Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"In urban communities across this country...50-60% of all young men of color are in jail or prison, or on probation or parole. Our system isn't just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorting around race, they're also distorted by poverty.  
We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.  Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, May 2, 2014


            Living in New Orleans has exposed me to a lot of things I’ve never seen before.  Some things are awesome, like crawfish boils. Some things are confusing, like having the invasive Nutria serve as the mascot for the minor league baseball team.  Some things are just downright heartbreaking, like watching a policeman tiptoe around a building with an AK-47 in full view of school students in the middle of the day.
            Things like watching attempted raids of impoverished homes aren’t realities for many people living in this city, but they are realities for me and for the community I serve.  And what’s disturbing is that as much as I had heard about such things happening in this country, and as much as I disapproved of them from afar, I didn’t let such violence and implied violence get under my skin until I witnessed it myself.
            Right now, the NOLA YAVs are critically examining the role of race in this country.  We’ve been reading an outstanding book by Michelle Alexander called The New Jim Crow, which presents the idea that the mass incarceration being justified by the war on drugs, is actually a means of further oppressing people of color.  When you think about it, it makes sense—folks who have been charged with a felony in this country, an alarming percentage of whom are black men are, “subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.” (Alexander)  Though this is difficult to digest, my experiences are beginning to confirm it as truth. 
            As much as we as a nation would like to believe and celebrate the idea of “colorblindness”, it is still a Lie.  This year has shown me that in so many ways, but the most surprising involves the publishing industry.  Allow me to explain.

            Since I love reading more than just about anything, since I taught Language Arts for a few years, and since I noticed that the closest public library to my garden and the surrounding neighborhood was nearly a mile and a half away (which might sound close unless you think about living without a car and having to walk that far for groceries and other services constantly anyway, and when you consider that libraries deal in books, and books can be very heavy), I decided we should install a Little Free Library at the Johnson Garden.  With the help of my supervisors and a local builder, we got a library built, registered, and ready to stock, which fell to me. 
            I was pumped to buy books, and only after filling my basket at a library book sale did I notice that none of my choices featured any African-American characters.  This is not to say that I assume that people of color are only interested in reading about other people of color, but it is more than a little stupid for a white girl to stock a library in a primarily black neighborhood with books that only feature characters that look like her.  So I looked again, and what I found was disheartening. 
            Aside from the more classic books by black authors, many of which are considered literature as opposed to every-day pleasure reading, I found three books featuring black characters.  3.  Now, perhaps I’m just a hick, but I don’t always reach for a Pulitzer Prize winning author when I want to relax and get lost in a narrative—and I think that based on the success of folks like Janet Evanovich and James Patterson, I’m not outside of the norm—but where are those authors, narratives, and characters for people of color?  Who is the equivalent of Lee Childs or Danielle Steel in the black community?  Where are those books?  I certainly couldn’t find them.
            So I decided to search the Internet, where I found a lot more than I’d bargained for.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • A great article from Huffington Post, "50 Books That Every African American Should Read"; chock full of beach reads and literature alike, and also sadly full of barbed comments directed at Huff Post for having a “Black Voices” section of its website.  
  • An incredible TED talk on "The Danger of a Single Story" detailing how damaging it is for publishers to fail to incorporate people of color in narrative texts, especially children’s books.  
  • The beginnings of a movement to encourage diversity in publishing via Tumblr.  Three different meditations on that movement can be found herehere and here.   

            My findings astonished me.  I didn’t know that my favorite pastime was tainted by the ugly realities I sometimes escaped by engaging in it, and I had never been blessed to take on another perspective.  Sitting with the reality that over half of the population of New Orleans is severely underrepresented in my “safe” world of books is very difficult for me, but now I know.  Which means that now I can do something about it.  I hope you’ll join me.    

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fasting and Feasting

     As part of my exploration of spiritual disciplines this year, I joined a women's bible study through St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church here in New Orleans.  Once a week the group meets to read a different text, and to explore a spiritual practice--ranging from Lectio Divina and the Ignatian examen to labyrinth walking and hospitality.  Last week, we experimented with fasting, and I thought I'd share a journal entry of my reflections on that experiment.
Monday, February 10th, 2014:
      It's 9 am and I've been up for an hour debating whether I should do a 500 calorie fast today and a full fast tomorrow, or whether I should just do a full fast today.  I guess I've already decided on a full fast tomorrow, because I'm drinking green tea.  Quite frankly, I'm scared of going without food or caffeine for a whole day.
       My hesitation with fasting doesn't necessarily stem from a fear of discomfort--though I know it will be uncomfortable--rather, I fear a lack of energy. I have shit to DO, and I need sustenance to DO it--physical sustenance.  Fasting was probably easier in more agrarian societies because they understood the link between physical sustenance and spiritual sustenance in a completely different way due to their relationship to the land.  When you're farming or gardening, you are dependent on weather, on the whims and populations of insects, on the fertility of the soil, and on many other things beyond the realm of human control.  When you're dependent on such things it's easy to realize that spiritual and physical sustenance have a symbiotic relationship--you have to have faith that something will make the rains come--or make the rains stop--in order to get through some days.
      Now that we're so far removed from our food system though, fasting doesn't necessarily force us to realize our dependence on the land, nor on God.  We choose to fast from "distractions"-not from sustenance itself.  Media fasts--those are popular--yet we tend to forget that not so long ago we were not dependent on media for entertainment, communication, or even geographical knowledge. And if I fast from media, what role does empathy play?  When I abstain from media I don't really suffer; I may feel enriched by stepping away from my cell phone, but I can still exist in a spiritual vacuum.
       When I fast from food however, I am forced to understand what the experience of hunger is like for the 1 billion people worldwide, and the 50 million people in America, who have shit to DO, but who can't feed themselves and their families because they don't have the resources.  They have to go hungry because they don't have a choice.  How many people do I encounter every day that are suffering from hunger?  And how do I stand in solidarity with those people as a person of privilege?

        For me, fasting isn't about denial and deprivation, it's about reawakening to the idea that food is a gift from God, and that not having access to such a gift is a great injustice that should be immediately amended.  Fasting is about entering into a more joyful and dependent relationship with God, and resonating with the call to feed Jesus' sheep and to become a "repairer of the breach" I have unconsciously helped to create that separates those of us lucky enough to be well-fed from those who experience hunger every day.

Thanks be to God for my daily bread, and for the daily opportunity to shape my world into one in which such bread--daily healthy, sustainably harvested, fairly compensated, spiritually just bread--is a right and a reality that we can all savor together.  


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy belated New Year!

Dear world that reads my blog,

         I’m back!  Sorry about that super long hiatus, but guess what?  It’s a new year, and part of my new year’s resolution is to start blogging more consistently--meaning at least twice a month!  Get pumped!  A lot has been going on with me over the course of the past two months, which is why I’ve been distracted from writing, so I’ll give you all a quick update on my life: 

  I turned 30!  In honor of the three decades I’ve spent here on earth, my folks came in to town and helped remind me why I love New Orleans by actually getting me out of the house!  To celebrate, I supped with with my housemates at Antoine’s, one of the city’s oldest and most famous restaurants, and that evening, my folks, my housemate Colleen and I went to Preservation Hall—one of the most prestigious jazz institutions in the United States.  Also while the folks were in town we visited Café DuMonde, the voodoo museum, the Museé Conti Historical Wax Museum, ate at Jacques- Imo’s, and did a lot of waddling around the French Quarter.  It was great!

From left: Hannah, Alyssa, Me, Anna Leigh, and Alex enjoy lunch at Antoine's!  Yum!

Jim, Cheryl, Colleen, and I are pumped for Preservation Hall!!

 I went to see my family at Christmas and then I went to the college conference at Montreat!  Having not been to a conference at the beautiful Presbyterian retreat center since I was 9, I was excited to return, but in spite of the awesome culture and scenery of the black mountains, the conference itself was disappointing.  Focused on the interfaith movement, it featured a bunch of college aged Presbyterians being…Presbyterian.  There was representation from a few other Christian denominations, but alas! there was one lone Muslim woman to teach us the value of interfaith cooperation!  Yikes!  Come on, Presbyterians!  If you’re going to have an interfaith conference, invite some folks from DIFFERENT FAITHS!  You know, so we can form relationships and learn from each other and actually interact?  That would be helpful next time.  Just a thought.  

Rare reindeer/alligator hybrid spotted at City Park's "Celebration in the Oaks"!
 I found a new passion!  As though I needed another one, right?  So, just before I went to Florida for Christmas, my friend Crawford and I started plotting about scheduling a service day for the youth group he oversees through the Presbytery of South Louisiana to be held on Martin Luther King Jr. day.  Of course, because I work in a garden, I was excited about the opportunity to teach the kids about food justice, while Crawford was excited about the opportunity to teach them more about the civil rights movement.  We decided that I should teach two Sunday school classes on Food Justice and Race in the weeks prior to the service day.  
         Perhaps I’m just a big idiot, but when I started doing research about the relationship between these two subjects, I was agog at how intertwined they are.  Reading Will Allen’s awesome book: “The Good Food Revolution” (which I highly recommend), informed me of all kinds of limited accessibility issues that I was completely unaware of, that significantly impact farmers of color.  I knew food deserts were a problem, but not until I checked out the incredibly awesome USDA food desert map (available here) did I realize how much they affected the community I currently serve in Pigeontown.  The address of my school is 1800 Monroe Street, New Orleans, LA 70118, just in case you want to check out the stats yourself, but if you don't, here's the deal: in Pigeontown, almost 50% of my neighbors don’t have access to vehicles, and over 80% are considered low income.  The nearest grocery store that sells vegetables is over a mile away, and the bus, which is the only transportation many of them have, doesn’t run on Saturdays!  Who knew a map could provide that much information about social justice issues I’m passionate about?!  Way to go, geographers!
         Anyway, the Sunday school classes went really well and reminded me why I love teaching adolescents, while stimulating my interest in how we as a society need to break down the barriers of privilege and race so that everyone in our nation and world has access to the basic right of healthy      food.  And of course, the workday was fabulous!  We had 12 youth (which is a big number for this group!) and 5 adults come out and shovel mulch, weed, enjoy the weather, and play games in the garden.  Mission accomplished!

Zeppelin and Genevieve help paint signs during the MLK Jr. Day of Service at the Garden!

My food justice bulletin board on display at Lakeview Presbyterian Church!

 I almost broke my foot last week!  So not exciting.  I went to get a cup of coffee, my foot had fallen asleep, and I put my entire body weight on the side of my foot to walk because I didn’t realize I wasn’t walking on my sole. YIKES!  Anyway, it’s not broken, and my foot continues to change colors daily, which is actually kind of nice to look at.  
See that enormous bruise?  Well, imagine it raised an inch because it's full of blood, and you'll have a complete picture of the disaster that was my sprained foot.  On the upside, don't my toenails look beautiful?!
 Finally, I applied to Princeton Theological Seminary in early December, on what I thought was a whim, and not only did I get accepted, I got offered a fellowship to cover my full tuition!  Since submitting my application, I’ve realized that I didn’t apply on a whim at all—I’ve actually wanted to go to seminary for a really long time, I just haven’t gotten around to it.  So, unless something drastic happens and I need to defer, I’ve committed to spending the next four years pursuing dual Master's degrees in my home state of New Jersey!  Any of you from PPC that read this blog, get excited, because you're going to be seeing A LOT more of me!

        Okay, so that’s it for now.  Stay tuned for the next 7 months of this fabulous year of my life, enjoy the blessings and opportunities 2014 unfolds for you, and try to avoid Polar Vortexes whenever possible!  Love and lettuce to you all!  

Look at this beautiful image of my homegrown lunch! (Well, the lettuce was homegrown!

Friday, November 22, 2013


           I haven’t blogged for quite some time now, which some of you have noticed.  As odd as it is for me to be accountable to a community like this one, I am grateful for the kind thoughts and wishes those of you who have been mourning my lack of writing have expressed.  It’s weird to have a following—small though it may be!
            As I mentioned in my first post, blogging does not come naturally to me, and that’s part of the reason I’ve been distant.  The larger reason though, is my hesitance to be publicly vulnerable.  I have been struggling since my last blog—not with safety or the garden or my housemates, or any of the normal YAV things it is assumed we volunteers struggle with.  I have been struggling with the idea of my future.
            I know this sound ridiculous; that I should focus on the present and the many gifts I have right now.  I live in an amazing city that is perpetually unfolding its awesomeness to me.  Every time I venture out of my house, I meet a new friendly person, or get to experience yet another humble and overwhelmingly delicious restaurant, or learn about some new festival on the horizon that is celebrating some obscure and worthy venture—facial hair, merlitons (aka chayote squash), gumbo, voodoo, music, BBQ, Po’boys—the list goes on and on and on.  My housemates, even when they are frustrating, are a delight.  My every encounter with them allows me to further explore who they are and what they love, as well as learn more about who I am and what I love. 
            And yet…I constantly worry.  Not about tomorrow, or the day after that.  Not about the many plans and events I have been instituting for my job here; those will fall into place and I will worry about them when their time comes.  I am worried about what on earth I will do when this year is over.  And what is manifesting this fear is that I want to go home when my time in New Orleans is finished, and I don’t know where home is anymore.
            Perhaps it is my undue obsession with my age, or perhaps it is just exhaustion, but I feel a need to finally settle.  However, I don’t have a clue where I should seek sustenance for the roots I long to put down.   Thus, I have been trying to define what “home” means for me, and here is what I have come up with: 
  • Home is where I have space that is mine—space to furnish and share and grow a garden and keep a dog.
  • Home is where I have a sense of community—friends, family, and neighbors—people that help me stay grounded and who lovingly challenge me to grow.
  • Home is where I can explore a fulfilling vocation. 
  • Home is where I have a meaningful relationship with a church.  Where I am known and can know others in the family of Christ, and where I can experience the Glory of God in both silence, as well as through thought provoking sermons, classes, and study groups. 
  • Home is where I have a sense of place—where I value and honor the land around me as much as the people who live on that land. 

            Of all the areas I have lived, only two come close to encompassing this definition, yet both are lacking on some level.  I know that the onus is on me to discover some locale that fulfills all these needs, but I am so weary from searching!  And while I have been excitedly considering grad-schools and seminaries, I am keenly aware that those would still be temporary homes in temporary communities. 
            How does a person go about finding their place?   Is it serendipitous or does one turn to past experiences for comfort?  Is it a conscious choice?  How do adults establish community in our modern world?  And how do they sustain it when their communities are ever shifting?  Does anyone actually have the luxury of a sense of place anymore?  Is this even a realistic expectation?     

            As I write this, I feel self-conscious and pathetic.  I have a blessed seven more months to resolve these issues, so why let them weigh on my heart now?  But if I am to be honest in this odd blogging experiment, if I am to be REAL, then I must acknowledge how overwhelmed I am by feeling that I do not belong anywhere and how desperate I am to belong somewhere.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, 
especially in the inner city.  Plus, you get strawberries."
     -Ron Finley 

Check out his TED talk here 

Look what I grew!!  Brassicas on the left (Broccoli, Cauliflower and Cabbages), Flowers (Johnny Jump-Ups and Marigolds) on the right!  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fear and Trembling

          Today I went to the reading hour at my community center in Pension Town.  I went to reading hour not knowing what to expect, but excited to see what the center was about and meet some folks who might be interested in volunteering in the garden. 
            Over enormous blueberry Costco muffins and bottles of ice water, I sat with four other women, the only white lady among them, and read Little Black Girl Lost #4, an account of a farmer’s daughter captured from Nigeria by Dutch slave traders.  As I am reading this book with these women, all of whom are older than me, I notice how many of them struggle with the reading.  Listening to them read aloud is similar to listening to my former eighth grade students read aloud; they help each other, but frequently stumble over complicated words. 
            As I am reading this book with these women, I also notice how much violence is present.  Of course, we are reading about the conditions on a slave ship en-route to Europe from Africa, but in only twenty pages, we are privy to the grisly details of a beating, a shooting, and three shark attacks.   One of the victims of these incidents is a child.  We stop at this point to reflect on how witnessing violence impacts children, and how children deal with witnessing violence, as well as living with the threat of violence on a daily basis.  We are not talking about the book anymore.
            I live in one of the deadliest cities in the United States.  There have been four murders in my neighborhood already this year, including the September 2nd death of an 11-year old girl.  She was shot in a drive by while sleeping in her home less than two blocks from the garden where I work.  Two years ago, there was a drive by shooting at the school where my garden is located, in the middle of the day!  No less than eight gang members just got arrested at the corner store with the excellent fried chicken that sits across the street from my garden.  In June, an Americorps volunteer was shot to death while walking on one of the cross streets that borders my garden.

            I listen to these women reflect on how these events shape this neighborhood that is my home.  I listen to them and I think, “What am I doing here?”  I am a little white girl lost in a land where the privilege of my skin color, education, and class separate me from those I’m called to serve every day.  I don’t have stories about getting pregnant at 17 and then watching the same thing happen to my daughter.  I don’t have stories about watching my son witness a murder and then turn to drugs, before eventually getting the help he needed through a social worker.  All I have is a donated tomato plant, and a donated trowel, and what frequently feels like a donated sense of courage. 
            I believe that, with God’s help, I can be safe in my garden, and that showing up and humming to my plants on a sweaty patch of asphalt can serve as a witness to the idea that if God can sustain my trust and my courage in the face of so much fear, maybe He can start doing it for more of the folks around me.  And maybe, that will make the world a slightly better place for all of us.