On July 13th I had the opportunity to speak at Wayland Mennonite Church about my previous experiences and newfound journey with G*d. While I spoke, I hardly looked at my notes, but for those of you who couldn’t make it, it went a little something like this:
Uncomfortable silences. How is it that something as simple as silence can make us feel uncomfortable? Over the years, I’ve actually come to really enjoy silence. There is something pure and simple and beautiful about it. It also reminds me that sometimes in our lives, we overlook and try to avoid the uncomfortable silences, uncomfortable conversations, or uncomfortable situations. It is in the uncomfortable states of life though that I personally have learned and grown the most.
If you have been on social media at all in the past year, you may have noticed the same trend that I have. 24 reasons why blah blah blah, or 16 signs you are yada yada yah. There are all these numbered lists. So reflecting back on my life I made my own list: 11 Uncomfortable Things That Were Completely Worth It.
When I was in junior high I attended JYF at Wayland Mennonite with a group of my close girlfriends. When the time came to move on to MYF though, many of those friends either chose different groups to attend or went in a different direction altogether. I remember my mom giving me a choice of going to a youth group with my friends, or staying at Wayland Mennonite. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I decided to stay here. After one of the first nights of MYF, I was a bit uneasy. Besides two or three other girls, the whole group was made up of boys. Growing up with just two sisters and being made fun of by boys in my past, I wasn’t thrilled. It didn’t take long though for those boys to become more than just boys to me. They became brothers. During those four years, I discovered God in a whole new way, thanks to that amazing group. I discovered God as not just this distant being we recited prayers to, but as an amazing force that works through people. With those crazy boys, and a couple of great girls, I was able to travel to two Mennonite Youth Conventions, in San Jose and Columbus, where I really felt God for the first time. It felt like falling in love. My heart was heavy, I felt a little sick, but I didn’t want to feel any other way. I was also able to travel to Atlanta and Denver on mission trips through the organization, DOOR. These two trips pushed me in ways I had never been pushed before. I heard stories of people coming back from situations I could hardly wrap my mind around. My heart broke for people who were struggling to get by on a daily basis. Most of all though, I caught a glimpse of the crazy urban world that I had never been part of, and it fascinated me.
2) Leaving Iowa
I attended Wartburg College after high school. I went in to college with an undecided major, and really no ideas for where I wanted to go with life. With my experiences with MYF still on my mind though, I decided to apply to be a DOOR summer staffer, or Discerner in DOOR lingo. I was out of my mind excited when I got the phone call that they wanted me to work in Denver. I don’t think I ever told my parents this, but I cried as the plane took off for Denver that summer. What in the world was I doing!? I just got on a plane to go to an unfamiliar city, where I knew practically no one. I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing there, I didn’t know who I would be working with, I didn’t know hardly anything about urban life or urban issues. When I got to the Mile High city though a buff Latino man, Antonio, the Denver city director found me and welcomed me with open arms saying, “Welcome to Denver. We are so excited that you’re here.” That first week I was so nervous the whole time. I met a ton of people, couldn’t remember my roommate, Lakewell’s name for the life of me, and I had four less than tidy male housemates for the first time. Before I knew it though, it became home, and I fell in love with it.
3) Admitting weaknesses
An important part of our Discern training and becoming more connected as a staff came through sharing testimonials. Before that summer in Denver, I had never told anyone “my story” before. When my time around the circle came though, my voice shook and I felt a little sick, but I told them everything. I was in tears when I was done, but I was surrounded by comforting arms. Not only had I just spilled my guts to all my coworkers, but I had opened my door of vulnerability. I’ve shared my testimony a few times since then with small groups, and as life continues on, I am working up the courage to tell more people. Not because I like getting sappy, but because it’s important for me personally, and for other people to hear. That day, I knocked down a huge wall and realized that I didn’t have to be tough all the time, I didn’t have to be right all the time, and it was ok to be vulnerable with other people. I learned that to truly love and be loved, I had to let other people in and see me for me.
4) Public Transportation
Growing up outside of Wayland, my experience with the public transportation system was pretty limited. So, when I moved to Denver, I had a lot to learn. Part of my job was finding the right bus route to get to the service agency my group had to go to, and getting everyone there safely and sanely. I spent a lot of time in the beginning studying the bus and light rail routes to get me different places around the city, but eventually I got the hang of it. With no car in either Denver or Hollywood, my discern locations, this newfound knowledge gave me incredible freedom. On my days off, I would hop on the bus, and go anywhere I wanted to in the city. I would ride to Sloan’s Lake, Cherry Creek, and Downtown in Denver and Beverly Hills, Chinatown, and the ocean in LA. I had many interesting, sometimes weird, and sometimes hilarious conversations with people on the bus. I also witnessed some drama, but more often than that, courtesy and kindness as people worked together to make the ride as easy going as they could for everyone involved. Something as simple as figuring out how to ride the bus gave me a release, and an escape. It really shows how trying something that is unfamiliar, even if you don’t get the hang of it right away, can be incredibly rewarding.
5) Talking to strangers
I was very shy growing up, so talking to acquaintances was difficult for me, much less people I didn’t know. I realized that summer in Denver though that I had to get over that, and I had to do it fast. My whole job revolved around talking to strangers. Every week, a new group of people from all corners of the nation would come to the city. Part of my job was just connecting with those groups of people and building trust. I found out that the best way to learn about someone was to be quiet and listen to them. Everyone, rich, poor, small town folks, big city urbanites, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or anything else, everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has something about them that will blow your mind. Everyone has something to teach someone else, and everyone has something to learn from someone else. The key though was not just to hear what they were saying, but to listen. I met some of the most amazing people working for DOOR by doing this.
I’ve had the opportunity to have many in-depth conversations with people experiencing homelessness. Although somewhat uncomfortable at first due to the stigma that is attached to homelessness, I was able to gain a whole new perspective and understanding of the situation. Much like the groups that came to volunteer, I had to open myself up to simply listen and be with the people I spoke with. Although not a master in any of the subjects, I’ve discussed theology, politics, and social issues as well as swapping travel stories and debating the best doughnut frostings with individuals that many people overlook due to their current situation.
When I was living in Denver for my Discern summer, my sister and now brother-in-law came to visit. As we were taking a walk near 16th Street Mall, we passed a scruffy looking man with a large white husky and a shopping cart. My sister and brother-in-law continued on, speeding up their step a little bit as we passed him, but I slowed and said, “Good morning, Ted.” To them, he was just another homeless man on the street, but I knew that Ted was a regular at Network Café, a place for people in homeless situations to congregate and talk about G*d. He was a quiet man who absolutely loved his dog, Lucile, and was very kind and respectful. That moment was a reminder that we all need to be intentional about community, and not to overlook anyone because of appearance or social stigma.
Also in Denver, one of my favorite places to take groups to volunteer was Sunshine Academy, a daycare for kids who come from low-income families. The daycare was run by two spirited, Muslim women from Jerusalem. Not only did I fall in love with the kids who came, but also I learned so much from the women about their religion and cultural traditions. They taught me about their food, how to dance in their traditional style, and how differences in religion or culture should not stand in the way of community.
On a walk one day in LA, I approached a piano shop on Larchmont, not too far from my Hollywood house. I entered just to look around and admire the beautifully made pianos when a stout elderly woman walked out from the back. She spoke in broken English, asking if I played the piano. I told her I did a little, but was no Mozart. She insisted that I sit down at the nicest piano in the shop and play something. After I finished a little piece from memory, she clapped and smiled. We began talking about the pianos and how they were made. She asked where I was from, and what I was doing in Hollywood. When she heard I went to Wartburg, a light bulb lit up in her mind, and she began telling me all about how she knew about Wartburg as she was a German immigrant and had lived very close to the Wartburg Castle in Germany for some time. I left that little piano shop that day with the reminder that we are all more connected than we remember all the time. It is so easy to get caught up in our own little worlds, but we are more interconnected the strangers around us than we probably know, and it’s worth it to discover those connections.
From opening myself up to talking to strangers, and having conversations with people who I would not have before, I discovered the message that DOOR introduces to all of the groups that come for a week to volunteer. That message is to remember that everyone has a story. Everyone has something to say and something we can learn from them. We just need to be open to listen.
6) Spicy food
As a complete foodie, one of my favorite parts of traveling and discovering new places has been the food. Food has this unique power to bring people together in ways that nothing else can. People from all different backgrounds can come together and enjoy the same meal and that’s a really beautiful thing. When I lived in Hollywood, the cook for DOOR was a middle-aged Latina woman who spoke just about no English. Despite the language barrier, we cooked together every week. She showed me how to make chipotle chicken, how to properly peel garlic, and how the leftover scraps of avocado from the guacamole make smooth hands when you squish it between your fingers. Most of the food I ate in both Denver and Hollywood was way spicier than I had eaten before. Despite the trickle of sweat that would run down my face and the many glasses of milk I drank to wash it all down, I learned how powerful sharing food could be. Since then, I’ve found joy in not only making food to share with others, but teaching others how to make some of the things I learned to make. So no matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, or how you act, you are invited to the table to share not only a meal, but community and life.
7) Praying in front of people
With most of my childhood as far as church goes spent in the Catholic Church, I prided myself on knowing my prayers. I learned the Our Father, Hail Mary’s, and many other beautifully written, poetic prayers that were given for me to recite. I would practice saying the Nicene Creed in my room, so that at church I wouldn’t mess it up. I prayed these beautiful prayers in church and Sunday school, but my prayers before bed were much more personal. Silently I would pray to God about things that had happened that day, what I was thankful for, and what I wanted him to take a special watch over. When I started attending things with the Mennonite church, I was a little taken back. They were freestyle praying. The prayers that were said were not written down, were not rehearsed, and were amazingly personal and honest. They were the same type of prayers I prayed alone at night, but this time they were being said out in the open in front of everyone. It was beautiful. I found it really hard though to speak up and say something though when the prayer circle came around to me, and honestly, I’m still working on it. I have started doing this more and more over the years though and I see what an amazing thing it can be to pray straight from the heart. One Discover group we hosted in Hollywood had a girl in it named Anna. She was awkward, and got on the nerves of her group mates, but she was so passionate and had had such a beautiful soul. The last day the group was there, we all got in a circle and prayed for the person on our left. Anna was on mine, and I prayed that she would keep her beautiful spirit, and grow from within to continue serving G*d in the way that She intended her to do it. She was in tears after we were done, and she hugged me, saying that was exactly what she needed. Prayer is something that is important to share, because we are more powerful together than silently alone.
8) Sharing my gifts
I’ve always been somewhat of a drama queen, as my family knows. As a kid I was always singing, dancing, acting, drawing pictures, making games, and just being creative. As I got older, I didn’t lose a love for all of that, but I felt as if I needed to suppress it for some reason. I joined choir in junior high, but purposefully sang really quietly so no one would hear me. I was in every play and musical, but usually just served as an extra. I wanted to fly as low below the radar as I could, because when I had stood out before, it wasn’t usually for good reasons. The confidence I gained though through being part of MYF and being more connected to G*d, got me through high school, and by the end of that I was finally starting to show people the gifts G*d had given me. I went from a shy girl to the lead in the school musical by my senior year. Since then, I have played the piano, guitar, and sang to lead worship, while hanging out with friends, and for some events. While in Hollywood, at Blessed Sacrament, a day shelter for people living homelessly, I wrote and shared poems alongside modern day Shakespeares who were living on the street. In Atlanta, I played the piano for women in homeless situations while they were served meals by my group members. I drew a rose in an art class for the homeless that sparked a conversation between me and a man named Ray. He said the rose reminded him of the natural beauty of life. We became friends and every week he would ask me to draw him another rose. Going into my senior year of college, with two majors already declared, I decided to add an art major. I couldn’t shake the love I had for getting my hands dirty and creating something beautiful and meaningful. In Miami, I was told I will be placed in a program where I will be working with art. I hope that I can help other people find a way to express their passions, work through their issues, and discover new meaning for their lives through art.
9) Public speaking
Speaking in public used to be terrifying to me. I would do anything to avoid a presentation. I uncontrollably shake when I speak in public. For the longest time I spoke as little as possible for just that reason. My shaky voice made me sound scared, weak, and not very credible. I still shake when I speak in public, but I do it anyways now. I have learned through DOOR and my other experiences with community that speaking in front of people is so important to share news, stories, opinions, philosophies, and love. It serves as a way to promote common understanding, as well as a source of self-empowerment. As a shy, quiet girl growing up, I rarely had a chance to say what I thought about something, leaving many people to think I didn’t have an opinion about anything. Last summer I received an email saying that I was nominated by my DOOR city director to attend the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) Leaders in Ministry conference. At first I thought it was a mistake. Me? At a ministry conference? I decided to go though, and give it a shot. I was surrounded by some of the most amazing people I’d ever met at that conference. Many people there were either in seminary, going to seminary, or pursuing ministry already through another outlet. I felt a little out of place. The individuals there encouraged me though to share out loud about where I was from, where I had been, and where I was going with G*d. I began that week scared to share my personal spiritual views with all of these people who were so much more accomplished and educated than me on the subject matter. As I began to speak though, and voice my opinion, I found that our views on many issues were very similar. What I had to say was valuable, relevant, and worth listening to by people who were so enthusiastic and passionate about the subject. I felt not only heard, but listened to that week. Through that, I created incredible bonds with people faster than I ever had before. It was an inspiring experience and I left the conference that week spiritually fed, confident, and with a whole new family.
10) Applying to be a Dweller
As many of my other classmates in college started scoring jobs and acceptances to grad school, I just knew I didn’t want that, or not yet anyways. So, with my FTE family behind me, I started looking into volunteer programs. Of course I knew about Dwell, and a little about YAV, but I also explored some others, just to keep my options open. When I finally was accepted and made the decision to go to Miami, I was thrilled and out of my mind excited. Then came the, sometimes not as fun part: telling everyone else. I’ve told all of my family at this point. The most common response I get is a smiling look of concern followed by questions about how I’m going to get by financially. It’s hard to explain to people why I would want to move to Miami where I’ve never been, make almost no money, and to live in poverty for a year. Honestly, I’m not sure if I can really explain why I’m doing it either.
11) Trusting God
I’m going to let you all in on a secret. I am terrified to get on that plane in a month to fly to my new home for a year where I know no one, I don’t know the city, and I don’t know where I’ll be working. So why am I doing this? Well, this is what God wants. It’s hard to explain or express that in any other way. When I was applying to jobs for next year, I knew I wasn’t going to be doing any of them. As I looked through the placement options for my year, I knew immediately where I was supposed to go, although I still interviewed with 3 sites. Before I was even accepted, I started telling people I was moving to Miami, because I knew it was going to happen. As scary as it is, this is what I am supposed to do this coming year. I have to trust that G*d is leading me to Miami for a reason.
As I tell people what I am moving to Miami for, I am trying to avoid the word service. The best definition I have heard for service came from Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in LA, which is the largest gang intervention center in the nation, and maybe the world. He said something like this: Service is good. It is a good thing to serve others, but service is just a hallway. It’s a nice hallway, but essentially, it’s just a hallway. This hallway of service though leads to a beautiful, elegant ballroom called compassion. In this ballroom of compassion individuals not only coexist, but they embrace each other, celebrate diversity, and genuinely love each other. When one person struggles, they all struggle, and when one person succeeds, they all succeed.
I think this is an important thing to remember when it comes to life this next year. I am not going down to Miami with my superman suit on to save the people there, but instead to live in community, to learn from others, to listen to stories and to share my own. Growing as a kingdom of God and striving for compassion.