Brethren Volunteer Service Luncheon
Church of the Brethren Annual Conference
St. Louis, July 2012
“Making Messes and Ruining Lives”
So maybe it would be good to tell you a little bit about who I am and how I’m connected with Brethren Volunteer Service. I joined BVS in the fall of 2007 – unit #277. Our orientation was one of the largest in recent memory, and we were hosted here in this state: in Peace Valley, MO – by the lovely Brethren there. We also spent a week in Kansas City. My project was with the Church of the Brethren Office of Ministry, so I worked in the General Offices in Elgin and lived in the BVS House there until June of 2009. After my year (plus) as a volunteer, Dan and BVS asked me consider working on the BVS team as a program volunteer to start working on creating some partnerships with CoB congregations to create BVS intentional community houses, as well as sharing some programming on vocation and call with volunteers during each orientation and retreat. So I got the pleasure of being on the BVS team until September of last year – which is, let me tell you, an unparalleled experience!
I work, now, as the Minister for Youth Formation at the Manassas CoB in Virginia, but luckily, I still get to hang out with volunteers regularly, coming to orientations and retreats to talk about call, discernment, and vocation.
And during all that time, Dan and Callie have gotten regular cynical earfuls from me about…well, about all kinds of things, really. But I HOPE it was the earfuls about why BVS is awesome that got them to invite me to share with y’all today. We’ll just go ahead and assume that’s true, but if it turns out that you were really hoping for a rant about anti-institutionalism or how the $100/month stipend is too much or the need for a BVS revolution or why BLUE is the best working style, Dan, just let me know. I’m sure we can manage a reprise of any one of those.
What I’m trying to do – and what I have been and anticipate will continue trying to do – is to pinpoint just exactly what it is that makes BVS awesome. We all already know that BVS IS awesome – but WHY? I’m not sure these thoughts I’m sharing with you today are altogether coherent, but that’s because they’re still in process. Like BVS, this project is pretty challenging and requiring a good deal of patience, flexibility, and willingness to attempt BEING instead of DOING.
So, we’re talking about making messes and ruining lives today. The phrase “ruined for life” is thrown around a lot in long-term volunteer circles. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps says that the phrase comes from their founder, Jack Morris, but it’s been adopted by the growing movement of long-term Christian volunteers as an apt description of what happens during a time of service. It’s sort of counter-intuitive, I guess, since it is also true that spending a year or more working for peace and justice, living in community, and working for little to nothing actually enrich and transform, opening us up to the beauty and possibility in the world like nothing else.
But I remember a conversation I had with a former volunteer a while ago. Heather had already served two years over in Northern Ireland, and she was deciding between returning to her already-established teaching career and re-joining BVS to serve another year in our community house in Portland, Oregon. A return to teaching seemed like the most rational, logical choice, but she wasn’t sure anymore that this is what she should really be doing. We talked for a while about choices and intentionality, and then she confessed, “You know, Dana, decisions were NEVER this hard before I did BVS! It was always just, this is what I’m going to do, and then I’d go and do it. Now there are all these questions and doubts and other things to take into consideration.”
And this is the common experience of countless volunteers, I think, through the six and a half decades that BVS has been around. I think that ruination happens because things like BVS open up possibilities. Once you know what’s possible – how little money can sustain you, how life-giving community living can be, how a small individual effort can in fact make a difference in the world – it’s hard to go back to what you thought you knew, or what you thought life should be like. Old plans just don’t seem to fit, anymore. All of a sudden, you have to take into account this glimpse you’ve gotten of life lived another way, and it throws things into tangled messes that you’re left to unravel.
But it’s the unraveling that’s fun, isn’t it?
Soon after I started my project in Elgin, another volunteer from my unit sent out pictures that she’d taken during orientation. This was the one she sent me:
Our unit was in the fall, and fell over World Communion Sunday, one of the traditional times that the Church of the Brethren holds Love Feast. We joined a group of churches who celebrated together in the basement of the First Central CoB in Kansas City. It was a love feast like I learned love feast: in the dark, cool, church basement fellowship hall, quiet, solemn, small, and full of older people. The infusion of 35 volunteers nearly doubled their gathering in size, and certainly spiced up the table conversation.
I was seated in between two older women wearing dresses, stockings, and prayer coverings. They must have both been over 80, and they were delighted to have all of us there, even if we made something of a mess of their carefully planned and plotted tradition, their sacred ritual.
I love love feast. I LOVE it. The core ritual of our particular expression of Christianity is chock full of meaning, symbolism, history, and faith. In the love feast, we practice inside the church those postures that we commit to take outside of it: building community by eating full meals together, covenanting with one another through communion, and kneeling down, touching someone else’s dirty feet, and offering ourselves in service. It’s weird, just like Jesus was. And it’s distinctive. Not a whole lot of other people wash feet. Love Feast is different, and it is OURS.
So my friend Melani sent me this photo, and I loved it. I still do love it. I framed it and put it on my desk, because it reminded me what I was doing as I served in the church. There I was, washing the feet of an old, wrinkled woman who, I could tell, was a little bit cranky and forgetful but full of stories and wisdom and love. Isn’t the church like that? Old, wrinkled, cranky, forgetful but full of the stories we need to hear and the wisdom and love to move us forward.
Anyway, I loved the photo. As I sat in the office in Elgin, it reminded me that no matter how fed up I got with the church (and I got fed up a LOT), kneeling and washing and serving it was what I had signed up for. That is what BVS is about.
Or, is it?
I still love that picture, but I have a very different take on the meaning of the Love Feast…and I think that shift has come from listening to dozens of BVSers tell their stories.
BVS stories are GOOD stories. I sort of wish that we could just have an open microphone for an hour today, so that we could tell and hear stories. When a group from my own orientation got together just after we finished our service, the night included stories ranging from graveyard proposals to lonely midnight sojourns through Eastern Europe, to nude male calendar models. Good, good stories.
I don’t have stories to tell about nude calendar models or graveyard proposals today, but I do have some stories about BVS transforming people’s lives – stories about service, footwashing, the church and the Spirit.
M.C. Rothhorn followed his fiancée to Germany when she joined BVS in the late ‘90s. He wasn’t a volunteer, then, but did his own volunteering while Tamiko served in Hamburg. But M.C. got to witness Tamiko’s BVS community, the support she got and the foundation she had for serving, and he felt left out. He didn’t get to go to retreat, he didn’t get to talk with Kristin about his struggles, and he didn’t get to wash feet. That last one was the kicker. When he tells his story, MC says that it was the footwashing that finally made him join BVS alongside Tamiko for another year of service, in Mostar. “I wanted that,” he says with a big open smile of awe on his face, “I wanted to wash feet!”
Lauree Hersch Meyer, who served in Europe in the 1950s, grew up on a good Brethren farm in Virginia. She knew the church, and she knew what it meant to be Brethren and to wash feet. But during BVS, she says, she learned “for the first time that something else mattered besides the church.” It wasn’t BVS itself that did it, though, Lauree says – but the act of BVS sending her away, sending her to serve in Europe.
What’s all this about? Non-Brethren outsiders joining in BECAUSE of this weird, intimidating Brethren practice of footwashing? BVS teaching people that things OTHER than the church are important?
When it comes down to it, maybe BVS isn’t just ruining lives…maybe it’s ruining the church, too.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Everybody knows that the Church is in crisis. It’s not just the Church of the Brethren, though obviously that’s the closest to us. Big, institutional ecclesial structures have been and continue suffering to keep up with changed economies and changed cultures. The Presbyterians and the Episcopals held their denominational meetings last week, and if you followed either of them in the news or on Twitter, you saw a lot of the same things happening there that are happening here.
We are all of us probably in need of a little ruination.
Luckily, BVS (and others like it) have been in the business of ruination for a long time. People have spent time trying to figure out how it works – how exactly do you go about making messes and ruining people’s lives this way?
Dan and Callie will tell you that the answer to that question is elusive - it isn’t really in any kind of particular formula. There’s not an instruction list for creating an organization of ruination. It’s more intuitive than that, more flexible, play-it-by-ear, more open to the Holy Spirit’s movement. I asked both of them why they think BVS ends up being such a powerful experience for people, why it engenders such loyalty and transforms so deeply. They were both at a loss – it’s nothing WE do, they both said.
That is certainly NOT to say that the BVS staff does nothing. They are some of the hardest working people I know…but that hard work is always, always combined with joy and humor and flexibility. There’s always room for innovation, surprise, and the Spirit’s movement. And, honestly, those are the things that the Church could use right about now.
So, just a few observations, places where I see BVS moving over and making room for God’s Spirit to be at work, practices of ruination that are transforming both peoples’ lives and the church’s structures:
1. BVS is about real, immediate, on the ground service. Jim Stokes-Buckles, who served in the early 2000s, says that his time in BVS right out of high school was and remains “the only intensive and sustained training in how to live as a Christian.” Jim grew up in the church, even spent time in seminary, and now works as a social worker in New York City. But his time in BVS made the Christian life realer than any of that.
If you’ve visited orientation, you won’t find a lot of theologizing or philosophizing. You’ll find people cooking, shopping and eating together, singing and praying and worshipping, and serving. There are sessions about why and how we do the things we do, of course, but the point of orientation is DOING it, together. When my orientation group spent thirty minutes discussing HOW to get through a particular element on a low ropes group course, the instructor (who was used to leading groups of teenage legal offenders) yelled at us: “YOU ALL HAVE PARALYSIS BY ANALYSIS!”
BVS doesn’t deal in that. It’s about serving human need. I usually think about it in my own life this way: Going to seminary taught me how to think about living a life shaped by Jesus. BVS taught me how to begin to DO those things, with humility and joy (two things I am always in dire need of).
2. BVS is open to ANYONE who feels called to serve. In the few years I’ve been around, we’ve had
a. volunteers who are young, old, very rich, slightly poor, white, black, Asian, Latino, men, women and some in between,
b. volunteers who are Brethren, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, and atheist,
c. volunteers who are vegetarians, vegans, meat-eaters, gluten-free and dairy-free,
d. volunteers who are very conservative, very liberal, perfectly moderate, mentally ill,
e. volunteers who are humble, conceited, American, German, Dutch, Irish, English,
f. volunteers who are blind, sighted, spiritually intense and spiritually disinterested,
g. volunteers running away from something and volunteers running toward something,
h. volunteers who are straight, gay, bisexual, married, and divorced,
i. volunteers who are orphaned, volunteers who are parents, and volunteers who BECOME parents because of BVS.
BVS is open to ANYONE. Dan McFadden, in particular makes sure this is true. Once, when the team was discussing the ability of the program to offer sufficient support to someone with various mental health issues, Dan said, quite clearly: “If they’re feeling the call to serve, who are WE to tell them no?” Who are we, indeed.
3. BVS is agile. It has somehow been able to maintain its soul and shape while innovating, being creative and welcoming experimental projects. Greg Jones, from Duke University (and next year’s speaker at the pre-conference Ministers’ Association event) calls that “traditioned innovation.” He says that for institutions to be vibrant, they need to find a balance between valuing tradition and allowing for creative innovation and improvisation. It’s like a jazz number – the musicians know the score so well that they’re able to improvise on it, make something new but familiar, with integrity AND surprising elements.
I think BVS does this. If you looked at a BVS orientation sixty years ago, it would look very similar to what happens now. If you asked about placement process or core values or purposes, those would all look and sound very familiar to the original ideas that started BVS. And it’s not just the ideas – it’s the practices, too. The good stuff stays the same.
But at the same time, there is enormous room for improvisation. When Jim Lehman approached Dan about trying out some new intentional community houses, Dan said SURE! And so, we tried it, and, lo and behold, for the most part, IT WORKED. Still very much BVS, but something different – new and old together. BVS somehow maintains this functional balance between respect for founding principles and decades of tradition with a real, genuine openness and excitement about innovation, improvisation, and newness.
And this quality enables BVS to be incredibly agile as an institution. Staff changes, budget changes, volunteer crisis and structural drama certainly impact staff and the day-to-day reality, but they do NOT change the soul of BVS. Things keep happening, in the same trustworthy ways.
4. BVS makes room for the mystical. Callie spends a lot of her time at orientation – three times a year, three weeks each. Throw in various retreats and such and she’s away from home at least 3 months of every year. It’s a lot of work. But she describes those gatherings of volunteers as “thin places.” Do you know that term? It’s a phrase from celtic spirituality that describes a place where the boundary between earth and heaven is particularly thin and permeable. Eric Weiner wrote an article in the New York Times about thin places a couple of months ago, and he describes them this way:
“They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.
Travel to thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a “spiritual breakthrough,” whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world, and therein lies the transformative magic…”
Disorienting and jolting: definitely a good description of three weeks eating on $2/day, packing for a weekend in a grocery bag, sharing every waking moment with dozens of other people, and giving up a load of the personal freedoms our indoctrinated individuality instills in us as inalienable.
I’d add to that description of “thin place” that our grips are also loosened – we learn to let go, just a little, of those things we hold as sacred. And in our loosened grip, we find much more room in opened hands to allow for and be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, within and among us.
My friend, Anna Ruth Hershberger is an alumnae of Mennonite Voluntary Service, and she’s been working with MVS, BVS, and other volunteer programs like them. She was trying to figure out some of these same questions about how to create an atmosphere of openness and faithfulness by looking at the volunteer programs as agents of change. She wrote some of her conclusions in a blog post, and she said it this way:
“I still don't know whether the attitudes and foci create a space for the Holy Spirit to move, or if the Spirit moves first and creates an open space and attitude. What I do know is that something about [this] work offers a small glimpse of freedom. Perhaps this glimpse is just enough to begin the work towards unbolting the door, sliding back the latch and disarming the alarm.”
And Anna Ruth’s reflections reminded me of Craig Dykstra, a theologian who writes about Christian practices and gives away a lot of money through the Lilly Foundation to enable people to keep practicing them. Dykstra says,
"Christian practices are not activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives. Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God. Rather, they are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, these are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God.”
And THAT is the theological underpinning of BVS, I think – it is a form of participation in the practice of God. It moves over to make room and create openings where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. THAT is why BVS is awesome, and THAT is why it ruins so many lives – we are no longer in control of what’s going to happen and how, but surrendering ourselves to the expansive, surprising, beautiful work of God at work always and everywhere. And that’s also why ruination isn’t so bad.
Every BVS orientation these days ends with a commissioning service, which includes footwashing, which, I am now convinced, is not just OUR practice but a participation in the practice of God. BVS is like footwashing – not really a Brethren thing or a church thing, but an expression of God’s presence here with us, a thin place that transforms us and ruins us for returning to regular life. At commissioning, BVSers wash one another’s feet, and send one another out to wash the feet of all those they are about to serve. BVS, like footwashing, doesn’t belong only in a dark, old church basement. It belongs out in the world, where it has been all along, making space and creating invitations for God to move into the neighborhood.
And so, because of BVSers and their stories, this is how I think of footwashing, now:
And so, because of BVSers and their stories, this is how I think of footwashing, now: