On November 3 we were able to participate in the All Souls Procession: An annual Tucson event that, for almost 30 years, and is a beautiful space for creatively processing loss.
I was told that this is specifically a procession and not a parade because it is designed to be participated in rather than just observed.
The evening began with a celebration prior to the procession. The area where the procession was to begin was filled with food trucks, mariachi bands, and face painting. It was a joyful celebration.
When the procession began, we stood to the side of the road a watched the Urn pass by. This was a spherical container to collect written names of those who were being grieved. The Urn led the procession and was followed by groups and individuals showing their mourning in a variety of ways.
The woman who started this procession in 1990 did so as a way of publicly and artistically grieving the death of her father. This artistic foundation has continued and is evident throughout the event in the music, banners, and costumes.
Many of these costumes were black or white to represent grief. Some had skeletons on them and many people had sugar skull art on their faces. Lots of the costumes were also adorned with lights and bright colors.
Much like a parade, there were performers, bands, and church groups. It felt familiar, yet drastically different because every where I looked there was someone with stunning face paint of a sugar skull or a banner with images of someone who has died.
But that was beautiful in every way. The idea of being able to publicly grieve and be in community with thousands of people in their mourning process was an incredible experience.
After watching for a while, were walked the two mile route with everyone as we all grieved. Even the many people just like me who didn’t make a sign for those that we love that have died were grieving.
I had time during that procession to reflect on times where I have been grieving. To remember dead friends and family in an intentional way. And more importantly, in that moment, I was able to acknowledge the importance of that grieving space.
Grief isn’t a process to get through and then check off as being done. It is on-going. During this event, the community grieved together for loved ones that have died both recently and many years ago.
Other people were grieving for groups who have died or are victim to injustices of the world. For example, there was a group that was grieving the thousands of migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert due to inhumane border policies. There were others wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to acknowledge all of the black and brown people who have needlessly died.
As I think of the grieving process, I think of how in moments of grief, both years ago and more recently, I have felt the need to keep my feelings internalized and put on a happy face for everyone around me. I feel lots of cultural pressure always show only my best self and grief doesn’t easily fit into that picture.
However, this public space of grieving made room for so many emotions. Everyone could celebrate the lives of loved ones and be sad that those people weren’t here to share in our daily lives anymore. And as a community there was support for everyone in each of our places of grieving.
At the end of the processional route, everyone gathered at to see the lighting of the Urn, which was full of written names and objects remembering all those who were being mourned that night. It was a meaningful and symbolic way to end the procession but not put a camp on the grieving process. And the celebration continued after with more painting faces, eating, and music because even in grieving there is still room for love and celebration.
A month before I left Asheville, I made a decision to do a second YAV year. It was in no way an easy decision. As soon as spring hit, I began to think seriously about the options that laid ahead of me for the next year. I was supposed to have been using the whole year as a “gap year” focusing what came next after college and what interested me. I went into Asheville, hoping that it would possibly even lead to a future job or career path. As I got closer to the end, that dream became more and more of a reality as several options to stay came my way. Job offers, Americorps years, even options to go to my Illinois home for the year. None of them seemed right though. I was convinced that as much as I wanted to stay in Asheville, by staying, I would be taking an opportunity away from someone else. Also, I had came into Asheville knowing that the experience would only be a year and so in some ways, my subconscious was ready to move onto whatever came next. My heart may not have been ready, but every other part of me seemed to be- my muscles for instance were counting down the days as we entered June and they didn’t have to carry heavy sofas and prove themselves to old men who looked at me sideways. Going home also seemed like a step back- I had convinced myself that moving forward into the future had to mean a step forward. So, when a representative from the giving’s department of the PCUSA church came for a visit and asked us what came next in continuing this knowledge of faith in action, only one answer really made sense. In discerning my call last year, I started thinking about seminary, but am not yet ready. I need more hands-on experience and learning. There is so much of the social justice world that I am just beginning to get a flavor for. A year on the border stepping FAR out of my comfort zone, seemed like the perfect opportunity for change and growth. With a half an hour left on the clock to submit my application, I had committed to a second year.
The commitment has taken a while to sink in.
I left Asheville feeling like I was prepared and fully expecting the challenges ahead. However, writing this two weeks in, I can tell you that everyday here so far has proven me wrong. Although I am doing a second year of service through the PCUSA Missions Agency, the comparisons between my years end there. I am living with 5 women again, but they are completely different from my roommates last year. My current site supervisor may be friends with my past one, but their guidance styles are very different. Last year, I had a job where I was constantly on the move and lifting furniture; so far this year, I have had a lot of office work and sorting in the nice air conditioning. Last year, I had my car and relied on that privilege more often than I should; this year the temptation is gone, and my primary mode of transportation is a bicycle. The years are drastically different and although everybody was telling me not to compare, I did not realize how much I was doing so until I came face to face with the pre-conceived notions I carried. I am almost two weeks into the year and apart from realizing that it is different from my first, here are some other things I have discovered and learned about Tucson in particular:
It’s hot here but it’s a “dry heat”. It took me two days to realize that means dehydration becomes a problem as the heat inevitably sneaks up on you. I am living in a house in the midst of a neighborhood with a lot of U of A students. Our yard is full of “goat-heads” (or how I always knew them- sand burrs). To avoid getting flat tires on our bikes, we carry them anywhere there is not pavement. There is no grass here in Arizona, just cacti, gravel, and sand. The lady at the post office was joking with me yesterday and called Arizona the country’s largest beach without the water. My bike ride to work is about a three-mile ride through downtown Tucson. Two days into the year, we took an 8-hour intensive bike course where we had both a written and riding portion. I am certified in all biking endeavors but my “quick-stop” could use some work as the practice portion sent me flying over the handlebars. Helmets are not fashionable, but I learned in that instance they are in fact necessary. So, I am learning to adjust and live with it- my bun however is not so becoming bald may be in my future. My work placement this year is at Keep Tucson Together (KTT). It is a nonprofit organization that helps in providing legal assistance for members of the community that need representation in legal hearings, aid in filling out and filing court documents, and help understanding their current situations and figuring out options. The team is comprised of a few full-time employees but mostly it consists of retired lawyers and other volunteers (we are all volunteers as I am often reminded) who are looking to provide hands on assistance and help wherever they can. My job so far has been in going through and organizing client’s files and getting used to the “a# system”. I am quickly realizing how although it is not required, being able to speak Spanish in the workplace and community would be tremendously helpful. I start an intermediate level Spanish class on the 9th and as a house, we are reading and practicing vocab words together.
Two weeks in, I can see where my time in Asheville was an asset to my learning and how it can in some ways contribute to my year this year. However ultimately, these are two VERY different experiences and being able to live each of them has been a blessing and has helped in understanding just how diverse God has created this vast world. I am excited and obviously nervous to continue embracing each and every challenge, difference, and change that lies ahead.
When I first contemplated how I would format my blog post about the Border Delegation, I thought that I would title it, “Hurt and Hope,” and describe the ways in which I observed and experienced both throughout the week. I quickly realized, though, that sorting my experiences that way was too binary. Most of what I saw and learned encompassed hints of both hope and hurt. At church the Sunday after our Border Delegation concluded, Pastor Bart Smith spoke in his sermon about Emmanuel: God with us. He said that emmanuel is forever and ongoing. With it being the beginning of advent, he posed the question, “When is a good time for love to be born?” In my mind, I considered, “When is a good time to migrate?” Inspired by the sermon, I arrived at this title and framework: Emmanuel in the Borderlands.
Emmanuel at Café Justo
Café Justo (translated: fair or just coffee) is a coffee cooperative owned and operated by farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. The coffee is grown in Chiapas and roasted in Agua Prieta. It is sold in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and France, mostly at churches. During our time in Agua Prieta, we were given a tour of the roasting facility and learned about their operations from Café Justo employees, Daniel and Adrián. Café Justo began in 2002 with a microloan from Frontera de Cristo. Many farmers from Chiapas were migrating to Northern Mexico or to the United States because the price of coffee fell so dramatically in the 1990s that they could no longer support themselves or their families. Community and family unity suffered greatly. In response to the economic and social crisis, Café Justo was formed as a way to cut out the middle man in the coffee growing and selling process so that the farmers in Chiapas could receive a fair price for their beans. In addition to being paid a fair price for the fruit of their labor, farmers who are part of the cooperative receive benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Now, some of the original farmers are retiring, and their children are working as part of the co-op. The same families that would have been separated by migration as a result of environmental and economic factors out of their control, are now living and working intergenerationally and have the resources to invest in their community.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel in a Family’s Home
One evening during our time in DouglaPrieta, we were welcomed into the home of a young family: Flor, Miguel, and their daughter, Aleyda. We were a group of 13 people, but our hosts were very hospitable and generous. Flor prepared a lentil soup that we garnished with cilantro, onions, and lime. She served us pitchers full of agua fresca- piña, my favorite! Most of the time we were there, Aleyda, who is five, was in a side room watching cartoons and coloring with her dad. She wore shiny bows in her hair, and produced a shy smile when we asked her questions.
After enjoying la cena, Flor and Miguel spoke to us candidly about life on the border. Flor grew up in Agua Prieta; Miguel in Chiapas. Due to a lack of job opportunities over a decade ago, Miguel migrated to the U.S. He explained that during his time in the United States, he only left his home to go to work. He lived in constant fear of any interaction with law enforcement. One day, while on his way to work, the vehicle he was in was pulled over, I think for mechanical issues. Miguel was the only individual in the vehicle who did not have authorization to work, so he was taken to the immigrant detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Some of my colleagues at the Florence Project provide legal services to individuals detained there). Miguel described his six months imprisoned there as difficult and ugly. I could see in his facial expressions and hear in his words that he had many painful memories of Florence. After six months of trying to obtain a work permit, but with no avail, Miguel decided to sign an order of deportation and return to Mexico. He ended up in Agua Prieta and applied for a job at a maquiladora, or factory. Flor was a new hire at the same maquiladora at that time. Also limited by economic opportunity, many Agua Prieta folks work at factories run by multinational cooperations that are located near the border due to lax labor and tax laws. Although Miguel annoyed Flor at first because he asked many questions during work orientation, they eventually became friends and are now married with a child.
As a United Statesian, I often have had the perception that people in Mexico are miserable. Especially people who live near the border, I thought, must have terrible lives filled with violence and despair. That is the opposite of what I experienced in the home of Flor, Miguel, and Aleyda. They were hopeful. They were hospitable. They were healthy. They were happy. Miguel said, “We have problems, like all families do, but we are very content to live in this community.”
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a child to be born?
Emmanuel at Operation Streamline
The part of our week in which it was the most difficult to believe Emmanuel: God with us was when we observed Operation Streamline in Tucson. Operation Streamline is a two hour-long, mass federal prosecutorial hearing that occurs every afternoon. Each day 70 to 80 individuals are prosecuted for a misdemeanor or a felony, solely related to entering the country not at a port of entry. If an individual has only entered once, and has not been deported, they generally plead guilty to a misdemeanor and are then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where they will be detained for months before being deported or, if they are statistically lucky, released to live in the U.S. If an individual has a prior deportation on their record, they are prosecuted for a felony and a misdemeanor, but will usually plead guilty to the misdemeanor so the felony is dropped. They are sentenced to 30 to 180 days in federal prison, after which they will be turned over to ICE and spend several months in detention until being deported, or if EXTRA statistically lucky, released.
Our group of 13 and another group of folks on a church/border education trip entered a massive federal court room and were seated in the back. Many attorneys sat in the jury box. All of the usual court personnel was there: a judge, a secretary, an interpreter, and many federal marshals. When the judge was ready to begin, a group of seven people wearing street clothes, handcuffs, ankle shackles, and chains around their waists came out from a side door, had headphones were placed on their ears (they could not do it themselves because of the handcuffs), and stood in front of the judge. Seven of the attorneys stepped down from the jury box and stood behind each defendant. The judge went down the line of people asking them to verify their names, read them their rights, asked if they wanted to waive their right to a trial, read them their charges, and asked for their plea. She would usually read the full text (for an example, the rights) to the first or second person in line. She would say, “Do you understand your rights as I just explained?” By the third, fourth, fifth, person in the order, she would just say, “Same question.” It was apparent that efficiency, not comprehension or justice, was the name of the game. After each defendant pleaded guilty to their charges, whether they really understood them or not, the group of seven would be escorted out, and another group of seven would be escorted in. This process was repeated about ten times. It was uncomfortable, sad, and shameful to watch people being treated like this, especially in a U.S. court room. It was very difficult to feel the presence of God in that room.
Among the approximately 70 humans who we saw in chains standing in front of a judge who spoke to them in complex legal terminology in a foreign language, were a pregnant woman, indigenous language speakers whom the judge coerced into using the Spanish interpreter even if comprehension was limited, and boys who appeared and sounded to be 14 or 15 years old, but told the judge they were 18.
One defendant broke out of the mechanical saying “Sí” to all of the judge’s questions, and decided to speak up when given the opportunity. I have contemplated his story several times over the last few weeks. Jorge was one of the individuals who had a prior deportation on his record, so he was being charged with a felony and sentenced to time in a federal prison. When the judge asked, “Do any of the defendants want to say anything?” Jorge bravely said yes. He approached the microphone and asked the judge if his sentence could be reduced. He explained that he is a single father, and his United States citizen daughter is in Mexico. The longer his prison sentence, the longer he would be separated from his daughter. It seemed like what he wanted was to quickly be deported so that he could return to caring and providing for her. The judge said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I have no control over sentencing. It’s between your attorney and the government.” Jorge was sentenced to 180 days, six months, in a U.S. federal prison.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel at the Port of Entry
During our time in Agua Prieta, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with migrants who were temporarily living at a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. There was a variety of identities present at the shelter, called C.A.M.E. There were a couple of Honduran and Guatemalan families. There were three Mexican men who had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. There was a group of Honduran transgender women. The C.A.M.E. volunteers and the migrants collaborated to prepare a delicious dinner, do dishes, and clean. We tried to wash our own dishes and sweep, but as their guests, they generously cleaned up after us. While we ate, we had the honor of hearing their stories, sharing in their pain, joking and laughing.
Migrants are at this shelter, usually, waiting to cross into the United States. There is a small port of entry between Agua Prieta and Douglas. If a migrant sets foot on U.S. soil and expresses a desire to apply for asylum to a government official, U.S. and international law dictates that the person has the right to stay in the United States (often in detention) while fighting for asylum in immigration court. Entering the U.S. at a port of entry is the best way to do this because it is safer than crossing the desert or the Río Grande. It also carries less potential legal backlash than does entering not at a port of entry (see Operation Streamline, above). However, the number of people who can approach a port of entry and request asylum is limited. And, the number has been decreasing in recent months. (I discussed this phenomena in my post about El Paso.) The Agua Prieta/Douglas port of entry is small, but it has the capacity to process eight asylum seekers per day. In recent weeks, it has been processing maybe one or two people per day. So, some of the folks we met at C.A.M.E. were waiting to go to the port of entry and request asylum, but they had been turned away day after day.
During our dinner at C.A.M.E., we met María. She wore her hair in a pony tail, and had a beautiful smile. María was traveling with her 13 year-old daughter, Julisa, who was wearing a blue shirt with white buttons when I met her. The morning following our shared dinner, María and Julisa were planning to go to the port of entry, bright and early, accompanied by C.A.M.E. volunteers. Before leaving that night, we wished them luck and safe travels. The next day we were busy with our scheduled programming. We spent most of the day in Agua Prieta, but around 4 pm, we were crossing the border to participate in a prayer vigil in Douglas. As we approached the port of entry, we saw María and Julisa. Sitting on the concrete. Waiting. They told us that they had been there since 7 a.m., but had not yet been allowed to set foot on U.S. soil to request asylum. We were in a hurry to get to the prayer vigil, so we did not talk for long. We pulled our U.S. passports out of our pockets and were in the U.S. within minutes. After the prayer vigil, some members of our group returned to the port of entry with food, coats, and sleeping bags for María and Julisa. Although they could have returned to C.A.M.E. for the night, they decided to sleep on the concrete in the cold because they didn’t want to “lose their place in line.”
María was eight months pregnant, with bronchitis.
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time to migrate?
Where is Emmanuel?
As we are now in advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, I am trying to identify Emmanuel in my life. I am trying to consider where God is with me. I experienced God in the faces and in the lives of Daniel, Adrián, Flor, Miguel, Aleyda, Jorge, María and Julisa. I experienced God in the many life-changing ministries of Frontera de Cristo. I experienced God in the DouglaPrieta community. I experienced God in the hope and in the hurt. As Pastor Bart said, Emmanuel is forever and ongoing.
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time for love to be born?
My time in Tucson so far has been a phenomenal experience all together with many unexpected twists and turns. That is not to say, however, that it has not been without its challenges and the highs and lows that naturally accompanied it. For this update I will be specifically focusing in on the major moments that have occurred so far during this journey.
Since the post is titled “Highs and Lows” I will be following that logical narrative by first speaking of the major positive experiences I’ve had so far. The most important one I first want to highlight is that the overall community of Tucson is a very welcoming and inclusive space that sometimes brings to mind a small town vibe. Because of a lack of multi-tiered buildings everything is quite spread out which means if you frequent the same spaces you’ll be sure to begin to see reoccurring faces. Another wonderful aspect that goes along with this is the sense of community engagement and pride. Everything from voting issues to various social programs and events are all met with mostly positive engagement from all levels of society. Groups of people even walk down the streets with clipboards asking all those who pass if they’re registered to vote and if they can help them do so if not.
The Community Food bank is also involved in a variety of community engagement programs outside of its normal day to day activities including the farmers market (which I work directly with), internal promotions of various community events, and seasonal events such as a community pumpkin smash the weekend after Halloween to help create a positive engaged atmosphere surrounding the removal and destruction of rotting pumpkins after Halloween. All pumpkins during the event are then composted and used in the Food bank garden to grow food that will then be sold directly through the farmers market.
The greatest aspect overall of YAV life in Tucson is the monumental amount of opportunities and encouragement by the community to engage with them. Since we have been here I have already worked with a migrant shelter, taken part in a Monday night Spanish class, had a wonderful dinner with members of a PCUSA backed community home group, completed a workshop on the historic and current events in Columbia (known as the Columbia Accompaniment Program), and the Tucson Meet Yourself community event was this weekend. This event hosted various ethnic groups from across the globe with food, performances, and music all in one. My house community went last night and just in the short time we were there we grabbed some plantains from a Jamaican booth, enjoyed some Indian food, and witnessed a variety of musical styles from a Hispanic dance group to a bagpipers group to finally a Zydeco music group from Jamaica.
Now, as promised, for the o so loathed lows of my time here. The hardest part of being here so far has in many respects been adjusting to the various cultural differences of Tucson. Now this is not in any way to suggest that people have been rude or unwelcoming, actually, as stated above, quite the contrary. It has just been mainly small things such as mannerisms, the idea of payment scales, differing cultural and political identities within social life, and peoples varying perceived norms of speech and behavior. This however has mainly just been a process of adjustment more than anything.
The other major low since being here was that during the Columbia Accompaniment Training my bike was stolen. During the event my bike was u-locked right outside the building to a street sign but the thief unbolted the sign and lifted my bike over and off the pole and away he went. To make matters worse, this was also done in a parking lot on private property in the middle of the day. As a result, I am currently using another older model in our shed from previous YAV years. Other than that the only other real challenges have been getting adjusted to a new climate, new city, and a new community at home. Regardless, I still feel blessed that my lows have been somewhat limited during this major transition process.
Now that I am settling into a more autonomous position at home and at work I am still thoroughly excited to see where this journey takes me as the holiday season approaches. One upcoming event I am currently very much so looking forward to is in El Paso from November 1st through the 4th. While attending we will be learning about the current state of the Texas Mexican border wall and the state of immigration movement along it with special guest speakers from the PCUSA national office to boot.
Regardless of the journey so far, I still feel so blessed to be able to take part if this amazing experience and the life changing challenges that come along with it. I am also equally excited to see where this journey will take me next and to have all of you walking beside and supporting me along the way.
Until next time….
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.