By James Roll
In late August, a motley group of young adults embarked on a challenging year of intentionally living together while serving at various placements such as The Bethesda Project, St. James’ School, and the Office of Family and Young Adult Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. I am proud to admit that my community initially bonded over the boy who lived, Harry Potter, as well as a mutual love of puzzles. Since then, we’ve somehow navigated situations such as the washing machine catching fire and the uncanny ability of Ozzie, the lovable yellow Labrador in residence at St Mark’s, to take a chunk out of any cake in the kitchen. I could certainly go on about the moments that our community has shared, but lately I have been pondering about what makes my current community intentional rather than just a bunch of individuals merely coexisting in the same place.
I think that Servant Year is intentional because we strive to take the time to share our joys, our stories, and our inevitable frustrations. Whether it is taking the time to prepare and enjoy a meal together, or going out for coffee, or simply listening to each other venting about life, or going for a late night walk with headphones in. I think that the members of a Servant Year community offer incredible support to each other, which has helped us to grow throughout the course of this year. Then again, Servant Year is about more than just service. Take for instance, my friendship with a fellow Servant Year member, Trish.
During the fall, Trish brilliantly proposed that a few Servant Year members join a volleyball league in pursuit of stardom. While there was some hope that we would get a good group together, in the end, only Trish and I ended up pursuing our dreams of volleyball glory. Instead of volleyball glory, we found an amazing group of people who we have built good and hopefully lasting relationships with in the throes of an eight game losing streak. While our team has finally discovered a winning formula of late, Trish has continued to soldier on with the wonderful work that she happens to be doing with the her Servant Year placement, Seamen's Church Institute, an organization that annually aids 30,000 seafarers, who form the backbone of the international shipping industry. I’m certainly jealous that Trish has had the opportunity to engage with individuals from a wide range of countries such as Latvia, Georgia, and the Philippines. I’m even more envious of the stories that she’s managed to be a part of during her time there. She has been enabled through her service to help a seafarer who needed to wire money home to pay for an operation for his daughter. Or there was the day that she managed to be a part of a reunion for family members who have not seen each other for over eleven years. Trish has the fortune to begin graduate school at Penn part time while continuing with Servant Year as a Second Year Fellow, serving at SCI next year. Servant Year has made it possible for us to share stories that inspire us to do more at our own placements; however, Servant Year is more than just service. Another one of my fellow Servant Year members, Catherine, is a prime example of this.
Catherine just so happens to have a sister who knows my sister as both engage in some capacity at Haverford College. Small world, huh? Catherine arrived this year as a complete newcomer to the Episcopal Church having grown up as a Methodist. She serves as the Youth Leader at St. Luke’s, Germantown--a church that I had the chance to explore as a counselor there for City Camp. Catherine recently remarked in a blog post that she once questioned how different the two protestant denominations could be. She quickly was struck by a bunch of differences that we perhaps take for granted. Why is there real wine? How are these Episcopalians eerily good at reading responsively? Do we really need to cross ourselves this often? Perhaps the biggest question was why don’t these hymns have titles? For some, like Catherine, Servant Year offers the opportunity to explore a church that is unfamiliar, and to see whether the shoe fits.
The shoe of the Episcopal Church definitely seems to fit for the members of Servant Year who just so happen to hail from Georgia. I’ve spent most of the year working alongside another person returning to the program next year as a Second Year Fellow- Ellen Doster, who engages with the families and children of St. Mark’s through the Boys and Girls Choir and Schola. While she may be a little bee crazy at the moment since the arrival of a hive or two of bees at St. Mark’s, Ellen, I think, has thrived in a place where she has been able to explore in more depth what her faith means, along with discovering more about various liturgies in the Episcopal Church. While I may not be overly excited to engage in a theological discussion, it has been evident that Ellen has the enthusiasm to indulge in a long conversation about why we do things in a particular way because she cares about the way we do things.
Servant Year arranged a road trip to Sewanee's School of Theology, and it was evident to me the excitement that Ellen had at returning to a place that she considers to be a home and it seems to me that Sewanee is a place where she can return to further her theological education. For some reason, various individuals at St. Mark’s love to ask me the question, “Is seminary in your future?” To which I often find myself replying, Not mine, but Ellen will probably be the one going down that path.
So then, where do I fit in? As a cradle Episcopalian, I grew up playing Satan’s on the Warpath, engaging with various communities on mission trips, serving as an acolyte, and going to four services in 12 hours beginning on Christmas Eve like every good little Episcopalian does. I went to college at Kenyon, a historically Episcopal school. I served for a youth leader for a local church. I was elected to the vestry at Harcourt Parish twice, I ran mission trips for Youthworks, I was let loose to run amok at Camp Mitchell in the Diocese of Arkansas. I guess that you can say that the church has been a large part of my life. Why then am I left to muse exactly when I stopped believing in God? Somewhere along the road, Jesus lost his place in my heart, and my once surefire faith disappeared. Was it after my priest cheated on his family with a member of the congregation? Was it during the summer I spent running mission trips in the closet? Was it when I was removed from being a youth leader and forced to leave a charismatic church because I was honest about the fact that I was gay? While it would be easy to place the blame of my loss of faith with a broken church or two, honestly, that doesn’t quite leave me satisfied.
I elected to come to Servant Year because I had hope that I would find something that I lost in an intensely religious community. I wanted to reflect upon the hollowness that I felt whenever I attempted to participate in any particular worship service. I wanted to rediscover the meaning behind the cross. A part of me imagined that serving a vibrant community would bring me in from the wilderness that I’ve long been wandering as I try to come to terms with all that has happened. Instead of finding God, who appears to be better at hiding than Carmen Sandiego, I’ve found something better. I’ve found myself.
I don’t know who God is right now--but that’s okay because I’ve realized that I have a purpose. I am here to serve a wonderful community in which I have had the opportunity to create wonderful relationships. Several of my food cupboard clients have realized that I’ve been dealing with hip tendonitis, which has brought several offers from various clients to come and help me unload the large delivery that we get from Philabundance every other week.
Mr. Ballard is planning on being there again next week to help me out again, which is delightful--but even more touching is the fact that Mr. Ballard asked me for advice on how to deal with a particular troublesome volunteer at another organization. Then there’s Robert, who had been an avid attendee of Evening Prayer and Masses at St. Mark’s before he reached out to get involved in the Food Cupboard and the Soup Kitchen. I remember that there would be days that the only people at Evening Prayer were Robert and I. A part of me wonders whether he would have reached out to join a valuable ministry at St. Mark’s had I not been present enough to engage with him. While Robert hasn’t been around lately due to a recent surgery, I have had the joy of being able to visit him and to continue to build a friendship with him.
While there’s certainly the irksome thought that someone else who has a firm belief in God would be better suited to working at St. Mark’s, I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get lost in the minor details. Sometimes it’s important to remember that even if something like the words I say at a mass or at the Daily Office don’t mean anything to me, they matter to someone else. These services give us the chance to be a place for someone else to enter our doors to engage with our outreach--and to be a part of something wonderful. For me, I constantly find myself lost in the laughter of an early morning at the Soup Kitchen and realize that this is where I’m meant to be for this moment--purely because the outreach at St. Mark’s can be fun. Whether it’s watching someone play chess, having conversations, walking the dogs, or changing the way that the Food Cupboard is run, or simply being present, I am here for this community. It’s funny that a part of me feels like I had to let go of my relationship with God and take a step back and remember what I love about being at St. Mark’s. I am here to serve a vibrant community full of small joys, regardless of the fact that I’m currently faithless--and that’s okay.
James Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark's Church.
A Few of My Favorite Things
By Elizabeth Davis
Let’s talk favorites. I talked in my first blog post about some of the ways in which Philadelphia has far exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations. I thought it might be nice to share some of my favorites with whoever reads this thing, with the off chance that you might be in/end up in Philly.
The place where I spend all of my time: I discovered this place in January, and the biggest draw was that the classes were all taught in a 90 degree room. This. Was. Heaven. Now that temperatures outside are starting to soar, this is less of a draw, but let me tell you- for several months, these classes were the only time I felt warm. Even though it has warmed up outside, I’m still in the studio an average of 8 hours a week, and I love it. The instructors at Philly Power Yoga and Thrive Pilates are all really friendly and knowledgeable, and the studio is welcoming to all levels. If you are looking for a relaxed stretching class, check out the Pilates studio, as the yoga classes are power vinyasa flow classes (lots of pushups and sweat). They have a free community class Wednesday mornings, and a five dollar class Monday mornings.
The place where I completed (most) of my graduate school applications: Granted, much of my graduate school essay writing/procrastinating/stressing was done late at night in my room, but Elixr Coffee was a much needed change of scenery in the time of stress and snow. It is full of terrariums and reclaimed wood, and is worth a look for the atmosphere alone. Whoever is in charge of the music is also great, as it’s pretty eclectic but always good. The location is off a side street close to St. Mark’s, and they don’t seem to mind if you nurse a cup of coffee for quite a while (it’s also possible that they took pity on my stressed state/thought I shouldn’t have any more caffeine). That being said, their food is also quite delicious.
The best place to run in the sleet and snow: Ok, so this might be a little bit of a lie. I loved running/ sliding on the ice along the Schuylkill River Trail, but that could be related to the fact that I’m a native Texan, and just recovered from an injury that kept me from running for two years. I got the all-clear from my doctor in January, and immediately started running on the trail. The trail runs through several parks, and is a great place to run/bike/rollerblade/chase goslings. In January, I would run into another person every half mile or so, but ever since the first 70-degree day, the place has been packed! There are tons of free events along the bank during the summer (like yoga), so it’s worth a stop even if you hate running.
The best happy hour: I’m not a big drinker, but I ADORE pizza, and Nomad Roman has some of the best in the city. They have a normal happy hour, and a late night happy hour on the weekends! The restaurant itself is beautiful and tiny, and the pizzas are really, really, good. The St. Mark’s house is a big fan, and when my sister came to visit I took her there purely for the joy of the Nutella pizza. Yeah, that’s right. Nutella. Pizza. You can also go outside of happy hour, but really, on a stipend, there is not much better than a five-dollar personal pizza.
This is obviously a teensy-tiny bit of what Philadelphia has to offer, and I invite you to take the time to explore and find your own favorites! There is more to Philadelphia than cheesesteaks.
Elizabeth Serves as a Case Manager at Bethesda Project.
Bees and New Beginnings
By Ellen Doster
While we here in Philadelphia were eagerly awaiting the seasons to finally stabilize into spring, the bee yards down in Georgia were already buzzing with activity. Honey bees are extremely sensitive to climate, and in the warmer south with its short winters and earlier springs, conditions are perfect for bees to start working. While everyone else is still warming up, bees in Georgia are already being prepared for their long journeys to other parts of the country. As I eagerly awaited the arrival of Saint Mark's bees in early April, I couldn't help but think about my own journey from Georgia to Philly. The weeks leading up to my move had gone fast. I was saying goodbye to a place that had become my home. I was spending precious time with my family. I was preparing to start a year of service living in an intentional community. I was anxious yet ready to just be here already, tired of being in the weird limbo of doing nothing before something big happens.
While the bees were being transported, it must have been a little like being in limbo. There's no hive to protect, no honeycomb to tend to; they don't have much else to do but eat the syrup that's been provided to sustain them during their travel. When they got here, our bees certainly had their work cut out for them. They had to start from scratch, making all new honeycomb and building up drastically reduced numbers. Beekeepers should always be attentive to their hives, but this time is especially crucial for giving the bees the help they need while they're getting established. Before we know it, the summer will have come and gone, and then the bees will have the winter to face, and they'll need our help to survive. To my utter delight, our bees soon began to flourish and continue to do so as we move into summer. What they've accomplished so far gives me hope that they will be strong enough to survive and thrive. If they make it through the winter, they can be even more productive next year since they won't be starting with nothing like they did this spring.
In a way, I can see similarities between my and the bees' journey. When I moved here, I was starting from scratch too. I had never been to Philadelphia before and I didn't know anyone. At first it was overwhelming being in a new environment and learning on the job. But with lots of support and encouragement, I've been able to find my place here and thrive. I know the summer will come and go before I know it, and I'll be moving on to other things, but the work that I've done here and the things that I've learned will be invaluable in helping me tackle new challenges. When I start my second year in Servant Year in the fall, I'll have more to learn, but I won't be starting from nothing. I'll have the past year's foundation built solidly in place, and from there, who knows how much I'll build in the coming months. For now, the bees and I still have a ways to go.
Ellen Serves as Ministry Resident at St. Mark's Church.