Be Still

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)

 

I have returned to this verse so many times in my life, because I am extraordinarily bad at being still.

 

So far this year in Richmond, I find myself so much more still than I am used to- my schedule is not as full as I tended to make it in college, and my familiar activities and people I would tend to fill it with are not available. So I tell myself this is good: I can fill my time with stillness and time to pursue God.

 

But I still manage to replace stillness with something that looks similar, without being open to God and others: being stagnant. Instead of opening my schedule/heart and mind, I still clutter it up, filling my evenings with minute distractions that don’t fill me up. I find it very hard to be physically still: I’ve always been the one bouncing a foot or tapping a pencil. But when I manage the literal stillness of physical inactivity, it just leads to me becoming simultaneously stagnant and bored. And that version of me isn’t inclined to read, to pray, to create art, to pursue new friendships and opportunities.

 

I have been close to achieving stillness at times: usually separated from technology, deep in the woods somewhere. But even then I have found myself frustrated by my ability to find distractions in the temperature, the leaves around me, my plans for post-stillness… Setting can certainly aid this still pursuit of God, but it isn’t enough. I am still working on training my mind and heart to focus on God, but for me this focus unfortunately does not come naturally. It is a discipline. And while I have always been intrigued to study spiritual disciplines, I have been a poor practitioner of them.

 

Too often I want to remedy my stagnant lifestyle by filling it with busyness. To an extent activities are certainly life-giving to me, but I can tend to overcommit and overfill my schedule, then say I don’t have the time for the stillness needed to create space for God. But time isn’t ever really the issue: even with what feels like too much time on my hands I am not spiritually still/receptive.

 

So that is a goal for myself the rest of the year: to pursue stillness without stagnancy, even as I continue to pursue meaningful engagement in every community I find myself. I am also trying to dive into liturgy during this time- to fill my seemingly empty hours with spiritual disciplines of a new variety, rather than feeling stuck in patterns I haven’t been able to maintain in the past.

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Retaliation

1)You have heard it said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you, do not resist… love your enemies” (matthew 5:38-44)

 

2) “Vengeance is mine says the Lord” (Romans 12:19) “Those who live by the sword shall die by it” (Matthew 26:52)

 

For me and many others who have grown up in the church, these words have been repeated in many contexts- recontextualized for my audience, they tended to look something like “ok, we’re not about to go stabbing people, but you will be insulted by people, and you should resist the impulse to insult them back- don’t yell back at that guy in traffic, just let it go.” Loving those who persecute you looked like not getting miffed by people who teased your conservative values.

 

But at chapel in the lunchroom in AJCES at the beginning of the year, these passages were recontextualized into a different context. The story was told: “you take a blow you give it right back at ‘em, right?” Judas said “sup Jesus” and double crossed his man, but Jesus’ homies fought back- Peter whipped out his sword and went at this guy.”– the dramatic retelling was accompanied by reactionary Oooaaa’s from the audience.  

 

While my context had carried the non-retaliative messages of these passages to my non-violent context, the literal message of non-violence is still very much applicable as well fir the kids at AJCES. Verbal fights or small skirmishes can all too quickly escalate, and are always defended with likes like “My momma said if someone hits me I gotta hit them back” and “It’s my right to stand up for myself.” Talking about fighting seems to be the primary way to build a cool/tough reputation. “I’m gonna fight her on the corner after school” “I fought her in 3rd grade in the bathroom” “He punched the new kid on Friday, he’s probably still punching walls at home” “these old ladies were fighting in the park, it was so funny” “I gotta throw some punches, not my fault, she did ___” Fighting turns into this inevitable thing, and retaliation is a necessity to being wronged.

 

The kids are living in the eye for an eye context Jesus was speaking into- when asked what that meant, everyone raised their hand and about 20 different explanations followed for what that meant. They get it. And the message of not retaliating often seems like a weak or even dangerous one. I repeat that their reaction is under their control- even if someone insults you, you are responsible for hitting them, and yes you will face consequences at school for that. But I do also want them to stand up for themselves, to expect and demand respect. I try to restructure conversations to say “yes, they were wrong, and yes, you shouldn’t let people talk to you like that- tell an adult when that happens, let us handle it.” Somewhat like “vengeance is the teachers, not yours.” “Vengeance is the Lord’s” can seem like too distant of a message here- the injustices, ranging from small to great in their lives, are quite real, and they desire justice from the littlest of slights to people making racist slurs to their parents.

 

Promoting healthy responses to persecution, and recognizing the person wronging you has their own perspective and story is so very relevant in the daily lives of these kids. It is not a watered down message here- it can’t be. Not retaliating with violence is particularly poignant here, and challenging as well.

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A Reflection on St. Francis

 

John-Swanson_Francis-and-the-Wolf_s

By James Alexander

On October 4th the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Francis. During the chapel at St. Andrew’s school Abbott shared the story of Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. In the story the village of Gubbio is being terrorized by a lone wolf. The mayor sends word to Francis to see if he can help. When Francis arrives at the village he asks the mayor to tell him everything that had happened. Once Francis hears everything he decides to go to meet the wolf despite what the mayor told him. Francis walks alone to edge of the forest and as the wolf runs towards Francis he makes the sign of the Cross and the wolf stops in front of him and doesn’t attack. The villagers watch in disbelief as Francis seems to start having a conversation with the wolf. After a while Francis turns and walks back with the wolf and tells them that the wolf has made the pledge of peace and will do them no harm.

When I heard this story of Francis two things came to my mind. One, no matter how ferocious the wolf may have been Francis viewed him in the same way he would see a little child: part of God’s beautiful creation. Second, I thought of a story of Francis and the Sultan, a story of a beautiful conversation between this poor monk in tattered robes from Italy and a powerful ruler in fine silks from Egypt.

In his Canticle of the Creatures, Francis praises God through different things in creation. At the end of the canticle he mentions our Sister of our bodily death. In our western modern mindsets, we are programed to demonize death and that we should always try to look as young as possible. Francis however, shows us that death shouldn’t be hated and demonized because we are afraid of it. In the story of Francis and the wolf, the people demonized the wolf because of its behavior. But the wolf says the only reason he attacked was because he was scared and hungry and the villagers attacked first. Francis wouldn’t know the reason why the wolf attacked if he never engaged the wolf in conversation as a fellow part of creation created by God.

While Francis is normally seen as the patron saint of nature and animals, in modern times he is also seen as the patron of interreligious dialogue. He earned this title from the story of his interaction with the sultan. In the story Francis travels by boat with a group of crusaders trying to convince them to not fight the Sultan’s army. The crusaders just laughed at him. When they arrived in Damietta the crusader army suffered heavy losses and was defeated. After the battle Francis and his traveling companion were taken captive and taken before the Sultan, who himself studied philosophy and theology. When Francis was taken to the Sultan we could only imagine what the Sultan thought of Francis. Here is a monk who looks more like a beggar than a priest or bishop who came to talk. The Sultan and Francis recognized the light of God in each other and saw each other as human. So often we want to demonize people for the fact we just do not understand them. Francis shows us that we need to strive to see the humanity in all people and see them as children of our Creator.

Since I have been working at St. Andrew’s School I have been trying to embody Francis’ worldview. Instead of seeing the kids who act out in the middle of class I try to see them as child who bear the image of God. While, it is hard most days I am always trying to act according the Franciscan values I have taken on in my life.

 

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Mindfullness in Academia

I had another blog planned and prepped, but followed a more current line of thought and last minute switched to the topic of mindfulness.

Google’s definition for mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

The school where I volunteer at Anna Julia Cooper School (see Carly’s last blog!), which models prioritizing mindfulness in an academic setting. Though so many of the kids at this school came from “failing” schools and are behind national standards, the school does not pursue a “successful” education by focusing on teaching to standardized tests. They recognize that the kids at our school are struggling with more than academic shortcomings- they have also lacked environments promoting personal emotional health, whether at home or in their neighborhoods. AJCES teachers are trained to work with kids who have/are experiencing trauma, striving to make the school a physical place of support even as they challenge them intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In these neighborhoods where most people focus on physical lack, and schools focus on academic lack, I’ve seen AJCES promote an environment to teach kids they do have power over their own minds and reactions in any environment- and this is mindfulness. They hold them to high standards- dress code, respectful behavior- to promote an environment where they can cry in class and have spaces and people available for them to process, and a space where their classmates shouldn’t bully them for doing so.

Pursuing a state of awareness of my present and recognizing my own feelings is hard enough for me, even though my environments and family structure have been incredibly stable. But from what I’m hearing from the kids, and what I’m told of their lives, it is chaotic. Though I know I’m only getting a small and incomplete picture, I still think the generalization is not untrue- some kids are passed around between extended family members because a parent is not available for raising them, the fourth graders talk about the frequent shootings in their neighborhoods, the 7th graders are constantly building their social esteem by talking about fights, some see drug deals across the hall, and they comment on how the police are always present in their neighborhoods, complete with flashy mobile command units and horses. When the teachers at AJCES make house calls to families homes they are most commonly mistaken for some version of child protective services.

In the overwhelming face of this lack of stability, whatever form it comes in for each kid, AJCES provides a good education to prepare for future academic success, breakfast lunch and 2 snacks every day to combat malnutrition, and requires everyone to do a sport to promote health. And as part of their whole child focus, they also invite mindfulness experts to promote processing for the students once a week. They have a very active school counselor, and all the staff makes themselves available to talk to the students, who ask to leave class to talk to so-and-so about something far too frequently. Their ‘punishment” for acting out is cooling down in Coach’s room and writing reflection letters when ready.

Monday morning, a 4th grader told me she would probably cry throughout the day.  I asked her if she would tell my why when she was ready, and she did. Later, while crying, she asked to leave class to talk to the principal- I was worried about sending her to “bother’ him since there were other people specifically there for such moments as part of their job, so I asked if she would talk to them.  But she insisted he had promised to always be there if she needed to talk… and at that moment he actually arrived to check on the class, and asked if she wanted to talk. The staff’s reactions to these kids is awesome, but so is the fact that this little girl had the insight to tell me school would be hard for her that day, and the bravery and communication skills to tell me why as well. And she has the lowest academic performance of everyone in her grade.

I’ve been reevaluate what should be prioritized in a school. I am still frustrated that the 8th grade students I am assigning assignments for SSAT (a standardized entry for private high schools) preparation are mostly incredibly behind academically, even the ones who have been at the school for years. But what I’ve been realizing is that they are gaining so much more than a quantifiable education at this school, and their practice of mindfulness can carry them through disadvantaged environments in an even more direct and powerful way than academic success alone.

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Hope amidst the darkness -Carly Reiner

“In Your name I will hope, for Your name is good.” (Psalm 52:9)

I have spent three weeks now at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, a faith-based school located in Richmond’s East End, providing full-tuition scholarships to students of limited economic resources. The school began in the basement of a church with just over 10 students by people who had a vision and sought to serve in an area where educational opportunities were limited.

Though AJC started a bit earlier, this past week was the first day of school for most public schools all over the city of Richmond. As I drove the bus route to pick up my students in Mosby Court, I saw kids walking to school with their backpacks on and their brand new shoes, lightly stepping around puddles so as to avoid getting any scuffs. I thought about the schools that so many of these children were heading off to. I thought about the extreme lack of funding and resources provided to these schools. I thought about the security guards and the metal detectors and the hopelessness that many of the students and teachers may feel upon walking through the doors in the morning. While my heart began to fill with feelings of hopelessness, I thought back to the first day of school for the students at AJC.

Every day at AJC all the students gather in the morning for assembly. Each day begins with a reading from scripture followed by prayer requests along with a prayer over the day and the students. Every day at AJC begins with hope. On this first day of school, a student read a passage from Romans: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” The head of school then looked around at all the students and told them “This morning when each of you stepped into this building you gained a new family. Everyone in this room is part of your family, and each person in this room brings their own gifts and talents that make up this body. You are all special and unique in your own way and you must all look out for one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters in Christ.” I could hear him continue in my head, as joy began to creep back over me. God was in this space and God was doing a great work at AJC. Though many kids would not be hearing this message on their first day of school, 108 kids were. I thought about the teachers who were there solely to love these kids deeply and carefully, and to provide them with opportunities. Even amidst the schools and neighborhoods torn by poverty and oppression, God is moving. Even in the small school of only 108 students, there was a glimmer of hope and light amidst the darkness. 

In that moment, I remembered the necessity of hope. It is so easy to feel hopeless when I look at the state of the world and the state of our neighborhoods stricken by generations of poverty. Though it comes easily, I must not stay there. I must turn my eyes towards the hope that God provides and dwell on the good things I have seen that God has already done and is doing. God is the only real and true source of hope in this world devastated by suffering. If I do not have hope then I can do nothing. Without hope, transformative work cannot be carried through. Though the pain and suffering builds around us, we must persist in the hope that God is a good God and a God that keeps promises. That God is the God of restoration, transformation, and reconciliation. That God is working and will continue to work in and through those who seek to bring God’s love and mercy here on Earth.

Find rest, o my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. (Psalm 62:5)

 

 

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The Journey

By. James Alexander

“Home is behind, The world ahead, and there are many paths to tread”

Pippin, Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien

While my physical journey didn’t start until August 12th. My mental, and spiritual journey however started early in the summer after graduation. During most of my summer I couldn’t help but think of the Irish monks on the Island of Skellig Michael who gave up their lives and comfort to serve God in a foreign place. I was thinking about all the ways in which my journey with Grace on the Hill is similar to what they did. While driving to Richmond from my home in Eastern Kentucky, I felt a bit of nervousness and fear creep into my mind. This would be the first time in my life that I have moved outside of the state I grew up in. It was like the first day of college, but magnified. When I went away to college I could always go home if I needed to but now I do not have the luxury of fleeing to home base if times get hard or scary or overwhelming. Instead I will have to learn to depend on God and on the people around me. Since I have moved to Richmond, I can begin to understand these monks who journeyed for God. I will say it is not a particularly easy thing to pack up and move to a new place and live in intentional community with complete strangers. I think the main reason I journeyed away from my comfort zone is so that I might grow in my understanding of myself as a whole person. This came to me in a sermon at St. Andrews Church on the third Sunday I have lived Richmond. Towards the end of the sermon, the congregation was prompted with a question: “Who do you say you are?” I realized in this moment that while I am doing this program as service to God and to others, I am also doing it as a service to myself. God desires for us to live up to our full potential and for us to live as whole persons in communion with Him and with others. God invites us to step out of our comfort zones because if we don’t, we will not experience the fullness of what God wants to teach us and show us. Though I am fearful and unsure of what lies ahead of me on this journey, my hope is that I will discover a little bit more of who I am and who I want to be.

 

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A Sermon For Reflection

On Sunday, June 18th I gave the sermon, it was a reflection on Grace on the Hill and our experiences. I have felt so much overwhelming love for this community and Richmond, thank you all. I hope to see you soon but know that you are all always in my heart.

In the beginning was silence, closed doors, and surface level communication. I came into this year with the expectation that when you put five people in a house together with limited funds and lots of time together a community would follow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that easy. We all had some unrealistic expectations about what this year would be and I don’t think it turned out the way any of us anticipated but that isn’t a bad thing. We ultimately created a community that lifted one another up and supported each other in many different ways.

We had all made a conscious choice to be here. We were all driven by a deep, visceral compassion to help and serve. While our worksite placements at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, St. Andrew’s School, St. Andrew’s Church, and the Diocese of Virginia were a part of fulfilling this compassion, we committed to more than our jobs to fulfill our passion to serve. We got involved in the life of the church, sometimes you’d see a GOTH serving as a chalice bearer, a reader, or the rare times I was thurifer. There was a GOTH in the choir, there were GOTHs in the nursery. We got involved in Oregon Hill, giving finals survival goody bags to our neighbors. Timothy attended the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association meetings, acting as a liaison and making our presence known each month. Just last week we joined Keep Virginia Cosy for a Belle Isle cleanup day. Here at Grace on the Hill we not only serve through our jobs, we serve through our life here.

There is no way to go into this year partially committed. It was our common ground, we made a choice to be here and postpone our dreams and desires to serve a community. We are all deeply different individuals—some introverted, some extroverted, all opinionated. What we didn’t know is that despite the silence and closed doors we were all bonded together by passion.

You have to have deep rooted passion to give up a “real” job and spending a year in service. We chose to sacrifice a salary and some creature comforts (mattresses anyone?) to live into our desire to serve our community. All of us experienced financial challenges…student loans, car expenses, graduate school application fees— to live into a life we’re passionate about.

One of the many things we learned this is year is our passion to serve and our compassion wasn’t enough to build our community. We were bonded together by events. Doing things with each other made us stronger together. Whether it was realizing the positive difference teamwork made in a game of laser tag or going bowling and heckling (or encouraging…) one another, these things brought us closer together. Erin and I got closer through our monthly treks to Costco, slowly our relationship grew into what it is now. It’s the simple things that bring you together most, common ground or not, there’s no big shift that says “hey now we’re a community” but you could feel it happen gradually, one step at a time.

In our year-end retreat yesterday we talked about the seeds we had sown this year and what fruit had been born within us. This reflection into what we had hoped to get out of this year and what we had actually received was an inspiring way to end. One of the things I really wanted out of this year was a lasting, powerful relationship with the students of Anna Julia Cooper and I received that ten times over. There are so many students I want to keep in touch with, including ones that I didn’t spend most my days with. If I could sit down and write a letter to each of the students who I fell completely in love with, I don’t think I’d ever stop writing. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to connect with these students who are so inquisitive and funny. It’s all the little moments that add up to create all the love and compassion I feel for these kids. I couldn’t walk into the fifth-grade classroom without getting bombarded with hugs or questions or all of the above. Every morning there was a fight over who would get to hug me first and every time it turned into a group hug. These kids loved so fully, you couldn’t help but love them back.

One of my favorite students (I know, I’m not supposed to have favorites) loved to cuddle up next to me. If we were sitting in chairs at a table in the cafeteria, she would always scoot closer an inch at a time. And then suddenly I’d look over and we’re sharing a seat. At graduation, she blatantly sat as close to me as she could and I would use my elbow to push her chair away but she would always come back and it made my heart feel so full. I felt a compassion similar to what Jesus felt in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus was driven by a deep rooted compassion to help those who were sick or in distress. In the Greek, the word for compassion used in the gospel today is not the common one we generally think of but the rare form of the word that translates to “from the gut or bowels.” He was driven by a kind of compassion that was heart wrenching and unbearable. Jesus’ compassion is the kind that warrants an action. I think we all feel that same internal pull every day. I found myself overwhelmed with love and my desire to make a positive difference for the students at Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School. Every day we commit ourselves to compassion through our worksites. To choose to live in service we make ourselves disciples, to choose compassion makes us ready to fill the needs in the community around us. But we can’t do it alone.

That’s what makes Grace-on-the-Hill so special. We create a community to support us as we give ourselves over to the overwhelming compassion we feel. Our ministries are different and we fulfill different needs within our worksites (which are also very different) but we’re bound together as the disciples were with our desire to love, learn, and serve.

I speak for every corps member when I say we are moved by compassion. That our convictions warrant a move to action. That is why we came here. Grace on the Hill gave us that outlet. It let us live out our convictions in outstanding and appropriate ways. Whether our passions lay in church, outreach, mission, education, social justice, or community, or a mix of all of the above, the corps members and I will be always indebted to this place for helping us along the path.

I do not think our desires are quelled by this year, rather, we are leaving this year encouraged to continue down this path. Although this year was demanding and took a toll on many of us, we are all eager to continue the work we have started. One of us is going to school to earn a masters in education, one of us is going back to work in social work, one of us has been offered a job in the same office they interned. But that in itself is just the tip of it. No matter our paid vocation, or schooling, I have confidence that none of us will waver in our call to compassion, which is at the heart of all we do. After all, the harvest is plenty but the workers are few.

As I leave my time here, I am reminded of those words of Jesus. We have just begun to scratch the surface. Besides our best efforts, the world remains unchanged. Although I know that we have all made a difference in many ways, I am not foolish enough to think that we have accomplished what we set out to do. The harvest is still plenty. There is so much more to be done. We are all leaving this little part of the kingdom with much work yet to be done. Some of us are not leaving at all. But the work remains. So our compassion remains as well. As we move on into our next chapter in life, I hope that we can all learn, grow and make an impact like we were able to do in our time at Grace on the Hill.

I want to end now with a few thank yous. I want to thank our directors, Abbott, Paris, and Maggie. Their commitment to us and to this program and the past and future Goths is what makes this program so incredibly special. I want to thank our worksites for giving us the space and tools to serve and follow our passions. I also want to thank St. Andrew’s community for the love and support. Without which, none of this would be possible. There are many here who have been so eager to invest in our lives, I have felt cared for and loved by this community. And I am glad to have been a part of St. Andrew’s. Thank you for this program that has enabled too many young people to do what Jesus calls us to do…to follow their gut compassion to make the world a better place.  

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