A Haircut

I’m not sure how this blog-post is going to go. I want to share a moment with you all that seemed to sum up one of my larger takeaways from this year. I don’t have any pictures of the moment and, to be honest, I’m not sure if I can fully describe it. It’s so simple, yet changes so much for me.

 

It was after bible-study at Mercy. We were preparing to go out on the streets, so everything was in flux. People were zipping about, gathering their stuff to leave, picking up chairs to stack up, sweeping, wiping down tables, filling coffee machines, washing dishes, etc., etc., etc. There’s sort of a peaceful chaos to this time of day. There’s order, yes, but one rooted in disorder. Things need to be done by a certain time, but there’s not really a fixed checklist of priorities to run down.

 

I’m responsible for getting it all done in the end, so I’m in constant motion, shifting from task to task, acting as worker, liaison and delegator. Nevertheless, a wonderful part of our community is the way everyone shares a sense of ownership over our space, so even as I work on whatever I’m doing, there are generally several other people all working on something else, often unasked and unprompted. It’s a team effort, and I’m not ashamed to note how I am here, as happens so often, lifted by the community at large.

 

Standing behind the kitchen counter, I got lost for a moment in the thread of my thoughts, trying to identify where next I was most needed. I scan the room, looking for an item out of place, or a coffee stain to address when I find my eyes latching onto a scene of strange serenity in the center of all the motion, like the eye of a storm.

 

Pastor Chad is leaning over one of our members, I won’t use his real name, so let’s call him Bradwick. Chad is wearing an apron; in his hands is an electric razor and by his side, the table we usually adorn for worship is holding a variety of hair-clipping equipment. Bradwick is sitting on a chair, with an improvised smock around his neck, looking calm as Pastor C makes some finishing touches on a style Bradwick himself had requested.

 

This is not an abnormal sight at Mercy. Most days I would pass over it unblinkingly, but in that briefest of pauses I realized how extraordinary such a mundane truth such as this is.

 

I work in a church. In this church, giving a haircut is ministry. It’s not just that. It’s relational. This isn’t a one off occurrence; if there is time to spare, at any given point a haircut is possible. Bradwick has gotten his hair cut before, and Pastor C knows how he likes it cut. After it is done, Bradwick gets up, goes to the bathroom and checks his reflection. Pastor C asks how he likes it. Bradwick says it’s good. And then the next person comes up and asks if he might have a turn.

 

I have heard a lot of our members express to me, especially in the context of the clothing closet, that they feel uncomfortable seeking jobs because when you live on the streets, looking unkempt is pretty much inevitable, and judgement by “respectable” society even more so. How can you expect to get employment when it looks like you haven’t showered in a week? Why would you even want to try when doing so will, more often than not, leave you feeling belittled and cast away?

 

A haircut is a basic affirmation of human dignity. It’s intimate too. There is a closeness to cutting hair that requires as much trust, if not more, than the usage of cutting implements does. Here it is not only given freely, but people feel comfortable asking of it. Feeling clean and kempt should be a right for everyone, and when it is wanted we do what we can for each other.

 

I may be overreacting, but isn’t this beautiful? Could ministry be something more than heady rhetoric? I’ll be honest, I’ve seen a lot of that from Church in my life. What would Church, or even secular communities be like, if such embodied care was the norm? I don’t know. This kind of stuff isn’t taught in seminary, or, in my case, the music department, but it feels worth doing nonetheless.

 

Lent and Life

Happy Easter everyone!

 

Lent is finally over. Lent is a weird phenomenon. Growing up, I was always encouraged in passing to make a resolution as the season began, which I did, but usually not asking myself why, failing to keep it, and, in the end, forgetting that I was supposed to be giving anything up in the first place. Easter comes along and I promptly shove the whole sordid affair to an unattended, dusty corner of my mind until someone reminds me about Lent again the next year.

 

Not this time.

 

I work at a church, and here, Lent is not just about aesthetic sacrifice. Lent is supposed to be about preparing hearts and minds for the coming of Easter via “repentance”, a message hammered home daily through Bible studies and a community-written devotional. The change involved is not one practice, but a whole life-style. And I wanted it. I wanted to seriously attempt to turn towards a life that chooses health, justice, and love.

 

So, I did several things. I read my devotional. Every. Day. I entered a mode of extreme frugality; I spent nothing that I could help it, and started giving away the clothes and books gathering dust on my shelves. I tried to do more chores around the house, and engage in acts of hospitality – inviting friends into the house to share our space, time and food. I limited myself to a half an hour of non-business internet usage a day. This last one may seem out of place, but I assure you – it was very important to my quest. The internet can be a very distracting and emotionally taxing place – the modern false idol. It often dominates my mood, and leads to toxic thoughts and mindsets. So I decided to remove it. I wanted instead to focus on my responsibilities to this year. Simple living, to the max.

 

It didn’t last forever.

 

Habits resurfaced. Relapses occurred. Frustration and anxiety settled in as my efforts to simplify my life kept fizzling in vain. I inviting people over less and yearned for time spent alone – time that was completely my own, when I didn’t have to do anything for anybody else. Instead of finding peace, I felt swept up in a wave of pressure to keep up with the radical change I was seeking. Eventually, a whole evening might be spent lounging online, forgetting, and neglecting the responsibilities I was supposed to be honing in on.

 

Not the greatest of looks. But I didn’t give up. Each time my discipline slipped, I tried to rebound. As penance for my failure to hold by my resolution, I made a new one. I stopped shaving. It’s silly, I know, but as my mane became more and more unkempt it became harder and harder to forget what I was doing this month – what I was supposed to be sacrificing. Today, as I write this, my face is as fluffy as it’s ever been.

 

I had hoped that by Holy Week I would have found some sort of breakthrough, but it was one that proved elusive. On the lead-up, my resolutions were shaky. But Holy Week was at hand, and that was the hand I dealt myself, so I forged onward.

 

We celebrated Maundy Thursday at Mercy by washing each others’ feet. If you’ve never had your feet washed by someone, or washed someone else’s feet, you should. It’s a beautiful, humbling experience, but one I honestly didn’t feel I deserved to be a part of. I felt emotionally battered, and bruised. How could I be worthy, as selfish as I was being with my time and energy, to receive such tenderness and love?

 

Good Friday was next. We marched down Ponce, singing songs of mourning, carrying our wooden cross, and reading scripture. Our journey ended back at the church, now filled with candles and dominated by the terraced structure in the middle that held the returned cross up, draped in red mesh curtains. We sat in the dark and silence. But even then I was distracted by tiredness and frustration.

 

Finally, Easter. Gone is the purple of Lent, the red of Good Friday. The cross is draped in white and gold. Giant candles are set in candelabras, and the room is filled with shouts of Alleluia. And I felt sulky. It was petty, really. Earlier in the day I had laboriously arranged the white curtains behind the cross, but the pastors wanted it done differently, so my work was taken down and redone. I was mad. It was like my vision was denied, and my work rescinded. Then later, when we were playing music, I couldn’t sit with the other guitar players, and they didn’t have enough capos, so I was relegated to playing bar chords in bizarre keys, drowned out by the louder open string chord shapes being played across the room. In all fairness, I was the only one who could play those chords without capos, there weren’t enough chairs and the curtains did end up looking better. But I let myself get emotionally compromised because I felt out of control of my life, just as I was doing when I couldn’t keep up with my intentions for Lent.

 

So, here I was, on the day of our greatest Christian celebration, the day we declare our salvation, being a salty Susan. If you know me, then you might not be surprised. I struggle with pride. This and an overarching futility about the season was weighing heavily on my heart. It was hard to see this season as a success. And yet…

 

The main idea of Easter is that the kingdom of God is here now. That may sound strange to you, especially if you don’t know a lot about Christianity. However, there is something to it – bear with me. In Bible Study, we talked a little bit about what the “kingdom” is and to explain, our Pastors used a passage from Isaiah 55.

 

“Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!”

 

Their idea is that the “kingdom”, or the will of the God for the world, is a feast in which all are invited. To bring it into being, all we have to do is set a table and keep nobody out. It’s a beautiful image. Everyone is welcome. Everyone can eat their fill. Even though it seems impossible these days, it’s a pretty cool thought isn’t it?

 

At the end of Easter service, sisters from order of Mother Teresa came by and brought food: fried chicken, green beans, corn, bread-rolls, coca-cola, and chocolate bundt cake. The table was set. I was feeling somewhere between terrible and miffed – I certainly didn’t feel like I deserved to share in such abundance and joy. And yet… I was invited too.

 

It’s been a long month with a lot of ups and downs, but in times like these I think I get it – this whole Christian thing. And yes, my friends, you can spend a whole life going to church without sensing the profound purpose to our weird, cultish (we had lots of candles man) madness. Life is intense, but when there’s a spot at the table, it feels right.

 

(P.S. Easter ended up being a lot of fun – it was great. Alleluia! I feel (I promise I’ll have less of these sentences next time) pretty swell. I hope you all do too. Bonus item: a before and after of my beard. I shaved after Easter.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sharing a Poem

It’s been a busy month, but as far as the YAV program goes, things have been fairly normal. I still wake early five days a week to work at Mercy, our Purple House is trucking along, and we’re surviving the occasional spat with fruit flies.

 

We have officially crossed the halfway point in the program. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Atlanta six months at this point. Time has flied, and I can’t help but wonder at the inevitable end of this experience. I know it will be difficult. I’ve found a home here, and leaving will mean taking wrenching myself from the roots I’ve grown in my communities here. I’ve done that a few times in my life, and it’s never been easy.

 

So, I’m trying to keep my focus on now, and relishing the opportunities I’m being given everyday to grow and learn.

 

Recently at the YAV house, we’ve been talking about poetry and the transformative power poetic speech has to imagine new possibilities for living. Since nothing particularly noteworthy has been happening recently, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote during one of our community nights. It was based on a format set by Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front, by Wendell Berry, so here is a link if you are curious or would like to imitate the project:

 

https://cals.arizona.edu/~steidl/Liberation.html

 

This poem tries to imagine what it would look like when I live life right. It is as aspirational as it is reflective. It’s not particularly good, but I hope you enjoy.

 

Love the meeting of mind and moment,

molding thought into form,

labor met with fruit, want more,

Though, of love and passion. Fear

to know gentle feelings grow distant and die.

Craft a mirror in your heart.

Not even the deepest depths of self will be hidden

no more. Your mind will settle in an alcove

while your body waits at the door.

When they want you to say something

they will call you. When they want you

for instruction they will let you know.

Hold your tongue.

Friends, every day do something

against what we are taught. Love yourself.

Love the world. Strive for simple being.

Take what you have and be content.

Love someone who rejects love,

or someone you’ve been told not to love.

Denounce ambition and embrace

generosity. Hope to live in fellowship

and galvanize around it.

Give patience to what you can’t

control. Praise curiosity

until everyone can afford it.

Ask questions that break walls,

invest in stable bridges.

Plant seeds in splintered pavement.

Say that your art is harmony

that rings in silence as in raucous din.

Music is magic,

but only when shared.

Call that the fruit of labor. Cry out

and break the oppression of silence.

Put your faith in the smallest thought

of a perfect stranger

awake before the sunrise.

Listen to them – put your ear

close, and hear dreams, softly

beating beneath exhaustion and doubt.

Expect failure as a welcome friend.

Laugh.

Sorrow is immeasurable. So be joyful

though scars have made you stiff.

So long as you hold the reins to power

observe obeisance.

Ask yourself: will this satisfy

someone satisfied to bear with me?

Will this disturb the sleep

of someone who is hungry and scared?

Go with your love to the wild places.

Lie easy on the nettles. Rest your head

against a shoulder. Swear fidelity

in the face of numbness and sloth.

As soon as politiques

can predict the anxieties of your mind,

Abandon it. Leave it there as a sign

to make a false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Swim like a fish

through an endless ocean

To find communion by the river.

Practice resurrectionIMG-1595.

Where One Sees God

A group from St. Anselm College, New Hampshire visited Mercy on a recent Monday.

We receive a lot of visiting groups over the year, especially during the summer. We had, in fact, hosted a group a few weeks before this one. However, by some strange twist of fate, I had fallen ill at the time, so these New Hampshirites made for my first Mercy group experience.

Just one of the many remarkable things about the Mercy community is the way we welcome visitors. Hospitality is celebrated in our community as a central duty of the church, so there was a new bustle to our little room that morning as we prepared for our guests.

We fetched chairs from the art room to make room for the sudden influx of people. Even for our fuller days, we had a rather large crowd in Mercy with the new additions.

You could feel the energy in the air – we were ready to host.

We were ready, but hospitality is, of course, a two-way street. If our guests were unwilling to be present, well, there is a limit to we could have done as far as stewardship goes. Thankfully, however, it was immediately evident that these students were eager to be with us and participate in our little community for the day.

They were bubbly and social. As breakfast was being prepared, I could hear conversations rising, swelling and sustaining. Looking out from behind the kitchen counter, I felt touched by the reciprocating gestures of goodwill in strangers and friends meeting that were taking place – I saw joy alight in faces, the feeling of homely comfort descending, smothering initial hesitations and uncertainty. I saw guests welcomed by gracious hosts. It was wonderful.

As the day went on, this dynamic exchange never faltered.

During prayer, we all sang enthusiastically to the Mercy classics – I was particularly impressed by their willingness to shout “Yeah!” with fists raised in the call-response section of ‘Revolution’, usually plagued by intense shyness at some of the more demonstrative gestures. After a vibrant bible study, many of our guests helped with cleaning and preparation for the taking of the soup. Those who didn’t absconded with Rocking Rick to catch his Monday music class.

We took the soup out to the streets and made the long trek back uphill to the church where we gathered for one final time, tired, let down from the drive that had dominated the day and brought us to the end of our work. Before we said our goodbyes, however, we pulled some chairs into a small circle to sit and reflect. Now worn by weariness, joy had eroded somewhat to reveal a strange mix of contemplation, satisfaction, shock, and not just some grief in their faces.

We began by describing a high point and low point for their day.

There was a lot of amazement at how our community celebrates our shared humanity. They celebrated with the staff the way we gather as a church every day to affirm the simple fact that we are united as children of God.

Many were tickled by praying the rosary with some of the sisters under the order of mother Teresa, who come by on Mondays.

Some were taken aback at the wisdom and grace expressed in the day’s Bible study. Others expressed profound sorrow at more tragic stories our members had shared with them about their lives and families.

Some cried, confessing that their family had told them before coming to Atlanta to avoid people on the streets, because ‘they were dangerous’. As it turned out, earlier that day, they had passed one of our members and were shocked to see them later in our church, treating them as an honored guest in the Mercy community.

As they shared these stories, I felt struck by a sudden awareness. In the relentless repetition of four months worth of Mercy’s work, I had forgotten what it was like to first step through the gates into our little home.

I remember that day. I was nervous. Afraid even. I was anxious as I always am in a new social space, but I could also feel then seeds of fear, instilled at an early age by how privilege labels homeless bodies as threatening, nesting in my heart.

The setting at Mercy is outlandish. The walls are splashed with vibrant orange that clashes brilliantly with the deep purple doors and windows. From the ceiling row after row of ornate flags hang, displaying the names and faces of, I would come to learn, members past and present, living and moved on – our communion of saints. I didn’t know then, of course. They were just exotic curtains – alien, yet exuberant, framing enormous paintings of Jesus feeding the thousands, Jesus and the woman at the well, and the passions of Christ.

In the face of this variegated explosion, all I could think was that I was going to spend an entire year in this room, and that I had barely any capacity to simply get a grip on just what was going on in there.

These days, I walk in and feel calm. This is such a gift. Seeing our guests grapple with their experiences reminded me that I am only here because I too have been welcomed as a guest. Mercy’s community had every reason to reject me that first day. I didn’t know their lives, their pains, and their joys. I had no idea what it is like to live on the streets. I still don’t. I came knowing nothing, and able to do nothing to save, teach or instruct.
And yet I was welcomed. I am welcomed, each and every day. I was taken in, and have been given so much more than I could ever give.

The final question for our guests was where they saw God that day. I remember in a bible study we had a long while ago we talked about what it meant to be children of God – what it meant to be made in God’s image. We were challenged to try to see God in the faces of everyone – friend, foe, stranger. Everyone.

I wonder if our guests saw God in us. I wonder how their experiences here will shape their week in Atlanta, and whether they will carry something from their day at Mercy. They will move on. Will they be different?

I am similar. Come August, my year of service will be over. I will have to move on. I am also transient.

When I go, will I carry the way of life I have learned with me? Can I carry the grace that is so freely given here?

When I go, where will I still see God?

 

Mercy

I have been asked many times what I will be doing this year since I’ve told people that I would be working as a Young Adult Volunteer in Atlanta.

For a long time my answer was nondescript, because I simply did not know. However, after three months and change on the job I am now happily equipped to finally give a sufficient response.

I work at a small grassroots community church called Mercy. Our website, https://mercyatl.org/, describes us as ‘a place where people living in housing, and those who do not, come together to work and make the world a better place.’ Our mission lies in the creation of community, grounded in relationships that are real, meaningful, sometimes messy, but always affirming of life, respect and dignity. I am the full time intern.

On a typical day we open up at 8 A.M. I, or one of our two co-pastors, opens the gate, sets the coffee out and starts working on breakfast – toast with butter, jam, and peanut butter, baked eggs, sausage, and, of course, grits. While we eat, one of us opens the clothing closet so people can come and get clean clothes.

Around 9:30, we dim the lights, light candles, tune guitars and hand out songbooks, shakers, maracas, bells, hand drums, and various other percussive instruments and sing songs of liberation and healing, many of which were written by our senior Pastor, Chad Hyatt, who founded the church 13 years ago. Singing leads to prayer, where we share joys and concerns, our fears and our hopes. After each offering the community responds: “Lord hear our prayers”.

Bible study follows. We explore the day’s text using lectio divina – reading the scripture out loud, highlighting words or phrases that stand out to us on a whiteboard, rereading the text and finally opening the floor up to discussion about how God’s word that given day speaks to our lives.

At 11:30 we begin preparations to head out to the streets. If there is one image that captures work at Mercy, it is us walking down Ponce de Leon, dragging our little black metal carts, filled with either sandwiches or 5 gallon orange water coolers containing either water or soup. It’s our aesthetic.

We head out at 12:30. Our final stop is in the shadow of Ponce City Market – an old Sears factory converted into a high-end shopping district, where many of our community members gather in the morning, in case the Home Depot offers a day job. It is cold in that shadow, especially in the winter, but my memories of that place are of warm soup and kind words, sitting together on the curb under the trees that line the sidewalk.

We get back around 2:00 P.M. We close up our space, clean it, and prepare it for a new day.

These are the bones of a typical day at Mercy. The meat lies in the unpredictable events that decorate daily life at Mercy – moments that unfold without design:

A thundering rendition of ‘The Saints Come Marching’ that generates an outbreak of dancing by the coffee table.

A heartfelt testimony responding to the book of Ruth describing in real terms the vulnerability of women on the streets.

Cheerfully repeating ‘Pepto-Bismol’ in impromptu song because there is medicine to share for sore stomachs.

Tears of relief during theological reflections on suicide.

Sitting with and embracing a new guest who is shaking with fear as we wait for an ambulance to deliver relief from a sudden asthma attack.

Mercy is a place where joy, sadness, laughter, sullen silence, worries, devotion and all conceivable sensations are found in abundance. It is a place where the fullness of human experience is freely shared.

It is my job to fill in the gaps, to smooth the edges such that this fullness is possible. This may look like cleaning our space, refilling coffee, serving food, wiping down tables, getting razors, towels, blankets, or anything our members might need, handing out bibles or spoons, sharing my musical gifts or just being present to our community.

This blog will be, in part, a document of my experience at Mercy. Previously I described the ‘Purple House’; this church is my home. This is my community. These are my friends and peers. I hope you will enjoy my stories of grace found tucked away in our little basement.img-1674

A Home of the Purple Variety

So it begins. I thank all of you who decide it’s a good use of their time to join me on this, and I hope you find my writing entertaining and perhaps a bit keen, if not somewhat insightful.

What I hope for this blog is to be a written live-stream of sorts into my year of service in Atlanta, GA, under the Young Adult Volunteers (Y.A.V.) program of the PCUSA and dwelling with DOOR. Hopefully it will chronicle a story of growth for me that all of you, from the communities back home supporting me on this venture, financially and spiritually, to the casual, curious bystander who happened to drop by, might delve into and share in my tale of exploration and discovery.

To this end I am optimistic.

Already in the first few weeks of the program, there have been numerous experiences that have shown me how very much I am unequipped for so many aspects of living in my new communities, both those close at hand and those that stretch to global frontiers.

YAV orientation at Stony Point Center in Stony Point, NY was a remarkable start to this end. The tone was set early with our Crossroads anti-racism training. Working in their program crystalized thoughts and ideologies that have long been a part of my consciousness into something more tangible. Before in my life, topics of identity and privilege were always discussed in abstract terms, acknowledged but held at arm’s length, contemplated but not embodied. Now, their very existence instills urgency to confront them, and to learn how to live with their presence responsibly and with grace and love. The idea presented by Crossroads that the hegemony of self-perpetuating systems of dominance oriented around whiteness and maleness might be resisted by choosing life practices that deny its priorities, and break the patterns of imitation that sustain it is a thought I find incredibly empowering, liberating even, and one that calls me to follow through within the humble bounds of my small life.

Which is all fine and easy enough to talk about…

As my readers of privilege may or may not be aware, to have privilege is to be blind to it. In my life, I have experienced it as an invisible force with tremendous and massive inertia. By the time I notice its influence and effects on those around me, it is often far too late.

Although there are some labels we might attach to things and systems that keep some people in the center, and others on the borderlands, forming new, reformed, healthy communities is ultimately based in relationships, the managing of which entails a lifelong commitment to grapple with that intangible, obscured, treacherous force, even as one makes the simpler decisions on how to more practically conduct one’s life. I admit, the part of me that longs for security and comfort looks up ahead and sees a road fraught with uncertainty, and sees with some anxiety many times in which I will simply not have a clue as to what I’m doing.

However, if I have found anything to be true in my nascent young adulthood, it is that no one else really seems to know what they’re doing, which, I guess, feels slightly more encouraging than disconcerting.

In any case, it is clear to me that I have a lot to learn, and a lot of room to grow. This is a rather comforting notion to me. At the end of the day, I should at least have something interesting to write about.

In fact, during these first two short weeks, there have already been many stories that are worth sharing. I hope to get to tell all of these eventually, but in the course of introducing myself and my dreams for this blog, this first post has long since run its course. So let me instead set the scene for you all of my new life, leaving you with a quaint little image to anchor the tales that are to come:

We arrived on Monday, five of us all crammed into our Site Coordinator’s small toaster car, as it grumbled along the gravel path leading in from a rather inconspicuous entryway on the street behind and to the side of our home. Outside and up the ramp, across a platform-patio and in through the back door, its dark red paint harshly chipped and frayed, we enter into the house that we’ll live in throughout this year. It’s a special house, which, I’m sure, becomes clear very quickly to everyone upon being introduced to it.

We call it the purple house. We call it that because that is what it is. It is purple and upward towards 120 years old, and feels that way too. It doesn’t creak all that much, but if I had to describe it succinctly, I would say that it just feels lived in. Everywhere you look there are little details of prior inhabitants, who seemed to have wanted to leave their mark on the space, even as they cleared the evidence of their occupancy for those who would follow.

It feels fitting, for a volunteer. This year we will enter people’s lives, inevitably leave our marks, and then move on. Hopefully we will do so responsibly, ethically, and lovingly, just as one would if when building a home.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

This is a default first blog post. Nothing really to see here. Currently sitting on a couch trying to get all the logistics done for my YAV program.

Mhm… The profundity is off the chain.

Anyway, hopefully future entries will have a bit more to chew on than this. In the meantime, enjoy this quote the website suggested I include by a guy I have never heard of:

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

post

Now isn’t that nice?