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.
I had the privilege today of watching the Coronado Area Special Olympics swim meet at the Edith Ball Aquatic Facility here in Tucson. Over my four years at Asbury, I was able to help out with the Jessamine County Special Olympics swim meets at our university pool. It’s always a great reminder to me that we can take joy from anything we do, and that we can do things simply for the joy of doing them. I love being a part of the Special Olympics and, even though I couldn’t help out today, I hope to have the opportunity to volunteer with them again here in Tucson in the future.
Sorry for the abrupt transition here, but I wanted to open with that because it was probably the best beginning to a Saturday I’ve had in a while. Anyway, I was able to start my placement with the Primavera Foundation this week and it felt good to finally get a routine of sorts established. Tuesday of this past week was the official beginning of our working year and it began with a community brunch at the Community Food Bank. All our placement supervisors were there and we walked through the covenant that each of us (YAVs, placements, the Tucson Borderlands site and the Steering Committee) agreed to follow this year. The status of my supervisor was somewhat unknown to me. My original interview with Primavera was handled by Jenna, who had since moved back to Kentucky to be with her family. Thus, I didn’t really know who I would be meeting at the brunch. Turns out it was a collaboration of Alonzo Morado, Primavera’s Community Engagement Coordinator, and Beth Carey, Primavera’s COO.
At the conclusion of the brunch, our jobs had begun. Just like that the idyllic, summer camp experience that had been my YAV year thus far ended and the “real world” began. It reminded me a lot of my freshman year of college when orientation ended and classes began. So my job with Primavera is, what I’ll call, a hybrid position. Basically, I have been tasked to assist both the After School Program Coordinator (another volunteer) and the Garden Coordinator (also a volunteer), however they need it. The Garden Coordinator is Destinee Wells, she’s originally from Michigan and is serving with the Mennonite Volunteer service. The After School Program Coordinator is Cody Bailey, she’s originally from Florida and is serving with NBA Xplor. Together, the three of us form what I have affectionately dubbed “the Squad”.
My work with Primavera will focus primarily around Las Abuelitas, this is an apartment complex owned and managed by Primavera to provide low cost housing to those in need. There are 12 units and Las Abuelitas is also the home of the after school program run by Primavera. There is also a community garden at Las Abuelitas, and this is where a lot of my gardening work will be focused.
This is the office that Destinee and I share with the computer lab at Las Abuelitas. While the gardening program at Primavera is pretty defined and just a matter of putting into motion the actual gardening, the after school program is open to definition and design by Cody and myself. We have some great resources available to us and I think the program will be a good opportunity for me to stretch myself. The kids in the program are between the ages of 5 and 12 and come primarily from Las Abuelitas. In the past two years, however, the program has also started taking in students from the public housing development right next door to Las Abuelitas. Our goal is to continue to grow the after school program (which doubled in size between year one and two) and also increase the parent’s involvement as much as we can. I’m interested to see how our team grows together through this year and I’m looking forward to continuing being a part of Primavera’s work in South Tucson.
I sit here now, on this tenth day of September looking back at the first week of work. My position is an interesting one. As I mentioned above, I occupy a halfway point between the garden coordinator and the after school coordinator. Because of this position, I still don’t have a clear view of what my actual duties will be. Another job related note is the four day work week. It’s awesome to have every weekend be a three day weekend. I think the four day weeks will feel longer (especially once the after school program kicks into gear), but having a long weekend, plus time off work for retreats, etc., will be a good way to recharge. The past week was full of time for preparation. Preparation for the beginning of the after school program (YIKES!!). Preparation for winder gardening. Preparation for working with the Squad. So much is involved in getting ready for next Wednesday; I can’t wait to see the fruits of our labor. I just pray that it all goes smoothly.
One thing I love about life in Tucson is the Thursday night Farmer’s Market at the Mercado San Agustin. We’ve gone as a group the past two weeks and the atmosphere is awesome. There are always tons of food stalls with locally grown and harvested vegetables, fruits, homemade bread and honey. There is always a live band, last week was The Just Intervals, they are an awesome cover band, you should check them out on Facebook. No really, do it. You won’t regret it. Plus, one of my housemates, Erik works with the Community Food Bank and helps with the Farmer’s Market so we always have an inside track on what’s going on there.
Another thing I’m working through as I start life in Tucson is the confrontation with themes and events and things I see around the city that directly oppose everything I know and believe. It’s a strange environment to go from my home and university where everything lined up exactly or pretty closely to my beliefs (which isn’t a strange phenomenon) to Tucson, where it seems to be the exact opposite. I welcome this forum. I hope it works to challenge everything I’ve held dear and I hope to leave Tucson changed for the experience. Whether that means I change long-held beliefs or hold my beliefs closer and believe more strongly because of my year here.
And so, I find myself here, on the tenth day of September in Tucson, waiting for the beginning of things as yet unknown, looking for answers that are more obscure than the problems they solve, and struggling to discern how my faith and my core beliefs fit into this world in which I find myself.
And so we go.
Thank you, Loving God, for challenging us to move when we don’t want to, for leading us where we may not want to go, and for holding us in the palm of your hand no matter what.
Yesterday my fellow Tucson YAVs and I were literally showered with blessings as the congregation of Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church pooled their funds to buy us essential and non-essential but very much appreciated goods: mattress pads, a microwave, towels, sheets, blankets, board games, and more. I am overwhelmed with the love and support they gave us, how they all wanted to hear what I had to say about what little of my year I’ve experienced so far and give me friendly advice about avoiding sunburn and finding cheap meals in a new town.
I had a similar experience last week. During orientation in New York, all seventy of us were split into groups to visit local churches, where we told our stories, participated in the service, and then were commissioned. After the service, the church I visited (First Presbyterian of Beacon) gave me and the six others with me lunch while we got to know some of their members. Then they pledged to offer financial support for our fundraising goals.
What on earth did I do to deserve this? I haven’t even done any volunteering yet - my first day of work isn’t until tomorrow! These strangers (yet brothers and sisters in Christ) are truly invested in us, believing that a group of young people who throw themselves headfirst into new environments with nothing but one suitcase, willing hearts, and maybe a little bit of experience can bring some salt and light to the world and spread the love of God. I hope they’re right! That’s quite a lot of responsibility.
I am grateful because an empty cup cannot pour into others. Knowing that I have the support of the body of Christ behind me in Tucson, New York, and back home in Charleston, I feel like with that example of generosity, investment, and joy I can now show some of that to the community I am living with and serving.
On the more practical, less feelings-y side, I absolutely love Tucson. I don’t miss the lush green of home yet because the desert has its own beauty. Mountains surround me, cacti are blooming, and a constant breeze is enough to keep me happy. There are new birds to learn about every day in my backyard and neighborhood (sighting of the day: a quail!!!!) and I actually love riding my bike. As it’s been at least six years since I last tried that, it was a rough start but this morning I practiced my 6.4-mile (one-way!) commute to work and found that it was really fun to be moving so quickly with the wind on my face and the world open around me. I actually can’t wait to do it every day.
Updates to come on how excited I am once the times I do it are 5:30 AM and then during the heat of the afternoon.
Because I'm Happy
Getting to Know Tucson: Recently, I feel like I have turned a corner. I feel more happy and comfortable in Tucson. Between my work schedule, YAV activities, and Christmas vacation I was out of town almost every weekend in November and December. During January, I actually got a chance to get to know Tucson and it's been great!
Community of Volunteers: I am so thankful for my housemates and my Tucson community. There are several other service corps in the area such as the Mennonite Voluntary Service, Food Corps, AmeriCorps, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This means I've gotten to connect with other 20-somethings who are doing similar work and also want to explore Tucson.
A few weeks ago, a couple Mennonite friends invited me to watch a play about sexuality in the church called Listening for Grace. It was hilarious, poignant, and beautiful. Ted Swartz, the writer and main actor, uses comedy to spark conversation about controversial topics like homosexuality. His goal is to get church communities to discuss uncomfortable topics. After watching the play, members of the Mennonite church stayed to share their reactions. Although there was a variety of opinions, the audience was noticeable affected.
I am thankful to be a part of a community of young Christians who are willing and excited to tackle contentious issues like sexuality, immigration, and racism.
YAV Support: There are several YAV alumni and board members who have reached out to help us with our transition. Various board members have taken the my fellow YAVs and I to different places and events this month. It feels a little silly to go on "field trips" to museums or concerts, but it has really helped me get to know the city. We went to a natural museum called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a gem show, and an Avett Brothers concert. Sometimes simple living doesn't feel so simple :)
We also have Vocational Discernment classes every other week that provide a space to reflect on our work and ruminate on what we should do after our year of service. These classes include activities such as reading poems, collaging, doing the Examine, following a guided meditation, and walking a labyrinth. Allie Wood, a former Tucson YAV, leads the classes and also meets with us individually for coffee dates every other month. These meetings have become a sacred time when I can confide in someone who is familiar with my work placement and intentional community. Her compassionate listening and questioning have helped me process some of my most intense YAV experiences. I am so grateful for her friendship and mentorship.
Finding My Space at Work: I feel more confident at work now that I have led two BorderLinks delegations (educational trips) with Santa Clara University and Carroll University. I enjoy facilitating discussions, leading workshops, and supporting my participants as they come to terms with some harsh realities. January was a busy month at work, but the staff bonded together as a team, encouraging one another when we were tired or overwhelmed. I'm glad to work with such smart, motivated, and compassionate people.
Tucson feels more and more like home. Several days this week, I have been overwhelmed with happiness. I feel so fortunate to live in a beautiful, multicultural space surrounded by coworkers and community members who care about me. Leaving school has been difficult as I am far from my friends and family, have no idea what I want to do with my life, am fumbling my way through a new job, have to deal with real world responsibilities like paying bills, cooking myself dinner every night, etc. Even so, like all my graduated friends, I have been working through these post-grad challenges. Nevertheless, I feel supported my community as they are doing similar work and asking similar questions. My housemates sit with me as I try to figure out how my small stipend will cover my utilities and my food expenses. My housemates help me patch my tire when my bike gets a flat. My housemates make me watch "Friends" when I have spent too much time discussing heavy topics like institutionalized poverty and prison systems. Living in an intentional community with people who are quite different from me can be demanding, but it can also be incredibly fun and supportive. I get to come home to friends who will ask how my day was, listen to my answer, and make sure I laugh a little.
Thank you to everyone in Tucson and beyond who has supported me with this move.