Privilege vs. simple living

Disclaimer: I wasn’t going to post this, but our director encouraged us that writing on the public transportation brought out some of our deepest meditations. You have been warned.

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Privilege vs. simple living

For those of you deterred by the title, stick with me. I think it is a really important topic and needs to be addressed.

Moving to Miami has not only helped me understand my privilege as a white male, but it has also made me deal with it. It’s quite easy to ignore when you drive your car to work everyday to a majority white office in a majority white town. The sphere of influence is small and is uncomfortable to expand.

But here, it’s the little things that set myself and my roommates apart. What I think of “simple living” still comes across as a display of privilege. I wrote this entry on the public transit in order to allow my thoughts to flow freely and openly.

The scene is this: my two roommates and I are all carrying a nalgene water bottle (name brand). We are the only people carrying water bottles which makes us look like tourists (I’m sure there is a whole separate blog post in that thought). We are the only white people on the bus, but interestingly enough, we do not look the most privileged by money. Though at least two of us are accruing college debt, there are people on the bus whose value of the items on them out weigh the value of the items on the three of us.

So privilege vs. simple living. My chacos that I consider simple still show my privilege. My timbuk2 bag that I consider “practical” and “city minded” shows privilege. And finally, the last is my Banana Republic button up shirt that I am ashamed to say I paid full price for.

To conclude, it’s a tough subject. The article that helped me with this blog post:

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/23/white_privilege_an_insidious_virus_thats_eating_america_from_within/

The article is tough and dense. But for those that are curious, it is above.

Deep in thought,
Russ

¡A Miami!

26 August 2014

I have finally made it to Miami! And let me tell you, it is awesome here! I absolutely could not be any happier.

On my run this evening, I passed a group workout class, a nice seafood restaurant tucked away next to the river that runs through my community, a painting class, and an organic market and bakery. When you look out my window, it is the rear of a shopping center which includes a Goodwill, family dollar, and a discount grocery store. I’m in walking distance of two different bus stops and the public library. By the way, did I mention I love it here?! What a fantastic community.

As Kelli, Mark, and I settle in, I begin to think of our challenges. Challenges of living together, and challenges of the physical place in which we live. It is a primarily Haitian community which I know little to nothing about. We did have Haitian food for lunch which was absolutely delicious.

My final high point of the day was locating my agency where I will be working. It is indeed within walking distance of the Marlins stadium. Tomorrow, the challenge will be finding it on the public transit system.

To conclude, I love the apartment, I’m enjoying the company of my roommates and new supervisor, Callie, without whom it would have been impossible to navigate Miami.

Our internet box has not come in, so I’m sending this from the McDonalds that is also next door to our apartment.

¡A Miami!
Russ

The Office of Public Witness

23 August 2014

I figured I would leave this gem here. So we are at Stony Point and had just finished this absolutely beautiful worship service and the leader invited us to take the candles we had just lit out into the camp and find a place to meditate with our candle. I’m walking next to a building and see a skunk, so I casually make my way to a different area.

However, my friend Abby was a few minutes behind me. So here I am across the way, ruining this beautiful silent reflection time yelling, “Abby, Abby, walk towards my voice! Walk towards my voice!” By this time I’m sure that people are staring and wondering why I am yelling like a crazy person, but hey! I saved her from getting sprayed by a skunk, so I’m feeling okay about ruining a deep moment of reflection. When we finally meet up, she realizes I’m not hurt. I explain the situation and we just laugh. She tells me she’s never seen one before, so together (from a safe distance) holding our candles we watch it run around the building.

Yesterday we were blessed by the witness of Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson who runs the Office of Public Witness of the PCUSA in Washington, D.C. Man, am I always glad to hear this preacher speak! He always blows my mind, leaves me fulfilled, yet full of good questions and theology.

Today’s reflection was around Faith and Advocacy. Dr. Nelson explained some of the work he is doing in Washington and told stories of the people that lay a foundation for his work. This is kind of complicated and I’m sure I won’t get all of the information completely one hundred percent correct, but stick with me. For example, the minimum wage has risen to $10.10/hour. Those who work in the McDonalds food court on Capitol Hill have a contract stating that they are to be paid the $8 minimum wage at least for another two years. The workers would quit, but there is no guarantee or job security waiting for them at the McDonalds on the block where they live or in the neighborhood. So, they must stay, commute, and be underpaid because it was under a separate contract that management won’t budge about.

These are the kinds of people that Dr. Nelson fights for! This is such an injustice and the work of the Office of Public Witness is truly a force of power and presence in DC. Other topics Dr. Nelson spoke on where his own personal experiences of starting a new church, the work of eradicating gun violence, and effective communication with our elected officials.

I was able to bring the question of being worthy to my small group and this was a really great place for me to bring the question. A few notes I took were about knowing that we are not perfect and finding Gods love in this is hard because we don’t always love ourselves. A few members suggested I look up the idea of grace and what that means, specifically.

So anyway, I will close with a simple definition for the first part of my journey. “Grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn.”

Grace and Peace,
Russ

City Day Reflection

We left full with good scripture, good homegrown food, and one rule; be cool. I insisted that this meant that no one in our group was allowed to wear a nametag or a YAV tshirt as these would set us apart as we headed into NYC for “City Day” to learn about the urban ministry at Church of the Master on Morningside Ave in Harlem. Our leader, Emily, reinforced this information by telling us to not point, stare too long, and to “subtly” look at everything around us. Throughout the day she would frequently call out, “what’s the number one rule?” We could never seem to come up with an agreement as to what the number one rule actually was. I insisted it was, “no name tags!” The rest of my group offered more practical answers such as, “stick together,” and “don’t get lost!”

Here is the truth. There is absolutely no way to “be cool” hopping from the d train to the four train at Yankee stadium (161st) at 4:15 with a group of seven people all wearing matching green wristbands which allow us to be admitted to meals at Stony Point. Staying cool and staying together on the subway in the city seems as oil is to water.

In these intense moments of travel, I found myself quiet and stressed and doubting my ability to read a map. I asked the group what they saw on the way to the Church of the Master so we could write our reflection and it was a group members idea to shout out a word or phrase that they observed. I can only at this point express these words and phrases through poetry which is what I would rather do than list them.

Stressed. Quiet. Count.
1.2.3.4.5.6.7. Try to turn off my inner camp counselor, but old habits die hard.
It’s so loud!
And there is this child. He is sitting on his fathers lap, they have matching Yankees hats as it looks as they have just come from there.
“Hello! We are young street performers, and we hope you enjoy this!”
(Insert various drum beats, inaudible rap, and unrecognizable dance moves).

There is an expression of culture that the city holds like no other. The young street performers accents suggest that they’re parents or that they themselves speak English as a second language. The boy sitting on his fathers lap is (I assume) interracial and the father white with a nose ring and the longest dreads you have ever seen.

An initial reaction to the city was the word, messy. It is messy! How do I talk about race and this culture that I see that’s so different from mine without sounding completely crazy?! What can I say, what can my group say? It’s completely different than anything we have ever seen or experienced!

But there in lies what calls and what drives myself and I assume others. This passion for the human race and every one of Gods children in it. “Remember that the same hands that formed the universe are the same that formed you and surround you in this moment.”

Psalm 24 reads, “the earth is the lords and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” These words spoken each week by Rev. John Belle lay the foundation of Church of the Master located on Morningside Ave in Harlem. Where do I begin? An amazing congregation and a powerful learning session about Urban Ministry that left me speechless. I was so moved by the ministry and the witness of Rev. Belle and the lay persons who work with him.

Our time together began with Effie. A elder of the congregation of decades! She has done just about everything the church to offer. Brace yourself, this is a lot of different programs coming up in the rest of this entry. Just remember, if I am talking about it, Effie has done it, is involved in it, or started it.

Effie’s main focus was the summer camp. Unfortunately, we were not able to experience this vibrant ministry as it had been shut down while the church was reconstructed and an apartment complex was added on top of the building. Though you could sense a hint of sadness to not have the children around for the summer, the church was at least profiting from the lease of the apartments being added. They spoke with enthusiasm and life about reopening camp the summer of 2015. By the way, Effie was designated as liaison between the city, the contractor, and the church for the construction project…of course.

What was most important about Effie’s work running the summer camp for us was taking this into the context of being future church workers and starting new programs in these churches we will eventually work for or be involved in. The summer camp required money to run, hiring a supervisor, picking activities (craft, reading, and academic sessions everyday), first aid training, city permitting, background checks, and of course food. Several times it was mentioned throughout the day that food was absolutely crucial to Church of the Master. Each of these details seemed so small, but were part of the journey they had to go through to get where they were going.

70 years ago Church of the Master established a federal credit union. Guess who runs it? Three guesses and the first two don’t count. This work, to me, was absolutely fascinating. The thought of a congregation coming together and risking that much, legally, is absolutely thrilling. To Effie, it was business as usual. Members of the congregation or those close to the church take out personal, tax, car, vacation, and meal plan loans. And as Effie swore, “we’ve really only had to call in the collector once or twice. It’s a very well run system.” She’s been running it for seventeen years…

The church has a very rich history and unique position in the city of New York. James Robinson (founder) was the visionary frequently referred to in our conversation. He was the founder of the church, the credit union, and the genius behind Crossroads to Africa, which was a group that is cited as a forerunner to the Peace Corps.

We continued to hear from various elders of the church regarding the urban ministries of the church. There is a children’s music ministry that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There are three different dance ministries (mime, senior, and children/youth). A jazz group, the choir, and perhaps one of the biggest joint ministries of the church, the Harlem Council of Churches basketball league. Each year the basketball league holds tryouts for its various teams.

As a group, we were all surprised to learn that the congregation is only about 150 people. For such vibrant ministry and powerful programming this number seemed small, but was a good reality check in remembering that the spirit is present when two or more of us are gathered.

On starting a new ministry, we took a few notes. For one, the church is firmly planted in being a small community lifting themselves up internally by taking care of their members. You could see this through the presence of the summer camp and credit union. They explained to us that any ministry takes about 7 to 8 years and that the foundation was prayer. This rang true to us in our YAV experiences as some of us will be in the first few years of a program or we may be years into a program. Either way, it seemed important to remember this humbling fact as we go out and attempt to make a small difference.

After the elders and Rev. Belle anointed each of us, we prayed together at the end of our session. Effie held my hand the way someone who has prayed for you for years and doesn’t even know who you are does, tight.

One of the hardest theological questions I have ever dealt with is the idea of being worthy. It is really easy to say that everyone is worthy of Gods love. But here I am holding the hand of a woman who has done work starting ministry far beyond what I ever think I will be able to accomplish. It’s humbling, it’s puzzling, and not feeling worthy is uncomfortable. It’s really uncomfortable! I’m surrounded by individuals who’s witness has done what moving mountains must look like. Here I am, twenty-five, questioning my spiritual call. And the worst part about all of this is that I don’t have an answer to this puzzling question. I think people can tell me five hundred times that I am worthy and I’m not sure I would believe them. It will be a theme that I will revisit a few times in my writing and I hope that at the end of my year I will have an answer that’s not only rooted in scripture, but is truly a self discovery.

So my final reflection will be the notes my group jotted from Rev. Belle’s session and hope they will guide my journey.

“We can be impatient. Gods time is different from our time.”

“Don’t be afraid to work out of your comfort zone. Be your authentic self.”

“Culture is not always visual. Don’t let anybody put you in a box. Meet people where they are. They will not hear you unless they see you being where they are, on their level, with them.”

Don’t get lost,
Russ

Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida

To update those who have been following my journey of faith so far, I finally have a placement! I will spend the next year working with the Neighborhood Housing Services of Miami, FL as the Community Development Liaison. The Mission Statement of NHS reads, “NHS of South FL collaborates with residents and other stakeholders to stabilize neighborhoods and develop sustainable housing.” My interview was fantastic and I had a really good feeling about the people that I will be working with. The Community Development Liaison works with NHS to assist in creation of community newsletter, blog, and other social media, develop and strengthen partnerships with other organizations and faith based groups, as well as assist in planning and implementing outreach events in the four neighborhoods that NHS focuses on. You can read more about NHS as http://www.nhssf.org.  

“…with dignity and compassion.”

29 June 2014

Wow! What a beautiful year it has been! 2014 is shaping up to be really special.

I am excited to finally announce that I will be joining the Young Adult Volunteer program in Miami, Florida for the upcoming year. What a process it has been (with so much more to go!). It was around Christmas, meeting up with a dear friend from 2nd grade (we met at DCPC), Allison Wehrung who got me truly inspired and called to a year of service. After hearing her stories from her previous years as a Young Adult Volunteer  in Nashville and New Orleans, I was hooked and I couldn’t get it out of my mind! I’m thankful for Allison’s patience and good ear. I wouldn’t stop asking her things like, “well was it hard? Did you have a good year? Do you think I should do it? Well, did you like the people you were living with?” Again, bless her for her patience. Its actually truly amazing that she is currently sitting in my living room and we are watching Pocahontas on the Netflix…somethings never change.

After applying, it was time for the next step. I spoke with Elizabeth Deibert, the head pastor of Peace Presbyterian Church in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. She welcomed the idea and we went right to the session. I was truly overwhelmed and blessed by the support I received. I get so nervous standing in front of groups and I’m sure I was shaking out of my skin. But they welcomed the idea with grace and peace.

Finally, after informational sessions, interviews, late night phone calls to friends, and prayer, my heart lead me to Miami. I had the privilege of meeting with Callie Howland earlier this week who will serve as our Site Coordinator who spoke to me about being placed in an agency in the city, serving in a church, and living in an intentional community with two or three other people similar to me who have chosen to live in an intentional community and serve in Miami.

The slogan of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program is, “A year of service for a lifetime of change.”  Scrolling through Facebook the other night, my cousin Alex (who was also a YAV) posted this that truly inspires and puts into words why I feel called to service.

   “I am an under-30 rookie pastor, not a professional social worker, but I firmly believe the first step to helping people take personal responsibility for their own lives and welfare is to treat them with dignity and compassion.”

But I can not do this alone! I need your support! If you feel like you would like to support me, here is a link to do that: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/donate/E051470/ 

This is an Extra Commitment Opportunity account through the Presbyterian Church (USA) and when you give money to the church, you can get a tax deduction! Please consider giving $5 or $500, prayers, or even just a thought from time to time. And if you do give, be sure to put my name on the contribution.

I am so excited for what the upcoming year holds! I can not think of a better group of people (you, my friends, family, and churches supporting me) to walk beside me on my journey of faith. Until the next blog post…

With all my love,

Russ

P.S. You can read more about the churches supporting my journey of faith at http://www.peacepcusa.org and http://www.dcpc.org