from Arkansas to Moyobamba

It’s been two weeks since I left Little Rock and the events of the year are already beginning to blur together. When people ask what I was up to this past year, telling them “I was a farmer at a camp in Arkansas” seems totally inadequate. Thinking about the year on a macro- level causes me to forget a lot of what my daily routine looked, smelled, and felt like.

There are so many small, inconsequential moments I want to remember. I want to remember the exhaustion. I want to remember the satisfaction of pulling up a particularly resilient weed. I want to remember the days on my walk from the garden I’d skip stones in the creek under the bridge. I want to remember the days I was so struck by Ferncliff’s beauty I had to stop what I was doing and simply marvel. I want to remember the change of the seasons, the stories, and moments where I felt like I was a piece of something larger than myself. My YAV year was marked by these small, insignificant moments that actually contained some kernel of truth.

During Discernment Event last April (hosted at Ferncliff, when all the international YAV site coordinators and prospective YAVs mutually discern where they’ll volunteer the following year), the site coordinator from Northern Ireland told this story:

A person came across three masons doing the same job.

She asks the first, “What are you doing?”

He responds, “I’m putting one brick on top of another.”

She asks the second, “What are you doing?”

“I’m building a wall.”

She asks the third, “What are you doing?”

And the third responds, “I’m building a cathedral for the glory of God.”

My year as a Young Adult Volunteer in Little Rock has come to a close, and so begins the long process of beginning to make sense of our experiences. So much of the daily grind in the garden felt insignificant, but as the story above explains, it’s all a matter of perspective. Here are a few of the perspective shifts I’ve experienced this year:

“I’m dumping smelly, sloppy leftover food covered with fruit flies into a pile of dirt. Then I shovel poop from goats, chickens, lambs, and rabbits onto that pile too.”’


Through composting, I have the opportunity to intimately participate in the cycles of death and life, perhaps one of the most tangible examples of resurrection on earth.


“I’m hitting a drum completely out of rhythm.”


I’m creating a “joyful noise” with people experiencing homelessness as a member of the community of Mercy Church. I’m worshiping God in a space where can play any instrument they choose, regardless of skill level; we’re valued for whatever gifts we bring to the table, even if I’m really not bringing much by way of musical ability or rhythm.


“I’m pulling weeds out of a raised bed.”


I’m creating space for new life to emerge.


“I’m sitting in a Little Rock School District board meeting, where I’ve been sitting for the last four hours.”


I’m accompanying a transgender youth who grew up in this district as she attempts to share her story with the powers that be. I’m witnessing people in power actively attempt to silence her by bullying the chair of the board into making her the last speaker on the agenda.

“I’m planting seeds, watering sprouts, harvesting crops.”


I’m living into my call to be a steward of the earth. I’m learning that we don’t protect what we don’t love, we don’t love what we don’t know. If we don’t know the earth, if we don’t thrust our hands into the dirt and know the feeling of soil between our fingers, how will we love the earth? How will we protect it? I’m also cultivating a space where children (especially campers) can reconnect with the earth. Hopefully in this space we can plant seeds instilling a lifelong conviction of caring for the earth.

“I’m sitting in another community meeting.”

I’m discovering what it means to live intentionally in community. I’m attempting to practice the difficult art of nonviolent communication, especially when navigating conflicts. I’m learning how to love others in their worst moments and feel humbled when I realize others are loving me in mine.


My year in Little Rock was a huge surprise, and I mean this in a few different ways. This isn’t where I was originally placed. When I attended discernment event in Spring 2015, I was placed in Peru. Shortly after, I experienced a trauma that exacerbated my already strained emotional well being. In July 2015, it became clear that living abroad for a year would not be an option. So after many, many conversations in the span of a week, rehashing the trauma with strangers who were trying to figure out what was best for me, I was re-placed in Little Rock, only a few weeks before my departure.

When I told family and friends that I wouldn’t be going to Peru and I’d be going to Little Rock instead, the almost universal response I received was “Oh no, I’m so sorry.” Perhaps I’m too much influenced by other peoples’ opinions, but seeing others’ responses only increased my anxiety. I felt like I was about to waste a year of my life. It was far from home, I had no connections there. What’s even in Arkansas, anyway? As much as I tried to go into my YAV year with a positive attitude, I was resentful and deeply wounded. I decided to post a picture-a-day in a facebook album as an attempt to try to find beauty in my every day life, and maybe also as a way to prove to myself (and everyone else) that my year in Arkansas would not be a waste.

I was shocked at how much I came to love Little Rock. This city, and Ferncliff especially, has been a space that has done nothing but healing work in my life. I left Arkansas filled with gratitude and love for everyone who showed us their abundant kindness, generosity, and hospitality. There were seeds planted within me that will continue to bear fruit for the rest of my life.

I loved it so much, in fact, that I decided to do a second YAV year! And this time, I really am going to Peru! More specifically, I’ll be in Moyobamba (a small city in the rainforest) working with a program that serves children who are deaf. I’ll learn Peruvian Sign Language (and Spanish. And teach Peruvian Sign Language…in Spanish). Eventually, I’ll teach classes in the community, especially for parents with no other means of communicating with their children.

This is a video Marie, the Little Rock site coordinator, and I made about my YAV year this year and next year!

Like Marie said, YAV program asks that we raise a minimum of $4,000 for our YAV year. If you would like to walk alongside me in this journey by supporting me financially, here are two ways to help:

  1. Send a check to:Presbyterian Church (USA)
    Remittance Processing
    PO Box 643700
    Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700
    with the memo: “Emily Wilkes Peru E210805
  2. Click here to donate online


I am so filled with gratitude and peace. And nervousness and excitement for my upcoming year. To mark the space between my years, I want to offer the prayer that inspired the name of my blog, a step along the way. It comes from a prayer often attributed to Oscar Romero, an Archbishop in El Salvador who was assassinated for speaking out against government corruption, injustice, and poverty.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

I’m thankful to be in this liminal space, in transition from one transformative year to another. I’m thankful for every person and community that has lifted me up, and shown love and encouragement along the way.

Hasta luego!



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