The call to serve.

I was scared the first time I took a Harlem-bound Green Line train. It sounds bizarre now, but, at that point, all I knew about East Garfield Park was crime reports. With just a 9 o’clock news diet, you would also believe the West Side was violence and guns and gangs and poverty. It was a one-dimensional narrative, a handful of negative adjectives to describe a swath of people - thousands of people. But I believed it; I believed it enough to be scared of the people I passed on the stairs connecting the street to the elevated track.

It’s been one year since I began working at a community-based nonprofit. One challenging year.

Here’s what I know to be true:

I think it’s easy to do good. It’s easy to pack a meal, to hand off a black, plastic bag of unused clothing, to donate money, even. It’s easy to serve the “starving children,” the ones you’ll never meet. But, I don’t think we’re supposed to serve from a distance.

More than that, serving isn’t supposed to be easy; and, if it is, you’re doing something wrong.

In the last year, not once have I walked away feeling like I did something important, or like I’ve done something good. Rather, I’ve walked on the sidewalks, retreating to the downtown-bound elevated tracks, feeling like someone took a rough, Brillo pad to my skin, trying to scrub away dirt and grime, stigmas and misunderstandings.

Spending the last year in a community affected by the not-so-surprising adverse effects of disinvestment and systemic racism has been challenging, because, for the first time, I saw people. These aren’t news reports, the images on a nonprofit’s promotional brochure, or an Alyssa Milano-narrated UNICEF commercial. I saw and smiled at and said hi to real people.

Service isn’t supposed to make you feel good; it’s supposed to put you in new spaces, to make you feel uncomfortable, to reveal injustices. But, more than that, it reveals this immense need and call to love.

I went to my church back home a few weeks ago. It’s an old, brick church, at-topped with a gold cross that, on a clear day, sits above miles of cornfields, proudly touting to the predominately white, middle-class, rural community. I listened to a sermon to the homogenous congregation on loving your neighbor.

Don’t get me wrong, I think loving the people who inhabit the home next door is important. I think loving your husband or your wife or your kids or your friends well is so important.

I certainly don’t want to belittle the act of loving another; but I wonder what kind of service a love without geographical or social bounds would permit.

I don’t think Jesus called us to send a packed meal to a child thousands of miles away. I don’t think he wants us to pack said meal, then retreat to our comfortable communities.

No, Jesus hosted a banquet to eat with the poor.

I think the call to serve is that of learning to love people who are different than us, the people who are easiest to keep at arms-length, to shove into these little, stereotyped boxes, sealed by the difficult to bend flaps of believing sinful behaviors put people in poverty, understanding poverty as a political tool, and believing that “chiraq” could actually be a middle eastern country thousands of miles away.

It’s loving people like you would your neighbor. It’s eating with them, meeting people eye-to-eye, not savior-to-poor. It’s having a conversation with someone and hearing their unique stories. It’s overcoming a fearfulness of the people who look different, or who believe something different, or whose situations are different.

It’s not serving to feel good; it’s serving to love others well, as challenging and uncomfortable as it may be.

I think that’s the call to serve, or at least the definition I’ve gathered in these 365 days.


Redeeming Broken Plans.

A month, two days, and a few hours from now I’ll be graduating from college. All the 11 p.m. coffees and, subsequently, sleepless nights, will end when a woman reads my name shortly after 5:00 p.m. on May 9. There will be no more backpacks, no more citations, no more multiple-choice tests. I will, for the foreseeable future, conclude my academic career.

And, as I sit here in this transition, a full-time job offer recently laid in front of me and windows with potential apartments spread across my computer screen, I can’t help but think that you’re missing it.

I don’t know who you are yet; I don’t know that there will be a boy yet. But I know that, someday, when I talk about my tiny, 11th story apartment on East Delaware Street, you won’t picture the yellowish walls and Christmas lights. You won’t remember the broken elevators, the floral-carpeted hallways, and all the nights I, a naive, ambitious college student, sat in this apartment and imagined a handful of futures.

You missed the teenage years, the leaving home, the first job.

And, on May 9 at 5:00 p.m., you will miss watching me receive my college diploma.

While I’m mostly wandering into offices and classrooms feeling ill-equipped on these remaining days as a college student, I’ve found a semblance of a career path. I’m four weeks away from a degree. I’ve studied abroad, been inducted into honor societies, had internships. If you’re skimming down the bullet points on my resume, counting the accomplishments, reading about volunteer experiences, things seem to be going well.

What that serif text doesn’t tell you is that walking through each of those doors was usually difficult and uncomfortable and seemingly in disregard of every word that filled my before-bed prayers.

I’m usually reminded of my earliest dreams, the doors I thought the Lord would open, when I go back to my little hometown. I’m reminded of those dreams when I walk into my old bedroom; American girl dolls tucked in my closet. And, there’s this patch of grass. For as long as I’ve lived, there’s been this empty land, placed on the town’s main street between a sage-one-story and the home of an untamed pit bull. Every morning, when my mom would drive me and my sister to school, we would pass that little patch of overgrown grass. And, when I was little, face pressed up against the backseat window, I imagined building my own house there someday, taking my own kids to the grade school down the street.

I’m writing these words from my studio apartment in downtown Chicago. I can almost hear the Lord laughing.

And, as I mourn the loss of this life I thought I would live, I think about Ruth, a woman whose future certainly varied from the one she once foresaw. Following the loss of her husband, she followed her widowed mother-in-law to a foreign land, not knowing the Lord’s intentions or the provisions she would find.

But, provisions she did find in a man named Boaz, who told Ruth, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

Ruth didn’t know that this city would hold her redeemer, someone who would acknowledge and reward her for her loyalty and persistence. Following the loss of her husband, I imagine Ruth wasn’t optimistic about the prospect of a redeemer. I imagine her future felt unstable.

Following loss, it’s hard to imagine God has something to redeem broken plans.

I don’t know where you are; I don’t know when I’ll find you. I don’t know if a boy and kids and a white, picket fence in a little town are written in the Lord’s plans. But, in the midst of this transition, I’m holding tight to the his sovereignty, taking refuge under his wings as I maneuver through this life that looks so different from the one I planned. And though these commemorative events pass with a little hurt, and I’ll pack boxes of clothes and toiletries with some confusion, I know he redeems.

That patch of grass still patiently waits. That emblem of what I thought my life would be continues to grow and change.


A Home Well Lived in.

Truthfully, I crave home all the time. Though, home is an idea that becomes a little hazier as you grow older. Home has been a shoebox-sized dorm, splashed with white paint and high-pitched voices. Home has been a studio apartment, perhaps worthier of a shoebox comparison. Home has been a college campus. Home has been the cold, busy sidewalks that checker downtown Chicago. But, for me, there has always been one consistent, always desired home.

I have a countdown app on my phone that I frequently update with the next date I get to go home, home to the house where I grew up. The house is coated in a brownish brick and the interior is in a constant state of well-lived-in. My bedroom is baby blue and is filled with beach and ocean memorabilia to accommodate a 12-year-old’s love for dolphins. It’s my life materialized – the cork board with everything from plane tickets to cheer try out numbers, the books in every corner, and the photo frames filled with people who sit somewhere on the scale from Facebook friend to best friend.

Homesickness is hard. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced real homesickness, real debilitating, stomach-aching homesickness. The kind of homesick that keeps you trapped in a few minutes, restricted to just one unpleasant moment. It’s not fun. Even thinking about it makes me uneasy.

I kind of always assumed homesickness was something I would grow out of. Inevitably, I would just stop missing my old bedroom. One day, I wouldn’t wish I was dancing in the kitchen with my family on Friday nights. I wouldn’t think about my bed or being woken by the sunlight streaming in my bay windows and something resembling war-zone noises coming from two teenage boys. Simply, this version of home was an extra layer I wouldn’t need someday, as cozy and comfortable as it may be. Lots of people grow up and move away. If everyone else can let go of home, so can I.

Yeah, I haven’t found this to be true quite yet.

All this to say, I’ve been thinking about why I’m so attached to my home a bit more recently. In about a month, I’ll be heading the farthest away from home that I have ever been. And, though it’s only for a few weeks, I’m worried that my heart will hurt for my earthly home, as it has so many times. I’m afraid I’ll be held back, that I won’t take the new environment for everything that is is and everything that it offers because my mind will be wishing I was somewhere else.

But, here’s what I’ve come to learn about home – or life, rather. We’re meant to be pushed and pulled. We’re given these bodies, these spaces to stretch ourselves. We can fill these spaces with the challenging words on white pages, with good, lasting relationships, and with what lies on the other end of a long plane ride. This is our space to clutter and fill and live in.

As minimalistic as I try to be, I’m not someone who can thin my wardrobe down to a capsule. I know my bed sits above a number of miscellaneous objects, none I could really name or assign any sort of practical purpose. That cork board in my bedroom – it no longer looks like a cork board, rather it compares better to a pile of mail or a basket of laundry pinned on a wall. Cluttered and imperfect feels like home. I like well-lived-in.

And, I think, in a similar way, our lives become more valuable when we fill them. Not with these material things – with these experiences, with knowledge and people and memories. Having a home is great; having a home you adore is even better. But, our lives, these space we carry with us, are our home for the short time we’re here. And, if we fill them to the brim and stretch them like a recently-dried pair of jeans, a life is much more well-lived-in.

And that makes the homesickness a little easier to heal from.