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.