Archive | May, 2014

Families Without Borders

27 May
View of the Southside Presbyterian sanctuary, inspired by Native American kiva design.

View of the Southside Presbyterian sanctuary, inspired by Native American kiva design.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Serving the Story looks back on the sixth week of the community service road trip, spanning from the border city of El Paso, Texas to the border city of Tucson, Arizona – with predictable results.

The service at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian rolls around to the concerns of the people, and I’m expecting the usual: The pastor shares a few terse written notes on a folks facing difficulties, perhaps asks if anyone has anything to add, then, never having left the altar, moves on. Business taken care of.

Instead, the pastor, Alison Harrington, abandons the altar entirely, walks to the nearest person with a raised hand – and simply hands over the microphone.

The voice of the parishioner, unfiltered.

In more ways than we care to notice, Christian church services are bound by space and time.  For some reason, the service is supposed to last an hour – although if you wind up a few minutes early, most folks aren’t complaining. Most sanctuaries, meanwhile, put folks in the same old shoebox – a raised platform at one end serving to separate those leading the service from the congregation; if the choir isn’t there, it usually commands its own perch in the back. As for the audience, very few brave the front row, and some even hide in the back.

Southside defies all of that. The church design is based on a circular Native American kiva, placing those leading the service near the center. Among other things, this means folks come up to greet her even as the service is about to start. Meanwhile, the advertised service is a whopping hour-and-a-half. Eve at that, we’re running long – at least 20 people share concerns and celebrations. Their combined voices take up more time than the pastor’s own sermon.

That sermon, meanwhile, reminds us that churches are also bound by other dimensions. It focuses on the story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery – “I don’t know why we teach this story to children,” she jokes – only to have that misfortune lead to him achieving prominence as an interpreter of dreams and a leader of his people.

Rev. Harrington and parishioner have laugh between Monday morning homeless breakfast and beginning of Immigrant Trail walk.

“Pastor Alison”  and parishioner have laugh between Monday homeless breakfast and beginning of Immigrant Trail walk.

She notes this is an example of God turning “the harm that was intended” into something good. In the same way, she argues, the racism of the white church led to the creation of a black church, which then became the backbone of the civil rights movement. Similarly, 108 years ago, the refusal of Arizonans to worship alongside Native Americans led to the creation of Southside Presbyterian.

The church is turning harm into good in a particularly dramatic fashion right now – it’s given sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, along with his wife and daughter. The church is doing so to keep the U.S. government from breaking up a family that’s been living, working, and paying taxes in this country for 14 years. The church is not only providing refuge, but also working hard with legal advocacy and publicizing the case nationally. Meanwhile, the church collaborates with No More Deaths, a brave – and physically fit – group that risks encounters with the border patrol, drug cartel smugglers, and numerous natural dangers to haul water into the desert, where it’s left to help prevent lost immigrants from dying in the wilderness. In addition to all this, the church is the launching point for this week’s 75-mile Immigrant Trail walk, a memorial pilgrimage to honor immigrants who died attempting to cross.

Like its altar, Southside Presbyterian is right in the middle of things – and, Rev. Harrington argues, that’s simply the church putting its “faith foot forward.”   It’s not political; it’s just what family does for family.

The challenge is to expand our concept of our family – one  that reaches beyond blood kinship and friendship to people we’ve never met. One No More Deaths volunteer, Amanda Rutherford, easily imagines the strangers from south of the border who are both desperate and in many cases misled, getting lost in the desert attempting to cross. She helps deliver water to leave along the ever-shifting routes, hiking with up to eight gallons, in addition to her own supply. Her first run, she and her partner found someone seemingly on the brink of death from dehydration; they contacted Border Patrol, but not before the man looked at her and her partner with a sense of gratitude and connection so profound, it still sticks with her. She’s since set aside her interests to apply for law school in order to impact immigration policy — but she still makes her share of trail hikes, imagining others wandering disoriented in the desert.

Amanda Rutherford hikes with eight gallons of water to leave along immigrant trails to prevent them dying; on her first trip, she and her partner discovered someone in serious trouble and was able to get Border Patrol to help him.

Amanda Rutherford hikes with eight gallons of water to leave along immigrant trails.

Four days and twice as many hours of driving ago, I met Ruben Garcia, leader of El Paso’s Annunciation House. He argued that we are far more connected to the poor of Mexico than we care to admit, both spiritually and economically; he agreed that one reason we hesitate to honor that connection is because we’re afraid of what it implies for our lifestyles. After we finished talking, I communed over lunch with four of his young staff, whom had come from various parts of the country to live and work at the house.

The next day, I drove a half hour farther from the border, across the state line to Chaparral, New Mexico – an unincorporated colonia where the Sisters of the Assumption have long worked to meet the needs of the poor. Amid the rows of trailer homes and desert earth, the sisters – with help from students and staff from my own employer, Assumption College back in Massachusetts – built their convent, a compound of straw-built homes. The Sisters are not only spiritually grounded, but environmentally savvy.

Annie and Ryan, two staff members at El Paso’s Annunciation House, with mural painted by a client.

Like Annunciation House or Southside Presbyterian, the Sisters don’t rigidly define their mission. Again, like a family, the nuns deal with whatever comes up, big or small, from prison ministry and after-school programs to the woman who drove up as the Sisters were hosting a group of international students from Georgetown. The woman’s son had just been in a car accident and she wanted to sit in the small but airy chapel to pray; the sisters delayed their tour until the woman was finished.

The Sisters were so warm, hospitable, and even funny, they even made me, an outside, feel like part of that family. When you’re on the road, those moments of connection are particularly appreciated; six week on the road has me feeling cut off and aloof, relegated to the margins of every group you encounter, simply because everyone knows you’re moving on. You’re shockingly grateful when someone gives you a job to do; when a truck showed up to load forty-odd sacks of donated goods  from the Annunciation House basement, I felt I was sweating out a couple of days’ worth of melancholy as I dragged sacks up the stairs. In those moments, I get to feel like I’m part of something bigger.

Something at least a little like, well, a family.

But being part of a family is about more than doing chores – even if those chores have both practical and symbolic power. The choice to extend our sense of family runs through everything from the ways we engage others and meet their needs to our lifestyle choices, right down to the absurd amount I’ve spent eating out even as I spent the day interviewing folks who have taken vows of poverty.

Like this community service road trip in general, my journey toward a more deeply integrated sense of family has thousands of miles to go. How will I apply this to how I live my life as I go – and my life back in Worcester, if the car I’ve nicknamed Guzzler manages to get me back there? I’m not sure yet. But whatever change is inspired,it’ll be due in part to the example of folks like Southside Presbyterian and No More Deaths, Annunciation House and the Sisters of the Assumption.

And others like them still waiting ahead, just beyond the horizon.

An animated Sister Chabela draws laughter as she greets a diverse group of Georgetown students, some from the Qatar campus.

The Valley and the Sea

22 May
Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

When I pull up near the surf, the sun, a fluorescent pinkish orange, has just emerged from the eastern horizon. I blew 200 bucks on a Port Aransas hotel last night out of fear I wouldn’t break camp in time to meet naturalist Tony Amos at this precise spot; I realize now that I could have camped here, like a dozen or so others, opening my tent flap to the roaring surf, and sleeping better in the bargain.

Of course, the last time I pitched my tent on a Texas beach at night, back in 1986, we awoke to the realization that the sand was covered with blotches of tar from an oil spill. The stains remain still on my tent.

There is no tar today, mercifully. Even the cars that cruise the beach here are few and far between. When Tony – a 76-year-old oceanographer who has taken his detailed counts from this stretch of beach some 4,800-odd times over a period of 37 years – picks me up, there’s plenty of natural wonders to try to see through his expert eyes. Recording meticulously, he’ll count more than 800 individual birds on several miles of beach, as well as periodically pacing off the beach width and even measuring temperature, salinity and wind direction. If I point out a bird to him, he refuses to count it, as he doesn’t know if he’d have seen it – he strives to maintain a constant method from count to count. So I settle for picking up trash when I see it, lugging plastic bottles over to garbage cans.

“I don’t do that,” he tells me. “I’d never be able to finish if I did.”

For such reasons, he said, humans “aren’t my favorite entities,” although he then laughs and adds, “I shouldn’t say that.”

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Not that Amos is a curmudgeon. His cordial English politeness has earned him friends all over this small Texas beach town, particularly when paired with his founding of the Animal Rescue Keep – which abbreviates to ARK, perfect for a barefoot man with long flowing white hair and beard. But unlike the Biblical figure, he resists dire prophecies; he says that when he’s interviewed, he resists “futuristic speculation” about long-term consequences.

“I don’t see doom and gloom when I think of the environment. When I get out there I see the sun rising over the horizon, I see the waves on the ocean I see this and I see that, and I know that nature has got an ability to survive some of this stuff.”

Are you more positive because you’re engaging in action?

“Yes. And I look at everything, and I see things like this.” He pulls out his camera, shows me a picture of two tiny flowering plants casting minute shadows on damp sand. “You know those large photographs with a single word under it, like, say, ‘Courage’. I want to blow this up; I just don’t know the word yet.”

“Hope,” perhaps?

That’s certainly something I’ve noticed over my week in south and central Texas. Down near the border in the Rio Grande Valley, at Proyecto Desarrollo Humana, I visited with Sister Emily Jocson and others – some nuns, some not – working to help immigrant families; you would think the overwhelming tide of immigrants, and the poverty most will likely never quite escape, would make that an ultimately sad visit. But of course those who work there were already aware of poverty, either superficially or intimately – Sister Emily grew up in the Philippines, where she was able to attend college and earn her civil engineering degree, but she saw plenty growing up in a Third World country. But much like Tony Amos being moved by a small flowering plant, she sees up close the quieter triumphs.

“The most rewarding is when I see people being empowered and that their lives have changed. There’s this movement from one level to another.” For instance, typically, she said, Mexican women don’t state their opinions even when asked, but at the community center, “they could express themselves, and you can see a change when they express themselves. Even their families are seeing the change.”

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Then, of course, there are the more measurable ones – such as Aranet, the young woman working the reception counter. Her parents waded across the Rio Grande – her mother and sister floating in a tire while others pushed – and she came over later on someone else’s papers.

But now she’s documented, and, thanks to both donors and to parents who see the bigger picture, she’s attending college to become a physical therapist. She became interested while volunteering as an adolescent at the community center, where physical therapists, doctors and dentists donate basic services to people in the neighborhood. She wants to come back herself and do the same. “I think a lot of people need it.”

Tony, of course, has his own stories, fueled by his own compassion for both sea creatures and the people who want to help them.

What keeps him going? “First of all, I have empathy for these animals – without that you can’t do this.”

Daring to feel for them, however, could open him up to deeper outrage at threats to those creatures, from massive oil spills by corrupt corporations to the campers who leave fires burning, creating a situation where birds tempted to pick through the hot coals could harm themselves.

What balances against all these invitations to cynicism?

“What balances against that is that we use human beings we can’t be totally practical,” he says, laughing deeply. “It’s like the argument about recycling, what we do may be of no real help, but what it does do is promote a consciousness in the person who is doing it, as well as the thing being done, so it has merit that way, especially for young people. Do we always have to equate things we do with a measure of success or failure or gain, ultimately financial gain?”

Perhaps that’s why, despite all the large-scale abuses that sometimes makes me paradoxically angry and cynical, I walked away from both Sister Emily and Tony Amos feeling happier, not sadder. Elated, even.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Particularly at the ARK, where there were a lot of opportunities for me to play a part in the successes. The staff let me throw fish to the injured pelicans – a challenge in that healthy pelicans fly into the pen to try to cut in on the action, putting me in the position of a quarterback trying to get the attention of his wide receiver – as well as feed baby starlings.

And while I saw a dead sea turtle, I was later given the honor of releasing three live ones, fully healed, from a jetty lining the boats’ path to the sea. Anxious not to drop any of the green sea turtles, I lowered each into the surf, trying to point them toward the open sea.

One dove deep and disappeared, a second swam away from the sea – and the third shot up the channel, swimming so vigorously, it was hard to believe s/he ever needed rescuing.

I stared until the third turtle disappeared in deeper water – then clambered back up the rock jetty, feeling a little healthier myself.


My Own Private Portlandia, Part Two

15 May

Portland of Possibilities

The night before my return to First Presbyterian, I settle on the long strip of sand that helps bridge tiny Portland, approximately 15,000 population, to the city more than 20 times its size, Corpus Christi.

For the life of me, I don’t remember these hotels, or the Texas State Aquarium, or the aircraft carrier – or Fajitaville, a three-story brightly colored monstrosity which, I find out the hard way, negates the advantage of surf-side dining by belting out pop music so loud, it becomes distorted beyond recognition.

As places to enjoy music, in fact, Fajitaville ranks a distant second to CVS – where, a half hour before church, I catch a familiar snatch of lyrics.

            Everyone I know

            Everywhere I go

            People need a reason to believe

            I don’t know about anyone but me

Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” doesn’t reflect my mood as much as one might think, given that my road trip might be as long be as long as the tour during which he sang it. If anything, I’mfeeling too much – a powerful wash of memories from those formative Portland years in the early ‘80s, undercut by the get-real reminders to self that I might find no one I know there, or, worse, find it impossible to connect with those who do remember me. I might be welcomed with open arms, or observed with detached curiosity – curious odd, as in, “Isn’t it curious he would bother to come back here now?”

It’s the kind of self-consciousness that keeps folks from revisiting their old workplaces. The difference, of course, is that the workplace is a church – where everyone is supposed to be welcome.

In the spirit of Jackson Browne, I’ve chosen to believe, so I cruise to church and park near my old spot, mosey down the catwalk running by the playground – devoid of children – and into the main building. The choir is rehearsing in the sanctuary, so I head to the kitchen and, hopefully, coffee. A few older folks are there, none of whom went here back in my time, but one confirms that Roberta, my pastor’s wife, is one of those voices coming from the sanctuary.

When rehearsal breaks up, people are standing around, but before I can reach Roberta, I’m intercepted by the church’s new interim pastor, Steve Arndt. I wonder how many interims the church has had since Pete, with kids aging their way toward college, left the pulpit to become a stockbroker. Interim pastoring is its own art – interims are barred from contending for the long-term job; their role is to help guide churches in tricky times of transition. It seems particularly tricky here – it’s Mother’s Day, and yet there are perhaps 25 people here, none of them children.

But Roberta Apple is here, and as I observe her talking to parishioners, she exudes the same serene beauty and grace I remember from decades before. bWhen she turns my way, there’s a flicker of recognition – my height gets me that much – and when I say my name, she hugs me. “What a gift!” she declares.

Robert and mei, both part of God's Catch, even if I seem to have misplaced my name tag.

Robert and me, both part of God’s Catch, even if I seem to have misplaced my name tag.

We talk for a bit, and then she walks up to the pulpit – she’s the liturgist this particular Sunday, giving herself to the church on Mother’s Day, even as her family is preparing for the big meal elsewhere.

Fortunately, the time for the congregation to share concerns comes early, which means that my concern — the anxiety over being singled out in front of a group – is over quickly enough. Roberta explains my back story, and that I’m an English prof in Massachusetts, and I say a few words. Mainly, I say how grateful I am to have been accepted here as a “very green” youth director, and how much I learned then from the Apples and others. Later, when someone asks us to pray for family members going on a trip, Roberta quipped, “You, too, Mike.”

But if there were a contest for most unusual thing experienced in church, my materialization would be a distant second. A woman’s father just finished his long-neglected undergraduate degree in history. He’d written his thesis, but never gotten to defend it, because he had to go off to war.

Specifically, World War II.

He’s 99 years old, on the verge of 100, and finally got around to defending his thesis – which was an interview with a famous politician who, in his own youth, had known Calamity Jane. After the service,  the woman will tell me that she’d contacted the history department at her father’s college to ask if it would send a note for her father’s 100th birthday, and the college surprised her by asking for the thesis – which she then typed word for word as he wrote it back in the 1940s.

A remarkable story of thoughtfulness, all the way around.

The set pieces one would expect are there – the prayers, the Bible passages, an elegant sermon focusing on key women from the Bible, effectively delivered by the new interim – but what strikes me is how even during the service, people are easy and friendly. The passing of the peace – in which we greet people around us in the pews – is at my own church done with one eye on the watch, but here you get into actual conversations. The difference is probably only that of two minutes, but you feel that permission to be friendly. To converse. To truly connect with the person sitting next to you.

In my case, it’s Mrs. Tunnell, daughter of one of my favorite youth, one who seemed more knowing than most. The kind of kid every teacher knows and likes – the one who’s never at the center of things, but who seems often seems like the most observant person in the room. The kind with whom, during lessons gone awry,  you exchange glances that could be translated as “this one isn’t going that well, is it?” and “I know.” When she ultimately decided youth fellowship was not for her, I not only had we failed her somehow, but also that she was smart enough to know it.

Yet when I came back several years later, that same kid, by then a thriving adult, practically tackled me in her parents’ living room. It was an early lesson, one I seem to need to learn over and over, in the fact that sometimes just being there for someone is enough.

They have to figure out the rest on their own.

After the service the Tunnells tell me I should stop by the Corpus Christi seafood restaurant where Amy, now married, is working. First I linger with Roberta – who is gracious enough to show me my old office. More memories flood back.

“It smells the same,” I say, “kind of a sweet smell.”

“That’s the mold,” she jokes.

By her car I ask her to convey to her husband how much I learned from that time, from preaching and teaching to using programs to give folks the opportunity to play their own part. At the time, I had no idea then I’d help build a Habitat for Humanity chapter, let alone become a teacher or a service program director. In our materialistic world, it’s easy to dismiss lessons that don’t directly translate to making a buck – to view periods like my two years in Portland as a detour. I make it clear to Roberta that my two years here ultimately helped me with both vocation and avocation. Meanwhile, she shared that Peter himself felt he did some of his best pastoring after he became a stockbroker, in all of those one-on-one sessions helping clients chart a course through life.

Driving toward Corpus Christi, I remember what another Presbyterian pastor down here once told me. “I try to view my own ministry,” Angus McGregor said one day, “as being no more important than the ministry of the guy selling shirts at J.C. Penney.”

What matters, Angus seemed to be suggesting, was the degree to which we connect and care for the people who show up in our lives.

Right now, I’m about to show up in Amy’s. The restaurant – Water Street Oyster Bar – is clearly upscale, located in a surprisingly chic part of Corpus. I walk past a Surfers Museum and an interesting coffee shop; I can’t help feeling I have somehow leapt a month forward in the road trip, wound up strolling the streets of Santa Barbara. But these Gulf Coast cities are like that – they seem to exist in their own world, apart from the state in which they are located.

It’s Mother’s Day at a nice restaurant, and yet I’ve been so audacious as to ask for a table in a particular server’s designated area. Knowing I’ve resigned myself to a wait of at least an hour, I open my laptop at the bar, try to collect my thoughts. It hits me that this community service road trip – itself a journey of faith in so many ways – started one month ago today.

It feels right that I spent it with First Presbyterian, which embraced me and entrusted me with a role serving their young people, giving a shy, insecure young man the outrageous notion that maybe he had something to give others, something that might actually matter. It was a gift that, to this day, helps keep the cynicism at bay – even now as I wait, knowing she’s in work mode, knowing I must be careful not to get her out of her waitress rhythm. Even 28 years later, I recognize her as she zips from table to table; unlike me, she’s clearly recognizable. Like my marathoner friend Gene I saw the the day before, I’ve always figured Amy for the type to take good care of herself.

She also seems very much in the zone. Like any excellent server, she balances efficiency and friendliness, motion and engagement. Yet the veneer of professionalism drops when she realizes who I am. She gives me a hug; I tell her not to slow down on my account. We catch up over three courses she helps pick, all superb choices, right down to the thickest slice of key lime pie I’ve ever beheld – one I can’t even finish, a first in my personal key lime pie history.

When I tell her about the road trip, her eyes widen.

“That kicks butt,” she says.

I highly recommend Water Street Oyster Bar. (Ask for Amy!)

A meal well worth the tab, for more reasons than one.

A half hour later, heading south toward the border on Highway 77, I find myself wondering about the lives of Amy, and Amy’s family, and the Apples, and, even other youth group members and their families, people I didn’t even see this time around. Normal enough, but what surprises me is how I’m feeling– celebrative and concerned, proud and protective. In short, connected.

Which is part of what First Presbyterian of Portland gave me – an invitation to feel for others, and to act on those feelings, and to learn that now and then, those actions might matter. Leading to lessons I would fall back on every time I moved to a new community, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Worcester, Massachusetts; the only times my life suffered was when I forgot them. The fact I got back so much more than I gave — well, that was just a bonus.

Port/land of possibilities, indeed.



My Own Private Portlandia (Part I)

12 May


Portland of Possibilities

I’m rolling down I-10 from the Texas hill country Saturday morning, retracing my route in more ways than one. My week-long personal writers retreat at Mo-Ranch behind me, now I’m driving back to San Antonio to see an old friend – and I just might go even farther into the past.

Pulling over near Bourne for coffee and contemplation, I scan the internet for First Presbyterian Church of Portland – the small church that, back in 1981, chose me as its youth director. It was all part of the Tithe of Life program, designed to place new college graduates in small churches which needed help building a youth program. The thought was that a strong youth program attracts families, and families are, of course, the life-blood of the church. I was blessed to work with a lot of warm and accommodating people who put up with a very green youth director far from his native Alabama home – starting with my pastor, Pete Apple, and his wife Roberta, who taught English at the local high school.

Only Pete, needing to provide for kids aging their way toward college, left pastoral work to become a stock broker. Soon after, my two-year term ended, and I went back into the newspaper business. I lost track of almost everyone. Once the internet and social media came round, I tried to look occasionally but found nothing. Had the church, always limited by the small size of the town, finally gone under? Last year I found a Facebook page, but it was a bit cryptic – could’ve been a page by people who once were members of the church. But now, sitting in my interstate-side coffee shop, I discover an actual website. Under the “About Us” heading, I find a page mentioning the church’s “long and storied past.”

Only, there are no stories.

Hey, I can help with that – although they might not be the stories the church would want me telling. The Frisbee golf tournament on a windy day, lifting said Frisbees onto the flat roof – which, combined with our concrete pipe lattice over the office windows that was oh-so-perfect climbing, led an enterprising boy to clamber up onto the roof before I could yell for him not to. The chili cook-off I was asked to judge with along with two church elders – technically my bosses – who quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to wash out the flavor between tastings –and that this would be best accomplished with beer, which one of them smuggled into the junior high Sunday school room. (But in fairness, it was Schlitz – hey, as a small church, we were definitely all about the stewardship.)

Then came the first church service I ever led. With Pete away studying Spanish in Mexico, I planned the entire service. It didn’t occur to me that the hymns I enjoyed tended to be fast and short. And I couldn’t have predicted that in the conversational part of the Presbyterian service, there would be no “concerns of the people” – there was no one in the hospital, or facing a personal crisis, or anyone with any problem whatsoever that merited discussion. The biggest factor of all — I had never written and delivered a speech before. Anxiety spiking, sweating more profusely than Albert Brooks in Network News, I flew through my sermon, filled with complex sentences written to be read, not heard. Roberta, sitting in the choir, was kind enough to offer that “I heard some good language in there.”

At service’s end, the pastor and the liturgist – in this case Gene, head of the Worship Committee – walked to the back of the sanctuary. I was supposed to deliver the benediction from there, once the organist played a contemplative interlude and the congregation kept its head bowed in prayer. I had my own eyes closed as well – until Gene elbowed me. He pointed excitedly to the same digital watch he used in training for marathons.


Only, he grinned and shot me a thumbs up. (Hey, the Cowboys were on at noon.)

Gene relaxing in living room after our trip to the Alamo Cafe.

“I’d forgotten that story,” Gene tells me a few hours later. We were sitting in the Alamo Café, enjoying some exceptional fajitas. Last time I saw Gene, I’d taken him to Sole Proprietor in Worcester for chowder, so it was only appropriate that he’d match me regionality for regionality. (Portland was, in fact, the first place I’d had fajitas.) Now we’re having such a good time, I refuse to put out the recorder, decide to set aside my idea of asking him about his memories of me as an incredibly green youth leader almost 33 years in the past.

After all, I feel sure of the basics: Even though I gave two years of my life to the church on a minimal salary of a few thousands bucks, I got so much more than I gave. Being so green, I benefitted mightily from both the wisdom and kindness of the people around me. The guy sharing a beer with me was certainly among them – Gene and his wife Karin were both school teachers, and of course parents, so they both knew a thing or two about, as Gene told me after the roof-climbing fiasco, not letting “the kids walk all over you

The last time I was in Portland, Halley’s Comet was in the Texas sky. Twenty-eight years have passed since. Gene’s not sure who’s left down there that I’d know. He and his wife moved to San Antone a decade ago, and the church before that. When I toss out names, turns out most of them have moved on, too. I wonder if I should even take the trouble to drive two-odd hours to the Corpus Christi area; I could more easily just stay here tonight and wander the River Walk, probably find some bar full of rabid Spurs fans to give the NBA Playoffs some local flavor. Still, my gut tells me I should at least drive down, wander the old neighborhoods, and walk the church grounds.

Then, I told myself, I’ll know.

A few hours later, I’m there. A water tank boasts the new slogan, a pun on my own name, “Port/(the) Land of Possibilities.) “Well,” I think, “maybe back then.” Now this is threatening to be more of a “been there, done that” experience.

Still, I can’t help being curious. Without looking at the map or even remembering street addresses of the places I lived, I cruise the old neighborhoods. As part of the church’s obligation to Tithe of Life, I stayed in a series of member’s homes. The first, Olga, had been a bridge master. The second, Pat, was the widow of an oil executive who plowed money into a business in which she housed exotic cats – a lion, a jaguar, and three cougars – in her home, hoping to then make a buck off them through folks posing for photos or playing with them. (I wound up being the one playing with the cougars, who practiced their stalking skills by jumping me when I least expected it, playing Kato to my Inspector Clouseau.)

Then there was Helen Stone, the belle of the AARP. She might as well be the patron saint of my trip: While I lived with Helen, she celebrated her 78th birthday by going on her first whitewater rafting trip, down the Colorado River. (Me, I’m a mere pup of 56, so, hey, stop your whining.)

Then I cut under Highway 181 and feel my way to First Presbyterian.

First Presbyterian in the late afternoon light.

First Presbyterian in the late afternoon light.

It’s still there, locked late on a Saturday afternoon. There’s a single car in a driveway that I don’t remember existing in the 1980s, so I try the building’s door handles, but they’re all locked. I knock on the pastor’s office door, but no one comes. So I circle the grounds, take in what I can, wonder whether it’s worth coming in tomorrow morning, when what’s left of the church would be having it’s Mother’s Day service. I hear Gene’s voice in my head, suggesting I might not see anyone I knew, implying that perhaps I should protect myself from disappointment. But then I peer into the transparent front doors of the sanctuary, catch in the fading light the narthex wall, where a net hangs down from a sign that says, “God’s Catch.”

Zooming with the camera lens, I could just make out the names on the tags – and I see Apples. Lots of Apples. Roberta, then Matthew, still other Apples below. GrandApples?

Looks like I’m going to church.

Seen through the window, “God’s Catch” of name tags.

Swim On (or, Beyond Graduation)

5 May


The Guadalupe River from landing next to swimming area.

The Guadalupe River from landing next to swimming area.

NOTE: Serving the Story is on a three-month, coast-to-coast road trip focusing on volunteering and the role it plays in people’s lives. The trip began in my home of Worcester, Massachusetts on April 11th.

It’s the river that makes it real. I don’t mean just seeing it, even though it was good to dip and rise in and out of a dozen or so little gorges, the bridges so shallow that locals sometimes drive through six inches of river with no more thought than New Englanders negotiating an icy street. No, first I had to negotiate all those twists in Texas Farm and Market Road 1340, turn through the entrance to Mo Ranch, and check in at the registration desk. I waxed nostalgic with the clerk about my times here back in the ‘80s, but even then the reality hadn’t hit; I was still shaking off a road hangover after an 11-hour drive from New Orleans.

Now, though, I dangle my feet and calves in the cold Guadalupe, which winds along the Texas hill country northwest of San Antonio, varying in width and depth. Here it looks to be 10 feet deep, if I’m gauging the layers of small trout and perch massing around my feet, taking a tentative peck. I contemplate a dive, but don’t quite trust my depth perception, so I let myself down the ladder, then release.

At the impact, my bad right shoulder complains sharply – reminding me that I’m 56, not 23 – but I’d might as well be the latter right now. Certainly my mind is right back to those summer swims here in 1981. Back then I’d just graduated from college and, in the search for my life’s path, wound up here, along with 14 other anxious folks, training for five weeks to become youth directors at struggling churches. Since we were in our early twenties, and the commitment was two years, the Presbyterian Church called the program Tithe of Life – the math was flawed, but a lot closer to right than it would be for all of us now.

Our leader, the recently passed Dusti Moser Deaver, worked hard to build friendships between us, figuring we would need each other to make it through two potentially lonely years spread out from east Tennessee to the Mexican border. It worked. Over five weeks we had our share of personality conflicts, but we got to know each other very well. One of the interns I clicked with most, a big Texan named David Floyd Judd, would join me and sometimes others for moonlight swims halfway out into the river, where a raft was held in place by ropes back to shore.

Lying there, we’d all stare at the stars – so very clear in the dry Texas air devoid of light (and other kinds) of pollution – and talk about a wide range of topics, one of them our futures. Sure, we were afraid, and unsure, and only half of us would take the plunge into seminary. But I also remember excitement, potential, a celebration of the uncertainty. We were in our early ‘20s, working hard to learn to do a job we weren’t sure we’d be good at, for churches excited to have earned the right to have one of us come in and build their program. I, for one, had no idea what I was doing, and for what church I would be doing it.

It wound up being one of the best things I could have possibly done, even though at the time I didn’t understand the reasons why. Wouldn’t until a decade later, when I became a college teacher in grad school.

Around the bend looking back upstream.

Around the bend looking back upstream.

As I swim the Guadalupe, back in Massachusetts at Assumption College, some of my favorite students are celebrating the last day of class of their college careers. Some of them have signed up for volunteer program like the one I lucked my way into, in the process both serving others and buying time to figure out their next move. Yet others have chosen different paths. Some probably don’t even have a job as of yet.

What I wish for all of them is that their next move makes them feel just as excitingly and occasionally terrifyingly alive as I did here at Mo Ranch in 1981 – and that, like the Tithe of Life interns, they know that don’t have to go through it alone.

As for me, I do feel oddly alone, with none of my colleagues from three decades ago here to share in the memories. But I needn’t have worried – on the wide lawn beside the river, two camp counselors about the age of a college graduate are setting out orange cones to map out a playing surface.

“You might want to get out of here now,” one warns. “We’re about to be hit with 100 or so sixth-graders.”

Sure enough, here come the kids, much like the ones I directed in the missionary program, only a whole lot more of them. Their laughter and shouts echo off the sandstone cliffs across the river.

“Only the first day,” one of the counselors said, sounding more my age than his own, “and already they don’t listen.”

I think they’re going to be fine.

Hundred or so sixth-graders cross the riverside field where I once played volleyball with my future pastor/boss.

Herd of sixth-graders cross riverside field where I once played volleyball with my future pastor/boss.

Coming Attractions, Big Easy Style

4 May


Khari and the rest of the collective put some body English into Jazz Fest.

Khari and the rest of the collective put some body English into Jazz Fest.

NOTE: Serving the Story has taken to the road, journeying from coast to coast in search of stories of service, as well as chances to volunteer. My original vision for this blog series of road encounters was that each would be a profile of a particular person engaged in service, and/or my own experiences in doing that service.

But it turns out that doing service, getting to know others who do service, transcribing interviews with said people, and writing coherently about all of the above – well, at some point you must choose. Specifically, choose between being fully with the people and place – or, in one of the cruel ironies of the travel writer’s life, hiding away in some quiet room, hunched over his keyboard, with every word writing himself further and further out of the here and now. Out of the moment.

And in New Orleans, there are a LOT of moments – one hates to miss a single one of them.

So in the place of whole narratives, accept for the moments this montage of my first eight days in New Orleans. View them, if you will, as a preview of coming attractions, the promises of movies to come.

In the impressionistic swirl of visuals, imagine, above all, lots of purple and green and gold – it is New Orleans, after all. After that, visualize Khari Allen Lee and the rest of the quartet known as the New Creative Collective on stage Sunday at Jazz Fest, as I sit in the seat saved for me by his romantic partner, music educator Kaya Martinez – who, despite me having only met them in person once, has gone out of her way to point me in interesting directions whenever I come here.

Smiles 2 Geaux founder Fatou Saar and son Oumar flash smiles of their own.

Smiles 2 Geaux founder Fatou Saar and son Oumar flash smiles of their own.

With the background of one of the collective’s compositions, cut across town to a bus parked in front of a senior center near Elysian Fields. Only the people who board the bus aren’t going anywhere – they’re getting their teeth cleaned. Riding herd over the operation is its founder, Fatou Saar, originally from Senegal – and, after Hurricane Katrina, briefly of Worcester, Mass., where she stayed with my friend Stacey Hill. Now, after returning to New Orleans, she has created Smiles 2 Geaux, an award-winning mobile dental clinic for school children and seniors.

From there the camera lifts up to an aerial shot and pans down the Poland Highway and over the water into the Lower Ninth, once flooded seemingly beyond hope of redemption, now decorated with bright, unconventional and progressive homes provided by Brad Pitt’s foundation. Thom Pepper works out of the second floor of Common Ground; Brad and Angelina and the kids once hung in the first floor, meeting to map out his project. (Hey, what are a batch of movie previews without either Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie?)


The homes built by Pitt's foundation incorporate solar tiles, as well as other modern elements.

The homes built by Pitt’s foundation incorporate solar tiles, as well as other modern elements.

From there a quick cut to the Audubon Nature Park, where eighth graders from St. Louis whack and cleave the pervasive Chinese tallow, a water-sucking invasive species who were a force to be reckoned with even before Katrina’s flood waters swept their seeds from lawns to the Audubon sanctuary, making them a threat to the rebuilding of the ecosystem in general and the wetlands protecting the levees in particular. Supervising those kids is one Amy LeGaux, who, as a young San Diego Zoo employee, stood behind the curtain at The Tonight Show, handed exotic critters to Joan Embery, who in turn amused Johnny Carson and the nation. (Hey, where would the movie industry be without The Tonight Show.)

Slide to another part of town, and you find volunteers of ranging ages painting and mudding part of an 1849 house; United Saints removed the black mold that made the owner ill, and are renovating a back portion in which he can safely live upon his return to New Orleans in a month or so. Meanwhile, folks will continue to work on restoring the rest of the pink two story building; it was two of Jerry’s neighbors who stepped in when the city started “blighting” procedures. They’ve already repaired the roof, which was enough progress to staves out the city for now. Meanwhile, in the lot next door, they’re moving around the smashed cars to be used in the new Terminator movie being filmed here. A year after Christian Bale was in Worcester shooting American Hustle, he seems to have followed me here — giving me my own celebrity stalked. (Notice how our cast keeps expanding.)

Now back downtown on Canal, Hands On New Orleans executive director Chris Cameron sits in his brightly colored tie and seer-sucker suit, looking very much the New Orleans native during Jazz Fest week — or any other week, really. With looks that remind me vaguely of the 50ish Timothy Dalton, he laughs at my astonishment when he mentions accommodating a group of 150 volunteers in a single project. “Oh,” he said, “that’s easy.”

St. Louis eighth graders located and take down Chinese tallow, which causes havoc in the wetlands.

St. Louis eighth graders located and take down Chinese tallow, which causes havoc in the wetlands.

Then picture a stately white two-story home on Louisiana Avenue, where the owners have converted the first floor into the administrative offices for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic; with a wall of autographed musician photos behind her, Erica Dudas tells me how the clinic serves roughly 2,500 New Orleans musicians, from well-known but financially strapped names to the street-corner buskers and even, of late, club managers who employed them. The latest fundraising letter was signed by musical legend Dr. John and TV Series producer David Simon, he of The Wire and Treme. (Enter HBO.)

And, finally, to one of those clubs – where a weary travel writer is ready to quit gathering material until he’s processed what he has, wait until after he’s done some writing to interview another do-gooder – with the aid of local blues guitarist and singer Walter “Wolfman” Washington. Only said travel writer starts talking with the couple sharing a bench with him before the show gets them all on their feet. They’re from New York City. The wife is a corporate headhunter – good, no notes the travel writer needs to make there – but then it turns out that in her spare time, she channels that expertise into teaching disadvantaged women how to interview for jobs.

On the way back from the club, said travel writer walks past a self-styled haunted house. Overhead, an eerily familiar voice repeats itself in a continuous loop, a voice that does indeed give him the creeps: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job … Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job …”

Well,  a lot of people actually are.

Their stories are coming soon to a blog near you.

%d bloggers like this: