Thursday, October 27, 2011

A lesson in culture

This week I started my volunteer work at an after school program in North Philly.  I am co-running the program with another girl and between the two of us we are excited to learn and plan for the 8 middle school girls attending.

I have worked in inner city schools before, but nothing quite like this one.  Most of the girls in the class are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Dominican descent.  I've worked with recent immigrants from some of these places, but never with descendants who live in the oftentimes homogeneous and culturally rich neighborhoods of North Philly. 

Besides the accents and mannerisms that I'm not quite used to there are a few Philly words thrown in that I never heard up in New York.  My favorite is "jawn", which is a placeholder word for a person, place or thing. 

"That jawn be hurtin'"
The classic t-shirt:
Tastyjawn Men's Tee

Or my favorite, "What do you call it?  You know, that ma-jawn-jawn?"

I laughed at the last one, and the girl cried defensively, "What?  It's a word!"

I tried out my new slang at home, "Yo, pass me that jawn, Em-dawg" and was promptly told that it didn't work for me.

I've decided that learning Spanish might be helpful as I continue my work here, so I've been attempting that through reading the local paper, Al Dia, with the help of Google Translate.  I also realized quickly that I need to learn Teenage Girlese as well, because I found out that "going to the park to play" roughly translates to "standing by the equipment as we text".

The girls are honestly really exciting to be around.  They enjoy each other's company, they come up with excuses for why they shouldn't have to do their homework, and they love telling funny stories about their lives.

They also want to graduate with honors, become engineers for NASA, and write books.  They are smart, talented girls, and I hope that our efforts combined with theirs will give them a shot at their dreams.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Are there houses in Texas?

The thing to do after school on our block is to hang out and play games.  There are a lot of kids out some afternoons playing in the last bits of warmth that fall is granting us.

When they see Emily and I they come running and invite us to play the games they've come up with.  Usually they just play catch with the football, but sometimes for some extra competition, they take the basketball and stand on opposite sides of the street.  The point is to throw the ball and hit the vertical part of the curb and get the basketball to come back at you- that's how you score.  Each kid takes turns throwing the basketball back and forth.  It's a pretty good use for the ball, since they don't have a hoop.

I sat down on the curb next to one of the smaller kids on the block.  He's only 7, so he can't quite keep up with the kids who are 8 or 9 and have a good 30 pounds on him.  You can tell he's frustrated, but he takes it in pretty good stride, usually by laughing and accusing the biggest kid that he's cheating: "Look at him smilin'!  He's cheatin'!" he laughs and points. 

I shiver at the cold, and he tries to put his tiny jacket around me.  Next to me, Emily is learning how to throw a football.

After our football lessons we head inside for dinner.  The kids don't want to let us go and we get caught up listening to them talk.  One boy asks us, "Have you ever been to Atlanta?  Have you seen a tall black man with a bald head?  That's my Dad."  At this point his sister joins in and says, "Yeah, if you see him, tell him to call us!"  Before we can respond the boy is telling us about how his Dad lives in a mansion and launches into a list of other factors we can use to identify him should we ever find ourselves in Atlanta.

"Have you guys been to Atlanta?"  I ask.

"No," they say, "but," says the boy, and he starts to get so excited that he can't hardly speak, "but we're going to Texas!"  His sister starts freaking out, "I can't believe we're going to Texas!!" and they commence to jumping around with shrieks of laughter and excitement.

Once they calm down (a little) the boy looks at us and in all seriousness asks, "Do they have houses in Texas?"

Emily and I laugh, "Yeah, they do."

Friday, October 14, 2011


This weekend I'm at the Christian Community Development Association's annual conference.  I've learned a lot so far, but let me keep it brief, to one of the best things I've learned while I'm here:

Together, here at the CCDA, I get to worship along side of people who believe that God has called them to the communities they live in.  But more than that,  I am worshiping alongside of people who actually believe that God can do something in their communities.  That the God who called them to either relocate or stay put intentionally can ACTUALLY DO SOMETHING AWESOME IN THE COMMUNITY.

That is such hope that I have been missing from my walk in Philly these recent weeks.  Why?  Do I really think that God has called me to a place that I love to labor and have no fruit come of it?  No!  There are too many in Philly who want to see positive change.  I am a small drop in the bucket of ministries occurring in Philly- and the world.  So when I assume that the community I live in will only decline, I'm not just saying that I don't trust God is bigger than my community, but also I deny all the work that my brothers and sisters have been doing long before I got here.

It's easy to lose hope, it's easy to be cynical.  But I love my city, and more than that, I love my God.  And my God is so big, so strong and so mighty.

And He loves us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A mice* conclusion

I took the mouse to the woods.  On the way I realized that the journey was more for me than the mouse, because, let's face it, it's a baby.

I am comforted by Isaiah 11:6, knowing that one day nothing will have to die anymore.

And I was wrong- it's not that no one wanted to help.  I have lots of ideas for what to do with mice now.  It's just, I need to be responsible for my mice.**

*Pun intended.

**Metaphor intended.

The part they don't tell you about

I have a mouse.

It's not really my mouse.  It's the mouse that ate all our chips and used the space between the mustard bottles for its house.  Worse, it's only about an inch long which makes me think it's a baby.

When you hear people tell you stories of their time in ministry, no one tells you about that time when they caught the mouse or how they had to shovel burst bags of their neighbor's trash out of their back yard.

No one tells you about how sometimes, in the early hours of the morning when it's still dark, you get woken up by the desperate sobs of a woman wandering the street below all alone.

No one passes on advice about how to handle these things, which makes me think, maybe there isn't a correct answer.  We're always looking for the right answer, the right thing to do.  Maybe the world is so messed up that the possibility for right answers ended a long time ago. 

But I still have to decide what to do with this mouse, which means that I have to live with whatever I do or don't decide.  As for the woman, well, I can only hope that my half-awake prayers are enough. 

The woman, the mouse, me- we're all helpless for knowing what's next.

As I stood alone in the kitchen holding a frying pan and debating with myself I realized that there are some things that people just don't want to help you with.

Anyone up for a drive to the park?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yassa Yassa Yassa

Tonight we went to the grand opening of the fantastic Le Bercail restaurant in West Philly*.  Two summers ago we were regulars at the old place, Soleil de Minuit (midnight sun?)  and we were super pumped about rewarding our long-deprived taste buds of the Malian deliciousness.

That's right, Mali.  As in:

Mali, West Africa. 

The owner, Michael, is super sweet and recognized us even though we hadn't been in over a year.  When he saw me he laughed and said, "I remember you!  You're the girl who asked about the chickens!"**  I just kind of smiled.

Michael brought us all of his favorite dishes including his most famous Yassa dish, which is actually Senegalese.  We're not really sure what's in Yassa, something along the lines of onion and lemon, but the dish tastes more like spicy honey mustard.  Doesn't stop it being delicious, though!

This is Michael's favorite tilapia with brown rice and an onion bell-pepper salad:
Photo courtesy of Emily

Through dinner Michael came over and talked with us about our summers, his summer, and his big plans for starting a new company.  The cool thing about his restaurant that I've always loved is how essential it is to the Malian community in Philadelphia.  To be honest, it's not a very big community.  But it centers around Le Bercail, as far as we can tell.  Michael knew everyone that walked through the door and packed into every available seat.  It felt like we had joined some huge family who's house was the restaurant

When we left, Michael smiled and asked us, "When will you come hang out with us again?"

"Soon," we told him, although it might take us as long to be hungry again.


*If you need to sing the song every time I write this, I won't judge.  If you don't know the song, good for you.  It's like Gilligan's Island, can't quite ever get it out of your head.

**This is a reference to an embarrassing moment where he told us that the chickens we just ate were local, so I asked him if he raised his own chickens.  Apparently this is a hilarious question to ask a Malian.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

As Big as the City

Part of my homework has been to read this book:

After reading it, we had to write down a response- where do we see God in the city?

What kept popping to mind was a time I watched a boy and his brother sitting together during free time in an after school program.  The older brother, N, had been throwing paper airplanes with his friends when his brother, J, asked him to come sit and play.  I expected N to just give his brother the cold shoulder especially since J was handicapped and his coloring didn't stand a chance against the excitement of wreaking havoc in the small room with paper airplanes.

I think I remember N hesitating for just a moment before he came and sat down next to J, but I'm not sure.  Apparently they had a ritual because J had already constructed a lopsided Tic-Tac-Toe board that went from edge to edge but barely left enough room for the middle square.  N flopped down and put his letter on the board.  At J's second turn it was clear that he had no idea how to employ strategy in the game.  But N was expecting this.  Whenever his brother made a careless move he simply chose an even worse move for himself. 

J, I could tell, prized having the attention over winning almost every time.  Once there was nothing N could do and no one ended up winning.  J didn't care.  He just drew a new square and they played until J got bored with the game.

So that's God to me, becuase that's what God asks of us: "seek justice" (Micah 6:8).  N walked away with joy that day.  I could tell from watching how much he cared for his brother.  And sometimes joy comes in understanding that your brother needs a little extra help.  And love definitely works that way.  Sometimes it means making a stupid Tic-Tac-Toe move or ignoring your friends.

To me, the crazy thing was that if I hadn't been sitting there, no one, not even his brother, would have realized what he was doing for his brother.  N never called J stupid or goaded over him or took advantage.  He understood who his brother was and what he needed, and gave it to him.  Even at the cost of missing out on some epic paper plane time with his other friends. 

It reminds me of this quote from someone I met over the summer:
"I think if you're the only person in the whole world doing the right thing, I think you have to do the right thing, right?"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Warm Send-Off

Today was the last time I will be able to attend my home church for a few weeks.  I asked the congregation if they would pray for me when they thought of me this next year.  As I am less than 2 days away from heading down to Philly it is dawning on me how important it will be to have a home church thinking about me and praying for me.  This church has been my home and support for many, many years, and hopefully for many more. 

My request was welcomed with smiles, nods, handshakes, hugs, and warm conversations.  I even received prayer right on the spot. 

Even more fitting was that it was World Communion Day, so as I walked up to receive my portion I knew that I did not walk alone.  We are all of us called to places as distant as our Guatemalan visitors or to as close, as Pastor T. put it, to across the table.  "Everything in your life has led you to this point," I was told, and I want to echo that to every person.  I know it's true.

So as you partner with me, I partner with you, and together we approach the table as one body.

Ask and you shall receive?  Yes.  God has given me a truly gracious community to partner with here.  I am glad to go knowing that I call them my home.