Monday, May 20, 2013

Habi-nings, Community Life, and Trip to Mexico

A much needed update is in store, as I have not written a blog since February!!  We have been quite busy, so here is my best attempt to catch up without writing a book in this post.
Shortly after Easter, Karl and I decided that we will be moving to Decatur, GA after this YAV year.  Karl applied for seminary at McCormick (Chicago), San Francisco and Columbia (Decatur) and got into all three of those choices.  That meant that we had some decision making to do, and after weighing a lot of pros and cons and speaking with numerous people from those areas, we settled on Columbia.  Between the faculty at Columbia, friends living there, "small town" feel of the city, and the job prospects for me, Decatur seemed like a great fit.
Working at Habitat has been absolutely perfect for me, and I think that I have found my vocational call through this organization.  I love the mission of Habitat and love that I can use my critical thinking and problem solving skills while working in a relational, human services environment.  I have started pursuing some different positions with Habitat affiliates in the Atlanta area, and hopefully I will be able to find a good fit for next year.

Habitat Photo Shoot
Work has been great over the past few months.  I have been keeping busy with a number of special "A Brush with Kindness" build days.  We most recently hosted 425 Home Depot Volunteers for a huge neighborhood improvement day.  In the course of 6 hours, we worked with 4 families to clean their yards and paint their homes, we framed 2 new construction houses, built roof trusses for 2 new homes, cleaned up common spaces in the neighborhood, abated graffiti, finished the last details of a new home and dedicated it to a family.

Besides "Habilife," things are going really well with our community and house life.  Our backyard continues to keep us busy with fun projects, thanks to the initiative of Karl and his creativity and determination.  Our chickens are doing well, supplying us with about 60 eggs a week, our gardens are starting to spring up and will hopefully be yielding fruit soon, and we have purchased the  materials to build an outdoor shower.  Not only is the physical state of our house flourishing, our community life is blossoming too.  We are in the middle of a book study, reading "The Heart of Christianity", which has resulted in deep, enriching discussions about our thoughts on God, Christ, the Bible and what they mean to us as individuals and as part of the greater body of Christianity.  If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it!

Habi-crew at our new office!
Promoting Habitat for Humanity Tucson on Facebook

Home Depot Volunteers

Lastly, I want to share about an experience Karl and I had this past weekend.  We traveled to Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico last weekend to learn about Frontera de Cristo, a borderlands ministry sponsored by the PC(USA) church.  Frontera de Cristo works with partner organizations in both the US and Mexico to offer support in six areas  of ministry:  Church Development, Health Ministry, Family Ministry, the New Hope Community Center, Mission Education and the Just Trade Center.

During our time at the border, the director of Frontera de Cristo took us along the wall running for about 10 miles, dividing the towns of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora.  When we were standing there looking at the elaborate system of trenching, barbed wire, and 18 foot long bollards, my mind was racing as I felt an onslaught of emotions - confusion, anger, sadness, perplexity, shock, woefulness.  As we stood on one side of the wall, we were literally fifteen feet away from homes on both side of the border.  This community that used to coexist, has now been divided by a dreadful eyesore and symbol of animosity.

I understand that the "problem" of immigration is very complex and that there are many layers to its solution.  One thing I do know though is that we, meaning Mexicans and Americans, are not that different when you look at the human side of things.  Yes, we may have learned a different language as a child, were born in a different medical center, went to different schools, ate different food or shopped at different stores.  But a hug feels the same, whether it is from someone who speaks Spanish or English, and tears come from the same place, laughter is still contagious, hearts still ache with pain and love still carries on.  My eyes and heart were opened to the hurt that is experienced at the borders of our country this weekend, and I hope that as I continue living daily life, removed from those locations, that I do not forget those feelings I felt and continue to hold those people and places in my heart and prayers.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Alone in the Wilderness

My apologies for my absence from blogging since before Christmas!  Life as a YAV in Tucson is going well, and I am continuing to love the work I am involved in at Habitat for Humanity.  We have been putting a lot of time and energy into meeting neighborhood residents and fulfilling desires of the community.  Our latest neighborhood happening was a "Neighborhood Dumping Day" in which we helped community residents clean garbage and junk from their yards to avoid debris citations from the city.  If you want more information about the work I am doing, you can read about our Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative services here and can read about the latest A Brush with Kindness service day here

Vocational discernment has been a huge aspect of this YAV year for me, as I have been able to gain experience in a work environment which allows me to tackle problem solving daily but also allows me to relate to individuals on a personal level.  I have been spending a lot of time thinking and praying about how I can best use my abilities while feeling fed, challenged and impassioned by my work.  From the time I graduated high school, I thought I would become an architectural engineer and design amazing buildings, but in the past 18 months my aspirations have shifted.  Technical work and problem solving are two things I enjoy doing, but I have a deep desire to connect with individuals over issues beyond design solutions.  We'll see what comes of this year's work and where my vocational path will take me next, but for now I am enjoying the road I am on right now.

The YAV program focuses a lot on vocational discernment, but it also has an emphasis on spirituality and personal growth.   To stretch ourselves and intentionally focus on our spirituality, we went on a Lenten Spirituality Retreat for five days in which we experienced the wilderness as a community and in solitude.  The idea behind the retreat was to disconnect ourselves from the distractions of every day life and to spend time in contemplation, reflection and prayer.  So often we get caught up with the actions of living and do not balance our action with contemplation. 

We started the retreat by joining together in morning prayer with the sunrise.  From there, we loaded into the YAV Suburban and set off for Hot Springs Canyon where we spent the next 4.5 days.  We spent the first two days at a base camp, enjoying the company of our YAV community, discussing Lenten practices, relaxing, cooking together over the campfire and sleeping under the stars.  The morning of our 3rd day, we got up early and packed our belongings to head out for a 40 hour (two nights and two days) desert sojourn.  We individually packed food and water for the journey and each were equipped with a sleeping bag, two tarps (one for the ground and one to go above our heads), layers of clothes, a head lamp and any other objects we desired to have with us in our time of solitude.  I chose to bring a novel (as a security blanket, in case my mind really started going crazy in my time alone), my journal and a bible as my extra belongings for the sojourn. 

As soon as we all packed our belongings, we set out hiking up the canyon.  Each half mile or so one of us would split off and set up a camp site to spend the next 40 hours alone in the wilderness.  Some of us were terrified by the thought of the experience, while others were anxiously anticipating it.  Surprisingly, I was feeling quite indifferent as I journeyed up the canyon  to my place of solitude.  When we came to my spot, I was given assistance in setting up my tarps and then the rest of the group carried on.  So there I was, alone.  I spent the first hour or so (I didn't bring a time telling device, so was not sure on the time) settling into my camp - breaking branches away from my walkways, setting up my sleeping bag and unpacking my items.  Once things were settled, I had nothing left to do for the next 39 hours.  What a liberating and terrifying experience all at the same time!  What was I going to do with myself?

Well the 39 hours passed, some slowly others quite fast, and I had a generally positive experience.  I spent time in focused prayer for my family, Karl, our YAV community, my blessings and my tempations.  I spent time thinking about what I really want to do and am passionate about in comparison to what I feel societal and familial pressures to be doing with my life.  I spent time reading the bible, both silently and out loud.  I spent time journaling.  I spent time taking walks.  I spent time sleeping.  I spent time alone with God.  I spent time sitting.  As the sun rose on the final morning, I said my morning prayers and reflected on the past 40 hours.  A poem formed in my mind and I wrote it down:

Alone in the Wilderness

Heart is pumping,
flashing dreams.
Mind is wandering,
internal screams.
Mysterious surroundings,
it's yourself and just you.
Your mind will go crazy
with nothing to do.
The environment familiars,
you move around and explore.
Perhaps your soul might find 
what it's looking for.
Every blow of the wind,
every breath of fresh air.
You're thankful for 
this time that is quite rare.
Your soul comes alive -
the spirit is all around.
You can sense it with every sight,
smell and sound.
Alone in the wilderness.
A frightening time for me?
At time yes,
but mostly just free!

My desert experience was one to remember, and I am happy to have done something like that.  It is probably not an experience I will repeat all too often in life, but I will definitely strive to return to that state of mind and intentionality more often. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

ABWK Has Holiday Style

Can you believe it is only a week until Christmas?!  Soon Karl and I will be heading to Phoenix to catch a flight to Ogden, UT to visit our family for the holidays.  Last year was an experience of a lifetime, and we received bounteous hospitality and love from our friends in Belfast, but we are excited to be spending the holidays in the company of our family. 

This past weekend we held another “A Brush with Kindness” event in the Sunnyside Neighborhood, and in the spirit of the holidays and as an effort to increase neighborhood involvement, we planned a fun, holiday neighborhood gathering around the regular clean-up and construction activities.  The day started at 7:00 am as we joined Habitat and neighborhood at the Gonzales’s house to repair the front porch roof, replace rotted fascia and trim boards, fill masonry cracking, caulk windows and paint the entire exterior of the home. 
While the hard work was happening on the house, Santa and his elves were busy setting up a festive float for photos, holiday crafts and a tasty BBQ for everyone after the morning of work.  At 10:00 Santa took his seat in his throne and welcomed anyone who wanted their photo with him.   All of the volunteers and the homeowners had their photo taken with Santa, and we had three families come by from the neighborhood.  The energy was great and everyone who came had a wonderful time, but we were a bit disappointed by the turn out from neighborhood residents.  The weather was really cold, especially for Arizona and this is a busy time of year, but we thought there might have been a better turn out from the 250 families we sent invitations to.  After Santa finished his photo-ops and the work was completed on the home, we all gathered to have a nice BBQ to finish the day off. 

Reflecting on the days’ activities, there were definitely some successes of the day:  the Jenkins Family who we helped in September came out to pay it forward by helping on the house all morning, three members of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association volunteered as well, all of the volunteers had a very fun time with the extra holiday activities, we reached out to a handful of neighborhood residents, and the Gonzales Family was more than appreciative!  However, we are still quite downtrodden by the poor response from the neighborhood.  We will continue to try and get our name out there by scheduling regular ABWK events and networking with organizations and members of the community. 
Posing for a picture with my colleagues!
Neighborhood kids getting their photo taken

Repairing the porch roof


Monday, December 3, 2012

Sustainable Community Development

Boy how time does fly!  It is hard to believe that Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is just around the corner.  Things have been going very well here in Tucson – been keeping busy with Habitat and have really enjoyed building community with our fellow Tucson YAVs.  I haven’t given an update on my work with Habitat in a while, so thought I would fill everyone in on how things are going.

Lately I have been cleaning the cobwebs from the Engineering Shelves of my brain as I have been working on passing a new set of floor plans through the Southern Arizona Regional Residential Green Building Rating System and the Energy Star v.3 rating system.  In order to do this, I have been working on some plan revisions in AutoCAD, walking the construction sites to document green building techniques and working with a mechanical engineer on the air handling system design.  It has been about a year and a half since I have used my brain in this manner, so this work has been challenging but enjoyable. 
Aside from the work I do with construction, I have been spending the majority of my time at Habitat engaging in community development efforts.  Currently Habitat for Humanity Tucson is working in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Tucson to build relationships with neighborhood residents and community organizations.  We are attempting to get to know the people in the neighborhood to learn their desires and assets for attaining said desires.  We are partnering with the neighborhood association, the city council, police department, churches and various public organizations in order to reach out to a wide audience. 

Our primary method of outreach at the moment is a program called A Brush with Kindness (ABWK) which is an exterior home preservation program to help families who are not able to conduct home repairs on their property for various reasons such as income deficiencies and/or disabilities.  So far we have helped three families through ABWK, each having their own distinct story. 
Most recently, we helped a woman and son who had become overwhelmed by the scale of the repairs and clean-up needed to improve the quality of their home and living environment.  When the two moved into their home, they inherited quite a mess in their backyard and a number of repairs that were not manageable for them.  With the help of 36 volunteers, we were able to do a tremendous amount of work in one day – we cleared their backyard that was essentially a small landfill, replaced fascia around the whole roof, painted the entire exterior of the home and replaced a toilet in the bathroom.  (See photos of the days work below)

Now the above description of the work we did that day sounds wonderful, but the discouraging part of the work was that we were not able to engage any neighborhood residents in the day of service.  We can only consider these events a success if we find a way to engage the neighborhood in actually helping their neighbors, otherwise the program is not sustainable and any difference we make will be short term.  Our goal with neighborhood revitalization in the Sunnyside neighborhood is to create a sustainable environment in which residents are able to care for and maintain their homes and community without the help of outside organizations.  In choosing families for ABWK, we make sure they are willing to volunteer on the work with us, make a financial commitment to the project (to the best of their ability) and try to pay the favor forward by helping out with future ABWK events. 
The process of engaging the neighborhood and its residents is slow, but we are continuing to work at it.  We have our next ABWK event on December 15, and we have planned a fun, family friendly event around it.  Along with the work we will be conducting on a family’s home in the neighborhood, we will be having Santa photos for the neighborhood and a BBQ cookout for people to stop by and get to know Habitat and their neighbors.  We’ll see how it goes!

(Photos courtesy of Ayman Alhajji)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Abundant Life?

So much has happened since I have last updated my blog, I don't even know where to begin or what to deem relevant enough to write about.  WARNING: This could be a long post in order to catch up! 

I'll start with some work related items.  Habitat for Humanity Tucson is a wonderful fit for me!  As I continue to get deeper into my work, I am reaffirmed that I am where God wants me to be this year.  I am loving the challenges of building community in the Sunnyside neighborhood and am getting a good amount work sent my way in the areas of green building and structural design review for two new floor plans Habitat is starting to build. 

Between my days spent working with neighborhood revitalization, I have been able to keep pretty busy with other YAV related activities/experiences/opportunities.  Last week(end) we were joined in Tucson by about 20 other YAVs and DOOR volunteers from the west for a delegation with Borderlinks.  Borderlinks is an organization that runs educational experience trips for groups wanting to learn more about border and immigration issues.  Our group went on a 4 day delegation and participated in workshops and experiences both in Tucson and Mexico.  The most impacting parts of the delegation were attending Operation Streamline and visiting Mexico and the border. 

Operation Streamline is a controversial act of our judicial system in Tucson which moves 350 immigrants through the court in a week.  Each afternoon on Monday through Friday, 70 people picked up for the crime(?) of "entering the country without inspection", or not entering at a border checkpoint, are given the opportunity(?) to plead guilty to their said crime, waive their right to a formal trial and be sent back to their country of origin.  This might not sound like a horrible situation to some who are reading, but wait there's more.  These 70 people are moved through this system in a maximum time of two hours, but depending on the judge could be in a mere 30 minutes.  If you do the math, that is less than half a minute for each person pleading guilty.  The immigrants enter the courtroom shackled, tired, hungry and dirty from their journey through the treacherous desert.  They are all wearing translation headphones and are called seven at a time to the front of the court room.  There the judge confirms their name and asks a series of questions which are answered in unison, "Si, Senor" or "No, Senor."  At the end of their time in front of the judge, they have all agreed to pleading guilty and are sent back home with no chance of ever being able to attain residency or a work permit in the U.S.  No matter what your stance on immigration issues, I hope you can agree that human beings, people born to the same earth (maybe only 50 miles south of you), should not be treated this way.  It is simply inhumane.

The other most impacting part of the delegation was our trip to Nogales, Mexico.  The most gut-wrenching moment of the trip was when we approached the border and I could see as far as the horizon, miles of wall built at the border.  I was immediately brought back to memories of my time in Belfast last year.  As I looked at the wall, I realized how impersonal my feelings were towards the segregation in Belfast.  I truly felt for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland, was touched and changed immeasurably by the relationships I built there, and learned how to come together on common ground and strive for peace in an atmosphere of division.  However strong my feelings were though, I never felt the way I did when we approached the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.  My heart was filled with sadness, anger, shame, and humiliation for my ignorance of the situation at the southern border of the country I grew up in.  Sure I have not always turned a blind eye to immigration issues, but I always listened to the news and talked about the issues in a dehumanized manner.  So much of the conflict around border issues is reduced to economics and job availability.  The debates that take place surrounding immigration are often carried out as if we are not even discussing human beings and their right to an abundant life through Christ (John 10:10).  During our delegation, we entered into conversation about the injustice taking place in our backyard and centered our conversation around more than just money or employment issues.  We didn't do anything tangible to help the situation over the weekend, but we did start the conversation and become far more educated, which is a good start.

Pictures of the border
We returned home from Mexico on Sunday with just enough time to get ready for one of the biggest gatherings of people in Tucson for the All Souls Procession.  The All Souls Procession is a huge event held to remember those who have passed from this world.  People dress as skeletons, painting their faces to resemble the bones of the dead, and walk in a parade honoring passed loved ones.  There were probably over 15,000 people out for the event and our whole house took part.  My housemate, Sarah, is a tremendous artist, and she painted our faces for the procession.  She painted my face in memory of my Gramie Jo.  Before painting, she asked me to describe Gramie.  I told her about her love of hummingbirds and the color purple, about her life giving energy and her ability to bring our extended family together.  Sarah painted my face depicting a hummingbird feather and life-flowing vine sprouting with purple flowers.  It was a beautiful depiction and I was pleased to have the opportunity to share it with my new YAV family and the city of Tucson.

Karl was remembering his Grandfather and I my Gramie

Karl with Ellison who was walking in honor of Belfast

House photo!

Well, there you have it.  The longest post yet!  Thank you all for reading and for supporting Karl's and my experiences this year.  We feel truly blessed to be where we are and to have this time to discern God's will for our lives.  Please continue to keep us in your prayers.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I am lying in bed right now getting ready to turn in before a new week of work, feeling thankful for the wonderful weekend I just had.  It started on Friday evening when Karl and I packed our camping gear onto our bikes and cycled the 15 miles through Gate's Pass to a beautiful camping location.  We were surrounded by gigantic saguaro cacti, majestic mountains on the horizon, beautiful sunsets and sunrises, twinkling stars at night, and the ominous sounds of coyotes in the distance.  We spent two nights out in the desert enjoying each other's company, reading, playing cards, and catching up on some one-on-one time that we have not had too much of since arriving in Tucson.  We came home early this morning in time to go to a jazz worship service at St Mark's Presbyterian.  Boy am I glad that we made the early trek back into town for that!

All of the music was led by a five piece jazz band, and the energy in the church was fantastic!  We sang great traditional hymns - Amazing Grace, I've Got Peace Like a River and Leaning on the Everlasting Arms to the fun beat of jazz and took a different, jazzy spin on the traditional Communion Sacrament liturgy.  In addition to the uplifting worship elements of the service, the message was jazz themed and thought provoking. 

Rev. Mike Smith spoke about improvisation in our spiritual lives.  He used the concept of jazz - creating a song from a specific chord progression, but with different rhythms and combinations of the notes (improvisations) to make an original piece of music - to get us thinking about how we can improvise our lives through Christ.  As people following Christ, we should be able to follow the chord progression set out for us (Christ, His love and His grace) and improvise to make a song, a song that resonates the nature of our being in Christ and is beautiful to all those who hear it.

Taking Christ's love and His message and improvising with it in our lives means applying our faith in new, original ways.  We are all made as individuals with different gifts and callings.  As we live into our passions and use our gifts to positively interact with those around us, we are able to make a beautiful song.

The thing I love about the word improvise is that it does not impart the idea of taking a chord progression and playing it in one, set way.  It allows for change and transformation.  Since Karl and I first met, we have played so many different songs and improvised a lot in our lives.  Seven years ago we met each other in the dorms of UW.  I was on the track towards becoming a Structural Engineer, while Karl was on the track towards becoming a professor in Mathematics.  We were playing songs of numbers, academics and careers separate from our faith.  Over time, our songs joined together into one harmonious song, and we started improvising with the gifts and opportunities that were placed in our keeping.  We got involved in youth work at Laramie UPC and then got even more involved in the church through our work with the college ministry.  Next thing we knew, Doug Baker was speaking to us about a program called YAV, and that seemed like a great opportunity for improvisation, so we changed our tune again. 

We now find ourselves living in Tucson, continuing to explore vocational discernment, continuing to improvise with the notes that God is giving us.  With jazz music, no two songs are alike and the opportunities for innovation and harmonization are endless.  As with God and His call, the opportunities for change and for bringing people together are endless.  Improvisation is a good thing, and it results in newness and beauty.  So let's not be afraid to improvise, to step out of the steady rhythm of life and make a change in this world.

View through Gate's Pass

We conquered the ascent!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

From the Heart

Since moving to Tucson and starting to worship with Southside Presbyterian Church, I have been exposed to the wonderful genre of music called Gospel.  Being a Wyoming girl, I have never had the opportunity to listen to or worship through gospel music.  The choir at Southside is a gospel choir, and I have enjoyed the exposure to this type of worship.

This afternoon, I attended a gospel choir concert and the pianist took a short amount of time to share about her youth and growing up with gospel music.  She emphasized the simplicity of the music and how a song can grow out of one line.  She told a story of her father repeatedly singing a line about Jesus being our leader and how the whole room erupted into a heart-felt song of our leader Jesus.

That is the beauty of gospel music.  It doesn't need elaborate instruments, chords, rhythms or lyrics.  All it needs is expression from the heart and the simple beat of a stomping foot and clapping hands.  From those simple elements, a beautiful form of worship is born - a worship from the heart, a worship that is true to our Lord, a worship contagious to a body of believers, a worship that frees the soul.