India

In 24 hours time I will be on a plane to India. Technically, I will be on the first of two flights: from Atlanta to London, and from there on to Bangalore.

I am traveling with a group from the seminary for a class called “Explorations in Alternative Contexts.” This course is a requirement for the MDiv program at CTS. We will be gone from the 27th of December to the 11th of January.

The course description is as follows:
“In this class, students will encounter various Christian communities in south India, especially in the metropolitan centers of Bangalore and Hyderabad.  We will explore a cultural and religious context in which the church is engaged in interfaith conversations, on a regular basis, primarily out of necessity rather than by choice.  Through this encounter, students will grow as theologically-informed readers about the various ways in which the gospel, culture and theology shape each other and will reflect on what it means to live in an ecclesial context in which the church constantly finds itself at the margins—numerically, politically and ideologically.  As a group, students will develop insights about becoming resilient and imaginative amid difficult situations and about transforming crisis into opportunities.”

We’ve been meeting as a group once a month over the last semester to eat Indian food, get to know one another, and discuss issues of caste, gender, interfaith dialogue and the intersection of religion and politics.

I am a nervous flier, and a bit wary of the 20-or-so hours we’ll spend 30,000 feet above God’s good earth. However, my nerves grow more distant as my excitement for this opportunity makes its way to the forefront of my consciousness. I am nearly packed, have done most of the required reading, and can’t stop looking at pictures of where we’re headed – not unlike the nights before YAV orientation.

For those of who you’ve been faithful readers of this collection of my experiences over the last two years, you may recall that I was originally placed in India for my YAV year, but because of extenuating circumstances went to Belfast, instead. I am, as you already know, overwhelmed with gratitude each and every time I think of the people and experiences that shaped my year of service in that damp wee country in the North of Ireland. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have, however, been very curious about how my life would be different had I served in India, and I wonder what things await that perhaps I wasn’t ready for a few years back.

I do not plan to blog regularly during this experience. However, my group will be keeping a blog – to which I will contribute. You can click here to access it. If you click on the link before the 28th, you likely won’t find anything. But click away if you’re so inclined!

I so appreciate all of the love and support I’ve been given and that I continue to receive from dear friends around the world. This experience will undoubtedly change my classmates and me in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. I humbly ask for your prayers: for the ten students enrolled in the course, for the two brave professors leading us, and for those brothers and sisters in India whom we have yet to meet. Pray also that these experiences will shape all of our ministry to the glory of God.

All love and peace and hope during this sacred season of joy and new beginnings.

Here we are.

This week, I’m joining forty people from the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with about 6,000 women and men from around the world, at the United Nations 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. As part of the PC (USA)’s delegation, I am also serving on behalf of Ecumenical Women.

I join eight other young women who were chosen to attend with Presbyterian Women’s Young Women’s Leadership Development. We were given a full scholarship to attend. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to meet women from around this nation and our world.

When I was in the 10th grade, my high school choir (Sumter High School) under the direction of the wonderful Eric Wilkinson performed Mozart’s Vespers at Carnegie Hall. As part of the trip to New York, we toured the United Nations complex. I don’t remember much about the tour, because at the time I had no idea I would need to pay close attention. The one thing I do remember, however, is a photo display featuring women from around the world. The description asked you to guess the ages of each of the women, and then invited you to remove a panel revealing the actual age. I was floored. Most of the women, I guessed, were in their forties and fifties. As it happens, the women I thought were in their fifties were actually in their early twenties. By our standards, they had aged far too soon. Our tour guide explained that the conditions these women experience daily causes them to appear so aged. Most of them have no childhood or adolescence, the guide explained.

This year, the overall theme of the CSW is “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” In 2007, I attended my first Model UN conference in Atlanta. The topic? Evaluating the MDGs at their halfway point. Oh, continuity.

The Millennium Development Goals were established by the United Nations in the year 2000 as a global development framework for the next fifteen years. The eight goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Global partnership for development

Much progress has been made toward these goals. For instance, according to the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Report, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level (from 1990). However, there is much work to be done. Which is what brings us here.

Ecumenical Women has released a statement outlining the four areas that we identify as priority areas. They are:

1. Poverty and Hunger
2. Equal access to education
3. Health
4. Ending violence against women and girls

Through this 58th Commission, we will be setting the stage for 2015 and beyond. We heard from Lopa Banerjee on Saturday. She is the Chief of Civil Society for UN Women. She pointed out that 2015 is a crossroads – it is the end of the MDGs and the beginning of the post-2015 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It is also the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration. It is an incredibly important time. And as we particularly acknowledge and address the failures of the MDGs, we can know what to emphasize for the post-2015 agenda, so that structural change will occur in order to have lasting progress for gender equality; a common set of minimum standards.

We had the great privilege of hearing from the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka. She spoke yesterday after our chapel service. Here’s a video: (it’s a bit long, but it includes the singing we did before, at her invitation). Phumzile Mlango-Ngucka was elected to South Africa’s Parliament in 1994, and she later served as the Deputy President of South Africa (from 2005-2008).

Three themes from this time are emerging for me, already:

1. Progress for women is progress for all of humanity. Gender equality is not a conversation in which only women should participate. We need the other half of the population in order for this conversation to have any relevance. We must raise our daughters and our sons to know the importance and value of women and girls within each and every society.

I feel so connected to my women’s college roots these days. Dexter Edgar Converse, the founder of our institution, wrote in his founding statement, “The well-being of any society depends much upon the culture of her women.” And it’s so very, very true. And men must be a part of not only the conversation, but the implementation of change, as well. Please check out heforshe.org to find out more ways to empower men and boys to join in the movement.

2. Our stories matter. Stories will change the world.
Many of you know that I believe fully in practicing nonviolence in all forms in every aspect of life. I mean, we’ve tried violent intervention and resistance since, like, the beginning of time, and it hasn’t really worked thus far. What can it hurt to try something different? (A conversation about what nonviolence is and isn’t would probably be helpful here, but that’s a different subject for a different day.)

I am beginning to believe that nonviolence as a way of life begins with storytelling. Listening and being heard. It’s not impossible to behave violently toward someone whose story you know – but it’s a whole heck of a lot more difficult. It’s about re-humanizing those who have been dehumanized. It’s not about speaking on their behalf- because how could I ever do justice to someone else’s story? I have my own to tell. But, we can create space for other stories to be told – stories that are otherwise unheard and unnoticed. This is the way we begin to move forward.

3. People of faith must advocate and must speak out. So often, people of faith are seen speaking out against something. (Just recently, I was incensed as a state representative in the state of Arizona declared that the vetoing of the bill which would have legalized discrimination against the LGBT community is a “war on people of faith.” No, it isn’t. But that’s what the rest of the world sees as our representation: a fearful people. A people who live as if God’s grace could ever actually be taken away. A people who have forgotten the goodness of all of God’s creation. A people who speak out of a place of hurt rather than a place of love. A people who shout for action rather than calling for peace.)

We cannot be afraid, in our own churches and communities, to make clear that gender-based violence in any form is completely and totally unacceptable. We must make clear that lack of access to clean water is not the way the world was created to be. We must make clear that the decision whether or not to have sex does not lie with the male alone. That women and girls are not objects. That reproductive health and rights are universal, and that access to each of these things is a human right. That it is unacceptable that women worldwide provide 60% of labor and own 1% of property. Speak out. Speak up. Pave a new path for people of faith. Raise a new voice and sing a new song. We have such power in our togetherness. And power is not a zero-sum game, contrary to what the world would have us believe. We can only become more powerful agents of change in the world as we combine our gifts and passions. The Kingdom of God is within our reach – but we won’t see its realization without, among many things, gender equality. So here we are.

Lent

This semester, I’m taking a class at nearby Candler School of Theology called “Peacebuilding with Youth: Unlearning Violence, Learning Nonviolence.” One of our course assignments is to adopt a practice and/or fast from something so that we may cultivate nonviolence in our lives. These changes are meant to be small, but meaningful. Part of this assignment is to post a weekly blog update on our progress and thoughts. We’re sharing these on a class website that I won’t make public. But I thought for an extra measure of accountability (and, maybe just for fun because I miss this space) I’d post my own updates here, as well.

I haven’t done any hard and fast statistical analysis, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of our liturgical calendar is about waiting, about spending a season in anticipation of something – and learning about ourselves and the nature of God in the process.

The beginning of our liturgical year is Advent – the season of waiting for and anticipating the birth of Christ. We celebrate Christmas, the culmination of that wait-cycle. And then comes Lent. Waiting for the violence of the crucifixion. Anticipating the suffering death of Jesus on the cross. Lingering in the darkness that covered (and still often covers) the earth.

In this course, we’ve been reading from the likes of Walter Wink, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. Wink’s book, Engaging the Powers, has been particularly eye-opening in this process of delving into the systems and structures that keep violent regimes and practices in place.

In many of his letters, the Apostle Paul writes of the “powers and principalities.” These powers and principalities are, according to Wink, the systems at work in the world – particularly the “Domination System.” Wink claims that we cannot avoid these powers and principalities, because we were born into the structures and systems that surround us. He claims, however, that we can engage these powers in such a way as to transform them, as vessels of the transforming power and love of God.

As I was thinking of the many ways I participate in or contribute to the violence of the world around me, I had a hard time deciding on just one practice to fast from or add. (Should I stop shouting at people while driving? Is that going to be enough? Maybe I could garden every day, and then plan to give away whatever I grow. Or, maybe I could adopt a practice of centering/reflective prayer. Or pledge to write letters and make phone calls to my representatives. Or, or, or.) So what I’ve decided to do is an amalgamation of those thoughts. I am going to use “Prayer Practices for the Way of Peace” by Andrew Dreitcer. Each week, I am going to adopt a different one of these prayers for each day of that particular week. I will also strive to have at least one physical action and/or inaction that is a manifestation of this prayer practice.

I hope this will make me more aware of not only the ways in which I practice violence, but the ways I can incorporate nonviolence into my everyday realities, so that it can become, over time, a way of life.

Rainy Days

It’s been overcast and rainy a few times in the last weeks. And while many of my friends here grimace and moan, I smile to myself.

You see, the rain is no longer a nuisance.

The rain is a very physical reminder of another home, of a place I love and cherish. The rain is a physical reminder of how incredibly fortunate I am. The Columbia community has already proven itself to be a great fit – my classes are challenging and engaging, my professors are brilliant and many of my classmates have fast become my friends.

But in the midst of this happy transition, I miss Belfast.

In some ways, the transition home has been harder than the transition abroad. I think this is because when I was leaving the States, I knew that my time away had an expiration date. I don’t know if and when I will ever get back to Belfast, and there are people there whom I love dearly, and who I will likely not see again (in this lifetime, anyway). It is harder because my daily realities no longer include the primary school that stole my heart, the church community that showed me that I am more than my voice, and the YAV community that loved me even at my most undeserving.

I know that these things will come here, with time. Time is hard. Time is agony. And change is an odd thing. It can be subtle, yet powerful.

I begin nearly every sentence with some form of, “Well in Belfast…” or, “When I lived in Northern Ireland…” But at some point I stopped saying, “Hiya!” or, “I’m away,” or, “You’re doing my head in.” At some point, “biscuits” once again became “cookies”. I can say “pants” without blushing, and no one makes fun of me when I say the word, “aluminum.” I miss it desperately, at times. But I am also falling desperately in love with my experience here. I am growing, stretching, learning, doing and being.

On rainy days in Belfast, no matter how cold or wet it was outside, I was warmed by a welcoming hug as soon as I walked through the doors at Whitehouse. I was warmed by the smile of a nine-year-old as I shook the rain off of my jacket. I was warmed by the fellowship found around the lunch table at the Vine. The rain is no longer a dreary thing. My time in Belfast taught me that the rain is a reminder that beyond the clouds exists warmth and light. Always.

There is something to be said, I think, for a people who have experienced a collective trauma. There is a warmness and sense of camaraderie that cannot be found elsewhere. So if you never gathered it from previous posts or conversations, please hear me now: the loveliest people in the world can be found nestled along the loughshore in Counties Antrim and Down. I now carry with me a different understanding of the word hospitality. I carry with me stories and memories which sustain me on the coldest and wettest of days. I carry a spirit whose kindness and generosity knows no bounds. I carry the heart of a people. I carry it in my heart.

An Aside

I’m back. I just couldn’t stay away, and I’m going to post some post-Belfast reflections shortly. However, there is something else that has been on my mind lately.

I may have mentioned a few (hundred) times that I spent my last two years of high school as a voice student at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities (SCGSAH). Those two years were incredibly formative, and I still find myself in regular reflection on my time there.

The Governor’s School residential high school program is relatively young (the first class graduated in the year 2000). We are seeing, now, an emergence of govies (that’s what we call ourselves. It’s cute. Like it.) who are “making it big.” Three of those govies were classmates of mine: Teyonah Parris, Danielle Brooks and Liza J. Bennett.

Liza most notably appears in the critically-acclaimed film “12 Years a Slave” as Mistress Ford. Teyonah was the first African-American character on the show Mad Men (she plays Don Draper’s secretary Dawn). And you probably best know Danielle as Taystee (from the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black”).

I’m not telling you all of this to name drop some pretty cool people (although, that’s happening and I don’t hate it). I’m telling you this because it struck me recently that I have the opportunity to tell people that I know them because people know their work. And people know their work because it matters. “Orange is the New Black” isn’t just an incredibly well-written show with an outstanding cast – it brings attention to the great injustices which are very real and very present in American penal systems and facilities. “12 Years a Slave” is an important story because we are nowhere near finished with conversations about the gross injustice of the African slave trade and the many and varied legacies it leaves in its wake. It matters that a television drama in set in the 1960s would only have a handful of African-American characters because it matters that this was the reality of the time period.

In many ways, the Governor’s School doesn’t just produce artists. In fact, many of us find ourselves in professions outside of our primary art areas. SCGSAH produces students of life, who approach everything with integrity and efficacy. I think it speaks to the core of our curriculum that these particular alumni are involved in work that matters, work that generates conversation, and work that makes people, at times, uncomfortable.

I didn’t intend for this post to be a pseudo-political PSA, but please consider this: anytime someone in the South Carolina legislature moves to limit or (God forbid) eliminate funding for the arts, they are moving to limit or eliminate the powerful capacity for change that an arts education embodies. I could go on and on (and on), but suffice it to say I am incredibly proud of all of my classmates, and I count that education – daily – as a blessing.

Change and Grow

This is it.

My last service is over. Plates have been cleared from the tables, goodbyes have been said and keys have been returned. My bags are packed and waiting upstairs.

In a few hours time I leave for Dublin, where I’ll catch a flight to Prague and travel for a week or two before heading back to the States.

It’s surreal that this has all come to an end. I knew it would, in some part of my mind. But here we are. Officially. It’s been an incredible journey – one that began around January of 2012 and is now beginning a new chapter as the page turns away from my time here.

I’d like to leave you, finally, with some lyrics that encompass (as best as anything can, I think) the last year and a half of my life.

I worked with several grade levels at Whitehouse Primary School, but I got to know the P7s especially well. I had the great privilege of conducting the music for their Leavers Assembly. This song, Change and Grow, is one that they sang in June. And while the Anna Owens of years-gone-by may have found it to be incredibly cheesy, I find that it now has a great deal of meaning.

Change and Grow

Winter passes into spring,
Seasons come and go,
There’s a time for everything,
For everything must change and grow.

Lessons learnt along the way,
Things we’ve come to know,
We take with us each new day,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

Who knows what tomorrow brings,
Where the winds will blow?
There will be new songs to sing,
For everything must change and grow.

Through the laughter, through the tears,
In life’s ebb and flow,
Seize the moments and the years,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

Winter passes into spring,
Seasons come and go,
There’s a time for everything,
For everything must change and grow.

There are places we’ve loved and those we’ve left,
There are days we remember well.
There are faces we know we shan’t forget,
But this day we move forward,
This day we move forward,
This day we move forward.

This day I move forward.

Goodbye for now, Belfast.

photo

Eternally yours,

Anna

Time.

There’s so much.

There’s so much more I need to do, and write, and see. My time here is finally and actually drawing to a close. As I’ve been trying for days to compile my thoughts and feelings into something fluid for my final Sunday at Whitehouse (and a final blog post), I realize that I’m just not quite ready.

It’s strange, these days, because I feel very much the way I did this time last year, when my anxiety and excitement and sadness would overwhelm me all at once and I would burst into tears in the middle of Target (and, now, Tesco). But I’m doing my best to allow each feeling its time and place; to allow it all to wash over me, to change me, to form me – much in the same way the winds and the rain have shaped the landscape of this beautiful place I’ve had the great privilege of calling home for the past eleven months.

I have, over the course of the year, been rendered speechless countless times by the overwhelming beauty of this part of God’s creation. I have learned the meaning of the word awesome. I may have written this before, but it isn’t hard to imagine why the ancient Irish peoples believed that the divine lived just below the surface of the mountains, which is why they treated (and Celtic tradition still treats) the earth with such great care.

After the coldest winter in a century and the spring that wasn’t, we are in the midst of a proper summer – and it’s glorious. Every time I leave the house I still can’t believe I live in a place so picturesque, so inspiring. While I manage with words most of the time, I’m no poet. Mary Oliver is a poet who seems to capture the world the way I see it, too. I don’t know her story and I don’t know what she believes, but she writes of the glory of the world around us in such a way that you can’t help but experience it, too. I spent some time reflecting on her poetry on our retreat in Iona. So while I attempt to feel all things as they come, I’d like to leave you with this expression of my feelings of gratitude for the opportunity experience this kind of goodness by way of photos from Iona followed by some of Mary Oliver’s poems.

 

Iona 2

Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God-

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Iona 3

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in, the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning and night I am never done with looking.

Looking, I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world
comes.

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

Iona 4

This World

I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it
nothing fancy.
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun
glimmers it.
The tulip feels the heat and flaps its petals open
and becomes a star.
The ants bore into the peony bud and there is the dark
pinprick well of sweetness.
As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.
So I tried with my eyes shut,, but of course the birds
were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music
out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
beautiful silence
as comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we’re not too
hurried to hear it.
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs
even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing, too,
and the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones,
so happy to be where they are, on the beach, instead of being
locked up in gold.

Iona 7

Look and See

This morning at waterside, a sparrow flew
to a water rock and landed, by error, on the back
of an elder duck; lightly it fluttered off, amused.
The duck, too, was not provoked, but, you might say, was laughing.

This afternoon a gull sailing over
our house was casually scratching
its stomach of white feathers with one
pink foot as it flew.

Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
only look, and see.

Iona 5

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety -

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Iona 6


The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world
comes after me. It offers me
its busyness. It does not
believe that I do not
want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of
China went so far and
so high into the mountains,
then crept into the
pale mist.

Iona 8


Mindful

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
of grass?

Iona 9

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I’ll tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Iona 12

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple, penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

Iona 11

Logos

Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.