Hey All! Hope everyone has had a lovely Holiday Season! My thoughts and prayers have been with all the YAVs who couldn’t make it home this Christmas, hope all of y’all are hanging in there! I had the privilege to come home to Tucson and see some family, friends and go to my home church on Sunday. Here’s a little talk I gave about my year so far. Hope you enjoy!
For those of you who don’t know, I’m Andy and I’ve been attending Holy way on and off for the past 21 years. These past 4 months, I’ve been living in Washington, DC as a Young Adult Volunteer through the PCUSA. The tagline for the Young Adult Volunteer program is “a year of service for a lifetime of change”. There are about 30 sites in and out of the country and I settled on DC partly because I wanted to try out living on the east coast and partly because I was attracted to one of the possible worksites called the Pilgrimage, which is where I wound up being assigned to work for these 11 months. The Pilgrimage is a service learning program for youth groups or college groups that come to DC to get hands on experience with people who are experiencing hunger, poverty and/or homelessness. The Pilgrimage has a hostel set up in the basement of Church of the Pilgrims. I’ll come back to talking about the Pilgrimage in a second but for now I’m going to focus on Church of the Pilgrims, the other half of my site placement. I’ve been doing more work with them in the past few months since it is the slow season at the Pilgrimage.
On an average Sunday I would usually bike to church in the morning using capital bikeshare, I take my key fob, unlock a bike and bike it from my neighborhood down to the neighborhood my church is in, which takes about 25 minutes. I like to joke that whenever I bike to work I have a near death experience but it’s not so much a joke, it’s turned into more of a practice in faith everyday, but it definitely beats sitting on the bus for an hour! On sundays I start my day off with a meeting between the head pastor, co-pastor, music director and myself where we make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, where the music is starting and things of the like. After that meeting I make sure the Open Table lunch is being warmed up and that their sack meals are ready to be made after the service. Open Table is a weekly meal for homeless folks that live in our neighborhood, Dupont Circle. We provide a warm meal served family style((to embrace equality), coffee, toiletries and as I mentioned, a sack lunch for later on in the day which is made by the congregation during coffee hour. What I love most about Open Table is that we encourage our volunteers from the congregation to sit down and eat with these folks which help us to break down the barriers of what we think homeless people are. All of our guests are incredibly grateful since most homeless meal networks are closed on Sunday. We even have one regular guest who promises that when he gets back on his feet he’ll give a donation to the church. These are responsible, passionate people who are simply going through a very rough patch in their life. As easy as I make it sound it does push us out of our comfort zone to take that step to sit down and talk with our guests, but every time it is worth it.
There are so many things that I love about Church of the Pilgrims it’s been hard to try and boil it all down to a half a page. When I think of Pilgrims, I think of the banner outside the sanctuary which is a gay pride flag with the caption All Are Welcome which couldn’t describe my church any better. Pilgrims is interracial, intergenerational, singles, couples, families, gay, straight, lesbian, housed, unhoused, who all come together on Sunday mornings to be apart of a community that lives out the Jesus narrative: welcome the people on the fringes of society, advocate for a perfect world despite all the imperfections that we live with, show God’s love and acceptance to everyone, no excuses. Take me for example! A young man whose questioning how strong his faith is, not super into church, who NEVER dreamed I would be working at a church and hear I am every Sunday either doing a biblical storytelling, most recently giving a sermon or leading Communion. I love how Pilgrims does Communion. We all gather around the Communion table in a circle and pass around the bread and the cup so everyone has a chance to serve and be served.
Every few months at Pilgrims we have a worship theme to focus our intentions during that time. We get someone from the Congregation to come up and tell a little story about where they saw this theme in their life. One of my favorite examples of this is when one of our single Mom’s told a story about her son who’s about 6 or 7 years old when he was walking in a church with a friend and his friend’s Mom. Naturally, kid’s of that age tend to talk rather loud so his friend’s mom told them to be quiet reminding them that they were in God’s house and needed to be respectful. His response to his friend’s Mom was, “God doesn’t want you to be quiet God wants you to be happy”. Our little Pilgrim learned this because during the service we keep the kids in the sanctuary so they can hear the message. We provide prayer stations for the kids to keep themselves entertained by drawing, reading, or things to keep their hands busy so their ears can stay open. And yes, sometimes they are loud and not everyone enjoys having the kids in the sanctuary for the entire service. But, clearly they are still learning the important things, God wants us to be happy. Pilgrims is a place where all people and chidren are welcomed, we are pushed out of our comfort zone and encouraged to practice our faith in whatever way suits us and through that I’ve become open to the fact that I can have my own perception of God and interpretation of what prayer is.
As for the rest of the week, I typically do more Pilgrimage work. I’ve been loving this opportunity to work with high school and college kids and teach them about how gentrification is hurting DC natives and changing their perceptions of homelessness and DC as a whole. What I’m talking about stems from the phrase we hear a lot in the election season, the urge to clean up Washington. The Washington that politicians are referring to takes up about 6 square miles in a town of about 68 square miles. Not to mention, the native Washingtonians by and large feel no connection to anything that is going on in these 6 square miles. This has to do with the fact that they have no voting representation in Congress or the Senate, and the mayor and City Council of DC have no final say over how the city’s budget is used. To make matters worse affluent young people are moving to town at a rapid rate which is raising the price of living so that the natives who are working minimum wage jobs can no longer afford to live in the town that they grew up in. Many of these people end up living on the street because they can’t afford to pack up all their things and move somewhere else. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we try to break people’s perceptions of homelessness. In our heads we see a homeless person and we assume that they are lazy or they have an addiction problem or they never applied themselves in school. My roommates and I have met many homeless folks who are driven, well educated and sober, who live on the street only because they have nowhere else to go.
Which leads me to a challenge I invite you all to try. When we first got to the city, my site coordinator told us that if a homeless person asks you for change and you don’t want to or can’t afford to give them anything, look them in the eye and say you’re sorry. Many of the homeless people that I’ve talked to go days without any human interaction and even if they do, it certainly isn’t positive. If a human being gets treated this way for such a long time, they start to forget that they are a human and they start to feel like they don’t belong in our society. How do we expect our unhoused neighbors to be able to rejoin society if we make them feel like it’s a place that they don’t belong?
When I say I’m sorry to a homeless person and I start to feel good about myself, that voice in my head says “”Well that’s your good deed for the day!”. That thought is quickly followed up by my more critical side of the brain saying, “Congratulations, you said two words to someone living on the street, what good do you really think that did?” Recently, instead of being hard on myself and letting guilt settle in, I’ve been trying to get into the habit of praying. Nothing very constructed, just telling God what’s on my mind, reflecting on the people who are on my mind and holding them in the light, as the Quakers do. In Philippians it says, instead of worrying, pray, it’s amazing what happens when God displaces worry at the center of your life.
Now at this point, I’m sure there are some of you who are thinking, is this the same kid who grew up here who’s now talking about praying and making bible references? The same one who shuttered anytime we asked if he’s gonna be a pastor like his dad? Yes it’s still me and no I’m still not planning on going to seminary. I’ve just been provided with the opportunity and space to discern and look for God in my everyday life. And I wouldn’t have been able to do this if it wasn’t for all of you have supported me. Be it financially, prayerfully, reading my blog, or even asking my parents every Sunday how I’m doing. Whenever I start to feel down on myself or that critical voice starts to speak up, I remind myself that I have a strong, supportive community back in Tucson (and across the country) and for that, I thank you.