Desert Crosses

8 Nov

2014 in Tucson: Crosses hikers would soon bear through the desert to the spots where immigrants died. Some are marked “Unknown.”

Today is Election Day, drawing to a close a particularly vile season of hate and anger – featuring, among other appalling things, some grotesque and malicious stereotyping of immigrants.

The issues of immigration are, of course, complex, entailing some difficult balancing acts of conflicting concerns. But the people I met two years ago in Tucson, Arizona – a city far more affected by immigration than most – shows that it’s possible, even in a church congregation ranging from liberal Democrats to Tea Partiers, to maintain a profound respect and compassion for people who, in the face of poverty and violence, and in many cases simply seeking to rejoin their families up north, risk their lives to cross the desert into the United States.

Especially those who don’t make it.

In 2014 on my service road trip, I worshiped at Southside Presbyterian on the weekend it was serving as a starting point for a 75-mile memorial hike to the border. Participants – many older than I, but in much better shape – were willing to hike in the early June desert heat to leave crosses in honor of immigrants who died during their attempted crossing. Meanwhile, I also interviewed Amanda Rutherford, an outdoorsy young woman whose life was changed by her first hike with No More Deaths, a group that is devoted to keeping people from dying during the crossing – even if that means calling Border Patrol to med-evac them to a hospital before sending them south of the border.poster-no-more-deaths-2-jpg

Two years later, when Lynn Simmons approached me about being what I call the Nonartist in Residence for the Kaboom! art show at Assumption College, I combined my photo of all those white crosses for deceased immigrants with the story of how another man avoided becoming one of them, thanks to the swift actions of Rutherford and a friend. (You can read more about my time there in a blog I posted from the road in June, 2014.)

Regardless of where each of us might set the balance when it comes to immigration, there are opportunities every day to cast a vote for compassion – and for respect of those who have faced greater challenges than I’ll ever know.

‘Mike, Where Have You Been?’

1 Nov


faculty show 2014_postcardOne of the more comic aspects of writing a book – a story that you hope, if you’re lucky, will be first published and then read by thousands of strangers in some distant future – is that you’re tempted to neglect people you actually know in the here and now.

Fortunately, The Whole Service Trip focuses on a journey in which I recorded 139 interviews with people about their causes, including the value of the connections they formed through their altruistic efforts – as well as the spiritual takeaways for how to live the rest of my life.

So this summer, even as the work of revision was receding like the ocean before a tsunami, the wave of irony that was slowly accumulating for the last two years of writing was now cresting in the distance and rumbling toward shore. It was high time for me to heed the lessons of my own book and make a more intentional effort to get to know some of my favorite people better.

One of the first people I called was Lynn Simmons. A sculptor and art teacher, she’s also a good-hearted person who helps brings people together, making her a model of someone who’s at once artistic and altruistic – a good friend to have a beer with and process how to shift my energy into a broader social realm without losing my center in the process.

What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me. After an hour of reflective and fun lunch-time conversation, Lynn delicately proffered an invitation that was both flattering and terrifying. How would I – a words person who hasn’t done visual art since sixth grade – like to be part of an art show?

She explained that even though everyone else in the show was part of the Art department at our college, they were all doing something outside their normal “comfort zone.” Which, of course, is where Lynn had me dead to rights. “Getting outside your comfort zone” was one of the community service “terms of faith” I was exploring in my book. As was the notion of acting in faith by putting yourself out into the world, trusting that good things would happen.


Lynn Simmons shaking things up at Kaboom!

She didn’t have to articulate these arguments – the logic was irresistible. And, like so many people I’d met on the road, I had to respond to its call. The call, in this case, to create art to be exhibited next to the work of professionals in the library of the college where I work – so that colleagues and students alike could marvel with each other how effectively I’d dramatized how, having seen my work, they appreciate the work of Real Artists that much more.

Whatever doubts remained were set aside once Lynn named the show “Kaboom!”, with the slogan, “Shaking things up!” Which was just what happened to my writerly imagination. I began seeing The Whole Service Trip in a different way. The premise of my exhibit was to superimpose images on passages from my book, highlighting key phrases in larger type. Lynn helped me loosen up and let go of my obsessions with chronology, character and context. Instead, she helped me focus on the images, and the phrases, that would “pop” visually and imaginatively – and work together to tell their own story about The Whole Service Trip?

Today I mark my return to this blog – another form of communicating I’ve neglected during my book-related labors – with the first of several posts inspired by those posters. Today’s exhibit is built on a photo was taken by my father in June 2011, in the early months of debris removal after a killer tornado had ravaged my hometown of Tuscaloosa.

The night of the actual tornado, I was busy emceeing a dinner event on campus – my only anxiety  the minor terrors of public speaking. Meanwhile, my hometown was facing fears far more primal. By the time I got home and checked my messages, hours had passed since the tornado struck – and the twister itself came only after an entire day of my parents watching the TV in anticipation of the predicted storm. When I finally got Mom on the phone, she had just been outside, immersed in conversation about the all-consuming Major Topic of The Day … The Year … The Decade.

So it was understandable that the first words out of her mouth, said with innocent amazement, were: “Mike, where have you been?

She didn’t mean anything by it. But later I would. First I would quote her question as part of a prologue about the tornado cleanup – an experience that planted the seed for the whole trip two years later. But it took “Kaboom!” to help me see that “where have you been?” could be the question hanging over everyone’s “service trip” – over both the times we volunteer and the times we wish we had.

At least, in my case, every time I choose to leave my own world for help someone else in theirs, I come face to face with the question of where I’ve been, and how I’ve been wasting, the rest of my time. I’m a man of modest material means in my world, but I have a wealth of time and energy I could be investing in someone else’s. All I have to do is acknowledge that their world is connected to my own – and shed my own inhibitions enough to go to their world and work alongside them.

So many good things happen when we all do just that.

One example, of course, being “Kaboom!”


Homelessness in Wo Mag

12 Feb

Team inspects local homeless campground.

Worcester Magazine recently ran an in-depth piece on the local homeless and efforts to help them. In the struggle to continue moving away from the shelter model toward what seems the sounder path of a Housing First model, some people insist that more shelter beds are still needed.

As temperatures plunge in New England, this is a particularly well-timed issue for local citizens to consider.


No Time for Therapy

11 Feb

In the moving Strength in What Remains, author Tracy Kidder traces the journey of Deo, who flees genocide in Burundi only to find a fresh set of challenges in New York City. He is primarily occupied with survival from day to day, with virtually no one to talk to in his own language.

But then there’s the other challenge – the way that genocide won’t let him go, even from halfway around the globe. He still endures the post-traumatic stress of the horrors he has experienced, and the loss of all he’s let go of – and for lack of communication, his cannot help assuming sometimes that his entire family is dead.

I’m teaching the book in Creative Nonfiction this week, which made this article in today’s Worcester Telegram & Gazette that much more striking. It concerns how Syrian refugees, and those who help them, are dealing with similar troubles now – how to deal not only with the need for housing, jobs, and physical well-being, but the mental health needs of people who have endured so much just to get here. It’s another reminder of what we can all do in our own communities to help all refugees. Programs such as African Community Education, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, and many others provide bountiful opportunities to help refugees and other immigrants.

Up On The Roof

8 Jan
Tamryn sweep 2 1-4-16

Assumption’s Taryn Gaguin walks the roof.

As director of Community Service Learning at Assumption College, one of my annual New Year’s resolutions is that, this time around, I’ll finally do a banner job of academic assessment – that often hopelessly abstracted process in which programs identify goals and objectives, figure out how to measure them, and relay the information up the chain to the people that accredit us.

OK, so, I’ll be honest: It actually hasn’t quite risen to the level of a New Year’s resolution, more a vague hope for the future, if I have time while accomplishing more compelling objectives. Experience has taught me that good can come of assessment when results translate into practice … but often there’s not enough useful information to change things … or time, amid the actual week-to-week work, to do it right.

On the other hand, well, assess this: In the last week, Assumption College SEND students have traveled to my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, helped strip away a decaying roof, and replaced it with a brand-spanking new one. Miss Anna, who lives in the home, doesn’t need a spread sheet or an assessment form to assess their success. For more, see the article and photo spread by Gary Cosby in The Tuscaloosa News.

This is the fifth year that Assumption has come to help Tuscaloosa recover from an April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 people. More than four years after the storm, Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa has moved from homes for tornado victims to addressing the ongoing shelter needs of lower-income people everywhere – and Assumption SEND has stuck with the agency through that transition. One SEND student, Mary Guinee, even went on to a postgraduate year of service with Habitat Tuscaloosa.

Every year the students’ work has left tangible results I can see as I drive around my hometown. Not to mention less tangible ways that students impact the lives of locals they meet, and the abundance of lessons that students learn from folks down here.

Those benefits I cannot begin to assess.

But someone will probably have to.

Return of the Return of the Blog

31 Dec

vermillion card

In 2014 I rambled from East Coast to Gulf Coast to West Coast, interviewing folks about the role service plays in their lives. Always a quick study, it only took about a hundred interviews for me to decide that, hey, business cards would be a good idea.

In fairness, I’d figured this out as early as New Orleans – but it took until Santa Barbara, a 10-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, for me to settle in one place long enough to design and order these cardboard tokens of professionalism. I sat in my friends’ living room, playing with the abundance of possibilities in Vistaprint – 500 for 10 bucks, by the way – until I created a design that told recipients who, at that point in my journey, I thought I was.

Who I was, in part, was a person in profound denial about the fact he had an actual job, with actual responsibilities, waiting back on the East Coast.

Understandable enough. I was six months into my research sabbatical. So it was only natural that I rejected Assumption College blue and white for the earth tones of brown, beige and green, and that I ignored the school seal for an impressionistic swirl of mountains and forest. The image suggested not only my love of hills and woods, but also the blur of my year so far. Meanwhile, while the font was sharp enough, my employer and job title were in smaller, blander type than my blog –

But a month later I was back in Worcester, and a month after that I was back in that job – teaching English and directing a community service learning program. Slowly but surely the symbolic typography of my life shifted to a reality in which my paying job was accorded 24-point bold status, while the importance of this blog shrank down to agate – the microscopic type of baseball box scores.

But my business card isn’t entirely a lie. I’ve blogged precious little because, for the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a book-length account of my service road trip. With each revising I’m also reliving – remembering again the extraordinary kindness of the people I met along the way, and the opportunities they gave me to see, in an often brutal world, the better angels of our natures. The Whole Service Trip, as I call my project, is actually more than a trip – for a trip implies an end, and, after that end, a return to some norm in which one serves less. Whereas these folks, well, they’re lifers.

Their stories, and so those of so many others I’ve met since, still deserve telling. As do various facts, insights, and links.

And lest I be tempted to forget, there’s the reminder of this card, which I still hand out to strangers. On the off chance that one of those strangers actually acts upon the information on business cards, well, I should be there to greet them.

So, to the folks who are visiting Serving the Story for the first time, welcome (and sorry if, being a Southerner, I seemed overly friendly). To the rest of you, well, you already know that about me, and you stuck around anyway, so thanks. There is so much to share – so many stories of people thinking, and feeling, and acting, beyond the immediate sphere of their lives, hoping to make the world a kinder and fairer place for people they don’t even know.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.

So thank you for what you’ve done in 2015  … and for what you, and others, figure to do in the year to come.

365Z Honors Ford’s Acts of Kindness

24 Jul
Brittany with late brother Zach, the inspiration for 365Z.

Brittany Ford with late brother Zach, inspiration for 365Z.

One day last week, my California friend Charmaine Coimbra, a Friend of the Elephant Seals, woke my blog from its eight months of book project-inspired hibernation with her column about volunteerism in her local paper, the Cabrian Times. The next day, I opened my own local paper, the Telegram, to discover former student Brittany Ford and her family featured in Telegram Towns. The Fords were there because of their work with 365Z – an organization the Fords created to honor the many acts of kindness of Brittany’s dearly departed brother Zachary.

While the newspaper article focuses on all the recent accomplishments of 365Z, Serving the Story talked in depth with Brittany about her brother, loss, and how to help people heal through yoga in an April 15, 2014 entry, “Kindness in Unkind Times.” The work of 365Z also came up when I talked with Joe McDonough about how the loss of his son to leukemia led to the family forming B+, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families of kids with cancer.

That second conversation occurred in a coffee shop in Newark, Delaware, on the second day of last year’s three-month-and-a-week community service road trip. I made the contact only because of Betsy Price, a friend who I hadn’t seen in 16 years; she also was kind enough to host me on my first two nights on the road.

I mention this because acts of kindness such as this occurred again and again on my journey; my nearly 12,000 miles of driving alone were dwarfed by the enormous gaps between my volunteer opportunities, putting my project at risk again and again. But those voids were filled, again and again, by suggestions from folks I met along the way – performing their own acts of kindness by pointing me to like-minded folks in the next town down the line.

Here’s hoping that more and more people respond to the message of 365Z, in the spirit of Zachary Ford.

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