Okra Abbey

Full disclosure: I’ve been dying to be a part of the blogging world for years… I’m obsessed with my favorite bloggers, and those close to me will tell you that I talk about them like they’re my best friends. Yet, I’ve always felt I didn’t have anything particularly special to write about and that I wouldn’t fit into any blogging niche.

Well, I finally have a reason (actually, an obligation!) to blog due to a really exciting journey on my horizon. 🙂

As I sit here on my front porch on Folly Beach dancing in my rocking chair to the soundtrack from Porgy and Bess, the upcoming adventure I’m writing about sounds spiritual, rewarding, and peaceful. I know I’ve romanticized it in my mind. I know it’ll also be tough and exhausting, and sometimes sad and scary. And I’m excited that I’m required to share it with you through written word, because writing about it will help me process things, and it will give you the opportunity to live it alongside me (the good, the bad, the rewarding, AND the discouraging!).

As I know it has with most of you, the last year has really taken a toll on me. The politics, sadness, hatred, and feeling of lack of control over the rapid changes happening in our country has led many of us to feel a sense of helplessness. At the time all of this really started to pick up, I was working to help children in Africa receive educations – a cause I’ll always be passionate about and advocate for. However, I was feeling called to help closer to home, to make use of my hands and heart and serve those in my own backyard who are being negatively impacted by the turmoil happening around us.

I applied for the Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteers Program – a year for young adults to serve others while discerning their gifts, talents, and place in ministry. The program uses a mutual discernment process to place volunteers both in their city of service and volunteer site.

I’ve known for a while now that I’ve been placed in New Orleans(!!!), but I’ve just learned about the site at which I’ll be volunteering for the next year.

It’s the placement I had no idea I was looking for.

I’ll be serving at Okra Abbey – an urban abbey at the heart of a neighborhood in need.

Okra Abbey is a community center for spiritual recreation and re-creation – a sacred space where we grow in friendship and faith alongside one another as we share food -pray, play, and garden together – learning to use the food that we grow to provide care for our local community – especially those in need.”

Day-after-day I will be on my hands and knees tending to a garden whose fruits and vegetables are to be served to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. I’ll be working and developing relationships with human beings born of completely different backgrounds than me and with life experiences I cannot even begin to imagine. I’ll be learning about their hardships and struggles as well as their culture, talents, and things that cause them to double over with laughter. My days and new experiences will be intimately intertwined with those who I so desperately feel for and want to care for in this time of turmoil in our country.

Hopefully I’ll also develop more confidence in praying with others and knowing when and how to comfort others, two things I’ve never felt confident in.

I’m excited to serve the people of Nola, to learn from the people of Nola, and to experience the vibrancy of the culture in Nola. I can’t wait to share with you (though I am still nervous!). And, I’m curious to see how this year-long journey will direct the path of my life-long journey.

Thanks for reading! For now, I hope to write every few weeks. I hope you’ll continue to follow along!

XO, Cat

P.S. A little housekeeping… we’ll be volunteers, so we won’t be getting paid. But, we’ve still got to pay for food and other necessities! Click here to help me reach my fundraising goal of $4,000.

 

 

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God’s gonna trouble the waters…

The water in the cooler was too hot. It was evident that I, once again, could not do anything correctly. It didn’t matter that New Orleans was under a water boil advisory and I had been boiling water for this cooler since 6:00AM to make sure that those visiting the abbey had safe drinking water. I had not bought enough ice to cool it down, and therefore validated his frequently-voiced opinion that I know nothing about working at the abbey.

I was so frustrated. Each morning I bring him coffee and water. Throughout the day I give him snacks every time he asks. Day-after-day I nurture the garden that produces a harvest that goes directly to his plate. I show him love and respect and dignity.

And yet he mutters under his breath that I can’t do anything right.

I know he has experiences that I cannot even begin to imagine and that he suffers from mental illnesses that I’ve never encountered. I know that his response to everything is, “No, that wasn’t me,” or “No, I don’t like that.”  I also know that he loves and is incredibly loyal to the abbey – he has proven that to me time and time again. But even knowing those things, I sometimes cannot keep up my tough facade and convince myself that it doesn’t hurt to be made to feel like my acts of love and service mean nothing.

So, I sat down and said, “I’m doing the devotion now. You’re welcome to join me.”

“I ain’t need no prayer.”

I started turning to the day’s devotion, and slowly, he sat down across from me. When I look up at him with a wary smile, he said, “Well ain’t you gonna pray? I ain’t got all day.”

I read the prayer, we talked about prayer requests, and then I asked if he knew the song for the day. He said, “No,” so I sang what I could recall of the refrain, though it wasn’t much.

“You don’t know nothin’ about church. You ain’t know that song.” He joined me, not with the same song, but with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

I asked if that was his favorite hymn and he said, “No, Wade in the Water.”

So, then we sang Wade in the Water. Did we know all the verses? No. Did the verses I found online match what he knew? No. Did we continue to sing for 10 minutes, only in sync during the refrain? YES.

And then he left the abbey, acting aloof, like the moment had impacted him not-at-all. But I heard him later, walking through the streets of Pigeon Town, singing his own version of Wade in the Water for all to enjoy.

It wasn’t a long moment, or one incredibly exciting, but it was one that provided me a sense of re-nourishment and understanding. To vocalize companionship and appreciation is truly a vulnerable act, especially when one is living a life where they are used to being their own watchdog and advocate. In singing Wade in the Water, God provided us the opportunity to share a worshipful experience where we were both able to express and feel the love we have for each other, despite the frustrations. We were able to worship together, but we were also able to sing (the refrain) together, breathing in the same places, creating one heartbeat – unity, surpassing words unspoken.

When preparing for this blogpost, I was reminiscing the moments I spent belting Wade in the Water in the deepest voice I could manage while preparing meals with my youth group in my church kitchen at home. See, it’s also one of my favorite hymns. But I’d never taken the time to interpret it’s meaning. Delving deeper this afternoon, I learned that the phrase, “God’s gonna trouble the waters” means that God is with us in the ups and downs and will heal us from what is causing us pain and hardship… Specifically, when written, it was a message of hope for the enslaved. This well-known spiritual references a number of Bible passages – this line specifically references John 5:2-9 where those with diseases and injuries would wade in a pool and an angel of the Lord would “trouble the waters” in order to heal them and make them whole. (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-wade-in-the-water)

I realize that my frustrations about feeling like none of my actions were acknowledged or appreciated is no comparison to the hardship and pain caused by enslavement or disease, but I do find it beautiful that my spirits were lifted and my frustrations were eased by this song that carries a message of hope, healing, and deliverance. In fact, God troubled the waters that day at the abbey by turning my heart back toward him rather than on selfish feelings of fulfillment.

week 1 in pictures

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Before beginning our first week of volunteering, we celebrated the end of two weeks of orientation with snoballs – a favorite summer-time treat in New Orleans!
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All of the NOLA YAV ladies!
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Every Wednesday, Jess and I will be making lunch for the neighbors using produce grown in the garden. This Wednesday lunch is called Grace & Greens. This week, we made red beans, rice, green beans, sausage, fried okra, and fruit pizza!
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I’m not only learning HOW to garden, but also WHY we do what we do with each plant. Here, I strung the cucumber plants so that they have more access to air, don’t get tangled together, and so that we can find the fruit more easily.
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So. Much. Eggplant. Thursday morning, I spent picking tons of eggplant that we bagged and delivered to home-bound neighbors. (These deliveries are known as Peas & Love!)
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Friday, I spent much of my day clearing out beds to make room for new fall produce!
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Finished my work week with some painting. 🙂
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Exploring Frenchmen Street!!
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Sunset picnic on Lake Pontchartrain!
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Love getting to know these ladies!
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Visited St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian this morning. I’m so thankful for the way they support the YAV Program and the Okra Abbey!
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Lastly…. we found Beyonce & Jay Z’s New Orleans house!!!

Ambiguity

 

Monday morning at 5:15AM I left orientation in New York and headed to New Orleans to officially begin my year of service with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Program. YAVs, YAV alums, and PC(USA) staff often refer to orientation as DISorientation… a play-on-words I smiled at early in the week; a play-on-words I now identify with deeply in my soul.

With each new day I have grown overwhelmed with information. With each session, we covered topics such as white supremacy, the new wave and definition of the word “mission,” being the PRESENT of the church rather than the future, how to share our experiences with the world, and so, so much more. I feel like a nearly-overflowing glass of water: so full of new facts and ideas that have yet to be soaked in or drunk. I have been taking notes, furiously, to make sure my glass does not overflow as I let words slip from my grasp.

Although I am excited about everything I’ve learned and feel like many of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had swirling around in my head for years now have definition and structure, I have struggled with how to approach you, the members of my community back home, with these new concepts and ways of looking at mission, life, and the world.

I want to share with you that I’ve learned that I am not needed to serve our neighbors in New Orleans, but that I am invited into their community to learn from them, listen to them, and advocate with them.

I want you to know that I’ve left with a call to action on my heart: that by changing me, I can change the world.

I want to explain to you that I’m struggling with the intentionality of living simply, off of exactly what I need; one of the core tenants of the YAV Program, and a concept I may have a hard time explaining to friends who want to visit and family who want to help me out when things get hard.

I want to lift up that I’ve learned that white supremacy and systemic racism are intimately intertwined, if not one-in-the-same, and that we are ALL complicit. The most well-intentioned of us are complicit. I am complicit.

I have transformed from who I was when I arrived last Monday and I cannot wait to process everything more fully so that I can share it all with you in more depth.

I do, however, feel strongly about letting you know that I am comfortable leaving orientation for my new beginning feeling ambiguous.

Slowly, throughout the year, I hope to begin to put the pieces together as I start to see how these concepts and I fit into my new world of service learning, community intentionality, and cross-cultural awareness. And, hopefully, it will be like taking sips of that glass of water: refreshing, life-giving, and keeping it from overflowing.

Love,

Cat

 

Our personal fundraising goals are $4,000, but it costs about $22,000 to support a YAV. Although the Presbyterian Church is contributing much of this, they’d appreciate any help offsetting the cost! Click here to contribute to the New Orleans YAV Program.

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