I am a person who likes to move fast. I like to talk fast --so fast that people often have trouble understanding what I’m saying. I like to walk fast --so fast that anyone under 5’9” usually complains. I eat fast. I get through emails fast. You know what isn’t fast? Helping organizations creak and groan and bend towards enacting their values.
For better or worse, I’ve grown accustomed to spending life on the move; bouncing off emails on the subway between tightly-packed meetings, or squeezing in a last-minute phone call with a fellow in that hour I had planned to sit down and draft a proposal. If I’m being honest, I’m writing these very words on my phone, riding the Orange Line subway between Assembly and Sullivan Square stations!
A couple of months ago, my mom gifted me a book titled The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection. Kind of obscure, yes? Danish culture is not something I am familiar with, nor is it part of my family background (though it is part of my husband’s). Even so, my mother found the concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) fitting for my personality and many of the things I care about. According to the book’s author Louisa Thomsen Britts, hygge is a “a quality of presence and an experience of belonging and togetherness. It is a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered… it is an experience of selfhood and communion with people and places that anchors and affirms us, gives us courage and consolation.”
Lately, I have been thinking about how we write about things that have never really existed. As an English and Creative Writing major, a longtime poet and lover of stories, I know a little bit about language’s power to articulate that which we cannot see or touch. I often find my greatest solace in my ability to articulate that which brings me joy or annoyance or curiosity or despair. But can existent vocabulary ever sufficiently articulate an imagined future? And how can we make our writing, our articulations, accessible to everyone?
Last weekend a group of us Life Together staff and fellows went on a contemplative retreat to Emery House, enjoying the hospitality of our friends at the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE). In some ways, winter is the best time to go on retreat; like the trees shorn of their leaves, preparing for spring, a winter retreat compels you to go inward and notice that which is harder to perceive during other seasons. I could admire the diverse array of birds flocking to the bare birch trees outside my bedroom window.
When I first saw the 6 or 7 foot portrait of this stunning being, I wondered why the leadership of the Mystic Soul Project chose him as one of the conference’s saints. I recognized names like Dolores Huerta and Sylvia Rivera, but had no idea who this man was. In general, iconography has never really interested me - and yet this man’s eyes drew me in.
I recently saw an exhibition called “(un)expected families” at the Museum of Fine Arts. There was one section displaying the photographs of “hidden mothers” – fascinating, sometimes unintentionally comical, Victorian-era photographs that show infants in the laps of mothers who are completely covered in and hidden under fabric.
The church loves to talk about welcome. From evangelical mega churches that put coffee shops in the foyer to progressive experiments with the format of ancient liturgies, people from a variety of contexts are thinking about how the Christian tradition might best embody welcome. If we’re being honest, though, sometimes self-preservation is at the heart of the effort. How can we preserve the community we love by drawing more people into it?
“Everyone has a home to go to, except me.” The patient whose hospital bed I’m sitting beside suddenly speaks without looking at me. She’s been silent for the past half hour of my chaplain visit, refusing to speak but also shaking her head each time I offer to leave. I take a deep breath and let myself feel the full weight of her words. I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 8:20. But the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. “Tell me more,” I say, and we look into each other’s eyes.
Living with L’Arche this summer, and now living and working with a homeless community in Boston called MANNA, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the idea that ‘All are Welcome’. The Rev. Cristina Rathbone, head priest and founder of the MANNA community, explains what it means to be welcome in our community, and her words resonate with the welcome I experienced in L’Arche:
How often are you left waiting in your day-to-day life? If you’re like me, you might find yourself increasingly impatient when the doctor is running 15 minutes late or even when the Internet page is slow to load. Our interconnected, high-tech culture is one of instant gratification: knowledge on any subject is at our fingertips, people are immediately available to answer our questions, and any object we desire can be on our doorstep in two days. So when we have to wait, we question whether it is worth it, whether that person or thing will ever come at all.
My two years as a fellow with Life Together were an immersion in inquiry, reflection, and search for integrity. I learned for the first time about the practice of community organizing -- of strategies of public disruption of the status quo and of building power -- the practice of living in intentional community -- of trying in imperfect and temporary ways to share resources and to make collective decisions -- and the practice of contemplative prayer -- of knowing myself and God more deeply and intimately than I had known.
Hey Life Together fam! I'm writing this the day after it was due (sorry Sydney!), with 51 unread emails in my inbox and an ever-expanding to-do list. In other words, my life is the opposite of together. And as my housemates know, my stress management strategies of choice are cooking and cleaning. This weekend, I culled our impressive collection of plastic grocery bags and engineered a hanging dispenser for them out of an old tissue box. I spent my Sunday afternoon de-cluttering the kitchen counters, while rice and beans simmered on the stove. Just last night, I procrastinated writing this very reflection by boiling dumplings for my housemates.
When I introduce Life Together to others, I often mention storytelling as one of our key practices. If you’ve been a fellow, you know why: it wouldn’t be a Life Together year without multiple training sessions devoted to the practice of public narrative, where one shares a personal story that invites others to action. And if you’ve been to our annual celebration, Love Matters, you’ve heard many such stories of this community’s impact on young leaders.
Sankofa originates from the Akan in Ghana. The Akan believe in the importance of using history as a blueprint for planning for what is ahead. Sankofa for me is the way that my grandparents raised their children on a small island in the Caribbean and how those values moved through my mother and later through me. From my earliest memories, my parents instilled in me the importance of helping others. As a college senior, I was contemplating next steps when Life Together emerged as an opportunity. As an endemic easterner completing undergrad in the Midwest, I was thrilled to return to the East Coast even if it was an unfamiliar city. I did not know it at the time, but I now recognize that move as honoring my sankofa.
I have witnessed again and again the power of the question, “What are you reading?” to spark conversation and connection. Not surprisingly, this question turns out to be particularly fruitful when asked within the Life Together community, a place where so many gifts, interests, and passions meet and gather. It was through this question that I recently discovered Madeline L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.” Throughout the book, L’Engle explores the question of what happens to our creative impulses as we grow up into a world that so often prioritizes output and productivity over the meandering whimsy of the creative process.
Last Friday, I loaded with the fellows onto a small white school bus and headed through Lawrence to Esperanza Academy. Life Together is in its sixth year of partnership with Esperanza, where four fellows are placed as co-teachers at a tuition-free Episcopal school for middle school girls. We were there that training day to learn more about urban education. We observed classes taught by fellows, ate far better cafeteria food than I remember from my own middle school days, and then spent some time reflecting on the intersections between education and our own lives. "Where in your own work," the Esperanza fellows asked the rest of us, "are you an educator?"
I was a Micah Fellow from August 2013 through June 2014, at the South Coast site in Fall River. I shared a house with three fantastic housemates and have incredible memories of my year there! My work placement was with United Neighbors of Fall River, and my position was funded by Partners for a Healthy Community - one of twenty-plus Community Health Network Areas that cover Massachusetts. In this job, I got to be involved in local health initiatives, take on a project targeting homelessness in our region, and work with a myriad of community agencies every day.
Through her powerful and compelling poetry, Jacqueline Woodson began this school year for our sixth graders with this message: you will change the world, and there are many ways to do it. As she traces her own course of political action in her book Brown Girl Dreaming--whether to follow the likes of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, or Ruby Bridges--she invites the reader to do the same. This prophetic imagination is vital to what James Baldwin characterizes as the very purpose of education.
"Joining the LT community has been such an honor, and it is a privilege to work for and belong to such a loving and supportive community. I am looking forward to working with fellows and assisting them with program issues, discerning for seminary, and financial planning. As the Development and Operations Manager, I take my duties very seriously and care deeply for the development and spiritual success of every fellow I come in contact with. Life Together has a great reputation, and I am happy to be part of the team and community."
Jerry Ellis is a leader in labor economics and poverty and an award winning teacher and researcher from the University of Minnesota, where he obtained his PhD in labor economics and organizational psychology.