End of the year

It doesn’t take too much time around me to learn that I lean pretty far to the “cynical” side of life’s reactionary spectrum. This is honestly one of the things I’ve had the hardest time accepting about myself because growing up I was always told “you just need to be more optimistic!” or “Why do you always have to make things so serious?” Now, I understand where people are coming from but I’ve never known how to explain to others that so easily seeing the more negative sides of things makes finding the happy side much more enjoyable. This isn’t intentionally masochistic and I don’t try to keep those habits too close to the surface, but I can’t hide from the benefits it occasionally offers.

In the last couple of years, I’ve decided to embrace my cynicism and my newfound comfort was readily apparent when I read the text for today. I’ve heard this story and its following explanation more times than I can count so when I told people I didn’t know why I didn’t like verses 18-23, it was a lie. I was still nervous about telling people the way this had been framed for most of my life, but Rachel told me to give it another shot and it turns out I have a lot to say about it. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see a theme of deconstruction in my life leading to my time at Pilgrims and one of reconstruction my time here has offered.

Just a little background, I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt and consequently an extremely conservative, evangelical background. It never really felt like “me” but for the longest time I didn’t know anything else existed so I just tried to fit.

So I was in a youth group in high school that couldn’t have been more of an outlier in my town if it tried. We were all at least 15 years old, most youth groups in the area couldn’t keep kids attending after they began driving. We were surprisingly liturgical for a group of kids who 1. Grew up outside mainline denominations, 2. Began each service at the pavlovian call of a metal song we all knew and loved. Finally, at least 50% of our 40 members didn’t attend that church on Sundays – it’s not popular to go to multiple churches where I grew up.

The first seed, the one on the path, was always taught as the “worst” one. While getting “carried off” by the “evil one” can take many forms in the real world, they all have the same fundamental result: a non-believer. However my youth group had multiple, regular attendees who, to this day, identify as agnostic or atheistic – the non-believers I’d heard disparaged for so long were and still are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

The next seed, the one on the rocky ground, always strikes me as putting undue blame on the victims of abuse or trauma either in the presence of or directly at the hands of the church. This idea goes directly against my own understanding of Christianity as being inherently communal; everyone in that group felt responsible both for and to one another which was a new experience for me.

The seed on thorny ground was always described as representing distractions keeping us from focusing our lives on God. That youth group showed me how much church itself had been a distraction for me, attending church on Sundays and Wednesdays had become my own excuse from investing in deep relationships with those around me.

The seeds that ended up in good soil had the biggest breakdown. I’d always believed my duty as a Christian was to basically convince others that it was the right way to live. That youth group had absolutely zero collective desire to be anything close to what we saw as missionaries or evangelizers; we decided we wanted our faith to look more like learning how to live a life for each other. I’d finally gotten to see firsthand what the inherently communal side of Christianity could look like.

This community was what began the deconstruction phase of the values I find evident in this text; it wasn’t until I got here, to DC and Pilgrims, that the reconstruction began.

 

The farmer in our story scatters seeds four times. What if they were scattering four different types of seeds into the different environments? I’ve wondered if these seeds could be seeds of Hope, seeds of Doubt, seeds of Idealism, and seeds of Self-Acceptance.
In verses 3 and 4, our “farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As [they] were scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it.”

The seeds of hope are the ones that get scattered on the path. The birds that fly away with them represent my natural cynicism that I ultimately appreciate in myself, but when paired with lifelong mental health struggles, this led to consistently stopping possibilities before they get a chance to manifest.

When I was applying to colleges, my sights were set on about 12 different schools. All of them as far away from Mississippi as I could get both geographically and culturally. However I only submitted two applications: one to the University of Mississippi and the other to Mississippi State University: the two largest in-state schools. I was terrified to leave. A familiar sort of unhappiness feels much less frightening than risking the search for true happiness elsewhere. These applications were the seeds of Hope being carried off by the birds.

When I read the phrase about birds carrying the seeds away this came to mind. All I could think about were the “what-ifs” each of those unsubmitted college applications represented. Rejection? Community? Loneliness? Safety? Obviously I’ll never know, but it’s something I’ve wondered a lot. Had I not let those seeds of Hope be carried away, I can’t see how I would’ve ended up here at Pilgrims, but I’ll talk more about that later.

The next seeds the farmer plants are the seeds of doubt in verses 5 and 6: “Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6  But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots”

Doubt has never been created simply by possibilities unexplored. The truest form of doubt comes from the seemingly most encouraging moments in life that then crash and burn in front of me. I was raised in a place that, in my opinion, viewed a more internalized doubt as something to be ashamed of. You’ve now seen what my tendency towards cynicism looks like and so I understand people’s critique of that mindset, but I can’t yet grasp what makes doubt a negative thing. I always feel like my proclivity for doubt opens the doors for me to ask the questions that continue my journey instead of solving some red herring that implies life has an answer or solution.

My doubt caused me to believe the only group of people I’d ever want to call my church family ended when I was in high school, but embracing doubt means being open to challenging my own beliefs and expectations by coming to Pilgrims has proven that wrong. I came here because it seemed like the first place since February of 2012 that I could be a part of with no hesitations. Don’t get me wrong, this place is nowhere near perfect – we all know it. And that’s why I love it.

The seed of Idealism is found in verse 7, “Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. “

In September I viewed DC as the idealist’s haven. I now see it more as the idealist’s Emerald City. However, I can think of three things that pulled the curtain back almost immediately: a morning at Charlie’s Place – a breakfast program I attend weekly at St. Margaret’s Episcopal on Connecticut Ave – talking to folks who sleep outside the Starbucks in a particularly well-off neighborhood but can’t make money panhandling anymore because people only carry debit/credit cards now; meeting someone who works for CNN and sees firsthand how much they’re asked to edit broadcasts for partner stations to get across specific messages to that channel’s audience in rural Ohio; working to salvage food that grocery stores typically throw out because there’s no incentives for them to give it away to people who need it.

Somehow, though, none of that has made me want to hate it. I’ve gained new ways of thinking – like Scarecrow – a heart for communities of people I’d never meet in my hometown – like Tin Man – the courage to speak up more often for myself, those around me, and the things we believe in – like Lion – and, in two Sundays, I’ll be clicking my heels to return home and taking my new perspective on life with me – like Dorothy.

The final seed, the seed of Self-Acceptance is the one that was planted in the “good soil” and then began to multiply. I don’t think self-acceptance is a switch that can be flipped. It happens in different capacities over time and between experiences.

One of the biggest lessons of self-acceptance I’ve learned this year is around my history of depression. For most of my life, I didn’t know what it even was. After learning more about it, I can see it’s shaped the last 15 years of my life pretty directly. As with everything, there are better and worse days/weeks/months/years and I may not deal with it in the most efficient, or even effective, way. But being here has given me the time and place to learn how to use this major part of me to influence the way in which I work and interact with others in a positive way. Anyone who has worked closely or spent time with Rachel and Ashley know that they’re pros at giving people space but never an excuse. To be clear, I say that in the most appreciative way possible because that’s a really special ability and desire to do such a thing. This year has opened my eyes to ways in which I had that idea backwards: I’d make excuses all day but never ask for or seek space to work through things.

I don’t know that this seed of Self-Acceptance had ever truly taken root until Jeff’s diagnosis. Jeff was the pastor here at Pilgrims for about 16 and a half years. The day we learned it was terminal, I experienced a flood of flashbacks to the day I found out my father was going to die. My dad dying is an instant in time that has defined who I’ve been and become for the last 15 years, and it’s honestly a memory I’m quite practiced in avoiding. However, I’ve only ever been a part of one other community that encourages one another to accept their own reactions and to just feel without question.

It takes some very good soil to allow a seed to flower under the shadow of death; that’s what I’ve experienced with this congregation this year, and most profoundly on the day we watered the garden with Jeff’s ashes. I felt every familiar reaction of mine to death.. But also a new one. It’s one I still haven’t quite figured out how to name, but it led me to just stand still and feel. Keep in mind: I’m usually very, very good at avoiding feelings – but in that moment it was all I could do. So thank you for being a community that not only allows people to feel, but encourages it.

This process of reconstruction is still relatively new for me, there’s still a lot to do. In the spirit of an inherently communal value system, I invite you along. We all have seeds that need reframing, but we don’t have to do it alone. In what ways do these seeds need reframing for you? Or, if these seeds aren’t a problem for you, what are other constructs your community can help you break down and rebuild? No matter your answer, I hope you have found a group of people that prove to be the good soil you need to give this a shot. Amen

Walls

This blog is an extremely difficult one to write. I could very easily make this more of a speech or essay that went on for pages and pages. However, I do want to be respectful of the time you’re sacrificing to read me ramble.

This morning I was serving breakfast at my weekly shift with Charlie’s Place – a breakfast for the hungry and homeless neighbors around Dupont Circle. The church it’s held in is a polling place today, so while the guests were asking for coats or socks there was a line of people with stable housing and employment literally feet from them. My jaw dropped when I walked in and saw such a jarring juxtaposition. One of the staff members helped me find what I’d been trying to express from the moment I witnessed it: On one side of the wall were people with decent jobs and stable lives, while on the other side were people looking for similar jobs and living lives dominated by disruption.  What is most sobering about this is how quickly we can all go from one side of that wall to the other, most often times through fault of our own.

I think it’s easy for everyone to appreciate and understand that idea. However, I feel like this election is an extremely similar situation and doesn’t seem easily accepted as such. We have the ability to find it within ourselves to look past economic differences that may separate us,  but have an infinitely harder time when those differences are philosophical. Why is that?

I’m in no way claiming we should – or even could – agree on everything, but just as we don’t hold people’s economic situation against them neither should we fail to look past our political differences and remember that without knowing someone’s story we can never appreciate their take on the ever-paradoxical “human experience.” Linguistically a singular term, in reality the widest spectrum there is.

For all of us who get caught up in the age of immediacy and forget how recent “history” really is, here is a quote from Alexander Hamilton that sounds terrible familiar today…

 

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”

 

There’s a lot of doom and gloom going around today, but just remember: if the Cubs can win the World Series, we can make it through the next four years.

Reasoning

I wrote this immediately after the final debate ended and don’t feel like going back and changing all the tenses and such to make it seem as if I wrote it today. I am guilty of a fairly strong sense of indignation while writing this, so forgive me. Here we go!

I grew up with a single mother who has not yet remarried. That’s not a statement I’m making to qualify my reason for finding the misogynistic behavior of Donald Trump appalling. I bring it up because it allowed me an atypical upbringing.

I didn’t know how prevalent sexism was until the last year because in my world there was no substantive difference between men and women. I’ve seen a woman do things people told her she needed a man to help with, even if that “man” was her own child. As if somehow my chromosomes dictated my superior ability to accomplish a task instead of her past experience. Her “temperament” somehow supposing she needs a man to help her discipline a household or make decisions because, I’m assuming, her emotional acuity is some weakness that allows her to express herself more clearly and effectively than those with less of an emotional intelligence.

Those things aren’t even examples I cherry picked for this point. They’re the two things I cherish most about the person my mother taught me to be. Being raised by someone who is constantly being told she shouldn’t be doing something on her own seems like it could be depressing, but it’s one of the very few things in life that continuously gives me hope. In dealing with a lifetime struggle with depression and anxiety, I’ve always had the picture perfect example of how to stand up to the voices telling you that you aren’t suited for your life.

There’s a laundry list of ways I don’t feel I fit into the typically accepted societal checklist for the gender tag of “male.” My peers and context taught me to be ashamed of that reality. However, my mother taught me otherwise; and, as much flak as she gives herself, she’s raised someone who doesn’t feel emasculated by strong, intelligent women; someone who strives to view the world with the same emotional intelligence as I saw exemplified for the majority of my upbringing.

Mom, you’re the reason I have to vote for Hillary. I’ve watched all three debates between her and the orange fiasco-of-a-Homosapien Sapien and I couldn’t help but think back to all the times I heard men ask you “how you could manage such a big job on your own.” His treatment towards her was a condensed version of the same condescension I’ve watched you shrug off for 14 years while giving more of yourself to others than most could ever dream of. What I saw in her on that stage tonight and the two times previously I’ve seen in you for the majority of my life, so how could I not have faith in her ability to excel as our President.

Indecision

In the last three weeks I’ve written three things, besides this one, that I felt would be blog posts only to realize I didn’t much like any of them in their current form. I fully intend to finish and post all three of them eventually, but I think I have a bit more to learn before I’m able to feel confident enough in them to put them out into the world. This one is nowhere near polished. It’s really just me talking in circles about the fact it’s not possible for me to ever fully understand any of the things I mention.

 

Each of them are about the various conversations I’ve been fortunate enough to be brought into since I left Columbus. Feminism was a concept I’d never learned much about before this year because the typical opinion of the matter I ran into in the south was very dismissive of the idea altogether. Black Lives Matter was a very controversial phrase back home and a huge part of my life since leaving. The conversations I’ve had with the people heavily involved in the movement in DC have been some of the most special moments I can remember. My extremely brief – yet highly impactful – view into the world of local politics has actually been a little bit life-changing. The scale here is obviously much bigger than it would be in Mississippi (since this city is 7 square miles and one-fourth the population of Mississippi) but that’s meant there are just many more examples of how important local government is.

 

So none of these concepts were foreign to me but they weren’t exactly familiar either. Aside from the local politics point, my fundamental opinions/understandings haven’t changed about the other two subjects. What I’m appreciating most lately is how patient people are with me in giving me room to learn the more intricate details and how all of these things invade our lives and affect our perceptions of ourselves and others. So much has happened in the last two months that it’s hard for me to believe it’s been so short. At the same time, it feels like I’ve been here forever. It’s honestly a really confusing sensation. I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned already and it’s a little bit intimidating to realize how much time there is ahead of me.

 

The biggest learning curve has been realizing just how important words are. I’ve always been very careful with mine but until this experience that’s always been something that annoyed me about myself. However, the words we use to express our ideas tend to dictate how we view the world. Learning how certain ways of expressing ideas can come across to other people is something I really appreciate because it’s made me question how I’m actually viewing people or situations. On top of that, learning how our ideas are coming across to others can really help us alter the way we phrase things to be sure we’re accurately expressing our feelings. I’ve recently found myself getting much more frustrated than I used to when I’m attempting to explain some idea for the first time because finding the words I feel accurately represent my thinking is something that means more to me now than it used to.

 

As with all my posts, there’s no smooth way to end this. I’ve made a lot of allusions and zero committed claims, which is a bit of a sick game on my part to keep people a little confused about what I actually think. (Yes, I see the hypocrisy there given the preceding paragraph) But hopefully I didn’t make too many things muddled and this was as obviously appreciative of the beautifully patient people I’ve met that have built on the ideas implanted by the countless role models before them.

 

Thank you so much for reading. Sorry it’s a bit on the long side and I didn’t have a song to help tie things together. But maybe by the end of this year I’ll have learned enough about self-expression to not need those as a crutch to get across my thoughts!

 

-Cody

Everything All at Once

I’m sitting on the corner of 23rd and P writing this one, so there will be no Fresh Prince-referencing opener today. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

 

My second week of work is coming to a close fairly soon, so I thought it’d be a good time to reflect on what has occurred since arriving in DC and starting my tenure at Church of the Pilgrims. However, my writing is being accompanied by an onslaught of some of the most efficient, ankle-loving mosquitos I’ve ever encountered so please excuse any moments where it seems like I lost my train of thought; I probably did.

 

As I mentioned in my last post, music does a much better job of explaining my thought process(es)/emotion(s) than I can. So I’m going to try to use that to my advantage today.

 

“Why don’t we fight sleep?”

 

The hook of the song aptly named “Fight Sleep” by Dagny – which I highly recommend if you need some positive vibes – is all too applicable right now. The last two and a half weeks have been an incredible, confusing, exhilarating, and draining whirlwind. The adrenaline of leaving home and moving somewhere new is beginning to wear off as I settle into my surroundings. I want to be very clear that I am in no way complaining. In fact, I’m even more excited for this year than I was when I got off the train I was writing to you from last time. I’m tired but have plenty of access to coffee so I’ll for sure survive.

 

“All at once, everything,

Every cup overflowing.

All at once, all I need,

Every heart overflowing.”

 

The chorus to my favorite song of the new Local Natives album has been my anthem for the past week. For fellow YAVs and YAVAs, the first line may be a little humorous. Everything has definitely been all at once. The other lines are the ones that really hit home for me, specifically the way people I’ve known forever, people I’m getting to know, and people I’ve never even met are supporting all of us.

 

I have to admit, at first it was a bit much for me. I’m definitely an independent person, so I didn’t really believe anyone when they told me to be sure to be open to the support system that would be in place. Something in the back of my  mind was convinced I wouldn’t need it. Why exactly that piece was saying that is interesting to me, but something I haven’t quite figured out yet. But as the adrenaline of the first few weeks wears off, I’ll be the first person to say that it is definitely not the case that I will be able to handle this year alone so I couldn’t be more grateful that the inner-voice had no control over the support system being established.

 

I was tempted to go into a full analysis of the chorus, but honestly I would end up typing your eyes off. Instead, I will just extend yet another thank you for the continuing and building support. If there’s ever something specific you’re wanting to hear about feel free to contact me in whatever way you choose and I’ll do my best to oblige! Thanks for taking the time to read this and I’ll talk to you again soon… probably.

Disorientation

I can’t say I was born and raised here, but I’m passing through West Philadelphia. Instead of playgrounds, basketball and guys up to no good, I’m riding a train, eating a sandwich (that the amazing people at Stony Point made for all of us by the way) and listening to Frank Ocean.

It blows my mind that it’s only been a week since I boarded a small, Delta Connections flight and said goodbye to my hometown. When I left, my only plans were to learn about the world of nonprofits so I could determine whether or not my aspirations of working in, or running, a nonprofit were genuine or some sort of millennial idealism. In retrospect it seems that it was actually a mixture of the two. I think I was arrogant enough to assume that my passion would actually be something original and helpful to communities I’ve never even set foot in. That may sound pessimistic but it’s become a strangely reassuring thought as the week concluded.

Richard Williams, the director of the YAV program, told us a story on the very first day we spent together that I thought I understood when I first heard it. He told us of his own first day as a YAV, a bishop he was going to be working with sat him down and told him: “We don’t need you here. We want you here and you’re welcome here, but we don’t need you.” I listened to Richard tell us and I remember nodding and thinking “Well yeah, of course they don’t. Why would anyone think they were that important?” This story was a recurring theme throughout the week, so they could make sure we kept thinking about it. Their plan worked because this was nearly all I could think about by Friday and Saturday evening.

It didn’t take me long to decide that I was definitely one of the people who thought I was important enough to be needed. The more I thought about this idea, the more I saw the purpose in what seems like an extremely pessimistic way to view the coming year. But I think it is just me being honest for the first time. I applied to this program because I wanted to make a difference; a desire I don’t think anyone would criticize… if I didn’t come into it with the expectation of accomplishing that goal.

Once I became willing to admit my intentions, the idea of not being needed became much less depressing and much more compelling. I’d love to give this idea most closure but there simply isn’t any. I’ve spent a significant portion of our three-hour train ride trying to figure out a way to sum this idea up in a clean way to explain my goals for the year, which I’m now realizing is extremely ironic because this idea of not being needed but being welcomed isn’t a simple idea that has any closure whatsoever. The goal of Richard’s story was to make us question our motives and check our expectations for ourselves at the door, and realizing that it accomplished that is as much closure as I can give.

If you’re like me, then certain songs tend to express current mental/emotional states far better than any grammatically questionable blog post can. “Godspeed” by Frank Ocean has been on repeat for most of the time I’ve spent writing this and I think it can sum things up really well. And it’s simply a beautiful song, so everyone should listen to it.

Washington D.C. is now the next stop and final stop for our train. It’s going to be extremely busy again for the next week… or month. So I’ll be sure to check in as soon as I can again. Thank you for taking time out of your day to read me ramble, thank you for the support thus far and into the future, and treat yourself to that song.

– Cody

Quick Update

Hey everyone.

First off, I want to thank everyone who has donated so far. You’re truly making a dream come true.

One of the things that initially drew me to D.C . was the opportunity to be placed at Church of the Pilgrims/The Pilgrimage. I recently found out that I got my wish! I get to work with some incredible people over the next year whether they are church staff or groups from around the United States who come to volunteer around the city.

I leave for orientation 12 days from now.. It’s kind of crazy to think about, but I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be spending a week in New York for orientation before making my way to DC to start my year there. Since I haven’t started packing, and have somehow lost about fifty percent of my clothes over the course of this summer, the next week and a half will be fairly busy. I hope to get some time during orientation to fill everyone in, but I doubt I will. So the plan now is to update everyone sometime during my first week in DC!

If you’re interested in learning more about the organization(s) I’ll be working with, here are the links!

http://www.thepilgrimage.org/

http://www.churchofthepilgrims.org/