As a YAV I work with many non-profit organizations (as YAV itself is a non-profit organization) and these organizations each have numerous Christmas traditions. And, I was invited to take part in ALL the festivities. It really reminded me that Christmas can be hard for a lot of families who have little and can be sad for families who have lost loved ones. But, there can be joy found around every corner in the month of December.
I would like to start by stating that Christmas is not always my favorite holiday - my favorite is definitely Thanksgiving because its sole focus is on food and good company. I often feel caught up in the present buying and feel that the focus is directed at the commercial side of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I anti-Christmas. For me, Christmas just comes with high expectation and standards. But this Christmas, I was reminded of the many joys that Christmas has to share and I would like to share 12 of them with you.
Disclaimer: these are all events that would have happened regardless of my presence in NOLA. I was simply invited to take part in these events and wanted to share with you a snap-shot of the generosity and kindness that I saw this holiday season. Nearly all of them are annual traditions. It was a true blessing to watch these events unfold knowing that the people in this city were seeking to help one another. They were a true inspiration.
1: Thanksgiving Grocery Shopping
While this event did not take part in December, it was an awesome event to be a part of and I want to share with you my experience. Prior to Thanksgiving, the children who attend the tutoring program I work at prepared a taco dinner for the general public. This taco dinner was a fundraiser and any funds they earned went to buying groceries for 3 families to prepare a special Thanksgiving dinner. After the taco dinner, we took about 10 kids to a local grocery store and they got to buy groceries for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (whatever the kids believed a ‘traditional’ turkey dinner consisted of). After shopping, we delivered the meal to the 3 families. Joy was spread from the children to the families.
2: The Gingerbread Breakfast
Forty families from Lakeview Presbyterian Church (the church I work at) and Lakeview Presbyterian Weekday School (the preschool next door) came together to decorate Gingerbread houses! This event was solely filled with fun! It included a Holiday Market where local small business owners had items for purchase. The children filled their stomachs with sugar and Santa Clause made a visit. This event brought together a community to partake in a joyous holiday tradition together.
3: Angel Tree
Lakeview Presbyterian Church partnered with the Presbyterian Children’s home and provided a special Christmas for over 25 children in the city of New Orleans. Over 2 weeks in December, I witnessed a congregation (and their partnering preschool) bring in gift-after-gift to the church. The Sunday school even jumped onboard to provide a little boy a new drum set. What joy!
4: Advent Retreat
The 7 YAVs spent 2 nights in Mississippi while we learned the importance of Advent and waiting for the arrival of our Lord Jesus. I often, as a Christian, glance over Advent and forget of the importance of devotedly waiting. It was refreshing and joyous to think of the journeys various individuals took in preparation for the new born King. During the weekend, the YAVs awaited the arrival of a spontaneous jump in the Gulf of Mexico. We spent the morning in our bathing suits prepared for the proper time (Layne, our site coordinator’s, word) to strip off our sweatshirts and dash to the beach. We also worked on our patience as we took part in a minor team building activity of building the YAV house in gingerbread form. Our new thought-out waiting skills were tested when the roof of the gingerbread house began to cave in.
5: Prison Mission Baskets
Lakeview Presbyterian Church has a wonderful member of their congregation who used to work as a teacher for juvenile prisons in a top security prison in New Orleans. Each Christmas season, she arranges for snack and hygiene baskets to be put together by the congregation. I got to go with her to drop off the baskets. On our drive, she told me stories of her teaching experience. She told me, “Her favorites [prisoners] were the murderers.” My heart was filled with joy as I listened to her talk. These teenagers had a special place in her heart. She spoke as though she saw them as humans and not for the crimes they committed. It was uplifting and joyous to see a woman lookout for these teens and a congregation to support her desire to give them something little this holiday season.
6: Esperanza Charter School Orchestra Concert in City Park
The children from at the tutoring program I work at all come from a predominately Hispanic charter school in NOLA called Esperanza. Two of the middle school students in our program are in their school orchestra. One Monday night the school orchestra was putting on a performance in City Park. I was happy to go (along with a handful of my housemates) to see these two perform. It was so cool to see these two 13-year-olds perform. The concert was in the botanical gardens area of the park which was decorated with lots and lots of Christmas lights. I was filled with joy while listening to the young musicians and know that these kids were choosing to build a brighter future for themselves by engaging in music at a young age.
7: Christmas Food Baskets
Lakeview Presbyterian Church and the Day School next door got together to put together 40 Christmas Food Baskets. Over the course of December, various nonperishable food products and toiletries were brought to the church and on a single Saturday morning, 25 of us gathered to assemble the baskets (in laundry baskets). These baskets were then dispersed throughout the city to various family who could use a little extra food this holiday season. One day while working in the church office, a woman came in to pick up a basket. I watched joy spread across her face when she saw the laundry basket filled with goodies.
8: Caroling with Quest Kids
On a Wednesday night, the middle school tutoring kids warmed up their singing voices and went out into the streets to share the joy of Christmas. This event was organized by the church that hosts the tutoring program, Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ. Member of the congregation join with the kids. After caroling we warmed up over cookies (made by the tutoring kids) and hot chocolate.
9: Advent at Lakeview
Lakeview Presbyterian Church really stepped up the Advent game this holiday season. The first season of advent began with the congregation standing up during the church service to decorate a Christmas tree. Wreaths were hung throughout the church to show various mission projects, families, and traditions that was the congregation. The choir performed John Rutter’s “Magnificat,” which was truly beautiful. The spirit of Advent shined through the church as the Advent candles were lit each Sunday. Walking into the church really made me feel happy and joyous.
10: Tutoring Christmas Store
The tutoring program I work with collects donated items throughout the year to provide a Christmas store for our tutoring kids. The kids earn good behavior stars throughout the month of December. During their last week of school before break, they get to shop in the store using their stars earned to purchase gifts for their family members. We then helped them wrap all the presents. It was joyous to watch the children eagerly wrapping gifts for their loved ones.
11: Camp Reunion Christmas Party
In the summer, the Church that hosts the tutoring program will host a 3-week day summer camp. One weekend day each month, our camp kids are invited to join us for a Camp Reunion. In December, our reunion was a Christmas party where each camper gets a present. These are no dollar store presents. The church funds the purchase of a gift for each child that attends their camp. This is nearly 60 presents. The children are invited on a Sunday afternoon for gingerbread and ornament making. I’m sure watching any kid unwrap a gift is joyous, but knowing how many of these children earned free lunch at school and that someone else living in this city had provided that gift for that child, well, I would consider that record breaking joy.
12: Day School Christmas Concert
My last day in NOLA before heading home for the holidays, the Day School put on a Christmas concert in the sanctuary. Some of the pre-school children are children of the church so I sat in the back of the crowded room as parents awed and snapped photos of their precious children. I love little kids and it was so joyous to witness such a cute event.
On top of these 12 joyous event I experience in NOLA, I did get to go home for Christmas and visit with family and friends.
While I hope you enjoyed hearing my 12 joyous Christmas events, I want to profess that these events were all organized and planned by locals in New Orleans. I was simply along for the ride. I also wish to share that my goal of this post was to inspire you as all these events did me. Church, congregations, communities and friends are the main joy in Christmas because look how powerful they can be. They can put on incredible events. Events that can change this world for the better. They can bring a community together in Mississippi to learn about Advent, they can support countless children in a poorer area of a city to have a joyous Christmas, and they can support a woman who cares for a forgotten group of people.
I witnessed joyous things this Christmas season and I hope that together, next Christmas, we can be inspired to double the joyous things.
Now, it doesn’t need to be Christmastime to experience joy. So, as we enter the new year, I want to encourage you to look around; notice what your community is doing and supporting. What can you be doing to participate in the joy?
Happy New Year! May 2018 be filled with JOY
Over the month of October, I participated in an incredible project here in New Orleans called a Unity Build.
Picture this: eleven local congregations (of various denominations) coming together over a 13-day period to build a house in New Orleans for a single mother with 2 children.
During my second day of work at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, the Pastor asked me to attend a meeting in lieu of him. At this point in my YAV year, I had worked a total of 3 hours at this church and had not yet been to a Sunday worship service there. But of course, I could not deny my new boss a favor, and I headed to this meeting with little-to-no prior knowledge on the community I was representing, only a small amount of information on the topic of the meeting, and not much insight on how to properly park in New Orleans.
The meeting was a Habitat for Humanity meeting (I knew that much before walking through the door) and was filled with unfamiliar faces and uncomfortably close seats. I am sure those around me would have described my expression as “lost” as I struggled to grab a seat at the crowded table. In fact, I did feel lost. However, the meeting began and the pieces started coming together. I sat there silently as key words stuck out to me: “Unity Build,” “Habitat for Humanity,” “Eleven Congregations,” and “Express Build”. In other words, I soon pieced together: Lakeview Presbyterian Church was participating in a “Unity Build” through “Habitat for Humanity” with “Eleven Congregations” and the house would be built in 13 days over the course of the month of October. Each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the month of October and a single Sunday, volunteers would come together to build a house. That adds up to 3 day a week over 4 weeks which makes 12 days, plus the bonus Sunday which makes 13 days. Wow, incredible! This would be Lakeview’s first time participating in this annual event and October was just weeks away. As I left the meeting, I thought of the words “Unity Build” repeatedly in my head. “13 days!” I didn’t know whether to feel more excited or overwhelmed.
On Thursday, October 5th, members of the eleven congregations came out for Day 1 of the build. The ministers and pastors of each church stood together with the future home owner, Nicole, and lifted the first wall for her new home. Prayers were said, blessing were lifted, and tears were shed on that first day. I stood and watched this beautiful project unfold. I coordinated my schedule with the Lakeview pastor to insure I could be present at this build more over the weeks to come. The build happened each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of October. Two of those day I spent countless hours on the roof, under the hot New Orleans sun. Now let me just tell you, it is NOT cold in New Orleans in October. “Fall” is not a thing down here. And don’t let the locals fool you when they pull out a jacket for 70-degree weather. Other days I spend painting the exterior and interior of the house. Inside was just as hot and sweaty as the roof. There was no airflow inside the house, and many volunteers were packed into small spaces. But the mood was positive and joy was spread throughout the group.
And it was beautiful. It was beautiful how smoothly these congregations worked together. New friendships blossoming, connections made, and stories told. An AmeriCorps group was assigned to the site and guided use with constructional instructions. At lunch, we took an hour to sit in the shade, grab a sandwich, and relax. Then, it was back to work for the hottest portion of the day, where we kept each other hydrated and laughing through the sweat. Hurricane Nate gave us a scare, so the one work Sunday we had planned was canceled (we now only had 12 days to finish the build!). We worked through Friday the 13th with positive attitudes. We were one unit. We were one unit, working together. We came from different backgrounds. While each had different skills (in fact none of my skills fell under the construction branch), we had a common goal and we had faith. We came from different definitions of “home” and here we were, working together to build a new definition of “home” for Nicole and her family. And it was beautiful.
There is something special about building a home in New Orleans. Katrina destroyed countless homes 12 years ago and there is still destruction across the city. Homes remain uninhabited, empty lots are found where homes once stood, markings on buildings are still visible in well-established neighborhoods. Many are homeless. Many are renters who pay way too much for too small of space. Many need a home. And in just 12 days, a home was built. And I witnessed it. A home was built with love. A home was built with unity. A home was built for Nicole and her two children.
I was honored to be a part of this Unity Build. I was humbled to get to work beside Nicole, as the Habitat for Humanity program requires that Nicole be a part of the building process. I was excited to represent Lakeview Presbyterian Church, a new home community I have found here in New Orleans. I was glad to work alongside 2 of my new housemates during this Unity Build. I was glad to make new friends and connections through this Unity Build. And I was in awe of this project, of the house, and all its glory, of the support from the community and of all the love that was shed on the house.
At that first meeting that I went to on my second day as a YAV, I learn about the Unity Build. And while being a part of that Unity Build, I learned what united meant.
United: joined together for a common purpose or by common feelings
Eleven congregations, Habitat for Humanity, and Nicole were joined together for a common purpose and with common feelings. Feelings of hope and determination to build a home. United they were, through the Unity Build.
I am united in New Orleans. I am united with Nicole. I am united with eleven different congregations. As we are all united in Christ.
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