My year as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Tucson, Arizona is officially underway. These past three weeks have been filled with a mix of joys, challenges, and everything in between. Yet one common thread that has defined my time here thus far is firsts. As a YAV in Tucson, I have experienced foreign and new situations on an almost daily basis. Below, I will reflect on some of my most significant firsts during my brief time here.
First Time in a Desert
During my first few days of exploring Tucson, a thought kept running through my head: “where is the green in this barren city?” Coming from a city of trees and manicured lawns, the site of dirt and gravel stretching in all directions was a stark change. Upon looking at a map of the city on my phone, I noticed several blue lines running through Tucson. Recalling the rivers and watering holes that dotted the Central Texas landscape, I was eager to see a splash of blue in the desert. However, every time I rode over one of those blue lines on my bike, I found that they were simply dry creek beds, and water only runs through them a few times a year. It was during these moments that I fully began to understand just how different of a place I had entered into. Three weeks in, and I still sometimes miss the site of grass or a flowing river, but I am no longer think of Tucson as “barren.” The city is abound with various types of wildlife, flora, and natural splendor. It is simply different than where I came from. Then, just today, I drove over a fully running river. It was full from a day of rain, and was strikingly beautiful against the backdrop of the rugged desert landscape. As my time here progresses, I hope to continue to find beauty in the desert.
First Time at CHRPA
For several weeks now, I have worked as a volunteer for Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona. This organization provides free emergency home repairs and handicap modifications to low-income and elderly residents of the Tucson area. As I have no previous handy-man or construction experience, everyday at CHRPA brings a new first. So far, I have had to learn how to fix a cooler, build a wheelchair ramp, replace a toilet, install a new sink faucet, and put in a door. Other new experiences this job has brought about include waking up before the sun rises, biking to work, and riding the bus. To say I am out of my element would be an understatement. It is hard work, and sometimes I feel like I get in the way more than I help when making a repair. I also find myself tired, sore, and most of all, hot. All this being said, I am amazed at the knowledge and passion of my coworkers and the lengths they go to in order to help the residents of Tucson. I have only begun to see the impact CHRPA has on people’s lives, and while it is difficult work that often leaves me frustrated, I feel proud to be part of this organization.
First Time at an Immigration Shelter
During our first week in the city, the Tucson YAV house volunteered with the Inn Project. The project is run through First United Methodist Church of Tucson, and provides a shelter for primarily Central American asylum seekers recently released from detention. Most refugees stay in the shelter before going on to their families in the United States who they will be staying with while their asylum application is processed.The shelter is set up in the church’s basement, and provides individuals with a place to sleep, three meals a day, and food and water for their upcoming journey. On the day we volunteered, 42 individuals were residing at the shelter. Immigration is an issue that I have learned about primarily through my wife, Dakota, who has worked extensively with immigrant communities through various non-profits. However, this was my first time being face to face with people who had just been released from immigration detention facilities. With my limited Spanish, I struggled to communicate effectively with those we were helping, but all expressed immense gratitude towards us for volunteering. Most were families, and all seemed tired yet excited to soon have the opportunity to see their family in the United States. As I was leaving, I had the feeling that if more people could spend a few hours with those most impacted by our immigration system, the debate surrounding immigration would be quite different.
First Time Fixing a Flat Tire
Finally, I fixed my first ever flat tire on a bike during this past three weeks. In fact, I fixed my first nearly two weeks ago, and have since had to fix four more flats. With a plethora of thorny plants and frequent potholes, Tucson may well by the flat bike tire capital of the United States. These flat tires shattered my vision of what community by bike would be like. Before I started as a YAV, I had an hour round trip commute in my car, and I was eager to trade driving for the simplicity and free exercise that come with biking. It turns out, bikes are not the simplest of machines to maintain, and just like a car, regular maintenance is required. On one particularly hot day, I found myself changing a flat tire on the side of a busy street. At that moment, all I wanted was my car, which happens to be sitting with my parents a thousand miles away. The very next day however, I found myself biking to work with a repaired tire, a cool morning breeze in my face, and a view of the sun rising over the Tucson mountains. Often during these past three weeks, the experiences that have brought me the most frustration and the most joy have been one in the same.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post! Have a great weekend and stay cool.
I am currently on the plane to Newark to attend National Orientation at Stony Point, New York. This YAV year is here! (The exclamation point denotes both excitement and fear). Before beginning the yearlong commitment, Tanner and I wanted to spend time with family, so we planned a few weeks between moving out of our apartment in San Antonio and the beginning of orientation for just that. I had the privilege of spending a few weeks with my family in Denver and Wyoming. I saw close and extended family. I also attended church and some community events in my small hometown. With all of these interactions came small talk. I’m not opposed to small talk or catching up with family members and acquaintances, but I quickly realized that YAV does not fit easily into a small talk-type conversation. Having explained YAV probably fifty different times in the last few days and weeks, I think I have some ideas as to why talking about it can be a challenge.
Difficult to Capture
Common small talk questions included: “Where are you living now?” “What are you up to?” I couldn’t answer either of those without mentioning YAV. I usually called it a “Year of Service” or a “Volunteer Year.” Sometimes I used the word mission. My hesitation in outright calling it a mission is a fear of being associated with potentially negative preconceived notions about mission work, especially as they relate to colonization. I am not evangelizing. I am not saving anyone. I am not giving any answers. I am simply going to work alongside people and to be part of a program that is already in place and doing quite well without me.
It was also difficult to succinctly explain what all this year will entail. (I don’t even know what all it will entail!) More than a service year, the YAV year also focuses on intentional Christian community, simple living, and vocational discernment. These core tenants of the program are very exciting to me, but it was hard to express that. Some people had difficulty understanding why I would chose to live in a house with strangers and not have a car for a year. (And when I type it out like that, I begin to wonder too!)
Sometimes explaining all of this was sufficient for the person(s) on the other end of the conversation. In many cases, they would launch into talking about their personal experiences in Arizona. I liked that because once they began talking about themselves, I was off the hook. Some conversations, though, ended with my most dreaded question: “What are you doing after?” While a very reasonable question, it gave me anxiety every time I heard it because I don’t know the answer. For the first time in my whole life, I do not have a clear career plan. I would respond to this question by saying that I want to be open to opportunities as they arise, mentioning that lots of YAVs end up staying in their placement cities and sometimes are even offered positions at their partner organizations. While all this is true, I still have deep-seeded fears that the year will come and go, and I may not be any closer to knowing my next step. The vocational discernment part of the program is more attractive to me now than ever.
The final reason that I found small talk conversations about YAV to be difficult is that there is so much that I do not know. I did not realize how much I did not know until I was engaged in particularly inquisitive conversations. I definitely could have reached out to my site coordinator more for specific info, but I know I will get it eventually, and the unknown can be fun. As I am about to begin a week of national orientation, followed by a week of local orientation in Tucson, I am sure that many of questions will be answered, and hopefully, some of my doubts addressed.
Doy gracias a Dios por la vida y la salud que nos presta y sobre todo por permitirme ser voluntaria en el programa YAV gracias a esto he visto y he aprendido demasiado, claro que aveces no es fácil pero de alguna manera salimos dando lo mejor; el mes pasado tuvimos la oportunidad de ir a la frontera a una introducción fronteriza y lo que aprendí fue impactante aparte he estado viendo las cosas desde otra perspectiva ya que es diferente la historia cuando estás de otro lado y en este caso yo estoy aquí como una migrante en otro país aprendido día a día las cosas que no podía ver.
Espero les guste.
La detención de migrantes en México pasó de 86.298 en 2015 a 198.141 en 2016; en los primeros siete meses de 2017 ya se han llevado a cabo 99.768 detenciones. Al mismo tiempo, las solicitudes de asilo están en aumento, pasando de 1.296 en 2015 a 3.424 en 2016; en los primeros seis meses de 2016, México ya ha recibido 3.486 solicitudes, el número más alto del que se tiene registro. Para 2016 y 2017; más del 92 por ciento de las solicitudes de asilo son de ciudadanos de Honduras, El Salvador y Guatemala.
Hay, además, otros problemas de mayor gravedad, como la caza de inmigrantes por grupos de civiles, que, evadiendo la vigilancia de la patrulla fronteriza, atacan con armas de fuego el paso de éstos. Una situación que recientemente se reconoció y que tiene relación con la continuación de la violencia sobre los derechos humanos de estas personas.
Lo que a mí más me duele ver en el caso de migración es que muchos niños desde chicos ya están pensando en emigrar a los Estados Unidos y hay veces que no van acompañados de ningún tutor o alguien responsable muchas veces la misma falta de trabajo o falta de recursos te obliga a salir de tu casa en busca de un futuro mejor, una oportunidad para salir adelante, pero es en realidad un camino fácil?, además de ser engañados por su pollero o la persona que los ayuda a cruzar se arriesgan todas los hombres, niños, mujeres al secuestro , abusos sexuales, asaltos , maltrato etc.
Viendo un documental de niñas que emigraron pude ver el gran infierno que pasan ellas sufrieron abuso sexual, psicológico y maltrato pasaron por mucho e incluso estuvieron muy cerca de morir para ellas todo estaba perdido y me dejaron como un mensaje por mi mente paso ellas pasaron todo eso solo por querer oportunidades y es ahí cuando te das cuenta y te preguntas ¿Qué está haciendo mi país con esto? ¿mi gobierno sabrá de toda esta situación? Pero tristemente se ve claramente la ignorancia de muchos que están sobre nosotros. Cada vez hay más pobreza, mas corrupción, más muertes, gente que se hace más rica y sobre todo más y más ignorancia.
A pesar de esto seguimos habiendo personas apoyando esta situación apoyando a emigrantes y tratando de que menos gente muera por esta causa.
¿No podemos nosotros convencer a la gente que no emigre porque a quien se le niega la oportunidad de una vida mejor? Pero hay una cosa que creo que todos podemos hacer y eso es apoyar a que menos gente muera tratando de ir en busca de un sostén para la familia, una mejor educación, un mejor trabajo, algo mejor. Cuando tú mismo país no te lo puede dar al contrario trata de burlarse de ti poniendo más obstáculos más barreras más muros sea Dios en sus corazones y les de la visión para que se den cuenta de todo lo que está pasando afuera de sus mansiones de su círculo de niveles y sobre todo que les de la sabiduría de gobernar este país. Dios sea con nosotros y nos del corazón y la buena voluntad.
´´Por qué no nos ha dado Dios espíritu de cobardía sino de poder, amor, y dominio propio 2 Timoteo 1-7´´
A few weeks ago YAVs from Albuquerque and Austin came with us to the U.S/Mexico border on a delegation. The purpose of the delegation was for us to bear witness to the lived realities on the border and to find a faithful response as people of God. The week was transformative for me, while I am still processing all that I experienced I wanted to highlight an experience that stuck with me.
During our time in Mexico we were hosted by Frontera de Cristo, a binational ministry of the Presbyterian church. On our first night we participated in a vigil for people who have died trying to cross the border. We lined the streets of Douglas holding crosses of peoples names who have died. After each name was read we responded with “Presente!”
As we were reading the names I thought about my countries policies, and how death on the border is systemic. On our delegation we learned that in order to have fewer people cross the border, the United States created barriers so that people had to cross through the most dangerous terrain. This policy did not deter people from crossing as the United States hoped; but it did increase the death rate along the border dramatically. With each name that is read I know that my country is directly responsible for their death.
At the end of the vigil our leader ends with “Jesucristo.” We respond “Presente.”
Jesus is present on the border. He is with those who are crossing. I am reminded of the verse Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”
As we put the crosses away and walk back to our car I thought about how I can be present in the border communities, and how I can respond faithfully.
At the end of the delegation a few of us participated in the School of the Americas watch. My fellow YAVs and I stood in front of Eloy detention center, one of the most deadly detention centers, and chanted no están solos (you are not alone). As we stood across the detention center and chanted I saw lights flicker and people move inside. I turned to my fellow YAV and asked “do you think they can hear us?” She responded “I hope so.” After a week of heart break, to bear witness and to chant in the streets, “No están solos” is to respond with the love of God.
Every person I encountered on the border whether ministry partners, someone getting ready to cross, or people getting sober from addiction I am reminded that Jesus calls us to encounter and to be present. To bear witness to the oppression on the border and the communities that are resisting is to see the face of God.
I wish this blog post was a little more cheerful than any I’ve really posted lately. Spoiler alert, it’s really not. This year is a journey of discovery and living into the reality that things I take for granted are not guaranteed. Things I enjoy and look forward to may mean harsh times for others. Fall/Winter weather has finally arrived in Tucson. Temperatures that make my friends up North scoff mean we shiver and put on jackets. And while our heat was broken and our maintenance man, Mike, was super concerned, I realized I was whining about how my blankets barely kept me warm enough in my house, where I have a bed, a roof, and food. A chance to take a shower everyday, and wash and dry my clothes whenever I please.
And I go to work everyday to serve women who don’t have those things. Tomorrow I’ll go in and sleep on a cot with a mat with the women we are able to shelter. And there will be many more who sleep on the street, in the cold. Unsafe and unsheltered. We give them what we can, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes, and a breakfast and sack lunch. We hope to have enough time for everyone to shower and do laundry, but there is never enough time. Everyday I ask myself, how can anyone who has the ability to make this stop, the ability to make sustainable, long term change sleep at night if they choose not to? I can barely sleep sometimes for knowing I have tried to make all the change I can, for knowing that in the past two years I have realized more about my privilege, my ability to sit in discomfort and allow it to gnaw at me, and that it still isn’t good enough. That until every woman that walked through those doors today and the day before and will walk through them tomorrow and the next and the next and so one is housed, it will never be good enough. I am one small voice. But I will keep speaking. Because at some point those who sleep soundly in their beds writing policies that allow fortunes to pass hand to hand comfortably from generation to generation on the backs of the poor will have to answer to the poor who work for them. I believe it.
Enough listening to my soapboxing, I started writing to tell you a story, not to preach to the choir, because you’re reading this for a reason. Everyday, a mass of human experiences teems through our double doors. Right now, we’re decked for a myriad of holidays, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, you get the idea. It’s light and bright in an attempt to bring joy. And it does help. So two more stories. We’ve had a new guest lately, I do not know her name, because she’s not in everyday and she’s very soft spoken. She wears full Hijab and I was curious how others would respond. She carries her prayer mat with her things. Somehow, amidst being on the street and experiencing homelessness, this remarkable woman still manages to do her prayers five times daily as she is called to do in the Q’uran. Today, I overheard her speaking with another of our ladies who was asking about her practice and how she does it. her first prayer time is at 4am. All of the ladies know her now and make space, allowing her to use the library for her prayers. They have learned not to walk in front of her when praying, that it breaks the direct contact with Allah (God in Arabic, for those who have missed that memo). It was one of those moments where you realize when people share being so very marginalized already, learning about another piece of someone’s marginalized culture is not scary to them. It made my heart feel light.
The other was watching a new woman come to the center who clearly needed much help and interact with our executive director. Hearing someone explain the pain that drove them to alcoholism, to drinking, to staying on the street away from family. This woman’s story of having been incarcerated, of learning of the death of her children while she was in prison, and being unable to do anything but attempt to numb herself. It was gut wrenching. I wanted to rip my heart out for her. To give her something that might be broken, but maybe a little less so. Jean found out what she needed. Not only got her those needs, but knew who would be a good person to help comfort her. And then did something that amazed me. “Promise me you won’t leave without telling me first.” She wanted to make sure to say goodbye. That has stuck with me throughout this day. She wanted to make sure, I think, that this individual was welcomed, and that she would know she was welcomed back. “I’m so tired.” That’s all I remember her saying, over and over.
Tonight, I want to pray, for those who are tired, weary, out in the cold whether it is their first night or their five hundredth night. They all have a story, whether someone has listened, another person experiencing homelessness or an angel on earth like Jean. We have no right to decide if they deserve help. They are human. They are us, with a different set of life circumstances.
As I was preparing to embark on my YAV year, a spiritual mentor emailed me the following questions:
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
Do you believe in the resurrection?
I told him we should talk.
Quakerism, though officially a Christian denomination, is pretty light on Jesus. I always appreciated this fact, preferring to worship, at various points:
These things brought me joy and awe, all the things I imagined real Christians derived from stained glass depictions of a dead hairy white dude.
We grow and change, though, right? I have to say, I now feel more passionately about the color blue than I do about the color orange. I also think that stained glass white dudes have little to do with Christianity as I conceive of it, as I am experiencing it.
I am convicted by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a young, innocent man humiliated and killed by the authority charged with keeping the peace. Do I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? It’s complicated. Do I believe in the resurrection? Yes.
In the first three weeks of my YAV year, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of listening. I’ve heard some very radical sermons. I’ve heard the stories of DACA recipients shouted in protest before city hall. I’ve heard the stories of women chased out of their home countries, told in the visitation room of a detention center.
I’ve also had the opportunity to ask questions. Over cinnamon coffee, I asked local church leader Brad Munroe how I, how anyone, can be expected to believe in God when witnessing or experiencing the kind of injustice that abounds in these borderlands. In our government. I find myself reverting to the belief that Christianity is a tool for oppression, a story to pacify the masses.
Brad reminded me of a passage from the book “Night” by holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel. Wiesel recalls standing in a crowd, forced by SS officers to watch the execution of two men and a child. “Where is God?” a man behind him was lamenting. Wiesel writes:
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.
So, the resurrection? I find it everywhere.
At a DACA rally, during a moment of silence honoring people of color killed by our current justice system, decaying in the desert or bleeding in the street.
Inside the walls detention center, watching asylum seekers in jump suits realize they will be indefinitely imprisoned for trying to survive.
I don’t find awe or joy in Jesus. I find deep dismay and a call to action, which feels equally powerful.
For the record though, I still love trees, and I’m dating a blonde. Some things never change.
Well it has been a while since I’ve put anything on here…oops, sorry about that y’all! There’s been a lot that has happened recently and I wanted to share them with everyone who has waited eagerly for another post from yours truly.
So February was a crazy month. Who knew 28 days could be so crazy? The highlight was easily visiting home for the first time in six months. I never realized how much of a home body I’d been in my life to this point, but the first six months of this year were the longest I’d been away from home. Talk about an adjustment. I was so looking forward to going home that I let my focus on my experience in Tucson slip. I started dealing with a mental dissonance as I became increasingly dissatisfied with being stuck in Tucson when all I wanted to do was be home. My relationships in my community went downhill and people could tell something was wrong even though I closed myself off from their attempts to find out what was eating me. It’s not something I’m super proud of, but it’s something I’m working through. I had lost the reason why I wanted to be here and do this crazy year of service and the homesickness hit me hard. I don’t say that to excuse my attitude (and I do sincerely apologize to my housemates…truly I’m sorry) but I say it to attempt to explain why my mood went downhill and why I was so happy to go home.
My trip home aside, a second event was coming at the end of February that I was also looking forward to. The Tucson YAVs take a sojourn into the desert to kick off the season of Lent. It is our mid year retreat and it’s an experience in finding refuge in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where God shows up time and time again in Scripture. He is a guiding presence through the wildernesses present in the bible story and the wilderness serves as a place of exile, but also as a place of deliverance. We delved into these seemingly incompatible pictures of the wilderness prior to our sojourn and it was something that I wrestled with during my time in solitude in the desert. Did I not mention that? Yeah, this week was about being in nature and, for part of the week, being isolated and alone in the wilderness to find God. Think Naked and Afraid, but with slightly more clothes and more than a little bit more of a devotional attitude. This retreat was the one that I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. I can’t say for sure that I found God out there in the desert, but I did confront some fairly deep issues in my personal walk all of which centered around forgiveness. I have a tattoo on my left wrist that reads “the water” in Greek. I got it to remind me of the waters of baptism and the awesome symbolism of the sacrament. We are washed clean of our sin as we are accepted into God’s family. My struggle is living into the fact that I am, that we are, forgiven. God’s grace covers us and always seeks to grow us, to lead us into the people we were created to be. I have a hard time recognizing that forgiveness in my life. I struggle with forgiving myself and God has forgiven me. I’m still exploring this, but it was a huge realization that came from my time in solitude. Also, if you ever have the chance to escape into the desert, I highly recommend it. You will grow in remarkable ways even from just a short time out there alone.
That now brings me to Lent. What a great season in the life of the church. But it’s one that I think is easy to overlook in our eagerness to get to Easter and the promise of the Resurrection. After the solitude and exploring some spiritual disciplines, I decided to immerse myself in the spirit of Lent and to adopt the practice of Fasting during this blessed time of preparation. My fasts fall on Fridays, technically from dinner on Thursday until dinner on Friday. In my (limited) study of the purpose behind this season, I’ve found that the practice of forgoing something (whatever that may be) is undertaken so that something else may be added. During my fasts, I plan on engaging scripture on a deeper level outside of my normal devotional time and also during those times when I am most tempted to eat (aka normal meal times). Fasting is hard and after this past week (my second fast of the Lenten season), I’m beginning to appreciate just how much I eat during the day and how easy it is to get caught up in food. I’m eagerly awaiting to see how God will move during the coming weeks and I pray fervently for his strength to assist me, especially when the temptation to eat becomes almost too strong to resist.
Things in Tucson are, on the whole, good. We survived February craziness, we are moving through March and looking forward (aka dreading) to the steadily climbing temperatures. It already feels like a Kentucky June and we’re not even halfway through March. Oh the joys of desert living! We also had a group fundraiser today that consisted of a competition between us YAVs and a handful of pastors from the Presbytery de Cristo, which supports our site. We did a Family Feud-style competition and got our butts handed to us by the pastors. As much as I loved watching Family Feud in college, I learned tonight that I am not cut out to compete in that particular game.
Thank you, Father God, for forgiveness, for grace, for time at home and time alone.
And so we go.
“Oh, no! Honey, I prayed to God last night that you wouldn’t be back here.”
This is not the way that I’d expect to be greeted by a client on my second day at the same job. But she didn’t mean it the way it sounds out of context.
Vern and I arrived on a Thursday to a little trailer up on a hill with a wide view of the Tucson Mountains. We were investigating a water leak which was pouring into the void at forty gallons an hour. It was a bit of a mystery, as there was no obvious outpouring or plant growth except for where gray water drained into the yard. But the main line ran from the meter, up the pitted, rocky driveway, and under the trailer all the way to the far side, where it connected to the house and then ran to the water heater on the street side. The leak could have been anywhere or in multiple places but it was certainly nowhere obvious.
Just to ensure it wasn’t in the pipes under the house we could access, because I heard running water, and also because I wanted to, I decided it would be best to take some skirting off and go investigate with a flashlight. It was dark and moist under there from ages-old drips coming from some of the drain lines, but on the street side at least there was plenty of crawling room so I explored about to the middle of the house until I could be sure that those lines weren’t pouring the forty gallons an hour. There were, however, a few droplets coming steadily from the calcified old plastic piping to the bathrooms, leading me to believe it would be best to replumb the whole house.
As I was coming out, I heard Ms. Willard – as her friend Dave, who greeted us initially, called her – yelling at Vern. “You let that baby girl crawl under my trailer?!” She was leaning her head out the bedroom window which overlooked our workspace and stared at me in shock and disbelief as I came out unscathed and unconcerned.
“I do this all the time,” I said with a shrug and nonchalant smile. She shook her head at me.
Vern and I started to dig for the waterline, and ended up with almost an eight-foot trench (“maybe it’s just a little further this way…”). I threw my jacket off as the sun shone strong on our shoulders. Ms. Willard came out with coffee and observed me heaving massive piles of red dirt around in her yard. “How did you get into this sort of work?” she asked me.
“I volunteered.” I grinned to show her I was having fun and kept digging.
Vern asked her for a wire coat hanger and cut it into two rods to try and locate the waterline. I was delighted at the opportunity to use witchcraft at work. We found the waterline in the exact center of the house, barely six inches underground and making our sixteen-inch-deep trench feel quite silly. It was ancient and encased in rusty flakes that chipped off at the slightest touch, destroying our initial idea of attaching it to the near side of the trailer and bypassing the busted part. The whole thing was begging for death.
When I told Ms. Willard we would be back the next day and collected all the necessary documents, she asked, “So I’m approved, then?”
“Of course,” I said, not even realizing that was a question. She hugged me out of relief. She’d been putting up with having her water off for two weeks by the time we came, and plumbers had estimated the cost of repairs at thousands of dollars.
When Albert, Vern, and I came back on Monday to get the real business done, aside from expressing her wish that I wasn’t there to endanger myself again, Ms. Willard offered us coffee and homemade banana bread. “I just couldn’t sleep last night worrying about this,” she said, “so I made this to help me calm down.”
I did my part in being the smallest and youngest person there and helped Albert repipe under the trailer while Vern dug the trench alongside the old waterline. Ms. Willard was not pleased about this. “Where’s your mask?” she demanded. I fetched a dust mask from the car. “Tie your hair up in a bun so it doesn’t get stuff in it! Put this bandana around it. Wear this jacket.”
“I’m not even going under at this point,” I protested, as I passed Albert, who was lying under the house, a new coupling. There was considerably less room to wiggle on the far side, and he was using bits of skirting and scrap plywood as a bed. I considered it distinctly unfair that she’d let Albert go under with just a T-shirt.
“Put the damn jacket on!”
When it was my turn to bring the main new Pex lines towards the back of the trailer I became more grateful for the jacket. A fact about pack rats that I didn’t know before is that they store cacti in insulation, eat the cacti, and leave the spines. They had been doing that under this house for years. I’m no stranger to cactus spines at this point, but it’s been a week and I am still finding them in my body.
In a quieter moment I crouched on the bathroom floor, inside, next to a hole I’d drilled and waited for Albert to send me the new toilet supply line. Ms. Willard waited with me. “I’m sorry I’m so distracted and not much help today,” she said suddenly, and I looked up to realize she had tears running down her cheeks. “I just was waiting on this doctor’s appointment, and now my paperwork hasn’t been processed and I don’t know if I have cancer in my throat, too, and all this…”
A reason I like CHRPA is that usually I am faced with problems I can fix. This was not one of them.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I set the drill down. “Do you want a hug?”
She did. I patted her back and held her. “I keep telling all these women in my life to be strong,” she said. “Now I gotta do that, too.”
Her daughters came to visit that day, as did her twelve-year-old granddaughter, who helped pull up the kitchen supply lines. Ms. Willard pointed at me and bragged to her granddaughter. “See this girl?” she said. “She’s been crawling under that house all day, with all those spiders and whatnot!” I waved to her on my way out the door.
Vern, a champion among champions, dug the entire trench himself. Every time I’d go back to the truck to get something he would be a few feet closer to the meter, swinging a pickaxe non-stop. By the end of the day he was done, and so were we. We left it nearly ready to be hooked in.
I was not assigned to go back the next day and see the final result. Ms. Willard made me keep the jacket and bandana. I will not forget about her and I hope that our work relieved some part of the heavy burden on her shoulders that kept her up at night, baking banana bread.
I’m writing this as a letter to my former students. I don’t know that any of them will read it, but if they do, I want them to know I mean EVERY word.
I know the world is kind of scary right now. There are lots of people saying lots of things that aren’t very nice. Heck, I’ve said some not nice things in the last number of months, and I’m sure some of you have too (because you’re human beings with opinions. Opinions that often get ignored.) I also know I left and am not your teacher anymore. You have a new teacher (who seems like a wonderful person, by the way, and I hope you’re giving him a chance, just like you gave me a chance!) and that may still seem weird, even after almost a year. I know it was still strange in my first year towards the end of the year. Some of you still wanted Mr. Hillard back. And it can be very confusing when people move on in life and you’re still kind of in the same place. Trust me, I know. I’m the one who left, and it is still confusing.
I know that may seem weird. I’m an adult, right, so I should have everything figured out, right? I don’t know if I told you the secret about that while I was still your teacher in the classroom, but, well, I don’t. Chances are, most of the adults you see don’t. Yes, we have more experience, we’re older, and we’re expected to have the stuff figured out. I went to school for the subject I taught you, but one of the things I knew everyday in that classroom was, I didn’t have all the answers. And that I wasn’t just supposed to teach you how to sing and read and play and make music. Part of what I was supposed to do was teach you how to be a wonderful, unique, confident, thoughtful person. That was the more important thing really, for all that I harped and chided, coaxed and encouraged you to learn that a quarter note in common (4/4) time got one beat or that Elvis Gets Busted Driving Fast, you put your FACE in the space, Great Big Dragons Fly Around, and All Cows Eat Grass. Those things were important, yes, but they weren’t always the most important. The most important thing for me was, and is, that you connected to the music, and through that, connected to each other, and other people around the world and through time, even if that connection was short lived and just for a fleeting moment.
And I can tell you, there were some moments. You see, I’m an adult, but I would call my parents sometimes after you had a great day and just tell them ALL the things you’d done. How you’d read that rhythm perfectly the first time, how my fifth graders were composers, how my Middle School chorus sang in three parts a capella and when the piano came back in they were right in tune, how my general music middle schoolers were talking about real world issues through music and how I thought that, maybe, just maybe, you were getting it. And how happy that made me. I hope I told you that enough, that I was so very proud to be your teacher and so very proud of the learning you were doing. I don’t think I did. I think I should have said that more. So very much more.
Because, guys, I have to confess that leaving that classroom was one of the scariest things I have ever done. Scarier than packing up all my things and moving to a new state (which I still did), scarier than walking into a classroom with no chairs and no music and having to figure it out. Because what if I’d made a huge mistake? What if I had left something so wonderful and magical and full of joy and real human interaction only to find nothing here in Tucson was as good? What if no one came along to teach you how to be wonderful, vulnerable, sensitive, kind people?
Part of me feels guilty for saying I was worried. Part of me feels guilty for saying that I found wonderful things here. Because, guys, I want you to know that YOU MATTER. There are things going on in our country and world that people have different opinions on and, let’s be quite honest here, friends, adults are being really ugly to each other. And they’re angry. I promise I won’t lie to you and I confess, I’m ANGRY. I know, I said a lot in classes that I wasn’t mad, I was intense about things (stolen from my own chorus teacher, because it was true!) but that was because it was you guys! I couldn’t get mad at you, although sometimes we had hard days and it was rough. Because you’re kids! You’re still learning! But with adults, they’re supposed to have it together! So I want you to know, that we don’t. We’re trying really hard. I’m trying really hard. I want the world to be a better place for you because even though I’m not your mom, I’m still your teacher, even when I’m not there to teach you. I worry about each and every one of you each and every day. I told you that when I left. That even though I was going away, doing something different, there was not a snowball’s chance in a very warm place of me ever ever ever forgetting what you each meant to me. Each one of you made my life better. Each one of you taught me something new, did you know that? You taught me. I hope you know that.
And so, here I sit at 3pm on a drizzly gray day in Tucson, out in the desert, thinking about how I hope I taught you half as much about life as you taught me. Tuesday (because we have a holiday tomorrow) I will go into my office, and sit at a desk, and work very hard to help feed people in need. And not just to feed them, but to help them find a way out of the line for food, to be able to provide on their own. And sometimes it feels easier than teaching and other days, guys, I am overwhelmed by the scope and range of the need that their is in the world, and how people can be so very ugly about it. And I think of how many of the people in line are kids, just like you, with stories, like yours. They want to play minecraft and post on instagram, and they want the latest phone, and sing in chorus, or play in band, or wish that their teacher would let them play the recorder all day everyday. They like to draw and laugh, watch football and dance. They have normal kid worries, just like yours, and are probably really kind of confused about what’s going on. I hope they have friends like yours, and teachers like yours. And I hope that maybe, just maybe, the little bit I do here, this letter, my adventures (because let me tell you, this is an adventure.) may still teach you that you can do and be anything you want to. And that the thing I hope you choose to be most often is compassionate, caring, and kind. I hope you choose to be risk-takers and thinkers. That you choose being curious inquirers over taking someone’s word for something (but be nice about it!) and knowledgeable in an age of misinformation. I hope beyond hope you will be principled when others aren’t. The world needs more people who are as kind and wonderful as you are. And if you aren’t sure what to do, guys, before you worry about being anything else, BE YOU. There’s only one. I may not have it all figured out, but I can tell you right now, that is one thing I can do.
So I’ve written enough words. I’m not sure if this counts as “teacher talk” like it would have in a classroom, but if it does, I’m way over my allotment. I’m cheering for you from exactly 1731 miles (or 25 hours and two time zones) away. Don’t give up! Keep learning! I believe in you!
The 2016-2017 Tucson Borderlands YAVs fall on a wide political spectrum from "borderline socialist" to "conservative Republican." Through community dialogue and reflection, they wrote a statement responding to the election and inauguration of President Trump. The statement reflects their views and experiences, and emphasizes Jesus' call for us to build a kingdom of radical inclusion and love. Read their full statement below the break.