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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The Teacher Becomes the Student

By Katherine Gaines

In college, I was a mentor through Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It was one of the best things I did during my time at school. I had never been on the receiving end of a mentor relationship until this year with Grace-on-the-Hill. My mentor recently encouraged me to write about my time at AJC as we GOTHs prepare to set out on our next phases in life. Before this year, I worked with older adults and adults with disabilities. This was quite purposeful as I am not quite comfortable around children. That can still be said even after a year in a middle school, but these students at AJC have stolen a place in my heart. Above all else, what AJC “does right” is establish and maintain a sense of community, structure, and love that envelops not only the students, but the staff as well. I start each day with picking up students on the bus, greeting each student and wishing them a good day as they depart.

Perhaps the most tangible result of my time at AJC is utilizing my background to teach seven students to swim. Two of whom couldn’t make it down the pool when we started and had a great fear of the water. By the time we finished, they could swim 50 yards without stopping (too much…). That impact will have lasting effects and could save their lives. After my time with the swimmers, I now spend my time with 6th and 7th grade girls “teaching” them lacrosse, a sport I know almost nothing about. Each day with these girls is a new adventure; balancing all of the emotion, energy, and sometimes quite strange behaviors has taught me a wealth of knowledge in remaining both flexible and calm in all sorts of situations.

Perhaps the hardest week at AJC was the week that tragedy struck the AJC community: one of the graduates had been killed. The community came together to support one another while hurting and processing their grief. The resiliency and love shown that week at AJC was more powerful and encouraging than words can describe.

I’ve learned more about trauma, love, resiliency, and the impact the “small things” can have in my year at Grace-on-the-Hill than in my entire undergrad in social work. I knew the technical skills and theory, but never had the related practical experience. The lessons I’ve learned at AJC are truly invaluable and I will be forever grateful to Grace-on-the-Hill for the opportunities I’ve had.

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Thank You!

Dear Friends of Grace-on-the-Hill,

On Friday, we gathered to recognize and celebrate the work and plans of so many people that came together to make Grace-on-the-Hill a reality five years ago. We have come so far, and we have more to go. It is important, though, to stop and recognize just how many different wonderful people come together in creating such a powerful program.

In one room, we had members of the founding interest committee at St. Andrews – Bill, Rock, Abbott, and others.

We had representatives from each of the current work sites – Mike and Katye of Anna Julia Cooper, Kate of St. Andrews School, Abbott of St. Andrews Church, and Paris of the Diocese of Virginia.

We had representatives from St. Andrews congregation – Barbara and Bill, Cynthia and Bill, Tim, Joe, Terry, the Getlein family, the Higgins family, and others.

We had current and returning mentors – Mother Pheobe, Rock, Terry, Ally, and others.

We had every current Goths and three previous Goths – Megan-Drew, Theresa, and Paige.

We had members of the Oregon Hill community – Caroline and John.

We had Bishop Susan Goff of the Diocese of Virginia.

And just as there were others there I don’t even know, there were many who couldn’t be there; people connected to Grace-on-the-Hill in ways I cannot imagine.

So even as we came together to celebrate and appreciate the joy we have co-created in the Grace-on-the-Hill program, I want to reiterate my own thanks to all of you. Thank you to those who could be there and to those who could not. Thank you to those who support us financially. Thank you to those who support us emotionally. Thank you to those we work with. Thank you to those who teach us. Thank you to those we love and thank you to those who love us. This is truly an amazing experience, and each of you make it that way.

Thank you!

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The Guacamole Tree

By Lauren Gustafson

A couple Sundays ago I was standing in the kitchen with Erin and Celal. Erin and I were making guacamole while Celal made nachos. I cut the avocado in half and scoop it out into a bowl, it would be easy if it weren’t for those pesky pits. I tapped it with my knife and it popped out but it was stuck. No amount of pulling or slamming could get it off and so I handed the knife to Celal who did get the pit off but it ricocheted and landed back behind a counter, unreachable. We laugh and I say “well now we’ll have a guacamole tree.”

We’re all looking forward, to the end of the program and what’s coming next. As the days continue to pass there are fewer days to spend together in community. I’m feeling the crunch of time and the question of what next because in reality, I don’t have a plan past August. We’ve been making plans to celebrate our time together and to squeeze in the last few fun events and trying to do as much as possible while staying present.

Being present is difficult and it’s hard because we all have so much to look forward to that being here where everything seems to be the same is hard. Relationships are evolving, we’re getting closer or drawing away. Sometimes our exhaustion gets the better of us. And sometimes the “real world” calls stronger than our world. It’s a hard conundrum to battle. Realizing that I’ve made a life for myself that’ll dissolve in less than five weeks is a hard thing to wrap my head around. Coming into this program, I didn’t realize how much this community would mean to me and how much I’ll miss it when we’re gone.

As I struggle to figure out what comes next for me and as we prepare to go our separate ways we still have moments together, laughing in the kitchen and waiting for the guacamole tree to grow.

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“How do you like living at Grace-on-the-Hill?”

By Erin Monaghan

“How do you like living at Grace-on-the-Hill?” I have been asked this question since the first week I moved to Richmond. My short answer? “Its great!” And it is; but that’s not the whole answer. Throughout this season of life I have made great friends, felt accepted and at home in a new church, and thoroughly enjoyed my job placement. At the same time, this experience has also been more challenging than I thought it would be. So for those who have asked, and those who are curious, here is my full answer.

Life in community is busy. Grace-on-the-Hill is truly a 24/7 job. Although we work at our worksites for 32 hours a week, my “job” as GOTH resident requires much more. Each week we have Formation (which generally consists of a program director or guest speaker leading us in spiritual growth activities), communal prayer, a house meeting, house dinner, and a scheduled fun activity. We also go to church at St. Andrew’s almost every Sunday, and commit two hours of time each week to participation in the life of the church. On top of all of the calendar events, living in an intentional community means being at home is part of your work. Even when I’m tired or things are challenging at home, I still have to figure out a way to engage with my community while practicing self care. All of this to say, my GOTH schedule is busy, living in a house with others necessitates being present, and adding in other events from life outside the house makes for a very full life.

Life in community is challenging. I had this expectation that life in community would be easy. I don’t know where this expectation came from, as every year at college presented itself with new and different roommate challenges. When it came time to move in I soon realized that living in a house full of very different adults takes some getting used to. From differences in sleep schedules, to favorite conversation topics, to food preferences, not one person in this house is the same as another. While these differences enrich our community, they also make intentionality a necessity in building relationships. For me, the best way that I have grown friendships within the house were by asking someone, or being asked, to do things together. Going grocery shopping doesn’t seem very exciting, but when you go to Costco for the first time and get a chance to spend one-on-one time with someone, you’d be surprised at how much fun that can actually be.

Life in community has allowed for self-exploration. Having graduated with a degree in Cross-Cultural Christian Ministries, one thing I was extremely excited about was potentially working for the Diocese of Virginia in the office of Mission & Outreach. I know how challenging it is for people my age to get a job in their field right after college, and I know many don’t ever use what they studied after college. I have absolutely loved working at the Diocese, exploring the work of the offices of Mission & Outreach, Christian Formation, and even helping out a bit in Communication. This opportunity gave me a chance to realize that I really enjoy working for the church in this way. During my time with St. Andrew’s, I have been able to participate in different ministries of the church including altar guild, ushering, chalice bearing, and working in the nursery. Participating in these ways have given me a chance to not only get to know people from church, but also what ministries I enjoy and am spiritually fed through.

Ultimately, life in community is good. Although this year has been very busy and has at times been challenging, I have appreciated the opportunity to learn about myself, my housemates, and my other communities. Recently, the question people have been asking me is, “Would you do Grace-on-the-Hill again?” My short answer? “Yes.”

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