God just is.

I have often found that the presence of the Divine is surprisingly subtle.

Experiencing, feeling, noticing, observing, communing (or really, whatever you want to call it) with God, for me, is typically an occurrence in the quieter, more reflective spaces of my life.

This is counterintuitive to many of the religious spaces I have found myself in over the years. Places where God is equal to loud praises, loud shouts, and loud songs. And sure, God can be found here too, in fact, I think that God is accessible anywhere and everywhere.

Yet, for me I feel God when my environment errs on the side of discreet and still.

So, it was completely “on brand” that when riding my bicycle this afternoon I felt the noticeable, pressing experience of God. Gliding along the paths near Crestmoor Park I was sorting through what felt like a million feelings. I had just returned from Rwanda. Even after two weeks, I was literally gleeful to be with Chelsea again. I was considering upcoming transitions. I was thinking about weddings, fall plans, and the end of summer. I was also recalling conversations with my parents, wanting to make sure that they were both doing well after not speaking with them during my travels.

A lot was on my mind. At one point during these thoughts, I turned the corner, touching on my brakes ever so slightly when –

Silence.

I felt a need for all things to be quiet – mostly the noise in my head. And so, with resistance, I silenced my questions, to-do lists, and contemplations. I existed in the moment, amidst the vibrant, green trees and slightly rocky bike paths. Suddenly, a mantra –

You are loved. You are enough. You do not have to explain yourself.

These phrases came to mind – on repeat – like a song that you just cannot get enough of. I wondered to myself: how do you know when you are skimming the line of God versus when you’re giving yourself positive self-talk?

Real question.

And, the real answer is that I don’t know. I literally have no idea. However, I do have a hunch.

When I am with God, everything is in balance. Everything is with perspective. And, any thoughts I have (positive or otherwise) feel exquisitely simple and yet equally profound. It is as though my spirituality is full of reminders of love, yearnings for compassion, and fierce dedication to hope. All of this, without any of my own internal baggage. It is quite nice.

Prayers, revelations, and messages come together – time with God is never so clearly sparred out and divided like we do with our church programming. God just is.

I kept riding my bike, sifting through this nugget of faith that I was greatly welcoming. You see, connecting with God in this way has been more difficult lately. There has been so much moving around, so much change, so much distraction, to be frank. Because of that, I have missed these still moments that allow me to push further, beyond myself, so that I can access God, the Divine, and explore life from a fresher perspective – even if it is just for a moment.

Connection with God, I am learning requires connection to self. One must take the space. One must understand their identity. One must be willing to find what is available to them in any moment. God does not require a church, God does not require a certain verse or saying, God does not require a performance.

God just desires you – me – us.

Realizing this is changing my prayers, too. Today, I prayed a simple set of questions, a kind of prayer of humility:

God.

Thank you for today.

Thank you for bringing me home.

Thank you for the love I have in my life.

My hope is to steward this love well.

Where can I grow?

Where can I learn?

Where can I forgive?

Where can I hope?

Where can I give?

Where can I receive?

Where can I support?

Teach me how to explore these spaces – whatever my resistance, whatever my disposition. May I live well. May I love well.

God, help me to not forget the richness of this life. God, be with the hungry. God, be with the lonely. Be with all of us – regardless of belief, regardless of circumstance, regardless of anything. May your presence and experience be known. May your love reign.

I love you.

 Faith is both incredibly simple and extraordinarily complex.

I will forever fall short of describing my faith. I mean, how does one describe that which can only be felt?

Here’s to finding God in all kinds of places, in the most unexpected of ways.

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Remember: A Prayer

Remember: A Prayer

[6:37 AM, 10/2/2017]

Hey ladies! I woke up and heard the horrible news in Vegas and I’m so so depressed and heartbroken about it. I just want to spread some love and let you know I love you ladies very much and value our friendship greatly ❤❤❤❤❤

I woke up last week, on Monday morning, to this message from one of my dearest friends. My heart broke in a million pieces. My mind raced back through the many other events like it, Columbine, Aurora, San Bernardino – the list goes on. I assumed that what had happened in Vegas was a shooting. Unfortunately, I tend to think this way because our particular generation has been conditioned to this: gun violence has become normalized. It’s messed up. It’s sad. And, it’s also true.

I hesitantly checked the news and I was right. At that point, over 50 had been reported killed and hundreds were injured. I prayed before I even got out of bed. 

Lord, have mercy.

The rest of the day felt foggy and as I sat at work, rhythmically typing and listening to some tunes on Spotify, the ever-present question of, “what do I do? kept ruminating in my mind and heart.

At lunch, I took a walk to get some fresh air. I brainstormed ideas or thoughts that might help. Maybe I should give blood?  Maybe I should give to a fund to support the victims’ families? Indeed, there were several action-oriented things I could (and can) do.

When I came home later that night, I tried to absorb everything that has transpired in the last couple of months: Chelsea’s losses in her families, the hurricanes, the Vegas shooting, Charlottesville….

I mean, is it just me or has it felt like these months have been really hard?

It is overwhelming to sit with all that has transpired. As I did, a pronounced call to prayer came to me. Gratitude. Though much has happened in my own life and the world throughout this summer (and now fall), there is a steadiness of God that I have been unable to ignore.

In the midst of crisis, pain, loss, violence, and death, in me there remains a steely and steady trust that God is in this with us. I don’t mean to say that God is a bystander. And, I don’t mean to say that God allows these things to happen. If that was the case, what kind of God would that be? No, I mean that God that exists through and in us. I think God grieves with us. I think God celebrates with us, too. And so, I as I entered this call to prayer, I made a list of remembrances. It is my hope that by remembering, we can acknowledge that we will get through this.

We know this because we always have.

Remember: A Prayer

I remember when my brother was born.

I remember when I learned to ride a bike.

I remember making new friends.

I remember starting my first job.

I remember my parents divorce.

I remember changing schools.

I remember my parents remarriages.

I remember starting and loving field hockey.

I remember moving South.

I remember wondering if I was gay.

I remember changing my mind about my beliefs.

I remember seeing and witnessing real poverty.

I remember when grandma died.

I remember when one of my students was raped.

I remember living in Papas house.

I remember bucket baths.

I remember failing and then succeeding as a teacher.

I remember leaving.

I remember coming home.

I remember coming out.

I remember depression.

I remember renewal.

I remember taking the job I really wanted.

I remember the Pulse shooting.

I remember Pride.

I remember when the Broncos won the Super bowl.

I remember moving near Washington Park.

I remember being brave.

I remember meeting Chelsea (again).

I remember falling in love (again).

I remember being bold.

I remember God, in everything.

God has never left me.

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Pride: A Celebration of Love.

As a kid, I was obsessed with Lucky Charms, saving each of those colorfully flamboyant, sugar-filled marshmallow pieces until the very end of my cereal consumption. I would eat the toasted oat pieces first, then slurp the milk, and lastly, like a raving encore at the end of a galvanizing concert, eat the marshmallows into a large, heaping spoonful of delight. I liked Lucky Charms because they were tasty and certainly, “magically delicious.”

When dad dropped me off for day care – and I was maybe 4, 5 years old – we would eat bowls of cereal for breakfast. Most of the other kids would stop after 1 bowl. But you could be certain, if Lucky Charms was the cereal of the day I would be back, once, twice, you never know. Yes, rainbows, from the start of my life were important – and not just because of my breakfast choices.

During my summers, off from school, I spent most of my waking moments outside. When you grow up in Colorado, that’s just how that goes. I would ferociously bike around the neighborhood with my brother, chasing rabbits, catching speed, and pursuing adventure. We would come home right before day became night and encounter the beauty of a sky speckled with hues of blood orange and royal blue. On providential days, there would be a rainbow, too.

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I learned about rainbows when I started going to church. I was a late-bloomer in the Christian world, not having started regular church attendance until I was in high school. When I received my first Bible, I voraciously read parables, stories, and narratives of wisdom to build the budding foundation of my faith. I read about Noah, as new Christians often do, and noticed very specifically the presence of a rainbow. In Genesis 9:17, God tells Noah,

“Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth.” (NLV).

 A covenant? With all creatures on earth? Cool. That’s great.

This wasn’t just any covenant either – this promise from God to Noah represented the peace that God brings to, for, and with humanity. I didn’t know it then, but this was a pretty damn big deal.

As it turns out, a rainbow is never just a rainbow.

Every year, when June rolls around, we celebrate “Pride Month” and rainbow flags (also known as the gay pride flag or the LGBT pride flag) pop all over town, and all over the country. June was selected to be LGBT Pride Month because the Stonewall Riots (Manhattan, NY) ended in June of 1969, launching a series of gatherings, parties, and concerts to celebrate the community. It was a tipping point for the growth and visibility of the LGBT movement.

On street corners, in office buildings, and on the front stoops of bungalow homes during Pride Month, you can find these flags. In recent years, big corporate companies re-brand for the celebrations too, integrating these vibrant colors into their existing logos in solidarity. We’re with you. That’s the message and that’s the point.

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Example of LGBT-focused Corporate Branding: Target.

But, what does this, the rainbow flag, actually mean?

The flag and the colors themselves have shifted over the years, especially as the design as undergone revisions and changes; sometimes the changes have been motivated by fabric colors locally available, other times it’s been a larger cultural shift, like this year, with the addition of black and brown to the flag, pointing to the necessary unity for LGBT people and people of color. Most typically, the flag now carries six stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.

The original flag, designed in 1978 by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker, held eight colors, each with its own symbolism. Baker said as recently as 2015, “…we needed something to express our joy, our beauty, our power. And the rainbow did that.”

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These colors are not unfamiliar or foreign to me; I saw heaping amounts of glitter, sparkles, and unicorns at Denver Pride last year – in 2016. I was learning about what the colors and vibrancy meant; however, I still felt distant from the freedom they offered. By the dozens, people danced along Colfax Avenue recklessly and without abandon, cheering as loud as their voices would allow, and waving bandanas unceasingly in a sign of harmony and togetherness. I was marching with the Colorado Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group, and these scenes of joy and love moved me – but again, I felt disconnected from it. Internally, I was battling with what I knew to be true (I am gay) and the outward expression of my life (let’s not tell anyone about this). I could see the life I wanted, but like grasping for something just far enough away, I was not sure I would be able to ever hold on to it.

I signed up to march in the Pride parade because of the June 12, 2016 shooting at Pulse. This was a sacred time for the LGBT community and upon learning of what had happened at the Orlando nightclub, I knew that it was incredibly important to attend, stand with, and be present to this celebration of inclusion. Hate, I felt strongly, would not have the last word. I wanted to be present to a place that says, “Yes! We are here. We are together.”

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Denver Pride, 2016.

I’ve read somewhere that on average, a person who happens to be gay “comes out” seven times. You come out to yourself – again, again, and again, and still, again. Then, when you can accept this, you begin to offer this very vulnerable part of yourself to others.

“Coming out” is both powerfully beautifully and oddly strange.

The beauty of coming out is allowing yourself to be known, and for the other, to affirm the love that pulses within us.

The sad part of coming out is that it often is such a tumultuous process. Never in my life have I had to share something so intimate with other people, hoping earnestly that I would get the stamp of approval. Can you imagine doing this to every single person you know? It’s lovely. But, let it be known, it’s absolutely exhausting.

Have you ever “come out” because you have a large inheritance? Have you ever “come out” because you eat fish, not beef? Have you ever “come out” because you are brown-haired, not blonde?

Why, I often wonder, have we stuck LGBT peoples with the task of having to work so hard to normalize what has been birthed inside of them? It’s complicated, too, because unlike race, or even ethnicity, a person’s sexuality can be relatively hidden. I can’t hide that I am a white woman. But, gay? I could hide that if I desired. And, I have. And, I did.

Pride nullifies this process entirely.

Pride doesn’t say that you are “OK” – Pride says you are loved. Pride puts the excruciating process of judgment on the shelf and says, rest. Laugh. Love. Pride reminds many that they are not alone.

I didn’t “get” Pride until I finally came out (again). All along, I’ve known this truth about me. But, there is a very important distinction between “being gay” and “choosing to be who you are.” People remain stuck in the closet of isolation, trapped by fear and shame, and never (literally, and sadly, never) live openly.

I was more at rest than I have, perhaps, ever, been when I attended Denver Pride this year, in 2017. I was not hiding anymore or trying to change my own mind about who I was. I am living my life, outwardly, driven by the most real pieces of who I am. The energy and vivacity of Pride reminded me that I, like many others, had made it. I chose freedom. I chose life.

Chelsea and I arrived late, dropping glitter from our matching tutu outfits everywhere we walked. I wore my favorite unicorn shirt and clapped, laughed, and shouted as representatives from churches, businesses, groups, organizations, and everyone in between walked by. We ate popsicles and took photographs. We hung out with our friends in the shade. We visited what felt like hundreds of booths, all with rainbow gay echoing the same message: love.

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Denver Pride, 2017.

Pride, at its core, is a celebration of love.

Towards the end, as the music waned and the sun started to burn ever so slightly on my skin, I took a small, private moment with God to say, “thank you.” I was inexpressibly grateful, filled to the top of my cup because finally, Pride was something I could step into and know.

Pride was more than flashy celebrations on blocked black-tar streets around the world. Pride was more than the pomp and circumstance of love is love is love. It’s all those things, of course, but Pride is special because it is a sacred time of the year when all of us in the LGBT community can remember, reflect, and be driven forward with the conscious reality that we matter, we are loved, and we can be ourselves. Pride acts as a marker against hate; freedom for us, liberation for all, it’s bound up in the ability to think differently, and to do things differently, too. I’m certainly not perfect. I have more work to do – for myself and others. Pride tells us to “go” – to not stop – and to push forward even when it feels like systems, world views, or leaders want otherwise.

Pride is a place where God can enter and say, “Yes, YOU! YOU! You are strong enough.”

I accept.

I am home – and that’s why Pride is so special, and that’s what it means to me.

The Baptism of Narragansett

Sea crumbs clutch the ankles of my shell-cast feet;

the sand sinks, as i run, run, run,

melting like ice cream in the breezy, cold sun of Narragansett.

 

my voice is no longer silenced but i choose to be quiet –

the Sea has something important to say,

the liberation of others is bound in you.

the liberation of you is bound in others.

 

i am tired of being the oppressed;

i am tired of being the oppressor,

why must i be both?

Sea, won’t you free me?

 

white gay rich woman traveled far

to be here.

 

wildly, i embrace the ocean, the Sea, the wide blue of love

my breathe is cut short,

i am outside of me, finally.

 

do i feel oppressed?

i am oppressed in what we call beautiful –

i am oppressed in what we call love –

i am oppressed in how you look at me –

i am oppressed in how i must justify my choices –

 

my oppression is blind

you will not find it in

poor slums,

poor homes,

the confines of my office,

or the car i drive

 

you will find it in the secret corners of dark hearts.

 

have i oppressed?

i took what was not mine

i received what i did not work for

i benefited from the whiteness that covers me, follows me, lives in me –

 

Baptize me, Sea, in the freedom to know I am loved.

 

I am enough.

I am an active agent here, on earth, on the sweet Sea of Narragansett,

and I will fight for those who stand, sit, and fight in chains –

 

and for myself –

i will open the lungs for breath and use my words for good,

i will write the words of truth,

i will give up power for the sake of the other,

i will ask again, and again, and again that the oppressor in me – will die –

 

I am free, like the Sea crumbs that fill my hair, heart, soul.

Bring me to the salvation of perfect love.

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hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

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My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved. 

the welcoming tradition.

Men hate each other because they fear each other,
and they fear each other because they don’t know each other,
and they don’t know each other
because they are often separated from each other.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In times of grief, I often pray with my hands cupped together, as if I’m holding all the pain in my tired fingers and asking for God to see it, hold it, and carry it with (or for) me.

I began praying like that on a trip that culminated with time at a progressive Methodist church in Birmingham, Alabama (Highlands United Methodist Church). I was with a group of Hendrix students, learning about the Civil Rights movement while also taking part in service work. This experiential learning program was designed to explore on-going, systemic issues of poverty, race, and historical segregation – especially in the South. On one of the final evenings, I stayed alone in a small, chapel-like room and lifted my hands like in the cup-like stance, praying that God would teach me how to have an open heart. My soul was tired from the stories we had heard. I was at a loss for words – in disbelief of how our country had so violently and rigorously held onto exclusionary policies and attitudes because of a person’s race.

What disturbed me then, as it continues to do so now, (today, in 2017 when we legislate the rejection of people not quite like “us”) is that exclusion was not the kind of tradition I was taught. I, in the tapestry of experiences across state lines, groups, ethnicities, countries, genders, and families have been shown and empowered with a welcoming tradition. I refuse, resolutely, to disembark from this way of loving and honoring the humanity around us.

I took time this week to jot down specific moments or circumstances by which was modeled for me as a way of inclusion.

Inclusion, inherently, comes with risks.

If we embrace “otherness” in our communities (whether that includes a different religion, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic background, gender, etc.) we can’t guarantee consensus. If we celebrate diversity, we might have to live in the tension of misalignment. Most profoundly, if we welcome people that are not like the community we live within then we might lose the power we have systemically maintained.

Imagine!

What if the opportunity for inclusion presented a pathway to disassemble privilege so that we could access a more equitable, shared, opportunity-rooted society?

I’ve suggested something like this with close family members before and have been called a “socialist.” In a better light, I’ve been characterized as simply “too idealistic.”

But in fact, welcoming others is a tradition found within the framework of the beginning Christian community, not merely something I only formulated myself.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God…May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15: 5-7; 13

My push, desire, and passion for inclusion stems first from my faith, and then from my upbringing and experiences. Truthfully, it also comes from a deep-seeded belief that each and every human has value. All of us. We’re messy, incomplete, wrong, misguided, mean, selfish, corrupt, and imperfect people. But, that doesn’t change the fact that we are alive and to be image-bearers of Christ. We are not Christ. Rather, we are made in His image, carrying some piece of that reflection with us.

I’m blessed because I’ve seen enough inclusion in my life to know that it is the worthy way. I will commit my life to it. And for that, I have the people in my life to thank for showcasing what it means to see, love, and accept people and to courageously choose the path of integration, not separation. It’s harder, but the right thing usually is.

Inclusion: noun

the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.

Divorce

Appropriately, my first molding to what relational inclusion can be, came from my parents. I’m forever grateful for that.

My parents divorced in the fall of 2003. I was 14. It was the dismantling of my family as I knew it, though frankly, I had expected it to occur many years prior. I was sad, of course, but I was also hopeful that both of my parents could heal and find the happiness they so deeply longed for, needed, and deserved.

Initially, to cope, I threw myself (literally) into sports. Field hockey became the outlet by which I could channel my spectrum of emotions (despair, gratitude, doubt, expectation, concern, and uncertainty) and still process what was happening. My parents were available to ask questions, and most conspicuously, did their damndest to uphold consistency to our life. I still took the bus to school, I maintained delicious dinners of macaroni and cheese, and for a while, we stayed in the same house, with our parents rotating each week.

Eventually, as the dust began to settle, even over the course of months, years, and other marriages, I witnessed something quite miraculous. My mother and father kept an amiable relationship, and because of that, kept an inclusionary approach to each other in our lives. It would have been easy for my mom or my dad to silo their experiences with us – away from one another. Instead, together, they attended sports’ games and activities and together, built the role of both “mother” and “father” equally, without marginalization or omission. This can be unique in the status-quo for divorced families.

What I learned – from both mom and dad– is that even in time of division, a cohesive community still can be cultivated. Our family could remain intact, just different than before.  Yet, even in our pain, our growth as a family that included myself, my brother, my mom, and my dad remained.

Menifee

I graduated from a public-school system with resources. Lots of them. Cherry Creek Schools are well-known (locally and nationally) for excellent teachers, technologies, and innovative classroom methods. To be honest, I didn’t know how lucky I was until I left.

I’ve always loved volunteerism and as a student just outside of Little Rock, I made it a priority to find the perfect club, activity, or organization where I could get involved. When I joined the team of Menifee, a tutoring and education program for rural Arkansasan youth, I fully, and finally realized how advantaged I had been to receive the kind of education I did.

Menifee, a small, rural town near my school (we’re talking population 311), is a community that has over 10% of people living below the poverty line. It also has a sizeable population that attend school districts lacking in quality teachers, experiential learning, and enough resources (say, textbooks) to provide high-level classroom engagement.

Once a week, a well-known (and well-liked) Hendrix professor would bring a handful of tutors to practice spelling, mapping, or time tables with Menifee youth. Her compassion for this community was compelling and deep; she worked for years to elevate the educational opportunities for these children, and truthfully, it was inspiring to even just be around. Unrelentingly, she believed that these children had every right to access a fair, equitable education.

Tutoring was just one facet of her efforts; she also advocated for parental engagement, believing that strong families can encourage student proficiency. I learned from her that inclusion of all students is essential to our future. If we neglect students from rural, minority, or poor communities, we inherently advocate for a society that doesn’t push forth opportunities for knowledge – for all.

GLOW & BE

While in the Peace Corps, I wrote extensively about the experience of educating young women, particularly in the realm of personal growth, leadership, relationship-building, and women’s issues. After school, once a week, I would meet with our “GLOW” (Girls Leading Our World) Club (usually with around 20 students) to discuss issues relevant to their lives (sex education, menstruation, studying habits, and boys). It was a powerful experience, one that still informs the work and passions I have for encouraging safe spaces for women.

Over time, the club became, truly, theirs. I sat on the side, allowing their own leadership to thrive and for them to establish the kind of conversation they desired.

After about a year of meeting regularly, the president of the group approached me with an idea: let’s include the boys. I was confused at first. Boys? We want to empower boys? Wasn’t our club designed to empower our female populations?

Her idea took root. By including males in the conversation of empowerment, we empower both genders – together. If women are to rise in confidence, efficacy, and choice, inherently, men would need to join us. They would need to advocate for us, and us for them. We started a “BE” (Boys Empowered) club the following term – designed to educate boys on how they can be a part of the process to empower themselves – and women.

Even years later, I’m still amazed at this kind of foresight and progressive thinking. Inclusion, is necessary for all genders, across all spaces.

Denver Community Church

Most recently, my church, Denver Community Church (DCC), has publicly announced its decision to be a fully inclusive church – largely in reference to inclusion of the LGBT community.

The 2-year discernment process involved elders of the church praying, analyzing scripture, discussing, and meeting with members of the LGBT community. They have most recently launched a 5-week learning group to explore these issues publicly, and declare, without reservation that LGBT members are welcome to attend, serve, and have as meaningful of a place in the church as anyone else.

I’m gay, and I’ve known that a long time but have not lived outwardly and authentically until more recently.

I never thought I would be brave enough to share this.

I never thought I would live the life I dreamed of.

I never thought I would find a church that would celebrate this.

I never. I began so many sentences with that word. I was ashamed, scared, sad, and resigned to the fact that I would have to hide this for the rest of my life.

Yet, something happened within the last year. I entered a time of deep prayer. I was provided the opportunity to do counseling. I began realizing (and fully accepting) how much God loved me. I began saying my truth aloud (again and again again) – without fear, without shame, and certainly, without going back. I had told family members before about this deep-knowing of who I was, but previously, had been too scared to live out the life I knew I was supposed to lead.

This year, I moved forward more boldly, sharing with my best friend that I knew I was meant to be with a woman. On a crazy (and wonderfully surprising) set of circumstances, I met a woman. We started dating. She became my girlfriend.

fullsizerender-2And then, this church came along, also.

You see, it all happened so fast, like a beautiful unfolding of a story that is meant to be. Even for myself, I can barely keep up.

Freedom does that – it happens fast and you can’t help but just succumb to the reality of real, gritty, kick-your-ass kind of faith.

Freedom for myself, and for others, to love God is the most beautiful kind of inclusion. We can have a place with Jesus. We can bring our most true versions of ourselves and continue to Love God, and Love others. We can live out the gospel actively and fully.

DCC isn’t asking everyone to agree with their stance on LGBT issues. What they are suggesting, instead, is a move towards love. A move towards, “unity not uniformity.” I would hope for the same thing. Because, as I witness this inclusion occur from afar, now in Rwanda for the next few weeks, I am learning how transformative inclusion can be – for anyone. I’m honored to be in a church that models this and lives this out.

Inclusion. Love. Community.

The pursuit of these ideal may be arduous, but I want in. I’m all in. No matter what.

hallelujah.

The scents of pine, the tastes of cranberry, and the melodic tunes of carols are familiar friends when December rolls around each year. Christmas, despite its yearly inevitability, often comes swiftly as we enter a time of reflection, rest, and preparation for the new year to come.

For the four Sundays (and weeks) leading up to Christmas, the Christian church honors a time of advent, when God’s people wait in anticipation of the Lord’s coming. Advent means “coming” in Latin and per the United Methodist Church, advent is a time we can, “remember the longing of Jews for a Messiah and our own longing for, and need of, forgiveness, salvation, and a new beginning. Even as we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus in a humble stable in Bethlehem, we also look forward anticipating the second coming of Christ as the fulfillment of all that was promised by his first coming.[1]

This advent season, I’ve been more intentional to contemplate what this means – historically, traditionally, and practically.

The first advent Sunday is about hope, reflecting on the journey of the prophets in the Bible that spoke of the promise of liberation and freedom for God’s people. A candle is lit, around a wreath, and in silence we let hope permeate our mind and hearts. After attending a service at Denver Community Church on the first Sunday of advent, I went to Washington Park for a true Sabbath activity: roller-blading. As I glided over the smooth pavement, I took in the world around me. I saw neighbors walking their dogs (and cats), holding hands with their loved ones, and taking family photographs in the cool, winter air. A single thought crossed my mind again, and again, and again: do not lose hope.

When I reached my car, and put my roller-blading gear away, I then took a walk around the pond, near the center of the park. The water was mostly covered in ice, with geese resting unassumingly upon it, and I was intrigued by the stillness and peacefulness that was happening in the middle of a busy park in a really busy city.

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With a slow, meandering pace, I put my headphones in and heard the words of a song that immediately (and unexpectedly) brought tears to the edges of my eyes.

I had put my YouTube playlist on shuffle and found A Hallelujah Christmas” by Cloverton. With the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Cloverton’s rendition is instead about the birth of Jesus.

As I circled the water quietly, I listened to the song no less than six times.

In the Gospel of Luke, it is written that, “While they [Mary & Joseph] were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”[2]

A Hallelujah Christmas” also alludes to the unexpected manner by which Jesus entered the world. He – and his family – were not welcome at the inn. I repeated the line, “there was no room for them to stay…” and asked myself where I had neglected other people, or even God, in my own life.

I thought about Syria. Struggles in my family. Fear. Depression. The election. Gun violence. Racism. Division. Loneliness. Poverty. Shame. Greed. Conflict.

Even in my best of intentions, so much of the world we move within is broken and hurting. There is suffering and there is deep pain. Yet, as I listened to this song, again, and again this advent season, I became more in awe of “the Word becoming flesh” and God entering – boldly, violently, and radically – into this world. Hallelujah.

Jesus’ birth in a manger signifies the reality of Immanuel, “God with us.” We love and pursue a God that has met us – and continues to meet us – right where we are. For as much as I think, contemplate, and write about this, I still struggle to wrap my mind around it. God’s love for us is bigger than the structures or barriers we build. God is larger than our expectations. God is truly, wholly with us. And, we have been made complete. More than that, God understands all of us. Where we lose words, we find Him and His grace.

On that day in Washington Park, as I often do when I think about God, I looked up towards the trees all around me. I thought about the strength of my family. My future. Living openly, and authentically. Finding community. My friends around the world. Falling in love.

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Advent is a time for waiting. It’s hard to wait sometimes. It’s hard to be uncomfortable and to sit with realities that break our hearts. But, we must know and remember that the brokenness is not – and never will be – the end of the story. Christ has come. He continues to be with us. And, He will come again.

*

I’ve heard about this baby boy
Who’s come to earth to bring us joy
And I just want to sing this song to you
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
With every breath I’m singing Hallelujah
Hallelujah

A couple came to Bethlehem
Expecting child, they searched the inn
To find a place for You were coming soon
There was no room for them to stay
So in a manger filled with hay
God’s only Son was born, oh Hallelujah
Hallelujah

The shepherds left their flocks by night
To see this baby wrapped in light
A host of angels led them all to You
It was just as the angels said
You’ll find Him in a manger bed
Immanuel and Savior, Hallelujah
Hallelujah

A star shown bright up in the east
To Bethlehem, the wisemen three
Came many miles and journeyed long for You
And to the place at which You were
Their frankincense and gold and myrrh
They gave to You and cried out Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I know You came to rescue me
This baby boy would grow to be
A man and one day die for me and you
My sins would drive the nails in You
That rugged cross was my cross, too
Still every breath You drew was Hallelujah
Hallelujah

[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-advent

[2] Luke 2: 6-7