Thursday, July 30, 2015

Umbrellas and Gratitude

by Clara Summers

I believe that giving and receiving gratitude is a good practice in one’s life. Science backs me up on this. This blog post is less a meditation on my year than a thank you to all the people who made it what it was.

Early on in my ESC year, I found myself on an unfamiliar street, after dark, in the pouring rain, without a raincoat or umbrella.

I had spent the evening unsuccessfully trying to navigate the Baltimore bus system to get to an outreach meeting. After three buses (the same route, but going three different places!) and a twenty-block walk, I arrived 45 minutes late to my meeting, soaking wet. I stumbled through a five-minute presentation, drawing little interest from those I was meeting with, and traipsed back outside to catch a bus that (the internet told me) would take me straight home. Instead, I ended up in an unknown neighborhood.

I was pretty miserable. The evening had been too long, too wet, and too frustrating. The meeting hadn’t been productive, and now I was lost.[1]
“Can you give me the number of a taxi?” I called my housemate, Kelly, fighting off tears.
“Are you ok? I’ll come pick you up. Where are you?”
Kelly figured out my location and set off to be my Housemate Hero of the Day. As I waited in the rain, an older woman walked by me into one of the nearby rowhouses. I didn’t think anything of it, and continued to stare into the rain.

The next thing I knew, the woman had returned and was holding out a pink umbrella. “This is for you,” she said.
“Oh my goodness, that’s so nice of you. Are you sure? I don’t want to take it away from you, and I couldn’t get any wetter than I already am.” I answered.
“Yes I’m sure, I don’t want you to catch cold,” she insisted.
I thanked the woman, took the umbrella, and watched as she returned to her house. In a few minutes, Kelly arrived, and I gratefully climbed into her car, finally on my way home.
Even though I'm vegetarian, I like that this
is the quintessential Baltimore restaurant.

I often think of the woman and her pink umbrella. She was my guardian angel that night, giving me something she knew she wouldn’t get back, and showing her care for a stranger she could have easily ignored. For me, she exemplifies much of my relationship with Baltimore. Sometimes things were tough, and all I wanted was to be gone or out of whatever difficult situation I found myself in. But time and time again, Baltimore and its inhabitants came through for me in more ways than I ever anticipated. Whether it was strangers or new friends, people looked out for me and brought me into their communities, showing me that I had a place with them and in Baltimore.

I’ve struggled to find ways to express my gratitude to all the people who took me under their wing this year. So here, in my imperfect way, I will do my best to thank some of the communities that shaped my year, mostly without naming individuals (you know who you are). Warning: if you don’t like gratuitous gratitude, here is where you stop reading.

Thank you, dancers: One of the ways that I acclimatize myself to a new place is by going out and participating in activities. At the beginning, this took the form of participating in the Community Project, a collaborative dance class and performance organized by The Collective as a program of Free Fall Baltimore. The experience of co-creating choreography and getting to dance with Baltimoreans of all dance levels was rewarding, and gave me my first taste of the friendliness and community that I now associate with this city. I went on to frequent contra dance, a program of the Baltimore Folk Music Society, and decompressed at Charm City Yoga.

Thank you, friends: Aside from the people I met through dance, I was very fortunate in that I chanced upon like-minded people throughout the year, and quickly had a network of friends who were always up for getting together to cook, listen to music, go to events, or simply relax and talk. These friends gave me rides, invited me over to their homes, introduced me to others, shared my joys, and supported me when I was down.

Thank you, church: Early on in my year I was introduced to six:eight United Church of Christ, which became my church home. I spent my Sunday evenings in worship with this intimate group of bluegrass-playing Jesus-loving justice warriors (some of whom were my colleagues!). Basically it was a church community that was designed for me, and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.

Thank you, colleagues: The most defining aspect of my year was my work. I had the privilege of collaborating with an amazing network of climate activists and faith leaders this year. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, especially about organizing and policy, but also about faith and how to be a good human. Many of my colleagues became my personal friends, which has been a wonderful part of this year.

Thank you, IPL: I couldn’t have asked for a better site placement. The IPL team is made up of powerful women who are changing DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia one climate-conscious congregation at a time. They have taught me so much, and their unfailing support and trust in me allowed me to do things I never thought I could do. Talk about professional development! You know you’re in a good workplace when staff meetings start with professional and personal updates, and your supervisors encourage you to go for extra fellowships, even if it will take up work time. I’ve spent this year learning from the best. I’ll probably be pretty spoiled going forward, since I know what good management and a supportive work environment looks like now ;-).

Thank you, ESC: There are a variety of models out there for service corps, but I think ESC has found the right one. I looked forward to Reflection Seminar each week; Thursday afternoons turned into a sort of extra Sabbath for me. Retreats throughout the year kept us grounded, community dinners provided social connection, and having a Spiritual Mentor was a huge source of support. The people involved in ESC were also incredibly supportive of my work with IPL: they signed clergy sign-on letters, and the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels (which owns Gilead House) even signed up for 100% wind electricity. All of the clergy and lay leaders who put their time into ESC are outstanding individuals, and I’m glad I got to have them in my life.

Thank you, fellow Gileads: Last but not least are my housemates. You put up with me this year! There were rough times, there were good times, and we’ve made it through. Each person in the house, at one time or another, acted as my Housemate Hero of the Day (special shout out to Margaret, who, as my roommate, was a huge support). This took a variety of forms, including but not limited to: giving me massages, picking up bubble tea, feeding me when I was sick, or simply listening attentively. From you all, I finally fully comprehend that there is no one ideal set of skills or character traits—there are endless combinations, and all have their unique and powerful contribution to the world.

In summary, people treated me very well this year, and I’m so grateful. Everywhere I went in Baltimore, I met people who were dedicated to making the world and their city a better place. Learning from these people, and seeing all the great work being done by religious communities, has strengthened my faith and commitment to creating positive change. Thanks for feeding my soul. Our paths will cross again!

[1] Those of you who know me will remember that I don’t have a smart phone, so I am actually still capable of getting lost.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The events surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, from the perspective of someone living in Baltimore

by Clara Summers

"Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me
Open my heart, illumine me
Spirit Divine"

Over the past few weeks, I've had "Open My Eyes," a hymn by Clara H. Scott, stuck in my head. It has formed the backdrop of my experiences since the killing of Freddie Gray in police custody. Over the course of my lifetime, but particularly in this last year and past few weeks, I feel that my eyes have slowly been opened to the realities of racism in the United States--realities that I did not always see. What I've witnessed this year in Baltimore has blatantly highlighted the structural racism and disparities between white and black Americans. If you want to see some of the materials that have influenced/reflect my thoughts on race in the U.S., I recommend this and this and this and this.

So let's talk about what's been happening here in Baltimore. 

On April 12th, Freddie Gray, a black man in his mid-twenties, was arrested in the Sandtown neighborhood after making eye contact with police and then running. Police chased him down, searched him, said that the knife he had on his person was illegal, and arrested him. He requested medical attention. He was not buckled down in the van. The van made several stops, he was taken out once to be shackled, and by the time the van arrived at the Western Precinct station, Freddie Gray was unresponsive. His spine was reportedly 80% of the way severed at his neck.[1]  He was taken to a hospital, where he spent a week in a coma, and died.

Freddie Gray's death in police custody is only the most recent in decades of similar deaths, and only one of many horrifying miscarriages of force by the Baltimore City police department. It's been going on for a very long time. Only recently, however, have these deaths been highlighted in the media (notably, the death of Eric Garner in NYC and Michael Brown in Ferguson). Freddie Gray's death has to be viewed as part of a wider context of racism and police brutality, and here in Baltimore, people are justifiably fed up. In response, people took to the streets in peaceful protest, to demand the indictment of the police involved. A civilian was killed in police custody, and there needs to be accountability.

April 21st, at the beginning of the march to the Western Precinct
I joined one of the early protests in Sandtown on April 21st. The crowd, which was predominantly black and from the neighborhood, gathered at the intersection where Freddie Gray was arrested. From there we marched to the Western Precinct police station. The police presence was very visible, and there were three helicopters circling above (keep in mind that this was a completely peaceful protest and no violence whatsoever had yet broken out). In the crowd, we chanted things like "No justice, no peace" and "Hands up, don't shoot." The most heartbreaking thing for me that day was seeing all the little children who had already learned "hands up, don't shoot." A black father standing in front of me had his toddler son on his shoulders, and it was painful to watch them both raise their hands for the "hands up, don't shoot" chant. A little kid should not have to know something like that. By the time I left the protest, the crowd had swelled to several hundred. My friend and I passed six police on horseback on our way out.

Peaceful protests continued over the next few days, growing larger and larger each time. Despite the fact that they were peaceful, Gov. Hogan brought the State Troopers into Baltimore on Friday. The Fraternal Order of the Police issued a statement saying that they were concerned by the "rhetoric" of the protesters. Seriously? Us saying that the police involved should be tried for the death of a civilian in their custody is threatening? 

By Saturday, thousands of people were peacefully marching to demand justice for Freddie Gray. The protest was large and peaceful until just before the end, when a small group broke off and started vandalizing downtown (the police presence was also very large). From my friends who were present at the march, it also sounds as if Orioles fans leaving the stadium began heckling protesters and started some altercations. The family of Freddie Gray asked for a two-day moratorium on protests, as they held his wake and funeral on Sunday and Monday.

Monday has already become infamous, and I'm not going to dwell on it, except to say that what you're hearing about how it started is probably not accurate. The looting did hit our neighborhood and there were fires around the city. 

What I want to talk about is what happened next. Here is my account of what happened the day afterwards, on Tuesday, April 28th (originally written on Facebook): 

April 28th, in front of the National Guard in Sandtown
"This is how Baltimore does things: this morning, people across the city gathered to clean up the mess caused by looting and fires. Others made sandwiches for those cleaning the streets, or kids who didn't have school lunch to feed them (since all the public schools were closed). Churches opened up to be community centers for the day, feed people, and provide support. Prayer services, vigils, and conversations were held. And this afternoon and evening, at the same intersection where a CVS was looted and burned yesterday, people prayed together, sang songs, roller skated, danced, played the drums, and connected with members of their community. Given that this was right in front of the National Guard and police in full riot gear, this was an amazing show of restraint. My housemates and I came to join what we thought would be another demonstration, and it was a demonstration: a demonstration of resilience and deep love for the community. ‪#‎BaltimoreStrong‬ ‪#‎BaltimoreCoverageYouMayNotSee‬"

Since that day, I've been to two more demonstrations and another prayer service. Throughout this time, the word that I have heard repeated over and over again is "community." Baltimoreans care deeply for their city, and this whole year I've been struck by all of the amazing, thoughtful work that everyone I meet here is doing to make things better. So if I'm completely honest, I've spent the past two weeks full of frustration and rage at how most media around this issue has focused on the violence and characterized people as thugs. While I don't believe that violence is ever a solution, for once in my life, I'm having difficulty outright condemning it. People protested peacefully for a full week before any violence broke out, and yet no one could be bothered to pay attention to the death of a civilian until the rioting. 

We need to be a society that has a more nuanced definition of violence. To quote Rev. Heber Brown III, who has been one of the leading clergy on this issue, "Violence is not broken windows, violence is lead in the water pipes." In Baltimore and throughout this country, people of color have suffered from the violence of police brutality, from the violence of poverty, from the violence of disinvestment in communities, from the violence of housing segregation, from the violence of environmental racism...the list goes on. Why are we so quick to condemn broken windows, and so slow to condemn systems that have allowed so many people of color to be killed in police custody, with no accountability for their killers? It's infuriating, and I understand why people were angry enough to riot. 
May 1st, marching Downtown

There's so much more I want to say. The city looks like a war zone because of the National Guard presence. Curfew is being enforced unequally. Police presence at protests is different depending on whether the march is members of the community in Sandtown versus students in Downtown. But I'm not going to get to all of that.

While I am frustrated and angry, I do have hope. Baltimore is resilient and the people here live the meaning of "community" in a way I haven't encountered anywhere else. Protests have continued (again, peacefully), and conversations about the underlying issues that led up to Freddie Gray's death are being had in thoughtful and critical ways. State Attorney Marilyn Mosby is bringing charges against the six police involved. For myself, I will continue to peacefully protest, and call for a fair trial. I will continue to work for a more nuanced understanding of what violence is, and I will pray that we as a country have come to a tipping point where we will have the difficult discussions that need to be had and do the difficult things that need to be done to truly bring about liberty and justice for all. 

Open my eyes, that I may see. 

You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Leviticus 19:16

Friday, April 17, 2015

Coming to ESC, Margaret's Story

I first heard of Episcopal Service Corps a little over two years ago, and told myself I'd apply if I didn't hear back from a different program that I'd already applied for.

That program was Young Adult Service Corps, or YASC for short. Like ESC, YASC is a service program run by the Episcopal Church, only a YASC year is spent serving abroad.  Think of it sort of as the difference between Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. 

In order to do YASC, I had to go to a two-week training before I would go on to my host site.  That training was spent with my fellow YASC volunteers, and with several older adult missioners from around the church, including a man from the Diocese of Maryland, Dan Tootle. 

With YASC, I served one year teaching at an Episcopal school in the northern Philippines.  I knew, midway through my year there that I wanted to continue doing service work, and if possible, to do it with the Episcopal Church.  I also knew I wanted to be somewhat closer than half the world away from my home.  So I applied for ESC.  When asked to list my top programs, I added Maryland's Gilead House because Dan Tootle asked me to do so. 

The interviewing process was a bit interesting (for interesting, read sleep-deprivation, 12 hour time differences are not fun), but I knew after my first few conversations with ESC MD that I should be here. 

Coming to ESC MD, each of us works with a host site during the work week, a place where we do service work focused on various poverty and justice issues in Baltimore city.  I in particular work with House of Ruth Maryland, the primary domestic and intimate partner violence agency serving Baltimore city.  In particular I work in the Client Service Coordination department.  Basically, Client Service Ccoordination is the department that focuses on helping people leaving domestically violent situations to rebuild their lives.  We connect clients to resources, help them plan their next steps, and act as an advocate for them both within our agency and while making contact with outside agencies they call for support or resources. 

When I start to describe my work, people respond by saying something about how hard it must be to do this job.  And they're right.  It is hard.  Daily there's a struggle to connect people to resources that are often full up, or that require resources that they don't have.  It's hard talking to the clients, mostly women, as they tell their stories, as they speak about violence and threats, betrayals of trust and insults, about the daily ways they were terrorized and controlled by people they should have been able to count on.  I hear women and men calling in, telling me that they were so stupid, asking me what they did wrong to deserve this.  As if anyone could ever do something to deserve abuse.  it is hard. 

But what makes it worth it is that we are here.  Day by day, the people at House of Ruth show up again.  I go to work surrounded by healers and warriors.  I work with people who go to bat every day for our clients, who dig out every possible resource, who counsel and support our clients.  I work with people who help these women and men find their own worth and strength again. 

ESC gave me that same opportunity to stand up.  It gave me a chance to push myself beyond my limits, to see myself as strong enough to give this kind of help and support.  That wasn't something I was sure I could do before this year.  For that, I am grateful. 

And I'm also grateful for the community that I am part of.  Gilead House is filled with people who all care about the world, about giving back to the people who surround us.  One thing I craved when I was doing YASC was a sense of local community, as my YASC support community was spread across the globe, often with very poor internet connections. 

We interns don't always see eye to eye.  We've had lots of discussions over different meanings behind words and expectations, and the precise definition of clean is still up in the air seven months in.  We've had arguments that nearly shook the house, rapprochements, tense quiet, and times where we have just shoved an argument under the rug because it was useless to discuss it any further.  There have been days where I've sworn that being in community was harder than my day job at my host site.

And that's what it is.  Being in an intentional community like ours is hard work.  Combining seven very opinionated, strong-willed individuals who mostly did not know each other at all before the year began is never an easy thing. 

But just like my job, the hard work is good, is necessary.  We learn from one another, from our stress and arguments and the times we want to throw each other off of a seven-story building.   But we also learn from each other in the quiet moments.  We learn that when someone's had a truly hard day, someone else will cover their dinner, or take on their choir.  If someone's feeling sick, there will always be at least one person checking in to see if there's a need for a ginger-ale or tea run.  We learn to care about one another's interests.  We've learned that while getting all seven of us to do anything is like herding cats, but less productive, we can normally get three or four people going someplace and having a great time. 

I know that Jarred will always get it when I rant about homelessness in Baltimore, because his work overlaps a lot with mine and he has the same frustrations and joys. 

I know that Kelly will always have the best stories about the goats at her farm, and that she's always interested in going out and doing things as a group, so if I have something I want to try she'll be in for it if she can. 

I know that Sarah will have a kind word for everyone, and that she will listen to everybody's day first. I know that she puts her heart and soul into her work with ESC and her work with her own charity, Hearts for People.

I know that Matthew and I can geek out a lot, and that even if we have very different takes on the same interests, we have that common pool of references to play with.  And yes, bagpipes are still one of the best instruments known to man.

I know that Dan is always up for pizza, that he'll be the one to try and lighten the mood with a joke, and that he and I can do our science geek practically in unison. 

 I know that I lucked out in getting Clara as my roommate for half the year, that our complimentary tastes in music means that now approximately 3/4ths of our music libraries overlap, and that she will pull me out dancing every few months to remind me how much I love it. 

I know that they know things like this about me now, both silly and serious, and that years on I will begin to understand how much they have shaped my life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Coming to ESC Maryland, Kelly's Story

Several of us were recently asked to present at a church about what led us to Episcopal Service Corps Maryland, and how that has affected us.  First up telling her story is Kelly, working with Great Kids Farm.

Hi, my name is Kelly Crabtree, I am here today with Jarred Ervin and Margaret Clinch and we are members of the Episcopal Service Corps-Maryland this year. We are here today to share our stories. Sharing, listening and understanding personal narratives are key for communities, especially church communities. After all we read stories every Sunday, so why shouldn’t also share our own with one another? To share, listen and understand these stories allows us to deepen in our relationships with one another and grow together as a community. Our service corps community has definitely experienced this so far within our year and hope to illustrate some of this to you with our own personal narratives we are going to describe today. We are each going to tell you how we came to the Service Corps as well as how this year of our lives has played out thus far. We hope that this propels all of us to share, listen, and understand with all our hearts of what our Church is really capable of doing in our world today.
So, I am originally from NW Washington, DC, born and raised. I was baptized Methodist, but my family did not stay long in the Methodist church. Eventually my parents no longer wanted to deal with the weekly Sunday struggle of getting my brother and I to Sunday School, and my parents did not have a strong connection to the Methodist parish at the time, so we took a break from the church. A couple years later, when I was about 12, my parents decided on instead of choosing based on denomination, we were going to look in terms of geography!
So exactly one block away from our house is St. Columba’s Episcopal Church and that is where we went! 
St. C’s quickly became the right home for my family. I entered the Rite 13 program, with instead of a mom pushing me to go no matter what, to an approach that put it more into my hands. I was to give it a try for a month or so and then decide whether or not I was going keep going. I didn’t realize this until now, but my mom put my spiritual journey into my own hands at that point, and this is what allowed me to claim my faith for my own. I finished Rite 13, continued onto to J2A going on the life-changing Pilgrimage and then finishing with YAC. Throughout my time in the youth program I learned about myself in a way that was completely new to me. Some of most important teachings that came out of this time for me was the following:
-My faith is personal, there is no right or wrong. It’s mine to own to claim and no one else can do that for me.
-Acting my faith had the deepest meaning to me in service. We are God’s hands and feet in the world.
and lastly,
-I am meant to be in community. This is how I deepen my faith, strengthen my core and find the most support in my life.
These lessons were both learned inside and outside the Sunday school classroom. I could go on and on about all the experiences I had, but I want to highlight one of them.
This is the first Mission Trip I went on with St. C’s. I went to North Dakota, with six other young persons and four adult leaders, to an Indian Reservation. We spent a week in community with one another and another community from Pennsylvania. There we helped with home repairs for two families on the reservation. I entered this trip completely unsure of my capabilities, and myself but found that the strength of my faith community I was with and the importance of our service for this week to overcame all of my insecurities. Therefore, I went away from this week knowing truly where I am called to in the church. After this experience, I continued to go on service trips every summer, and now I lead them. I have gone to the Gulf Coast doing hurricane Katrina and Ike relief, revisited North Dakota, and now the past four years have been going to West Virginia on St. Columba’s Appalachian project.  On all of these trips, we build a week-long community of worship, service to others and developing relationships. And this was one of the foundations that I brought with me into this year with me.
So the two main reasons I felt as though the Episcopal Service Corps was the path I was called to after college, was because of faith community you build for a year coupled with the dedication to service, which I felt mirrored the mission trips I went on. While, these still remain true for the year, they have been changed and transformed into ways that I had never anticipated.
The start of my year was rough; I lost a beloved pet, was very ill in the beginning, lost my grandmother and had various family affairs going on. I was not present in the community and my beginning experiences really tested me in terms of allowing a new group of people into my life, when I was feeling so raw. Though eventually I was able to open up and come to appreciate what we were constructing with one another. Our community definitely has not had the easiest time coming together, but in reality no community is perfect. It is a constant roller coaster ride, with twists and turns you never expect. But with these surprises and changes comes growth and that is something I have cherished from my time in the Episcopal Service Corps. I have grown to understand myself in an enlightening way, I have grown deeper into my faith journey- I have actually just completed the course to become confirmed in the Epsicopal Church and then I have grown professionally-really finding my cause in this world.
I am serving at Great Kids Farm in Catonsville- where I am the Assistant Farmer. Great Kids Farm is a Baltimore City Public School campus, that is a fully functioning production farm as well as an educational farm. We work to get fresh organic produce grown by city school students into city school cafeterias. We also work to educate students on healthy eating, living and growing their own food. I have learned a lot more than how to grow food from this job that I can’t even begin to describe. This place has brought me so much joy, light and love into my life that I will cherish with me every day after this year is completed.
This year has allowed me to find a way to live out my faith with the gifts given to me by God. And this is what I am truly grateful for. As Romans chapter 12 says, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, we who are many are one body in Christ and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace give to us.” Find your gifts, cherish them and act of them because no one else, but you can.
Thank you for listening to my story.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Garden Summit, aka Dance Off

This post was written by Kelly Crabtree, interning with Great Kids Farm, a Baltimore City Schools campus which also serves as a working farm supplying vegetables in school lunchrooms throughout Baltimore City.  
Great Kids Farm has two summits in the school year. The first being the Good Food Day on National Good Food day in the fall. At this summit students come and learn about healthy eating and are given samples of healthy snacks and meals from Baltimore City School high school students that are in culinary programs. During this summit, I was given the role of leading a group of students from the tasting sessions and around the farm, which was eye-opening to really the vast knowledge the farm exposes students to during their brief time there. 
The second summit is in the spring and is the Garden Summit, which is a multitude of workshops highlighting the important elements of outdoor education in gardens. Due to the popularity of this summit and the frequent returning schools, the Garden Summit this year, was broken into two days: Beginner and Advanced. The beginner level was for students and teachers who have not been to the farm yet, or do not have a bunch of experience utilizing the outdoor education space of a garden, so workshops included seasonality: planting within the school year, transplanting herbs and planting from seed, taking tour a of the farm, and planting trees. I led the tree planting workshop, where we planted 8 pear trees! 
The second day, we had a pruning workshop, a tour of alternative growing spaces, planting in alternative growing spaces and then all the students learned the Gimme Five Dance. The Gimme Five Dance is a dance choreographed to a snippet of the popular song Uptown Funk. It is part of the Gimme Five Challenge Michelle Obama created for the fifth anniversary of her Let’s Move Campaign. She is challenging people to show her five ways to live a healthy life, so what better way than to dance? 
Below is the video taken after all the students learned it, we all danced together at the end of the Summit celebrating living healthy lives with healthy food! 

Sunday, March 15, 2015


This post was originally posted March 9th on the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services site: 

Posted with permission from Sarah Harrs

BarbedWire600Immigration detention separates migrants from their families and isolates those who desperately need security and to feel hope for their future. Breaking down this isolation is a core part of LIRS’s mission to welcome the stranger. And through the help of LIRS’s Visitation Ministry funding, hundreds around the country walk alongside detainees and offer critical compassion and encouragement.

LIRS Program Fellow Sarah Harrs recently visited one man held in a detention facility in Georgia. She shares her experience in this blog post. 

Sarah writes:

I followed a small family and two other volunteers into the tiny, fluorescent-lit visitor’s room. I clung to the back wall and watched as the family gathered at one window, cradling the phone as they stared through the glass at their loved one. Three men stood on the other side of the window and we three visitors hesitantly looked across at them. With only a name and an A-number [the nine digit number issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to identify immigrants], finding my detainee was a game of chance.

The other two volunteers sat down at the counter and I followed suit. A Latino man sat across from me. I nervously picked up the heavy black telephone attached to the wall.  Would the conversation be awkward? What would two strangers talk about for an hour? “Alex?” I hesitantly asked. He smiled and nodded.

As we began talking, the guards in the room, the barbed wire, and the airport-like security suddenly melted away. We spoke about everything from Clive Cussler books to our dreams for the future. But mostly, we talked about our families. He has five sons, the eldest of whom is seven, the youngest is six months old. He hasn’t seen them in four months. Later, I pondered how quickly a baby grows. Alex has missed seeing his son roll over, sit up, and grab his first toy. His youngest son doesn’t know who he is.

Alex told me that he was brought to the United States when he was two years old. All of his siblings were born on U.S. soil, as were his children. He is the only non-citizen in his immediate family. If he is deported, he will be sent to a country he has never known and separated from his siblings, his wife, and his children for a decade or more.

Alex’s heartbreaking story is, sadly, not unusual. Every day, 34,000 immigrants are held in detention facilities around the country. LIRS partners like Lutheran Services of Georgia and El Refugio, two visitation ministries in Georgia, organize volunteers to visit with individuals in detention each week or month. They bring a little bit of hope, a little bit of the outside world, into one of the darkest and most hopeless places in this country.

Alex lived less than thirty minutes from where I went to school. We may have crossed paths years ago and never even known it. I think of that when I sit next to strangers on the bus or when I see a family crossing the street near my house. Immigrants who end up in detention facilities are not distant far away strangers. They are our neighbors. They are right in our backyard. They are the ones who bear the weight of a devastating immigration detention system.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


         My name is Kelly. I was born and raised in Washington, DC. Then moved to Chicago for school. Now currently living in Baltimore. I have claimed that I will always and forever be a city girl, but despite this fact I have become a farmer. Yes you read it right, a farmer. I am currently working as the farmhand/farm assistant at Great Kids Farm in Catonsville, MD.  I have always been passionate about food policy and food justice after my first college course entitled Discover Chicago: Food, which turned out to be about the food issues in our society (not trying all the amazing restaurants Chicago has to offer). In this change of coursework I found my true calling in my life. –Connecting people to their food-
            After much studying, discussions and readings, I felt that I could only go so far with what I have read in a book and talked about with fellow classmates. Learning how to actually grow my own food is what I needed to know before I could progress any further on solving the issues I see in our Food System today. Episcopal Service Corps-MD gave me the unique opportunity to allow me to explore this new knowledge I hoped to gain through a year of discernment in an intentional community.
            Now I have been the farm assistant for five months and boy how my life changed-in both the daily happenings as well as what my role is meant to be in fight for Food Justice. In terms of my daily life, I have transitioned from waking up, going to Starbucks, reading my coursework and bumming around on Pintrest to waking up, drinking tea out of one of many mason jars I have accumulated, arriving to the farm and checking on Goats, watering micro greens, checking on our seedlings and other vegetables on the farm, dumping compost into the pile, checking temperatures of our compost and recording them and so much more that I could have never even anticipated. After five months as a farmer, I think I have done more different tasks each day than I have ever done my whole life. Who would’ve thought I would be able to help repair a deer fence? Or deliver 255 bags of soils to different schools? Carry an 80lbs bag of cement? Haul produce in and out of coolers to be washed then processed? Coordinate garden deliveries to schools? Work with high school students to get produce into their cafeterias? And I could keep going on and on.
As you can see my life has become quite different than I am used to, but this dramatic shift has allowed me to grow as a person, deepen my understanding of my true passion in life and truly help me define the role I am meant to play in the fight Food Justice and Great Kids Farm has done all of this for me. This place has not only taught me how to grow food, they have shown me how integral our students are in the way we are changing the way we see food in their cafeterias. Being able to have not only fresh produce on BCPS salad bars, but also organic and grown by BCPS students is what truly makes the impact. Our food is so much more than something on our plate; it has the power to connect students that might never actually meet, by connecting them through the carrots, beets and cabbages on another student’s plate. Great Kids knows the importance of this essential relationship and has been illustrating this every day to me and those students at lunchtime. I now know and understand that I must strive to be more connected to building that relationship between students and the farm and I thank the Great Kids Farm staff and volunteers for helping me discern this for myself.