Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spring Break 2010 - Newark, NJ - "Community"

“So what do you like about your community?”

If someone were to ask me this question, I would say I love how there are mass amounts of people that surround my everyday life. At 12 and 6pm, I know anywhere from 5 to 25 friends will be eating lunch or dinner in the dining hall on campus. When I enter the Middle House, I know my roommates will be home, ready to discuss the day’s events. Despite recent increases in lack of sleep due to senior projects, I really am happy learning and thriving in an environment where I feel comfortable and safe.

Yes, I am comfortable and safe.

The Middle House girls.

But it’s not hard to feel at ease when you live near the ocean, know your parent’s will still pay for your gas, and are aware that your sole purpose in life right now is to simply “do well” in school. It’s okay to feel content with a situation. Yet, when I visit Newark I am always reminded of the immense amount of blessings in my life… and how agonizing permanent “content-ness” can be.

“So what do you like about your community?” I asked Erica. She was a skinny woman with a mixed ethnicity and a pretty, smooth face. Hanging outside her window in Hyatt Court, she smiled a wide grin, showing her missing teeth.

Two other CNU students and I were down in the projects on our second day in NJ. Our goal was to interview random strangers about what they wanted to see happening in their community. How could Trinity Church help? What were the pros and cons of living in Newark?

My interviewing group with Iain and Kelsey

Erica was the first person that would talk to us. She was the grandmother to a few of the children we knew from the after school program, and was well-respected in Hyatt. But to me, the most prominent feature about Erica were her dazzling green eyes. They looked like pieces of jade marble staring into your mind, and when the sunlight shown on her face I can easily admit they are the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.

“Well our community don’t kill one another like they do up the street,” she said, still talking to us from inside of her first-floor window. A man named Jamal nodded in agreement. “Yeah… there always killing someone.” He stood beside her window, but was outside of the building, positioned near us. He was a mellow man, and persistently nodded throughout the entirety of our conversation.

Erica continued to speak. “But, no… here? We are kinda like family, ya know? Like everyone’s got everyone’s back, you know? You’re not gonna see him killing him and him killing her… No, we got it good in Hyatt. You know, my mother used to manage this place? Yeah, she used to have all these things for the children. Yeah, but it’s hard. But we’re a family.”

I’m not going to lie.

This took me a little bit by surprise. I couldn’t help but egotistically think, “You got it good? You are living in a freaking hellhole! There are rats, and it’s not safe, and maybe you don’t kill each other but there are gangs and sexual abuse…” The list could go on.

But Erica took pride in her home. She went on to talk more about her mother running Hyatt and the renovations that the city had completed. The halls of the projects had been repainted and traps had been set for the rodents. Erica might not have a beach, or a dining hall, but she was proud of what she did have, and found joy in what I would consider squalor.

She reminded me that my socialization is a lucky one and not the standard. She reminded me that my way is not necessarily better and that evil or ignorance can consume any economic class. She reminded me to not only “count my blessings” but be aware of the less desired and marginalized.

And you would think after four years I would remember this. Fail.

I looked into her sparkling green eyes. Tears were forming and she began to profusely thank us for coming to Newark and asking about her community.

“We need you guys. We NEED you,” she kept saying. “Oh… oh we need you,” a fat tear rolled down her face.

Not really sure what to do next, we finished the interview and asked if we could pray for her. Now, if the situation had been different, I would have laughed out loud. Imagine: three white suburban kids, standing in the middle of the projects, holding the hands of a women who is leaning as far out of a window as she can to grab our hands. Not only are we all stretched in odd positions, but it almost looks as if we are pulling Erica out of her window.

“Thank you… thank you. Thank you for coming,” she said, oblivious of the humorous circumstance.

Well green-eyed Erica. I should thank you for the reminder to continue to broaden my perspectives and extend a hand to those who are not “comfortable” or “safe.” I should remember to be happy where I am, knowledgeable and proactive about others' inequalities, and not dread what is to come. Besides, I've always enjoyed a good adventure...

With the future so unsure as graduation approaches, I hope to be as joyful as Erica in any situation thrown my way.

What will I like about my future community?

One thing I do know: I really do not like rats. Can my future please avoid small rodents of any kind? Thanks...

Lovely squalor, isn't it?


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Break 2010 - Newark, NJ - "Contradictions"

I stepped out of my car into the twilight of a chilly New Jersey evening. “Well, hello Newark,” I thought to myself. “It’s been awhile.”

I was facing Trinity Church, and Hawkins Elementary School lay behind me. Vicks Cafe was across the street, and the Hyatt projects were just down the road on the left.

Vic's Cafe - Best coffee ever

Trinity Reformed Church

Hawkins Elementary School

Hyatt Projects

Surprisingly, I felt at home. The normalcy of Newark and my comfort shocked even myself. Four years ago, on my first trip to New Jersey I was agitated and cold. Now I was joyful… though still a little cold.

A team of 40 CNU students arrived periodically throughout Saturday afternoon. The plan for the weekend consisted of a church service Sunday morning and a New York City trip that afternoon/evening. Then on Monday we would plan for the rest of our stay. We split into two groups: half the team would stay at Trinity and go to the elementary schools from 11:30 to 2:30 to assist teachers. In the afternoons that same group would help run the afterschool program, SHACK.

The other part of the team would be working at a church downtown, by helping with the homeless ministry and doing work projects. Finally, both teams would gather together for a community dinner at Trinity church.

Sunday comes and goes – New York City was, of course, fabulous. One of the interns at the church, Asa, showed a few of us his favorite spots and David and I finally got to eat out favorite brie and turkey sandwiches we experienced over Fall Break once again. I love New York. The End.

Oh the things you'll find in the city.

Onto Monday. This was the team’s planning day. Everyone was signing up for different jobs; some were on worship team, others were in charge of stations the children would rotate though during the after-school program, and some were on a skit team. I sat beside my friend Kelsey, while both of us tried to figure out where we would best be useful.

Well… I’m not one to sing in public. Scratch worship team off the list.

And I’m not a skit-team kind of funny. Scratch.

There was the Bible verse team? I could do that. So Kelsey and I wrote on names on a sheet of paper and volunteered to present the Bible stories and verses daily.

About five minutes later I realized my mistake. Bible verse team? I don’t know ANY bible verses! Present the stories for the week? I only know the basics! I am a failure when it comes to memorizing the Bible. And though I would never say it in the church, the phrase “F my life” rolled through my mind (for those readers who don’t know what that means – don’t worry about it. And don’t Google it).

So I panicked for a brief second. This prompted my internal contradiction for the week: pride vs. low self-esteem. I am always a contradiction; just ask my roommates. I love hanging out with guys, but I love wearing dresses and high heels. Too many chick-flicks makes my head hurt, but give me a musical to watch any day of the week… the list goes on. So this was the newest contradiction.

You see, I know the ropes in NJ. I’ve gone since freshman year! I know which kids will be a problem, how to create some type of order, and who to run to when a fight breaks out. But Bible verses? I had it in my mind that I was not worthy to be teaching these crazy kids what I too was learning.

Desperately searching for things I don't know. Where IS Kings?! Photo by Katelyn James

So here is what I was already discovering on Monday morning:

1) I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. I mean really… I don’t even like kids under six. Nope – my knowledge of what to do in NJ and my love for rambunctious children is totally a “God thing.” And whenever I thought I was the one doing something right, inevitably another something would go horribly wrong.

2) But also - there is no religious resume or selection process in who can learn and teach the Bible. So what if I didn’t know Matthew 19:14? I do now. And believe me, after so much repetition, I practically go to sleep saying that darn verse. It has been memorized for life… as have been the lessons I slowly and stubbornly learn.

Because, as more than one person pointed out to me last week, we are very much so like the children we teach: stubborn and frustrating. God tells us to do something; we go running the other way. I tell Kyasia to “please stop punching” the boy next to her, and she smacks him the head.

But I think we’re both willing to learn ;)

More updates to come…


Sunday, March 7, 2010

I Am Not Going to Newark - Spring Break 2010

Year One – 2007

I was going on my first mission trip in college. Not only was freshman year confusing, but for the first time in my life, I really felt homesick. I remember crying one night because Newark was ugly and cold. I was tired and scratched up from playing with children. By the end of the week I had learned a lot, but I didn’t think I would go back. Nope, next year I would go to the beach.

Hawkins Street Elemtary School - Photo by: Katelyn James

Year Two – 2008

Well… I went back to Newark and I remember having a good time. I was really tired, and had lost my voice by the end of the week. My camera had also been smashed (thank goodness for insurance) but the controlled chaos of the after school program we were helping run had kept me excited. Still, I didn’t shower for seven days because the water was like ice, and could never sleep because apparently girls can snore too. I was not going back next year. Nope, I was going to the beach.

Photo by: Katelyn James

Year Three – 2009

Yes, I went back to Newark. I swore I wouldn’t but I did. My camera got smashed (again) but I had a great time. I met a few interns that worked at the church, and I was beginning to really enjoy certain relationships with the children that now spanned three years. But next year was senior year, and I most definitely was going to the beach. Or just somewhere WARM.

Photo by: Katelyn James

Year Four – 2010

I really wasn’t going to Newark this year. I even told my sister, Kathryn not to sign up for the trip because I most certainly was finding something else to do. I deserved it! But alas… my plans were foiled and I could not imagine being anywhere else but Newark for my last Spring Break. I even wanted to go because I missed the ugly place and the disturbing streets and the rambunctious children.

So I went. And I loved it. And I’ll go back.

Within the next week, I will blog about updates from the trip. For those of you who have never read anything about Newark, NJ before, each year 15 to 40 CNU students travel to Trinity Reformed Church, in the Ironbound district of the city. We work in the school systems during the day, and help out with the after school program run by the church each evening. This year we also held community dinners every night, and had a team at another church down the street helping with a homeless ministry.

More to come…after my senior paper is turned in. I just couldn’t resist a little update ;) Click here if you would like to see pictures from this week on The Inspired Design website.