Thursday, September 22, 2011



I write this sitting at my desk at the General Offices. In five days, BVS Unit 295 will commence with a meal shared among 33 individuals from everywhere in the US and even Europe. If there's one skill I've gained in this routine, it's the ability to ignore the natural tendency to panic the heck out while waiting for the coming storm. Orientation is a beautiful whirlwind, a cacophony of faiths, deeply personal beliefs forced to reconcile, lay down their arms and pick up frying pans, abandon the typical urge to prove oneself right by convincing others of your views and learn to accept the role of a pillar: We are all vital to the life of our community, but not because of who we think we are. We are vital because of who we are when we don't want to be around each other anymore. I think you truly discover who you are when you don't want to be here anymore. For me, that means when I become weary of the crowd, when I want to be alone.

Orientation is a transcendental experience for someone who has never relied on anyone else since their mother cared for their every need. A group of independent souls can be a sad-looking thing. Everyone has their own wants, their own perceived needs, and their own cultural norms. It would be easy enough to hold a conference or a seminar series for orientation. We could have a cook prepare all of the meals, and everyone would have more free time to relax, contemplate their service, and get to know each other.

But what exactly does it mean to get to know someone? Does it come from talking about music? Movies? Celebrities? Can you know someone by sharing funny youtube videos? What else do we do with our friends? These are all fine ways to relax during some free time. Left to our own devices, I believe we would follow the path of least resistance - find the people we are most comfortable with and shoot the breeze or play a game. Orientation is hard because it doesn't let you glide by doing the same things you've always done. The strangest contrast is preparing food alongside two people you just met and eating with a handful of complete strangers. Sometimes you answer deeply personal questions in front of these people - whether the question is "What is God to you?" or "How hard is it to sit still and contemplate the divine for five minutes in silence when the lights are buzzing loudly and you really have to fart?"

The strange miracle of orientation, though, is that these complete strangers become family. I've made friends in those three weeks that I could not have made in the 'real world.' Flying to your project, you feel like you've known these people for years. I used to think it was just because of how many sessions we put in the schedule - being around people twelve hours a day is uncommon. Those sessions are a shared experience, but I've shared years with classmates without feeling compelled to call them brothers and sisters. The miracle happens in the dirty work - not in discussing pop stars, but in doing dishes together. It's what happens when you have to be around people in your normally private moments - your morning prayers, your afternoon naps, your emotional trials and your frustrations. There is something of God present when you share these minutes with someone else.

You could spend your whole life serving the homeless in the shelter downtown. You could serve them lunch every day for years, sort clothing to give them, and hand them bags with every toiletry they need, and still not see them the way you see someone you eat lunch with. I dare you to buy two sandwiches in Chicago, hand one to the first homeless man you see, and eat with him, standing up, on a street corner. Do you see the thousands of people walking past you? Or do you see the man? The only words I have are: Jesus Christ, people! We spend so much time talking about what people need, how we can "fix" things - I know I do. If I've learned one thing from orientation, it is the value - the blessed ordinance of being.

Community Life

When I first joined BVS three years ago, I survived people because I lived in a trailer down the street from the weekly volunteers I worked with. As long as I could retreat to my private space, I had the solace I needed to face people, whether they were cheerful or disgruntled. Peace was only a locked door away.

Today, I live in a house with four other people, with whom I share two and a half meals each day. I work with them, share weekly devotions and a meeting with them, and unwind in the evenings with them. We often have group outings to Chicago, Wisconsin, or, sometimes, Target. For not having television, we watch a respectable number of shows together. We have also been known to play tennis. These are probably not exciting news bits for any of our friends. It's true that we spend more time together than would have been comfortable years ago. But I have to say that the most interesting parts of life in the BVS house have been the commutes to work and house meetings.

In the morning, I am not awake. When my body rises at 7:15 am, I am closer to zombie than human. I want nothing of the world but to return under my sweet blanket, and anyone else can shove off, thank you. But I get up, because I have a job to do, and God help me if I don't do it. Any of my housemates from the last two years will gladly tell the story of that one time when I actually was perky - when I offered Clara a glass of orange juice, or when I was the first one awake and in the kitchen this Monday. Normally, though, I'm disgruntled. I hate the world because it exists and it's bright. This is something I'd rather keep private, because I know that soon enough I'll wake up and be capable of polite interaction with others. Driving to work, though, feels like being shaken awake, thrown into a hamster cage with four others and having a child carry it around a room excitedly pretending to be an astronaut or something. What I mean to say is that we don't have a choice, this is life for us. It takes a week, at most, to realize that you can't survive by falling back asleep on the drive because the roads suck! So, here you are, uncomfortable, and unable to return to the comfortable life you knew before. You can a) quit or b) get over yourself. Mornings still aren't 'fun' by any means, but we know how to get by: how to prepare lunch together speaking only in grunts, when to change the radio station, when you've been asked to drive ,without words, but simply by the fact that the keys are still on the table. These mornings aren't particularly memorable, but living them out together is just one more strange thing about living in the Elgin house that doesn't translate well to the outside world.

House meetings are fun because we all sit down and gripe at each other about everything that bothers us - whether that's the drippy faucet that we want fixed, or how years of long-haired volunteers have clogged the shower drains like a McDonald's addict's arteries, or how someone drove to Target without conferring with the group first. Some people say don't sweat the small stuff, some people say focus on the big picture. But the truth is, when you spend so much time together, the small stuff becomes big stuff.

These things become huge when they happen consistently, and I think their weight is magnified by the nature of the community. Your patience is slowly worn away like a rock in a stream, smoothed bit by bit. It will survive a rainy season, but eons of a current will polish it until there is nothing left. With no power to deal with our frustrations, we lash out and hurt each other, distancing the people that are closest to us.

We can't escape each other, so we can't bottle up our discontent for another time. The only "another time" we have is the end of our year together, and that's a long time away! That's why we felt so refreshed after Christmas break last year- because we had some time apart to let out the frustration and realize that, aside from the fact that we hated each other sometimes, we actually liked each other. Just like being forced to get to know each other at orientation, living through the crises of community life can form bonds that are not easily broken.

Crisis creates change, it opens the door for us to consider how we ought to act - and if we actually do, we can change our character. When things get stressful at home, I can shut off, hole myself up, and drown everything out in music and books. At orientation, you have to actually solve the crisis. It isn't fun, no one wants to do it, and you might hate each other while you work it out. But afterwards, when you are only left with the memory of how unpleasant it was, the shared experience creates a bond that is stronger than any immature disaffection. This is where true friendship is made - by sweating through the struggle and suffering together.

In community life, you can't solve all of the small problems - you will never "fix" your housemates so that everyone becomes best friends. We aren't friends, we are family; you don't get to choose your family, but you can choose how to treat them. Instead of retreating to my room to let the storm pass over, I want to say I can weather it. I have to be able to ignore my ego and the feeling of wrong that bubbles up whenever my stupid pride is hurt, I have to forgive my family as much as they forgive my shortcomings.

I've seen the Henry Nouwen video enough to know: "Being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind, and being together is more important than being alone."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Handicap Friendly Guide to Chicago

Hello, hello all you lovely, blog reading people!

Have you ever wanted to tour around Chicago but stopped every time because you were afraid of too many attractions being inaccessible to wheelchairs? Have you wanted to see the beautiful architecture and magnificent museums that are spread throughout the Windy City but instead stayed home because you were terrified that there wouldn't be ramps leading to the front door? Well, I used to have the same fears. I thought, "I truly am blessed to have the use of both of my legs every time I take a trip into the city." But then, tragedy struck!

During a particularly heated tennis match against Don and Cat, I rolled my ankle and became dependent on crutches for mobility. Sadly, this was a mere 4 days before our planned outing into Chicago as a house. Not wanting to have to walk around all day on crutches in such a big city, we began asking around and luckily the Brethren offices happened to have a wheelchair that they were willing to let us use for the day. And so, we ended up touring the handicap friendly parts of Chicago.

Tested and approved by a real person in a wheelchair!

We began our trip by catching the blue line train into Chicago and then getting on a bus and riding over to the Museum of Science and Industry. At first I was afraid the public transportation would be an issue with the wheelchair but a good number of train stops have elevators to get from the ticketing area to the platform. Getting onto the train there is a bit of a bump up but nothing too bad. The bus was even better since the buses in Chicago can actually lower the door to the same level as the sidewalk you are getting off of. 

CTA handicap friendliness rating = 4 out of 5 stars

Upon arriving at the museum, Don and I had to go a different route from our housemates so that I could get down to the main entrance. We eventually found our way over and met up with everyone again and entered into the museum free of charge for being Illinois residents!

Where science comes to be cool and terrify!

Inside the museum, we met up with our friend Jonas, who is a BVSer in Chicago, and explored the wonders the museum had to offer us which were conveniently placed at a level at which a person sitting down could appreciate them. We got to do things like:

 Create tornadoes
Like playing God but smaller and a lot easier

 Have crazy raves in front of red walls
Imagine a solid pounding bass beat right now

Have relaxation battles
He with the most inactive brain wins!

And stand in a tube with 80 mph winds
And then the tube takes a picture of you

Museum of Science and Industry handicap friendliness rating = 4.5 out of 5 stars

After the Museum of Science and Industry, we waited outside for a bus that to this day I'm pretty sure is just an urban legend before walking to a different bus stop and heading to Lake Michigan.

Where you can charter a water taxi for only $7 per person!

Then we took a short hike over to one of my personal favorites, Millennium Park. During our last visit to Chicago, Carol and I splashed around in the Giant Faces Fountain. 

First time you see this, don't be surprised when the faces start spitting at you

I tried to do that this time but was told by some lady in a neon green vest to keep objects out of the fountain. Evidently, a wheelchair counts as an object but peoples' shoes don't. 

This was taken just before "The Man" told me "No."

So we headed off to go visit the big reflective bean thing. You know the one I mean.

This one

There are three steps to get up to the area where the bean is but the only wheelchair ramps are way on the outskirts so we opted to just lift the wheelchair as I hopped up. We met up with one of Rachel's friends in the area, Jordan, and proceeded to take wacky pictures in the bean's reflective surface just like the tourists we are.

We then enjoyed a nice dinner in the park and some socializing. Carol and I decided to go for a walk and just as we were getting back, all of the spokes on the front left wheel on my chair completely disintegrated!

You aren't doing your job right!

Millennium Park handicap friendliness rating = 1 out 5 stars
Seriously, this place hates wheelchairs!

Luckily, I've got some terrific housemates who pushed me all the way back to the train station to head home, even though it is pretty tough to make a three-wheeled wheelchair work properly. Seriously, it took three of us all working in unison to do it right. Despite all the problems in the park, it was a good day. The sidewalks are in piss poor condition for wheelchairs but this city itself caters to a handicap person's needs.

Chicago's overall handicap friendliness rating = 4 out 5 stars

All in all, Chicago is a great city to explore whether your mode of transport be bipedal in nature or you more prefer to roll along. Plus you get some awesome pictures out of it.

Thanks Cat for letting me use your pictures!


Friday, September 9, 2011

Long Weekend Fun!

Hello blog reading friends!

Please, take a seat. Have a little listen and I’ll tell you the tale of our week in the BVS house! Grab yourself a warm drink and relax as I tell my story. (That is, you may only want a hot beverage if it’s getting colder where you are like it is here in Elgin.) But I’m not complaining, I prefer slightly cold to very warm!

Anyway, let me begin my story before your drink gets cold.

Once upon a time, there were five BVSers. These BVSers were friends and living together. One day, as they all chatted over a delicious dinner, they discovered they had something in common. A love for all things cheesy—okay, that was pretty cheesy itself, sorry.
On Saturday, we went to a lovely lunch cook-out at Christy W's and had a blast!  We had good food and good times!

After church we went to Monroe, Wisconsin, at Carol’s suggestion. We wanted to see the bountiful harvest provided by Brennan’s Market and the delicious chocolatey-ness of The Swiss Colony. We bought at least five amazing hunks of cheese which are already half eaten!

On our way home, we saw a miniature golf course. On the fly, we decided to stop. We found out that it was rather expensive, however, so we didn’t stay to play. The stop was not wasted, though, since we met a wonderful goat that I promptly named Josiah.

Continuing on toward home, we stopped in New Glarus where there just happened to be a festival going on! It was winding down, but the town itself was a treat to see and so was the fudge that some of us got.

The last stop we made was in Freeport, IL to eat dinner at Pizza Hut with Carol’s mom and little sister. It was nice was way to wrap up a fun, satisfying and successful day!
It was Labor Day, and we had the day off so we ventured out to do some apple picking. We (Cat, Carol, Jeremy, Anna, and Virginia) headed to The Homestead Orchard for some delicious Macintosh and Early Blaze apples that we picked ourselves.

Seeing that they had raspberry bushes, we asked if we could pick some of those as well. They said they were pretty much picked out, but suggested we go head down the road a bit. We did as they said and found a whole field of raspberries where they let us pick for ourselves.

On the way home we stopped at Borders for their “10 Days Left – Going Out of Business” sale while Cat, Carol, and Anna went to get some groceries.
That evening, we made a list of all the apple dishes we wanted to make and Don started right in by making apple sauce, yum! He also made pink rice crispy treats (he tried adding strawberry syrup to give them flavor) and apple cider by mistake ;-D. Cat made delicious egg rolls for dinner, Carol and I made fresh squeazed and squashed raspberry lemonade! Carol also made us some sweet tea!

All week we’ve been feasting on apples, raspberries, lemonade, tea, rice crispy treats, cheese, egg rolls, and happiness! Okay, sorry, I had to throw it in. At least I didn’t add rainbows and smiles to the list!
Peace and Hugs,

P.S. Pics were taken by Cat! More pics on her Facebook!

Where in the world is Carol??

The Elgin BVS House has been bustling with activities since I last wrote. The summer was a time for each of us to grow spiritually in very different ways. I spent my summer traveling around the world (mostly within the states) to spread a deep compassion for others, and following the examples that Jesus gave us to serve one another. It is a spin off of "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiago?" My cousin would occassionally text me and say "Where in the world is Carol," because with the schedule I was keeping, one never knew.

I hope that this doesn’t get to boring but I will give you a quick overview of the week and maybe tell you about a story or a favorite memory (I hope you don’t think that this is boring).
Taize – I started out my summer in France and Switzerland, and I honestly can’t think of a better way to start my summer than this. We spent a week worshiping with the brothers of Taize. It was a time of prayer, silence, simple meals, bible study, sharing with the community and work. It was a time to calm myself, and get centered before I was in charge of 19 – 30 youth each week.
John Kline Homestead – For those of you that know me know that this was an interesting week. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong this week, including a car accident that sent two of my workcampers to the hospital. However, in the end because of all of these challenges my kids really did come together and create a beautiful loving community that brought tears to many eyes when it was time to depart.
Greenville – One thing that made this workcamp so great was being close to my family. I was able to see my brand new cousin (who celebrated her 2 weeks) at a potluck that my workcampers were able to host. It was also a great week in the fact that we had some great youth that were passionate about their faith and were willing to talk about what was going on in their walks with Christ. It was also great because Rachel came and did her training week with me.
Kalamazoo – The Kalamazoo community truly gave us the red carpet treatment. They gave us all such a warm welcome that it makes you feel like you belong in a place like that. Early on in the planning of the workcamp I jokingly told the pastor that I wanted to meet the mayor, well needless to say she arranged that. Not only did we meet the mayor, but he signed our Kalamazoo books that we got for free, gave us Kazoo pins, and signed posters about the city. We also went to the best free museum in the entire world, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. My workcampers and I had a ton of fun including dressing up as characters from the Wizard of Oz to Historical Clothing. We were also able to get “Yes, There is a Kalamazoo” T-Shirts and Kazoos, which my workcampers decided to play on Sunday for the entire church.
Lancaster – We spent our week with our Hispanic Brothers and Sisters in Christ. This was a great opportunity for us to help the Lancaster Community as well as helping out the church, by doing a lot of painting. Oh and as you might guess, we ate extremely well.
St. Croix – What is better than spending a week in the Virgin Islands? Umm, maybe going to the beach every day, hanging out with a great group of youth and advisors, helping baby sea turtles, oh and serving all people on the island.
Roanoke – People from all over the east, when they become in need, migrate to Roanoke because they know that they will be taken care of there. We got to be flies on the wall and hang out with kids, and help the community in need.
Brooklyn – During this week, we all left our comfort zone a little bit and went to the big city: using public transportation, and our own two legs to get anywhere that we needed to go. During our time together we were able to put together a Vacation Bible School for the neighborhood kids, to re-energize and tell them how cool it is to be on God’s team.
Well I hope that you enjoyed hearing about my whirlwind summer. Now I am going to take it easy for a while and try and stay in Elgin for a little while. I have switched positions now, I am no longer planning workcamps (that is now Cat and Rachel), now I am planning a mountain top experience for 300 young adults.
Ready, Set, Go!

Carol :)