Posted by: feltface | June 5, 2012

Wrapping Up

It’s hard to believe I’m less than two weeks away from finishing my year as a Young Adult Volunteer. Before joining the program, I had a lot of expectations, one of which, was that a year is a very long time. In reality, I’m pretty sure someone hit the fast-forward button around November and I’ve stumbled through the past few months at lightning speed. I also had some pretty wild (and slightly unrealistic) expectations of what it might look like to work in ministry full time, basically almost for free. If anything, I think the best thing I could have done with my expectations upon arrival in Miami, was to forget them.

 It’s difficult to really sum up the year in words, because it’s been such a rollercoaster of emotion, spirituality and relationships. There have been times of inconsolable frustration and other times of unparalleled joy. Some days, I’m the #1 cheerleader for the cause, and others have reminded me of hours spent at dead-end jobs counting the minutes until closing time. I think the latter is why I lost interest in blogging over the past few months; when my work began to feel like a job rather than some noble mission to save the world (who was I kidding?). I lost interest in sharing stories about my every day activities when mission work felt cheap and selective. I say this not to diminish the overall mission of the agency I’ve been working with, but rather to shed light on the fact that ministry doesn’t always mean feeling good about distributing expired canned goods and kissing babies. This year has taught me again and again that what we physically do matters less than the fact that we’re just simply present.

A few months ago, I went to the beach on my day off from work. Upon entering a public restroom next to the beach, I found a little girl standing outside the bathroom stall naked with her clothes scattered all over the wet, concrete floor. The initial scene horrified me, imagining the possibilities of what I had just encountered. I asked her if she needed help, and she replied that she could use some help getting her dress zipped. She struggled to slide into her underwear and clothes as her body was still wet from swimming and she was visibly flustered. As I helped zip up her dress, I noticed her belly button protruded several inches out of her body, which is an image that I still struggle to shake. Her clothes were dirty and soaked in the nastiness of a public bathroom floor, so we walked over to the sink to wash her hands. She handed me her bathing suit and asked me to wash it for her; a request I thought was odd for a 5 year old, until I noticed it reeked of urine and she may have been afraid of getting in trouble? She smiled, thanked me and left, leaving me feeling dazed and sad with so many questions. Where was her mother? Was anyone responsible for watching her? What kind of care has she received throughout her life, starting with a belly button that healed to be the size of an orange? And most of all, what would have happened if the wrong person had found her, as vulnerable as she was? My mind goes to dark places of how differently the situation could have turned out and what it meant to her in that moment that the person who found her showed kindness.

My role in this story is nominal. If I hadn’t been there, eventually, someone else would have come along or maybe she would have gotten dressed on her own. This story is less about me swooping in and more about valuing the opportunities we’re given to share love for others because we’re human and at some point, every single one of us has been just as vulnerable as she was. In that moment, I felt like I had very little to offer. I had no great wisdom, resources or answers, nor did I really get any indication that she was looking for that anyway. All I really had to offer her was my presence, and to maybe show her a little morsel of a world that cares for people without expectation of reciprocation or reward.

Throughout the year, I’ve encountered countless situations similar to that; situations that challenged me when I realized I cannot fix them, but rather only be a voice of reason, a smiling face or a warm body to hug. When people think of mission work, it is commonly thought of as going and doing, but what happens when we’re called to stay and just be? In my opinion, that’s when we learn the difference between being mission workers within a specific time frame, location or cause and living a life of ministry as a servant, where the boundaries are much more unclear and the answers that much more complicated. As I wrestle with that concept, I continue to also wrestle with where the Lord is leading me after my completion of the program. I realize this year has broken me for a world so much bigger than anything I’ve ever known. I also realize it’s not possible to jump back into a job as if this year hasn’t shattered the way I look at money, humanity, culture, and most importantly, myself.

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s simply that I have so much to learn and that I’m so thankful for a God that chooses to use us.. in spite of ourselves.

Posted by: feltface | March 5, 2012

Making Sense

“There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”Brian Andreas

When thinking about the past 7 months in Miami, this quote couldn’t be more appropriate. Despite my desperate attempts to organize and understand the messes, I’m learning there’s so much more to all of this than just trying to make sense of it, and it’s really quite simple. The past few months have been messy and awkward and confusing but they’ve also been some of the most rewarding and life-giving months I’ve had in a long time.. or maybe ever.

Posted by: feltface | February 22, 2012

Fear

As many of you know, in May of last year, my parents house was robbed along with several others in our neighborhood in the surrounding weeks. While the man responsible was arrested a week later and has been detained ever since, I’ve discovered the wounds from this experience have carried with me even to this day, almost nine months later.

While it manifested itself in different ways for each of us, in the immediate days and weeks surrounding the burglary, there was a feeling of vulnerability and panic among the members of my family. We were acutely aware of how we would leave things in the house when we’d go out, as if taking a mental inventory of what went where in case it happened again. We repeatedly checked locked doors and reconsidered where we left our valuables. To this day, I still hide my jewelry and laptop when I leave my house.

Having grown up in the suburbs of a major city, I think it’s natural to have an elevated awareness of your surroundings and develop general street smarts. This experience has taught me that anyone can be a victim and vulnerable regardless of whether they live in poverty or in wealth, but also that in the end, these things we hold so dear to us are really just that; things. With that perspective in mind, in the months following the burglary, I thought I had mostly moved on.

When I moved to the Miami area in August, I had my guard up higher than I realized. Prior to the move, I spent countless hours reading commentary from the looney-bins on the internet and listening to family and friend’s worries about how rough this city can be. Combine the crazies online with a community that, on the surface, looks absolutely nothing like me, plus the wounds I still carried from the burglary, and you had one paranoid little Northern Virginian living in South Florida.

As I settled in to my new home, the locals warned me about going out after dark, staying near the streetlights and not walking – anywhere, ever. I transferred some of my personal fears to my roommates, who then began hiding their laptops and second guessed walking in communities they’d been walking in for almost a year. While I felt justified at the time, in hindsight, I’m saddened by how, like so many others do, I wrote off a community before I had taken the time to know a community.

In a way, I feel that fear indicates a lack of trust in the sovereignty of God. While I’ve never doubted God’s hand in literally shoving me out of my comfort zone and into this crazy community, sometimes I need to remind myself that He called me here. He called me out of my bubble and into the world. He called me to serve, not fear his people.

Throughout my short time here, I’ve began letting my guard down, and even found myself getting defensive at times when people make unfounded comments and judgments about Florida City, because I know they’re making snap judgments just like I did. To assume that everyone is out to hurt your or steal your things is an incredibly damaging way to look at the world. By no means am I suggesting we throw caution to the wind and hurl ourselves into unsafe situations, however, I think it’s important to truly consider the labels we place on communities because they look, smell and feel different from what we might know. Don’t panic, Mom, I still lock my doors and don’t go strolling through the neighborhood in the wee hours of the night, but every day I’m learning to love and embrace a community that once made me feel uneasy and insecure.

Posted by: feltface | February 8, 2012

Advocates

If I wrote a book about my year serving as a Young Adult Volunteer, I think I’d title it, “The Things I Never Thought I’d Do: The YAV Edition”. If you had asked me a year ago where I thought I’d be living and what I’d be doing, this wasn’t even close to being on my radar. When I take a step back and truly analyze so many of the things that comprise my life right now, it makes me appreciate how God not only changes our plans, but also our hearts.

Today, I wrote a letter of recommendation for a homeless man. While I’m still not entirely clear on how the letter of recommendation played into things, I know he was requesting it for something to do with Medicaid and Habitat For Humanity. This man has been coming to the agency I’m working with for food, transportation assistance and other services for the past several years. My only encounters with him thus far haven’t actually been when he’s needed help, but rather when he drops by to hang out in our waiting room reading books or chatting with clients waiting to be tested for HIV. I felt honored to write about how pleasant, respectful and sharp he is. Today, I helped him meet more than just an immediate need and today, he became so much more human to me.

I think it’s easy to put people in boxes; there’s “those people” and then there’s “us”. It’s even easier to assume that the two will never be one and same. Every day on my drive to work, I pass an open grassy area, with a few scattered trees and picnic tables loosely labeled as a “park”. Over time, I’ve noticed several cars and vans parked randomly on the grass for short periods of time. Initially, I assumed it was either drug related or teenagers getting their groove on. As I’ve started seeing the same cars show up and disappear in cycles, I’ve realized people are living out of their cars and are looking for a safe place to park where they won’t be hassled for being on a private or commercial property. As heavily policed as this area is, I can’t help but think the cops are just turning their heads and letting these people camp out. I like to think that they aren’t kicking them out because they realize the desperation a person has to be in to even attempt this in the first place. On a weekly basis, one of “those people” living out of their cars stumbles into our office knowing full well that our focus is HIV testing, but hoping we’ll have compassion and help them with their other problems anyway. We hear story after story of people living what most would consider a normal life, with a normal living situation and a normal family until life happens and one of “us” becomes one of “those people.” Every day, “those people” become more human to me.

Living in a community where the needs are so widespread and relief seems overwhelmingly complex, it’s easy to feel defeated. The other day, we had extra food donations and decided to drop them off at the soup kitchen. A man waiting to get in for a meal looked at me beaming, and told me how he remembers meeting me at one of our health fairs several months ago. I remembered him too, and in that moment, I remembered the importance of one. While at times I get frustrated that I can’t fix everyone’s problems or even begin to scratch the surface, I’m continually reminded that’s not what I’m here for. I’m not anyone’s savior and I don’t have all the answers, and I’m realizing that people are okay with that. While I can’t make a difference in everyone, I can make a difference in one. Whether it’s the man at the soup kitchen or our homeless client seeking words of affirmation, I’m learning that often times what matters more to people is simply being valued as a human.

Posted by: feltface | January 6, 2012

Catching Up

After countless inquiries as to why I haven’t written since early November, I’ve finally found a few minutes to pause and reflect. It seems hard to believe, that in an entire two months, I haven’t found both the time and energy to process my thoughts into words. Welcome to the holidays in ministry. What a whirlwind the past few months have been. Below is a summary of what’s absolutely consumed every minute of every single day, which has been both wonderful and rewarding yet also trying and exhausting.

Early NovemberDOOR Dwell Program Silent Retreat – The group of 15 volunteers serving in Miami snuck “away” to Hialeah to spend an entire 24 hours completely in silence, amidst the traffic, highways and general noise of the city. While being silent isn’t something I generally find challenging, I found it frustrating to spend time with all these people that I love and am excited to spend quality time with, yet not be able to effectively communicate and completely enjoy their presence. It was confusing trying to ask friends if they wanted to go to the pool, or nap, or eat with simple hand gestures. On the other hand, the silence was also surprisingly pleasant, to reflect on the simple importance of just being present and how irrelevant words can become in good company. I highly recommend a retreat like this for any of you working in ministry.

Late NovemberThanksgiving – Prior to returning home for the holiday, Sembrando Flores, the agency I’m interning with, managed to somehow distribute hundreds of frozen turkeys to needy families in our community. Who knew that 90 turkeys would fit in my Honda Civic. Tryna’ catch me ridin’ dirtyyyy.

Going home for Thanksgiving was an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. Within being home for two days, thoughts of quitting the program and moving home were accompanied by thoughts of how to make South Florida a more long-term home. I was completely overwhelmed by the wealth and motives that drive both conversation and behavior in Northern Virginia. I didn’t realize how detached I had become from so many of the luxuries of home, and quickly found myself remembering just how wonderfully comfortable they can feel. At the same time, I was flooded with conviction as to why I’m called to live amongst the “least of these” and try to accept a less cushiony lifestyle from what I’ve been accustomed to my entire life. I was humbled in my internal battle with myself, and with the external affirmation I received from friends, family and my church community that reminded me that my experiences here will undoubtedly shape the rest of my life.

December – Even as I sit to write this now, I’m not entirely sure what happened in December.. or if it even happened at all. Is it physically possible to black out without the influence of alcohol? If so, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened to my December. I semi-accidentally became the point of contact for a Christmas party for the children that live in the migrant farm worker camp where our agency is located. Needless to say, after 400-500 children, 700 toys, dozens of volunteers, 1,200 hot dogs, 4 bounce houses, and a fire truck transporting Santa.. I. Was. Exhausted. Click the link to see the Sembrando Christmas Party video.

While running all over town playing Santa and spreading Christmas cheer, there was one moment I remember clear as day, that absolutely stopped me in my tracks. As we all know, the holidays aren’t happy times for all, and especially working with HIV, this reality is hard to ignore. December was the month I received “my” first HIV positive client’s results. The man was brought to one of our health fairs by a friend who was just dropping by to check it out. He’s not what most people would consider “sexually active”, in fact, he likely got HIV from the only sexual encounter he had in years. When thinking of the “coincidental” circumstances that lead to him both acquiring the virus as well as learning of his status, I’m both saddened and confused. Coupling life-altering news with the approaching holiday was somewhat devastating to me, so I can’t begin to fathom what it felt like for him. Everyone working in HIV has always told me that your first positive will stick with you forever, and now I completely understand what they mean. In one of those, world-stands-still, car crash type moments, my boss and I explained to a man that his life would literally never be the same. Merry Christmas?

On a lighter note, the New Year has come in full swing. I’m relieved to have the holidays behind us, and to just be able to focus on what lies ahead for the ministry. I can’t begin to thank you all enough for the outpouring of love and support I’ve received since arriving in Miami, and especially over the past two months. Without even knowing it, you all have gotten me through nights when I wanted to do nothing but cry, and instead filled me with joy and love, sometimes from thousands of miles away. Thank you for your cards, your emails, your care packages, your phone calls and most of all, your love, in whatever form it has arrived here in Miami. I’m humbled and amazed by the incredibly generous and kind people I have in my life. I couldn’t do this without you.

Posted by: feltface | November 9, 2011

Land of the Free?

Before moving to Miami, so many people told me that Miami might as well be another country because of the diversity and rich culture. In living here, I now agree with that statement, but also never expected that it would apply in the way that it did today. My coworker took me to the “fincas” which I think roughly translates as ranches or farms. She drove me down a road that was literally mile upon mile of nurseries and farms stacked on top of more nurseries and farms, with no other diversity in business whatsoever. Today, God took a pick ax to the shell around my heart and I’m not sure that anything could have prepared me for what I saw. I saw a side of South Florida I didn’t realize existed, not only in this state, but in America.

I keep hearing that about 80% of the land down here is owned by Cubans, which to me, raises lots of questions. Apparently, some of these rich property owners allow undocumented workers to live on their property (sometimes for free, sometimes not) in exchange for their work on their farms. On the surface it sounds like a good bargain to have some wealthy Cuban provide land, housing and shelter from immigration, except that’s so far from the reality. I met a woman today who lives in house not much bigger than my bedroom, with four other families in addition to her own three children and is currently being charged $500 to live there. Her husband killed himself several years ago because he couldn’t handle the stress of their lifestyle, at that time, while living in makeshift “homes” for each family that were literally walls made out of bed sheets on the back side of a horse stable.

The reason for our visit was to find a site to hold a Christmas party for these families. Since the “fincas” are so far off the beaten path with almost all of the people living in extreme poverty, transportation even for basic goods and services provides great burden as well as great risk. As I mentioned before, there is absolutely nothing but farmland and nurseries in this community, so we were exploring different farms that had a big enough cleared space to hold the event where we could give out food and Christmas gifts.

The woman took us around to the properties surrounding the one she currently lives on, and they were all essentially makeshift shelters without electricity or plumbing. The roads leading up to each property were a mixture of dirt and paving that was so ridden with deeply sunken potholes that it felt like a minefield. The air was filled with the smell of garbage and wild animals roamed freely scrounging for scraps. There were buckets everywhere collecting rainwater for drinking and I was constantly reminded of some of the incredibly impoverished communities I’ve visited in developing nations.

This is America? This is how we treat Americans? The woman who was showing us around has three children who are documented American citizens. While I’m well aware of both sides of the argument in terms of immigration, but on a human level, all politics aside, how do we allow this to continue literally in our backyard? Land of the free? Home of the brave? Where? I spend $10 on a drink at the bar or a cute pair of earrings.. and that’s more than these people make in a day.. maybe a week? In America? Something’s gotta give.

We are called to love our neighbors, and if these people are (literally) my neighbors and I’m  (metaphorically) your neighbor, I’m pretty sure that makes us all neighbors, no matter if you live in Homestead, in DC or halfway across the world. These communities hold our neighbors, they hold our hurt, and they hold our injustice.

Posted by: feltface | October 27, 2011

Access

Today, I finally managed to get my hands on a full set of keys at work. For the past few months, we’ve been so slammed we haven’t had the time to sit down and sort through who has what keys and who needs copies made. Since I arrived in August, I’ve had keys to really random things, like a laundry room, the building where we house volunteers (or for now, a homeless woman) and a community center that I don’t need access to. Essentially, I had a set of keys I very rarely used, and between the five of us that work there, there wasn’t one of us who had a full set.

In thinking about my new sense of access to all things Sembrando Flores, it occurred to me that I’ve been playing this game with God my entire life. I heard a sermon years ago about how our lives are like a house, and we often let God into the kitchen and maybe the living room, but still keep certain rooms for ourselves, as if to say “you can have these parts of my life, but this other stuff, I’m good, I got this.” Even though I have found myself at points of complete and utter surrender over the years, I’ve also realized how easy it’s become to compartmentalize my life and secure a death grip on the keys to the most crucial areas of my life. I’ve been giving God the keys to the buildings that aren’t as relevant to His work. While I truly believe that God deserves full access to all the rooms in my house, or complete surrender in all aspects of my life, actually letting Him in and trusting Him with full abandon absolutely terrifies my inner control freak.

My boss allowing me the freedom to organize and duplicate all of the master keys after only having known me for two months, couldn’t be more of an expression of trust. She knows me well enough to believe in the hope that I will honor this privilege with the integrity it warrants. It should be so much easier with God, because He’s not broken and corrupt. God doesn’t abuse or misuse His access in our lives, but rather only multiplies the good. As believers, why is it so difficult to trust the only one who would never do anything to hurt us? What have we got to lose?

Posted by: feltface | October 24, 2011

Know the facts. Know your status.

If I could sum up the last month at work in one word, it would be “training”. When dealing with an epidemic as widespread as HIV, the updates on prevention strategies and treatment are constant so we’ve been running all over the state to attend trainings on any and every issue pertaining to HIV/AIDS. I’ve learned about HIV in teenagers, HIV in Latinos, HIV in Florida and HIV in the world, just to name a few. The statistics I’ve been inundated with are striking and really, really hard to ignore. Understand that generally statistics are at least a year or two behind, because effective ways of collecting accurate data on an issue with as much stigma as HIV is incredibly difficult. Also, understand that HIV is 100% preventable, which to me, makes the statistics even more tragic. Get the facts. Get talking. Get tested.

- There are currently around 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US.

- An estimated 50,000 Americans are infected with HIV every year.

- Medicines for HIV/AIDS can cost $5,000 monthly.

- Treatment for ONE individual infected with HIV can cost $360,000 over their lifetime. Think of the impact prevention can make on the health care system savings.

- 40% of people with HIV also have Hepatitis C.

- Washington DC is third on the list (behind NYC and LA) for the most estimated AIDS cases in the US, with at least 15,696 infected. Google the 12 Cities Project for more info.

- Miami-Dade County is #1 in the United States for number of newly infected people and right behind us at #2 are our neighbors in Broward County.

- 1 in 44 blacks in Miami-Dade County are HIV positive.

- In Miami-Dade County, at least 1 in 8 black gay men, 1 in 8 white gay men and 1 in 12 Hispanic gay men are living with HIV.

Lastly, the chart below absolutely blows my mind. I hope it blows yours too.

Shameless plug: our webpage and Facebook are finally (slowly) getting up and running. Please “Like” us!

www.sembrandoflores.org

www.facebook.com/sembrandoflores

Posted by: feltface | October 16, 2011

The Ghosts of Condoms Past

The past few weeks have been nuts, which explains my lack of blogging. Time flies as things never seem to slow down around here. Two weekends ago, my roommates and I hosted an epic Open Mic Night at our house. We used our hurricane shutters and some Christmas lights to create the coolest stage in our dining room. The performances were fantastic and the spontaneous dance party couldn’t have been more entertaining. I love my friends.

Last week, I travelled to Orlando with my co-workers to attend a conference on prevention as it relates to substance abuse, suicide and.. anything else that can be prevented. My boss treated us to an adventure at Epcot, which was so much cooler than I remembered as a child. I also learned I can’t exactly hang with the spaceship simulator ride in my old age. Can’t thank Disney enough for providing adorable little barf bags for the feeble old souls such as myself.

On Monday, my roommates and I decided to celebrate Columbus Day inspired by the photo that’s been circulating on Facebook stating “Let’s celebrate Columbus day by walking into someone’s house and telling them we live there now”. We wore newspaper hats and carried handmade paper flags and cardboard swords for our exploration. We travelled over to our friends house and stuck the flags in their front yard. The plan was to then knock on their door and throw “small pox”, or thousands of red paper dots, in their faces and run in their house. We brought cans of corn and a signed declaration stating the parameters of our conquering. We stood in their yard knocking.. and knocking.. and knocking.. for several minutes. Unfortunately for us, the boys spotted us in their security camera, ducked out the back of the house and quietly snuck around the side of the house to scare the pants off us. Cue Plan B. My roommates and I quickly ran around the side of their house and locked them out of their own house. We proceeded to absolutely wreck the house with thousands of little small pox all over the floor, in the fridge, microwave, sinks, bathrooms, etc. We left the corn and declaration in their living room, and a cardboard sword in their freezer. After a few minutes of taunting them from inside the house, we shouted “Happy Columbus Day” and paddled our way home out the window of the car. Videos to come.

This week has been insane trying to catch up from being out of the office for a week, so my co-workers and I blew off some steam (literally) by blowing up condoms and drawing adorable little ghost faces on them. Hahaha. One of the services we provide to our clients is free condoms. A client came in this morning for testing and was just raving about the flavored condoms and how great they tasted. We process thousands of condoms so we hadn’t even realized we were giving out flavored ones, so naturally, my co-workers and I wanted to see what the rave was all about. After we tasted banana, apple, strawberry and orange, we proceeded to blow them up and decorated them in the spirit of Halloween since nothing else looks like fall in Miami. Best Friday ever.Booooooo!

Posted by: feltface | October 10, 2011

Send Out Your Roots

“But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” – Jeremiah 17:7-8

The verse above is one that has been repeatedly shared with me recently, both at work and through friends. It’s possible that I may be this tree, who’s literally been planted by the water twice in my life, and in both places, challenged to put out my roots while growing spiritually and emotionally in communities that were rich with nutrients and fertilizer for growth.

In South Florida, we naturally have an abundance of palm trees. Before I came to Miami, I received an e-mail reminding the future volunteers to be flexible like the palm trees, who despite terribly powerful hurricanes, remain standing by enduring incredible stress and bending with the winds. While living here, I’ve been learning more about these hearty trees. Palm trees are constantly shedding their outer layers in order to grow. As they grow, the rings around the outside of the trunk increase in number, showing their age outwardly. Unlike many other trees, palm trees bear fruit in all seasons. In Psalm 92:12-15, it says “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

I pray that I remember to bend and sway with the winds of the world while continuing to shed my outer layers as I grow. As I grow, may I continue to share the wisdom I obtain through each year. Finally, may I be reminded to bear the fruits of His labor in every season of life.

Posted by: feltface | September 29, 2011

Birthday

Birthdays are great. In my life, many of my fondest memories are celebrating with close friends every year. I love birthdays so much, I even remember many of my friends birthday party themes from childhood. Shout out to my mom for the best “Where’s Waldo” birthday party in the history of this world. Contrary to popular belief, I’ve learned birthday celebrations aren’t a birth right. Today, a child told me his birthday is 2 years from now. He was 9 years old and struggled to understand what I meant when I asked for his birth date.

A coworker and I later discussed that many of the children living in our farm worker camp don’t know their own birthdays, in theory, because so many of their parents are more focused on hiding from immigration so things like birthdays aren’t as relevant and really, if you’re never formally writing it down for documentation, how easily would you remember it? Birthday celebrations are a luxury I’ve taken for granted. Today I asked at least ten children to fill out a simple form with their names and birthdates, and every single one of them required assistance in figuring out what year they were born based on how old they thought they were and then literally counting backwards. Most of these children were between the ages of 7 and 13. A 9 year old girl who couldn’t articulate her own birthday, later described to me in graphic detail how one of her brothers was shot in the head and the other brother sliced open with a knife in El Salvador.

It’s one thing if you want to go with the immigration theory, but that doesn’t explain why a client I tested today had the same issue. She’s not running from immigration, in fact she’s an American citizen. When I asked her how old she was, she replied, “Well, I was born in 1978.. so.. 1988.. 1998.. 2008.. plus 3.. I guess I’m 33?”. She was sober, articulate and well groomed, but in visible emotional distress. I haven’t been able to shake that testing session all day.

My heart aches for this world and the harsh realities that could bring a 33 year old woman to lose track of her own age and children to miss out on smearing icing all over their faces and pinning a cardboard tail on a paper donkey. I pray for healing, for peace amidst confining circumstances and for future celebrations.

Posted by: feltface | September 28, 2011

Safety

What does it mean to be safe? Who decides when and where you’re safe? The longer I live in Miami, the more I realize safety is all relative. Safety applies to a lot of different things, but in my life recently, safety in the areas of neighborhoods and HIV are the most relevant.

I realize my concept of safety in neighborhoods is largely based on other people’s opinions. Back home, I avoided certain areas based on other people advising me that they weren’t safe. When I moved to Miami, I found myself doing the same thing. It’s only natural, especially when you’re new to an area, you depend heavily on the experience of others. However, how certain are you that this advice is coming from a legit experience or just a perceived one? I love my little neighborhood in Florida City. I also love the looks I get when I tell people I live in Florida City. To make it relevant to people reading back home, it’s essentially like telling people I live in Huntington or Anacostia, depending on the neighborhood. People talk about this place like the city is plagued, and that makes me so sad, because it’s not. I’m well aware that if my friends from home were driving through where I live now, they would certainly question my judgment. While I’ve only been here a little shy of two months, I’m noticing a totally different perception of what it means to be safe. Though I don’t go wandering around my neighborhood alone at night, I also don’t go to bed in fear every night. I trust the people I live around and am quickly breaking my own subconscious stereotypes that all people living in poverty are out to get you. It’s so silly, when you verbalize it. In a way, living my life in an upper middle class bubble has allowed me to dehumanize the people who struggle. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I feel it’s important to admit. I don’t say this to mean it’s wise to walk through the hood making it rain $20 bills with reckless abandon, however, I think it’s important to define “the hood” for yourself and not let other people taint your looking glass.

In terms of HIV, I’m getting more passionate about awareness every single day. Prior to coming to Miami, my knowledge of HIV was super limited, and to be honest, I was content with that. I couldn’t have even told you the different between HIV/AIDS or feel completely confident listing the various ways you can contract it, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of you as well. I encourage everyone to do their research as it’s so, so, so important to know. As I continue to meet more clients and my social scene is largely populated with HIV positive people, my heart breaks over and over. Everyone thinks it doesn’t apply to them. Everyone thinks they’re “safe enough”. What does that even mean?! Black, White, Hispanic, gay, straight, old, young, rich, poor, careless and careful.. no one is exempt or invincible and I’m so tired of hearing people who say HIV doesn’t apply to them. Based on the risk factors we’re required to ask people when testing and counseling, I worry so much for some of my close friends who I know would just be bubbling in that risk factor sheet left and right. Why do people think they’re safe just because their partner tells them they’re only sleeping with them? Why do we take someone’s word for it? It terrifies me how often someone’s sexual history is deemed irrelevant in the interest of one “good” night. Why do we settle for that? Is it worth living with a virus for the rest of the life that will cost you over $360,000 in treatment costs (assuming you live as long as possible) and will very likely eventually die from complications of the virus? Why do we let other people decide what’s safe for us?

I’ll step off my soap box, but coming from a place of love, I’d encourage you to do two things. First, stop allowing others to tell you where and where you shouldn’t go. In fact, if they tell you not to go somewhere, I challenge you to go there. Go to that place with confidence and enough money to buy a candy bar. Eventually, I hope you’ll go to that place again and perhaps make a friend. People are hurting. They’re not rabid animals. Secondly, find a clinic or an agency that provides testing services, bonus if you find a free one like mine, and get yourself tested. It’s irrelevant if you’ve been married for 30+ years and only slept with one person or if you’re spending every night in a different bed.. it’s important to know your status. In the end, we’re all our own best advocates; let’s think for ourselves.

Posted by: feltface | September 21, 2011

Diving In

I survived my first health fair! In addition to daily walk-in clients at our office, the agency I work for puts on monthly health fairs in specifically targeted areas of South Dade. Since HIV carries so much stigma, we draw people out to our health fairs by offering other services such as blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol screenings and offering free bags of condoms. Our mission is HIV, but sadly, we know the reality that people just don’t like accepting how huge the threat of HIV is to our communities. We offered bags of groceries to the first 60 people to get tested and gave out hot dogs, chips and soda all day long. Despite the necessity of incentives, I was happy when people expressed excitement to get tested, not just to get our free handouts.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I was certified last Friday as an HIV Tester and Counselor. Today, I jumped in with both feet and a blindfold. I tested 20 people for HIV today! I was mega nervous just doing the skits during the licensure class, so I expected real life clients to eat me for breakfast. What a relief that the real thing wasn’t like that at all! It’s funny how people lie though. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get why they do. It’s mega awkward to walk up to a tween-looking white girl and divulge your entire sexual past in five minutes. What kills me is when people answer “no” to all my questions, saying they’ve never had any form of sex, never shared needles, never had sex without a condom, etc, and then I get to the last question where I ask how many partners they’ve had in the last year, and they answer truthfully. What?! The cute part is, most of them don’t realize how they contradict themselves, nor that I then proceed to go through the list again and get honest answers. Silly people. Another thing that struck me was how 90% of the people I tested had at one point been in jail or prison and were less shy about sharing that than they were about their sexual history. I’m pretty sure before today, I knew maybe two people in my life who had ever spent any time in jail. Today, it was rare to find someone who hadn’t. What’s up, culture shock?

I have a brand new sense of confidence in my job and my abilities to perform. I was humbled that my boss threw me into the mix of counselors who have been testing for years without hesitation. After an exhausting day, two of my coworkers took me to dinner. I’m continually reminded of how blessed I am to be here and how much love is being poured out on me in this community. Funny how I thought I was coming here to be the giver, not the receiver.

Today, I feel blessed by so many communities up and down the coast that love on me even when I don’t think I need it.

Posted by: feltface | September 19, 2011

Ripe

My roommates and I have been anxiously awaiting the ripening of a fruit called Mamey Sapote that we bought from Robert Is Here fruit stand a few weeks ago. It’s supposedly a popular fruit in Mexico and Central America, similar in to a melon in appearance, the texture of a sweet potato and is most commonly used in smoothies and ice cream. It’s rumored to taste like pumpkin pie. Or so we thought. Google research also told me that if you eat some sappy part of the fruit, you might die. No pressure. The verdict: a picture’s worth a thousand words.

On a more serious note, a situation I encountered today brought me great stress as well as a renewed sense of appreciation. My boss and I went up to the transportation office to get monthly bus passes to give to our HIV positive clients so they have fewer excuses to miss doctor appointments. A man came in while we were waiting, explaining that his bus pass was stolen and he had been sent to several different offices and finally wound up here. The woman behind the window was less than excited about helping him and basically gave him the run-around and told him to go somewhere else. He was visibly sweaty and stressed out. They bantered back and forth before she finally gave him a specific name of someone to speak to in the other office she was sending him to. He left limping and frustrated but compliant. He was a disabled veteran. I felt so sick while I was watching this debate go down, I literally thought I might need to remove myself from the room and vomit. I’m well aware of the inadequate treatment and services for veterans, but the reminder of this today brought me great sadness because I don’t know where we start to fix this. As I continue to encounter these desperate realities of our broken world, I feel repeatedly defeated because it’s like I’m up against a monster with 8,000 legs. There are so many intricacies and twisted wires and the pieces to the puzzle seem miles apart. Despite my defeat, I find peace in knowing we serve a sovereign God. To Him, the wires are beautifully woven, not tangled. To Him, the puzzle pieces are only as far as the swipe of a finger.

Today, I feel blessed by my friends in the military. I’m thankful that they continue to believe in the mission despite the resistance and conflict they experience on a daily basis both here in the states and overseas. I’m thankful that they continue to learn and grow and believe in something bigger than themselves despite the broken system. I love you guys.

Posted by: feltface | September 18, 2011

Forced Conversation

Before I left for Florida, I expressed my excitement for the opportunity to brush up on my Spanish. In a way, I admit, that’s one of those things that sounds good when you say it. I’ve found the challenging part is actually owning that. If I’m being honest with myself, I know it’s a pride thing. I don’t enjoy being incompetent; not many people do. I don’t want to do something if I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it 110%. I’m a perfectionist, and will go to great lengths to avoid something if I feel I can’t perform well. I need to let go of that. My journey down the road to Spanish immersion in Miami began with two words, “es agua”.

One Saturday morning, I was drinking a cup of water while I drove to work. The condensation from my cup dripped conveniently in the same spot on my lap. I figured it would dry and forgot about it. As I was standing next to a table of children at work, I noticed a little girl whispering to her friend and pointing to the wet spot on my pants. I was the only English speaker in a room full of 40+ Hispanics. I looked that little cherub right in the face with a smile and said “es agua”. At first she just stared at me. I could tell she was stunned that I understood her poking fun of the gringa who peed herself. After she got over the initial shock, they both began to giggle and in that moment, there was a cute little understanding that we established. She caught me and I caught her. It’s like we were mentally high-fiving each other and it didn’t matter what language we spoke. I wish I could say every encounter was that easy.

There have been several times at work where I have reluctantly answered the phone, knowing there’s about a 90% chance the caller will be speaking Spanish and expect the same from me, since the rest of my co-workers are all native speakers. I shamefully confess there have been a few times I’ve been stubborn and tried to force through in English, but the callers just sat in silence and confusion. In moments like that, I’m learning to suck up my pride and say to myself, “here goes nothing”. Thankfully, everyone I’ve graced with my broken Spanish hasn’t even batted an eye and has been very patient. God bless them.

In other news, I finished my certification course to be an HIV Counselor. It was an incredibly intense few days packed with invaluable information about both the virus as well as counseling practices. It was frightening to hear the lack of education and knowledge that my classmates and the other members of our community have on basic safe sex practices and the risks involved in carelessness. Also, I will admit that after learning about the bazillion ways one can contract different forms of Hepatitis, my germaphobia has returned with a vengeance. I’m in the process of trying to come up with a creative yet non-offensive way to never shake people’s hands. I’m thinking most of the older generation would be lost with a fist-bump, however hugging strangers might expose me to other things, not to mention social awkwardness. Haha, you probably think I’m kidding about this, but I’m seriously considering ways to not ever touch hands. Judge me. I also learned, that hand sanitizer only kills bacteria, not viruses. So much for all my tiny little bottles of sanity.

After a long, exhausting week of training, I spent the weekend relaxing my brain on South Beach and in glorious drum circles in Little Haiti. Today I continued my church shopping. I will reserve my reflections for now, because I feel it’s best to attend multiple services to get a good feel for any church before deciding if it’s a good fit. I will say that when the entire congregation linked hands to pray at the end of the service, I was humbled in that moment, despite my recently renewed germaphobia. I know some people who might think that’s a little too kum-baya, but really, I’ve always enjoyed some of the cheesy, campfirey aspects of Christianity.

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