Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer of Service

Okay, I've decided: I officially love summer.

People asked me at the beginning of this summer: "what are you going to do with your time off this summer? Are you going to take classes? Travel?" I had plans to do neither and I felt almost like I wasn't doing summer right or something by not planning a big vacation to an exotic place or taking a summer course. I would respond: "I'm just going to experience my first summer off as a teacher in a normal way. Doing normal stuff."

And here I am- my last week before having to return to school as a second year teacher. Did I use my summer well?? Let's see:

- trip home to see family was on my list, so check and check.
- help with Diocesan Workcamps: check and check.
- work a little on my research project for fall: (um, VERY little...) but check.

What was left on the list was to spend a little time actually doing "summer stuff" like swimming/outdoorsy things and going on the weeklong service trip with high school students that I had signed up for back when school was in session and I somehow didn't realize I was already helping with TWO major youth ministry/service things this summer. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I wasn't super stoked to go on this service trip to Camden after I had already spent 20 days of summer doing youth ministry/service-ish stuff. But more about my trip to Camden in a bit.

After the second week of camp I did get some time off (which I blogged about) and the weekend before I left for youth ministry/service trip #3, I spent some time with- wouldn't you know it- more ministry folk. This time in the form of teens who are no longer really teens but now YOUNG ADULTS that used to be in the youth group I ministered to years ago (did that make sense? Basically, I hung out with some kids who I used to minister to and they are now adults)

It was another great example of how this summer turned into being the summer of ministry/episode of "this is your life" that I didn't intend for it to be, but was so grateful for. It was fun to just hang out with these young people kind of as their peer and no longer have to be their authority-type figure. It was also cool to see the awesome young people they have turned out to be! I was humbled by the experience.

Almost as humbled as I would be about Service Trip #3. But first, I also finally got a chance to do some summery things before that fateful trip...kayaking on the Potomac!:

Some friends and I took a morning before I left for Camden to take kayaks from Georgetown to Roosevelt Island. It was a quick trip, but enough to check off my "do something outdoorsy" box on my summer checklist.

Now, for the check I totally didn't expect to have this summer: reality check.

As you clearly have learned from this and other posts: I've done service ministry trips before. I've been on them myself in college and I've led them for teens. I didn't think much for signing up to lead another one- this time, with students who are from the school where I teach.

I knew a couple of the students who were going, but not many. It ended up being 15 teens, two other adults and myself heading up to Camden, NJ for the week.

I've been to parts of Philly and NJ plenty of times since I've been on the East Coast. I have many friends from the area. And most of those friends gave me a warning about Camden when I told them I was going there for a week. So I knew the situation in Camden was going to be bad, but I still didn't really know what I was in for.

I've witnessed poverty and homelessness much in my life. I've been to third world countries, I've lived in an urban area, and the place where my family calls home and where I was basically raised IS an industrial area that is slowly turning demographically. So I thought I knew what I was going to see in Camden and I didn't expect to be changed too much by it.

I still don't know if I am "changed", but it definitely inspired me to be the girl I was moreso in college- constantly serving and mindful of those physically and monetarily poor.

As I've become more involved in youth ministry, there is no doubt I feel called to work with the spiritually poor. But in that, I've allowed myself to become comfortable in this area in which I serve- aka Northern VA. Taking a bunch of Northern VA kids to Camden, NJ was a really eye opening experience in that it once again made me realize how entitled we really do feel, how convenient our lives are, and that we take SO much for granted.

I know this all sounds so trite. I wish I could take you through the streets of Camden that really are like being in a third world, when one of the richest towns in the U.S. is 10 minutes away. But I can't, so here are some pictures:

I was reminded much of my time in Guatemala when I was there, in both good and bad ways. "Good" in that the people (though many addicted to drugs, therefore keeping them in poverty) were friendly and grateful for our help. Like the poor I met in Guatemala, their poverty allows them to reach outside of themselves and make connections with people much more easily than those of us who surround ourselves with material things.

"Bad" in that, well, Guatemala is third world and still battling recent civil unrest and war. Camden is in one of the richest states in one of the richest countries in the world. The fact that Camden had that third world feel is what probably rocked my world the most.

Since I can't possibly describe my week in one blog post, I will just give you some snapshots:

- filling bags of food on the first day there to distribute to the homeless and hungry made me think about how we take food and meals for granted. We can have as much as we want, whenever we want. Here, I was filling a very limited bag with limited canned goods that was to last a family for a week.

(picture of us unloading some food donations alongside the homeless who will receive it)

- the reality of drug addiction was in our faces- from the syringes we came across in our clean-up work to the people we met. One morning, some of us went to a shelter hoping to talk to some of the homeless and hear their stories. The reality of what we encountered was people falling asleep at their places during breakfast or babbling incoherently. This was tough for some of the kids who just wanted to share a cheery conversation, but is the reality of drugs for many.

- spending time in community as a group. We had to make meals for ourselves and it was good for the kids to have to be resourceful and build community with meals. We did not have the luxury of just stopping by Starbucks or McDonalds when they wanted a snack, and for many of them, this was difficult. It was good for me to remember that we shouldn't take our resources for granted.

- the typical teenager "clique-merging" that you pray for to happen and eventually does if you work for it. We had many a nights spent laughing playing cards or catch phrase together as a community.

(some pics of the kids hanging out to celebrate a birthday and do goofy things as a community while we were there)

- prayer together. We got to reflect each night together on our experiences, and I always looked forward to hearing what the kids took away from the work that we did.
One of the most powerful nights of prayer that we had- for me- was a night that Father said Mass in the Cathedral (Camden is actually its own Diocese) and it was just our group by candlelight.

( our reflection during Mass at the Cathedral)

Perhaps the most moving moment for me, though, was on our last Workday. After three days of working hard at homeless shelters, food pantries, and cleaning up the streets of Camden, we took a break from our routine and was given a guided tour of "Tent City".

(pictures of us speaking with residents of Tent City)

First of all, the guide for our tour was Kenny. Kenny has been homeless himself. He just recently obtained his own housing and is working for the service group- De Sales Service Works- which we were volunteering with. The priest in charge of the program employs him now to work with volunteers. I was blessed to have a couple one on one conversations with Kenny and I found him to be an amazingly devoted and concerned man. He was so concerned about taking care of our group and making sure our students were not led astray in any way while we were in Camden.

So Kenny leads us into Tent City- a little community of homeless living in tents. I thought I had experienced the homeless before. But as soon as those who greeted us (so warmmly, I may add) started speaking, I started to tear up.

This woman- Gina- began speaking passionately to us about the dangers and realities of drugs. Though our students have heard over and over again "Don't do drugs. Stay in school" I was moved- almost FOR them- at the reality of her message. She meant it. She was living proof, sadly, of the pain of addiction.

My eyes started tearing as she spoke, and then one of my most beautiful memories of the trip occurred. Kenny, from across the circle, caught my eye and saw me tearing. He immediately started moving over to me, reaching in his pockets for a tissue. Meanwhile, one of my students who I am actually an advisor to, reached to give ME a hug. By the time Kenny got over to me, I was truly in need of a tissue and he took out a folded up paper towel with his own medication in it, removed the pill, and handed me the piece of towel. It was quite a moment. Here I was- the one who has been doing all this "ministering" being ministered TO by the very people I was supposed to be serving!

I thought that moment would be the peak, and it was, but we continued to talk to the residents of Tent City- one whom we had met at the shelter I mentioned. He was one we actually DID speak with, and I remember being struck by how sharp and intelligent he seemed. I didnt' quite understand why a man seemingly so smart would reside in a place like Tent City. I know that sounds bad. But he had spoken of children who are in college and I thought, "if you're children can get out of poverty, why can't you?" I'm assuming he is addicted to drugs, which is the sad reality our other friendly resident of Tent City- Gina- was speaking so passionately about.

(picture of me speaking with David earlier in the week at the Cathedral)

Anyways, David is the man's name who we encountered both at the shelter and Tent City and HE remembered ME from the shelter earlier in the week. He pulled over his girlfriend who is living with him and said, "this is 'Teacher'". He didn't remember my name, but remembered me as the teacher. It was kind of moving to me since i have been trying to grapple with that new role in my life. His girlfriend asked me what I taught and when I said "religion" she immediately claimed Jesus as her Lord and Savior. She kept telling me, "I know He will provide" which is the same prayer I have been telling myself all these years. I left crying a little bit more when I realized she and I were not only praying to the same God, but the same prayer though, of course, for different reasons. She left giving ME a hug and I promised her and Gina that we are united in prayer- which we truly are. So amazing.

Sigh. So thank you for your prayers for the Camden trip. It truly was one of the unexpected highlights of my summer. It enouraged me as I prepare to go back to teach this fall and also helped me continue to ponder the "sacrifices" I wish to make (as I mentioned last week)in my for Christ as His Beloved.

I'm looking forward to one last awesome week of summer!

Oh! To learn a little more about the situation in Camden, you can watch this special which we watched while we were there.


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