After arriving in Albuquerque I had a few hours to move my belongings into Teacher’s Hall, wash a load of clothes, and re-pack before flying out for New York at 5 AM the next morning. Every year before each YAV heads out across the country and the world to their individual sites, they meet in Stony Point, New York for orientation. During this time volunteers build a larger community with all volunteers, but also begin to tackle some difficult topics such as intentional community, racism, and our role as volunteers in the places we will serve. While I will write a more reflective piece regarding my time at orientation, I wanted to provide an overview of the structure of the week beforehand.
Orientation is planned and executed by the Young Adult Volunteer administrative staff with assistance from Young Adult Volunteer Alumni (YAVAs). YAVAs lead small group meetings, workshops, and take part in leading worship. The immediate objective of orientation is to prepare us for a year of service in communities that are likely very different from our home-communities. However, the ultimate goal is that the Young Adult Volunteer experience will push us out of our comfort zones, to see the world more clearly and encourage us to respond with actions rooted in love, that promote equity and justice. Orientation was not only a time of meeting others and learning about the program, but was a time of serious introspection and contemplation–a time to learn how to think about our lives more critically, so that we can continue to learn throughout the year.
The week was non-stop from the moment I arrived at Newark airport around 4:00 PM EST, and made my way to baggage claim where I was to meet a staff person and congregate with other arriving volunteers. I quickly found Annie, a tall and lanky young woman wearing a wooden cross necklace. I was tired and hungry after a long day of travel, but was greeted by her warm smile, given a friendly hug, and immediately felt welcome and excited to enter this new community. That evening we traveled to Stony Point Retreat Center in Stony Point, NY. Stony Point is a multi-faith community that has a long history of serving as a retreat/ training center for the Presbyterian Church and its volunteers. The campus is now home to 8 practicing Muslims, 10 Jews, and 10 Christians who have dedicated themselves to creating and nurturing this community. The community is also committed to providing locally sourced food and grows approximately 10,000 pounds of produce per year. I greatly enjoyed my time on the campus walking through the woods, watching the dear graze in the quad in the early morning, and walking through the center’s many vegetable gardens. The food was mostly vegetarian, and to die for!
Each day typically included a mix of worship, bible study, and workshops. Here is a run down of the week’s main activities:
Monday: Travel and Welcomes
We were late and only had a few moments to grab food before making our way to a big meeting room where worship was being held. The chairs formed two semi-circles around a center table that was draped in multi-colored clothes and held one single large candle and multiple smaller tea light candles. My fellow Albuquerque site volunteers and I introduced ourselves and congregated in the back corner eagerly discussing our upcoming year until we were welcomed to worship by Lydia, the program director. Worship included songs from around the world, readings, stories from past Young Adult Volunteers, and ended with each of us lighting our own individual candles from one central candle. I was reminded that I was part of a much greater faith community than just that in my hometown, and that while I may feel alone at times, there are other young adults who feel drawn to and are active members of Christian communities with ideologies similiar to mine.
Tuesday – Wednesday: Journey to Cultural Competency
The focus for Tuesday and Wednesday was “Critical Cultural Competency”, which entailed approximately 24 hours of presentations, discussions, and activities led by Jessica and Noah from CrossRoads Anti-Racism Organization and Training. CrossRoads is an organization whose mission it is to: “dismantle systemic racism and build antiracist multicultural diversity within institutions and communities implemented primarily by training institutional transformation teams and guided by the following principles:
- The work of Crossroads is based upon a systemic analysis of racism and its individual, institutional and cultural manifestations;
- Crossroads seeks to be accountable in its work to those who share a common analysis of racism, and especially to communities of color;
- Crossroads understands its antiracism work to be part of a national and global movement for racial justice and social equality;
- Crossroads recognizes that resistance to racism also requires resistance to all other forms of social inequality and oppression.”
I was deeply impressed and appreciative that the Presbyterian Church and YAV Program put this workshop at the forefront of our training. I believe this speaks to the institution’s commitment to reconciling past transgressions against people of color, and also demonstrates that they are currently working to recognize how they are complicit in current systemic forms of racism. I found that the information provided by CrossRoads was very similar to subject matter I had been exposed to in my sociology classes and other lectures/ activities during college at Willamette University. Interestingly, after orientation, I discovered that a Willamette University’s Sociology professor, Emily Drew, is a co-trainer at CrossRoad. This was a nice connection between an old and new community, but has also helped me better understand the relationship between religious institutions, racism, and my place within it all. Each day I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but knew that this was a small price to pay in order to move towards a more equitable and just society. In short, speaking about racism and how we are complacent within systems of racism is draining and difficult, but exceptionally necessary, especially at this time.
Thursday: Exploring NYC
After sitting and learning about and discussing issues for two days, we were blessed with the opportunity to travel into the city and explore different neighborhoods. This was not a typical tourist trip to the Big Apple—we did not stop in Times Square or visit the empire state building, but explored the city with the perspective of a sociologist and anthropologists, analyzing of the cities’ neighborhoods and populations while navigating via Subway and walking from Yankee Stadium to Morningside Heights. We ended up taking the express train and had to walk back a few blocks through South Harlem and up to Morningside Heights. What felt like a mistake, turned out to be an insightful experience as we noticed signs of gentrification creeping into South Harlem as the stores changed from being family owned bodegas to “hip”, more expensive coffee shops and restaurants as we approached Columbia University. Upon reaching Morningside Heights we visited Riverside Church—the largest, historical protestant cathedral in the United States. Riverside church was built thanks to an endowment created by the Rockefeller family, and was where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”. The church was a beautiful place and I spent time sitting in contemplation and prayer.
Friday-Saturday: YAV Workshops and Relaxation
After a few busy days we had a lighter two days allowing time for some much needed rest. This time also allowed for bonding with other volunteers through hanging out around Stony Point, taking walks, and a talent show.
Sunday: Commissioning Services in Local Churches
While some YAVs had commissioning services in their home churches or presbyteries, each YAV was also commissioned at one of the Presbyterian churches in the area (or a church of another denominations that support the YAV program). Myself and two other YAVs were welcomed with open arms at First Presbyterian of Englewood. The church building was built in 1860, but suffered a fire in March of 2016 that destroyed the historic sanctuary. They are currently holding worship in another hall in the remaining part of the building. While many see the burning of the sanctuary as a tragedy, Pastor Rich pointed out that this has forced the congregation to see past the idea of a church being a building to the church as a group of people united in beliefs and intentional community. It was fun to experience service at another Presbyterian Church and to meet/ share this experience with all the wonderful people at First Presbyterian of Englewood. After commissioning I spent the afternoon preparing for traveling that night to Albuquerque, but also got a chance to hike around Stony Point with fellow YAVs and visit the place where the battle of Stony Point occurred.