The month leading up to my departure for New Orleans consisted of me poorly answering my home community’s questions. “Wait, what are you doing?” “Why are you spending a year in New Orleans?” Those questions were poorly answered because I, myself, was pondering over them and did not have clear answers. Nonetheless, my community’s responses to my vague answers were filled with praise and awe. They left me with remarks such as, “You are amazing!”, “You are going to make such a difference in those individuals lives,” “New Orleans will be so blessed to have you!”
While I was humbled by those comments, I couldn’t help but turn those endearing comments into pressure. Pressure to make an impact in the New Orleans community. Pressure to serve the Lord as an admirable Christian. Pressure to be amazing every waking hour of my YAV year. Pressure to bring Christ to someone else’s eyes. These pressures became a burden of expectations and falsely claimed responsibility as I arrived in New Orleans.
I have now spent 3 whole weeks in this city. I am three weeks in and it’s safe to say I have made little to no impact on the city of New Orleans.
My work placement jobs have begun. I spend my mornings at Lakeview Presbyterian Church getting to know the amazing congregation and learning about their various mission projects. I spend 3 afternoons a week at Mid-City Ministries with an after-school tutoring program. I am three weeks in, and those pressures I arrived with, those pressures I built up for myself, those expectations and sense of responsibly I set for myself, are now gone. But why? I just stated that “I had made little to no impact on this city,” so how could the pressure to make an impact be relieved?
I was relieved of my self-made burden of pressures during a visit to the local Walmart.
My housemate Eliza and I went to Walmart to pick up 6 items. We decided between the two of us we could easily carry the 6 items and therefore we did not need a basket. We neglected to consider though the gallon of cold milk that was on our grocery list, and fate had it that I was the one with a free hand when it came time to pick up that cold gallon of milk. While the milk was not very heavy, as one can imagine the weight of a gallon of milk, it was indeed extremely cold and uncomfortable to carry. One might say, it was a cold, heavy burden that I alone had to carry. As we proceeded to the checkout line, I continued to pass the milk between my hands to avoid one hand becoming too chilled. Upon arriving at the checkout line, I noticed the long line that awaited us. It was in fact 5:30pm on a Thursday night and prime ‘last minute dinner shopping’ time. Eliza and I picked the 20 items or less line and began our 15-minute wait. I noticed immediately that the older man ahead of us in line had a grocery cart filled with a single bag of cat food and some flea protection medicine. He had a whole cart for just 2 small items. This man also made notice of the two young women who now stood behind him in line with their hands full of groceries.
Now this is where I want to pause the story and remind you of the burden I held upon arriving in New Orleans. And here I stood with a cold gallon of milk in hand as a young woman new to this unique city, thinking I was here to change to world. The man looks at me and says, “Would you like to use my cart?”
I was shocked. What did he say? The man proceeded to move his cat food to make room for our groceries. The man was offering for us to share his cart. I looked at Eliza thinking, “we’re the ones supposed to be helping this community.” We are here to be spreading the love of God and here, in a Walmart, was a kind man showing God’s love to two women who had devoted a year of their lives for volunteer work. God already existed in that Walmart, in that city. And I couldn’t see that until that man offered to help me carry my burden. He made note of my cold gallon of milk and invited me to put it into his cart so that I didn’t have to hold it while we waited in that grocery line for 15 minutes.
I have never seen a stranger share his grocery cart like that before. Thinking back on it, I’ve also never seen someone grab a whole grocery cart for 2 small items. But here he was. The grace of God standing in the Walmart to relieve me of my cold heavy gallon of milk burden. This man had the ability to help me carry my burden because God was living and breathing in him. He was there to relieve my expectations for making an impact this year. Here God was in a New Orleans Walmart.
But why did I need that burden lifted? Isn’t the point of volunteering to make a difference? I think many people get confused between the idea of being ‘needed’ and being ‘welcome’. ‘Needed’ means a task cannot be completed without your specific talents and skills, whereas ‘welcome’ means you come with whatever talents or skills you have and work alongside others to accomplish a task. I don’t know if I will make any impact on this city, but holding that as a requirement for success will only set me up for failure. I alone cannot move a mountain, but if I build relationships in this community, if I am completely immersed in the work I am doing here in New Orleans, then maybe the locals will welcome me to help them move mountains.
I’ve been gone from my lovely home in Wilmington, Delaware for 14 days and a lot can happen in 14 days.
My YAV year technically started August 21st but my journey began on the 17th when my mom and I departed in my Honda Accord for New Orleans. I was so anxious. I was so anxious that my face was breaking out and there were ulcers in my mouth. What would my new housemates be like? Would I get along with my roommate? And the most stressful question going on in my head, Did I pack too much stuff?? But throughout all these anxieties, my excitement shined through. My mom and I hopped in the car at 6:30am Thursday morning and began our 3-day road trip. We had an awesome trip where we spent one night in Knoxville, Tennessee and a night in Huntsville, Alabama. We made some fun stops along the way such as the Natural Bridge in Virginia, a tour of the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, and the Rocket and Space Museum in Huntsville. On the 19th, my mom and I arrive in New Orleans mid-day. I got settled into the house and meet a handful of my awesome future housemates. That night, my mom and I had dinner in the French Quarter and she showed me some of the traditional New Orleans’ sites. It was a fabulous last night together filled with a stroll down Bourbon street and beignets from Café Du Monde.
On Monday morning before sunrise, 4 New Orleans’ YAVs set off for orientation in Stony Point, New York. Yes, we all had just arrived after long road trips and were now departing for a week away from the new city we would soon call home. Our long day of traveling consisted of a drive to the airport, two flights, two terminal AirTran rides, two train rides, and a yellow school bus drive to arrive at the Stony Point Center (a Presbyterian conference center that houses missionaries and travelers from all over). At this center, all 62 YAV of the 2017-2018 year who are serving in about 20 different locations across the world, along with a dozen YAV alumni and YAV staff members, came together. This week was filled with new friendships, deep conversations, and preparation for our year of service. The week was renamed ‘Disorientation week’ as it made us think about our role in this program and what it truly means to be a YAV volunteer in this damaged world. We learned that although we might not make a huge impact with just one year of serve, our actions will have a ripple effect. We learned that we are going into places that are already filled with God’s love and that we have so much to learn from the people in these places. We, as YAVs, are doing a year of service for a lifetime change.
This past week definitely disoriented me but I feel it also made me more aware of the challenges individuals face day in and day out. I am safely back in New Orleans with the 6 other YAVs I will be serving with this year. We live in a two-story house together in Gentilly, which is a high elevated area in the city (we are all currently safe with no flooding). We will spend the next week learning about New Orleans, its history, and navigating around our new city. I will begin my site work next Tuesday and am super excited to begin this new journey in this beautiful, lively city.
If you wish to donate to this amazing program, we now have an online donation site https://www.neworleansyav.com/donate
Or you can send a check to Presbytery of South Louisiana (please put the name Kristen Reisor on the memo line). Mail to: NOLA YAV, PO Box 8666, New Orleans, LA, 70182.
Thank you so much for your love, support and prayers