Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Welfare State, Reagonomics, and Lady Voldemort

Any economic policy can be brilliant in theory, but in practical application to modern society, human shortcomings make any political theory imperfect.

The Welfare State is brilliant in theory. It establishes a great safety net for the citizens of a nation. Offering up her first hand experience, JK Rowling discusses the UK’s Welfare State in an article she penned back in April.: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article7096786.ece.

During my time in Belfast and Scotland, I have seen a wee bit into the complications that arise within a welfare state. First, is that if the safety net is set too high, then there is no incentive to actually maintain a job and stay off of benefits. (This problem is not just limited to the UK; it is very much present in American with welfare programs.) Secondly, when the government becomes the main employer in a region or even nation, the top down bureaucracy can be cumbersome, and when a major budget crunch arises, society is at risk of toppling under its own weight. It’s been interesting to follow the threats of budget cuts while in Northern Ireland – with the current amount of budget cuts totaling 128 million pounds, for a nation of about 1.75 million, that is a HUGE slash to their budget and equals many job cuts. (In U.S. terms, that might be comparable to a budget cut of 30 billion dollars, as the U.S. population resides at 300 million peoples. That’s a lot of government spending slashed right there.)

Another controversial part of the Welfare State is socialized medicine. In speaking with many people though, public health care is beautiful. Doug and Elaine testified that when one of their children was born with many health problems and needed several expensive surgeries, they never once had to stop to consider how they would pay for it. They didn’t have to fight with insurance companies; they didn’t have to hassle with mountains of paperwork. They just signed the consent for the procedure, and the surgery was done.

I have grown up with socialized medicine, courtesy of being a military dependent. There are drawbacks – I have probably never seen the same doctor more than once, sometimes your treatment is not the best. But it was awesome to be able to receive treatments and medication for free or at very low out of pocket expense. Thank you to all of the American tax payers for helping to cover treatment for all of my childhood ailments.

The general drawbacks of the welfare state are more than evident: the rampant possibility for abuse or misuse of the system, high taxes (sidenote: having sales tax already included in the price of an item makes shopping soooo much easier), and the bureaucracy it creates can often be a hassle.

But, in the U.S. where the government lacks transparency and already spends humongous chunks of money on war and to bail out banks, why not have a state that at least tries to take care of its citizens? If I am going to pay high taxes, please, let the money be channeled back in ways that benefit me – whether through public parks, national highways, public transportation, public schools, public libraries, and *gasp* public health care.

For those who shudder at the thought of big government, let me say: Ronald Reagans of America, I hear your cry. But I’m just going to put it out there: I’d pick any day the failings of the welfare state over the failings of Trickle Down Economics. On paper, Trickle-Down theory sounds brilliant. Lack of government involvement in the market allows for free trade, and as the rich get richer, the poor will also share in the wealth as it trickles down.

But humanity doesn't work that way.

In the U.S., the rich continue to get richer, and the gap between poor and rich Americans does not decrease or even remain the same. It grows. Released a few days ago, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the gap between rich and poor Americans is the largest since 1967 as the average household’s income fell about 4 percent between 2007 and 2010. The money given to the banks and auto industry has not trickled down.

Like in the Welfare State, the problems with Trickle-Down theory in practice is humanity’s shortcomings. When times are tough, we strive to look out for ourselves. So as companies receive these huge sums of money, the people in charge of the money – those at the top of the food chain – are going to look after themselves while looking after the company. So the countless stories of executives who were let go during the 2007/2008/and ongoing crisis, are understandably often released with generous severance packages. But what about the employees down the foodchain? The working masses are given the pink slip and kindly escorted out of the building. Maybe they receive some severance bonus to carry them through the next few months, but what next?

The problem with Trickle-Down is it’s focus on the macro side of economics without consideration for the people. I would take the failings of the Welfare state: back in the 1950s when the welfare system was fully implemented in Great Britain, it nearly bankrupted the state as people rushed to get free healthcare that had not been affordable before. But the government survived, and the people’s lives improved. (Ok, maybe British people don’t have shiny pearls like Americans, but I would suggest that it’s more from different society norms rather than any shortcomings of dentistry.) Over the failings of Trickle-Down: tax cuts to benefit the rich are flat out not going to benefit the poor; instead the government faces huge loss in revenue and the rich sit on their money, watching it grow. The rich are the only ones who win. Congrats for anyone reading this who has a Trust Fund.

And finally, Lady Voldemort.

My history advisor/ professor who I took two classes with came of age in England during the reign of Lady Thatcher. In the second class I took with him, he finally explained why exactly he referred to Thatcher as She Who Shall Not Be Named. The basic summary that I can remember is: the professor’s dad and brothers all worked in the coal mines. During the coal miners’ strikes in protest of her shutting down some of the mines, Thatcher had no mercy. She branded them as enemies to the state as they were interrupting progress during a time of war (in the Falklands), and violence was rampant among the picket lines.

[Kudos to Thatcher for being the first female MP, but negative points for being so blind to the needs of the people.]

Lady Voldemort made many cuts during her time in power. However, she could not dissolve the NHS. Her intended privatization plans were never implanted due to public outcry against it.

What it comes down to is the question: is the government supposed to help people? I would say yes. While it is nice to think that private organizations, churches, and local communities would be able to take care of themselves, today’s modern world is not conducive to that. (Few people remain in the communities where they grew up; American suburbs are built so we don't have to interact with our neighbors.) We need government policies to establish a basic standard of living that ensures everyone has access to the basics – food, shelter, and health care. While concerns about Big Brother are sometimes valid, Obama is not Hitler. Do not even compare the two. Obama does not proclaim a master race and seek to take over the world. Bush proclaimed a master religion and tried to do that in the Middle East. Hasn’t worked out so well. Obama just needs to stop being a politician and follow through on his campaign promises. There is hope. Hope for a better future. But until parts of American society are addressed, those hopes will be futile for future generations. (See previous post on immigration.)

In viewing the UK with American eyes and viewing the U.S. from across the pond, there are many things of value within each society. My hope is that more Americans will travel, both around the nation and out into the world. To expand our perspective of the world, break others’ biased stereotypes of Americans, and through the exchange, work towards a better tomorrow. The world is getting smaller; when one nation’s economy crashes, the rest of the world feels the effects.

The UN Millenium Development Goals were supposed to have been reached by 2015. See here: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/. Or even better, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Development_Goals

It’s time for governments to stop spending money on war, but rather peace. To build a future rather than destroy what exists. Spend money on your citizens, bettering their lives, and on citizens of other nations, to provide the basic needs of living rather than guns or bombs. We are all God’s children.

Even as we stand reviewing our shortcomings, God gives us hope.

In grace and peace.

Monday, September 27, 2010

YAV thoughts

I am a registered temporary migrant worker in the United Kingdom. During my summer last year in Scotland and also so far during my time here, I have often reflected on how complicated national identities are - British/Scottish/English/ Welsh/ Northern Irish/Irish. These labels serve to unite some while excluding others. The idea of being American is just as intangible - when it comes down to it, except for Native Americans (and if you take into account the Land Bridge Theory, they were once immigrants many, many years ago), our ancestors were all people coming to America to seek a better life (well most, maybe not Colbert's ancestor).
This is all relevant to today's age as U.S. immigration policies are explored, challenged, and hopefully remedied. Here are just two thoughts that I have come across during the past few days that I really wanted to share:

First, Steven Colbert's thoughts:

Second, Stevie (a YAV in Tucson, AZ) posted a very enlightening post this past Saturday. The best part of the YAV program is that we learn, then share, and through sharing help others learn. A year of service for a lifetime of change. Hope you enjoy:

In peace and in grace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harland & Wolff

To begin this post, here is the view outside the third floor office at EBM which I am based out of.

So much of what I would describe as Belfast's identity is captured in this photograph: Belfast is a post-industrial, struggling, but also growing society. All vast topics, but here we go.
Post-industrial:
The two cranes here, Samson and Goliath, are owned by Harland & Wolff and are a significant feature of Belfast's skyline. Read more on the cranes here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_and_Goliath_(cranes)
Besides once boasting a variety of industries (soap making, ropeworks, mills, etc.), East Belfast boasted - and continues to boast - the headquarters of Harland & Wolff (makers of the Titanic, Olympic, and Britannic). Before cuts began during the 1980s & 1990s, H&W employed 35,000+ people. Today, fewer than 500 people are employed through the company, and H&W specializes in basic ship repairs and various industrial endeavors rather than ship building.
No major service industry has moved in to replace H&W as a major employer.
For the people of East Belfast, where once had been a guaranteer of work, there remains a vast dry dock and two giant cranes not in regular use. These changes have come about over the time of a few generations, and thanks to the welfare state, there is a safety net. However, most people are employed in service economy areas (particularly education, social work, and other gov't funded jobs).
Struggling:
The homes located between EBM and the cranes... To Americans, they may seem to be cute, urban, British flats. In actuality, many of the housing developments in Belfast (called estates) have been funded by the government over the past half century. In American terms, they would be the "projects," but again, safety net of the welfare state comes into play - estates are not like the projects. While efforts have been made to privatize the housing (you can tell a privately owned house by the various flourishes added to the exterior), estates are still primarily government owned. Over the past couple decades, many estates have been raised and rebuilt - much to the grumblings of the residents as they are displaced, but very much an improvement for some of the estates. (Newer estates tend to have small patio spaces in the front where there was once none and do include indoor plumbing - even up until a couple decades ago, some of the older estates lacked an indoor toilet.)
I'll save further comments on estate housing and the welfare state for a later date.
Growing:
Construction cranes are a common site in Belfast. Before the global economic period of doom in 2007/2008, construction projects were flourishing around Belfast. (With the peace accords of 1998 coming to fruition throughout the 2000s, investments in Belfast rapidly increased.) There are still signs of the economic crash - construction sites sitting unfinished, but there are also signs of recovery - on my way to work, I pass several construction sites in progress.


A few updates from this past week:
- I am in charge of the "Healthy Food for All" program for this next month - for residents of the homeless shelter run by EBM and ex-residents living independently, they get a healthy meal twice a week from EBM's cafe. I will be in charge of the paperwork, confirming numbers, and helping to deliver on Monday afternoons while the usual coordinator is on holiday through the next month. Woohoo!
- We had 67 kids (ages 4 to 13) at our Friday night youth club. Wowzers. It was mad but also awesome.
- The kids that I work with during the work are warming up to me. How do I know? They have begun to let me know that I talk funny - whether because of my pronunciations or word choice. (Bun = cupcake, skipping = jump rope, and pitcher = jug.)
- As a last minute substitute, I have been asked to play piano with the praise group for worship tomorrow. Yay!

There are a million other little reasons as to why this past week went really well. Most of them involve getting to know the people of all ages at EBM better.
I went to an EBM evening discussion of the history of Ballymacarrett (the section of town where EBM is situated). They had a panel to lead discussions - a MP for this area (she grew up here as well), two historians - one catholic, one protestant, and two other random guests. After hearing a bit from them, they then opened the floor for questions and further discussions.
Apparently it was one of the less controversial sessions as they have had discussions in the past on politics. It was enlightening: this community is struggling with how to remember its history - particularly its history pre-1969. And also struggling to come to terms with the future - budget cuts will hit Norn Iron hard. (In one of the sections of East Belfast, the school, library, and hospital on one street have already been closed.)
Altogether a really interesting week. Hopefully your appetite has been whetted for more knowledge of Belfast's economy, history, and culture; stay tuned for more in later posts. :)
In peace and in grace.

More pictures!

Pictures from the hike up Slieve Donard. My apologies that they are not in chronological order.

Picture 1: After 2.5 hours of stair master level 5 climbing.
At the top of Slieve Donard! On a clear day, the view is supposed to be amazing. We could see about 20 feet in front of us... And the picture does not quite capture the extreme cold, wetness, and harsh wind that were quite present at the top. :)
Picture 2: About 1 hour 45 minutes into the hike.
Before the final ascent to the summit, we took a break at the Mourne wall. (This wall runs throughout the Mournes - 7 peaks in all.) This is the view over the wall.
The wall would prove to be a good friend as I climbed - both serving as a wind breaker and as a hand rail through some of the steep, rocky stretches. Better picture of the wall below.

Picture 3: About 1 hour into the hike. Gorgeous scenery surrounds us.


Picture 4: 1 hour 45 minutes into the hike. Good perspective of the Mourne Wall. Taking a snack break before the last stretch. Note that you can't see to the top of the mountain courtesy of the clouds. Brrrrr.

Picture 5: Luckily the members of Dundonald Methodist Church (who we climbed with) came prepared and were ready to lend us hefty waterproof gear. We would need it!


Picture 6: About 1 hour 30 minutes in. Clouds moving across the Mournes.

Picture 7: About 1 hour 30 minutes into the hike. Looking back over the Irish Sea. Traversing across the rocky ground.

Picture 8 : About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the hike... We are descending the mountain now. The rocks were surprisingly not too slippery but still treacherous nonetheless. Note the limited visibility.

Picture 9: Sup sheep. Happy cows come from California. Happy sheep come from Northern Ireland?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How are you settling in?

That has been the most common question that I have received this past week... And I have not been entirely sure how to answer it.
Part of me says, heck yes! And the other part of me still feels like a visitor to a foreign country.

This past week is rather a blur right now, but with another week just around the corner, I feel ready.
Quick update of the past few days:
Thursday afternoon, I helped out with the youth director for EBM with a Scripture Union at a local primary school.
First off, let me explain that schools here, while public, are nonetheless affiliated with Protestantism/ Catholicism. It's (relatively) no big deal for God to be discussed in schools, albeit often with the emphasis of "it's ok if you don't believe in God."
Anyway, we had 27 kids from a p6 class (equivalent to American 5th grade). And it was a bit nuts. The four of us adults in the room provided basic crowd control for the hour - from stopping kids from pig-piling on top of one another to stopping kids from beating each other up. It was rather chaotic. We introduced the bible story of the day (the New Testament story of the friends lowering their sick friend through a roof to see Jesus) through a dvd. And amazingly enough, the kids were silent for the three minutes of the film. Pretty cool.
I had most of the day off on on Friday, so I took the time to purchase a new pair of shoes (nicer-looking black dress shoes that can stand up to the test of walking the 2+ miles roundtrip to EBM), got some quality hang-out time with another flatmate, and mentally prepared myself for Friday Fusion (youth club) that night.
We had been told to expect 20-40 kids... There are 52 kids there between the ages of 4 and 12. Luckily we had about 15 adult volunteers to oversee everyone. We split them into an older bunch and a younger bunch and from there they alternated playing games and having snacks/ discussion time of what they would like to do this year.
It was an awesome time; it's a great group of kids. Best moment was as I was walking home, some of the younger kids who were being driven home by their parents waved to me from their car and yelled good night. Cool that they recognized me!
I then took a cab into City Centre to catch up with some other YAVs and attend a Johnny Flynn concert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Flynn) which was happening at a local pub. It was the most silent concert I have ever been too... If you were to say something in a normal speaking voice, 20 people would turn around and glare. It was rather bizarre. We couldn't figure out if this is a Norn Iron culture-thing, but I'm wanting to go to another concert now and see if it's the same.
After the concert, we headed home pretty early because on Saturday, we hiked Slieve Donard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slieve_Donard) with one of the other YAV's churches.
It was pretty epic.
Luckily, one of the church members is also a boyscout leader, so he had a large supply of tough waterproof jackets and pants. We probably would not have survived the hike otherwise.
It was a 2.5 hour climb to the top. All uphill. The first 30 minutes was basic hiking uphill through the woods. Then the next 45 minutes was hiking uphill through the valley. The next 30 minutes was climbing steep rock stairs. The then the last 45 minutes was climbing up even steeper rock stairs/ rocky path/ grassy-rock combination to the very summit. Throughout most of the way, it was raining in some capacity. We were up into the clouds basically once we left the timberline. Then it just got wetter, windier, and colder. Luckily the last 45 minutes, we were climbing along a wall on the downwind side. The wall lessened the chance of us getting blown off the mountain and also cut some of the windchill. Visibility was about 15 feet at the top, but according to Wikipedia, the view is quite beautiful. The trip down took 2 hours. My legs were quite relieved to be going downhill. :)
Surprisingly, my body survived the 4.5 hour hike. And members of the church were waiting at the bottom with tea, soup, and sandwiches. I had brought my warmest hat, gloves, and socks so during the climb, I was really only cold when we stopped for a period of time at the base before the summit and at the summit. But the tea and soup were still very much appreciated!
We then proceeded to come home, grab some food (kebabs!) from a local restaurant, and spend the evening watching Love Actually (purchased for 1 pound at one of the EBM thrift stores.)
Saturday was an excellent day off!
This morning, I attended church and taught the p-1 Sunday school class. Due to EBM meeting in the community center, all of the Sunday Schools meet in one classroom, so it was a little chaotic this morning, especially as it was my first time sitting in/ teaching Sunday School here.
I ended up having 3 kids: a 3, 4, and 5 year old. The age/maturity range was rather wide, and despite teaching them the story of Deborah from Judges (who the heck designs Sunday School material around Old Testament stories of warfare), it turned out to be a good time talking about leadership, who is a leader, how does God call us to lead, and ultimately a game of Simon Says. :)

So how am I settling in?
I will start with the negative:
I miss having a washing machine that can do a full load in 30 minutes. (Allowing 2 hours to wash a load of clothes is killing me.)
In the pouring rain, having to haul groceries home is not the most pleasant activity. (Especially with having to shop on a budget, it's economically advisable to shop at a large grocery store... which is conveniently about a mile away)
I still don't exactly know what the year is going to entail. Hopefully this week will continue to provide some clarity.
I have been feeling the culture gap in many ways. I never know if people understand what I am saying, especially when communicating with kids. (Please note, tag = chasies. And you are not "it", you are "on.") Those little differences make playing games hard, but it's a simple example of how even though I speak the same "language," there is a vocabulary gap. And that's even before the accent-difference is taken into account.
On the positive side though:
I think I am starting to get a better understanding of East Belfast.
I have liked everyone that I have met at EBM so far.
I have really enjoyed the time spent with my YAV group.
I really enjoyed working with all of the kids, meeting people of all ages, and overall getting to know a wide range of people from East Belfast this past week. I am excited for another week!

There is so much about my time so far in Belfast that I just can't describe to you in words. There is a lot of pain and suffering that is under the surface, from the legacy of the Troubles but even more so problems specific to inner East Belfast. Hopefully, in time, I will begin to be able to express to you what I have seen and heard.
But for now,
In grace and in peace.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So the Pope is in Scotland...

This week has been quite good; my schedule is starting to come together. There is a long list of activities that I will be participating in during my time here - from Sunday morning activities to Friendship Circle to helping with a mums and tots group to helping with a Scripture Union group at a local school, the list goes on and on. Stay tuned for a full list in a later post. (Oooo, cliffhanger!) Relationship-building is hard work, but hopefully in a few weeks, I will have gotten past the introductory conversations with people and begin to get to know them and East Belfast a little better.
Some updates on my life in Belfast:
- I like my tea with milk and sugar, preferably the milk put in the teacup before the tea is pored.
- It can be subsequently sunny and downpouring in Belfast. (Please note, there are supposedly 15 different words that Belfastians use to describe the many different types of rain. I feel like I have experienced 11 different types so far.)
- They show a lot of American tv shows (Friends, Gilmore Girls, NCIS to name a few) here. They show the same tv episode at random times during the day, and they play the whole series straight through. Don't worry, I know that am here to serve, not watch tv. :)
- Every YAV house has different "cooking" practices. Our house has chosen for the most part to cook independently, at least until our schedules are sorted out. So far, it's been quite successful. I was worried since we have such a tiny fridge, but somehow everything seems to fit. And surprisingly as well, I have really enjoyed cooking for myself! Breakfast is usually a bowl of cereal, and I kindly get a hot meal for lunch provided by the social economy cafe run by EBM. That leaves dinner, which I have had fun shopping for. We have made weekly runs to Tesco (the giant supermarket) which is on my way to work, but I have also had fun patronizing the small vegetable/fruit shop and butcher which are located just around the corner. (Plus there is a small convenient store one block down for any last minute needs.)
- I finally received the local library's postcard which I can now take in to get my library card! Hooray!

In peace and grace.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Just a short post

Today was another wonderful Sunday with EBM. I attended both the morning and evening services, and my sabbath sandwich in the middle was much appreciated. I had the time to complete my weekly chore - sweeping the living room floor and scrubbing the kitchen floor. Plus time for a quick nap and to read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. (Which was excellent!) I am quickly running out of literature to read; need to go sign up for a library card!

If I didn't already like what I had read of Frederick Buechner's work, this quote that I heard in this morning's sermon made me like Buechner even more. Hopefully you enjoy it just as much:

"Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving."

In peace and grace.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Oh Belfast, my city, my city!

To begin on a lighter note: I have seen a shocking number of people with my hair color so far during my time in Belfast. It’s actually really nice. Strawberry-blondes unite! Not sure how Ireland’s policy on redheads compares to Scotland (where they like to boast about their history of burning red heads at the stake), but hopefully it’s a more accepting policy. Haha.

The past two days were whirlwinds as usual, no surprise there. The ball last night was FANTASTIC. With the help of my flatmates with my hair and jewelry, I was set to attend the ball. The two best parts of the evening were the food and the people. (Haha, that sentence makes it sounds like they were one and the same; they were not.) The dinner was extravagant – cheesy baps (aka rolls), cream of vegetable soup, turkey with ham, potatoes, and broccoli, and a meringue cake with chocolate and caramel toppings. My metabolism is having a hard time keeping up with me in Northern Ireland.

[The evening was emceed by a Norn Iron celebrity (for the life of my I can’t remember who he was or why he was famous), and it included a fundraiser auction on various donated items.]

The people were the best part hands down. There was a wide age range of people in attendance. (There was a kids table that thankfully I was not put at.) I sat at a table with four other really interesting couples, including Mark and his wife. I re-met and met many people throughout the evening; everyone looked wonderful in their formal wear! (No one was as excited as the younger children who for most this was their first ball.) One of the people at my table though was the brother of David Ervine, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ervine. Apparently David’s funeral was held at EBM back in 2007, and Wikipedia confirmed what I was told about it – that an extremely wide range of Norn Iron political leaders were in attendance. Hopefully in the next year, I will get to have tea with David’s brother, who is a schoolteacher but seems to know a good deal about the politics of Norn Iron. EBM never ceases to amaze me.

The evening concluded with dancing to music provided by rather an eclectic cover band. The dance floor was taken up by females age 10 to 50, while most of the older couples were quite wary. It was quite an enjoyable time though for everyone regardless of age, and it was a lot of fun getting to see the wide range of people with connections to EBM.

Today was a sports-filled day! This morning we walked into City Centre and headed in to St George’s market again. I broke off from the group to do a bit of exploring on my own (I am not a fan of window shopping without a purpose, especially as most of the vendors were the same as last Saturday’s). I ended up soaking up the sun outside of City Hall, which was just what I needed! The full group, including the guys, then assembled at City Hall and we headed for another lunch at Boojums, the Mexican restaurant we visited last Saturday. It was again a delicious taste of America. After wandering through a wonderful charity used bookstore and getting caught in a torrential downpour, we caught the bus out to North Belfast and attended a Crusaders Football Club match. It was quite an experience as expected!

We have been walking a fine line so far in Belfast. It’s not that there are parts of Belfast where we could not go, but it’s more of whether we would be welcome. (Does that make sense?) Luckily for the match today, we had two Belfastians with us to provide us with the confidence to feel like we relatively belonged there. (One of the flatmates had been heavily warned against going to local football matches without someone from that area inviting us, so we at least had an in to get into this match. West Side Story should have been based in Belfast.)

Anyway, after the game (Crusaders won!), we hung out at the guys’ apartment until I got picked up to go to a Belfast Giants hockey match! Two observations from that game: it was about the same level of play as the Canadian minor league match I attended last March, please note that there were no fights during either of those games. The second observation is that there was A LOT of free food given out during this game – including subway sandwiches being launched from a giant sub bazooka, free cookies, free pizzas, and more. Blackberry was another supporter of the hockey team. I had my fingers crossed that they would begin handing out the phones. Alas, to no avail.

The Giants did win, particularly following an exciting third period. Having attended a local football game and ice hockey game, that just leaves attending an Ulster Rugby match to complete the trifecta of local sports. (I do want to see more local football matches, particularly Glentoran FC which is based in East Belfast. Fingers crossed someone from EBM offers to go with me, lol.)

It’s been an exciting two days as I continue to dip my toes into Belfast’s culture. It’s hard to believe how much the world has changed over the past 9 years, and I am excited to see how my world changes during this next year. In peace and grace.



p.s. This was brought to my attention by another YAV as I was writing this blog. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-11270461. The three male YAVs live and work in North Belfast, so please keep all of us YAVs in your prayers! (One of the YAVs works in a center not far from where that happened.) The incident doesn’t sound at all like it was random, but it’s a good reminder of why we are here. We have the ability to leave in a year’s time, but many of the residents of Belfast do not have that luxury.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Good day, sunshine

L’Auberge Espagnole is a French film that I watched last summer on recommendation from a friend. It’s the story of a French student who through the Erasmus program studies in Barcelona for a year. During this year, he lives in a house with students of all different nationalities – hence the title of “the Spanish Inn.” There is a quote from it that I really like. When the main character arrives in the city, his running narrative reads as such:

“When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everythings unknown... After you've lived here, walked these streets, you'll know them inside out. You'll know these people. Once you've lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times... it'll belong to you because you've lived there. That was about to happen to me, but I didn't know it yet.

It’s a quote that I often return to when arriving in a new city or place. Pretty cool to think about the process of a new, strange place becoming the familiar and loved.

Yesterday was my second day at EBM. After a brief meeting with the human resources manager to fully orient me to the place, I spent the rest of the day helping to deliver pews to congregational members’ homes, having a long meeting to brainstorm how to implement music into youth activities, and altogether continuing to find my feet at EBM. (Delivering pews: as EBM is in about to rebuild its sanctuary, congregation members had the choice to buy a pew. Pretty cool.) I am still in the process of figuring out my schedule; it’s probably going to be a few weeks until its set for sure. For now, I am primarily shadowing Mark, my site supervisor, and trying to keep up!

Today, I have the day off as the ball is tonight. My assignment for today though is to formulate a “lesson plan” for a children’s music program that would lead up to Christmas! Holy cow, this year is going to fly by! I am excited for the ball tonight as there will be a plethora of people from the many sides of EBM who will attend. Should be quite an evening.

Another day of sunshine in Belfast! In peace and grace! :)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Belfast!

forgot to mention earlier: I get to go to a ball on Friday!
(It's a fundraiser ball for EBM. This is going to be awesome.)

Here are a few pictures from my time here. Hope you like. :)


picture 1: minus the seventh YAV at Scrabo Tower outside Newtownards.picture 2: C.S. Lewis' alter-ego Cedric Diggory; this statue is outside of our local library. (C.S. grew up in our neighborhood.)
picture 3: Victoria Square shopping center has this observation globe (sweaty palms!)
picture 4: one of the "peace walls"
picture 5: murals with a message

Hiya. (Aka hello in Norn Irish)

Ethos: the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.

This word has been used many times by several sites we have visited in Northern Ireland. While it’s not that it’s a new word to me, I would not say that it’s a common word in American vocabulary. In a conflicted society, does a person’s/ group’s/ community’s ethos become vital in discerning friend from foe?

Yesterday concluded our orientation with Doug Baker. We ended up having the morning and early afternoon off, so we got to run some errands! We scoped out our local library, registered with a doctor (while we don’t have access to NHS funds, it’s best to sign up for a doctor before becoming sick), and concluded by making our first trip to the grocery store! It was altogether a successful morning. And after the guys came over to East Belfast, we had some more free time before Doug got here, so we wandered over to a local park to throw a Frisbee and soak up some Vitamin D.

I know I have been talking about the weather a lot. I guess my response is to say: get used to it. :) Weather is a big part of the experience of living in a foreign country. We have been so, so, so spoiled since we’ve been here. Only two rainy days so far, and today was another gorgeous day of sun and warmth. The greenness of this country really comes through on sunny days.

So we concluded our orientation with Doug yesterday, and today was the first day for us at all of our respective sites.

Today was AWESOME.

I met up with my site supervisor (Mark) at 9:30, and over tea and coffee, we talked for almost 3 hours about what at EBM I might possibly be involved in, life stories, theology, and many other side tangents. (The conversation was not linear in anyway; we jumped back and forth between many topics throughout the discussion!)

I spent this afternoon socializing with the Friendship Circle (a group of older women in the church). Mark and I traversed in a minibus around East Belfast to pick up members of the circle, and we then socialized over tea and biscuits (and my favorite: CARAMEL SHORTBREAD), sang some songs, and a short devotional. It was awesome/ amazing/ astounding/ marvelous/ fabulous/ prodigous/ stupendous/ wonderful. Heck yes synonyms.

In blog-form, it might not seem like I did anything today. Not true. Let me explain a little about the philosophy of the YAV program, the PC(USA)’s approach to mission, and ultimately, the purpose of my time here in Belfast.

Young Adult Volunteers do not go out on a converting mission. We do not go out to save the world – neither the soul-saving version nor the eliminating poverty, hunger, or social injustice superman approach. First and foremost, we are here to “be” more than “do.” During my time in Belfast, I am here to forge meaningful relationships with people of all ages. Through simply being here, I impact people’s lives. In a society where self-worth is often belittled, I am here as a confident American woman who wants to go into ministry. (Already gotten a few comments on how rare female clergy are. Yes, they are rare. I’m hopefully part of a trend to change that. God loves, cares for, and calls all of God’s children, regardless of society’s prejudices against gender, race, sexual orientation, or age.)

I am a firm believer that people never stop learning. Our perspectives on the world are constantly being challenged and reformulated because of interacting with other people. We all bring gifts, talents, and experiences to the table, and through sharing them, we can all grow. Cross-cultural exchanges are especially a beautiful thing.

During my day today, I met dozens of people: some workers at EBM, some members of the congregation, some members of the surrounding community. I am so excited about being a part of this web of people. I pray that in our interactions I can learn from them and likewise they can learn something from me.

If there is to be peace in this world, communication – particularly a dialogue in which all sides have a voice – must happen. We must be able to admit that at the end of the day, we are human. And who are we to say that we are right about something and the rest of the world is wrong??? That is only a useless monologue in a world in which only a select few are truly hearing. Burning of the Qur’an is not an acceptable form of communication.

A bit preachy of a blog post, but it's a year of service for a lifetime of change. Just trying to spice up the details of everyday life with some deeper reflections.

May there be peace in Northern Ireland, throughout the world, and in your life.

In peace and grace.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day, America!

Yesterday I worshipped for the first time with East Belfast Mission! From the extremely warm welcome I received when I arrived, to the entire worship service, to the conversations I had with a church member over lunch, I think EBM will be a wonderful place for me to grow during my upcoming year. They have a fabulous perspective on being called to ministry within their community. The Sunday morning service was a bit nuts as the minister is on sabbatical until Christmas and the staff person I work under couldn’t be there for worship. Yet, it was still an awesome experience. This is going to be a great church to serve with! Plus, my service at EBM is a bit of a groundbreaking opportunity. I will be the first YAV to serve there full time in many years; so, this year will be a new experience for both EBM and me!

Today we continued our orientation with Doug. At the Presbyterian Church in Ireland headquarters this morning, we had training on working with youth and vulnerable persons, so we are now legally able to go to work. We then had an afternoon session with Doug to go over our tentative outline of the year (including dates for retreats/ our possible return date) and also some Doug-lecture time on the basic history of Ireland/ the Troubles.

Tonight was the first night that the 7 of us Norn Iron volunteers were together to sup together. (The 7th volunteer finally received his visa on Friday – he was on a watch list due to some of his travels in the past – and got in Sunday morning.) It was just the seven of us over dinner, and it was awesome group bonding time as we laughed, listened to music, and played some cards (Revolution/Presidents!). I have an amazing immediate YAV family. :)

Belfast is finally living up to its reputation. It was quite cold, dark, and rainy today. At least we had a week of sunshine to prep for this. (We turned on our radiators for a bit today.)

I did do my first successful load of laundry yesterday though! (The first group attempt was a bit of a fiasco….) It turns out that for a normal wash cycle, our lovely little UK washing machine takes TWO HOURS. And we don’t even have a dryer. (Albeit, the lack of dryer part doesn’t bug me too much. As my college roommates/suitemates can attest, I have a habit of liking to hang up my clothes to dry even when I don’t really have the space.) Having to allow 2 hours for a load of laundry, is going to make for a bit of a challenge during busy weeks. (Plus, how are you supposed to line-dry your sheets when it’s always raining outside????)

Anyway, thus begin the adventures in Belfast. My year of simple living isn’t so simple. (wireless internet currently being borrowed from a neighbor’s house because we can’t figure out how to connect to our own: check. hot, running water at the flip of a switch: check. having basic electrical appliances: check.)

But for living in an extremely Western nation, it’s pretty simple. (Walking to and from work: check. Bus pass for trips into the city: check. Reducing carbon footprint continued – recycling, small fridge, small freezer, small washer, no dryer: check. Living in a much smaller space than – at least as an American – I am used to: check. Living in an intentional community: check. Eating off a small stipend that just gets smaller once it gets converted to pounds: check.)

All of the best to my brother and sister YAVs throughout the world! Hopefully your orientations are going well, and you are getting excited to start “being”!

New UK phrase of the week: “That’s class!” A basic equivalent of “excellence.”

That’s class!

In peace and grace.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Updates from the Past Two Days

So on Friday, we concluded our visits to all of the YAV sites. Whew! Then in the afternoon, we explored West Belfast, South Belfast, and City Centre. Words can not quite capture all that we saw. Many interfaces (places where Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods meet up) are blocked by extremely high walls and/or gates. Pictures can not quite provide the right perspective either.

Basic phrases to try to capture what I have seen of West Belfast include: war zone walls, murals full of hatred and intimidation, memorials put up by both sides emphasizing the brutality of the other without admitting any wrongdoing, segregation, 40% of the housing is government funded – while estates are nowhere near what are referred to as “the projects” in the U.S., some are often controlled by paramilitary groups, druglords, or those two groups are one and the same.

City Centre and South Belfast stand in stark contrast. South Belfast contains Queens and upper class housing, while City Centre is a place of tourism and the shopping industry.

Saturday morning, Doug and Elaine took us to St. George's Market in City Centre, and they proceeded to set us loose on the city. (For lunch at St George's, I had an excellent crepe containing ham, cheese, onions, and pesto. Delicious!) So, we began exploring City Centre by the seat of our pants. We wandered without a map and succeeded in seeing the Botanical gardens, the Ulster History Museum, Queens Uni, Victoria Square, and more. We topped off the day with a guilty pleasure – MEXICAN FOOD!!! Boojum had been recommended to us, and sure enough, it was surprisingly close to Chipotle. Yesssss. :D

Just a few observations from the past 24 hours:

---I have been asked twice if I am Canadian or American.

---East Belfast is... apparently, an interesting section of the city where our group of Americans stick out. This afternoon when coming out from City Centre, the bus driver asked us if we were sure we wanted to get off the bus. (Implying that we didn't really want to.) Ha, we are tough YAVs; heck yes, this is our neighborhood. ;) But in all seriousness, I have yet to feel unsafe in the area in which we are living. Yes, there are a surprising number of empty and rough looking store fronts, and perhaps its not the most neutral zone of the city, but this is going to be home for the next year. I'm excited to start working at EBM and begin forming relationships with people residing in the area. This is not an area where American tourists come to visit, but that is not why we are here.

I have my first Sunday at East Belfast Mission tomorrow. Hooray!

Also, today was the first day of rain we have experienced. Surprisingly, not too bad. While it was gray all day, the rain was not constant, which makes a huge difference! Pictures to hopefully be put up tomorrow of some of our adventures so far.

In grace and peace!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

First Trip to EBM

While the main “model” for YAVs serving in Northern Ireland is to be part time at a church and part time at a community organization, my assignment is all rolled into a full time position at the East Belfast Mission. As you might have guessed, EBM is a Methodist congregation located in East Belfast, but it’s actually much more than just a church. Its designation as a “mission” is an attribute given by the higher levels of the Methodist church noting the location of a congregation in the inner city. EBM is located in a mostly-Protestant lower class neighborhood, and the life of EBM reflects the troubles facing a working class population in a city that lacks a primary industry. (H&W the primary shipbuilders used to employ 33,000; today it employs something between 350 and 500 people who do repairs on ships.) Besides being a worshipping congregation, EBM functions as a thriving outreach center. From overseeing 10 thrift stores throughout the city (note: how it funds most of its work), various cafes that offer healthy alternatives to those found in local corner stores, providing employment resources, operating a basic homeless shelter/ resources for former homeless, to hosting various inner city youth programs, it’s a thriving, community-focused center. It employs 82 people in addition to 150 regular volunteers. (Wowsa!!!) It is currently in a HUGE renovation project which is tearing down basically a city block and putting up a vibrant community/worship center. The project costs 22 million pounds, and the best part is, all of that money has already been donated. (The fundraising was completed prior to the financial crash.) It should make for an interesting year as I wander to different temporary locations for various functions.

I am so excited to be serving at EBM! Every statement that they have made (both in what I have read online and what I heard today while visiting) echoes my sentiments on why I am doing a YAV year and what I feel is the greater calling of the Church. If you go here: http://www.ebm.org.uk/churchhome.php and click through on the three words in the middle of the page: believing, living, and serving. There are three statements put out by East Belfast Mission. I am so excited to be a part of this and see a thriving urban church’s ministry in action!

What will I be doing? Your guess is as good as mine. Since I will be working there full time, it sounds like I will be splitting my time between the church and the mission side of things. I will spend my first few weeks figuring out my place in the greater EBM picture.

Two highlights of the day:

1) walking up to Scrabo Tower (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrabo_Tower) and looking over Newtownards (pronounced like “Newton + ards”, or “fig cookie/ Isaac + cards minus the c”)

2) Walking along the shore of the Irish Sea at sunset. So far, I would vote that Scotland is prettier than Northern Ireland, but N.I. is absolutely beautiful nonetheless!!

The food today continued to be fantastic. The downfall of me will be teatime. The offering of tea also includes various scones, tray bakes (aka bars in the “coffee and bars” phrase), and other goodies. I need to start playing some Frisbee or football soon!

Day three of sunshine; hoping tomorrow brings more of the same!

In peace and grace. :)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

RABBIT, RABBIT, RABBIT.

I actually forgot to say that this morning. Though, I think my flat's goal has it on the calendar for next month to remind each other. (All the Norn Iron YAVs stared at me this afternoon when I asked them if they had said it.) Apparently the superstition originated in Britain. And since we're here...

(Have no idea what I am talking about? Wikipedia will guide you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_rabbit)

So today, we began our orientation to Belfast. We visited a bunch of sites where Belfast YAVs are working, including two Presbyterian churches. Several observations of Belfast Presbyterian churches/ what I have learned about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland:

- most have intense steel bars over their windows; many utilize barbed wire in their exterior decorating

- Presbyterian churches are suffering member decline in many ways similar to the PC(USA), primarily changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood (here it’s neighborhoods going Protestant to Catholic), but also aging congregations, youth disenchanted with the church, etc.

- Elders in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland serve FOR LIFE. (Supreme Court Justice style)

- The PCI is basically a lay-led church. Most Pres. Churches employ one minister and maybe a part time property manager. All youth, secretarial duties, and other functions of the church are lay led. Different from PC(USA) with large church staffs!

- Not sure if this is PCI-wide, but I know of at least two session meetings that met tonight. Perhaps the trend is Wednesday and not Tuesday night as in the states. (Threw me for a loop for awhile as I kept thinking that today was Tuesday as Doug had a session meeting, haha.) Sounds like session meetings can be just as long in Norn Ireland though.

Food-wise, here is my first full day of Norn Irish food:

Breakfast: dried raspberry crunch cereal, irish soda bread (toasted with butter), MILK

Lunch: quiche lorraine, salad with tomatoes

Dinner: Elaine Baker’s version of a semi-Irish stew, some dessert concoction involving raspberries, lots of sugar, whipped cream, and both yogurt and greek yogurt.

All of the above was delicious.

During our site visits, Doug was there to translate. And by translate, remind the Norn Irish speakers that they were talking too fast/ using phrases we were not familiar with. We learned about the girl guides, indoor bowling (similar to lawn bowling, not ten pin bowling), that crèche refers to a nursery, that “crack” means to have a good time/ “crack cocaine” refers to the drug, and overall, the Northern Irish like to talk really, really, really fast.

Really interesting point of the day came when we met with the director of a trauma center in Belfast. It came out during his spiel that he in fact lost his wife and father-in-law (both innocent bystanders) during a bombing in ’93. What a conflict.

I should have taken my religion and ethics class after this year of volunteering. I would have written excellent essays about how we often define ourselves against who we are not and also about forgiveness/how do we forgive. (One Norn Irish pastor was observing today how youth don’t know what makes them Protestant, but they know they aren’t Catholic.) Oh goodness.

It was sweet hearing how various organizations and churches are doing their part in striving for interactions between the two sides.

Still, I am living mostly in my American bubble as I hang out with the five other YAVS and the Bakers for the next week. I am off to visit the East Belfast Mission tomorrow; hooray! The bubble will be burst next week as I start working at EBM. (I am excited to work with Norn Irish youth!)

Just to give you a brief view of my interactions with Belfast so far. The street I live on is off a street that is just off a major street. We are on the East end of Belfast which is primarily Protestant. From my flat, it will be about a mile down the major street to walk to work. The guys’ flat is in North Belfast. That area is both Protestant and Catholic with Protestant streets and Catholic streets often bordering, intersecting, and alternating. But even at the street level, there is segregation.

I have really enjoyed hanging out with the YAVs so far, and I am looking forward to more adventures! Over the next few days, we will visit all of our sites, city centre, and head out of Belfast for a long hike.

It’s been sunny both yesterday and today, but by no means warm. By St. Louis/ Williamsburg standards, it has felt like chilly fall. Ironically, the comment was made today that this is the week of summer Norn Iron has been waiting for all summer. If this is summer, it’s going to be an interesting fall and winter. Woohoo! But, enjoying the sunshine while it’s with us.

We do have an electric water heater for the shower. Haha, when Doug told us this, Adrienne, one of the Belfast YAVs became really concerned as last week, we had heard a former YAV talk about how she would daily electrocute herself on her Peruvian shower’s electric water heater. I reassured Adrienne though that I’m sure that somewhere the British require electric water heaters to be fully grounded. It has proven true so far…

Hopefully you are enjoying the daily posts. At this point, they will be this frequent at least until I get into the daily routine, then they will become bi-weekly/ weekly as I give you highlights from my life. Love to all!

In grace and peace. :)