“The Woman from the United States Knows Nothing”: Embracing Incompetency, Part II

A few days ago I found myself alone in an office with three deaf women. They were giving me instructions, which I’ve discovered is nearly impossible with a double language barrier. I just kept shaking my head and shrugging. Though I now know a few words in sign language and sometimes can catch a few when watching others, on this day I was completely clueless. One of the women then signed three words that I happen to know: “woman,” “United States,” “knows nothing.”

The woman from the United States knows nothing.

Exactly a year ago today, I wrote a blog entitled “Settling In & Embracing Incompetency.” I was grateful to stumble upon it again and found comfort in knowing that feeling totally incompetent a little less than a month into a YAV year is part of the trajectory as a whole. Ironically, I also remember talking with friends last year about how working in a garden and being in a choir for the first time was like learning two new languages.

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Here I am a year later in Moyobamba, literally learning two new languages. I’m hyper aware of how little I know. From 9 until 6 every day, I’m immersed in sign language, whether it’s at the office with my coworkers or in the classroom itself. There are a few Spanish speakers there who translate from sign language into Spanish, so I’m working through a double language barrier. Meals and weekends include immersions in Spanish with my host family in their daily routines and formal classes for Spanish four hours a week. I go entire days without speaking English.

I know so, so little. For the first two weeks, my supervisors and my host family took turns picking me up to go places and walk me to and from work. My thirteen-year-old host sister helped me navigate the town in search of laundry detergent, then taught me how to hand wash my clothes and hang them up to dry. They’ve been hanging up since Saturday (I’m writing on a Tuesday night) because it’s rained every day since I hung them up (and it just started to rain again).

I hope I gain a sense of self-sufficiency here soon, but for now I’m aware of how radically dependent I am on my host family and coworkers. I’m dependent on not only them showing me around, but also on their hospitality and unending patience with me at having to repeat themselves multiple times.

“The woman from the US who knows nothing” is a new identity for me. Parts of my personality that have been affirmed and positively reinforced no longer apply here. I’m rude. I don’t say please as often as I should because all my mental energy is poured into the structure and grammar within the sentence itself. I forget the right phrase when I’m speaking to people and I end up saying something far too brusque for the context. I can’t crack a joke. Humor requires a knowledge of nuance in language, which I don’t yet possess. I do my best now to read body language and facial expressions (especially important for sign language). When someone laughs I usually nod and smile as well. I smile and nod a lot, actually. I know my face must look totally blank. Sometimes when I say something and even when I think I’ve said it correctly, the people around me give me the same blank stare I know I often give them. I often ask “me entiendes?” (do you understand me?) and they laugh and say no. And when they ask me the same question, I say the same.

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I find myself in a fascinating paradox where I’m experiencing both radical hospitality and incredible loneliness. I’m surrounded by people showering me with love, grace, and patience, yet I’m frustrated that I lack the tools to connect deeply.

Last year I wrote that I’d discovered a deep-seated fear of being perceived as incompetent. I tried to live into that incompetency last year and felt like I owned it to a certain extent in Little Rock, but that’s in large part because of the trusting relationships I developed. All of my top strengths (according to the Strengths Finder test) are oriented toward building relationships. I was able to let go of a desire to achieve and my fear of failure in part because of the relationships I’d built and the connection I felt to the community. Here however, I lack one of the most basic tools for building relationships: a common language.

I hope it gets easier. I’m told that it will, and I believe it. But for now, I’m searching for what Paulo Coehlo calls the “Language of the World” in his novel The Alchemist. After the boy had been a shepherd for many years, he sets out on a journey and begins to understand this new language along the way:

“But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a universal language in the world that everyone understood…It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”

There are universal experiences like joys, struggles, growth, community, wonder, and laughter that we can all participate in, no matter what country you’re from or whether you can hear or not.

A slinky showed up in the office yesterday. I saw one of the students, a nine-year-old girl who happens to be deaf, playing with it, so I joined her. We played with that slinky for over an hour. We created several new games and tried all kinds of tricks. We experienced mutual excitement when we discovered something new a slinky is capable of and then mutual disappointment when we inevitably tangled it up and stretched it too far in an effort to fix it.

This was a powerful reminder that relationships are not just built on the words we communicate with each other, but also on universal human experiences that transcend language, like laughter and wonder. This was the most connected I’ve felt to anyone since I’ve arrived in Moyobamba.

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There is so much to learn as I continue leaning into my incompetency. In the meantime, I’ll search for the Language of the World, to find moments of beauty and truth embedded within the language beyond words, central to the human experience.

May you travel in an awakened way,

Gathered wisely into your inner ground;

That you may not waste the invitations

Which wait along the way to transform you.

-John O’Donohue





Why am I here?

Since our arrival in Lima nine days ago, we’ve been immersed in new flavors of chaos: the ever-present hum of combis and buses, cool glasses of chicha morada, glimpses of mountains in the distance catching me by surprise, the taste of a new language on the tongue, soaking in the rapid-fire Spanish while only understanding a quarter of what people share with me. It’s been a whirlwind. I’m grateful for my two fellow YAVs, Catherine and Kristen, who also need space and silence at night to process what we see in the day.


Though the experiences on our path leading us to Peru have been vastly different, we share intentionality in the way that we speak, act, and occupy space in the world. There’s one question we’ve returned to again and again:

 “Why am I here?”

My years in Washington DC and Little Rock exposed me to the injustices that exist within my own country. The United States is not some shining model of equality. Our upcoming election is a humbling reminder of all the work that is left to do in the United States. Not all lives matter equally in my country and until they do, there’s work to be done. There are gross injustices that I will continue to fight when I return.

Yet here I am, in Peru. Why?

At our YAV orientation last year (and I’ve been reminded of this many times reading the blogs of the new YAVs), we were told that we are not needed. In fact, with the amount of money the church is investing in me to serve as a YAV, four local Peruvians could be hired. But instead they get me, bumbling along trying to learn two languages. It’s wildly inefficient to have me serve as a YAV here.I know that someone else could do the work I’m doing better and more efficiently. The organizations we’re serving with are doing good work on their own and will continue to do good work when we leave. 

I am not needed.

Yet here I am.

I find it’s easier to answer why I’m not here: to “solve” anything, “save” anyone, or to get that awesome new profile picture of me surrounded by children of color. I’ve read a myriad of articles (like this one or this one) that has explained the perils of voluntourism. I am absolutely not a savior, and I will do all I can to lean away from the white savior industrial complex. I cringe thinking that people back home might think of us as missionaries, here to “bring God” to the people of Peru. God is already here. We have the opportunity to bear witness to the movement of her spirit.

Last year in Little Rock, I was far more transformed by Ferncliff, Second Presbyterian Church, and Mercy Church than my presence transformed them. I did not change any of these institutions, yet I was changed while serving with them. In the same way, this year isn’t about changing the people, the culture, or anything else. This year is about opening myself up to the realities of my new context and allowing myself to experience transformation.

But still, the stereotypes linger. I was explaining my concerns with Jed, our site coordinator’s husband and mission co-worker through the PC(USA) here in Peru. After explaining my skepticism of why I’m even here, he shared this quote with me:

“If there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of life with the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love only exists among equals.”

– Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

He told me that my job this year is to make friends: to engage in authentic relationships with people I would never have come in contact with if it weren’t for this program, to be present with people as they share beautiful and heartbreaking stories, and to know—not just in my mind, but in my heart—that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.

My heart has already been broken since coming here. We spent our first day learning about the beauty of Andean cosmology, which seeks balance in all things and points of union between opposite aspects of life. The next day we discussed Spanish colonization and the subsequent near-destruction of an entire way of life in the name of religion and gold. That afternoon, we visited the San Francisco Cathedral built in the 1600s, where I was struck by the altars lining the main sanctuary built entirely out of gold. This gold, which was supposedly for the glory of God in the building of this cathedral, was acquired through the destruction of the Incan people. I felt sickened. I was left wondering whether Christianity has done more harm than good in the world, especially as an institution. How did the radically nonviolent peace-filled teachings of Jesus become so corrupted? Again, I was left wondering why I’m here and whether, as a North American, I’m participating in the legacy of colonization. I think this is a question I’ll return to all year.



The following day we learned about the political violence and internal armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) was a Communist militant group in Peru and modeled themselves primarily after Mao Zedong’s People’s Revolution in China. Other guerilla groups began organizing at the time as well, all with the intention of removing the government and changing the structure of society. Shining Path began by focusing their efforts in the countryside and the mountains, taking advantage of the extreme poverty of its inhabitants. The Peruvian state responded to the armed struggle, but never responded to the systemic issues of poverty that generated the struggle in the first place. Soldiers from the state went into the Andes in the name of defending the indigenous population, but couldn’t communicate with them. The Andean population was caught between two forces: guerillas and other armed groups and the state. Both were horrifying. Shining Path didn’t wear uniforms to identify themselves, so the state relied heavily on profiling anyone who looked “suspicious” and arrested them. Thousands were “disappeared.” “Desaparecidos” are people who were arrested by the state because of their suspected affiliation with communism and then vanished without a trace. In total 62,000 were killed and thousands disappeared, most at the hands of the state. Two-thirds of those killed were indigenous.


To make this more real for folks in the US, there’s a combat training school called the School of the Americas (recently renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) that has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Graduates of this school have been high-ranking military officials, responsible for some of the worst atrocities Latin America. It was supported by the United States because of its apparent hatred of communism; these tactics were meant to combat the rise of communism in Latin America. Among those targeted are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced to become a refugee by those trained at this school. One of the graduates of this school was the primary actor in a 1985 massacre of 69 people in Accomarca, Peru. He ordered his unit to separate the children and women of the village from the men so that his unit could rape them, then ordered them into buildings which we set on fire, burning them alive. This is simply one act committed by one person of the 64,000 people who have attended this school.

This school is located in Fort Benning, Georgia, just a five-hour drive from where I grew up. It’s still open.

My liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.

This is also why I don’t think of my years serving in Washington DC, Little Rock, or this year in Peru as gap years. A gap implies an empty space, an abyss, a hole in between two things, where something is missing. A gap year then is like a year that exists outside of time. I want this year, like my two previous years, to be woven seamlessly into my future. I want what I’ve learned about myself and the world in these three years to inform the person I am becoming. In these years, I have begun doing the internal work of becoming the best, or at least most authentic, version of myself. I’ve left my bubble of privilege and have been exposed to unimaginable realities. Now, I’m searching for how I can integrate, as theologian Frederick Buechner writes, my deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.

I’m leaving Lima tomorrow morning and heading to Moyobamba, where I’ll be living the rest of the year. I don’t think I’m ready, but I don’t suppose I ever will be.

I’ll leave you all with my favorite Psalm, which also happens to be one of my favorite YAV songs:

Where can I go from your spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go to the heavens you are there,

If I make my bed in the depths you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

If I settle on the far side of the sea,

Even there your hand will guide me.

Your right hand will hold me fast.


(photo cred goes to the amazing photographer and fellow YAV Kristen!)



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!



be the good samaritan: say black lives matter

This morning, I preached this sermon on the Good Samaritan at First Presbyterian Church in Argenta (North Little Rock). After church, I went out to lunch with some friends. When I walked out of the restaurant, I saw a black woman crying. She was 58 years old. Her home just burned down in a fire. She approached a white woman to ask for financial support, and the woman had literally shooed her away and said “ask one of your own kind.”

This is why I stand with the black lives matter movement. Because we do not live in a world where all lives matter. Yes, all lives DO matter, but I’m not sure that any demographic has experienced more hatred and less affirmation of their humanity. No group in the history of the United States has been as dehumanized as the black community. This movement is about protecting, cherishing, and affirming the belovedness of black lives. I will proudly and loudly say that black lives matter until society actually reflects this truth.  Until people like the woman who shooed the black woman away to “her own kind” recognize that she in fact sent away her neighbor.

Below are Prayers of the People I prayed in church today (written by Rachel Shepherd) and the sermon I preached.

Black lives matter, y’all.

Prayers of the People

Creator God, we thank you and praise you because you made us and everything we see. In the beginning, all lives mattered equally: the plants yielding seed, the fruit trees of every kind, the swarms of living creatures in the water and on the earth and in the air. As people began prioritizing their own power and privilege, you noticed that some lives seemed to matter more than others. You sent prophets to remind us: “Slave lives matter! Poor lives matter! Widowed and orphaned lives matter!” We responded that all lives matter and turned away, not wanting to make the changes your words required.

When you came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, you continued to make your priorities clear: “Lepers’ lives matter! Samaritan lives matter! Children’s lives matter! Women’s lives matter! Hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and imprisoned lives matter!” We responded “All lives matter,” and nailed you to a cross for the crime of calling us out. After a very real and painful death, you rose again to share meals and good news with the people you loved.

Holy Spirit, you placed a flame in us so we can’t help sharing the good news. You remind us still that the “least of these” lives matter to you. Be our vision so we might see the world through your eyes. Grant us the courage to speak the truth in love and proclaim: “Black lives matter! LGBT lives matter! Homeless lives matter! Muslim lives matter!” When we honor the less privileged people among us, we do not diminish other lives but affirm that all lives matter. When others light a candle, it in no way diminishes the brightness of my own. Let us continue standing in solidarity with the least of these until every candle is lit, our broken systems are healed, and your image is honored in every life.

Thank you, Holy One, for being with us our whole lives and for continually pushing for balance and dignity for all people. Our voices are joined in solidarity now as we pray the words Christ taught us: [Lord’s Prayer]

Ashley Clayborn's photo.



One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested [Jesus] with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”
The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.”
But the Sunday school teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But … er … but … just who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.
“Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. ‘When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.
“Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.
“Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, ‘You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.’
“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three-the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”
The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig – I mean, er … well, er … the one who treated me kindly.”
Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”

This depiction of the Good Samaritan is found in the Cotton Patch Gospel. Its author Clarence Jordan was a white southerner who, in the 1950s, believed that the radical nature of the Gospel was getting lost in translation for his fellow white southerners. He placed Jesus’ ministry in a new context: the Deep South. The Samaritan in the “Cotton Patch” version is a black man who helps a white person left for dead on the side of a highway.

I love this re-imagining of the Good Samaritan. A narrative that imagines the Samaritan as a black man in the Deep South reminds us that this is not a simple, feel-good, moralistic tale, but a story of radical neighborliness. It’s a powerful message. No wonder this story transcended the walls of the church; it’s practically become part of popular culture. There are laws and charities named after this parable. It’s even a colloquial term for an ordinary do-gooder who sees a need and responds. The story of the Good Samaritan is almost too familiar. We know the story so well it doesn’t make us uncomfortable anymore.

One scholar has said, “The purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” If we hear this story and don’t feel uncomfortable, we aren’t listening closely enough. When we treat this story as a simple, heartwarming lesson about kindness, we become desensitized to the transformative message at its heart.

To understand the truly radical nature of this parable, we also need to understand the story of the Samaritans. They were not simply outcasts; they were the hated and despised enemies of the Jews. They were the unclean, foreign and strange Others. They became a despised people over the course of several centuries. In the 6th century BCE, when Assyrians destroyed the temple in Israel, they also exiled the most educated Jews, or the upper crust of society in order to deprive the Jewish people of its leadership. Only the poorly educated and impoverished Jews remained. The Assyrian king then sent foreigners into the country to intermarry with the remaining Israelite population. They attempted to carry on their Jewish customs, but after a few generations their worship evolved into practices that more closely resembled paganism than Judaism. These descendants are who became known as the Samaritans. They were considered “half-breeds” and “impure,” a “mongrel abomination.” (sound familiar?) Later, Samaria became a place of refuge for Jewish outcasts; Jews who were excommunicated, criminals, and refugees found safety in Samaria, thus increasing the hatred. Even though they had a shared genetic and religious ancestry, they considered their differences irreconcilable.

This is why the very phrase “Good Samaritan” is radical in and of itself. Those two words were an apparent contradiction, yet Jesus unapologetically chooses a Samaritan, an Other, to be the hero of the story. This is why the Cotton Patch’s Good Samaritan, a black man in the role of the hero, is a good and faithful retelling of the parable. This is the interpretation that was needed in this particular cultural and historical moment.

Scripture is a living text. To live faithfully in the world as a follower of Jesus, we must have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. So now, I invite you to imagine the story of the Good Samaritan rewritten once again, but in our current context, the year 2016. I invite you to recall the news from this past week and imagine whom you would cast in each role in the parable. Who is the person left for dead on the side of the road? Who are the robbers, responsible for violence with no apparent consequence? Who is the priest and who is the Levite, distancing themselves as much as possible from the man left for dead in the street? Who is the Samaritan?

Which character are you?

With Jesus’ parables, I believe it’s natural to read ourselves into the text. We search for the spaces we fit into the story. I also believe it’s natural and tempting to read ourselves as the heroes. No one wants to be the robbers. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite. We want to be the Samaritan. We want to believe that we would show mercy to the person left for dead in the street. As much as I know I want this, I also know it’s not true. I know I’m not the Samaritan. Honestly, I think it’s really difficult for anyone with white skin to be the Samaritan. Difficult, but not impossible.

I’ve spent most of my life oscillating between being the priest, the Levite, and the lawyer. In the past, I have seen the suffering of the Other and promptly distanced myself, both physically and emotionally. I become the Levite and priest anytime I willfully separate myself from the pain of the black community. Any time I deny the ways I have benefited from white privilege and systems that were designed to protect me and not others. If the priest and Levite had drawn closer to the man left for dead instead of further away, they would have to face some truths about themselves I suspect they’d rather not admit. Perhaps they’ve spent a lifetime hiding under the veil of willful ignorance. They would rather look away and keep scooting by than admit they could do something about their neighbors’ suffering.

I’m also the lawyer because I’ve searched for justification in creating that distance. The lawyer asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?…Who is my neighbor?” The law in Leviticus he’s referencing defines neighbor as his fellow Israelites. The lawyer is really asking Jesus, “Whom don’t I have to love? Surely you don’t mean I have to love non-Israelites?” I’ve been the lawyer every time I’ve thought or said that black people were “naturally more violent,” or that black community needs to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work for what they want,” or anytime I’ve used the phrase “black on black crime,” or any other time I’ve dismissed the suffering and the reality of what black lives live through. Anytime I buy the cultural narratives that somehow blame the black community for their own suffering, I become the lawyer justifying my ever-expanding distance.

This is why being the Samaritan is so difficult and exactly what I believe makes the Samaritan good. When there was a choice to either draw nearer to the pain or to create more distance, the Samaritan chose to draw near. To draw nearer to someone else’s grief instead of running away. To run toward what might be uncomfortable, scary, and eye-opening, instead of intentionally ignoring that pain.

For churches that follow the lectionary (the set of Scripture readings that follows a three-year cycle), the last time the Good Samaritan was read in churches was during the summer of 2013. The night before, George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” of the murder of Trayvon Martin. That means that the morning after a man was acquitted of the murder of an unarmed black teenager, churches across the country heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also after this acquittal that Alicia Garza first penned the words “black lives matter” as part of a love letter to the black community, thus creating a hashtag and beginning a movement. This morning we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan a few days after the murder of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today also marks a year to the day when Sandra Bland was pulled over and subsequently incarcerated and eventually killed. This is significant. We can look back over the last three years and mark progress, or lack thereof. What has changed? Anything?

My personal story of discovering how my whiteness impacts the way I move through the world follows a similar trajectory as the birth of Black Lives Matter. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death and his murderer’s acquittal, I began the process of lifting my veil of white privilege.

I grew up in the segregated town of Beaufort, South Carolina. I attended what I later learned was a “white flight” school, a private school founded in the 60’s so white parents wouldn’t have to send their children to the newly-integrated public school. I could probably count on one hand the number of people of color I interacted with in my whitewashed childhood. My framework for understanding the world was through an exceptionally privileged lens. In college I became a sociology major before I even totally understood what sociology even meant. Happiest accident of my life. I slowly began deconstructing what it means to have white skin in this country and how much of a privilege it was to not have to think about race. During the summer of 2013, I was working at the Urban Ministry Center, a day center for people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte, NC. More specifically, I was a soccer coach for a homeless women’s street soccer team. My job was to reach out to women, invite them to soccer practices, foster a trusting community among the team, and then coach at the Street Soccer Homeless US Cup held in New York City. A week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, six women experiencing homelessness, nearly all black, and I piled into a minivan for a thirteen-hour road trip from Charlotte to New York City. They of course were in charge of choosing music and we found a black radio station, playing music exclusively by black artists and with black radio hosts. It still remains a mystery to me how we managed to play this supposedly “local” station nearly the entire way to New York, but we listened to it nearly for many hours. And I just had my hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on the horizon ahead of me, laughing and shaking my head at the music, the conversations, the dancing, and other shenanigans in the seats behind me.

We were nearly there. The hosts of the radio station were about to begin the next song when they asked a question to be discussed after the break: “Did black people care more about the Trayvon Martin trial than white people?” For a split second I was completely taken aback. I was afraid of the answer to that question. But women I was with knew the answer. The atmosphere had transformed in an instant. There was shouting. A resounding “YES.” There was anger, which quickly became tears. Then wailing. Grieving. I did nothing but listen. I listened to black women cry about Trayvon Martin’s death, but quickly realized they were not mourning one life. They were mourning injustice. They were mourning a broken system. A system that was built for and does nothing but benefit me, but brought this van full of black women to wailing tears. And I listened. I listened and bore witness to a pain that I have never felt and will never experience. I had never been in a space like that before, nor had I ever sat with the despair of a grieving community in this way. I gripped the steering wheel, my now tear-filled eyes fixed on the horizon ahead.

There are bodies lying in the street. Who will be their neighbor?

I said earlier that it’s difficult for white people to be the Samaritan. But it’s not impossible. Our roles in the story aren’t fixed. Just because I’ve been acted the part the Levite, the priest, and the lawyer in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s who I am today. But I have to actively decide to draw near. Practically speaking, this means I educate myself. I read articles and books written by people of color. I use the Root magazine as a news source because it provides black perspectives on current events. This past Friday, my housemates and I attended a protest on the steps of the Little Rock Capital building. I joined hands with my black brothers and sisters. We sang together. We cried together. We prayed together.

What if the Samaritan is good because of the simple decision to draw nearer to the pain instead of backing away? I’m the Samaritan only in my best moments. Our roles in the story are fluid. They aren’t fixed. And some roles in the story are closer to the kingdom of God than others. What if eternal life, what the lawyer was so concerned about and started this whole conversation, might also be known here and now? In this place? In nearness, not remoteness? In deciding to be closer, and not searching for ways to push away?

Make a decision. The kingdom of God is near. Pray for the courage to approach it. Be the Samaritan.

embracing the stranger


I’m grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to be a guest preacher in congregations in Arkansas this year! This morning I was invited to be with First Presbyterian Church in Argenta. Here goes:

Luke 9:51-62

51 As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, 53 but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” 55 But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, 56 and they went on to another village.

57 As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”


Three days ago, I asked a few friends to talk through this passage with me. I was stuck; the passage was confusing, upsetting, and frankly I thought Jesus was acting like a jerk. So, more specifically, I asked to lead the Bible study at Mercy Church, an ecumenical worshiping community for people with and without housing. I’d read a lot of scholars’ opinions on possible interpretations, but reading Scripture in a space with people experiencing poverty and homelessness illuminates Scripture in a way reading commentaries can’t. After reading through the passage once we immediately dove into a discussion of the very last line. So following in the example of my friends at Mercy Church, we’re going to work our way backwards through this story as well. The last line, confusing though it might sound, provides a solid framework for the preceding story.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Have you ever tried to use a plow? If you look anywhere other than directly ahead, your furrows and subsequent planting will be crooked, resulting in wasted time, space, and energy. You need a single-minded forward gaze without distractions to use a plow properly and ensure your crops will be planted in a straight line.

At this point in Luke’s Gospel narrative, we see a distinct shift signaling Jesus’ resolute and single-minded purpose toward his destiny: Jerusalem. Jesus has put his hand to the plow and isn’t looking back. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, marking a re-orientation in looking from the past to the future. There is a sense of urgency in his words; he knows what lies in store for him in Jerusalem and he knows that every last remaining moment of his ministry counts. There is no time to say goodbye to family and friends. No time to arrange for a parent’s funeral; Jesus is on his way to his own burial. No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom where traditional loyalties are questioned and rearranged. Even family and accompanying obligations take second place. Jesus interprets all of the requests as a desire to hang on to the old life, which he emphatically rejects. In God’s kingdom, our past is less important than how we choose to move forward; this is “the way.” There are many reasons to not join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but Jesus’ face is set in only one direction; he is leading the way forward with or without us and it is our choice whether we join him.

Only one of the three potential disciples in this passage does choose exactly this. He says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” This is the only place in all of Luke’s gospel where anyone volunteers to follow Jesus. It seems like an admirable thing to say, but Jesus doesn’t welcome him in or commend him. In fact his response is abrupt and rude. “Foxes have dens, the birds of the skies have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” This man says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere, but Jesus isn’t welcomed anywhere, and neither are his followers. A life following Jesus, at least according to his words in this passage, is one marked by rejection.

If I wasn’t preaching on this passage this week, and I had to finish the sentence “A life following Jesus is one marked by…” rejection is not the first word that comes to mind. It’s not the first word I want to come to mind. I would have wanted to say “love,” or “acceptance,” or “compassion.” These are harsh words, but with Jesus’ face set to Jerusalem and preparing himself for the fatal journey ahead, this is not the time to sugarcoat anything.

I believe that God became human in the person of Jesus in order to show solidarity with the human condition. If Jesus’ life was marked by rejection and suffering, that’s because the God we worship chose to endure this to empathize with the suffering we experience now. The way he lived his life on earth gives us a window into understanding what communities Jesus has chosen to identify with. In this case, Jesus has shown solidarity with the people whom society has rejected. The people who are marginalized, who aren’t welcome, those who have no space to lay their head: this who he aligns himself with. He identifies with the people sleeping on the streets, with no place to lay their head. Jesus is telling the would-be disciple that if he isn’t prepared to experience the rejection and marginalization that accompanies being a disciple of Jesus, then he isn’t ready to follow him.

The interaction that preceded this passage had both affirmed that the road toward Jerusalem would be marked by rejection and mirrored the coming reality that awaited him in Israel’s capital. A few disciples went ahead to a Samaritan village to prepare a space for Jesus, but when they learned his destination was Jerusalem, they refused to show hospitality toward him and his followers. Rejection is an essential component of Jesus’ narrative, but his disciples, even the ones who have been with him throughout his entire ministry, don’t understand this. James and Johns’ reaction to being rejected by the Samaritans is to suggest the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy; “Hey God, should we call down the fires of heaven to consume this town?” Jesus admonishes them for wanting to employ violence. Just a few chapters later tells a story about a good Samaritan who challenges any resentments his followers may be holding onto following this encounter. Jesus brushes the dust off of his sandals and goes somewhere else. His hand is on the plow, still resolutely heading forward to Jerusalem. This was his destination. The worst rejection was yet to come.

I’ve often heard these stories told as a call to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, to not reject him in your heart. Sure. But perhaps a more tangible and in my opinion interesting way of understanding this story is to think about whom society rejects. What groups of people consistently face discrimination? Whom does society reject, subsequently rejecting Jesus? I can think of several. Consider the rise of virulent anti-immigration rhetoric, both in this country and the UK. An article published in the Washington Post yesterday asked “The uncomfortable question: Was the Brexit [or “British Exit” from the European Union] vote based on racism?” The same article continues notes that “In the heated atmosphere before the election, the lines between anti-immigration rhetoric and pure racism became blurry.” The question of immigration became the defining issue of Brexit. Advertising campaigns in favor of leaving the E.U. resembled propaganda by Nazi Germany, and those same parallels can be found in our own country. The majority of voters chose to leave instead of stay “against the advice of the majority of the country’s politicians and many experts from around the world, who said the country’s political and economic standing would be deeply hurt. Some experts suggest the explanation for that decision has to at least partly be put down to racism and xenophobia.”



On the same day the world was reeling in shock from the aftermath of Brexit, our YAV community joined the Islamic Cultural Center of Little Rock for Iftar, breaking the fast after sunset during Ramadan. Out of consideration for our hosts, Dani and I wore headscarves. I was a bit nervous about mine and was frantically adjusting it even as we were walking through the parking lot into the building. I hadn’t needed to worry, though; even if a bit of my hair was poking through, we were greeted with nothing but generosity and hospitality. People we’d never met were smiling at us and hugging us and putting food in our face and pushing us to the front of the food line and telling us just how glad they were that we had come. They were showing us a hospitality that starkly contrasted the Islamophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric we hear in our current political climate. When we openly reject immigrants based on tired stereotypes, whether from the Middle East or Central America or anywhere else, we become the Samaritans rejecting Jesus for having his face set toward Jerusalem.

Rejection can encompass more than refusing hospitality to a group of people; as one of my favorite theologians Henri Nouwan says, “…I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

I’d like to tell you about a dear friend of mine who is part of a community that often faces both self-rejection and societal rejection, and about a time when he gave both the finger.

click here to read this story from his perspective! 

Today is June 26th. On this day a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that gay Americans had the right to marry in every state in the country. The day stands clearly in my mind because I was living in Washington DC, just a few miles north from the room where it happened. At this exact moment a year ago, I was racing on a bicycle through the streets of DC to the Supreme Court to celebrate with the crowds gathered on its steps. I arrived to find rainbow flags waving, faces painted, and tears of celebration and joy. I wove through the crowds for a few minutes until I saw him. Flanny Flanigan. Flanny was one of my best friends in DC and fellow church intern. He identifies as gay, but he was not yet out to his family and had spent most of his life in the closet. But last summer in DC, with a LGBTQ-affirming community surrounding him, he “had a lot of time to make up for.” So I wasn’t surprised to find Flanny outside of the Supreme Court. I was surprised to find him wearing a tie-dye t-shirt, purple shorts, multiple miniature rainbow flags, and of course a rainbow flag as big as himself as a cape. He was holding a sign that said in all caps and rainbow lettering “FREE HUGS” with a huge crowd of people surrounding him waiting for their turn to embrace him. He stood there on the steps of the Supreme Court for nearly eight hours, embracing countless strangers and the strangers embracing him in turn, taking pictures with him, buying him donuts, and sharing stories.

Have you ever had the experience of bearing witness to someone else’s pure, unadulterated joy, and seeing them you can’t help but feel just as ridiculously joyful? I watched Flanny stand on the steps of the Supreme Court, so authentically and unapologetically himself, simultaneously embracing his own identity and allowing others to embrace him in turn. He showed love to others, accepted the love of strangers, and loved them unconditionally in turn. This story gives me hope for a future where we know that rejection is not the end of the story. Even with the senseless violence in Orlando two weeks ago, this story offers a hopeful way forward. When we embrace the stranger across differences, when we find the image of God in the rejected and know them as God’s beloved child, we are stepping into our Christian vocation.

This is the future Jesus calls us into with single-minded and resolute purpose. Love will ultimately triumph, but the journey to Jerusalem is just beginning. Jesus is calling us out into the unsafe spaces, both in the world and within ourselves. Just like Jesus with his hand on the plow, charging into a future we cannot begin to know or understand, planting seeds in a garden we may not get to see, we must go forward, toward danger and rejection, eyes opened, without looking back. Maybe even holding a sign offering a free hug. Amen.



PS I have discerned my plans for next year! I’m beyond thrilled to announce that I will be serving in Peru for my second year of service with the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program! More specifically, I’ll be in Moyobamba (a small city in the rainforest) working with a program that serves children who are deaf-mute. I’ll learn Peruvian Sign Language and eventually teach classes in the community, especially for parents with no other means of communicating with their children.

If you’re interested in walking with me and supporting me financially throughout this coming year, follow this link and click “Support Emily.”

My heart is so full. I have so much gratitude for all of the communities that have supported and guided me throughout my journeys. Here’s to another adventure!


Another Photo Blog!

Here are a few snapshots of what we’ve been up to out at Ferncliff lately!


We built a goat playground! The tires were constructed by the Clemson University Presbyterian Student Association. There’s even a tiger paw print etched into the cement on the top tire! Goats love climbing, so Billy and Bobby are all over this playground. We’ve seen them running laps on it as well!

The Second Presbyterian Church youth group invited us to float sixteen miles down the Buffalo River!

I organized a “millennials retreat” for the 20-somethings of Second Presbyterian out at Ferncliff. We played games, canoed and kayaked, cooked a cake inside of an orange (which I didn’t know was a thing until very recently). It was a ton of fun!

We visited Crystal Bridges, a free art museum with beautiful natural walkways in northwest Arkansas. Then we formed a band and posed for pictures!

I had the incredible opportunity to hear Alicia Garza, one of the founders of #blacklivesmatter movement. I was reminded that narratives are crafted in a particular way to create a particular outcome. That yes, all lives matter, but we don’t live in a world that affirms this truth or the value of black lives. I was reminded that hashtags don’t create movements; people do. I hope to continue learning what it means to be a responsible white ally in this movement.

Several of our community days in the past month have centered around food justice.  Here, we shopped together at our local Kroger in search of locally-grown food to prepare for lunch. Since agriculture is Arkansas’ largest industry, we thought at least some of the vegetables would come from Arkansas. Nope. The squash Erik is standing in front of came from Guatemala. Most of the other veggies came from California. We used vegetables from the Ferncliff garden for our lunch instead! Other community days’ we’ve visited Heifer International’s Headquarters to learn about sustainable community developments and gone to the Farmer’s Market together.

We have two bunnies, Penelope and Lola. Both have escaped recently. Erik and I (plus two guys from Ferncliff’s maintence) spent an afternoon in pursuit of Lola using a trashcan, a bamboo stick, and a net.

We marched in an Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace through Little Rock and attended a remembrance service. We read the names of people who have died at the hands of violence in our community, read excerpts from many religions calling for peace, and prayed this prayer written by an Interfaith youth group:

We are standing in your presence to pray for peace and harmony.
We pray for a day when your love envelops the earth.
A day when spirits that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us. A day when all people are one no matter what color, race, or religion. Please grant us compassion to care for all creation; love to keep us strong; and acceptance to reduce hatred.
Please guide our hearts through understanding, so we may coexist in harmony, and universal peace may prevail the earth. Amen!

I’m so thankful for this crew! These are a few of next year’s YAV class at Ferncliff for Discernment weekend. I discerned as well.. I’ll tell the story (and announce where I’m going) in my next post.

Sixty 4th graders and I played in the garden, got our hands dirty, turned compost, watered, weeded, checked for chicken eggs, cuddled with goats, and sampled some lettuce and spinach picked right off the plant. They asked questions, exploring the natural world with eyes wide open and filled with wonder.

A boy told me he never knew he liked spinach before today. I was grateful for an unexpected lesson in odd chicken behavior from a girl whose family raises chickens. Another boy asked me very detailed questions about the compost, hoping to relay the information to his family so they could start a compost pile of their own. I heard one girl excitedly say to her friend “I want to plant a garden at home now!” and began to imagine what she would grow.

I’m inspired and filled with hope by the wonder I witnessed on this field trip and am looking forward to experiences like this every day when campers arrive!


Mercy Church’s offering time isn’t about collecting money. You bring something of yourself to offer the community, whether it’s a song, poem, artwork, interpretive dance, joke, story, or drum solo. My offering today was the first sugar snap pea harvest of the season from Ferncliff’s garden! I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect my work in the garden with people experiencing homelessness, especially in the context of worship.

Also at Mercy Church, Marie, Erik, and I had the opportunity to lead the Maundy Thursday worship service. The community you worship with influences the lens through which you interpret scripture; reading through the passion narrative with people experiencing poverty and homelessness changes how I understand the crucifixion.

We went on a retreat to Gulf Shores, Alabama with six other Southeastern YAV sites! It was an absolutely incredible and restful weekend, filled with laughs, reunions, and a only few sunburns. The YAV community really is my family. I couldn’t be more thankful for them!

There are so many more things I could talk about! We just have so many awesome opportunities here in Little Rock.

ALSO, shameless plug, the Little Rock site still has openings for next year!! Apply by June 1st!

How do I apply?



“What does working in a garden do for Jesus?”

I had the awesome opportunity to preach at First Presbyterian Church in Arkadelphia, Arkansas this morning. The text was Luke 24:13-35, otherwise known as the Road to Emmaus.


When I drive away from my home for the year, Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, I immediately encounter a six-mile long road. This road actually bears a closer resemblance to a tunnel. The trees, dense with bright green leaves, reach toward the sky and arch overhead. Twisting down the road at forty-five miles an hour, you are enclosed in an impenetrable green wall. It was this vision of green that greeted the other Young Adult Volunteers and I on our arrival back in early September. Then fall came, and this green wall became a tunnel of every imaginable hue of red, orange, and yellow. When a particularly heavy rainfall left the trees totally bare, everything was grey and dead. I disliked the gloominess of early winter. But there was a gift in the dreariness I hadn’t anticipated. Without the leaves creating a wall, suddenly the woods were transparent. I could see hundreds of yards away into the woods. I noticed the terrain extend out and then slope up to form hills I hadn’t even known where there. There was even a barn I had never noticed before. Where there was once an opaque green wall, for the first time my surroundings had become visible. But after four months, the seasons continued. Spring came. Buds appeared on the trees. After four months of grey everything was rushing into bloom, the colors unexpectedly and alarmingly vibrant. I had forgotten trees could be pink and purple. Beautiful though it was, awareness crept in that I soon wouldn’t be able to see how the forest stretched away on every side of me. Soon the barn would be hidden from sight. I found myself longing for the bare trees again, to see the barn on the hill and the expanse of the woods. I found myself reluctant to enter into spring. I wanted to understand my surroundings, to see the gifts of the bare and withered trees, see the faded earth stretch and curve upward into hills. Instead, I felt like new life had obscured my vision.


The disciples on the road to Emmaus also experienced obstructed vision. Like the leafy-green, twisting tunnel on the road from Ferncliff, new life surrounds them and they can’t accurately see their surroundings. But perhaps it wasn’t life that was hindering their sight, but their reluctance to enter into a new season. Where I was reluctant to enter into spring, they were reluctant to move from Good Friday into the joy of Easter. There’s a real hesitation in trusting the possibility of new life. The resurrected Jesus, the very manifestation of new life, accompanies them on the road and they don’t recognize him. A few days ago, I read this passage in a Bible study with people experiencing homelessness. We all concluded that the reason the disciples didn’t recognize him had to be because Jesus was in a dress and wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I’d be impressed if this was all it took for the risen Christ to walk around unrecognized. I’m not saying their hypothesis is wrong, but perhaps another possibility for why they don’t recognize him is connected to their inner turmoil surrounding Jesus’ death.

The disciples are grieving. They’ve lost their way. A man they had followed, had trusted, and had regarded as a prophet had let them down. They’ve begun their journey home to Emmaus, leaving behind Jerusalem and any remaining fragment of hope. Here they were, still living under Roman occupation. Here they were, not liberated as they had hoped. They were discussing the story of what had happened; according to the Greek a more accurate translation might be that they were “examining the evidence together.” I can imagine their conversation is drawing them more deeply into despair.

Jesus approaches them and sits with them in their pain. Even when the disciples are rude and snarky, putting him down for not keeping up with current events in Jerusalem, Jesus patiently invites them to share their story. He walks with them on the road, unrecognized; he joins them in their sadness and despair. Having been in the tomb for three days, he understands what it means to be there. He listens to their story of confusion, disorientation, deep grief and loss of direction, human failure, and inner darkness. Finally the disciples name their hurt: “we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. These three words are the crux of their pain. They’re grappling with not just the tragedy of what happened, but also the gaping hole of all that could have happened but won’t. They’re grieving a dream that will never be realized.

After they name their hurt, they launch into a story about how the women from their group said Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to be snarky; he responds, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all the things that the prophets talked about.” Earlier the disciples were angry with Jesus for not keeping up with the current events, but then Jesus responds with frustration that they aren’t linking the current events with the larger picture, connecting it back to Moses and the prophets. Jesus asks, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” As the theologian Henri Nouwan writes, “These words…radically change our view of suffering. Pain and suffering are no longer obstacles to the glory of eternal life, they have become the inevitable way to it.” Jesus is teaching them about resurrection. Somehow, inexplicably, suffering and death lead to new life. Through pain, we encounter grace. Seeing life through the lens of Easter gives us the courage to move from mourning to hope, from despair to gratitude, and from holding on to letting go.

Despite all of the snarkiness in their exchange, the disciples invite Jesus into their home when they reach Emmaus. They extend radical hospitality to this complete stranger who spoke hope to them on the road. In this moment, the disciples move from talking to relationship. When they invite him into their home to break bread together, they embody one of Jesus’ central messages-radical hospitality-and only then do they recognize him. Christ is revealed when we embody his ministry, when we stop talking about it and begin doing the work of Jesus.

At the beginning of my YAV year, a man confronted me with a question I’ve grappled with ever since. First he asked me about my work at Ferncliff and I excitedly told him I was working in a garden. This man, a retired pastor who had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, narrowed his eyes and furrowed his eyebrows. Several silent seconds passed. He abruptly let out a loud laugh and asked “what does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I felt myself freeze. Until this moment, I had only been met with encouragement, excitement, and kindness when asked about my work as a Young Adult Volunteer. I don’t react well in confrontations, so I just mumbled something about creation care and being called to be stewards of the environment. He once again narrowed his eyes incredulously, then laughed and shook his head as he repeated, “‘stewards of the environment.’ This obsession with green stuff is ridiculous.”

Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about how I would answer that question were he to ask me again. “What does working in a garden do for Jesus?” I would still say that we protect what we love and if we don’t encounter creation we won’t understand or come to love it. I would say that we need to take our roles as stewards of the environment seriously. I would say that our tradition tells us that God’s original plan for humans was to live in and cultivate a garden; our tradition tells us our humanity is, in its purest form, inextricably connected with the earth. Our tradition also tells us that the human (adam) comes from the earth (adamah), and that our mandate is “to serve and to guard the land.” God took soil and breathed life into us. Our lives are intimately connected with creation. Even beyond this, I’ve discovered as the Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written, “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being.” Christian theology reflects the cycles of creation. Nature provides tangible evidence of resurrection. Food scraps from the kitchen and what remained of the plants we harvested in the fall were thrown into a compost pile, decomposed during the winter, transformed into soil, were added to our raised beds in the early spring, and now nurtures the roots of sprouts beginning their new life. Compost is resurrection. I get to witness resurrection every day in the garden. And not just in the life and death and rebirth of plants, but also in the context of Ferncliff. We find discarded materials to use for garden beds and trellises (structures that support upward-growing plants). We have bathtubs as garden beds, old tires for our potato beds, old fences, bamboo, and broken bike tires for trellises. Materials that would otherwise have been cast aside and thrown away now hold and support life. It’s a sacred thing to participate in the cycles of life and death and to bear witness to tangible resurrection.

There’s also an enormous amount of trust involved in gardening. This YAV year has been my first real encounter in a garden and I entered the year doubting whether I was actually capable of making anything grow. Especially in the beginning of the year, I would plant seeds and seriously doubt that any life would actually emerge. Working in a garden teaches me to relinquish control; I plant a seed in the soil, ensure it’s properly watered and has compost for nourishment, but I can’t make it grow. As the poet Wendell Berry says, “the seed doesn’t swell in its husk by reason, but loves itself…love articulates the choice of life in fact; life chooses life because it is alive.” I get to bear witness to this mystery of a seed growing and emerging from darkness. I have to trust that the seed will move into new life.

Life is full of little Easters: moments when we see and live into Jesus, the resurrection and the life. But that doesn’t erase the pain of Good Friday. God doesn’t erase the suffering Jesus experienced, even though that pain no longer defines, overwhelms, or threatens to destroy him. The same is true for us. It’s easy to fall into one of two temptations: to skip Good Friday and rush into Easter or to wallow in Good Friday and claim that’s the end of the story. When you plant a seed, you fully submerge it in the soil so it’s surrounded by complete darkness. New life begins in the dark, whether it is a seed in the ground or Jesus in the tomb. However, it can also be tempting to remain in the dark and allow our faults, mistakes, or the worst things that have happened to us to define us. We need to have space to confront our pain, our brokenness, and our grief head-on without dwelling in it. We create that space when we look for signs of resurrection glimpses everywhere. Each storm nourishes you, sustains you, and invites us to sink more deeply into being a beloved child of God.

As I drove through the opaque green tunnel on my way to church this morning, I realized I still miss how the earth curves upward into hills on either side of me. But maybe it’s enough to know that the barn is there. I’ll carry the lessons I learned in the winter into the spring, from one season of my life into the next. I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Mary Oliver: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” Amen.