Leaning into the discomfort of not having answers, of not knowing the plan, has been the great struggle of my life. Fear, in so many forms, has taken over my mind more times than I can tell you. 

Making friends with fear while distancing myself from it is a contradiction that can sometimes take all my energy and willpower.

I’m currently on a plane from Philly to New Orleans. Flying is terrifying for me. Fearful, intrusive thoughts begin days before I board the plane. It happened before orientation and during orientation, as I anticipated the flights to Stony Point and then back to NOLA. The thoughts would arise, especially during vespers at night, and I would resent them. If my first instinct was resentment, my second was acceptance. Every time a thought came up, I tried to remember Jesus saying, “Peace. Be still.” Be still and know that I am God. With all that said, I’m proud of myself. And so damn grateful to be alive. 

I’m flying away from an intense week of YAV (dis)orientation in Stony Point, New York. I’m leaving with 68 new friends and, more importantly, a supportive and loving community. The unity we cultivated and the bonds we forged are beautiful. I am incredibly thankful for this program and the investment they and many others have made in us. We go forth to do the best we can with the tools we have. 

YAV brought 68 of us, from many different parts of the country, to a common space and assured us: you are not needed. When we arrive at our placements, we are not needed. They are already doing good work; they’ve got it covered. This reminder is not what most “missionaries” keep at the forefront of their minds during their service. But I appreciated the truth. The charge for us to remain humble enough to realize they we are there to learn from our new community. Whether we like it or not, we will be consuming their precious resources. Training us takes time and energy. Each clarifying question takes focus away from the work being done. My presence for a mere year doesn’t make much of a dent. I get to walk away. Most of the adult students I’ll be tutoring this year do not have the freedom of movement that I possess. The ability to step out of a life and into a different one. 

This week was intense. Our days were long and packed with information. The week started out with a day and half training session called Critical Cultural Competency. It was an anti-racism training that focused mainly on white supremacy and power arrangements in the US. The content was intriguing to me as I’ve been so interested in this topic anyways, but it delved deeper that I realized it would. I’d like to share 10 main takeaways from the training that I found valuable:

1. My liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people. Until all people experience equity and live a life that preserves dignity, I cannot live in integrity with myself. 

2. Colorblindness is dangerous. In order to heal, you must become conscious of race and your thoughts surrounding it. We are complicit if we cannot see someone in their full identity. 

3. I know nothing or very little. Assuming I know more is to blindly use my privilege. Always assume a learning posture.

4. Live in the discomfort of knowing that you can walk away at any moment. Become uncomfortable with this privilege and learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. 

5. Let other people share their truth without inserting your own “understanding” or comparable story.

6. Be okay with no answers or resolution.

7. Be aware of the space you occupy in a room; ask yourself “Am I pushing my own agenda or can I step back and let someone else lead the way?” Practice analyzing your impact in a room. 

8. Work on being a co-conspirator rather than an ally; an ally says, “I’m not that, but I’m still with you”, while co-conspirator says, “I have skin in the game and I’m willing to risk with you.” Bear the weight of your whiteness.

9. Practice WAIT: Why Am I Talking? Ask yourself, “Am I improving upon the silence or can I simply listen?”

10. Do your own internal work and practice following the leadership of people of color. Practice coming to the table rather than setting it. 

I’m walking into my YAV year with these tools in my pocket and I hope to be intentional enough to use them every day. 
As I sit here, I’m not quite sure how to name my current state of emotions. Like I said, the week was a lot. I’m messy and disoriented and I think that was the point. I can say I’m excited to be in New Orleans; every time I think about it, I get an electric shock that radiates into my gut. It’s visceral and real. I’m feeling a little anxious about walking into our home of seven, meeting three new housemates, and beginning our life together. I leaning into the anxiety because if I wasn’t nervous, it would mean I didn’t care.

I’m all in this thing. I’m showing up with my whole self, fears and insecurities still there, but not in control. 

I want to end with a definition of “mission” that Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission Agency, gave us this week:

Following the border-crossing God in weaving mercy, peace, justice, and love in the common life of a God’s people in the way of Jesus Christ. 

I am not going to New Orleans to save anyone. I am not going with new ideas. I am following God into this city to weave mercy, peace, justice, and love into the lives of all people because their liberation is bound up in mine. As I do this, I am actively trying to act in the way of Jesus Christ. Rick Ufford-Chase, co-director at Stony Point, said this week, “The act of trying is the most faithful thing you can do.” I fail over and over again, but I hold onto grace. 

When I figure out how I’m feeling and where I am right now, I’ll get back to you. For now I bask in the light of love and grace. 

“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 
– Micah 6:8

Talking about Whiteness in Whole Foods

Oh man, nothing makes me more aware of my privilege than typing on my iPad in Whole Foods Uptown New Orleans.

Please note the sparkling water. 

I drove in from Pensacola yesterday afternoon and spent the day lounging around in my family’s Uptown home and grabbing snacks from Whole Foods down the street.  I sprawled out on a cushy bed, wrapped up in cool, clean air as I binge-watched episodes of Gilmore Girls and deleted pictures from my new iPhone while simealtanously checking Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Dear Lord, just typing that makes me crave a digital detox and major perspective check. It also makes me feel a little embarrassed and guilty. 

I move into the YAV house in a couple hours and orientation in Stony Point, New York is coming up in just a couple days. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and watching videos related to the topic of privilege and race in preparation for orientation. It’s something I’ve become very interested in learning about this past year so the content is firing me up even more. I’ve been trying hard to educate myself in order to steer away from white ignorance, denial, and avoidance. I’ve been railing against my own learned “colorblindness” and becoming glaringly aware of my frequent biases. It went from revalationary to uncomfortable to burdensome to despairing to frustrating very quickly. I feel like I’m now at a point where I can do the work with at least a little clarity. 

Something I really love about YAV is the commitment to not coming in as a “white helper” but instead getting on the level of the people in the community and actually doing good work without some grand illusion of being a savior. It’s not always this explicit and I think most people don’t realize when they are playing a role that enforces institutional racism. I think this is why knowledge is so important. All I can do is work on my own thinking and write about it so maybe other people will start examining their privilege and engrained ways of thinking as well. 

I’ve been listening to so many podcasts, reading so many articles, and just having so many conversations this past year, but I know I’m probably still on the edge of the abyss. I’ve got 24 years of thinking to unlearn and then reshape. That may sound dramatic to some, but I swear, I’m more aware every day and it’s terrifying. It’s so tempting to take the easy way out. It’s scary for me to write about out of fear of being judged. Though the fear seems to be fading quite a bit lately. I’m not sure I care much anymore if someone disagrees or gets angry. I’m willing to hear them out and consider their viewpoint seriously. It’s just that staying silent is no longer an option. I will not be complacent in my thinking or complicit in the system, no matter how comfortable and safe it has become. Oh, how easy it would be to stay surrounded by people who look like me. Who are of the same class as me. How comfortable that would feel. How cushy, yet empty and utterly unfulfilling. Empty and unfulfilling because now I know what I’m made from. And I’m hungry for something different. 

In a couple hours, I’ll be living in the YAV house, starting my year of simple living and service. Yes, my car is overpacked. My iPad will stay with me. I won’t deny my privilege or my Whiteness (not necessarily color but the system of it). I will remain aware of the foundation on which my life has been built, a foundation that I did not choose but that was set underneath me before birth to keep me secure and safe. I will not give away all my possessions or resent my skin color. But I will accept that the guilt will probably remain until the day when all people of color are liberated from oppression. This year, my goal is to work on my own liberation from Whiteness will also accepting that it is a part of me, it is the system that shaped me, and a fragment will always remain. 

Here are some excepts from the article “Greiving the White Void” by Abe Lateiner (one of the readings for orientation), which inspired this post:

“I cannot face the flames if I think that I’m in this on behalf of someone else. Comfort and safety await me the moment I turn back. It makes no sense to abandon that. Only faith, a belief that beyond the veil of Whiteness, I can be forged again, can steel me for the leap through the flames.

Once burned and reforged as a fighter for my own freedom, I will no longer retreat when the struggle becomes risky. When I see the fight against White supremacy as a fight for both the lives of people of color and White souls, retreat ceases to be an option.”

“I am no longer going to waste incredible quantities of energy and time trying to be the “exceptional White person,” the one who magically isn’t also complicit in systemic racism. Such dissimulation makes me a White infiltrator, taking up space and dispersing the momentum of racial justice efforts with my ego-driven posturing. Instead, I can allow myself to close my eyes and breathe into the reality that is my unavoidable complicity in White supremacy. There is no need to frantically and furiously deny it. I was born into this mess, which isn’t my fault, and now it is my responsibility to fight for freedom from it.” 

The work I’m doing this year is not to “help” people of color, as if my Whiteness and privilege is the remedy for their struggle. It’s to share the gift of education (which is a resource) with people in poverty, who are disproportionally Black in NOLA, while working on my own liberation in community. I am there to listen to people, but not to “fix” them or prove myself as the “good White person”. 

Agree or disagree, I encourage you to read the article I linked and make up your own mind. I’m also linking to a TEDx talk by Camara Jones that explores race and racism through story, which is a good place to start. These resources were shared with me by the YAV program. I’m sure we will be exploring these in much more depth. I promise to take notes and share more after orientation. I know you’re pumped… I am :)

My Church Journey and Why I’m Doing YAV

YAV. The PC(USA) is infamous for our ambiguous acronyms. That stands for Presbyterian Church (USA), for you “outsiders”. Ha. For a demonination that promotes inclusivity, we can be pretty exclusive (cough Montreat cult). We have the best of intentions! Regardless, I’m proud to be a Presby nerd. I am a cradle Presbyterian. As in, born and raised in the PC(USA). I went to church most Sundays growing up; I went to Wednesday night dinners and youth group; and, of course, I attended Montreat. As a kid in clubs and then every summer as a conferee and work crew. Now I go back as a small group leader. Montreat was my Presbyterian constant throughout the years. Even when we moved to Texas after my freshman year of high school and left my childhood church in Pensacola, I went back with the youth group to Montreat each summer. If you know me, you know I love Montreat. I’m sure it borders on obnoxious. But at the end of the day, it’s the thread that kept me connected to the church. The place that gave me such incredible love and belonging. 

I grew up with a flexible view of religion. I was never taught to take the Bible literally. I was never restrained from dancing in church or dabbling in the magic arts. I was shown a God who loves without conditions. Everything else kind of blurred into the background. Scripture wasn’t a focus for me, and the “law” seemed rigid and off-putting. Church was a community, a place to hang out with the youth group and be myself. The Bible stuff seemed foreign. Maybe that isn’t ideal, but that’s how it was. I felt happy and loved at church. 

After leaving First Presbyterian in Pensacola, I didn’t find my way back to church for a while. We had a church in Houston that was alright, but I never found the same community and did not enjoy going. In college at Ole Miss, I tried Campus Crusade and a church called Grace Bible. Both were short-lived experiences. I sporadically went to services at First Pres in Oxford and even helped with the youth group. But that only lasted a couple weeks. When Ole Miss got Ukirk, I was involved for a short time, but even that wasn’t consistent. In college, my focus stayed mainly on classes, friends, boyfriends, and myself. I wasn’t in constant communication with God, but I wasn’t totally lost to Him either. It just wasn’t a priority. I didn’t make it a priority. I realize now that having a consistent Christian community might have changed that, but alas. College was just so tumultuous for me. After dad and Laura died freshman year, I was really learning to live in this new context. The moment I heard they died, I changed. I was no longer the person I was when I picked up the phone. The years that followed were basically me growing into that new skin. Getting my sea legs. I got pretty lost before I got found.

One year ago, I moved back to Pensacola to teach middle school and returned to my childhood church. It was different, obviously, but the familiar walls were comforting and welcomed me back instantly. I already knew the associate pastors, Ben and Hailey (hi!), from summers at Montreat and random visits. Many members from my childhood church family were still there. People at church remembered me and were excited to have me back. It was a seamless and welcomed transistion. I moved back to Pensacola on my own, as a fresh adult, so obviously it wasn’t the same. The city seemed new and a little unsettling. But familiar enough to not be isolating. 

Over the past year, First Pres was my safety net. My foundation. My steady source of peace and comfort. I began helping Ben and Hailey with the youth group and found fulfillment in mentoring some of the high school girls. Ben and Hailey in turn became mentors for me. My friends Melissa and Andrew welcomed me into their home time and time again. They let me do laundry and offered their constant friendship. Shelby, a young adult who joined First Pres while I was away, eventually became my best friend and confidant. I made many more new relationships with young adults who had arrived while I was away. I’m looking at you, book club ladies. Adults at the church who were friends with my mom growing up checked in on me often. It was like I had an army of mothers. Even better, an army of people who loved me and cared about what I had to say and who rooted for me. The church became my family once again. Every Sunday, we recited words in unison. We sang together. Broke bread together. Exchanged hugs and tears and worries and theological opinions. We studied the Word together, drank beer and wine together. Read books, ate good food, shared our hopes and dreams. Looked to each other for guidance and support.

Relationships. THAT is what Church gave me. Once again, it was the community that showed me God. It was the community that got me up every Sunday morning. This time, though, I wanted more. I started asking more questions about the Bible. I finally began to see the value, beauty, and meaning it holds. I got interested in theology. I read books, listened to podcasts, and picked the brains of my brilliant friends. I was fired up about youth and ministry and Jesus. The people I was surrounding myself with and the way I was choosing to spend my time lend itself to this interest and inquiry. I was intentional about learning more. And the more I learned, the hungrier I got. The more I felt His Love, the more I wanted. Insatiable.

My first year teaching was intensely challenging in many different ways. I’m still processing it, to be honest. At the end of the year, I was struggling with what to do next. Stay for another year at the middle school and hope it gets better? Try a different school or a different grade-level? Nothing sounded appealing. Staying didn’t seem productive or fulfilling. Leaving for a different school felt like starting all over before even having time to process what had just happened. There was no synchronicity yet. No signs as to where I needed to be. I prayed. I begged for a sign. I just wanted to do the right thing. Where did God want me, where did he NEED me? One Sunday in May, there was a flyer in the bulletin for the Penecost Offering. A portion of the Penecost Offering goes to the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, so there were a couple pages advertising it. The flyer listed core tenets of the program: intentional community, vocational discernment, simple living, cross-cultural mission, and leadership development through faith in action. As I read the words, something shifted and clicked inside me. It was everything I didn’t know I needed. It was everything my soul was craving. A community of like-minded peers, living simply, practicing faith in ACTION. I wanted that experience. And vocational discernment? That was the biggie. I needed space to discern my call. I still wanted to work, and do important work at that, but I also needed that intentional space to grow and search and discern.

I applied, that day, after thinking about it all Sunday afternoon and calling my mom and mentor teacher in the district. Everyone I talked to affirmed my idea and told me it sounded perfect. It was synchronicity. The whole process flowed easily and I never doubted it. The application was submitted and the intake interview completed and suddenly I realized: I was doing this. I resigned from my teaching position for the next year and didn’t look back. Nothing had ever felt so right, so guided by Spirit. That’s how I knew.

Now that I’m 10 days from moving to New Orleans, I keep coming back to this initial place of peace. No matter what this year brings, I’ll always know it’s where I’m supposed to be. I believe last year prepared me for and led me to YAV. The stark awareness of my privilege, working at a Title One school and trying to bridge the gap between home and school for my kids. As a teacher, I felt helpless most of the time. I felt like I was trying to fight a battle I had already lost. I felt like I was trying to encourage kids who already believed they’d fail. Or who were just determined to write me off and do it on their own because authority = oppression. And can you even blame them? A lot of my kids were born into a system that starts them at the bottom while I started halfway to the top. It’s not equitable; it’s not okay. I don’t want people to think I’m giving up on education. Or that I gave up on those kids just because they were “difficult”. All middle schoolers are difficult. I expected that. I just need space before I consider going back into that environment. I want to explore other ways in which I can make a difference. Thankfully, I’ve been placed in a job in NOLA that I believe will help me do that.

I’ll be working for YMCA Educational Services (YES!), which is an adult literacy program that offers adults free reading and math classes in order to obtain the skills they need to be successful. I believe in education. I just haven’t found my piece in the puzzle yet. The place where I can be challenged but still have enough room to breathe and stretch and grow. That’s what I’m looking for this year. And I’m so happy I’ll get to explore this with my housemates and co-workers and supervisors and site coordinator and future church family. It’s an opportunity  that doesn’t come often. To have so much built-in support and encouragement. To be able to grow in my faith in an intentional community created for that EXACT REASON. To do important work and be challenged in my privilege in new ways. I have no idea what’s going to happen between August 19, 2016 and July 31, 2017, but I know I won’t be the same. How very thrilling that is. For better or for worse, I get to keep evolving and learning and soaking in all the millions of different experiences offered on this Earth. I don’t think it’ll always be easy or fun, but I think it will be sometimes and thank God for that. Life is too short not to join the second line. Bring it on, NOLA YAV year.