By Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder, BVS unit #304

Hope should reach down into a person
and sing the desires of their heart.
It should inspire poets and painters
to strive for artwork where their pens tread.
Hope should inspire nations
to abandon nationalism and self-interest
for a better world for all.
Hope is not crazy or idealist
it is the yearning in our hearts
that tells us that magic and wonder are possible
that we are possible.
When we hope
we let others know that we exist
and believe so much even when it seems futile.
We hope, the daydreamers and wishers
that we might find a slice of Eden
hidden within our days.

Since April is National Poetry Month, we are featuring poems by volunteers. If you are a past or present BVS volunteer, share a poem by e-mailing it to bvs@brethren.org or adding it in the comments section!

Living our way into a new way of thinking

By Bryan Hanger

I’d like to talk a bit about what pushed me to join BVS, and how my journey before and during BVS has affected my understanding of God and what it means to be the Church in the world today. I had grown up at Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke with a loving family and church community. But something changed when I left for college at James Madison University. I became detached from the daily life of living with family at home and was removed from my community at Oak Grove. Much of the immediate stability that had defined my life was in an instant vanished.

My first two years of college became a time where what I started to study and believe were in open rebellion to my previous 18 years of existence. As I began to find meaning in new places and even question what I had believed about God and the church, my head felt divided. What I was learning, wasn’t adding up with how I’d thought and lived before college.

This was a confusing time for me because in one breath I’d be having conversations with folks where I’d be condemning the shortcomings of religion and the impossibility of many of the biblical stories, and in the next I’d catch myself yearning to understand the Lord’s precepts like the Psalmist in Psalm 119.

I started taking classes in religion where I filled my head with knowledge of how the Bible was formed, how Christian beliefs developed over the years, and how Christianity compared to the other religions of the world. I was fascinated by it all, but my actual life hadn’t changed a bit, let alone been transformed.

It wasn’t until my Senior year, that things radically came into focus for me. And it didn’t happen in one of my super academic classes or even at a church, but rather it occurred on a spring break trip where I headed to the mountains of Tennessee leading a group of 10 college students on a service trip through our university’s Alternative Break Program.

JMU work team

Our group from JMU with our hosts Ed and Arleen and their dog Blue

Throughout the week we worked and lived in the Cherokee community in the Smokey Mountains on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. We built steps, cleaned up creeks, looked after children, cared for seniors, and got to immerse ourselves in the Cherokee way of living.

Our trip, however, would not continue as planned because life got in the way, as it often does. For the second half of the week we had to totally shift gears due to tornadoes that had wreaked havoc through parts of southeastern Tennessee.

We traveled far back into the Smokey Mountains near Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to get to the affected area. Our group was chosen to go even farther back into the hollow of the mountain to help a man named Daniel who had been one of the worst hit.

It took quite a while to make it up the winding road’s switchbacks and when we reached Daniel’s steep declining driveway, we had to hold on for dear life as we bounced and bumped down the hill towards his property. We were all laughing and smiling as the ride down the driveway felt like a ride on a roller coaster, but once we reached the bottom of the drive, the van fell silent.

tornado devastation

What remained of Daniel’s home

The devastation was unspeakable. The land looked like a trash dump where local residents came to leave their garbage, but no, the truth was, that less than 24 hours ago Daniel and his family had been living happily in their home that now lay strewn across the earth.

We were all unsure of how to properly speak or help, as we felt inadequate in the face of such terrible tragedy. Daniel was an intimidating looking man. He was tall and had broad shoulders and had a long dark beard that reached to his waist. He walked with a cane and I later noticed this was because he had a rudimentary prosthetic foot. None of us moved or spoke for a minute, but our immobilization did not last as Daniel and some of his close friends approached and greeted us with handshakes and hugs.

Hidden underneath Daniel’s big beard was a bright big smile that quite frankly surprised us. Daniel couldn’t believe that a bunch of strangers from hours away cared enough to show up to his rural mountain home to help him pick up the pieces of his life. He wanted to know where we were all from, how we came to find ourselves in Tennessee, and he kept up this small talk throughout the day.

He told us about his children and about how he loved to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle through the mountain curves we had just driven through. And we actually uncovered one of his old Harley engines in the wreckage.

Cleaning up tornado destruction

Me (green shirt) working and talking with Daniel (black shirt).

I told him about growing up in Roanoke, my family back home and then about my college and what I was studying. It was as if we were making chit-chat before church or while we waited in line to buy a coffee. We even were lucky enough to share a meal with him and his friends out of the little food that we all had. You would’ve thought we were eating at a 5 star restaurant in downtown DC the way everybody gobbled it up and abundantly thanked us.

His upbeat attitude perplexed me. Calamities such as the events that Daniel and his family experienced were the exact sort of thing that had disturbed me when trying to reconcile my faith in a loving God with the chaotic world around me, but something was understood by Daniel and the others in Tennessee that had eluded me in my education.

I had spent so much time in the classroom and trapped in my own head trying to force myself to think a certain way or feel certain emotions in certain situations that I actually had missed the entire point of the Gospel. Many times when I was full of these questions and full of these doubts, I had thought how great it would be for me to have an opportunity to ask Jesus all of these questions that perplexed and confused me.

But now when I reflect on scripture, I think that Jesus would’ve gently rebuked me for being so blind to the purpose of his kingdom. When you read through Matthew 5, Jesus isn’t telling us how we’re supposed to change our mind or what we’re supposed to convince ourselves of. Instead, everything is all about how we are supposed to act as a people. As the body of Christ.

He isn’t condemning anybody for having the wrong political belief or incorrect opinion; instead he’s speaking to us on a much deeper level and not just as individuals, but as a community. When you read through Matthew 5 and hear things like, ‘give to everyone who begs from you’ or ‘pray for those who persecute you’, at an individual level we feel helpless to live up to this high standard. But that’s okay. We aren’t meant to follow Christ on our own.

As the Body of Christ, we are each intimately connected to each other, and with each doing its part we not only can do more than we could on our own, but we create a community that lives out and embodies Christ’s new transformative reality.

The great theologian Henri Nouwen once reflected that,

“You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking”.

And the way we live our way into this new kind of thinking is by being obedient to God’s instructions for our life and living out his word, TOGETHER.

Eugene Peterson in his Message translation of our text from Matthew puts Jesus’ words this way:

“Grow Up! You’re Kingdom subjects. Now live like it! Live out your God created identity. Live generously and graciously towards others, the way God lives toward you.”-Matthew 5:48 (Message)

This notion of ‘living my way into a new kind of thinking’ was exactly what I was doing, unbeknownst to myself, in the hills of Tennessee. What had at first looked to me as a space where God was obviously absent, because if he had been there he surely would’ve sheltered Daniel and his family from such devastation, turned into the very space where God most forcefully brought strangers together in love and service to one another.

As I have built upon this experience by joining and serving through Brethren Volunteer Service, this mantra of living into a new way of thinking has proved to be consistently true. My views on many things have shifted since moving to Washington and working for the church, but I am always surprised when I finally realize that my thinking has changed, many times without me noticing it right away.

You can’t will the reality of God into your life. You can’t force yourself to think and believe differently. You have to go out and live. You have to go out and serve and share with your brothers and sisters that you don’t yet know.  You just have to notice that God is already there, working in the spaces where it feels like he is most absent.  You just have to acknowledge that perhaps God is already doing a new thing and that he wants you. No, he wants us, regardless of how we all got to this place. He wants all of us to participate in and help bring about the glory of his peaceful Kingdom.

To start off the BVS blog, we are focusing on how volunteers have been called to BVS. Read more posts about call or find out more about BVS.

Life Through a Different Lens

By Jessie Houff

Jessie-Houff-graduationEver since I attended college, I knew that afterwards I would volunteer. I spent so much of my life thinking about “me” and what “I” would do. I was sick of this lifestyle that only focused on me. I knew I needed to do more to make others happy. What better way to do this than to volunteer? I didn’t have to look far for a way to do this because I grew up in the Church of the Brethren and have known about Brethren Volunteer Service (or BVS) for the majority of my life. I really grew interested in it by attending Bridgewater College and hearing about it from representatives and recruiters that I encountered at least twice a year from Roundtable (an annual conference for youth of which I was part of planning) and other random events. I applied for BVS over-achiever style in the early months of my final semester.  After waiting many months to finish up college, it was FINALLY time to attend BVS orientation!

Orientation took place in January at the beautiful Camp Ithiel of Gotha, Florida.  Besides being able to wear shorts and t-shirts in winter, I got to meet some amazing people.  Our group had 13 volunteers plus a few BVS staff members to facilitate the 3 week long orientation. BVS provides a wide variety of volunteer programs both domestically and worldwide. I went to Florida with every intention of going abroad to El Salvador to teach the arts to people young and old. If you ask anybody I know, they will say that I had no desire to stay in the states for my project. I wanted to “get out” and see the world. I didn’t think that I could gain a meaningful enough volunteering experience if I stayed in the states. When I got to orientation and reality sank in, I started to have a change of heart. Abroad projects require at least a two year commitment and a strong willingness to learn whatever language the country primarily spoke.  While I had no problem wanting to learn Spanish, it was still very intimidating. How am I supposed to spend two years in a place where I don’t know anybody, don’t know the language, and will be completely on my own?

Anyway, the thought of all this terrified me and after much contemplation, prayer, and maybe a few tears, I realized that if I was ever to go abroad to volunteer, now was simply not the time. After switching my thought process and exploring domestic options, I came across a program in Liberty, New York with an organization called Youth Economic Group (or YEG) which is a project under the larger organization of Rural and Migrant Ministry.  From El Salvador to New York…you can’t get much different than those two places, but what can I say? The Lord works in mysterious ways.  It didn’t take long for me to be convinced that this was the project for me. BVS and the leaders at YEG spoke and deliberated, and in a few short days I was deemed the new volunteer to be sent to New York for my year-long service! So after about a week at home to prepare and pack and a 24 hour journey to Liberty (that I do not particularly wish to experience again), I finally arrived to my project.

I was welcomed so warmly by my new supervisors and all the youth that I will be working with.  I have never felt more welcomed in my life. This is a completely new place, climate, and experience for me yet I feel as if I am truly supposed to be here. Now I can finally start this new journey of volunteering for a project that is doing some incredible things. I think this new chapter in my life looking through the lens of volunteering is going to be the most amazing experience of my life thus far.

To start off the BVS blog, we are focusing on how volunteers are called to BVS and their projects. Read more posts about call.

Pick up the phone – God is calling


By Andrew Kurtz

I’d like to share the story of how and why I found myself in Northern Ireland.

In the days before BVS orientation, I was an absolute wreck.  I had spent two months of the summer trying to figure out where I wanted to go for a placement.  My top three were in Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio.  Just enough change from what I was used to but not too much.  I didn’t want to take too big of a risk and find myself someplace that I didn’t feel reasonably comfortable…

And then I received a phone call from one of the BVS staff asking if I would be interested in going to Northern Ireland.  A spot had opened up at a placement in Belfast, and it was similar to the work that I had listed in my application.  I told her I would keep it in mind, but at that time, I honestly thought there’s no way I was going to volunteer abroad.  And that’s when it started.  A quick phone call turned into a passing thought and then a bit of research and finally full blown chaos in my head.  Before I knew it, I was fully considering going to N. Ireland as an option, and that was killing me because it didn’t fit the plan I had going into the year.

If you know me well, you’ll know just how huge that was for me.  There was too much risk.  Too much change.  Too much unknown.  I…I don’t like those things. At all. Seriously.  For me to even consider volunteering in another country is a testament to how much I had grown in the past year, and that growth came from two places.  First of all, it came from my girlfriend at the time. We had countless talks about the future and our goals for the coming years, and these talks often ended with me becoming upset because she didn’t really have a plan, something which I couldn’t really understand.  How can you go about life without planning out your next step?  She helped me realize (although I wasn’t aware of this realization until later) that taking a step of faith into the unknown can bring fantastic things.

The second piece of the puzzle was a two-word phrase: Let go. My family has a fairly new tradition at Christmas time of picking a word or two that you would like to work on for the coming year. For example, two years ago I chose the word initiative. For this year, my phrase was “Letting go.” Letting go of control.  Letting go of my plans.  Letting go and letting God.  I admit it. I have control issues, and that’s why I needed to make this my challenge for the year.

It all came down to my placement decision. Should I stay, or should I go? My head said stay, but a whisper was saying, “Go for it!”  I had reached my lowest point and was about to toss in the towel.  Instead, I finally handed the reins over to God, and that’s when He said, “It’s about time! Now see what I can do.” Within the next couple of days, at least four separate and unrelated situations that made me certain that God was calling me to go to N. Ireland.  The most notable sign was from a book. I found a book in the BVS library entitled Here I am: Now what on Earth should I be doing? by Quentin Schultze. This was exactly my thought at the time. So I started reading, and on the very first page, it said we are called to be care-takers, not career-seekers. The relevance of this was perfectly clear to me. I had been trying to find a project that would provide me with experience that matched my career goals – career-seeking. The Quaker Cottage position was a child care worker – care-taker. Thanks for the clear advice, God! It’s funny to me now because I went through so much mental turmoil over that decision.

Now I’m sitting in a house on the side of a mountain on a rainy night in west Belfast.  I took a risk and completely left my comfort zone.  I let go of my own plans and chose to trust God.  I don’t know why I’m here or what my purpose is except that God wanted me here, but whatever the reason is, it’s okay with me. Good things are in motion.