Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday afternoon musings. . .

Hello everyone! Greetings from New Orleans! I hope that this afternoon is sunny and beautiful where you are, but judging from the cool weather here, I'm imagining it's not too warm at home :)

I know I've mentioned to several of you recently how amazed I am at how quickly my time here seems to be passing, but I just can't get over it! I am both saddened and excited at the thought of returning home in a little over three weeks. I have definitely moved past the initial phase of being overwhelmed by all of the new and interesting things here, and have started to miss each of you very, very much. But, that's not to say that I'm not still having a great time :)

This week we hosted a team from Minnesota, as well as a group of graduate students from Harvard (and one from MIT). I have to admit that before the Harvard group arrived I was nervous about whether or not I'd be able to interact with them, but of course they were wonderful people, and now I have a bunch of new friends from a variety of different countries!(China, Singapore, Ireland, Norway, Germany and Korea to name a few). Thanks to everyone from Minnesota and Harvard for making this a wonderful "week 6"!

So with that said, here's what's been on my mind today. . .
Saturday's are a really strange day here in the Yellow House. Typically I spend the first half of the day saying goodbye to all of my new friends (usually over a period of several hours). Then the house finally gets quiet and I can relax, but it's only a matter of time before I need to begin to mentally prepare for the new group that will arrive the following day.

On Sunday and Monday I spend the day trying to memorize names and figure out who's from what team. By Tuesday I can start to see who's who in the group (including who is most likely to be helpful and/or clean up after themselves), and that's when I try to do my "individual interrogations", where I fire off a series of questions to any volunteer whom I manage to corner :). By Wednesday I start to actually have a relationship with each person as an individual, and as Katie puts it, by then I know each volunteer's life story :) Thursday and Friday are usually the best days, because that's when the teams finally begin to include us into their free time (this week Minnesota took us out for ice cream, and Harvard took us to dinner) and usually in the evenings we spend some time playing games or talking. But then, wouldn't you know it, we're back to Saturday. . .

One of the team members asked me today how I can meet new people every week and then say goodbye, and I realized how hard it really has been on me. For instance, this morning the Harvard group left in about four different shifts, and I inadvertently missed one of the "goodbyes" because the group left early. I was really upset that I didn't get to see them off. I started to realize that while a lot of the work I do here is very physically draining, it's very emotionally draining as well.

Because most of you reading this were part of EPIC, you know what a major shift we have had in our social circle over the last year as a result of people moving, leaving the church, and EPIC ending. I have had a very difficult adjusting to this shift, and have often felt like many of my friends have all "migrated" out of my life. I know that one of the things that I was most looking forward to about coming down here was the chance to meet a whole bunch of new people. I see now that what I thought would be a relief from the situation at home is actually a condensed version of the same experience :) I do not regret either experience in the slightest bit, but I realize that they both bring with them the good and the bad.

I guess what I am learning here are a couple of valuable lessons: number one, "the only thing that never changes is that things always change" (and if you want to know my feelings on change, just ask my mother -- i'm rarely a fan of it :)) Number two, I am learning that the situation I am currently in is both an extrovert's dream (because I am constantly surrounded by people) and a relational person's nightmare (because I am continuously investing in one week relationships that will inevitably end).

I think the lesson here is clearly that I have a tendency to over invest in relationships with other people, and under invest in my relationship with God. The fact is, I have been surrounded by wonderful people my ENTIRE life, in my family, friends, and even teachers, and yet I oftentimes feel like something is missing. The truth is, even the people you love the most, and who love you the most, will at some point, let you down, hurt you, or leave you. It's not always the most pleasant thought, but it's true. There is ultimately only One person who you can count on that will never leave you. . . not even on a Saturday morning in the Yellow House :)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hello everyone!! I can't believe it's been over two weeks since my last post! As you can probably guess, things have gotten very very busy. This week we are maxed out here in the city, with over 60 volunteers from Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. We also have 100 more Kansans(?) and Canadians on the North Shore! On Monday night I got to cook for ALL of them! Needless to say I'm pretty beat this week.

Last week was also a busy week, but more so because I really connected with the teams (college kids from Illinois, Iowa and New Jersey) and tried to spend as much time with them as much as possible. I already am very much missing them all! While I looooove meeting new people every week, it's hard to have to say goodbye to them a few days later. I'm hoping that I will see them all again sometime soon!

I apologize again to all of you who have called or written, and haven't heard back from me. In addition to being busy with work, I have also had very limited access to a computer this week which is why I've disappeared a little :) And if you called, my phone was probably on vibrate and I never heard it. I will do better this week, I promise!!

I have a LOT more to say about the last two weeks, but that will have to wait until I have a longer period of time to sit down and type out my thoughts. For now I'll ask that you please keep our ministry in your thoughts and prayers, as we have suffered a pretty major setback in the last few days. On Wednesday we received the news that some drywall that had been donated to us (and manufactured in China) is contaminated with sulfur. Unfortunately that particular drywall had already been hung in four different, nearly completed, houses. Our teams had to "regut" these houses, undoing work that teams from all over the country had completed over the last few months.

While it would be easy to get discouraged by this, the Director of the Relief work here in New Orleans has pointed out that, while yes we do have to redo the work that we have already done, this just presents a greater opportunity to create a relationship with the homeowners, and also the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. Speaking of that, I have included a picture today of me and my friend George. George and his friends have been to several of the block parties that we have had since I've been here, and I believe he is one of the many kids who are really benefiting from Touch Global's presence here. Last night we had a whole neighborhood of kids getting piggy back rides from the Canadian team, back and forth across an empty lot. It was a perfect representation of what we are truly trying to accomplish here. As the team leaders remind us on an almost daily basis, it's not about the work that gets done, but the relationships that get built!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

In lieu of where I currently am in life, I've been thinking a lot lately about how I got here. . .

As I mentioned in my last post, during the few weeks that I have been here in New Orleans, I've had the rare opportunity to not only maintain a relationship with the couple who my friends and I served this summer, but I have actually had the privilege of "doing life" with them.

Scharmaine and I go shopping together and Ivan and I talk about music. We do favors for each other and go to church together and even talk on the phone. Last week when they were staying here in the house, I was laying in bed one night, and I could hear Ivan's voice on the other side of the wall. In that moment I was completely dumbfounded by the intricacy of God's sovereignty. 8 months ago on the day that I met Ivan and Scharmaine, I would not have guessed in my wildest dreams that 8 months later I would be living here in their city, sleeping under the same roof as them. Every time I think about it, it amazes me.

Today I had a similar thought when I was standing on the balcony outside of my bedroom looking at the skyline of the city. My eyes were immediately drawn to the infamous Superdome. Again I was amazed at the thought of being here in this place. I remembered watching the news and hearing the horror stories of what happened inside that building in the wake of Katrina, and now here I was living not even half a mile away from it. Again, never in my wildest dreams. . .

Then there are the logistics of what I do each day and why I am here in the first place. On a daily basis I explain to some inquisitive volunteer what I went to school for, how I learned to cook, and then try to answer the question of how those two paths came to intersect. It has started to cross my mind that maybe this is exactly why. Is it outside of the realm of possibilities that I have spent the last four years learning a skill because God knew that there would be a need in this place, at this time, that I could fill? I'd like to think not. . .

Anyone who knows me well knows that I oftentimes wonder how my path in life has gotten so "off course" from what I always expected and hoped it would be. My plans never included being 30 and single, working in the food industry, or being a "missionary" in a distant city. As you can probably guess, it's starting to sink in to my thick skull that maybe there is a much bigger, more fitting plan than I could have ever come up with on my own -- the kind of plan that only Someone who sees the "big picture" could come up with :)

"You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous - and how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me even before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book . Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, Oh God! They are innummerable!" Psalm 139:13-17

Monday, March 2, 2009

Week Two - Lessons in Love

Hello everyone!!! First let me say how much I appreciate all of the positive responses to this blog. It is a little difficult to condense everything that is happening into one readable post, but I will do my best. I think in the vein of my first post, I'll give you a general update of my week, and then tell you about some of the individual experiences that have had a significant impact on me.

Last Saturday night marked the beginning of Week Two for me, as my new "family" rolled in in the form of 12 college kids from Canada and an extended family of 11 from North Dakota. I was very excited because I have never met people from either place, and as you can probably guess, they were all very lovely people.

As the work week began, Mardi Gras kicked into high gear - this is a very serious holiday around here, in fact, some have said that it's more important than Christmas! I caught my first Mardi Gras parade, called Orpheous, on Monday night -- as well as 29 strands of beads! It really is a lot of fun, and the floats feature celebrities which really gets the crowd worked up (we saw Josh Gracin, Joan Rivers and Jim Belushi).

On Tuesday everyone tried to stick around the house because there wasn't any point in trying to drive anywhere. I stayed busy making a 40th Birthday cake for my friend Ivan (we gutted he and his wife Scharmaine's house this past July) which of course had to be decorated in New Orelans Saints colors with a big Fluer De Lis in the center.

The rest of the week flew by in a flurry, which is an ironic choice of words, because it was between 70 and 75 degrees and sunny each day (Don't worry, it's only 45 here now so we're suffering with the rest of you - just no snow). On Wednesday night, Ivan and Scharmaine unexpectedly got moved into the Yellow House with me and the rest of the gang because the volunteer teams had started to work on their house, and it was difficult to work around their things. Wait - let me back up here for a second and give you some background on that situation. Ivan and Scharmaine moved to Houston, TX after Katrina, and returned just a few days before our team from EPIC arrived this summer. We gutted their house in 3 1/2 days, but unfortunately they had to wait on a long list to have their roof fixed, as well as some of the other services and repairs needed to make the home livable. During the Fall they were able to stay with Ivan's mother, but about a week before Christmas, they had an electrical fire due to some faulty post-Katrina wiring. They moved once again, this time to a nearby hotel. Keep in mind that when we left them in July, they fully expected to be hosting Christmas at their house, and by then they were only a little farther along than when we left.

Anyway, on the Friday before Mardi Gras they hit another bump in the road when the hotel they had been staying at informed them that their room had already been booked for the holiday, and they would need to vacate the premisis immediately. They were already expecting quite a bit of family to come in to town for Mardi Gras, so they had no choice but to buy propane heaters and set up shop in their house - which had no electricity, and only water running to one toilet and a bathtub. So, these are the events that led up to them, their two sisters, Scharmaine's mother, and four neices moving into the Yellow House for a few days. Like I said, this place is like a wonderful revolving door of hospitality - I love it!!!

On Thursday night we had our block party, this time at Ivan and Scharmaine's, and we had another great turn out. It's hard to communicate the sense of community here. There is no coming and going without anyone noticing, like in surburbia. When something exciting is happening, (or someone is giving away free food) people come out of nowhere and join in!

On Friday night I returned to Preservation Hall in the French Quarter - this time to show it off to some of the gang from Canada - we all loved it!! Live Jazz is so amazing - you can see how much love and passion each of the musicians have for their art!

So, in brief overview style, that was my week. But let me tell you about some of the moments that stick out to me in retrospect:

On Wednesday afternoon while I was preparing dinner (I have now mastered both Gumbo and Jumbalaya, by the way) a neigborhood boy named Shemare wandered into the house. Kids often stop by the house to hang out, and the policy is that if you let them in, you're responsible. I had simply left the door open for some air, and now had accumulated an 8 year-old -- while I was already knee deep in supper preparations :) Earlier in the week one of the staff had told me a little bit about Shemare's situation, so as much as I didn't really have time to hang out with him, I was determined to be patient with him and give him some much needed attention.

While I answered Shemare's many questions, and figured out how he could help me, my mind kept reverting back to one thought - this child smelled very bad. I knew it wasn't something worth getting hung up on, but I couldn't help it. What was worse than the smell, was that I knew it was getting in the way of me loving this little boy. In my mind, my mother's voice was saying "Don't let him touch anything!" and "Make him wash his hands!!!" (which of course Mom, I did). Luckily, there was another voice in my head (this one a little less practical, but even wiser) reminding me that oftentimes, for one reason or another, it's not easy to love, but we are commanded to do it anyway.

I've found that in most instances, we have to make a conscious decision whether or not we are going to let something as trivial as the way someone smells, or how they look, or maybe even the way they are acting, affect how we treat them. . . how we love them.

Not suprisingly, a few days later in church, the pastor read a passage in 1 John that addressed the exact struggle that I was having in my head just a few days earlier: "Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with action and in truth." (chapter 3 vs. 18) and more pointedly, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son as an atoning sacrific for our sins. Dear Friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (chapter 4 vs 7-11).

Later in the week I was thinking about all of this and I realized that I am Shemare. In fact, every one of us is Shemare. The problem is, we don't just smell bad. We are liars and thieves and murderers and manipulators, and yet God in his merciful love did more than just tolerate us for a few hours one afternoon - he sacrificed his very own Son in order to be close to us. Surely if He can do all this, then I can be patient with the extremely slow lady at the checkout counter, or the volunteers who can't seem to pick up after themselves, or the little kid from around the block who just wants to help me make dinner :)

I think that may be my post for today. I'll share some of my other stories next time. . .

Love you all!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The First Week

Hello friends and family members! I am sure that some of you have begun to wonder if I made it safely to New Orleans, as it has been a week since I arrived here and this is my first attempt at a mass update. Obviously I have made it here, and am doing well. Let me catch you up on what I've been doing. . .

This week I hosted a group of 11 adults from Austin, MN, as well as a two man team from our very own Hershey, PA. I was pleasantly suprised to find that this father/son duo are actually members of Hershey Free, and are even frequent customers at Events Etc., although I had never met either of them before. It was such a nice surprise to have folks from home here my first week, and I even had the pleasure of traveling with them (their names, by the way, are Bert and Nick Miuccio) to the French Quarter to see a live Jazz show at the historic Preservation Hall off of Bourbon St., and enjoy some authentic New Orleans Gumbo at the Gumbo Shop!

In addition to Bert and Nick, I have met literally dozens of other wonderful people this week, many of whom are staff members here in Central City, either on the church staff at Castle Rock Community Church, or on the Urban Impact Ministry staff. Since I visited the Yellow House for the first time this past August, the Urban Impact offices have moved into the front rooms of the house, which means that the house is even busier than usual, with lots of people coming and going all of the time. In addition to the staff working here and the teams living here, Urban Impact also runs a small academy, and each day the students eat lunch in our kitchen. One thing that you will notice right away in this house is that every resource is used to it's greatest potential :)

It's a bit tricky to describe what life is like here in the Yellow House, but I will try. As far as living arrangments are concerned, I would say I'm somwhere between a college student and a summer camp counselor :) I wake up at 4:30 each day and prepare breakfast for my teams, who stumble down in search of coffee just in time for the 6:30 breakfast meal. After breakfast they disperse to their work assignments, and I keep busy cleaning up the kitchen, doing dishes, and baking or preparing food for their dinner. This week our team was small enough that everyone could eat here at the house, but starting next week, I will have to transport all of the food to Castle Rock Church which is at the end of the street. Usually around 10:00 a.m. I retire to Katie and I's private apartment for a nap and some time on the computer. Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. I return to the kitchen to start preparing the evening meal. After 6:00 dinner it's more dishes and food preparation, unless we make fun plans (like going to the French Quarter, or in the case of this week, Mardi Gras Parades). Bed time seems to get later and later as the week goes on and the teams gather and spend time with me in the kitchen. By the end of the week, I get about 4 hours of sleep in a night, which means naptime gets a little longer during the day :)

On Thursdays instead of eating dinner here at the house, we take grills and hot dogs to one of the work sites and have a neighborhood outreach where we invite members of the community to come join us for a free hot dog dinner. There is no "catch" for the neigbors to participate, but if they need prayer, or want to get connected to Castle Rock, there are plenty of staff members available to meet their needs. This Thursday we had a really great turnout for the location we were at, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my week!

Speaking of highlights, let me tell you what happened on my first day here in the city. . . When I arrived at the Yellow House last Saturday night, I was all alone, as everyone seemed to be traveling, getting married, and generally coming and going this week. I was instructed by my supervisor to meet her at church at Castle Rock at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, but because I momentarily forgot about the unspoken rules of "southern time" I arrived at 9:55. No one else showed up before 10:15. For 20 minutes I sat there all alone with a smile on my face, trying not to look like the most out of place person in the entire universe, and thinking to myself "what in the world am I doing here?". I had made it through leaving my friends, family and house 1500 miles away. I had made it through driving 20 hours by myself and spending the first night in this huge house all alone while people screamed and carried on outside my window. It wasn't until that moment in the church chair that I considered for the first time that I might have made a big mistake in coming here. No sooner was the text sent to my sister voicing my fear, when God stepped in and in His great kindness assured me that I was exactly where He wanted me to be :) Ivan and Scharmaine, the homeowners from the house our team gutted in July, sat down in the two chairs right in front of me, and within seconds it was like a family reunion, with laughing and hugging and catching up.

After that, the rest of the day went smoothly. . . in fact the rest of the week went smoothly. The awkward part is over for now. Everyone knows who I am and why I am here, and they have all extended warm and gracious welcomes to me. I have my things unpacked and my routine down pat, and I know how to make my way around the neighborhood. Today, as I sit here alone again in this quiet house, with the sounds of Mardi Gras parades ringing off in the distance, I know that for now I am home :) In fact, I don't remember a time in my life when I have been more sure that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. . .

All my love,

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."
Jeremiah 29:11-13