Texas ESC: Recovery Corps

In response to Hurricane Harvey, Texas ESC will be partnering with organizations in Galveston County to aid in recovery, rebuilding, and reforming community. We believe that there is immense value in learning about what relief, recovery, and coping look like in the wake of natural disaster.

This is an extension of the service our members are doing in Houston and we are excited to see how this work shapes our ESC community. These service opportunities will begin in our 2018-2019 program year, starting in August. More information about our Galveston County partner sites can be found here.

If you or a young adult you know is interested in applying for ESC, our application can be found here.

Self Acceptance on a Budget

*Contents of this post include experiences with an eating disorder.*

I honestly couldn’t tell you when I first developed my eating disorder. I have a feeling that it all began sometime around the age of six or seven, but sometimes it seems as though I came out of the womb balking at the idea of being 7.2 ounces.

To be specific, I suffer from a disorder called “Orthorexia nervosa.” Unlike Anorexia nervosa or Bulimia, this disorder is marked by an obsessive concern with exercise and the perceived “cleanliness” or “purity” of foods. Basically, if I had all the money in the world, my pantry would look almost exactly like Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Now, one may wonder why this is such a bad thing. After all, isn’t it good to want to eat healthy foods and go to the gym?

Not always. At my worst, I will dream about healthy recipes, have nightmares about eating mountains of cinnamon buns (which sounds absolutely amazing now that I’ve recovered), and cannot for the life of me shut up about diet and exercise despite the fact that I can see my friends become bored, irritated, and concerned with my unceasing Women’s Health jargon. My body, for all intents and purposes, becomes the only part of me that I care about.

My last relapse was over two years ago now, and for a long time, I was too afraid to begin cooking. Too afraid to buy produce or bread just in case I began scouring labels for nutritional content again, or tried to purge all unhealthy fats from my diet. In order to avoid this eventuality, I decided to simply live off prepackaged foods, avoid exercise, and simply try not to think about my body. This strategy worked, though I felt more sluggish than usual, until I arrived in Houston, was handed my monthly grocery card, and was told that it couldn’t be used for pre-packaged foods. Crap.

For the first few months, I struggled. I ordered takeout on my own dime and struggled to decipher the loopholes of “prepackaged food.” If I bought my beloved Annie’s Mac and Cheese, was I exploiting the system? Was I really going to be able to last the year without either destroying my bank account or my sense of self-worth? Am I strong enough for this?

Spoiler Alert: I am! I’ll admit, it took some time, but with the help of my housemate, and lots of embarrassing internal pep talks, I’ve been able to incorporate both large amounts of produce, healthy fats, and goodies from the discount pastry section (the best section of all!) into my daily routine. By being forced to prepare my own food, and by building a support system to hold me accountable, I’ve come farther in my journey to self-acceptance and balance than I ever have before.

I’m able to go on walks and idly check my Health app on my iPhone without feeling the irresistible drive to add miles upon miles to the step-counter. I can gleefully purchase a tub of banana pudding without ever once feeling the desire to put it back on the shelf.

And let me tell you, I’m feeling pretty damn good.

-Valerie, Avenue CDC in Houston.

Community: the Catalyst to a Loving and Courageous Humanity

If you were to ask friends of mine what some of my favorite things to talk about are, I’m pretty sure that community would be one of them. Community is one of my favorite concepts. It is something that is not only meaningful to me, but that I am passionate about. When I look at the world around me, I wonder what could be the solutions to these distressing circumstances; I think community might be one of them.

My beliefs around community come from my spiritual practice. It actually is one of the pillars of my faith. One of Jesus’ main teachings I believe was around community, its importance, what it means and looks like, to understand that we are all a community, and that in loving, supporting, and taking care of each other we actually manifest God(dess)’s vision of the kin-dom on earth in the beloved community. This is also evident in other religions as well. Jesus was challenging the preconceived notions of who is our family, who are our neighbors. This is displayed in the way that Jesus interacted with people, in what Jesus taught, in the way that Jesus lived. Expanding care not only to our own but to others (consider the parable of the Good Samaritan), particularly in our current context where the emphasis is on the nuclear family being the main or only source of how we find and glean support, seems alternative. We have significantly limited ourselves in the ways that we can live more fulfilling, expansive lives without the support of a community to be present and journey alongside with us.

Community is about connecting with others in a way where there is investment and intention in the process of building relationships with each other. What if we did this more? What if we had a priority and deep value around creating and sustaining community? How differently would our world and society function? What challenges could be overcome, what ills would our world be healed from if we engaged in community? How would isolation, loneliness, stigmas, misunderstandings be diminished and compassion be manifested differently if we cultivated community and it was an integral part of our lives?

Community, if done well and in harmony with the positive aspects of it, can be powerful and radically life-giving. Enemies can even become allies through this endeavor. I believe that willingness to invest in a community is what makes a community, and seemingly disharmonious factors can develop positive outcomes. This mutual effort can make a big difference in how well a community will function and intentionality will determine its fruits towards the individuals that comprise it. Living intentionally and in community means vulnerability with each other and this invest of transparency can be greatly impactful. By creating safe spaces for folks to be themselves, we can encourage genuineness of self. I believe that change must have these components and come from such a place; it not only changes us, but it can in turn change the world.

Through my intentional community experience, I have learned much about other people and also about myself. I have appreciated the sharing of stories, backgrounds, and personalities. There have definitely been challenges but given the opportunity it has also been a safe space pursued, created, and valued by all to do the hard work of introspection and of genuine relating. I have been fortunate enough to have had wonderful communities in my life, from my friend community, to my faith communities, my learning community, to being a part of intentional communities. They have been what sustains me on this life journey and feel blessed when they are part of my life. I am not only who I am through of them, but it has allowed me to do better, reach higher, and dig deeper because of them.

As a year with another intentional community comes to a close, I reflect on the various factors and elements that have contributed to its success and its mishaps. I am grateful that I can live out my vocation of living in intentional community through this past service year and continue to learn what it means to be someone who comes alongside others as we individually grow and then extend that to create connections of support and care in ways that transforms us; may this continue to be the catalyst to a more loving and courageous humanity, where we are can fully embraced and fully known.

-Austin Corps Member

Little Things Add Up

My placement was nearly last minute and came out of the blue. St. Michael’s came on board to host me not two weeks before I was supposed to arrive in Austin. As a result, my job description was fairly loose and flexible. It made sense considering what my history of being a youth leader, a camp counselor, and a coordinator at a campus ministry. I looked forward to working in difference areas and going deeper into what it means to be church in today’s times.

It seemed everything fell into place. I was helping with Sunday School and youth group, helping form a non-traditional church, and coordinating an effort to help feed poor families on Thanksgiving (We raised upwards of $1000 which fed about a hundred families). I even got to preach twice. I was finding my place.

In February, though, everything changed. Our rector retired, we lost our communications specialist and our parish administrator (We hired another one soon after but we lost that person as well for reasons I won’t state). It was the four of us on staff shouldering a lot of the weight of those lost positions that kept the church running smoothly And…honestly…it involved a lot of things I didn’t like doing. Things like typing up newsletters, making sure thermostats are set, answering the phone and trying toprovide answers to questions I may or may not know the answer to, among some other things. Essentially, making sure the church ran smoothly largely depended upon some of my duties. I was working with a small margin for error.

It was and still is a bit draining, especially when it interfered with teaching responsibilities around the confirmation class I taught a few sessions of and the bible study I was leading that fizzled out as a result. But in the midst of transition, the best you can do is keep on with what you are doing. And there are some little things I was able to do that did some real good such as:

-Served at Community First Village with our confirmation class

-Set up our refugee ministries with an interview with a news reporter from Ireland

-Started making weekly orders for our Food Pantry

-And in a few days, I leave for a mission trip to Los Angeles, CA.

My main worksite duties were not ideal for me, but I gained some valuable skills that will help me greatly down the road. Things like learning how to budget my time, getting better with word documents, how to compartmentalize,  I had a few bad habits that I needed to deal with and I was able to correct them to a degree. I realized how much energy I had and what I was capable of. Then again, if it was easy I wouldn’t have grown and I’m always grateful for experiences that help me grow.

-Will, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Austin

Forgiveness as Radical Act?

I remember as a child being taught to say “sorry”, an important tenet along with with “please” and “thank you” in the mix of learning numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. It was something that was understood was needed to interact with others, even if superficially. As adults, we say sorry when we bump into someone or even slightly inconvenience a stranger. We may say sorry when we have wronged a partner or spouse. What we see on television are sometimes melodramatic scenes of intense emotions with begging, sobbing, and flowers. Though at times done in passing, apologies and forgiveness as a deeper concept is one that I think often eludes us. We understand its value, but are not quite sure how to navigate its messiness. It’s a deeply vulnerable act, one fraught at times with fear and anxiety and from a place of startling honesty. It seems simple enough: the idea is that we needed to be mindful of others, that we needed to own our mistakes and acknowledge them, and make it right with the person we have wronged, sometimes including ourselves. But like many good things, it’s easier said than done.

We have to come to a place of transparency with ourselves when we have done something that we know was not the best. There are moments when that comes on suddenly, like a pit in our stomach, other times it lingers and the realization comes after awhile, and then there are the situations when someone lets us know that something is not right. In all these instances, our sense of self is shaken. It is difficult to admit that we are not perfect or right; this is not only the case with ourselves but then to show that “weakness” to others feels mortifying, uncomfortable, distressing even.  Going through this process takes a lot of courage and even with repeated effort, each instance is a challenge.

So how do we integrate this into our daily lives when society talks about the need for forgiveness and the role it should play in our relationships, yet in our society when we look around we don’t see it really encouraged, supported, or even celebrated? We see these rare, magnificent instances where we are in admiration when someone or group of people participate in the work of forgiveness, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Quakers forgiving the perpetrator of a school shooting, or any other victims forgiving their assailants for tragic events expressed during press conferences. We live in a world that values retribution. If someone has done something wrong, they must pay the price and reap the consequences. Forgiveness is a tricky and complex thing.  Should there always be ramifications for actions and/or words of wrongdoing? Are there things that are easy to forgive or excusable or ones that are unforgivable? Do we forgive and forget? What does it mean to forgive and not forget? How does forgiveness or lack thereof impact us? Personally? Relationally? Spiritually? Psychologically?

Sadly this is not something that can be fully delved into here but I want to remind us of the importance and how imperative forgiveness is. I believe that forgiveness, in its truest and most authentic form, is actually a radical act, that goes against logical or the mythical weighing scale of rights and wrongs, which is our natural tendency. It is the anecdote to genuine and transparent relationships, between ourselves and others. It is a powerful force. One of Jesus’ core messages was about forgiveness, and people either were in awe and scoffed at him for such an idea. How different would our world be if we actually prioritized and practiced forgiveness? What if we took the time to examine and forgive ourselves for the things that we regret and keep holding on to that impede us from moving forward, stepping out and living life more fully? What would happen if we were more honest and open with/about those who have hurt us? What if we could share/engage with our pain and then go through the process of healing from these wounds? …whether we ever talk to a person and get an apology? Forgiveness has the power to restore or to destroy us, if we choose not to be partake in it. It is not neutral. We must choose which path we will take, each day as we navigate the various relationships in our lives. We must make forgiveness truly a tenet in our lives if we wish to live in to the teachings of Jesus, if we want to live lives that are liberating, whole, and full of love. There will be challenges, there will be frustration, and there will be setbacks. But as we know nothing good comes easy. May we be given the grace, courage, and strength to pursue our calling to fulfill our life’s work of reconciliation.

-Austin corps member

Our Hearts Should Do This More

I sit in the streets with the homeless

My clothes stained with the wine

From the vineyards the saints tend.

Light has painted all acts

The same color 

So I sit around and laugh all day

With my friends.

At night if I feel a divine loneliness

I tear the doors off Love’s mansion

And wrestle God onto the floor.

He becomes so pleased with Hafiz

And says,

“Our hearts should do this more.”

~ by Hafiz, “Our Hearts Should Do This More”

A thought that I keep reflecting on and has been coming back to me over and over again lately is the human capacity for such love, compassion, generosity and but also that of such hatred, unkindness, hurt. My mind is boggled by the fact that such contrasting aspects can co-exist within us. Let me explain.

It would be hard to deny that the current larger narrative going on in our society that has been brought to the forefront and been filled with, at the root, is one of the struggle of creating and navigating the boundary/idea of who is our neighbor, who is in our “group” and who is “other.” This is not a new struggle but age-old and I think one that Jesus not only cared deeply about, but was one of the pillars of his message. However, an aspect that I believe is not as explored and is often unspokenly assumed, I would argue mostly subconsciously, is that something that fuels this process, is the belief that what distinguishes us/them is the belief that at the core someone else is inherently different than ourselves, that they are evil and we are good.

There is a psychological principle that has demonstrated that when we view someone doing something we disagree with, we often attribute this to someone’s character and personality, while if we were to do something of a similar vain, we attribute this to our circumstances and don’t see it as part of our intrinsic sense of self. If this is the case, we give ourselves grace when we mess up, but are less likely to do so with others. When we hear of others committing atrocities or read news about groups of people and deem them wrong, we are essentially saying that we are not like them at all, that we would never do this or that, or even have the capacity for such acts. Based on this conception and perception, we decide that there is a division between us and these other individuals and we start to categorize, using these as indicators of who is in and who is out, who we are like and who we are not like.

However, have you had a moment when you have wondered, “Why did I do that? This was not a stellar display of positive humanity.” I think we often forget these moments or minimize them. We often choose to not focus or give clout to these times or feelings and experiences. If we did, we would be reminded and realize that we in fact to some extent do have the capacity for things and actions that make us uncomfortable, that we are not proud of, or that we disagree with. The question is what we choose to do with this knowledge and realization. Will we choose to continue to negate the full spectrum of human capacity, whether positive or negative, or will we humbly acknowledge that we also aren’t always living our best selves towards others and ourselves? If we would do the latter, how would that change the way we interact with and view other people, would we change our views on who is like us or different from us? Are we willing to live in the murkiness of this truth, to struggle and constantly humble ourselves to engage and be aware that the lines are not as hard defined, not as clear-cut, not as definite, not only in regards to others, but also within ourselves? How would this change the way we discuss with other people we disagree with? Politically? Religiously? Socially?

May we give ourselves and others grace to navigate this journey of understanding that what seemingly divides us may actually connect us, and that in doing we are doing the Spirit’s holy work within us as well as creating the beloved community.

An Exploration of Intention

Our lives are, in a sense, composed of and organized by choices. Every day I wake up, I choose what I will wear, what I will eat, how I will commute to my job, how I will treat others, what I will do with my free time, etc. It can feel like I’m living on automatic most days, just living by routine, but really I make hundreds of choices each day. For me, this year has been about deeply examining these choices I make and how they affect the health and wellness of myself, others, and the Earth.

My main source of inspiration for examining my lifestyle was primarily spiritual and environmental. About a year ago, I had a dear, and brilliant professor named Dr. Kammer who was teaching a class on ethics. He asked the class of fifty if any one of us could name all of the trees on campus. Silence. Even just one species of tree on campus?, he asked. Again, silence. It turns out we don’t know our environment very well, even though we walked amongst those trees every day.

The changes required of us to live a more sustainable life, are indeed difficult ones. Riding a bike, examining the production line of our purchases, responsibly recycling and composting – these things all cost us what we in the modern life hold dear, and don’t ever seem to have enough of: time and convenience. In order to overcome these great challenges, Dr. Kammer argued, we must be in love with the Earth, and have an intentional relationship with it. And the only way to love something or someone greatly, is to know it deeply. It requires the same basic elements of any healthy relationship: respect, care, knowing, and sufficient amounts of quality time. I wince sometimes at how hippy dippy I sound, but ever since that lesson, I’ve been trying to know this Earth deeply, and intimately.

For many months, I wasn’t sure how to go about this “falling-in-love with the Earth” thing. Do I take more walks? Do I go lay outside in the grass and examine it lovingly? Do I talk to the trees? Whisper sweet nothings to the flowers? To avoid coming off as total loon, I decided instead to simply pay more attention to the nature that’s already in my life – to become mindful of the present moment and the beauty it holds. I started to notice and appreciate the small, red berry buds on the trees outside my office. I noted how the tiny bright dots of the buds spotted the distinct hue of blue of the sky behind them. Every day I acknowledge and nurture the plants in my house. I’ve felt more and more of a connection every day. It’s been the start of a beautiful relationship.

Here are some of the practices I’ve developed in order to develop and sustain my relationship with the Earth:

  1. Walking Meditations. I hated walking meditation the first few times I tried it. It felt so pointless and counter-productive to the point of meditating. I always felt distracted. But I was reintroduced to the practice when I was working through Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Love Letters to the Earth – which I highly recommend. He notes that every step we take, is another opportunity to reconnect with our Earthly roots, and remember that we are inextricably connected and intertwined with the cosmos, that we are a part of and supported by Mother Earth. I recommend designating a time to keep yourself accountable if you’d like to give this practice a try. I’ve designated my walks to my car or to my office as walking meditation times. Which brings me to my next practice.
  2. Riding a Bike. I’m not perfect at this one. But when my schedule fits in a bike ride rather than a car ride, I never regret it. It takes a bit of extra planning and more energy from my body (which I then just count as a workout for the day), but there really is nothing in this world like it. Pumping your legs, feeling your breath and heartbeat race, and touching the energy of the air around you as it whooshes by your face – it’s entirely exhilarating. I accidentally got caught in a downpour yesterday, and it was absolutely thrilling. I was giggling like a child at the ludicrousness of it all. Cycling is a time for me to feel the Earth around me, and remember that transporting myself via human power directly results in less carbon emission (cars are acutally the #1 source of emissions in Austin).
  3. Eating Fresh & Local. Reconnecting with fresh food has had three-fold benefits for me. My body is happier with what I consume, I reduce my carbon footprint by reducing the need to transport food across the country, and I learn how to make delicious meals from the natural foods the Earth nourishes us with. As a nice side-effect, eating fresh also reduces the amount of packaging that goes to landfill, which further cares for and respects the Earth. There is something special about knowing there’s only one degree of separation between the ground that grew the food, and my consumption.

*Bonus: Try eating the food you make mindfully. By bringing yourself into the present moment with your food, you grow a deeper appreciation for what nourishes you. I can’t tell you how many times I catch myself absolutely shoveling food into my face at an alarming rate – and for no real reason at all. If I’m not doing that I’m usually in ten different places in my head , thinking about my day, what I have to do, who I need to talk to, etc. etc. When I eat, I’m rarely in the present moment. Which means I’m missing a glorious opportunity to do one of the greatest things on Earth – eating to truly taste and appreciate my food.

I could list a number of other things I’ve done in my life to live more intentionally and more in harmony with our world (sustainable fashion, hand-made toiletries, switching away from single-use items like plastic and styrofoam, etc.) but I decided to stick by brevity. I’m very thankful for this time in my life – where I have the time, space, and community support to truly explore how I want to live. Having just graduated from college, I’ve never before had this kind of time and space to do so. I’m looking forward to continuing to critically examine how I live and interact with this world.

-Gillian, Interfaith Action of Central Texas in Austin

Personal Development

I joined the service corps to “know myself” is the sense of

to thine own self be true,

and it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man


Runnin’ through the 6 with my woes

Countin’ money, you know how it goes

Pray the real live forever, man

Pray the fakes get exposed.

Upon moving to Houston, I invested most of my time and physical energy into “self-care.” Here are three examples. I learned how to budget (in Google sheets) and tithe (setting aside part of my grocery money for others). I joined the Parish Choir (at Christ Church Cathedral). I found safe spaces downtown with my METRO pass (the Tellepsen YMCA for exercise and the Julia Ideson Library for reading).

In August I waited, then petitioned, for placement at a service site. After two free weeks I interviewed with my supervisors, Shaoli and Salimah. I was hired onto the case management team at a refugee social service office.

Leading up to November, I challenged myself to study for the GRE mathematics subject test. Every Saturday through September and October, I dragged myself to UH for practice questions (on limits & series, differentiation & integration, and groups & rings). In the middle of October, I shaved my head in anxiety. At work, Shaoli joked that I got caught up with the Hare Krishnas. But yes, after I sat for the text, I was free—running outside and cartwheeling across the lawn.

As cooler weather crept in, my service work fleshed out. Salimah needed her old clients archived and fresh clients updated in the new SQL database. Shaoli needed her clients to be arranged with medical appointments, transportation, interpretation and pre-authorized health coverage. I biked (and bused) to work earlier in the morning (red light blooming over me) and stayed later at night. I chewed on the play of words “for myself, unto others; for others, unto myself.”

Waiting for the bus at the transit center, nestled against the curving circuit of the freeway exchange, I felt that I was turning inside out. At this time, I was mainly serving clients by scheduling their medical appointments and by accompanying them as they learned to catch a bus. I also applied for health care benefits and rental assistance, while instructing clients what I was doing, how they could do the same for themselves, and encouraging them to do so as soon as they built up enough English proficiency.

Administratively, I helped transition our case files out of Microsoft Office and into a standardized database. I also parsed the storage room to shred old case files and bring our archives up to grant compliance. (As I learned about a person on paper, they appeared in the office to ask for help: rental assistance, translation, et cetera.)

Since I joined the service corps I have left Texas twice, for Thanksgiving and Christmas. During Thanksgiving I stayed in my old room, but it was too familiar: steeped in lukewarm nostalgia, apparently unchanging, almost menacing. Over Christmas, I slept in my family’s computer room. The uncomfortable pull-out couch reminded me of my bed Houston: it was small, a little lumpy, and I stumbled into things when I walked around at night.

I’m back in Houston, again pushed out into its metropolitan flatland, again stranded to pedal back and forth to work on my bike, while the un-neutered cats lounge about on their roof-tops and houses of the Near Northside settle into the bayou, all of which is slow-flowing to the ocean.

As a consequence, I have a clear picture of what I want to do for Shaoli and Salimah. I’m aware that I’m going to spill out of the other end of the service corps before I know it (as if I’m calling blind down a corridor and, by its null echo, I can hear that the other side is gaping open).

It’s January and I have about 6 months left. Now or never, right?

In Solidarity,

-Colton, YMCA International Services in Houston