fellows

Anything Dead Coming Back to Life Hurts | Reflections by Cynthia Ajuzie '19

If I’ve realized anything about being at UVa the past four years, it’s that one of my favorite quotes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved holds true. The quote is “Anything dead coming back to life hurts”. (Slight digression: I wasn’t sure if I should write this blog post about how college has further solidified my identity as a Nigerian-American woman, but I often need to my remind myself that being black is only one story that streaks my life and that God has given me many other stories that deserve attention too.)

Merely a few weeks into my fall semester as a third year, I quickly noticed how difficult it was for me to stay on top of my workload. However, I thought that my struggles were just going to be something I overcame by working hard and being strategic with the time I spent studying. School had always been something I felt completely in control of and believed I could excel at with the right efforts, so I didn’t worry too much about my rigorous course load. The night before my first exam rolled around and I remember reviewing notes in my room, trying to elucidate concepts that were still blurry to me. Once I realized that information was no longer sticking in my head, I decided to go to bed. The only problem was that after I did get in bed, I couldn’t sleep. My mind continued strumming through concepts I didn’t understand and my heart felt squeamish in my chest. By 2:30 a.m., I figured I should probably try to talk to someone to see if that would get my mind off of things. I called my mom, who works night shifts as a nurse, and she tried to calm me down for a few minutes. It was comforting hearing her voice and being reminded that my heart and thoughts were not the only sounds that sloshed the earth.

I viewed that night of not sleeping as a fluke that would certainly not happen again because I’d be more diligent in making sure I got to bed earlier at a consistent time each night. However, even with my efforts to apply better sleep hygiene to my life, I continued struggling with anxiety and insomnia multiple times a week. Lying in bed exhausted in the middle of the night, feeling betrayed by and unfamiliar to your own body is one of the worst feelings I have come to know in my life. Insomnia descended me into a pit of loneliness, fashioned by anxiety and I was so unaware of how to plow myself out of it. Many activities that I used to enjoy became lackluster and I dreaded having things to do that would require a lot of energy/thinking. I felt like a walking silhouette of who I knew I was.

Desperately wanting to improve my compromised mental health and not wanting to turn to my parents for help (who come from a culture that struggles with legitimizing mental health issues), I began trying to think of ways to fix myself. I visited CAPs, looked up organic remedies to insomnia, sought prayer from my housemates, bought religious self-help books for sleeping disorders, and had my sister stay on the phone with me some nights in hopes that it would help me sleep better. Nothing seemed to be working long term. With my frustration towards myself and God mounting, I resolved to accept the fact that insomnia had woven it’s way into my life and I’d just have to make room for it on my bed most nights.

The night before my biggest final that semester, I began hearing strongly from God. I was on the floor in the room of one of my housemates who had struggled with insomnia one summer and told me I could stay in her room, so I wouldn’t feel as lonely, while she played worship instrumental music to see if that would help me sleep better. After she had fallen asleep and I was still wide-awake ready for the sun to sprout in a bit, I felt the Lord drop this poem in my spirit based on Psalm 23.

It is well with my soul

For the Lord is so faithful and gracious

He makes me lie down in still pastures

And allows my joy to overflow in abundance

He gives me reasons to sing

He calms my spirit

He gives me strength

He is my strength

After I received those words, I felt lighter. It’s interesting how easily we make room for our struggles to ingest more and more of our lives until something - an epiphany or encouraging word- reminds us that those struggles do not have to permanently suffocate who we are as people. God is our reminder of this fact. And He does it so well. He meets us right where we are, just like He met me in that moment, and tells us that there is hope. He is hope.

I’d be lying if I said that night was the last time I experienced sleeplessness. But, it was the last night I viewed insomnia as some insurmountable entity that characterized all of me. That poem God deposited into my soul made me realize two things:

  1. God is always faithful and his faithfulness is noticeable if we actually open our eyes to see it

  2. God wanted me to stop being so close-fisted with my studies/ future and to relinquish those parts of my life to Him

After I made these realizations, I felt a peace that I had not felt in months. I allowed myself to indulge in the kindness and graciousness of God unrestrainedly. Experiencing a semester racked with sleeplessness and anxiety made me notice how God is a high tower for those who seek Him. His hands are strong enough to carry all of our burdens and His love is deep enough for Him to actually want to carry them. Nights can still be difficult for me, but not as often anymore because of my confidence in God’s faithfulness and his desire to give me rest. I had to go through one of the most difficult seasons in my life for God to revive who I am in him and for him to truly make me a new creation.

John 14:27, Philippians 4:7, John 1:5, 1Peter 5:7-10


Vulnerability & Community in the Whirlwinds | Reflections by Zach Balcomb '19

Recently, I find myself using the word whirlwind a lot... And by a lot I mean probably too much. I use it to describe the feeling of being a fourth year at UVa (i.e., a person with little time remaining in a place they’ve come to know and love) but also the feeling of trying to hang plants in my room. Obviously, these scenarios do not share the same emotional gravity, but I think my liberal usage of the term is significant to the state of my heart over the past few months.

In stressful moments, even those of an undeniably fleeting or trivial nature, anxiety has quietly crept in and occupied empty spaces in my heart. On the one hand, it’s easy to attribute this anxiety to the harsh reality that looms over all of us fourth years who have yet to figure out the next step. On the other hand, I would say that under the surface of the things that worry me, such as an unforeseeable post-grad life, anxiety arises from a sinful tendency that is often overlooked: resistance to vulnerability. It is from this resistance which anxiety has found a foothold in my life and “whirlwind” has become my new buzzword.

At the Horizons Fellows Retreat a few weeks ago, however, I experienced the beginning of a reset—I was reminded of my capacity and desire for spiritual vulnerability with others. I found joy in being in a transparent community, and I learned that when honesty has a place at the table in religious spaces, those spaces become more Holy. During the retreat, held at a Christian retreat center called Corhaven Farm, Fellows broke bread and laughed together. We snuggled up in blankets and sipped freshly-steeped tea. We pet docile, little donkeys and big, amiable cows (many of us, like me, admired them from afar). And finally, with crackling firewood and the sweet smell of s’mores as our backdrop, we took turns sharing our stories.

Our stories did not have to conform to a specific length or format, which I found so freeing. Growing up, I thought my story had to mirror what I had come to know as the archetype for a Christian testimony: a rip-roaring turn of events eclipsed by the earth shattering aha moment where “everything clicked.” Instead, I heard beautifully honest impressions on life and how people have come into relationship with their Creator over time. I heard people share things they have never before shared for fear of being judged or written off. More importantly, I saw people respond to these stories with kindness and an openness to learn.

In between storytelling, Fellows got to hear from Rev. Bill Haley, who taught us that we are to “cultivate relationship with the One who calls, so that when we are called we can respond efficiently.” We discussed the meaning of vocation, or more appropriately vocations, uncovering how they may not manifest in a paid position after graduation, but rather in how we bring God’s presence to the world. We listened and learned about the history behind the land upon which Corhaven is situated, which happens to include a cemetery where at least 25 black people who died as enslaved laborers now rest. As we explored the cemetery, which is now a memorial honoring the brothers and sisters who lay there, we grieved and prayed for an end to the 375-year reign of racial oppression in our country that still exists today.

In each of the aforementioned experiences, I felt our little cohort of Fellows displayed a level of transparency and celebration of difference that I have never before witnessed in a Christian circle. As interactions and conversations unfolded in this way, I felt spaces in my heart—once paralyzed with anxious energy—begin to breathe again.

On Bread & Roses by Perkins Fellow Isabella Hall '19

From sweat, dirt, and enduring swarms of mosquitoes comparable to the army of locusts depicted in the book of Joel, to traveling to Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference on race and food, my partnership with Bread & Roses through the Perkins Fellowship has been an adventure. Bread & Roses, a ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church, is a non-profit which focuses on nutritional outreach. Some of the ways this is accomplished is through the community garden and cooking clinics which are hosted at the church as well as collaboration with other organizations working toward food justice in Charlottesville. One of the reasons I was attracted to Bread & Roses at Trinity Episcopal is its rich heritage as an intentional multiracial community of reconciliation. The Church is located on Preston Avenue, a stone’s throw away from my home, the Perkins House. I am grateful to be partnering with a ministry that serves, and is situated within, my neighborhood.

My time at Bread & Roses has primarily been in the garden alongside the volunteers, most of whom are Trinity Episcopal members, who gather weekly to tend to the garden. Beginning in June, I started attending garden work days and quickly realized how little I knew and how much there was to learn! I was always asking questions, taking directions, attempting to soak up the extensive knowledge of the more seasoned garden workers, like Sally and Martha. I was shown so much patience and overtime, a vibrant little community had formed as we planted, weeded, and watered. We began to share meals on a monthly basis. After we completed the garden work, we’d gather over fresh food, often prepared using produce from the Bread & Roses garden or the personal gardens of the volunteers. These meals were never lacking in laughter and gradually, the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of each volunteer became remarkably endearing. It was, and continues to be, a dynamic group with a wide range of ages, occupations, ethnicities. Our once monthly meals transitioned into a biweekly event and suddenly, there was never a gathering without fresh food and a time of fellowship. I really cannot find the words to describe my gratitude for these relationships, none of which I would have had I remained within the narrow boundaries of the University community. Seeing these friends and working alongside one another in the heat and the dirt became a rhythmic occurrence each week, an essential piece of my lived liturgy.

Another component of my involvement with Bread & Roses has been thinking deeply about our food systems—the mechanisms by which we produce, acquire, and consume our food. Bread & Roses was generous enough to send me to Princeton Theological Seminary’s “Just Food” conference on race and food where I learned a tremendous amount about our centralized, mass-producing food industry known as the Food Regime. Some of the problems of the Food Regime include the exploitation of migrant and farm workers, the degradation of the land and natural resources, gentrification which displaces the poor, unequal access to healthy and affordable food options, and an increasingly centralized system which depletes local production and small-scale, sustainable farming. What’s more, these macro problems inordinately affect women and people of color, such as Latino/a migrant workers to inner-city African-Americans. While these problems are systemic and cannot be rectified with individual actions, confronting the reality of the situation certainly gave me pause and caused me to reflect upon my role within these systems. How am I to eat justly, sustainably, in a way that is honoring of my body, my neighbors, and the land? This is where “alternative food orders” become so vitally important. What’s an alternative food order? Think operations or organizations which connect people more closely with the production of their food—locally owned supermarkets like Reid’s, buying from local farms, community gardens and other forms of community supported agriculture (CSA) like farmers markets. These operations nurture local economies and social networks, thereby strengthening communities, in addition to reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. At first blush, a plot of land upon which neighbors get together and grow vegetables may not seem a revolutionary endeavor, but in fact, it is! Think of how countercultural this act is in light of the way most people obtain their food—purchasing foods that have traveled thousands of miles, grown in lands we have little connection to, by people we don’t know, who may or may not have been fairly compensated.

It’s important to recognize that not everyone has the time, money, or luxury to be so conscientious about the origins of their food. Particularly in the case of working class individuals and families, such concerns seem remote in the face of combatting hunger and food insecurity for oneself or their children. However, as a University student, I feel that I have a responsibility, in the wake of the privilege I have been afforded, to be thoughtful about where and how I consume. Another challenge to the work of food justice, and community development more broadly, is a lack of time. As University students are acutely aware, we operate under serious time constraints. Many people who would perhaps like to participate in one of the many community gardens Charlottesville has to offer, are simply unable to because of lack of time. I feel this challenge quite poignantly because in the garden, in my scholastic work, in the spheres of racial, economic, food, and housing justice—the work is never finished. I sympathize with the exasperation of the disciples commanded to feed five thousand men, “Well Jesus, that’s a really sweet sentiment but we only have a few loaves of bread and two fish!” (Matt 14:17, IZH translation). Seemingly, I do not have enough time or money or the social capital required to be impactful. At this point, I must reckon with my own insufficiency. My doing or being “enough” is not the point. Jesus is enough. Perhaps Jesus will multiple my time and efforts like the fishes and loaves, but even if he does not, I am intimately acquainted with the heart of God through pressing into these seemingly insurmountable issues. In fact, the reality of our individual limitations is an invitation into relationship with others. I recently attended the Christian Community Development Association annual conference and was struck by the following statement, “Kingdom sized vision requires Kingdom sized collaboration.” Rather than become exhausted and embittered by our finitude, might these limits instead remind us that we are members of a larger body, working together toward a Kingdom that is both now and not yet.

As we quickly move through the fall season and pull the last of the sweet potatoes out of their beds, my role at Bread & Roses has shifted, but the community has not. In fact, the garden crew has now entered into a book study together in which we read and discuss “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.” This book has yielded countless insights on what it means to live in community as well as what it means to monastically approach the daily grind. The author, Joan Chittister, writes, “The monastic looks for holiness in the here and now, unburdened by strange diets or esoteric devotions or damaging denials of self. The real monastic walks through life with a barefooted soul, alert, aware, grateful, and only partially at home” (10). Engaging with the practical wisdom of the Rule of St. Benedictine has been an invaluable resource for life as a resident within the Perkins House. As an eclectic Evangelical and a student of religion, I have really enjoyed exploring the Episcopal tradition, through Trinity Episcopal, and its unique expression of worship which is an integral piece of the body of Christ. As the winter season approaches, we turn toward grant writing, researching food policy, and the administrative tasks which make Bread & Roses possible.

Perhaps the greatest gift of my time at Bread & Roses, has been my relationship with Maria. Maria is the director of Bread & Roses, runs breakfast at the Haven a couple days a week, lives in Charis community, and shares my affinity for dark, caffeinated beverages. Her mentorship and friendship has been a tremendous blessing. Maria is a paragon of steadfastness and hopefulness, two virtues which are indispensable to the cause of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. My conversations with Maria remind me that it is Christ and not I who has been tasked with carrying the weight of humanity’s sin. Her very presence reminds me to be thankful and from here, I know more about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

For more information about the Perkins Fellows program, click here

Directionally Challenged | Horizons Fellow Ellie Wood '18

“Arrive at Christy’s house by 8pm” -- a simple direction, with a not so simple destination. As a Horizons Fellow, I have the unique opportunity to meet with the other Fellows every month to discuss theology, chat about life, and learn how to live a life for Jesus.  Christy, our fearless leader, has been gracious enough to open up her beautiful home out in the countryside for our monthly meetings. On this particular night, Margaret Draper (another Fellow) and I decided to carpool out to Christy’s house. Now, for those of you who don’t know me, you should know one thing: I am perpetually late.  I have always been and most likely always will be at least 10 minutes late to the party.  Following this pattern, Margaret and I were already running late to our Fellows meeting when we lost cell phone service and as a result lost our sense of direction.

Snaking down unknown, curvy roads, we quickly realized we had missed our turn. As we drove aimlessly, we discussed our post-grad plans and realized neither of us had any concrete ideas. We both had joined in on the typical UVa business consulting career frenzy but through our conversation, I realized I had no idea why I “wanted” to go into consulting. Within my major at the Batten School, everyone feels the unsaid pressure to have the best job in the best city while singlehandedly changing the world through policy. Somewhere along the way, consulting became the route to achieving all of this and more, so I wanted to get in on it.  I didn’t consider whether or not I would actually enjoy consulting nor did I even attempt to ask God about it. I was captivated by the world’s definition of success but deaf to the Lord’s voice in my life. God calls us to a much higher purpose than to simply “be the best.” In 2 Peter 1:3, Peter addresses this calling by saying, “his divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” The key to this verse for me is ‘our knowledge of him’—and I realized that night that through my pursuit of knowledge in my major and in my job search, I’d forgotten first and foremost to seek knowledge of the Lord.

Despite arriving 30 minutes late, Margaret and I eventually made it to Christy’s house, and everyone welcomed us in with cookies and laughter. Although we may have taken the longer route to get there, the conversation was well worth it. As a 4th year, life often feels like a journey with a not-so-simple destination. But, since that car ride, the Lord has gently reminded me that He is the one holding the directions.