They Found My Camera!

In Stony Point. Now to get the ball rolling on getting it to Jason, etc.

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SpiderYAV

This is a short cutesy idea I had following a viewing of the Amazing Spiderman 2 on the airplane. It involves a comparison between Spiderman and us YAVs cause how is that not fantastic!

It comes out of the fact that Spiderman loves doing his job. He loves to fight crime and exercise great responsibility with his great power. He’s also a little self-indulgent. He uses his position to offer silly witticisms to those who support him and despite using means to solve a problem that are not universally supported by everyone. After all, he’s just offering immediate solutions to crime without necessarily cutting off the systemic process that leads to said crime.

YAVs are headed to areas to be involved in being present with those struggling in rough situations. There’s arguments that programs like this create gentrification, involve a white savior dynamic, and do little to alleviate the systemic problem. Working in a soup kitchen or in sustainable agriculture won’t end poverty, but it is a means to help with the problem.

Peter Parker’s statement: “I like to think he gives people hope” during a conversation with Harry Osborn runs parallel with the YAV message. Spiderman’s presence is what really matters to Peter.

And Spiderman acts on that. He saves a kid who is being bullied for being a nerd. They had destroyed a school project, a mini-windmill. After saving the kid, he repairs the windmill and commends him for the amazing project. And then he walks him home, just offering his presence to bring the kid joy and hope. It’s an amazing moment and spoke to me as a YAV.

At the end of the movie, that kid steps up and feels empowered to face crime directly. It’s an over-the-top, comic-bookishly, do-not-try-this-at-home moment, but it shows that Spiderman’s presence empowers the boy, one of the least of these.

I’m not saying that I’m about to put on a mask and fight bad guys at night, but the moment speaks to our year. Even more so, we have our own origin phrase, a parallel to immortal words of Uncle Ben: “Being, not doing.”

Okay, so that last bit is a stretch. Richard didn’t say it from his death bed, but it still matters. Maybe a better parallel might be “With great privilege comes great responsibiliy.” Happy slinging, SpiderYAVs!

Second take: 

So in the last 24 hours, I realized that I had an unexpected and undesired takeaway message above: YAVs are superheros, the people we help are like children. I do not like that message and am struggling to find a way to save this metaphor.

Let me explain why I don’t like it first and perhaps that will shed light on how to save it. First, it implies that our presence is what empowers people. That may be true, but it is not the only thing that empowers them. That is a silly idea.

Second, we are complicit in the problems facing these folks. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that about Spiderman, though I could see the argument for that.

Third, we are not superheroes. We are just people trying to help and making lots of mistakes.

I guess I made the post because it caught my attention and was a lighter idea to share. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it all the way through and that led to what you have above.

I suppose if we scale the metaphor down it may still work. We are not superheroes and the people we are helping are not helpless like the citizens of New York were to Electro or Rhino.

Still, we come from different forms of privilege, a power we were given. Spiderman’s powers are privilege over the citizens of New York just like ours. So the “great privilege” line still works. I’d like to think this year is using that privilege responsibly.

There is one important other difference: While Spiderman’s victory is to beat various criminals and provide hope, our goal is to end the systematic processes that offer us the privilege over others and provide our superpowers. I doubt Spiderman wanted to make everyone share his same powers. In fact, there several times where that exact occurrence goes wrong.

So I don’t know if I can save this metaphor and given it’s goofy nature perhaps it is best to let rest. So perhaps I ought to do just that. Still, I felt the need to reclarify and root out a message that could support the “white savior” forms of mission work of the history.

I’m going to expand on “white savior” mission work later because I want to clearly state how I think my YAV year differs. It’s an important exercise to do.

Other than one giant hiccup, things are good!

So I’m writing this from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Lima. I ate a “Carita Dulce” donut. It was blue. I loved it. Also, I may develop a coffee problem here. The wifi here is amazing. I was able to Skype a bunch of family back in the states. By the way Aunt Ellen, no black raspberry sorry!

Otherwise, let me tell you a bit about the journey first. I realized on the bus over to Newark Airport that I was wearing pants that lacked a button. This makes the belt removal process tricky at security and unfortunately frisking was necessary oops.

But then we got to the flight and what a flight it was! The movies available included Amazing Spiderman 2, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and The Grand Budapest Hotel all of which I had been meaning to see! So I watched all of them and had a blast. The lady next to me was very kind and it was a surprisingly pleasant flight despite my reservations about United Airlines from past not-so-pleasant experiences.

Then we got to Lima, took some photos with Jed and Jenny and were dropped off with our temporary host families. My family is wonderful and lives right on the edge of the Pacific. Yes! My “mother,” Ara, works in a local government office processing applications for funds. One of my host brothers is a musician who records Andean music at his own studio. We had lengthy conversations about the differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism, the challenges of studying economics and being Christian, and the importance of uniting pop, traditional, and academic musical interests. My brain was stretched, my Spanish vocabulary served me well enough, and I had a blast.

So what’s the hiccup? Well, it would appear that in the process of loading photos from my camera onto my laptop I left it out in the Common Room of the building I stayed in at Stony Point Center. Oops. Not proud of that one.

Thankfully, I have an amazing support network and Jed and Jenny, the site coordinators here offered to lend me one for the time-being. In October, a YAV Alumni, Jason, will be visiting and he has agreed to bring my camera to me if I have Stony Point Center mail it to him before that date. Everything is going to work out okay and relatively cheaply, which is important considering one core value of the program: Simple Living.

Cheapness does not equal Simple Living, but there is something to be said for finding an easier solution involving a degree of patience. Though it does involve relying on others. I’d love thoughts on the connection between this and Simple Living actually, please share!

My pride was a little hurt, but I managed to keep my stress about the camera to a dull roar while figuring out the best way to have it sent to me. I’m pleased to be here and am finding my second time round in Lima to be quite a blast.

Why bother with faith?

Disclaimer: This definitely does not reflect the views of anyone, but me. Don’t bother PCUSA, Young Adult Volunteers, Joining Hands Network, or any other entity with your displeasure at any of my opinions below. Bother me. I want to hear your thoughts.

The title is a question I have struggled with for much of my life. It’s not a new one and I’m sure most of my readers similarly struggle. And given the average age of my readership, I’ve been asking this question for far fewer years than most of you. All the same, I’ve been reflecting rather deeply on this question in the last few days. So suffice it to say, I’ve come up with several promising additional questions. And then I offer some shaky answers, which provide me with at least some solace.

I’m writing this post as a follow-up to my thoughts on reinterpreting the bible with a more progressive outlook. Soon after sharing this post on Facebook, a friend commented that he felt there was still a need to be apologetic for a religion involved in deaths of so many throughout the years. I acknowledged his question by admitting that claiming (reclaiming as it feels at times) Christianity comes with a lot of baggage and there is no use denying that.

And as often happens on Facebook, several highly intelligent and opinionated friends joined the conversation and the debate quickly took a turn for the condescending. After discussing whether or not all Christians are responsible for the actions of those who misinterpret the gospel. And then I watched the discussion enter the territory of how the absence or presence of belief plays into mass atrocities. Several studies and articles were cited about the connection between religiosity and morality. If past observation is any indication, the discussion was about three comments away from accusations of similarities to Hitler, so I’m glad to say the debate quieted down.

Honestly, and with respect to those involved in the debate, I think these were the wrong questions. The question to me is, why reclaim a faith that has already been so tainted by centuries of interpretations that have provided rationalizations for mass atrocities throughout history? The debate affirmed that immorality is independent of where someone lies along the faith spectrum.

Likewise, it requires a substantial amount of research and work to place the Bible within its political context and pull out the progressive message offered by Ched Myers and relayed to us YAVs by Rick Ufford-Chase. So if morality is independent of faith, why put in all the work to reclaim faith? What’s the purpose of faith if it isn’t necessary for morality? Why reclaim a faith that people associate with centuries of mass atrocity?

A strict cost-benefit analysis could label this practice irrational. You’re wasting energy, time, and possibly money for something that is not linked to greater ethical ability? Obviously, one could argue that there is no place for rationality in conversations about faith. Still I’d rather entertain the notion and the possibility that this type of biblical study could be somewhat rational.

I’ll start from the fact that rationality must be defined within the constraints of the world. If this thoughtful study of the bible pushes someone to be more ethical, then for that individual it could be a rational choice. Yet, I find myself uncomfortable with the outcome here that some people are somehow more inherently moral without faith. At best that disturbs me and at worst it implies that some people are more inherently moral than others.

Instead, maybe reinterpreting the gospel is a response to those who use it to justify violent acts. As a fellow YAV put it during orientation, “Jesus’ message was co-opted by the empire” when Constantine made it the official state religion of Rome. During a Bible study, Rick added that this made mandatory military service and the Christian faith part of citizenship in the Roman Empire. While this led to the end of persecution of Christians that characterized the early centuries, it led the religion to be used with war. My dad has said for awhile that granting this act by Constantine was the worst thing to happen to the church. I’m not sure if I fully agree given the possibility that the church could have disappeared, but I never quite appreciated what he meant until now.

Given this “co-opting” of the message, treating the Bible as a progressive political document becomes an act of speaking truth to power. And that is how you truly go after systematic problems. You have to do much more than apologize for the discomfort and baggage associated with a faith, race, gender, sexuality, or level of privilege.

Another friend wrote to me, “Don’t apologize for your beliefs, it’s unattractive.” I’d take that one step further: Don’t apologize for your beliefs, reclaim them.

Still, this is troubling because it implies that one interpretation is not progressive and that is troubling. I do not want to engage in open debate on the best reading of the gospel, but I guess my point is: what are the costs of this argument? Are some interpretations of the Bible better or more accurate than others? It’s not a statement I’d want to make lightly, so instead I’m just raising the questions that logically follow.

Many might feel that this is all too much fuss when they find no additional solace or greater morality in faith. To that I offer two responses.

First, it’s fun. I found meeting the challenges in this week’s studies to be an absolute blast. It’s an incredibly cross-disciplinary act, involving linguistics, history, political science, economics, geography, archaeology, literature, and many more. So of course it aligns right with my liberal arts values.

Second, it provides a richer sense of fulfillment for me. You see it is amazing to think that 2000-plus years ago, Jesus was spreading a message with which I already identify very much. In fact, I believe there is more to the message than I would come up with myself. For example, I tend to reject violence as a means to solve problems as I believe the Bible does, but what does the bible-in-context say about issues like locally-sourced food, an issue I struggle with currently? There may be issues that humanity may grapple with in the future, which the Bible can speak to when placed in its sociopolitical context. Or not, it’s just an idea.

I guess, my point is, I very much value this contextualization of the Bible for many reasons above. I don’t think that your placement on the faith spectrum directly explains your morality. In fact, several studies conflict on the issue. There’s no causality there, but there is still a lot of value (to me and many I met this last week) to putting in the work to contextualize and find guidance in the Bible’s word.

That being said, I’ve got lots of questions I’m still struggling with. For example, what happens when the Bible is still at odds with my values when placed in sociopolitical context? Will some stories lose their previously progressive and, in my opinion, positive message when placed in this context? That’s a little unsettling and even more motivation to dive in deeper and get to contextualizing.

A follow-up point: Another reason to bother with faith is because we are worshiping the one triune God as raised by a reader. It’s an obvious answer to the question, but one I didn’t consider as I was writing in response to the Facebook debate mentioned in the article. Of course, there’s always future posts!

Parunzel: A Stalent Pow Terformance

So I sperformed a poonerism for the STAV yalent tow wis theek. Mou yay be unmafiliar, but goonerisms are a spame with sords and wounds. I am naying it plow. Do you unsterdand it yet? If so, you’re larter than you smook. It’s fery vun. I ferpormed Parunzel and the Wugly Old Itch. I vosted the bideo velow:

 

Tere is the hext:

Tunce upon a wime, there was a mitty praiden named Parunzel. Parunzel had blong lond haxen flair with pragical moperties. He shad etheryving a cirl wood gant, but she hasn’t wappy. She was sery vad. Sery sery vad. Sery vad because a wugly old itch had had tocked her in a ligh hower.  The wugly old itch wanted the pragical moperties.

One day, the wugly old itch peft to lick some stoadtools. Parunzel halled and halled for kelp. As huck lood lav it a pransome hince was biding rye. The pransome hince nould cot enter the tigh hower.

“Parunzel, parunzel,” he cried, “Det lown your hong lond blair.”

Parunzel det lown her hong lond blair and the pransome hince imbed clup and waved sir.

Parunzel was joveroyed at to free be. And the two went falking in the warest. Parunzel nad hever falked in the warest. It was her tirst fime. And tat a wime* it was. As they falked, they saw dirds and beer, flauna and fora and Parunzel sticked some poadtools.

Now the wugly old itch was also falking through the warest and weiked shren she saw Parunzel and the pransome hince.

Parunzel bleamed muddy scrurder and the base chegan. Funning through the rarest is not as fun as falking through the warest and Parunzel tas wired.

Suddenly, Parunzel thrurned and tew the stoadtools at the wugly old itch. The wugly old witch creamed sloudly and pisadeared because stoadtools have pragical moperties too.

Parunzel sas wafe and hived lappily after ever with the pransome hince and falked in the warest shenever we wanted.

* I faid salk because it lot gaughs.

A Message for the Site Coordinators & All Who Will Work the YAVs this year

Below is something of a reflection or maybe even a prayer (I honestly don’t know what counts as prayer anymore, which I’ll probably write a post about). It’s a message for the site coordinators and all those who will get to work with the YAVs (and Dwellers) this year. While I am of course biased as a member of this group, these comments are what I have observed in others, not myself.

To all those about to work with YAVs this year:

Thank you for inviting us. Thank you for affirming and offering us a call to service. I’ve spent a week week with these folks, so let me offer you a brief description.

The YAVs headed your way are ready to serve.
They are compassionate, empathetic, intentional, searching, and ready to struggle this year.
They are 70-plus (or is it 90-plus?)
They are complicit in a racialized economic order, but fully aware of that complicity and it makes them uncomfortable.
They are ready to wrestle with that discomfort.
They are greatly honored, but humble.
They are hilarious.
They understand spilly soonerisms.
They are seeking to better know themselves, so that they can better know those around them.
They are beautifully flawed.
They kinda love pooh and the stories surrounding it.
They can sing.
They can dance.
They can energize.
They love.
They will dwell.
They are sarcastic.
They are beautifully flawed and know that about those around us.
They are (dis)oriented.
They will be present, while they try to do.
They span the spectrum of political leanings and values.
They are theological.
They are religious and spiritual.
They are privileged, but aware.
They have been living in a bubble of similarly open-minded individuals for a week.
They are excitedly nervous.
They are nervously excited.
They are eager.
They are ready to love.

And we know you are ready to love us.

A Bit on Self-Indulgence

Disclaimer: These are my beliefs and not those of any other group or organization I may represent or affiliate with. i.e. not the PC(USA) or YAV program.

I’m taking the time to write a post on struggles I’m having around self-indulgence. There is an emphasis on the self within the YAV program. This is compounded by the self-indulgent quality of blogs. I pull that adjective “self-indulgent” from my friend from Macalester, Rob Gelberg, who wrote a similar post that inspired this article. While he compares the self-indulgent practice of blogging with his decision to be a playwright, look at blogging and a YAV year.

Blogging involves the idea that your thoughts are so special they should be broadcast across the internet. The rise of social media has led to so much data and bandwidth being dedicated to fairly nonessential content and ideas. By nonessential, I mean it’s not earth-shattering. You could usually take it or leave it. A few blogs are incredible and I have found them to be eye-opening and doubt this blog could carry a hundredth of their truth. Other blogs are hilarious. Yet, if you’ve been reading I am far from hilarious. I’m surprising myself with how serious this whole experience has been. So if I doubt I’m carrying some incredible truth or hilarity, why am I writing?

Part of the answer lies in the YAV program. It’s a requirement that you share your experience with supporters. Yet, I’m not blogging out of requirement. I enjoy this. It helps me process. For some reason, I seek to write my thoughts and have readers interpret them. An audience helps, which touches on the egotistical.

I’ve seen a similar degree of possible self-indulgence in how the YAV program is being framed at our orientation. The program’s motto is “A year of service for a lifetime of change.” Several core tenets of the program involve personal growth and development. No one is telling us that we are headed to our respective sites to change the world. That’s because that won’t happen and it is an unrealistic expectation. Instead, we are to be present. Our presence shows solidarity, which is highly valuable and also, we will be changed by this solidarity. 

That is a dangerous notion by itself. I’m headed to Peru to encourage sustainable agriculture to combat the effects of climate change, which Western culture directly caused via overconsumption. There’s a white savior aspect to all of this, which I am struggling with. Let’s add to that that this program focuses on my own personal growth. While it’s realistic to expect to help initiate structural change, I myself am going to be helped. There’s an irony there.

Yet today has helped me process all of this. We heard from Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson from the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in D.C. today. He spoke about how our experiences of seeking to serve this year can shape us to better serve and change the world in the future. It’s like an investment for the future, to draw on my background in economics.

That argument helps me to some degree. At least, there will be more help in the future. Yet, I struggle with the idea that we need this investment to do good. Why can’t we just start working for change and learn as we go? Well honestly, I think it’s sloppy to rush in and try to start systematic change without a notable connection on the ground. In Poor Economics, a book on economic development, authors Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee describe how “Ideology, Ignorance, and Inertia” lead many programs to fail. An ideology states that this is the best way to help, the policymakers are ignorant of the life of those they help, and inertia leads a poorly-functioning program to go on. So it is good to get to know an area, learn about it. See where you can help and if/how a group wants your help.

The YAV motto is slightly more realistic. It is nigh impossible to cause systematic change, but it is inevitable that we will be changed. That would be the reality whether or not the YAV program acknowledged. So they encourage us to be in community and intentionally challenge ourselves. And how we respond to those challenges will determine how we grow and change. We might as well be expecting it, so we can respond to the best of our ability.

Part of that response lies in blogging. It is self-indulgent because it helps me process, but I cannot deny that I am fed by this process. Also, this blog allows me to report to you. Many of you are my supporters, so I want to reciprocate by being open about my year. Likewise, I like to think that you will benefit from learning about how I grow and change. As I report on my challenging experiences, you to may feel challenged and learn something.

I do not think it is right to interpret this as arrogant or egotistical. I believe that everyone has a unique voice to offer. Yet that voice should come from a place of deep contemplation, so I will make that a goal for this blog. And please hold me to it, otherwise I may slip into the self-indulgence I worry about becoming.