feel myself growing anxious or fearful. I find this prayer especially timely during this season of Lent, and it reminds me be present in my work and my community as it is now.
A prayer for a major life transition:
Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity. Lord, teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it. Lord, I give you the stirrings inside me. I give you my discontent. I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longings I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and to follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door. Amen.- Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, page 552
Ellen Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark’s Church.
I started working for Servant Year in mid-January and was placed with Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project (CBAP), the country’s only pro bono non-profit bankruptcy law firm. CBAP provides a truly unique service, allowing people who are drowning in debt get a fresh start without paying the costs of a bankruptcy attorney. To better demonstrate how monumental this is, let me explain exactly what bankruptcy is. When I tell people where I work, few people seem to get what I do or with whom I work. Some people misunderstand bankruptcy, while others are hostile towards it, and most everyone else is somewhere in between – our clients included. There is an unfortunate stereotype surrounding bankruptcy that falsely claims that people filing for bankruptcy are simply exploiting the system and shirking responsibility.
CBAP only serves low-income individuals, so I cannot speak for middle-income or wealthy individuals who file bankruptcy, but no one comes to CBAP looking to exploit the system. Furthermore, people who come into CBAP to file for bankruptcy cannot actually pay off their debts. Our clients often feel shame for needing to file bankruptcy, but they should not. They are generally honest individuals who want to pay their debts, who abhor the possibility of bankruptcy, but who have had some dramatic change in their lives. Normally, these changes stress their already limited resources, pushing them into the red for months and years on end. Their medical bills soar through the roof as they are diagnosed with a lifelong illness; or they are stuck in the middle of an expensive divorce; or their parent dies leaving no one else to pay for the casket; or they face countless other hurdles that would financially burden any family. Some work but cannot find anything that pays better, some are looking for work constantly, some cannot work and only receive public benefits – which are not much at all – but they all do their best to stay on top of bills. They never imagined that they could fall behind on their bills, but they received some fundamental shock. As they fall further and further behind, they are constantly harassed and intimidated by collections agencies. The people who come to CBAP to file for bankruptcy are doing so out of need. Have they made mistakes? Of course they have, but what principally pushed them into debt is generally something over which they had no control.
So, let’s revisit what CBAP does. Three part-time law students and I interview the clients and work with them to prepare their files for bankruptcy court under the supervision of a full-time staff attorney, a full-time executive director, and a part-time supervising attorney. Once the file is prepared, the attorneys submit the petition and represent the client in bankruptcy court. This is all done for free. For our clients, having to pay for a bankruptcy lawyer could make filing literally impossible, so this service is indispensable. In 2005, Congress attempted to revise the bankruptcy code to make it harder for people to file, and unfortunately they went above and beyond the call of duty. The process for filing bankruptcy is long and stressful to put it mildly. The fact that CBAP guides people who desperately need to file through this system is incredible. Through CBAP clients can receive a fresh start, as bankruptcy can be used to restore utilities, relieve stress, and protect them from aggressive creditors.
Josh Serves as a Paralegal at Consumer Bankruptcy Assistance Project’s Fresh Start Legal Clinic.
If there’s one thing I can say about myself with confidence, it’s that I am, and always have been, a good student. And I don’t mean that I know how to cram just enough the night before an exam to earn exactly the number of points I need to maintain a certain average.
I actually took great joy in my assigned school readings. I even added excited, super-nerdy notes to my margins. When long-term projects were assigned, I set my own deadlines for smaller chunks of the larger goal, triumphantly checking them off as I went. In college, I went to professors’ office hours and had dinner at their houses (I love small liberal arts schools). In other words, school came easily to me. I knew what was expected. I enjoyed doing what was expected. Learning was a joy, and school was my home.
Servant Year is a different experience. Now, I certainly don’t mean to dissuade anyone from applying. The benefits of this program are numerous, and I could devote an entire post to them alone. In the past seven months, I’ve made new friends, explored a new city, and learned a lot about myself.
But something else has happened to me; something that I wasn’t well-prepared for in the warm embrace of academia.
I’ve been wrong. A lot.
I’ve inadvertently annoyed my housemates. I’ve neglected personal responsibilities (my body, my messy room, my pile of laundry, etc.). And God knows I’ve made more mistakes at work than I can keep track of.
If any other good students are reading this, I have something unsettling to tell you. You’re awesome, but you may be at a bit of a disadvantage in this department. School dominates the first eighteen years of your life. If school comes relatively easily to you, you don’t get a whole lot of practice being wrong. And in real life, you’re wrong a lot. Sometimes it feels like you’re wrong more often than you’re right.
But there’s good news. When I was a student, a single “C” on an assignment was enough to ruin my day, even if all my previous grades in the course had been “A”s. These days, if I make a mistake at work, I don’t have too much time to let it get me down, because I’m bound to make a different one the next day. I know this might sound like a nightmare, but there’s a great beauty to it. In a class, a certain number of mistakes leads to a failing grade. As I said above, I’ve made a lot of mistakes as I’ve navigated my Servant Year. But I haven’t “failed” yet. Because one of Servant Year’s goals is for us to emerge as slightly better people than we were when we started. At the end of the day, as long as this is accomplished, the number of mistakes doesn’t matter (within reason, of course).
Before I go, I want to make one thing clear. I’m not trying to bash academia. I love it dearly. I miss it. I intend to go back to it in the next few years. But when I do, I will fear failure a little bit less than I did seven months ago. And if that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is.
Annie Serves as Youth Ministry Assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, and going to college in rural upstate New York, public transit wasn’t a part of my life until I moved to Philadelphia in August. I made the conscious decision to not bring my car with me to the city as a way to get me out of my comfort zone and really force myself to embrace city living. And so for the past six months, I have spent countless hours on SEPTA buses, trains and trolleys. A lot of people living in Philadelphia hate on SEPTA, but I’ve found that (most of the time) it’s not that bad. Many of the experiences I’ve had on public transit serve as reminder of life’s lessons. They may seem like little things, but you can learn a lot from a simple train ride.
You can roll your eyes and harmph at the guy who brought a full sized boom box onto the train and is playing loud music, or you smile when you look around an realize almost everyone in the car is dancing a little in their seats.
The world around you is what you choose to see, and your day is going to be a whole lot better if you choose to see the happy, the good.
Sometimes the bus driver doesn’t see you standing at the back door of the bus, and to get off at your stop you might need to scream ‘back door!’
Being assertive to get what you need is ok, as long as you’re polite while doing it.
The train is going to come at the same time whether you stand anxiously at the edge of the platform looking for it, or whether you take a minute to sit down on the bench.
Be patient. Trust the journey. God has a plan for you. You can keep yourself up at night worrying or you can sit back, take a breath, and enjoy.
If you see someone with a desperate look on their face running to catch the train you’re already on, you stick your leg out between the closing doors for them, no matter the bruising consequences.
You never know when you may need someone to hold that door for you.
A SEPTA worker lets you on the train for $2.00 instead of $2.25 because you don’t have a quarter on you. A bus driver stops mid-intersection because he sees a kid running to catch up. A group of people helps a mom get her stroller up a flight of stairs. A young man offers an elbow to a woman struggling to step up onto the bus. A guy gets out of his seat for you, not because you’re elderly or pregnant, but because you’re carrying a full bag, a yoga mat, a lunchbox, and are flushed from the trip up the stairs.
Goodness, kindness, and compassion are all around. You just have to take out your headphones, open your eyes, and see it.
Trish serves as Volunteer Coordinator at Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI).
Show up. Be Seen. Live Brave. This was the tagline of the training I completed with Brené Brown this past week in Texas. I spent a week with Brené and her team in order to become certified as a facilitator of the Daring Way, which is based on her research. You may know Brené from her TED talks or from her books; she is a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.
This week, I learned a great deal about vulnerability. Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness, but Brené argues that vulnerability is in fact our best measure of courage. In her research, Brené collects data by listening to people’s stories. She asked people to finish the sentence, “Vulnerability is [blank.]” And here’s how people responded: Vulnerability is calling a friend whose child just died. Vulnerability is the first date after my divorce. Vulnerability is getting pregnant after three miscarriages. Vulnerability is waiting for the biopsy to come back. Vulnerability is bringing my new boyfriend home. Vulnerability is starting my own business. Vulnerability is signing up my mom for hospice care. Vulnerability is hearing how much my son wants to make first chair in the orchestra and encouraging him while knowing it’s probably not going to happen. Vulnerability is falling in love.
Contrary to our first reaction that vulnerability is weakness, not a single one of these responses sounds weak, does it? No, it takes great courage to do that which God calls us to and to let others see our true selves, created in the image of God.
In our tradition, we have the perfect model of vulnerability: Jesus. Jesus opens himself up to love even when it means getting hurt. Jesus shares his truth even when he knows it’ll make others angry. Jesus gives of himself even when it might mean having nothing left. Then today, we hear of Jesus letting his light shine, even in the midst of darkness.
Leading up to this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus has just told his disciples that he will experience great suffering, including being rejected by those in power and being killed, only to rise again three days later. His disciple Peter doesn’t want to believe it could be true, so Jesus in turn spells out the potential cost of discipleship, which may include death to those who follow him. It is following this shocking revelation that Jesus takes Peter and James and John on a mountain top hike.
As Jesus is transfigured, he is the ultimate example of vulnerability. He takes trusted friends along and peels back the layers of himself to show his full, true identity. Standing on that mountain top, shining as the brightest light the world has ever seen, Jesus shows great authenticity and courage. In allowing his light to shine, Jesus’ friends – who in Mark’s gospel can be quite bumbling and daft – are finally certain that he is who who says he is: God’s son, the Beloved.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps, how do we show up, be seen, and live brave? How do we begin to practice vulnerability? It’s a process to be sure. But there are steps we can take. When Brené compiled her data, she noticed a pattern among men and women who were fully living and truly loving life. The faithful Episcopalian that she is, she borrowed a phrase from the confession in our Book of Common Prayer, in which we say “we have not loved you with our whole hearts.” The people loving with their whole hearts she labeled Wholehearted. “Wholehearted living,” Brené says, “is about . . . cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning thinking, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”1
One of the ways she suggests living into wholeheartedness is cultivating laughter, song, and dance as an antidote to the need to be “cool” and always in control. It is said that shamans, or medicine people, who were sought out when someone was feeling out of sorts or depressed or dispirited, would often ask one of these questions of the person: When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop singing? When did you stop dancing?2
During my training, Brené had us laugh, sing, and finally dance together as a group to fully experience the increasing vulnerability of each action. She names dancing as full body vulnerability, claiming that the only thing more vulnerable would be to be naked. When we dance, there’s a fear that we might be perceived as uncool or out of control. I totally resonate with this fear – I could never be one of those people who is hired to dance around with a sign at a busy intersection in order to draw in business, even if it came with a million dollar paycheck. I am an uncomfortable dancer, feeling very uncoordinated and self-conscious. And yet, that said, there are few things better in life than a family dance party in my living room. Yesterday my 4-year-old taught me a dance move she’s calling the Volcano, and we both rocked out to it until we collapsed into giggles. In these moments, the fear of being out of control or looking ridiculous dissipates and it is this lack of control and care-freeness that I love most. Think of those moments when you overhear a stranger with a laugh so hearty and genuine that you can’t help but join her in laughter. Or when you pull up to a stoplight and notice that the driver next to you is singing at the top of his lungs and using the steering wheel as a drum set, and you can’t help but grin. In embracing their vulnerability, they endear themselves to you, and you are emboldened to be more courageous in your own life.
Since the season of Lent begins this Wednesday, I will share with you that my Lenten discipline this year is to dance every day. I know we often think of Lenten disciplines as stripping away, as fasting from something we enjoy. But what if this year, we were to choose something that would help us become more vulnerable, more courageous? Something that would help us show up, be seen, and live brave. Something that would remind us that we are God’s beloved children and so, so worthy of love.
As you experience the joy of this Sunday Gras, wherein we feast before the fast, [with music, and food, and conversation], pay attention to the feeling of your heart opening more fully and think about how you might cultivate wholeheartedness and vulnerability through laughter, song, and dance this Lent.
May we imagine ourselves on that mountain top, Jesus dazzling us with his brightness, his authenticity, his true self. And may we also let our inner light shine. Let us show up, be seen, and live brave.
1. Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
2. The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Healer, Teacher and Visionary
The Reverend Callie Swanlund Serves as Associate for Formation and Family Ministry at Servant Year Supporting Congregation Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and as a Servant Year Mentor.
“The wise man built his house upon the rock… the wise man built his house upon the rock… the wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came tumbling down.”
Concrete certainty, is not the rock to which the song refers, but so very often it takes its place. And this false rock of concrete certainty provides little foundation for a dynamic and living faith shaped by the experience of encountering God. For the idea of Jesus is not the same as the living Jesus. And yet the idea of Jesus or ideas about Jesus, so often serve as the touchpoints and fabric of religious formation and education. Often times without our even acknowledging it.
Many of us, especially we Episcopalians, tend to shy away from the idea and reality of teaching with authority, as we have gotten bogged down in the Myth of Authority.
This Myth of Authority says that:
This is the Myth of Authority, the myth that authority equals certainty. And in places where this myth has become reality, authority constricts and confines, rather than its rightful acts of setting right, setting free, healing, and bonding together relationships.
You see there is not only the danger of giving life and reality to the Myth of Authority; there is also the danger of failing to act and teach with authority, because of the fear of this myth.
But when we teach with true authority we provide relationships in which to wrestle with the questions of our deepest meaning. Places where we hold up principles and ideals, for each person to grapple with and live into. We challenge assumptions, including our own; for true authority comes from living a life of integrity; allowing for yourself to be wrong; allowing yourself to grieve your errors so that you can forgive yourself for being what we all are: a fallible human-being.
I grew up going fishing with my dad. A man who was and at times still is, one of the most concretely certain individuals I know. We have not always seen things eye to eye, dad and I, not gotten along. But we talk, and we talk a lot. Even as an adult, I speak with my parents at least 5 times a week. And so when one day four years ago my dad asked me to go Walleye fishing with him in Canada, I gladly accepted, even if it was with a bit of trepidation.
You see, I knew my dad was not quite happy with me, even if it was a topic we did not talk about. We are both good Midwesterners afterall. The issue was, that I had married my husband a year earlier and my father had refused to come to the blessing of our marriage at the Cathedral Church of our Saviour, in Philadelphia. But dad and I were going to go fishing.
We drove together in my dad’s pick-up truck to the Northern shore of Lake Superior some 10 hours from my childhood home. We settled in to our small cabin and got in two wonderful days of fishing from our small aluminum boat. There were a lot of close quarters on this trip. But it was on the night of our third day, after dinner while playing cards, that all that togetherness must have gotten to my dad. He looked up from the cards in his hand and said, “Your mother told me not to say anything, but I can’t take it any longer.” Though I knew what was coming next, I remember asking him “It’s okay, what’s on your mind?”
“I can’t accept your lifestyle.” he said to me. Though I had not been prepared for this conversation, I quickly responded with a question, trying not to sound too much like a smartalic. “What part of my lifestyle?”
“You know what part.” was his reply.
I responded and said “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about. Is it the part where I work for the Church? Is it the part where I teach young people about the love of God and how they can find a relationship with Jesus? Is it the part where I helped to start a school of under-resourced families? Is it the part where I tithe and go to church? I am not really sure what you cannot accept.”
“You know what part.” Dad was becoming more frustrated.
“No I don’t.” I replied “Is it the part where I have found someone who loves me and who I love? Is it the part where we have worked hard to make our relationship work? Is it the part where we have made sacrifices for each other, just like you and mom taught me to do? I am just doing what you have taught me to do.”
“You shouldn’t be having sex.” And there it was.
“Dad there are lot of things I shouldn’t be doing. But I’m trying my very best to be the man you taught me to be; to live my life as faithfully as I can. And to model my relationship with Dave after, your relationship with mom. We work hard at making it work. We make sacrifices to make it work. And most of the time we are not having sex. I am just doing what you taught me to do.”
At this point my dad left the cabin, only to return after some time had passed. We promptly continued playing cards, as though nothing had happen.
But a few months later, my parents came to visit Dave and I, on vacation. We were staying at our favorite place, Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. I told Dave that as soon as my parents arrived my dad would want to go swimming and to just be ready for it. And like clockwork when they walked through the door, my dad said “Lets go take a swim.” Dave declined not wanting to push anything and said, “It will be good father-son time.” My dad looked at him and said “Well then come on son.”
When we teach with authority we must allow the teaching to be lived into. It may not look the way we thought it would, but teaching with authority allows room for individuals to be as faithful as they can be, and allows for a broader understanding of the principles and ideals we hold most dear. Authority does not fear difference, but embraces and challenges us all.
And they said “What’s this? A new teaching with authority!”
Our organization, our community, our family, has seen much change since I was elected to the board 4 years ago.
We changed our name, becoming Forma. Becoming something new and yet remaining true to who we were. We have reached out in intentional ways to broaden our community of Christian formation leaders. We have leaned into our understanding and commitment to the Charter for Lifelong Christian formation by inviting in youth, campus and young adult ministers, expanding our membership to 446. We have developed stronger connections and collaboration with our denominational formation office, even establishing a liaison with our board. We have birthed our dreams into reality with the successful launch of two certificate programs, to raise up and strengthen leaders in our field. And we have taken strategic moves to remain the nimble and responsive organization that we always have been by restructuring our board, and taking on the task of raising funds to hire our first executive director.
Our community has changed but our shared commitment to the ministry of Christian formation remains stronger than ever. Our commitment to each other and the unique gifts and energies that we each bring calls us to continue to be a grassroots organization in support of individual formation leaders. All while strengthen the role and quality of the ministry of formation in the life of the Church.
Our board cannot do any of this alone. We are each called and challenged to teach this truth with authority. Being lived out in the reality of the smallest parish to the largest. Being supported and connected across dioceses and provinces. Each and every members’ voice and ministry comes together to produce a great tapestry of diverse expressions of our shared faith.
My friends as we take our leave one from another, may your voices be strong, your resolves firm and your hearts stirred to daily take up the task of teaching our Church with authority. Amen.
Andrew oversees the Servant Year program as part of the Office of Family & Young Adult Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He also is a member of the Episcopal Service Corps Board.
Love lost yesterday’s war the day that I was compelled to leave a church that I loved because of my sexuality. I lost a place that I called home. One thousand and sixty four tears fell on that day when silence fell. I remember numbly walking out into the cold that I had been cast into, leaving behind everything that I once had surefire faith in. I dodged the sincere loving embraces offered by friends because my heart failed to remember how to let love reign supreme. An unrelenting wave of suspicion and mistrust came to rule in my disquieted soul. Fleeting memories which had been the basis of my faith were reduced to meaningless specks of dust that irritatingly flew into my eye. I vaguely remember going on a mission trip to Hamlin, West Virginia to work on a house belonging to Ardella, a lovely old lady who had lost her husband a few weeks before we arrived. Despite her loss, Ardella surprised all of us with her compassion and willingness to engage us in conversation while sharing a cup of her wonderful sweet tea. On the last day, I found myself sitting in the kitchen when Ardella’s daughter wandered in while on the phone organizing the details of the grave headstone for Ardella’s recently departed husband. I reached out to hold Ardella’s hand. In response, Ardella uttered a barely audible “thank you.” In that brief moment, Ardella unknowingly ordained me to go out into a hurting world to build relationships with people through love, service, and compassion through a simple but powerful act that influenced the person I was in what seems a lifetime ago. Today, I simply rub my eyes–and the irritating little speck of dust that holds the distant memory is gone. I sigh as I remind myself that I blame the church for rescinding my ordination when I was cast out into the wilderness.I remember believing wholeheartedly that leaving the Church behind altogether should have set me free–free to soar on eagles wings with nothing left to hold me back from living my life. My chains should have been broken–but I–I felt a part of myself wither in the boundless silence. Something was missing. I had realized that somewhere along the way I had tossed a precious relationship with God carelessly into a rubbish bin.
I arrived at St. Mark’s as the faithless wanderer, seeking a place where I reignite the doused flame of my soul. I intentionally chose to come here to join a wonderful faith community because throughout the sojourns in the wilderness that I have endured–however lonely–I have clung to the hope that someday I will find peace with all that has happened. Engaging in ministry while struggling with the concept of faith has proved to be challenging, thought provoking, yet exciting within an intense Anglo-Catholic community here at St. Mark’s. One of my myriad responsibilities is to lead the daily office; however, I have come to the unsettling realization that merely saying the opening words of the Venite leaves me with an empty feeling. Each time I utter the words, “Come let us sing to the Lord; * Let us shout for joy to the Rock of Our Salvation”, the awareness that I thoroughly lack the desire to shout for joy to the Lord has become increasingly stark. It doesn’t matter how many times I say the Daily Office or how many times I attend a mass here because that sinking feeling of hollowness returns each time. I take solace in the knowledge that I have thrown myself into this community with the understanding that my soul shall continue to be at peace with patiently waiting for the day that faith returns.
At complete odds with the aforementioned void is the complete excitement that consumes my soul when I throw myself into my ministry at the Soup Bowl and at the Food Cupboard. I have graciously been constantly reminded of the joy of building relationships with others simply by being present in a wonderful community. My heart goes out to the gentleman who shared the story of being excommunicated by his family. I leaps for joy when I hear about the blessings that friends at the Food Cupboard experienced at Thanksgiving with the Turkeys that we gave out. I laugh at the memories I have created amidst the bustle of the Soup Bowl alongside an incredible group of volunteers. My thoughts go out to the man who asked me to pray for him about his addictions. I am given peace when a good Samaritan says that it’s okay to be honest about where I am in my relationship with God–even if that means admitting to others that I don’t believe in God. I often catch myself feeling like Martha, bustling from one task to another, because I strive to ensure that the ministries I am a part of continue to be vibrant, loving, and places where people can go to find either their spiritual or tangible food. On the other hand, even amidst the action, I can’t help but feel that I am continually watching, waiting, and listening for God wherever he may be.
James Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark’s Church.
It’s been nearly a year now since that first phone call brought me to Philadelphia and turned everything right side up. Not very long after my arrival, I found myself one Sunday afternoon on South 4th Street, having the ancient words of a girl who said yes inked into my arm: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Even then, I knew that my own inclination to say yes to everything would fade, that soon enough I would pass back into ordinary time, when this faltering heart would need a reminder.
A few weeks prior, I had gone to confession for the first time in several years. I had been in Servant Year for about a month at that point, and on our mid-year retreat some time had been set aside that our chaplain would be available, come if you wish. Everything was new again then, and I liked Mother Erika quite a lot for having met her only a few times, so I followed the quiet impulse to give another chance to this thing that had once been more harmful than helpful.
As she was offering counsel, she said that she heard in my words a desire to follow the will of God. This was an idea that was not altogether explicit to me up until that point, but it made a lot of sense; “the will of God” was rhetoric deployed often and to great (and at times dubious) effect in my upbringing. This idea came up again a few weeks later, when I broached the idea of vocational discernment for the first time with my priest. As he pressed me on my motives and thought processes, we got back around to this idea of aligning one’s self with the will of God. I don’t really remember where the conversation went from there, but that stands out to me.
Easter came and went, the summer came and went, the school year ended and started again, bringing with it new students, new co-workers and housemates, new Servant Year members. I was still experiencing new things, yes, but everything was comfortable. I was no longer the new kid on the block and things once unknown were now familiar. There is much good in that; I have found a deep sense of place and family and belonging that I have never known in my adult life, and it is an unspeakable, beautiful thing that I cherish because I know that it will someday end. My purpose in coming to Philadelphia has always been a transitory one. The constellations will shift even if they do contain some of the same stars.
So all things new are old and will be new again, and I am left with myself, wondering if this work of discerning the will of God, let alone following it, will ever come to pass. Saying yes to everything—perhaps more to the point, saying no to some things—doesn’t come as easily as it once did. The same things that always get in the way are still there, doing so precisely because they are good things that deserve, at their core, to be pursued, even if the way in which I go about it is (unavoidably, desperate-ly, humanly) flawed.
I am sure of few things when I think about my vocation, at least concretely. But one thing that has emerged is the yearning toward a vowed profession that has hounded me for years: marriage, ordination, religious life, any of the above, something else entirely. While it is easy for me to romanticize such things (dear reader, how I do!), I am left with a hollow feeling when I take in what it really means to covenant oneself and hold it up to the guarded, selfish creature that I am. You want me to do what? If I ever make it to the altar to give myself to anything, it will truly be through the work of God.
Perhaps this is the point. I vacillate wildly in my response to grace—“grace changes us and the change is painful”*—but the quiet, persistent call remains unchanged, faithful when I am not. So I return to the altar week after week, to hear the will of God shown forth in words and water and wheat and wine, strengthened for the time when I find myself at another crossroads so changed that the most natural thing in the world is to say yes.
*Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being
Noah Serves as Volunteer and Church Outreach Coordinator at St. James School.
There are 9:24 p.m. text messages that no service corps program director ever wants to receive. The following was not one of them: “Father Stube and I are going on a ship to say Christmas mass and celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow at 6, and thought it would be cool if you wanted to come.”
The Servant Year member who sent the text to me, Trish, is spending her year volunteering at Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). SCI provides services and support for 30,000 seafarers each year. Most of the crews are male and usually work 6-9 month contracts, away from their families and home countries for long stretches of time. Due to visa stipulations, many crew members are unable to disembark from the cargo ships while in port. Without SCI’s visits, these crew members would have no access to resources (like warm winter coats, phone cards to call their families back home) and company over a home cooked meal.
After a 5 second deliberation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to see SCI’s ministry firsthand. The next day I bundled up (tonight’s low will be 14 degrees), not sure what to expect beyond a chilly walk from SCI’s van to the ship.
As we walked toward our ship, the overwhelming smell of chocolate filled the air. Turns out some of the cargo they brought from Nigeria included cocoa beans that crunched underfoot as we made our way up wobbly metal stairs to the ship. Upon boarding, we were ushered to a small, plain room where a small group of Philippine seafarers waited to worship with us. One wall had a homemade banner proclaiming, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” next to a Christmas tree with some decorations.
Father Stube told the nativity story churches around the world proclaimed on Christmas, found in Luke’s Gospel. We sang Christmas carols and prayed together, especially for the sixteen Philippine sailors missing from a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Vietnam last week. We celebrated the Eucharist with one another and I was reminded, in this season of Epiphany, of God’s welcome to people from around the world who gather to encounter Christ. We ended with applause from the seafarers, thankful for SCI’s presence and work on their behalf.
Soon one of the cooks brought out trays of cookies, sandwiches, and soda for us to share. The seafarers silently waited for us to partake in their hospitality. We asked where they were ultimately headed and they said, ”Columbia. We’re picking up some cargo in Albany, then going to Columbia.” Then probably home for 3 months before heading out to sea again. We talked a little bit more about pirates in Nigeria, boxing, and how badly Brazil was blown away in the World Cup semi-finals. Everyone thanked us for coming and shook our hands, watching as we made our way back to dry land that some of them wouldn’t be able to touch for many, many months.
I walked back into the chocolate cocoon, surrounded by a distant smell from another land and thought again of this season. There are countless exotic gifts I take for granted every day, from coffee to chocolate, brought to me by seafarers on ships like the one I visited. I am thankful for the dangerous and difficult work these men undertake each day to bring us gifts from afar.
Lindsay Serves as Program Director and Associate for Young Adult Ministries.
Since September, I have been volunteering at Covenant House PA, a crisis shelter for homeless youth from the ages of 18 to 21.
Covenant House provides Philadelphia’s homeless youth with immediate needs like warm beds, hearty meals, donated clothes, toiletries, and a safe place to stay. Covenant House also keeps residents from breaking each other’s sanctuary by fighting, cussing, insulting, frightening, or becoming romantically involved with others.
After we make sure that the residents have what they need, we teach them to job-search, and we provide a structure for their week so that they don’t wander around the neighborhood aimlessly every day. Since each resident comes to this program of their own volition, we hope that the program will encourage them to make better and better choices throughout the rest of their lives.
Jesus Christ said that when he will come again to this earth to judge all men, he will tell his disciples, “Thank you for clothing me when I was naked, for feeding me when I was hungry, for visiting me when I was in prison, for giving me drink when I was thirsty, for welcoming me when I was a stranger.” He then tells the disciples that they will reply, “Lord, when did we ever do these things for you?” and he will answer them, saying, “Whenever you did these things for the least of these, you did them for me.”
Covenant House PA feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, clothes the naked, and welcomes those who cannot find welcome anywhere else.
The mission statement of Covenant House states that we will treat every resident with absolute respect and unconditional love. I have only been able to do this because I remember the words of Christ in the previous paragraph. By his words, I know that he is present in the needy people I serve, and it is insofar as he is in them that they deserve my absolute respect and my unconditional love. Padre Pio said, “Every person in need is Christ,” and our mission statement says the same thing.
In my time so far as a Servant Year member, I have learned time and again that true joy comes from being in relationship with Jesus; even at those times when I needed to humble myself and act as no more than a servant, I was happy because I was with him. Before this year, I had not served much at all, but this Servant Year I am learning from Christ how to serve and not tire, as he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
One of my mentors told me, “this year is for you to grow and learn.” I have grown in several professional capacities: in managing my time, in communicating clearly, and in giving my organization a good face. I have learned about the problem of homelessness in Philadelphia, about the services that Covenant House provides, and I have learned most of all that service in the name of Christ brings joy.
I look forward to spending the remainder of my Servant Year volunteering at Covenant House PA.
Michael Serves as Youth Advisor at Covenant House.