Thursday, July 09, 2009

Day 33 - Philadelphia

Our dinner with the Philadelphia director of Mission Year tonight was a really powerful experience—powerfully encouraging as well as challenging. As Kaz started to explain the goals and purpose of Mission Year in her sweet New Zealand accent, I was swept back to another time and another place.

Their tagline is, “Loving God, Loving People, Nothing Else Matters.” An integral part of the program is living a simple life; participants are on a fixed budget—rent is covered and they are given $17/week food stipend. Participants do not have a television, use public transportation and their feet to get around, and agree to not use their phones, iPods, computers, etc. for at least the first six weeks.

My first impression of Philadelphia was not very good. It was dirty compared to New York City and Boston, and, although slower-paced, the people didn’t seem any friendlier as we trekked from the train station to Independence Square. But later this afternoon, at the Reading Terminal Market, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Michael Anthony, Operations Manager of the Market since 1999. After just 15 minutes in his office, I felt like I had known Mr. Anthony for years; he’s a big, lighthearted, black man with a very sunny disposition. Just one of the friendliest and most easy going people I’ve met on this trip—instead of getting annoyed or frustrated (as many do) when we ask challenging questions, Mr. Anthony was intrigued and determined to get us a quality answer. Emily asked why Philly is called the “City of Brotherly Love.” Having lived in Philly all his life, Mr. Anthony said he was embarrassed that he didn’t know, and proceeded to call a friend to find out. (Apparently it comes from the Greek philo (love) and delphi (city).)

I thought it interesting how one 15-minute conversation completely changed my outlook on the entire city. It went from cold and impersonal to friendly and vibrant after one personable interaction. Literally from the moment I walked out of Mr. Anthony’s office, the city looked sunnier, cleaner, and much more inviting. I found Philly’s City Hall to be among the most beautiful architecture in the United States and the fountain in Love Park to be playful and endearing. All because of my new sense of connectedness to the city.

This transition from tight-knit rural communities to isolated urban living is something that sociologists have taken note of and continue to explore. But it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook, and quite another to experience it in the third dimension.

And thus you can understand the importance of Mission Year’s mission to get young people involved in their communities, building authentic relationships with their neighbours. Teams of 5 or 6 are assigned to a neighbourhood where they work together for half the day with an organization that the Mission Year city director has identified as being a legitimate and stable presence in the community. For example, Amy and her team work at a private Christian school, providing an after-school program that keeps kids out of drugs and prostitution. During the other half of the day, team members volunteer with an organization of their choice, and on Sundays they are active in a neighbourhood church. Friday is their “Sabbath”—free day, and Saturday is to be spent in the community—working in a community garden, playing with kids in the park, tutoring, having neighbours over for dinner, etc. The overarching emphasis is consistently on caring for the people around you and using your connections to connect neighbours who don’t know each other—neighbours who will be there long after your Mission Year is over. Mission Year participants are purposefully relocated to a city they’ve never been to when they start the program, forcing them to start from scratch.

The discussion tonight was deeply meaningful to me because the circumstances closely resembled my year abroad, and the goals of Mission Year are very similar to the personal goals I had for myself. Witnessing the genuine joy and contentedness of Kaz, Amy, and Joe—our Mission Year correspondents—spoke volumes about their devotion to serving others and the personal growth and happiness that results. An important part of their message was the idea of devoting a year to lead this sort of “counter-popular culture” lifestyle—focused on selflessness and service--during which you will inevitably learn a lot about your own identity and values, and then decide which ones you're going to hold on to and take with you through life.

In all the moving around I’ve done since that year and throughout my inherently uncertain and ever-changing lifestyle I’ve lost sight of some of the things (like community) that had become part of my core values. So the discussion tonight really challenged me—in a great way—to reclaim those values by implementing them daily as I go back to spend another solid year in Nashville. There is still so much that I’m processing from all the great experiences I’ve been blessed with—this trip has definitely provided some food for thought in addition to the other voyages I’m still sorting out. I’m so thankful for all of this and really looking forward to see what comes of my re-devotion to service and community next year.

I already made the commitment last spring to take on a lot this next year—I’m going to be an RA in a freshman dorm, a Belmont Bruin Recruiter, and be working with the Entrepreneurship Club, International Business Society, involved with welcoming and hosting incoming exchange students, and writing for the student newspaper I helped start in ‘07 (The Right Aisle Review). I know that all of this on top of 17 credit hours is going to be busy, but I’m really excited to just jump in and go for it!

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