Monday, January 31, 2011


So this week, I am stepping back from my usual routine of activities, except for a few evening activities like Dance Nation and Friday Fusion, to explore a different side of EBM - social economy!!! I have the pleasure of shadowing the head of EBM's social economy 'department,' Peter. (The best advice I got for the week from Peter himself - he recommended that I bring a flask of coffee with me.)
Well, I don't drink coffee, but I did have three mugs of tea today.
This morning was primarily paperwork, learning a bit about the overall organization of EBM's 9 thrift stores and cafe, and getting organized for tomorrow's shops meeting for shops' managers.
The manual labor portion of the day began at 11:30...

When a business moves into a new office from a previous office space, they are left with issue of what to do with all of the 'old' (but often still quality) office desks, partitions, chairs, etc.
There is always the option of paying for the items to be landfilled. (Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.)
EBM has started to provide an alternative option though!
Social economy began a furniture refurbishment project this past Fall and are currently trying to open a business furniture shop (office max - style). So, EBM provides free pick-up of the items... And it's a win-win for both parties.
EBM will be able to re-sell the furniture. (In the meantime, EBM has a large warehouse to store everything.) And the business profits by not having to pay to landfill it and also are able to maintain their social/environmental consciousness. Hooray!

One company in Belfast has just consolidated its business from five offices throughout Belfast into one new office building overlooking the Lagan River.
So from 11:30 to 6:00, I traveled with Peter around to three of the former office buildings and assisted in the removal of dozens and dozens of office chairs, reception desks, partitions, three-ring binders, microwaves, fridges, dishwashers, filing cabinets, rolling desk cabinets, and more. In all, Peter, myself, and the truck's two-man crew filled up five medium-sized lorries to the top. (It makes me a bit sick to think about option 1, if all of the stuff had been landfilled.)

Haha, best moment of the day for your imagination to recreate:
It's about 1:30 in the afternoon. We had just filled up our first lorry at office #2. The truck was away transferring the stuff to the warehouse. Peter went to get us cups of coffee/tea. I am left guarding a large stockpile of desks, filing cabinets, etc. on a sidewalk in downtown Belfast. I am chilling in my jeans and ski jacket, leaning up against a filing cabinet which is blocking me from the wind.
Needless to say, I got some curious looks from the business people passing by.
Overall, successful, successful day, and even with all of the hard work, thoroughly enjoyable.

But after it all, I am simply knackered. (British slang = tired.) I will sleep soundly tonight and likely awaken to a few blisters on the hands and a few new muscles in my arms. :)

In grace and peace. Zzzzzzz.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reflections and Anecdotes

Here are three reflections and anecdotes from the past few weeks. None of the them are really connected in one theme, but hopefully you will be able to understand a bit more about my life recently in Belfast.

"But you know, I can't complain."
It was my second visit with a woman from the Friendship Circle who hasn't been well over the past two months. With the cold winter setting in so early and the nasty flu season in the UK, many of the pensioners in East Belfast have been struggling health-wise this winter.
As this woman is 89, her health has been faltering; between her eyesight, heart problems, and swollen feet, she has been confined to her house over the past while. During my first visit before Christmas, she was rather low in spirits, but on this visit last week, the spirit in her voice was back. She was telling stories about how as a child her family had a chicken that would chase her around and peck at her heels. Her mother didn't believe her until she saw it happen one day; they had chicken for dinner. (But she wouldn't eat any of it!)
But through some stories of her life and the narrative of her illness, including worrying about the continued loss of her eyesight, she kept repeating, "But you know, I can't complain."
The Friendship Circle, and really East Belfast, is full of these women who have seen their share of sorrow, personal loss, economic turmoil, health failings, and for some, even the second world war. But they remain strong in their faith and are quick to remember and put others who are also suffering before themselves. It's truly humbling.

Every day brings a new adventure and opens up my eyes a wee bit more.
Last night, following Dance Nation (I got to dance with the older class - OW! I am getting old!), I met up with a flatmate to head into the city to catch the 3 pound showing of Black Swan. We got to the cinema though, and the showing was sold out.
The guy YAVs had invited us over to their flat in North Belfast; they had an Australian traveler staying there through 'couch surfing'.
(Couch surfing is an online society that you can join. In exchange of letting travelers stay at your house, you can use the site to find people to stay with all over the world. No worries, you leave reviews for both the travelers and the hospitality on the site!)
Well, we headed out towards the guys' flat to celebrate Australia Day - on Australian time - with an Australian (and them too). Happy Australia Day!!
On the way out to their place, my flatmate mentioned that there had been a bomb scare in North Belfast earlier that day... Sure enough, our bus had to detour around the cordoned off section but dropped us where we needed to be. Scarily enough, the police lines were next to the guys' neighborhood.
When we got to the house, one of the guys was at church; turns out his church, Fortwilliam and McCrory Presbyterian, was letting some displaced people stay there over night. Included in that group were some Irish Travelers, comparable to gypsies or roma but not actually from the same ethnic group. Funniest story that he had from the evening was that the Irish travelers were requesting for the police to find them a tv to watch a show that was on: my big fat gypsy wedding.
In honor of them, we watched it as a group that night. Main highlights of the show:
- Irish travelers like to throw over the top weddings. So, the bride's wedding dress was cotton candy pink and weighed over 20 stone, comparable to 280 pounds. Cotton candy explosion complete with mechanical butterflies that flew around the dress. Classy.
- another group of travelers who had applied for building permits on some land were getting kicked off of it.
Stereotypes abound for the Irish travelers, but poignantly enough, there were many non-travelers out protesting the bailiffs throwing these families off of the undeveloped land.
Through the tackiness and commercialized product of it all, the show raised many questions about the prejudices that are too often just another part of life.
For all of the advances that have been made in this peace process, how can some people still think taking human lives is a viable way of making your voice heard?
If you'd like to read more about the bomb threat:
The best comment that I heard in response to the bomb threat came from a staff person at EBM whose gut wrenching comment was, 'I thought those police evacuations were a thing of the past.'
Before yesterday, I had no idea what an Irish traveler was, had never watched 'my big fat gypsy wedding,' and hadn't really realized the sheer hassle involved when a bomb threat is made.
Every day brings a new adventure and opens up my eyes just a wee bit more.

the winter blues
It's been sunny here. I would say that since we have been here in September, on average, it has only rained 1.5 out of 7 days.
But unfortunately, that still doesn't mean that the winter blues haven't stayed away.
The past few weeks I have been feeling rather down. Stuff just hasn't felt right at work, and I have been feeling downright grumpy. It is probably not serious enough for a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, but it's definitely the winter blues.
Coupling with that is the fact that it's the tough year: the transition out of undergraduate life. No winter break retreat to the parents' house for free laundry and home cooking; no Sinfonicron production to brighten the gloomy days of winter; no exciting start of classes with a fresh new schedule; no sunken gardens to meet in for a game of muddy ultimate frisbee; no longer surrounded by several thousand college kids willing to discuss Dickens and developmental psychology and the horribleness of parallel fifths.
The problem with Belfast in winter is that the sun rises no earlier than 8:30 and sets no later than 5:00.
Mathematically speaking, 2/3 of the 'day' the sky is dark.
It's a battle every morning with the alarm clock; my university roommates can attest that I was already addicted to my snooze button. One also has to mentally steel oneself from eating dinner before 5:30 and going to bed at 9:00.
One of the best lines that I remember from orientation is a former YAV saying that sometimes, just getting out of bed means that you have already won for the day.
So far, I have always made it out of bed: win.
Some lights that shine through the darkness: the wonderful people of EBM who are always there to provide support and some laughs. Training for the Belfast City Marathon! (Some of us YAVs and maybe even Doug Baker! will be WALKING it.) Walking around the city and even along the coast up to Bangor this past weekend have helped to bring in some fresh air to the cobwebby brain cells. Plus, all of the wonderful letters, cards, facebook messages, and prayers that are emanating from all over the U.S. have helped to bring smiles, and a few tears, to my face. Thank you all for your support during this year!
The winter blues will soon enough turn into the green of spring, provided Punxsutawney Phil comes through. And until then, I am continuing to take daily life in stride and remembering to enjoy the little things.

In grace and peace.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A church is not a building...

Skainos (noun, Greek origin): 1. tent 2. presence, dwelling 3. frailty, weakness, as of the human body
EBM adopted the name 'skainos' for its building project several years ago.
Since January 2010, the congregation of EBM has been meeting, gathering, worshiping, and working off site. One year later, the church has been leveled, and now construction of the new building - Skainos - has begun.
It's difficult in times like these to remember that the church is more than a building.
During the week, it's frustrating to not have rooms or supply closets in which to easily turn for craft supplies or to continuously have to be creative about where groups can meet.
Through it all, it's important to remember that a church is the people who make it up. Even during this time of seeming limbo without a building, East Belfast Mission is still a thriving church.
Part of the planning around EBM this past week is beginning to look ahead to moving back into the building. In the next year and a half, what does the congregation need to be sustained; how do community groups need to be notified about the brand new building about to be open for use?
Through it all, this song often comes to my mind:
"A church is not a building, a church is not a steeple,
A church is not a resting place, a church is a people.
I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together,
All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we're the church together."

Centuries later, we think back to the early Christians who met not in grand cathedrals but rather in small groups. With or without a building, a church is still a church.
God is present not only in a house of worship, but rather throughout all of our daily lives.

In peace and grace.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

the significance of daily life: random ramblings

I heard a comment recently from a person about how he has heard over the years a number of sermons defaming Harry Potter and its use of "witchcraft."
My initial reaction was to laugh and dismiss the criticisms as basic remnants of 17th century superstitions.
But then, I began to think about it more.
My first question to these critics would be whether they have taken the time to read the works. The Harry Potter series is more than just "witchcraft" - it deals with important 'themes' of death, love, friendship, "good" persevering despite the odds, and many other aspects of daily life with which people of all ages struggle.

The books also reflect on the dangers of living in fear, the importance of relationships through times of trouble, and even violence. (For example, Rowling continuously emphasizes the gifts of each individual character to the plot of the story. The forbidden spells/curses are the ones that torture or kill one's opponent.)
I have read multiple reflections about the de-humanizing effects of violence, but I remember Rob Bell's reflections the clearest. In reflecting on the wider subjects of torture, and war, and the Holocaust, he discusses how the effects of torture and murder do not just impact the victim; the inhumane aspects of the acts implicate the doer of the deeds and spread throughout society which remained silent and did not protest. (On a side tangent, how long do brides continue to expect diamond engagement rings when the high demand fuels wars and inhumane living conditions for workers in the industry?)
But how long does the church waste its breath on defaming Harry Potter and remain silent on sectarianism, senseless violence within our society, and the war policies instituted by our governments?

What happens when fear becomes such a part of daily life that society becomes complacent?
A topic that has come up over the past few days while I have been back in Belfast, is how the extraordinary became the ordinary during the Troubles.
When going out shopping in City Centre, one would not be able to park the car and leave it unattended along the road. A person had to be in the car at all times - unattended cars would be towed and often destroyed for fear of a bomb.
Another aspect of daily life was constant searches.
- Automatically having your handbag ready to be searched when walking into a grocery store or shopping mall. (People would go to the South and walk into the store holding out their handbags at the ready... Only to realize how ridiculous they looked.)
- Being ready for a police stop while out driving. (Even today, police stops include armed officers holding submachine guns.)
In hearing Belfast residents reflect on some of these "symptoms" of the Troubles, the general comments revolve around how awful it was that it all just felt like normal life. That after awhile, one grew complacent about all of the bomb threats and scares; while they were scary, it still became part of the ordinary. (A believable excuse when one was late to work was "there was a bomb threat.")

There is still a lot to be learned about what happened in Tucson, Arizona over the weekend. But what is important that we recognize the symptoms of the times and choose to not remain silent. (And realize the larger implications that this "symptom" draws attention to.)
We cannot grow complacent about the fear, the bigotry, the violence, and the extremism in our globalized world. We cannot distance ourselves from them. We must wake up and realize we are in the year 2011. That superstitions about witchcraft were due to the ignorance of our ancestors. (Censorship of Huckleberry Finn is a topic for another day.)
Becoming complacent about daily life is not how we are called to live. We must realize just how closely this world is connected. Whatever the results of the elections in South Sudan, we must realize that we have been implicated in being bystanders over the past decades as men, women, and children were killed in the name of religion all over the world.

The significance of daily life is that we realize the presence of God in it. That despite the cruelty that humans can have towards one another, God is calling us to choose civility and compassion. That in all of the hate, sadness, and maddening injustices of the world, that we stand together, in relationship with one another, despite our differences, and we carry this message out to the world.
So take some time to yourself in quiet reflection as you are reading this. Reflect on your place in this world. Think about how your words or daily actions might contribute towards hurting your neighbor. Sometimes it's not what we did, but rather, what we didn't do.
(I am not exempt from this self-examination.)
The importance is that we try to heed the call to mend bridges, heal wounds, provide comfort, and move forward together. Through it all, providing the much needed support for one another. And hopefully in the process, we can discover our true selves and what humanity really means.
Therein lies the significance of daily life.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I leave you in grace and peace with these words of Stringfellow:

"The restoration of the original identity of a person - in all its particularities and all its relationships, in the totality of its political significance - the renewal of a person's wholeness, which is the initiation into holiness, is utterly the effort of the Word of God... Instead of being somehow transported "out of this world," rather than indulging abstinence, evasion, or escapism, rather than fabricating some isolation or separation or privatism, the irony in being holy is that one is plunged more fully into the practical existence of this world, as it is, than in any other way." - William Stringfellow

Pics from Germany

Statue of Gutenberg in Mainz, GermanySubsequent visit to Gutenberg's MuseumBeginning our celebration of German food with a brezeln - aka PRETZELS.Schloss Braunfels!Amy, Allison, and myself in front of Wetzlar Dom.

View overlooking Wilnsdorf, GermanyKoln Dom.

Germany in the snow.View overlooking Siegen, GermanyDoner!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Highlights from Germany

My flatmate Allison and I went on a trip over New Year's to Germany. I now have three more stamps in my passport! (Two in Frankfurt and one when returning through Dublin.)

Our adventure began with an all-nighter. Please note, I never had to pull an all-nighter in college; who knew my first would be as a YAV.
We took a taxi at 12:30 a.m. to the bus stop, got the 1 a.m. bus to Dublin Airport, slept for a few hours at Dublin's Terminal 2 airport (boy was it nice and quiet!), checked in at the automatic Aer Lingus ticket machine at 5 a.m., realized that we were in the wrong terminal, walked over to the extremely chaotic Terminal 1 (further realizing that we lucked out for heading to Terminal 2 originally), and got to our gate a little after 5 a.m.
The next two hours were spent people watching. (At least one person - not too sure whether he was Irish or German - was drinking a beer. It was 5:00...)
The Aer Lingus flight was great; I was asleep by take-off which was a little after 7 a.m. Whew.

Upon landing in Germany, we met up with Allison's friend Amy, who has lived and worked in Germany for six of the past 7 years. She lives in a town called Wilnsdorf, which is northwest of Frankfurt, close to Siegen, and a short train away from Koln.

We spent a week hanging out with her, enjoying the scenic German countryside, reveling in the quaintness of the small German towns, admiring the gi-normous German pine trees (Chronicles of Narnia style), wading through several feet of snow, eating lots of German food, learning a few key phrases of German, and just thoroughly enjoying the cultural experience. (And fully appreciating that even though Belfast is in a foreign country, at least we can understand what traffic signs say.)

Allison and I ventured up to Koln [pronounced and often spelled Cologne] over New Year's Eve. This was automatically going to be an adventure as Allison and I had English, French, and Spanish covered - and only really, really limited German. So we took the train to Koln. When one walks out of the Koln Hauptbahnhof in mid-winter, the majestic spires of the Koln Dom rise into the low-lying sky. We wandered around the rather crowded cathedral, then headed towards the tower to climb up it. (We weren't too sure how much we were going to see on such a cloudy day, but we wanted to try it anyway.) Well, lo and behold, the Dom tower was closed for New Year's Eve and Day. We couldn't actually read the German sign, but since it had the two dates listed and the doors were locked, we inferred that this was the case. So, we decided to check out the near-by Roman-times museum. Turns out that was closed too. We then decided to wander over to the Third Reich museum and check in with the Koln Tourism office on the way. As our luck would have it, the tourism office had closed the hour before - and was closed for the rest of the weekend. At this point, we decided that the Third Reich museum was probably going to be closed too and that we might as well head out to our hotel.

Due to the high demand for hostels over New Year's Eve, we had found a cheaper hotel that came highly recommend by Amy, that was a short S-bahn train ride out of the city. Following small misfortunes of incorrect directions from the hotel's website, small difficulties with using the ticket machine, awkwardly remaining on the train which had reached it's last stop as the driver yelled over the intercom in German for us to get off (another key lesson: when everyone else gets out of the train car, one probably should get off too), and having about a mile walk from the train stop to the hotel, we had arrived. Phew. It was a memorable experience.

The evening was more of an adventure as many restaurants were booked solid with people dining out for the holiday, but we eventually found an Italian place to eat dinner, enjoyed walking around a bit more of the city, then headed back to the hotel to watch fireworks on tv. We survived! (The city did have a vibrant atmosphere about it... perhaps emphasized by quite a number of open beer and wine bottles. Germany.) Best part of the trip home was one of the trains heading the opposite direction had been decked out on the inside with tons of streamers. The people on it seemed to be enjoying the holiday.

The next morning was a bit nerve wracking as few enough trains were running that we couldn't tell from the electronic signs if any of the S-bahn trains were running at all. But sure enough, a train eventually showed up to take us back into Koln. (The hotel was in the town of Frechen, a village on the Western side of the city, past the University and past vast tracts of snowy parks.) While waiting for the train to show up, we wandered into the main part of town and were regaled by the cathedral bells calling the residents to New Year's mass. Yet another cool, small German town.
Once back in Koln, we walked around a bit more and had a wonderful lunch of a HAMBURGER. (First hamburger I have had since being here! Even came with cucumbers on it. The steak-frites were amazing too.)
Caught the train back to Siegen, and our adventure smoothly concluded.

Overall, my experience with Germany was an extremely positive one, and I very much look forward to going back - especially after I have learned a bit more German.
It was a true vacation as well as I got to read two books - finished Three Cups of Tea about Greg Mortenson's work building schools in rural Pakistan/Afghanistan and also continued reading a collection of letters/writings by William Stringfellow (an American lay theologian from the later Cold War period). Both very interesting and challenging books.

One of my favorite things about Germany was honestly the food. Lots of lovely chocolate pastries, potato products, bread products, Italian food, doner, currywursts, and more.
One other highlight of the trip was having dinner with two of Amy's friends. They were about my age (went on a months-long trip around the world last year!), so it was interesting to hear their thoughts on German culture, history, the world, and life in general.

Our trip home was relatively uneventful. Our flight was not at oh-dark-700, but rather later in the morning, so we arrived back to Belfast more rested than when we left.
Many thanks to Amy for taking us in and being our tour guide more than graciously. It was a wonderful vacation, and I am so excited to see more of Europe!

Stay tuned for more pictures and further reflections concerning life in Belfast!
In peace and grace, Happy 2011!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Images from Belfast

My apologies for the delayed posting of current pictures. All of these photos are from pre-Christmas.

East Belfast Mission pre-tearing down. (The church came down the beginning of December.)Stepping Stone Project: Where several areas of the mission were based out of before de-construction of the church began. Now all of the staff of EBM are based out of this three story building. It's amazing how many people can fit in this space.
Office space that is shared by four people. (When I work in this office, I get to sit at the table. I generally float around the other section of the top floor as there is usually an open desk/computer.)
Snow on bathgate drive! (View from out my bedroom window.) Notice the palm tree covered in snow.