Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I See

You see a cramped block.
I see a community.

You hear senseless rap, unnecessarily loud.
I hear self-expression.

You see a news story of a shooting.
I see a neighbor get shot.

You see wasteful spending.
I see a celebration.

You see black skin.
I see diversity: dark-skinned, light-skinned, and chocolate.

You see a drug dealer.
I see a man who built a business.

You see drug money.
I see the only capital investment in this neighborhood for decades.

You hear shouting and wailing, a disruption.
I hear worship.

You see a future athlete.
I see a black youth who loves to read, write, paint, and make bracelets.

You see a lazy black woman.
I see a tired but strong mother (and grandmother) with a degree and debilitating chronic pain.

You see another dangerous black man off the streets.
I see the latest victim of the prison industrial complex.

You see a culture of poverty.
I see an oppressive system.

I know what you see because I used to see the same things.

But I heard rumors of something different. So I moved to Southwest Philly.

Relationship--with a person, a place, an institution--changes things. It changed what I saw, heard, felt, thought. It confirmed the truth behind the rumors. There is something different.

Photo credit to Walter Levi Wawra.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Behind the Veil

Over the course of the last year we've made friends with a lot of our neighbors. It's easy to meet people by just hanging out on the block, and when you share the same space all the time, you eventually get to know people. 

But some are more difficult to be friends with. Usually it's something like fear or misunderstanding that puts a moment of hesitation between you and your neighbor and keeps you from fully interacting with one another. 

There's one family at the end of our block where that was the case. Although the kids from this family are often outside, we saw the parents much less often. We played with their kids regularly, especially their nine-year-old son, the second-oldest of five. Like most kids, he always runs up when we come onto the block. When we did different activities with the kids he, and sometimes his siblings, were there too. So we played ball, painted, chalked up the sidewalk, and read together.

But we didn't let them into our house. Other kids would come in and play on Saturday afternoons, but not the ones from that family. They wanted to so badly, but as a team we decided long ago that we must meet a child's parent and have permission before they can play in our house. And we had never met their parents because they rarely spent time outside.

And when their mom did make an appearance, it was from behind a veil. Something about the veil made it difficult to approach her, especially being known on the block as a "missionary" from the church around the corner.

From the beginning we had a hunch that they Muslim because of their head coverings. Islam is pretty common in Philly, especially in Southwest, so it's not really a big deal to anyone around here, including us. But for some reason the fact that she was Muslim, represented by her veil, made it a little more difficult to approach her. I wondered if my presence was offensive or if she would want to speak to me. Maybe that's why she never comes outside?

But one day I did. She was sitting with some of the other women I know, so I greeted them and introduced myself and her. I told her I enjoyed playing with her son, that he was a bright kid with a lot of questions. And after that conversation the veiled face had a name: Ms. T. 

I wasn't the only one initiating a friendship with Ms. T. Nicole, who has much less inhibition than me, had been trying to be friends with her for a while and actually invited her and the family to come to our house for dinner on Saturday. And, to my surprise, they came!

After she got into the house with the door closed behind her, she reached up and removed her veil. For the first time I saw her face. And it was as if our invitation to friendship was accepted. For the next two hours we talked, ate, danced, and had a great time together. Some of the kids were away for the weekend, so it allowed us to have more personal conversations with Ms. T and her oldest daughter. It was one of the most lively, engaging, and comfortable community dinners we have had in a while. Clearly my assumptions about her--that she didn't want to talk to the missionaries, that we were an offensive presence--were wrong.

In our conversations we learned that the reason Ms. T doesn't come out of the house often is because she has chronic pain that makes it difficult to do much at all. She wants so badly to work, but between her pain and a special-needs three-year-old, it's nearly impossible. 

Just like the label of "missionary" doesn't keep me from wanting friends on the block, I shouldn't have made the same assumptions based on Ms. T's veil. She enjoyed the time with us and stayed later than most. 

As she left, she covered her face once more. But now I know what's behind the veil. It's not a mystery. It's Ms. T, a friend.

**Some might read this and blame Ms. T for my fear and misunderstanding: "If she didn't wear a veil, it would have made things easier." I do not at all intend to blame or speak poorly of Muslims or anyone else who dons a face covering. I was wrong from the beginning for allowing her veil to be a source of discomfort for me. I am sharing a journey of overcoming fear and misunderstanding to become friends across barriers of difference. I inherited those fears from society, and I write this with hope that our society one day understands and accepts women who choose to wear a veil.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

This World Doesn't Deserve You

In my dream
I was impressed with a child
With potential unfulfilled
Held back by the deadly combination
of his race
and gender
and neighborhood
and a school system that breeds failure

In my dream I wept over him
I wanted so much more

"This world doesn't deserve you"
Was the title of a poem
I spoke over him
In my dream

As I woke up
Those words slipped away
Like dreams often do

But the boy remains
And his brothers
And my grief

This world doesn’t deserve you

Thursday, May 15, 2014


As part of Mission Year, we have an hour each week devoted to "Curriculum," when we discuss a book that Mission Year asks all of us to read. We've read books about community development, race, theology of the oppressed, spiritual practices, even one of the gospels! The book we're reading now is called House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and it's a series of vignettes. To reflect on the book and our time in Mission Year, we wrote vignettes about our experiences. We're sharing them here for your enjoyment. Some resemble poetry more than a vignette and there's one song, but all reflect on our year.


    It’s stuffy and sticky and sleepy in the back seat of the van. The darkness hides all but the whites of her eyes, surveying the new, unfamiliar landscape.
     There are tracks in the middle of the road and cars ride on top of the them with no trouble. What are the tracks for?
     I wonder how long our ride will be. Trips from the airport are always long--“Here we are!”--But not this one.
     “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m in the hood; I really can’t believe I’m doing this,” the eyes tell me out of the darkness. I don’t know if it’s an invitation to converse or just a statement. Actually I don’t know anyone or anything. I just get out of the van, into more darkness. Darkness.

Progressive Process

Pennies parting priceless places
Smiles on hurt hearts and broken faces
Who waged which war?
Opinions open onto oppression
Struggle is inevitable


     On a small street are tall skinny houses that looked as though they've been smashed together. In a house covered in crimson red bricks and a new cast iron gate is a tall fiery woman full of energy that fills her house.
     Her 4 children hold her firecracker personality, she with a heart of gold.
     She strives to offer them the best. After school they run, hide, squirm to get away but she manages to reign them in for more education.
     A small rectangular stick that brings life to any dish resembles her name, and is much like her personality.

The Trained Eye

To the naked, untrained eye
In and out, in and out
People come and go
Up the stairs, down the stairs
Through the door, out the door
In the house, out the house
Things get passed, side to side
In the car, out the car, under the car?
Black bags, rolled up newspapers
The trash pile near the corner of the stoop
Things unseen to the untrained eye
But I see, the smoke after the pick up

What Waits

And are you too blind to see
What waits on the other side

Stuck here held by chains
Like a voice without a name
You are waiting for change
As blame

Drowning in your shame
You turn it all to angst
Eating away your very soul
How you long to be whole

No matter to my words
You close your heart it hurts
I'm only here for a moment
Then I'm gone to the wind

My right hand offers hope
My left hand offers love
Quit drowning in this sea
Quit your dying null to peace


This my friend is what I see
You keep holding on to be
Let go of yourself my dear
A caged bird can't really sing


Sharing Jesus

“Ice Cream!”

A shriek of joy pierces straight through the heavy humid air. The now familiar sound of tiny bells and chimes announcing the presence of the ice cream truck is quickly approaching. I scoop up a child sitting at the top of the stairs and gently place him on the sidewalk.

“You need anything Miss Bella? its gonna be fifty cents left when I get my sandwich.”
“nah, I’m good. Go on, before he leaves!”

I watch him run over and join all the other neighborhood kids at the ice cream truck. Its a weekend symphony that plays in the evening… over and over again the ice cream jingle accompanied by children laughing and shouting to get right up to the window.

My minds eye sees something different. I imagine that the man in the window is something similar to a modern day Jesus; welcoming the children with open arms, songs, and laughter. I imagine that each child that lifts up a dollar, or their spare change, is actually lifting up their hopes and dreams. Each one leaves with a beautiful blessing that suits them… even if its not what everyone else expected.

“Wait, is that a sandwhich?”
“kind of... its like a pretzel with cheese and stuff!
“You got that at the ice-cream truck?”

I laugh and shake my head in disbelief. Literally EVERYTHING comes from that truck! As the stoop of my home fills with kids enjoying their treats, my eyes wander to a child on the otherside of the street. He has no food in hand, no treat from the truck. His eyes catch mine… than he shakes his head and walks away. when he turns the corner, I find i'm not the only one observing him.

“You know him?”
“nah. i’ve seen him though”
“does he live here?”
“He doesn't belong here. He’s not a part of our community.”

I fall silent, mind turning.
I have what I need.
I’m good.

“shouldn't we all be apart of the community?”
“I guess some people don’t like to share.”


I turn the corner
62nd and Reedland
Headphones in my ears and tired after a long day at work
I slowly take them out and my ears fill with new sounds—laughter, conversation, friendship.
I look to my right
     Hello Ms. Liz, Hello Ms. Eva, Hello Ms. Dee
Their smiles and eyes meet mine.
Casual conversation, standing on the porch, leaning on the rails.
Falling into familiarity and comfort
I excuse myself
Hello Aizhe, Hello Nina, Hello Jylen
Another stop, more smiles
Some faces and smiles I know, some are strangers though
Others friends.
I turn and see the trees

Monday, May 5, 2014

Transcending Words (Guest Blogger)

The following is taken from the newsletter of one of my teammates, Priscillia. I share many of her sentiments about how useful art is, and I wanted to share what she wrote to her supporters this month: 

"Interacting with those around me in my home and neighborhood, I have been struck by the different ways in which people express themselves and communicate. One form of expression that I have come to appreciate so much more this year is art. For most of you who know me, you may be a little puzzled as I am probably one of the world’s worst artists. However, my neighbors and teammates have shown me so much about the beauty and depth of expression that can come from art. Using art as a medium, whether it is drawing, painting, mixed media, etc. to communicate often allows people to convey more about their hearts than what words can. I have found that in times of deep emotional struggle or confusion, art has allowed me as well as others to express what is on our hearts and mind.

"A night of deep transformation and vulnerability within my household occurred after a teammate shared what was on her heart and then asked us to use art to express what had been weighing on our minds as she was sharing. Using our artwork, we were able to talk about our struggles as well as the beauty of community. While interacting with my neighbors, my teammates and I often invite the kids over to draw or create. 

"Angel is a high school senior who often comes over just to talk about the things that are going on in her life – these talks often go for hours, but at the end, we are always met with deep gratitude from Angel for our willingness to listen. She often calls us her “human diaries”! One day, she was having an emotional week and wanted to get a lot off of her chest. At one point, I suggested that we take 20 minutes to just draw what we were feeling. Afterwards, we all had the chance to share about what we drew – it was a great way to interact with each other in a different way than usual. Additionally, on another particularly difficult day with one the kids in our neighborhood, we asked him to draw how he was feeling and simply left it at that. 

"There is such beauty in being able to express without any words or expectations, to use art as an outlet for emotion and struggle. When I hang out with neighbors, I often ask the youth in our neighborhood to draw with me, to express what they are feeling, significant events from the week, their hopes and dreams and so much more. Sometimes we have conversations about their art and sometimes we just hang up their artwork and admire it. There is such beauty in being able to create…after all, God is a creator and we are made to be creative beings. There is such joy in being able to share in this activity with my community and discover ways to express myself that transcend words."

Visit Priscillia's personal donation page here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Like Family

Although I still have three months left in my Mission Year, it's hard not to think about what I will be doing when my year is over in August. Although there are practical things to think about such as where to live and where I might work, I'm also considering the values I want to live by, values that I've learned to practice in Mission Year.

One of those values is intentional community. We talk about it a lot in Mission Year, and I would say it's one of the main components of the program: living with six other people and committing to sharing not just space but experiences, food, money, and a spiritual journey. It's hard. And as I've thought about what that will look like after this year, I've asked the question, "Who are the people that I want to partner with like this in the future?" 

As I reflect on my Mission Year, I'm realizing that that question is a luxury. Because I didn't have that choice coming into Mission Year. I'm thinking now about friends of mine that I know and trust and would want to join with on a spiritual journey in community. But my time in Mission Year didn't afford me that choice. I was simply assigned six people to live with.

Luckily, they all wanted to go on the same journey, so it has worked out. But that doesn't mean that all of us are compatible or even that we like each other. (I'm pretty sure we do all enjoy each other quite a bit, but that hasn't always been the case.) Regardless of how we feel about each other, we are all in the same boat, so we have chosen to be intentional and forge friendships.

But as I looked toward the future, I thought, "This community thing will be so much easier when I'm with more compatible people," with a little bit of resentment that it didn't meet my idealistic expectations. I figured I could meet those expectations if I could just choose the people I lived with in the coming years. But a simple idea helped me to understand just how beautiful my community is this year. I read it in one of my teammate's newsletters, and it clicked for me! 

We're like family.

We have long called ourselves a family. It wasn't a decision we made; it just happened organically. But now as I think more about it, there isn't a more appropriate term. Like a family, we all live in the same (cramped) house. Like a family, we didn't choose each other. And like a family, we are bound to journey through life together--at least for this year. We can't escape those things, just like a biological family! Our ties are maybe not as permanent as a biological family, but many biological families don't stick together for life either. Like our team, most of them move on to the next stage of life without as close of a tie to each other.

We didn't choose each other and sometimes we may not like each other, but we're committed to loving each other with a love that's deeper than just compatibility. And I think we've done that. So here's to my Mission Year family! May we have three more loving months together and a lifetime of knowing that we will always share a familial bond!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

An Experiment with Silence (Part II of II)

For the first week of Lent I practiced silence. That means I didn’t talk for a week! (Well, at least not with my Mission Year team, but that is pretty much my whole life.) In Part I of this post, I wrote about why I chose silence. In Part II I will explore what I learned.

I had hoped that my silence would create moments of reflection. Instead of speaking, I would pause to consider the words that I wanted to speak. In this way, I would learn from my silence. I even hoped to create more space for prayer in the midst of interaction. I thought, “Silence will leave so much room in my brain for other activity!”

In actuality, that extra room in my brain was devoted to finding other ways to communicate. It takes a lot of work to be silent! There are constantly questions of how to engage with what’s going on without speaking. In fact, my first reaction was to be somber and non-participatory. But I quickly realized that silent doesn't mean non-existent! I was still present, and I still had to engage.

How did I engage? For starters, I found myself laughing a lot more. I consider myself a fairly active listener, verbally affirming what people say as they share with me. Laughter is a great way to do that without words. It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part; I wasn’t wracking my brain to figure out how to affirm people. It just happened. I laughed more.

Similarly, I smiled more often. My somber approach to silence quickly got old, and I embraced my usual warmth and felt a need to share in some way that I was enjoying what was going on. Again, not with much thought or intention behind it, I smiled more.

I also touched more. In some ways this was just practical. Bereft of my ability to call someone’s name or refer to them using their name, I had to tap them to get their attention or grasp their arm to show of whom I “spoke.” But touch communicates much more than information, and my touches, like my smiles, became a way to connect with people without words. Instead of showing that I cared by asking, “How was your day?” I would pat a teammate on the back or gently hold their shoulder for a moment to connect with them.

By removing my voice, I remembered that there are many more ways to communicate. We often choose what’s easiest and forget that some of the more meaningful ways to “speak” actually don’t involve words.

Silence also taught me trust. With words we say so many little things: “God bless you” when some sneezes. “Thank you” when someone blesses you. “Yes” when someone inquires if you’re finished with your plate. “Okay” when someone reassures that they’ll do the dishes later.

Without the ability to say those simple things, I had to trust my teammates in simple ways: that they knew I gave them my blessing when they sneezed, that I was thankful their blessing, that I heard their inquiries and would make my objections known if I had any.

But when I had objections, I usually had to extend grace. Conflict resolution, something my teammates and I value and practice, becomes incredibly difficult without words. When I was annoyed or hurt or misunderstood, I just had to let it go. Sometimes I was tempted to record the transgressions to share at the end of my experiment, but I took those times as opportunities to extend grace and forgive.

Something else that happened: I got lonely. I didn't spend any less time with my team during the week. But after a while, even laughter, smiles, and touch could not sustain me. I needed interaction! On the last night of my fast I did some incredibly silly things with a few of my housemates that stayed up later. While they tried to read or write or text friends, I kept doing ridiculous things to get their attention because I had gotten so little of it over the past few days. It wasn’t as though they had been ignoring me. Without words I drew less attention, so I was making up for it that night. My silliness was an expression of an isolation that I often felt during the week.

At certain times others joined in solidarity with my silence, sometimes with intention and sometimes with no other option. A few moments with others that I deeply appreciated during my silence:
  • Denise sat with my at the table while I finished up my meal after everyone else had finished eating.
  • Sophie and I walked to church together on Wednesday night and worshiped together at the service.
  • On our long commute home from our weekly citywide gathering on Thursday night, Walter sat in silence beside me on the trolley…without music. He always listens to music on the trolley, so his simple act showed solidarity with my silence.
  • Matt, from the Kensington team, came to our house on our Sabbath to watch Star Wars with me. All we did was sit and watch the movie.

There were moments when it was much more difficult than others to keep my mouth shut. Those moments usually came when I knew something that no one else knew. It killed me to not share. It was so painful sometimes that I had to leave the room to keep quiet. Those moments were not unexpected. In fact, you may remember from my first blog about this that I hoped this experiment would expose my pride and humble me.

Those moments became opportunities to practice submission. On one level I submitted to silence, restraining myself from sharing knowledge. On another level I submitted to what was agreed upon or decided by my team. I had to abide by a decision that was made without my special knowledge, a painful yet useful practice.

New ways of communicating, trust, appreciation, humility: these things I learned. So what now? 

Well, silence was just the beginning of my Lenten journey this year. There are still several more weeks until Easter, and my team and I continue to withhold negative comments about others or ourselves. My silence was impactful indeed, but I can't continue in life without speaking. Speech is powerful, as James wrote in the Bible, "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one's life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell" (3:6). I've heard of Christian communities who live forever in silence to keep from unleashing the potential evil of the tongue.

But I don't want to live in fear of my potential sin. I'm striving toward the perfection of my whole being, including my tongue. Silence was impactful as an experiment, but ultimately the goal is not silence but refined speech. I'll continue to say hurtful things, I'm sure, but little by little I hope my words sound like those of Christ.

Want to read Part I? Click here