A Guide to Rollerblading in Denver

“You could even be a rollerblading unicorn.” – Dan Howell

Last summer, in 2016, I made a lot of changes in my life – intentionally.

I moved to a neighborhood where I knew I could walk to get ice cream (one of life’s essentials), where I could be closer to work, and namely, where I could be near the happenings of Denver. I also tried a new team sport, rugby, and joined a new church, too. I made these decisions and changes because I was in a season of deep knowing that if I was going to live the life I wanted, I had to move toward it. It was my responsibility, I recognized, to articulate and pursue what I desired, and that I could absolutely trust God to do the rest. Being brave in the thick of unknowns is one of the most devoted acts of faith, I think.

So, I did these things and, most importantly, bought my first pair of rollerblades since I was, like, 10. Sports Authority had filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and was going out of business. Thus, they had incredible sales and deals that you wouldn’t have been able to find elsewhere. While perusing the store, my mom and stumbled upon a really nice pair of blades – knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards – all for $70. It was a steal.

I had started dreaming about rollerblading again when, while in Rwanda, I stopped at a rural bus stop and saw a gentleman energetically serving cool fruit juices in a blue tub, while on blades. I smiled, gasped, and knew then that yes! I wanted to blade again. When I was young, I played roller hockey with my brother and friends any opportunity I could get. Rollerblading had made me feel strong and free, and I knew that I wanted this again.

So, for the last 1 ½ years, I have been cruising around Denver in my gear, happily and enthusiastically rollerblading. Chelsea has joined me a lot this last year, and it has been a joy to share the experience with her. Rollerblading is amazing for a lot of reasons. It’s refreshing. It’s fun. And, it works nearly every muscle of your body. It is a kind of sport that challenges the parts of your body to be in perfect synchronization with one another.

If you also are intrigued about the idea of suiting up in blades and helmets, here’s a quick overview of what you need to know.

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  1. Get a reliable pair of rollerblade It is essential to identify what exactly you want the blades for because there are better blades for racing, for indoor skating, and for recreational use. This link has exceptional recommendations. For me, I knew that I wanted to skate outdoors (no racing) so I could simply enjoy the views and have an alternative way of getting exercise. For this purpose, K2 has proven to be an excellent brand of skates.
  2. Before committing to a long ride, practice! If you haven’t skated in a while, you will feel a bit strange and a whole lot of awkward on your skates. Definitely try to get comfortable with your skates before heading over to a park and showing off your skills.
  3. For the love, wear safety gear. This should be self-explanatory, but PLEASE wear a helmet. I often to see bladers cruising along in jean shorts, with their hair down, and with no helmet. Sometimes they even have a boombox on their shoulder (and no, it’s not 1992). This gives me the heebie-jeebies. Blading can be dangerous because at times, there are unidentified objects in the road (like twigs) that you can trip over and land face first. Be safe. Wear a helmet.
  4. Scope out good routes. Denver has a good selection of recreational paths for rollerblading. Without question, my go-to-choice is Washington Park. The inner loop is 2.1 miles, all with relatively good pavement. There are sections where the cement and asphalt is particularly “groovy” (and not in a good way) so that causes some extra strain on your feet. Washington Park has also recently redesigned the paths (don’t get me started) so it can be kind of confusing where the lanes go. The big rule of thumb: pedestrians have the right of way. You should always blade closer to the right, only passing on the left when necessary. Other great routes include Sloan’s Lake and the Cherry Creek Trail. City Park looks like a viable option, but I would be a bit hesitant for the lack of connection of some of the pavement. I would walk any route first, before committing to rollerblade on it. This gives you a better sense of the terrain.
  5. Bring water (and snacks). Blading works your legs (like woah). Make sure you stay energized and hydrated to keep your body strong while on the trail.
  6. Dont listen to music while on skates. I used to listen to my podcasts and blade at the same time. However, I’ve almost been hit by cyclists because I couldn’t hear the background noises of what was happening around me. So, this is a good safety measure that ensures you are aware of all that is passing by you.
  7. Keep your blades in your car with all of your other gear. You never know when you might want to go blading. I keep my stuff in a large bag in my trunk so that if it happens to be a gorgeous day and I’m driving by the park, I have the option to blade. This is also nice so you don’t always have to move your blades in and out of your house.

Have fun with your skates, the sunshine, and the invigorating experience of blading in Denver.

Enjoy the ride.

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street signs.

Summer seasons are often full of long, lazy days in the parks, taking in the sun, and the people, with friends. I love these days; they are full, but they are restful. Another part of summer, at least twice in the last two years, has been moving and changing locations.

Last year, I moved from the outer suburbs of Denver into prime real estate: Washington Park. I packed my bags and hunkered down in a 1-bedroom, sharing the house with three other young female professionals. It was exactly what I needed at the time – urban living, a fun neighborhood, and a bit more walkability to the places around me. I was close to Pearl Street and DU, so there were always exciting things happening.

Of course, in the last year, a lot has changed. And with those changes, I took another dive into a big move this summer, moving in with Chelsea. We had discussed it at length, even from the beginning of our relationship, understanding that things were, in fact, serious. We decided that as our leases eased closer to finishing (both ending on the exact same day) we would evaluate if living together was the next best thing.

And, in the end, it was. Living together isn’t a decision to be taken lightly; a lot can change, and more responsibility looms – to the relationship, and for your partner. However, I wouldn’t move in with just anyone; and knowing that Chelsea and I are a forever-kind-of-thing made this decision quite easy.

Let’s do it, we said.

We relocated to East-Central Denver, on the edge Hilltop, in the budding neighborhood of Lowry. Lowry, or Lowry Field as the neighborhood is also called, is on the site of the former Lowry Air Force Base. The Air Force Base trained military members, of all branches, for 57 total years, with a focus being air and space technology in the late 1950s. Interestingly, during this time, Dwight D. Eisenhower kept his summer home in Denver, in Lowry, with frequent stops on his plane, “the Columbine” on the base. The base closed in 1994 after it graduated 1.1 million Armed Forces. Since then, the city has initiated redevelopment efforts for the community, creating a space that is mixed-use, mixed-age, and mixed-race. Better yet, it’s home to over 800 parks and open space – about 20% of all Denver park acreage in Denver!

Our home is spacious and comfortable, with a gym on the first floor of the apartment (lifting weights just got easier). Most mornings, I write or read on our large patio, listening to the humming of the water foundation below. We’ve scoped out the nearby ice cream parlors, Rocket and High Point Creamery, and we’re game for walks at the park nearby, Crestmoor.

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Most of my life in Denver has been spent on the Southside (do people even say that here? Maybe?) so it is nice to mix it up, and enter a new community. Ironic, because now, we’re only blocks away from the first home I ever lived in – my parents’ home on Poplar, not far from Fairmount Cemetery. Life’s wonderfully ironic sometimes.

My favorite part of living together has been sharing meals, coming home to someone, and having easy access to my rollerblading buddy on the weekends. There’s a lot of small reasons why living together is great, but mostly, it’s just nice to share life with someone.

My drive to work from our new place is relatively straightforward; I head north on Monaco and then due west on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The drive is both tranquil and picturesque, lined with large, old, overhanging oak trees in the median and outer edges of the traffic lanes. Historic homes are everywhere in this part of town, complete with old bricks and ominous, circular pillars.

However, as I’ve adjusted to my commute, I have started noticing more and more of what’s around me. What I’ve seen, a lot more than what I used to see in the Washington Park community, is the prevalence of homelessness.

As I get closer to Northeast Park Hill (which has a median income of $37,468.06, as opposed to the median income of $88,479 in South Park Hill), I traverse through different socio-economic classes and a variance of make-ups in Denver’s community.

Intentionally, I started reading and keeping note of the some of the signs I would pass on these short drives. Some said:

“Family in need.”

“Veteran & hungry.”

“Anything helps.”

These are street signs of course, but it made me wonder, why do people write what they do on a sign that can fit 10 words – max? More than that, though, I’ve been contemplating what is happening in Denver’s migration (in and out) and how it’s affecting people who have lived here a very long time.

Just the other morning, I passed these same streets and saw a woman with a walker standing on the curb, again, with a sign. How did this happen? What brought her to this place? I felt not pity, but a helplessness that I have not felt for quite some time. I didn’t know what to say, and more obviously, I didn’t know where to look. It hurts, sometimes, to look someone with that kind of pain in the eyes. It’s important, though, I think to regard someone’s humanity in the moment. So, I looked, and the light turned green, and I drove by.

Another morning, another day.

Denver is not what it used to be. Old neighborhoods are gentrified; gangs are becoming pushed to smaller parts of historic neighborhoods and we are left with something of a huge problem. This city can only fit so much.

What will happen with the people on the margins?

I have found a new home, but I can’t help but wonder and ask what will happen with others. I see these street signs popping up and I don’t know what to do. The signs point to something larger, and perhaps, like old prophecy, we are left to decipher and await new meaning for what’s happening to our city, and hence, what’s happening to our people.

We assume people on the side of the road are after drugs or haven’t tried a shelter. That could be true, but I am left with a stronger sense of I don’t know. I don’t know what their stories are. We, if we are to be honest, don’t know as much as we think we do.

Our city is changing, and changing fast. The average rent, for a one-bedroom is $1,413, monthly[1]. There are a lot of reasons to come here, to be sure, but I hope that the swiftly changing demographics of our city doesn’t to continue to harm only certain groups of people.

I’m a beneficiary of these changes, I can afford rent here – at least for now.

However, it’s still difficult to see individuals (and families), stuck in the middle of somewhere in between, unable to make ends meet. Moving has opened my eyes up to this, and I will continue to keep my eyes open, waiting, watching, and looking for a way to find the answer for what we do amid all these tensions.

[1] https://www.rentjungle.com/average-rent-in-denver-rent-trends/

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

Everyone Gets a Rose

Six years ago, in preparing to return home after a semester abroad in Ghana, I found myself weary-eyed and zombie-like. I was packing up my belongings and bags in my dormitory room at the international dormitory and wasn’t quite ready to leave. And so, to bring along a little energy and a small spark of Ghanaian culture, I chose to wear a Kente-cloth dress for the flight back to the United States. Timely, as I was randomly upgraded to first class for the 13-hour flight from London to Denver. I promptly sipped unlimited mimosas and stretched my legs on a move-able bed, complete with a down-comforter.

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Reppin’ Kente cloth on the flight with Rachel. Accra, Ghana, May 2010

Kente is significant; it’s a silk and cotton based cloth native to the Ashanti region of Ghana. Various colors carry different symbols, and the cloth is so intricate that it is often woven together piece by piece. It’s typically a “loud” and vibrant textile; one of the most popular African-based designs in the world.

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Since leaving Ghana, this particular Kente-printed dress has been with me through college celebrations, weddings, the Peace Corps, travel around the U.S., and most recently, while at a casting call for the upcoming season of ABC’s The Bachelor.

Yes, I tried out for The Bachelor. In my African-print dress.

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For years, I have– usually in jest – told my friends that I would boldly audition for a spot on the show if producers should come to Denver in search for the next contestant. Apparently, the show sends a crew to Denver quite regularly, but it so happens that I’m often gallivanting somewhere else outside of Denver, anyway.

But this summer? They came. I was here. As a firm believer in living life with a posture of “why not?” and with a strong nudge of encouragement from Rachel, I completed the 10-page application and agreed to show up for the face-to-face interviews and auditions.

First, let’s talk about that application. If you are curious, you can find a copy of it here.

The Application

The questions span about 6 of those 10 pages; contractual obligations are around 4, 5, or 6 more additional pages of signing. Essentially, you are signing your rights away to the show. Seriously. If the producers want to take the show in a certain direction, they can. If they want you to “play” a certain kind of character, that will ultimately be at their discretion. And all liability is on you.

The actual questions are both expected and unexpected. You fill in answers about your hometown, siblings, and the reasons you are seeking marriage. You are also inclined to answer questions about your favorite alcoholic beverage (red wine), the reason you like that particular beverage (it’s the ultimate truth serum), and why your serious relationships have ended (distance).

In answering these questions, I knew I would have to stand out in an “alternative” way. I am not a blonde-bombshell, I don’t have a modeling career, and let’s be real, I’m kind of quirky, happy-go-lucky, and relatively down-to-earth lady. I decided to push hard on the “Africa” angle in my life – thus the reason I was adorned in African fabric. In answering questions about my proudest accomplishment, I answered “completing the U.S. Peace Corps” and when explaining my “ideal mate” I emphasized my desire to find someone who had an equally impassioned interest in helping others, learning about the world, and sharing cultures. It was cheesy. But, my pitch was quite simple: “The Bachelor has never seen a woman like me before.”

Wearing my Kente dress with pride and gusto, I marched into the Hard Rock Café for the casting call 3 hours early. Literally, I did march because I was wearing my leather cowboy boots and my black backpack to carry my computer. I meant business. Only one other girl had shown up and ABC had not yet started the “que” line for the audition. With kindness, Hard Rock Café staff allowed us to sit down near the bar as we waited for the line to get organized and the process to begin.

Just as quickly, I popped out my computer to add remaining edits for a grant application due the following day. I chugged away on my computer, fielding questions from fellow contestants about the nature of my work.

“So, um, where is your bakery?”

“Oh! Africa….”

“Oh Rwanda! Is that in Asia?”

The Que Line

When I was able to finish my final touches on the grant application, I figured it would be best to truly “take in” the experience. I put my computer in my backpack and followed the girls who had arrived outside to begin forming the line. I was the second girl up. This has to bode well for my luck – right?

I began to get to know the women around me.

The first woman in line – at the very front – had invested hundreds of dollars to prepare for the audition. With new make-up, a nail job, waxed eyebrows, and a new outfit, she was determined. Interspered in our conversation, she spoke with various contacts in Puerto Rico. Loudly she proclaimed into the phone, “If I don’t get on this show then I’m done! I’m moving to Puerto Rico and that’s just that.” Like I said, people are heavily invested.

A few girls over, I chatted with a girl who has made a career of trying out for reality shows. Most recently, she had become a finalist on America’s Next Top Model, but was left out during a final cut. In her perfectly manicured right hand, she held a hot pink water bottle. In the other, she carried a thick portfolio of photographs to showcase during her interview. Woah, I thought to myself, I am so not prepared for this.

I especially appreciated the cat-calls, questions, stares, and odd-looks from Denver pedestrians. The Hard Rock Café sits on the corner of 16th Street Mall, and so weekly foot traffic is heavy. With a line full of long-legged pretty ladies, you can imagine the types of words and sounds were receiving. Ick.

Because I was early, however, the line didn’t get much longer until later. While I stood outside, only around 50-60 girls waited with me. When I finished the entire process, though, numbers had swelled to at least 200.

The Photographs

Once ABC finished their set-up, a representative came out to welcome us to the audition! It was starting – officially. We were led in through the double doors like a herd of cows, frantically waiting to receive our special Bachelor pen.

Once received, you review your initial application for one final glance and receive a white board in which you write your full name. This white board is used during your head – and body shots. Since I was in the top portion of the line of women, I had my photographs done quickly. Remembering my persona of “nice do-gooder,” I smiled with approximately 0.1% sex appeal. Mostly, I tried to look cute, clean, and yet still a bit gregarious, especially with the style of my outfit. The photographer took a full shot of my head, a couple of profile perspectives, and of course, the entire body. It was strange.

The Camera Interview

The final point of contact during a casting call between the show and individuals trying out is the screen test. Pulled into a room with at least 5 different camera set-ups, each candidate enters the room, is “mic’d” up, and provided a handful of questions to answer while being filmed. The idea is to get a sense for how a person looks, acts, and feels on camera. I sat down and could hardly get the mic around my neck. Be cool, I told myself, be cool.

The fluorescent camera lights were dizzying at first, but I got accommodated quickly. Quick, witty, adorable. The questions started right away:

“What is your name?”

“Heather Newell.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m a 303-girl; I’m from right here in Denver, Colorado!”

“Are you married?”

“No, I’m not married.”

“Are you divorced?”

“No, I’m not divorced, but many people in my family have experienced divorce, which is one of the reasons I am trying out for the show! Maybe TV is a way to break the cycle…?”

“How long was your longest relationship?”

“Realistically, the relationship lasted nearly a year, but continued for a bit after we weren’t able to be together.”

“Why did that relationship end?”

“Distance. My heart was broken because it was difficult to find closure when I so badly wanted it to work.”

“What do you like to do in your free time?”

“So, outside of being active, I love other cultures. I thrive in other cultures. So, I spend a lot of time with Rwandans in the Denver community, as well as Denver citizens who have come from other countries. I think it’s important to share our spaces and time so we can build more understanding in the world.  Oh. And um, rollerblading. I really like rollerblading too.”

“Okay, great, thanks Heather. If you make it to the next round in Los Angeles, you will hear from us by mid-July.”

“So, um, if I don’t hear from you at all, I can assume that I didn’t make the cut?”

“That’s correct.”

“Okay, great. Thank you so much!”

I grabbed my backpack, Bachelor pen, and made my way to the exit. The line for auditions now circled around the restaurant. Fumes of hairspray and perfume filled my nostrils. Woah. It was time to go home.

Roses for All

Now that it’s past mid-July, I am fairly confident I did not make it to the next round of The Bachelor. And hey! That’s okay. I wasn’t really trying out with that kind of expectation. I was interested, curious, and excited to have a different perspective into one of America’s most popular cultural phenomenons.

Because I’m a pretty open and ardent feminist, I must confess: it felt kind of hypocritical even showing up for the audition to the show in the first place. I mean, in what kind of world does it even make sense to have one person moving through men or women like soda pop cans in a pack? Only, it’s with roses. It is weird. And, how could I be okay with being judged, solely based on my looks?

I definitely know I’m not alone because a simple ‘google’ search will provide dozens of articles on “7 Reasons it’s Okay to be a Feminist and Watch the Bachelor.”

The struggle of enthusiastically promoting the advancement of women and simultaneously enjoying The Bachelor series is real.

I suppose in many ways, I’m curious, wanting deeply to understand the zealous drive to watch this show every week. Is the ridiculousness so bad that it’s hard to walk away? Is it simply a great excuse for 1 – or 2 – glasses of red wine? Is it actually kind of interesting to see what happens? Does it provide the kind of escape a woman needs after a long day at work?

Ultimately, I think what I like most about The Bachelor is that it’s a fun topic to chat about with my friends. We’ve had more conversations about pro-feminism because of this show. We’ve laughed, we’ve been in shock, and also, we can appreciate the great parodies that are produced on SNL (Saturday Night Live) (“Bland Man” is my favorite!) and the like.

And more than that, when I attended the auditions this summer, I realized that I hadn’t felt insecure about who I am at all during the whole process. This surprised me. You would think a room full of 200 women with perfectly bronzed legs, sculpted arms, and well-done make-up would have instigated a kind of nagging uncertainty and incapability. Instead, I enjoyed attending the casting call because it made me proud to be me. I auditioned as a proudly-weird girl who has a particular passion for Rwanda, loves eating burritos, and will make friends with anyone. It didn’t matter. I came as I am.

Maybe we should all give ourselves a little more credit – Bachelor or not – and recognize that we don’t need a man, or a show, or society to validate who we are. It can really just come from yourself. Just be sure to wear a Kente dress to keep it interesting.

*

ubukwe | wedding

I’m not too good at singing; nor am I capable of discipline when eating ice cream, but, I can say with certainty that I have a strong knack for getting invited to Rwandan weddings.

This, literally, is what I do. Even in Denver.

When I attended a 300-guest East African wedding last week, I expected the small nods to Rwandan culture. You know, the traditional dress of umushanana (fabric draped over the shoulder in all different styles; a dress central to the heritage of Rwandan social ques). Maybe the proper foods (I’m thinking plantains, rice, and beans) would also be present, as well as demonstrations of Rwandan-style dancing.

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Plantains, Potatoes, Cassava Leaves, Fruit, Chapati, Rice, Cassava Bread, Doughnuts, Beans – just to name a few. 

I expected these things, but what I also (wrongly) assumed was that a glass-like wall would separate the nuances of an East African wedding in the United States.

I was incorrect to think that geography can mitigate the love for culture and tradition. Geography, I learned, has very little to do with the identity of the heart.

In fact, in the nearly 50 Rwandan weddings I have attended (yes, I have a “wedding tracker list”), this most recent wedding in Denver might have been the “most Rwandan” of all.

So, that begs the question, what makes it “Rwandan” exactly?

For 15 hours, I observed, took part, and engaged in conversation that re-aligned my original thinking. You see, this family and larger community were committed to creating a Rwandan ceremony because they are so far from home.

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“I do.”

My brain could hardly handle the layers of culture, connections, languages, and traditions played out in front of me.

The smells of the room; the accents of language; the babies wrapped in loud fabrics on the backs of many women; the selections of beer; the handshakes of new friends – all of it. It felt like I was in a world not here, and honestly, not there either. It was altogether new.

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Moreover, I realized how malleable culture can be even in a determination to stick closely to it; I met young men and women who could speak Kinyarwanda, but do not have memories of living in their home country. Instead, they grew up in refugee camps and have a deep longing to return home someday. They asked me about what it is like to grow up around cows and banana beer and Sunday church. Y’all, it was weird. Talk about a new kind of culture shock!

One gentleman, Mugema, shed tears as he explained the way he carries Rwanda in his heart here. He lives in a more rural part of Colorado and he doesn’t know many people. His community places identifiers on him – “Tanzanian” or “African” – but he insists, “Through and through, I am Rwandan.”

I came to see that the purest expression of our culture is extraordinarily natural. Numerous individuals approached me and asked, “are you Rwandan?”

They asked this in spite of my skin color. And, this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing. It was a real question.

They said that, “We see you interacting with our family, our friends. You know how to do it! Sure, you speak our language, but somehow you are one of us.”

The things is, I wasn’t really trying that hard. It was natural. It was learnt. It was exposure. It was what is inside my heart.

We can’t explain how these things happen. How people’s lives and journeys cross and align and create this amazing mixture of life. Culture is life, and honestly, I can’t get enough of it.

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Waiting for the groom and bride to arrive. 

My feet were sore as I drove home. I turned off my music, preferring silence in the twilight hours of morning. I prayed a prayer of gratitude, feeling as if I had returned to a really special place in my identity. I let the thoughts flow freely from my mind – I was overwhelmed by the number of stories I had heard about moving and finding oneself in a new place.

I’m excited to be a part of this. Whether it’s here or there, it doesn’t really matter. Because who we are is not bound by the lines we have placed in the world.

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The getaway vehicle. It’s Colorado, so clearly, a Jeep.

cops, community, culture & doughnuts

“Can I be straight honest with you?”

With blue-rimmed Oakley sunglasses, a Denver Police Officer glances at me as the sun scales the sky. I’ve been sitting with this man for 45 minutes, eating a Voo-Doo doughnut, and watching Afghani women learn how to ride bicycles at community celebrations for World Refugee Day. We sit together at a white folding table and continue chatting – most particularly about the needs for every refugee child and family to access quality education, a safe place, and an opportunity for employment.

Sarcastically, with a sweet smile, I mutter, “I mean, yeah. I’m not wearing a device or anything.” I grasp my loose t-shirt to prove the validity of my claims.

“These communities…frankly, they have to assimilate. They move here. They have to assimilate. They – “

“Hold on. I understand where you are coming from, but be careful with your words. “They” is too much. There are far too many stories to fit under one narrative of ‘they.’”

I can’t believe I’ve interrupted a cop to correct him. Oops? I shrug and continue.

“Assimilation fits within the much larger process of acculturation. Ideally, new community members embrace the culture of their new country and begin the journey of becoming bi-cultural. It doesn’t happen overnight. Integration and identity are tricky – and they take a long time. These aren’t simply semantics; these are the parts of the process of entering and becoming part of a new community.”

“Oh…okay, that makes sense. I just know there is a lot of fear that groups of foreign communities will settle here and remain insular and extraordinarily tight-knit. We have reason to believe there is a plethora of extremism.”

I am the first to acknowledge that I do not have any kind of secret intelligence. I don’t know what the cops or government officials do – honestly, I’m not sure I would want to. What I do know, however, is that extremism, as it’s aptly named – is just that. Extreme. You can’t lump groups of people into boxes simply because of fear.

“If you are afraid of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ than you may want to push your own self to enter into communities that you wouldn’t necessarily try before. Most importantly, you have to follow the lead of the communities themselves.”

As I’m talking the zing of a “light bulb” idea hits my head. I swallow the rest of my doughnut – washing it down with a slug of coffee. It might be 98 degrees outside – in the middle of June – but coffee holds no time stamp.

What if the Peace Corps model applied to immigrant, refugee, and multicultural communities in the Unites States? What if a year or two of service meant an individual lived within a group of people and was responsible for showing them the ropes? This volunteer would humbly lead a family through the process of becoming a part of America – and yet still holding onto their culture of origin. Isn’t this what “makes America great” – the beautiful blend of so many different cultures simultaneously pursuing values of freedom, equality, and liberty?

Unable to articulate all of the ideas bopping around in my head, I do the thing that comes the most natural. I invite this 17-year veteran police officer to a Rwandan wedding. Obviously.

“Listen. You’ve expressed a desire to restore positive relationships in these communities that are unfamiliar for you. What if you came to a Rwandan wedding with me? An event put on by the community itself? There’s one happening in two weeks – just over off Colfax.”

I think I surprised him as much as I surprised myself.

“You know, actually….yes. I think I might be able to do that. Will you email me the details? I will definitely see what I can do.”

I pass him one of my business cards. He gives me a Denver Police brochure – complete with all of the services that community resource officers provide: mediation, protection, check-ins, support. A broad range of services are listed, I can’t help but think that this could be the most under-utilized resource at the disposal for communities all over Denver.

He thanks me for the conversation and wisdom. I echo the same sentiments, particularly in gratitude for the number of years he has served the Denver area.

The conversation stuck with me the rest of the weekend.

It stuck with me as I took a Burmese friend of mine back to her apartment in North Denver. I carried some of her food back into her apartment. As we opened her small, rickety door, she explained in broken English that the landlord had ordered a twice monthly bug-spray prevention. That means, she elaborated, that she can’t keep her apartment organized. It’s always in disarray. Things are never put away. She’s never quite settled. She chuckles though and assures me, “don’t worry. My room is next to the office – at least I am safe.”

What if individuals and community members crossed boundaries and entered these homes? How, exactly, could they be transformed?

It stuck with me as I marched with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado along the Pride route from Cheesman to Civic Center. My sunglasses hid my tear-stained eyes. I was in awe of the encouragement, positivity, and palpable sense of unity around me. It was one of the most tangible experiences with community that I have had. With thousands lined the street, shouting, cheering, and clapping – I also prayed silently.

Enough. Enough marginalization. Enough hate. Enough. Enough. Enough. Let us live into the joy prepared for us. Let us proclaim the righteousness of life itself. Let us give thanks for the greatest gift we have received. Life. Life. Life. Always life.

I lost my voice from cheering so loudly. I was proud to proclaim that loving people – really, sacrificially, and honestly – could perhaps be the most powerful thing we ever do to make the world better. God loves His people. I hold unswervingly dear to this. Just because we are broken doesn’t mean we can’t keep going. The gospel is a working, active acknowledgement that yes! We are free.

This isn’t a “bleeding heart” speaking – this is me. A woman totally smitten by Jesus – and by the people He has continually brought into my life at just the right time. Whether it be cops, Rwandans, family, refugees, or friends at the Pride March, I accept and embrace it all. This, my friends, is life.

Honor World Refugee Day.

May we support, honor, strengthen, encourage, and most importantly, be-friend individuals and groups seeking a new home and community.Multiculturalism, built with genuine hearts, can be a very beautiful thing.

You never know what someone has been through. My friends have seen the horrors of war; have felt the pangs of famine; and have been victims of the most unimaginable social injustices, from oppression, to rape, to persecution. No narrative is the same – listen, and you will see. Listen, and perhaps your world will be changed permanently.

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diaspora, denver style.

Cramped in the corner of a living room in the center of a Denver housing project, I watch 20 Rwandans and Burundians discuss a community wedding back and forth, like a game of ping-pong. Holding treasured blue and black pens, with a tentative agenda, the leader of the family reads necessary purchases to be made: “rice, plantains, meat, beans, cassava, soda, beer…”

Like a quick lesson in school, I learn the various places in Denver and Aurora that members of the African community shop for their preferred items: some consumer goods are available in bulk at Sam’s Club; others are carried at smaller African markets; still others are found at one of the restaurant depots for shop owners. Jacqueline, the wife of the appointed leader of this discussion, explains that because the venue, AfrikaMall will cost the family nearly $4,000, they are trying to discuss how to budget the food costs accordingly.

Everyone will contribute, that much is clear, and I smirk, realizing that culture is so powerful in its ability to take root anywhere even if existing in diaspora.

I lean in close, with a cool beer in hand. The bottles of Heineken, Leffe, and Coke create a centerpiece by which everyone operates. Men, predominantly, sit on the brown, leather couch, while women are stationed in the back of the room. I sit with Terese, Jacqueline, Maria, and Charlotte. They gaze at me – but they don’t stare. When they realize I can understand a great deal of what’s happening (who knew Kinyarwanda could be so useful?), I don’t hear calls of “umuzungu.” Instead, the women nod their heads in agreement, “ari wacu.” She’s ours.

Watching with intrigue, I felt like I was drinking up the culture like a large glass of cool lemonade; refreshing, sweet, and oddly familiar. The movements of arms; the gestures of body language; the smells of food cooking in the kitchen with stuffy air filling the room – it was all recognizable. I could hardly contain myself. I forgot how deeply embedded my passion for Rwanda is.

It smelled like Rwanda. It felt like Rwanda. It sounded like Rwanda.

The accents were like my friends greeting each other with hugs and handshakes; the colorful, traditional fabrics brought back the clothing choices you see on a Sunday morning in Rwanda; and most powerfully, it felt as if I had transplanted another world I knew into the world I had grown up in.

The collision of culture is a wonderfully fascinating thing; I admired the way in which this sub-culture was maintaining their identities in a world so different from their own.

As the family meeting came to an end (with a chosen date of June 26th for the wedding), I had a funny notion that overwhelmed all of my thoughts; what if all of that had somehow prepared me for all of this?

That being my life in Rwanda; this being the life I have now – and the new community I had just discovered.

*

When the formalities of the planning fell away, the questions about my own marital status became the focus of conversation. That didn’t take long, I thought to myself. I explained that I’m waiting and seeking a partner that loves Jesus, is adventurous, loves helping people, and can make me laugh. And, for good measure, I said they would have to have at least 100 cows in their family to give to my father. You see, the sharing of cows (read: money) is an old Rwandan tradition that I knew this family would find hilarious for me to be aware of. They laughed until beer spit out of their mouths. A good joke, indeed. When I mentioned my liking for banana beer, I think one of them might have peed their pants.

Some of the women went to the kitchen to attend to the food for the evening – cassava bread and isombe. I don’t think it was an accident that we would be eating one of my favorite foods (isombe – a leafy dish). I couldn’t stop smiling.

As the room became a bit smaller, I sat with Maria, a 27-year old Burundian mother who moved to the United States 8 years ago, by way of Tanzania. She lived in a refugee camp for 10 years. 10 years. Her family had arrived following the violence and genocide in Burundi in 1997; yet both of her parents died in the camp.

Slowly, but confidently, she shared more of her story. I didn’t have to ask too many questions, she embraced the conversation with enthused openness and interest without much prompting. She had lived in Virginia for a number of years but eventually came to Colorado after she married at 20. Now, with two children, her and her husband work to support their family tirelessly. She works at a nursing home as a cook. She loves the way she can lose herself in the process; it’s freeing for her. Still, she maintains big dreams: she wants to be an accountant. One day, she says, one day.

I asked the family what they felt like when they were in the airplane, coming to America. Some chuckled and said they thought they might die. But, Maria, she shook her head,

oh no, I felt so happy. I felt free. I felt like my life had a chance.”

 As we sat together, ready to share a meal as a family does, I mentioned that I would be happy to be a part of their small, close-knit community and help them in any way I could. Maybe that means helping with English from time to time. Perhaps, it might call for a bit of babysitting, too.

I made it clear: the time I had spent in Rwanda was possible because every day, someone helped me. That is no heavy exaggeration – I wouldn’t have made it in a new place, a new culture, without friends, support, and guidance.

Over these years, it has been brought to me in the deepest of provisions; and so, surely, I could pass it on.

“Ubuzima bwiza!”

Cheers. We clanked our bottles together, turned up the NBA basketball game, and gave celebration to the beauty of freedom and community.

As for me, I drove home that night, almost in tears. I had been praying for this – a sign of real, present community. I’ve been waiting. I didn’t know what it might look like. But that’s the kind of power that God holds; answered prayers often do not look like what we expect.

*

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