A Question of Animal Instinct

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted last on my blog. As soon as November hit, our busiest season started, and along with that came new hours and a new set of responsibilities for all of us. I’ve continued working in our Workforce Development department, which means that each day my responsibility is to help our participants get ready for employment. On a typical day, I run our Career Center, helping with applications and resumes and teaching life skills classes. Since the spring has come around, I’ve had more time to focus on curriculum and larger programming—which brought about the beginning of our Job Readiness Power Days. These all-day sessions include conversations on effective communication, interview skills, discussion of time gaps and criminal history, conflict resolution, and general job tips. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep our participants sticking with me from 9-2 for a full day session (although I suppose the free lunch provided doesn’t hurt either.)

Now sometimes when you’re in an interview, the interviewer will ask you something flat out random just to gauge your creativity and ability to think on your feet. So after our mock interviews today, I asked the group as a whole to go around and answer, “What animal do you think best describes you?” The answers made me smile, made me laugh out loud, and certainly made me think.

“I would be a mule because I’m so stubborn.”

Oh, haven’t we all been there. I think acknowledging our own stubbornness is crucial to our ability to interact with others. The way I see it, stubbornness can go two different ways: it can keep you from cooperating, but it can also help you stand up for what you believe in. I hope that each of my guys (and girls) that I work with is willing to be stubborn where it counts, standing up for their right to move forward despite any past mistakes.

“I would be a lizard so the police couldn’t find me.”

This one made me bend over double laughing at first. It came from a particularly… inquisitive participant who had lots of questions throughout the day about how his history would affect his job prospects. If there is one thing I have realized this year, though, it’s how much our justice system can hurt those who are already hurting. Many of my participants have received trespassing charges for sitting on a bus bench or a sidewalk or crossing a “private” parking lot; I know, though, that were I to do the same, no one would even glance my way. These realizations are incredibly frustrating and difficult to comprehend. I have full respect for our police forces, and I have many people I am close to that are active in the justice system. But it seems sometimes we need to step back and evaluate if we are truly doling out the punishments equally—or if we are entrenching some in a system where they will continue to build up more fines, more charges, and less freedom.

“I would be an eagle so I could fly above the storm.”

The participants at Room in the Inn weather many storms. They are constantly struggling with loss and uncertainty about where they are going. On a daily basis, I am astounded by the perseverance each of them shows—I certainly don’t think I would be able to have half the courage that they do. When you’re constantly being beaten down, sometimes it feels easier to just give up. And that’s what I hope to encourage them not to do. Each morning, we have a group that does a practice similar to the Examen, an Ignatian spirituality technique when you reflect on where you felt God’s presence during the day. For us, it’s called Let’s Kick It, and it’s a time where we all share our high and low points of the day before. This has become a time for support and conversation, and I’ve found that even if someone missed the time that morning, they often come up later still wanting to share with me. There is something sacred about sitting in community and lifting each other up, even if we don’t know each other’s stories. Perhaps it’s through this mutual vulnerability that we help each other fly above our storms.

My time as a YAV is in the final stretch now, but there is much more to be done. I’m dreaming big—about bringing a job fair to RITI, coordinating some volunteer opportunities for our participants, and continuing to get to know them on a personal level. It doesn’t seem like I will ever have enough time in this place or that I could ever give enough of myself to ease all their heartache. And that’s probably true. But I hope that with each of the little interactions I have, both of us come through changed. And we have to keep hope. Because I truly believe one of my participants when he told me, “I’m homeless, not hopeless.”

In This Place

It’s hard to believe that two months have passed since I arrived in Nashville. Things have started to settle in here– we’ve made friends, found churches, and started understanding what our roles are at each of our placement sites. We’ve discovered the joyous character that is Nashville and found ourselves, on occasion, actually starting to feel like locals.

In the Sunday School class I’ve been attending at First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, we’ve been reading a book by Andy Stanley called Breathing Room. It’s all about creating space for the important things in your life, and it could not have come at a better time. It’s been a strange transition, coming from the pressures of college to my YAV year. In college, life was all about staying busy, moving from activity to activity until it was finally time to crash into bed at the end of the night. So now, I am relearning what it means not to just do, but to be.

And there is beauty in this place.

One day, I sat talking with a RITI participant, and I mentioned wanting to eventually read my way through the Bible. He challenged me to start reading five chapters every night, saying he would read along with me. I smiled and said I would love that, appreciating his encouragement—and then I admittedly got caught up with the work I had to do and dropped the ball. A few days later, he came back and asked me about my reading. I had to admit that I had not kept up like I’d meant to. He asked when I was going to start, and I told him that I would right then if he could find a Bible. A few minutes later, he came back, and we read together—right there in the middle of the work day—the first five books of Genesis.

And there is beauty in this place.

A few weeks ago, we closed for the day so we could have an all-day staff retreat. The day was full of training as well as shared stories and much laughter. At the end of the day, we gathered for a family dinner of sorts. What I thought was going to be just a buffet ended up actually being our highest managers serving all of us dinner. At the end of the meal, we then went around the room all sharing what we were thankful for. As each person took a turn, continuous stories were shared of the love they felt for each other and for our participants. In that moment, everyone remembered the love that ties us all to this community.

And there is beauty in this place.

Abby, Katie, Lillian, and Kalli (the other Nashville YAVs) are some of the best people I’ve met. They let me come home every day and ramble about people they’ve never met and events they’ve never experienced. They’ve joined me in a pact to hug more—because you realize when you’re off on your own in a new place how important that closeness to someone can be. They have brought me to tears from laughing so hard and walked with me as we have voyaged into this year.

There is beauty in this place.

For the Love

As I began work at Room in the Inn, I sat down with one of my supervisors to talk about goals for this year. We covered everything from what responsibilities I’ll have to what resources I can be using outside work for growth. It began as a pretty standard conversation just discussing the role I’ll play in the organization, but then we moved into a more difficult conversation about my theological concerns for the year. I told her the struggle that had been pressing upon me: Why do we have the poor and the weary with a God of love?

Quite a doozy, right there.

Each day at work, I spend time getting to know our participants. Some have chronic illnesses, and some have college degrees – it’s a mix of people you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. The common thread though is that each of our participants is living in extreme poverty. The stereotype many have of those who are homeless is that they are addicted to drugs and alcohol and just don’t want to work to better their situations. But the people I’ve interacted with have been some of the most loving, compassionate people I’ve ever interacted with, people who are working hard to lift themselves out of poverty. I help fill out job applications and tell them about classes we offer, hoping that these small steps might one day add up to a change.

It’s hard though—I sit down with these people I am quickly becoming friends with, and I fear asking them what they are doing later. While I go home to cook myself dinner and sleep in my own bed, they go to the streets to sleep with one eye open so their belongings don’t get stolen. It seems incredibly unfair that God, who has been so generous to me, could also have children who are suffering and unable to be relieved.

As I was driving one day, the song “Do Something” by Matthew West started playing. I had never heard it before, but the lyrics stuck to me.

I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now
Thought, how’d we ever get so far down
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you.”

This was a quick reminder to me that we are meant to live out the Word here on earth. I don’t know why we have so many who are suffering from disease, poverty, lack of education, and violence. What I do know is this: I know that God has created each of us in His image, and that He loves us unconditionally. And I know we are each called as brothers and sisters in Christ to love each other, and we cannot do it alone. I can’t help everyone who is homeless find a job and a place to live. But what I can do is provide love and resources so that the day might go by a little bit easier.

I’m still struggling with the clear disparities in our society. And I don’t think the question of why these exist can be wiped away by simply stating that we must love each other. Maybe though, if we continue to have the conversation, we can at least begin to recognize the value in each of our neighbors, no matter their societal status.

Searching for a Story

As I finish off week two of official Nashville life (week one being our Nashville orientation week), I already can tell that this is going to be a good year. I’m sitting here writing in a coffee shop called The Well, which is a nonprofit coffee shop that uses its proceeds to build wells for those without clean drinking water. Which is pretty cool. We’ve already been exposed to a good mix of Nashville, ranging from a Nashville Sounds game to a scavenger hunt throughout the city to Live on the Green, a free outdoor concert in the middle of downtown. This is a city full of culture, and it’s exciting to learn about the ways people from all walks of life can be brought together.

We also had a chance to see each others’ work sites before we started, and boy is everyone going to be doing some amazing work this year. Just to give you a taste of where they’ll be—Abby is working with Nashville’s refugee population at Nations Ministry; Lillian will be helping with college prep through the Martha O’Bryan Center; Kalli is teaching ESL with Conexión Americas; and Katie is placed at Room in the Inn with me! We have all officially had three days of work now, and while we have had very different experiences, we all overlap in our excitement for the year.

From day one, I’ve had to jump right in at work at Room in the Inn. They’ve had me at the Support Desk attempting to answer everyone’s questions (which really consists more of me saying “One second!” and going to ask for help.) But both our staff and our participants alike have been so patient and helpful. It’s amazing, though, how many problems we never think about other people facing. Many of our participants are looking for jobs and homes, yes, but there’s so much more to it. A lot of our requests are to help participants apply for IDs and birth certificates because theirs have either been lost or stolen, or for some they never had one in the first place. I remember the excitement of getting my driver’s license when I turned 16—and it was an expectation that I would test for one right away. But for many, it’s not even a driver’s license they need; just a basic ID is necessary to be able to identify themselves at all.

This need for identity is a theme that will be a challenge throughout this year. It’s easy to identify yourself by your hometown, family, school, or interests. But when you lose of all of this, what are you left with? As I sat and talked with some of our participants this past week, I tried to come up with topics of conversation. “What kinds of things are you interested in?” I asked one man. He responded, “I don’t have time for interests. I need a job and a place to live.” To another man, I inquired, “Tell me about yourself. What’s your story?” His answer to me was that he had no story.

Not for a second do I believe that this man has no story—but his belief in this showed deeper problems than homelessness alone. Stripped of societal identifiers, he felt as though he had nothing of note to share. How, then, do you help someone rediscover and find worth in their story?

Part of my task at work this year is to find creative ways to engage with our participants during the day. Those that are not engaging in our classes or career center often just sit or sleep in our facilities until closing because they’re not sure what else to do. I have been tasked with working with our team to change this culture and to help our participants explore their creativity. This is an exciting but also somewhat daunting task as I seek ways to help everyone express themselves and build community.

Nashville is a city bursting with stories. In this place, the stories of YAVs, Room in the Inn participants, church members, refugees, musicians, college students, and hipsters all collide into an intricate mosaic. My hope is that I can help those I interact with see their piece of the mosaic, while also adding in a piece of my own.

The Beginning

So a lot of you may be confused on what exactly I’m doing this next year. Here are the basic facts you need to know: I am a part of a program called Young Adult Volunteers through the Presbyterian church. I will be spending the next year in Nashville, TN as what is affectionately called a YAV. There are several different focuses of the program, including volunteer work, vocational discernment, simple living, and intentional Christian community. I’ll be working this year four days a week at Room in the Inn, a homeless shelter in the heart of Nashville. As part of their staff for their daytime facilities, I’ll help with a little bit of everything—from sorting mail to helping with some of their professional development programs. On Fridays, we will have community events as a YAV group (so me plus the other four YAVs placed in Nashville this year), and then on Sundays, we are required to spend time participating in one of the churches in the area. So that leaves a very busy schedule (which of course, I love) and a lot of time “on” engaging with others.

Those are the facts, but the reality is that I’m bringing a lot of emotions into this year with me. Part of the program is that you’re limited in when you can travel home—this is to encourage you to be a part of the community you’re serving, and it means most of us won’t see our family or friends until at the earliest Christmas. I’m stepping into a pretty new world that is guaranteed to challenge me. On the one hand, you’ve got the fun, exciting Music City that has young people flocking to it. But on the other, you’ve got a place filled with a rich history of racial segregation and a large homeless population, all next door to the stars. Right now, I feel like I have one foot on either side of the line, wanting to enjoy the wonderful experience Nashville has to offer while also remembering my purpose for this year. And I’m so scared about finding the balance.

We spent the last week at Stony Point Center in New York at training with all the national and international YAVs. It was a week full of excitement as everyone prepared to travel to their sites, but it was also quite overwhelming. One of our biggest conversations was about how to handle privilege. Because while we may not always be conscious of it, it does take a certain degree of privilege to be able to drop everything for a year and go do volunteer work, living on a stipend just large enough to get by. And that’s difficult to come to terms with. I’ve been very fortunate with the opportunities I had growing up, and I chose to spend a year in service so that I could in some small way give back to the community. But when volunteering itself is an opportunity I’ve been granted, how do you reconcile that with the wish to be in community with those you’re serving? It innately can cause a divide, and this question also caused me a lot of thought while we were at training.

If we’re all privileged young people going into communities we can’t fully relate to and dealing with social issues we don’t completely understand, and we’re spending a year working to help with challenges that have faced these cities for decades, what good can come of this? I don’t have the answer to this complex question, but I do think that good will happen. It’s this question that begins my Nashville journey.

As I mildly panicked the night before I left for training, I came across this verse in my evening devotion: Isaiah 43:1, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” I have decided to make this my guiding verse for this year. I firmly believe that we are each called to love and serve one another, as challenging as it can be sometimes. As I wrestle with these questions this year, I ask that you join me in prayer and in conversation. Through struggling together, we may not be able to fix the world, but we can certainly try to make it a little more understanding.