Reflections on a Year as a Young Adult Volunteer

On July 30th, I flew home from my YAV year. I got some much needed time with friends and family before moving to begin my next adventure in D.C. I also had the privilege to speak at First Presbyterian Church, Lexington, my home church, to share my story. Below is the transcript of my message, for those so inclined. You can also find the recording on iTunes podcasts.

Good Morning! I am so honored o be here today, to be home, to share with y’all where my journey has taken me over the last year. But first, before I get into all of that, I would just like to say Thank You. Almost two years ago I reached out to Pastor Lee and the session to offer official support in a year of service, a program called the Young Adult Volunteers, a mission of the PC(USA). I know full and well that I wouldn’t have had the courage to serve the denomination if it weren’t for the love and mentorship I received growing up in this congregation. I would not be who I am today, or have the motivations to serve without the experiences I had in Acts Alive, YDs and Sunday School. So Thank You!

A few moments ago, we heard from the prophet Jeremiah at the potter’s house. The clay spoiled, and rather than throwing the spoiled clay away, the potter reworked and reshaped the medium to create a piece that was once again pleasing in the eye of the creator. And the Lord says in verse 6: “Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done?” Spending the last year in Chicago has shaped and transformed me in ways I thought could happen, but was completely unprepared for. Hindsight being what it is, I am only now really able to see the fractures of my brokenness, and it is only because of my year living in Chicago as a Young Adult Volunteer, that I recognize the belovedness bestowed upon me.

As a YAV in Chicago, there were certain core tenants my community and I were expected to live by. Values that we all agreed are important, and were the framework for us to open ourselves up to where God was calling each of us: Intentional Community, Simple Living, Dedication to Social Justice, Vocational Discernment, and Spiritual Formation. They are some fun buzz words, but what do they actually mean?

Intentional Community means creating a life together; becoming a family. Not just occupying the same space. Going into my year of service, I was nervous about living in intentional community for many reasons: one being that I hadn’t lived with strangers since I was a freshman at State, and two, there was this expectation to open your whole self up to the community, and be honest about who you are as an individual in order to journey together through all the ups and downs, twists and turns that life can throw at you. Well that is really scary for me. That vulnerability is contradictory to every fiber of my being, and it forced me to take a long, hard look in the mirror and see the aspects of my personhood that could use some work

Now I wasn’t the only one taking a long look in the mirror. That was one of the great things about living in community: we lived and grew together, accompanying and supporting each other as we faced the baggage we all carried. This camaraderie allowed us to dialogue on more complex issues. With our vulnerabilities out for everyone to know, we could discuss the injustices we witnessed and experienced, free from judgement. In the wake of dissecting my personal brokenness– the fear of isolation, and the persistent feeling of being lost in this world and in my faith– my community members accompanied me as God the Potter began to rework this vessel.

The next core tenant, Simple Living, manifested itself by us living within the same means as our community. East Garfield Park has a median income of $13,000. 42.4% of families live below the poverty line. To live in solidarity with our community, we were completely reliant on public transportation, we were intentional about the ways we spent our stipends, and we were on food stamps. My intentional community made the decision to apply for SNAP (supplemental nutritional aid program); the thinking was that in order to understand the neighborhood we now live in, we need to take on some of the hardships our neighbors live with. Which leads into Dedication to Social Justice.

Not just being on food assistance, but looking at WHY so many people are living in poverty. I spent the year discussing the systemic issues of justice. Not just recognizing that people are being arrested, going hungry, getting sick, but looking at what systems are in place that perpetuate these injustices. Concepts like housing discrimination,fair labor practices, stigmas, all the stigmas were studied through book discussions as well as open dialogues between YAVs and native Chicagoans. Dedication to social justice also manifested in the attendance of panel discussions, rallies, and protests; for us to stand up to unjust systems that we no longer want continued. And for me, it was in those times of standing in solidarity that I first recognized the power of being in a community of faith, standing shoulder to shoulder with individuals that felt called and took actions BECAUSE OF their faith to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and visit the incarcerated.

Listening and learning from those who know far more than I do about the intricacies of faith-based social justice work expanded my idea of my own potential to make a difference in this world. If you had asked me 2 and a half years ago where I would be and what I was doing, I would be giving you a totally different answer.

In the spring of 2015, I thought I had my whole life figured out (irrelevant of where God may have been calling me). And then I got my first rejection letter. And then another rejection, and then basically 6 months of rejection letters. *Cue here for the beginning of the YAV process* I was arrogant. I didn’t trust God,I didn’t think I needed her, I didn’t have faith in whatever plan she had in the works, and all the doors I thought I wanted got slammed in my face.

We heard a portion of Paul’s letters to the Philippians. In the verses just before Paul writes: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” Now, I don’t know if what I understand from that piece is what Paul meant, but my takeaway is that it didn’t matter that my resume was “perfect” according to my standards; there was something bigger to work for, and for me, that meant being told NO a lot to finally stop and listen to what I was being called to do.

Now part of the YAV year is to find a worshipping community, to have a faith community that was outside the other YAVs. Unlike other cities in the YAV program, Chicago worshipping community isn’t predetermined. We all come from various background in terms of worship style, and even denomination (YAV doesn’t require you to be Presbyterian). And rather than being forced to all attend the same worshipping community we were strongly encouraged to find a community that felt like home to us, so I got the chance to visit lots of different places. Frankly, it felt like that exercise you do in Confirmation where you visit different places to make sure that actually want to be in the community you are in. With that opportunity, I went to a church that called itself inter-denominational, and it was a nice change of pace for awhile, but it didn’t feel quite like home.

In the midst of searching for a worship community, my housemate I went to God Talk on Tap hosted by Friendship Presbyterian Church and a couple other churches on the North Side. This conversation was themed on…God. Specifically, it focused on the power of stories, and how we connect our story to God’s story. As we went around sharing crucial stories to OUR identity, a common theme seemed to begin to emerge. Messiness. The messy and complicated stories we each hold, but also the messy and complicated stories we find in our holy text. And to sit in circle with people from different backgrounds, life experiences, and identities, but all dealing with a form of brokenness, well, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home in my adult life. As we began to close our conversation, facilitator said something that shaped the remainder of my YAV year. “You are Broken…AND You are Beloved. You ARE broken and you ARE beloved.”

That was earth shattering for me. Now I’m sure that similar sentiments had been shared over the course of my church life, but it wasn’t until that moment that it clicked. I am broken AND I am beloved. It wasn’t “you are broken BUT you are beloved.” It was two distinct statements. It truly is amazing how powerful chosen language is. If the statement had been “You are broken BUT you are beloved” then it would’ve gone in one ear and out the other. The AND takes into account the feeling of brokenness: that is a real and valid and part of my identity. If it were “You are broken BUT you are beloved,” well, it feels more condescending as if to say “I know you are going through a tough time but let’s not dwell on that because God loves you despite it”

One of my consistent growth edges throughout college, not college, and YAV is my need to be perfect and my need to feel like I’m in control. I’m sure y’all can attest to the fact that very few things in this world are perfect, or can be done perfectly, and the further you are into adulthood, the fewer things you have control over. But by coming to a better understanding of my own brokenness, my own shortcomings, and my own imperfections I’m finally able to discuss rejections, and the failures that I’ve experienced.

The brokenness, shortcomings, or imperfections any one individual feels does not take away from belovedness bestowed upon us. Similarly, brokenness in Chicago does not outweigh the belovedness of my city. Chicago gets lots of national attention, a lot of that attention isn’t positive. And that is the overarching story our world knows of Chicago, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also love, I’ve felt it. There is hope. There is pride. There is an overwhelming fight for justice. There is joy. Mary Pattilo, a sociologist from Northwestern sums Chicago up in a way that does this beautiful city justice: “I don’t understand why all of that (the joy, and goodness) gets TOTALLY overshadowed by what is Real Pain, but is not the totality of our existence.” There is real pain and real trauma. AND this city is beloved. With some of the most caring and considerate people I have ever met.

Broken and Beloved. If I got nothing else from this year, this is what I know. Recognizing the belovedness WITH the brokenness shows a more genuine perspective to the lived experiences.

I don’t really have the words to describe just how life altering this year has been. The tag is YAV: A year of Service for a Lifetime of Change. I know that I have grown and stretched intellectually, emotionally, as well as spiritually. Knowing and learning to accept the brokenness in myself, my fellow YAVs, and the city while relinquishing the desire to fix it…to become perfect and expect all those around me to be perfect allowed me to see the belovedness. To see the love God has for everyone, no matter where they are in their lives. We, as humans, are broken, and We are beloved.  

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