I swear this isn’t a complaint just an observation that I haven’t pulled together yet- Sara Sweeney

I park my car around back. Grab my purse.
Laptop, phone, wallet, keys. I haul these personal belongings
’round the front of the building. Begrudgingly, I jam the little metal shitstick
into the keyhole that never seems to like a key on the first try.
Two sets of doors to protect the precious archived belongings of Routt County, so I work the shitstick again, hearing the chimey bells jingle when I get the door to move.

I walk through the customer’s part of the museum, into the back of the building where the lights are still off.
Say hi to my boss in the kitchen, briefly chat about the weather, or our weekends, or what she left on my desk this morning for me to get to this afternoon.

I climb upstairs, boots not-clanking on the carpet steps but jacket zipper clangin’ on my arm. I get to my desk, open up my apple macbook, log into Facebook (and my email), and start scrolling for the day.

A few minutes go by and if by then I hadn’t gotten distracted by social media, I’m working on a task.
Entering emails into a database.
Searching the phonebook for fresh mailing addresses.
Writing thank-you cards.
Cutting flyers on the flat-top blade machine.
Stapling.
Stapling, oh my god, stapling.
Encapsulating files into mylar, or acid-free folders.
Letter or legal size, I decide.
Scissors, tape, and my young, precise vision are my best tools at work.

Two hours later, I trudge down the stairs again, a little chilly, and let the lights on– flipping switches, unrolling the American flag. Switching the “closed” sign to “open” and cheerily greeting whomever the volunteer is this morning.

Sometime around noon, Patrick, the museum’s handyman, comes by. His to-do list sits at my desk. We always exchange more than a “hi.” Ten minutes of academic conversation and a forced see-you-tomorrow.

By now, the afternoon projects sink in.
I befriend again the photo-database computer. Tucked away near a window and cluttery desks (wires, scratch notes, cd-roms, dvds, piles of manilla folders, perhaps another stapler I’ve blocked out of my visual memory)..
Some point or another I go say hi — happily– to the afternoon volunteer.

How many times do I go to the bathroom a day? six, maybe? Certainly not because I drink all that much water. I just need a change of scenery and my-oh MY those gorgeous white walls and tiled floors are just the medicine.

Soon enough, 4:45 rolls in and I begin working on the close-down. Take the change bag to the front desk, count out the remaining money, lock the door behind the volunteer. Say bye to my co-worker. Get in my car, hauling my fancy gadgets, and drive away.

Many, many times in my work placement I’ve been sparked with the thought, “This isn’t service.”

“It’s more like an internship than real service,” I’m eager to say to anyone who asks about my placement with the Colorado Episcopal Service Corps.

What is real service, anyway?

I’m quick to think of all the ways I fall short in my experience this year. Am I living simply? Am I making a difference? Am I becoming spiritually-centered? Am I spending my time in service?

“The first ten lines are a clearing of the throat.”
a poetry professor once said to me. I apply it to all my writing– including this one (which isn’t a poem, don’t be fooled). “Be patient when you’re writing, the real material begins. the energy picks up, just when you think it’s over.”

“All You Need is Love” – Esther Ou

“Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love. We’ve wandered into God’s own.”- Greg Boyle

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch with a childhood friend and his girlfriend at a breakfast place downtown. We stuffed our faces with delicious cajun-fusion, laughed, and shared stories of our recent fun adventures. My friend’s girlfriend, a Colorado native, asked me what brought me to Denver, to which I told her about ESC. I gave her the quick spiel, and her response to my short program description was a look of astonishment and an exclamation, “You must be a really good person. I could never do that!”

In that moment, I was honestly taken back and a bit peeved. I knew she had no malicious intent, but there was something unsettling about her comment. Perhaps it was the unspoken assumption that only “good” people could do social work and choose not to live affluently, as if there was a select group of people capable of such a program.

Yes, choosing to do a year of service is not easy, and that’s the entire point.

Like anything in life, from riding a bike to doing rocket science, a year of service — working with and interacting with marginalized communities — is something learned and practiced again and again. Society has taught us which kinds of people to avoid, which places are “dangerous,” and to stay in our suburban bubbles with maybe the occasional service trip. Media representation, cliche storylines/characters, and our underlying assumptions impact how we define another group or person. And when those oversimplistic narratives become the dominant story, they seep into our accepted stereotypes and perceptions:  their boxed-in label. We’ve already said who that person is before even knowing him or her.

I don’t believe people are necessarily “born” with kinder or more compassionate hearts that allows them to do this certain line of work. On the contrary, it is all about stepping out of your comfort zone and making the conscious effort to view them with new eyes. It’s about bringing that all people are inherently valuable, worthy of dignity, and complex beings. It’s intentional.

However, this lesson is not only for those in a year of service, Americorps, volunteering, and so on. This fundamental way of seeing is needed for everyone, rich and poor alike. I’m not asking every person in the world to drop everything and become a social worker– that’s unrealistic and not the point. But I do believe we, as members of a society, cannot change the status quo cannot change if everyone maintains it, if people stay in their bubbles. We can and must start with our perceptions and assumptions, on which our actions are contingent upon. We can decide to ignore those deemed “undesirable” or we can challenge our own understanding, the limits of our empathy– and that is the challenge. We can choose to stop living by “us versus them” in order to justify division, no matter how subtle. That, in itself, is a daily struggle.

As a good friend once told me, “Love is a choice that we make every morning.” I’m not just talking about love in a romantic sense, but the hardest form of love– the revolutionary, counter-cultural form of love that wrestles with fear, hatred, and apathy to see one another with the preciousness that God has for each and every individual. Loving people who annoy, disrespect, and especially hurt us is a painful process. And of course, one could argue, “what is the point if the other does not respect or love me, if it is not reciprocated,” but it has to start with ourselves in this broken world; I can only control my own actions. No one said love was easy. It requires a step forward, sometimes a step away. For if we saw everyone as God saw us, justice, having right relationships within mankind, in its purest form could ring true.

I am learning how to love.

Before I end my rambles, I want to leave you with this quote and a link to his TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the book, Just Mercy, which is a fantastic book.

“Despite the fact that [our technology] is so dramatic and so beautiful and so inspiring and so stimulating, we will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.“- Bryan Stevenson

 

The Beatitudes: Realistic or Impossible?

 

So today I will be using a sermon to describe my ESC year so far. This was used 2 weeks ago at St.Peter’s in Basalt,CO:

“Good morning. How are we doing this morning? Feeling good?  Alright, cool. So today I want to share with you a little about me and my experiences. .Today is mainly about my time here in ESC, my life and how  it has influenced my faith.

    I am originally from Alabama and I am an intern at the Boys & Girls’ Club of Steamboat Springs. Like the kids at the club, I had family traditions that I followed. Ever since I was a kid I had church as part of my life, it was something we did on most Sundays. My parents chose the Episcopal denomination, why? Not sure, you’ll have to ask them. But with that being said, the church influenced my life in so many ways. I was introduced to volunteering & service, social outings with the church youth group, music & theatre, etc. The church was more than just a place of worship, it was a thriving community.

I am fortunate to have had the support and positive role models in my life that influenced my decision to join ESC. From teachers to youth ministers, to coaches and friends. My biggest influence is my mom.My mom is the daughter of two deaf educators. My grandparents worked with people who would not be considered in the margins.  My mom followed a similar path and became a teacher herself. Some time later she became a massage therapist and physically gave herself to many different people in hopes that she can provide healing. From my mom’s journey she showed me the art of giving:  to give yourself to your fellow man. In my life, this forms in volunteer service. Last year, I started my service in a 10 month Americorps program. I won’t talk much about Americorps, other than it was part of my service journey. After Americorps, I was prepared to take on another position, but it did not pan out. I was distraught, my plan did not turn out the way I’d hoped. So, I decided to get back in the game and search for other service opportunities. On January 2016, I found such an opportunity.

In general an intern for ESC works 32-35 hours a week with a local non-profit, dedication to Christian Formation, daily prayer and in our case here in Colorado living by a rule of life in community. Each ESC program is different across the country. Some programs are older like Philadelphia and Los Angeles while some are young and growing; like Colorado. We are fortunate to have a total of 9 members: 5 in Denver and 4 in Steamboat Springs. We’re currently in our 3rd year and are continuing to increase the ESC awareness across the Diocese. Some of you may have seen us or our table at the Convention.  This was an experience that I was proud to be apart of this year. But, I would be lying if I said that this year did not have any challenges.

I decided to leave my home, travel somewhere I have never been to before, and chose to live with others from across the country in intentional community. This is not new for me, but I still find it challenging.

    New challenges include :  adjusting to a new work environment. I do not have inherent office experience or experience with youth development, but my job demands both and that has not stopped me and I continue to persevere. Everyday there are kids who challenge me. The joy in that is those are the ones who need the most help. I always think about why I do this: about why I am doing this job, and in the large part, why am I in ESC.

 My belief is that every person should volunteer his/her time to give back to a community in need.  We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the person sitting next to you, and the person next to him/her, and so on and so forth.  because in my opinion we are one people, and as such we must do everything we can to serve each other, even if we are stretched beyond our limits.  

Not only this country, but in this world, we have many similarities that bind us together. Eating , laughing, crying, having families, even prayer/meditation.

As I stated earlier going to church was part of my life, so I’m used to it. During my journey I’ve discovered that while  that the church is not perfect, there is still to this day a powerful source of community that I believe is unmatched. Like Christianity, I’ve met extraordinary people who defy all logic.  In January 2015,  I witnessed an event that I never imagined attending: the rector’s funeral. His name was Mark Wilson. He was the rector of St.James from the late 90s until his death. I was singing in the choir at the time. I processed, sang, and watched the coffin follow the other priests down the aisle. I had never seen so many people.In the crowd were family members, friends, colleagues, and people that I did not know who came to say goodbye to Mark.  It was as if Easter came early. What I learned from this instance is that we can leave an incredible  impact on many people. Most of whom we do not even know.  

There are two takeaways from the Beatitudes. The first  takeaway  is that Jesus is talking about people who are not thought highly of or “marginalized”; poor in spirit , who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers, merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake.  These are individuals who are considered without hope or lost; those who are cast away. This sermon sets the tone for all of Jesus’ radical ministry. These  words  set forth the action of the Good Samaritan, of Jesus being blessed by a sinful woman. And these set forth the action of what we do today. Though this is a different century, I still see kids who are considered “marginalized”. I see the kids who come from families that are not as fortunate as others.

The second is the idea of being “Blessed”. One definition of “bless” is that God finding favor. Jesus found favor in these people. I do my best to find favor in all the kids. What’s even better is that the kids  do not understand the economic disparity before them. That is a true blessing in itself.

So, today before you I am proud to say we as ESC members are not only a living image of the Beatitudes, but today’s lesson as well.. We are the action item that extends Jesus’ ministry. You don’t have to take it from me, but please listen to the stories of my fellow ESC members. Hear their stories, see how each one of us follows pursuit of the ministry. I hope that my story leaves you with a better awareness of ESC, and that it has impacted your life. And if it has, that you consider also how you are living and can better live into the image of the Beatitudes. That is the hope that I have with this year, the Boys and Girls Club, my housemates, and to my fellow man.”

 

The lesson I refer to is Matthew 5:1-11 entitled the Beatitudes. I do hope that we all are able to live out our lives in these words and that we continue to strive, no matter the obstacle.