Hearing Across Culture: The True Service

Author Michelle Muñiz-Vega (pictured above, on the left) is the City Director of DOOR:Miami

Author Michelle Muñiz-Vega (pictured above, on the left) is the City Director of DOOR:Miami

A couple of years ago, I remember telling my roommate “give me a break” because I was directly translating from Spanish a phrase that works just as the same as “excuse me” (“Dame un breakecito”). The look on my roommate’s face was priceless. I’m pretty sure she even voiced a: “geez, sorry I’m on your way”. I didn’t understand her reaction until I realized she felt I was being rude. Of course, saying: “give me a break” has a different connotation in English, but I didn’t know that. I learned it that day. She was in front of the drawer and I asked her to let me open it just like I used to do back home. Interestingly enough, we had the opportunity to explain ourselves in that exact moment. We laughed about it and went on with whatever we were doing afterwards. However, that opportunity doesn’t come that often. In any other scenario I would stay confused with why Molly was mad at me when I asked her that, and Molly would’ve thought I was suddenly just rude.

Culture is such an important thing in people’s identity. It’s not only about language. Culture is reflected in lifestyles, traditions, food, music, and beliefs. It’s reflected in how we dress, how we greet, the time we arrive to places, and the amount of water we pour in our coffee. Many times we find ourselves judging someone else without realizing the cultural implications that influence their actions.

Unfortunately, Church isn’t the exception for this struggle. I’ve seen church leaders overlooking other voices just because they somehow question the status quo. How can we be mindful of the cultural differences and work towards reconciliation and true inclusiveness? How can we be intentional in paying attention to voices or actions that are different to ours? How others can challenge us to develop more empathy? How willing are we to deconstruct our beliefs and lifestyles by learning and being sensitive to how others do life?

One of the things that has been challenging for me is realizing how individualistic culture in the States is. Latino culture is very community-oriented and I’ve found myself expecting the same things I get back home. What I identify –many times- as a lack of empathy and commitment to the people around could be perhaps, that culture is built that way. The focus is just different. I’ve learned that the hard way, through many disappointments and misunderstandings. However, I can now see myself understanding many dynamics and being able to set different expectations.

Ever since I read this tweet from author Rachel Held Evans I’ve reflected a lot about this: “Church: Listen to, look out for, and lift up the people on the margins. And let them lead.” I can see how people are “invited” to conversations or spaces, but the process ends there.

I see a lot of churches welcoming “everybody”, yet not empowering all of them. Disempower doesn’t necessarily come by not putting them in leadership positions, but by also shutting down any feedback or thought. People are still pushed out from the spaces they are supposedly “welcomed”. They aren’t voiceless, but they struggle all the time getting their voices heard, or perhaps, understood. It’s like we are lost in translation, even with our actions.

I can clearly remember a lady firmly telling me “Oh, we are in America! We speak English here!” while I was chatting with a friend in a hotel in Daytona Beach, FL. What affected me the most wasn’t the rant itself, or the anger that it was transmitted with (although that definitely threw me off). What still bothers me is that I didn’t know how to respond. I was left in that elevator -next to my friend- completely speechless. The elevator doors opened right after the lady spoke and she immediately left. I wasn’t able to say anything. I wasn’t ready to be defensive in another language. I’ve never been in that position. I felt so powerless; I had so many emotions at the same time. I still carry that feeling of frustration. I didn’t know how to speak up.

I know for sure many people struggle with things like this every Sunday in church or, even worse, on a daily basis. I wonder how many of my friends and colleagues feel their opinions and actions are constantly overlooked or judged. How many still speak up and are constantly shut down and, how many stay in silence just to avoid reactions like the one I got in that elevator? How much of that struggle comes just because of cultural differences, just because we deal with conflict in a different way?

When it comes to bring people from different places together we may forget the power dynamics that are inevitably present. We invite them (or we should do so) to bring their perspective, not to make them assimilate to the majority. Unfortunately, minorities or different groups constantly struggle being forced to play by the rules of a dominant culture. If they share their thoughts, they may sound like they are complaining. Their silence, on the other hand, perpetrates the dominance of people that are indifferent to other points of views. Now, depending who’s telling the story, is how it’s going to be interpreted.

What makes me sad is that these responses do not look too far away from the “we are in America, and that’s how we get things done” rhetoric. I’ve heard things in church that make me feel the same way I feel when I hear someone saying: “Build that wall!”. How could we have a sense of belonging if our input is always being questioned? How can someone feel empowered around us if we constantly misinterpret their actions?

When we pay attention to other people’s stories we are serving them. We need to pay attention, look out for, and lift up the people that bring different experiences to the table. Even if those testimonies come in different languages, or different food tastes.

Creating spaces like that also brings a challenge. I still regret the day I asked one of our Miami YAVs/Dweller to pray in Korean in front of a group that was in town for a mission trip. After she started praying people started to laugh. This happened literally inside a church sanctuary, with church people. I still reflect in how big was my responsibility of creating a space like this without being fully aware of the repercussions. I thought I was building a bridge, but I was actually exposing a wall, and didn’t know what to do. And there was I, using my position to open up a space that ended up putting somebody in an extremely vulnerable position.

We need conversations like the one I had with Molly, where both parts share their position. We need more conversations with people like the lady at that elevator in Daytona Beach, where with grace and love we reflect in how we can show another side of the story. We need more conversations about how we make coffee. And yes, we also need to talk about moments when we are mocked and feel disempowered. This needs to be a 2-way conversation, but there also needs to be a lot of listening.

Being exposed to other stories will challenge us to remember that the way we do life is not the only way. It means we’ll be intentional of not imposing our way of doing things, and when we find ourselves in a different position, we’ll be willing to let others lead us. Some may need to let go power, and some may need to speak up.

Learning to navigate these waters is hard. People live with fear, insecurities and frequent disappointments because of other people that aren’t willing to hear across culture. Some need to hear across culture to survive, others could live without caring about it.

Hearing across culture is a challenge that we as individuals (and as the Church, of course) have to take more seriously. Talking about diversity just for the sake of the demographic represented during a Sunday morning doesn’t mean we are doing the whole work. We need to share spaces with people that don’t look like us. We need to hear stories. We need to get educated. Even learning another language will open up a whole new world. Look around and reflect if the people you spend most of the time looks and thinks just like you. If they do, get out of there.

I may never understand what it means to be in everyone shoes, but when we are able to hear across language and culture we experience what it means to serve one another.

You Make Beautiful Things Out of Dust

Russ Kerr was a 2014-15 Miami Dwell/YAV participant. Photo credit: Joe Tobiason

Russ Kerr was a 2014-15 Miami Dwell/YAV participant. Photo credit: Joe Tobiason

A friend posted a quote the other day that read, “a year from now the things you’re stressing about won’t mean anything.” While it was a little more inappropriate, its message was oddly comforting to me despite its employment of an approach avoidance tactic. Is that what it’s like a year out? The feeling that everything you stressed about doesn’t matter anymore?

Today I had the honor of attending Farm Church in Durham, N.C. I was captivated when the pastor, Rev. Allen Brimer, mentioned his vision for turning Farm Church into a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) site where volunteers run various urban gardens across the city of Durham for a year. And isn’t the YAV alumni community AMAZING? Of course I had to approach him after the service to hear more about his dream for Farm Church. I love meeting YAV alum chasing dreams and making them realities—lawyers, doctors, new worshiping community starters. It’s absolutely fascinating. A completely unexpected encounter I know that God placed into my life in this very time and this very place.

Today we sang the words, “you make beautiful things out of dust.” I’ll admit after my Dwell/YAV year with DOOR Miami I felt like dust. I felt washed out and what some people call, “YAV hungover.” Which really is just shear exhaustion. It’s how I feel now completing my first unit of CPE from this summer but this time I leave recognizing the fatigue having learned it from the year before. Did the feelings that I feel, the exhaustion, the things I stressed about during my Dwell/YAV year matter? It’s a hard question to answer because now, they don’t.

But to some extent, yes. They did matter. The things that caused me pain. The range of emotions I felt. The odd tension of holding excitement for the future and nostalgia for the past? Yes! Yes! Yes! What my friends Facebook post didn’t account for was the information. My pain informs me. My emotions inform me. The encounters and interactions were genuine and they inform who I became. They shaped me, molded me, and turned me into the messy beautiful work of art in God’s eyes that both you and I are. And that is good news! It’s good news that we are not robots trained to only take in the good and block out the bad.

There’s a messed up world around us that you will be awoken to or in tuned with during your YAV year. The world is an extremely vulnerable place. But Brene Brown and the last year taught me about combating vulnerability. As Rupert NaCoste spoke in a recent lecture, “I know things will get better because they always have.” Pretty hard to process after a year of living with your heart on your sleeve. A year of trying to get along with roommates and a small budget. A year of navigating different spiritual dimensions.

So what have I learned in the past year? Trust and be vulnerable. It’s simultaneously the hardest and scariest things to do together. To future Dwellers and YAVs, good luck. No matter how exhausted, frustrated, or vulnerable you feel, you’re doing the work. There will be days where you think you are not doing the work. Or the burden of the work of social change feels too heavy. There’s a big scary world out there that seeks your trust. It needs you. And as the song continues, “All around, hope is springing up from this old ground out of chaos life is being found in you…you make beautiful things out of dust.” And while it’s talking about God, I have to beg the question, what about you? You, too, can make beautiful things out of dust as the divine works through you. Go and do great things!  



RUSS KERR is a 2nd year M.Div student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, V.A. He is a 2014-15 Miami Dwell/YAV alumni who spent his year working as a Community Organizer with Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida. He is excited for Gods calling and tries his hardest every day to live into that mystery. Other than guest blogging he enjoys ice cream, other people’s pets, and new music recommendations. You can read more about his Dwell/YAV experiences at http://www.miamiyavruss.wordpress.com.    

Isabella Mojares - DOOR Miami

Isa is 18 years old and is a member of Central Presbyterian Church in Miami. She just graduated from Coral Reef High School and is getting ready to go to Kenyon College in Gambier, OH.

Isa is 18 years old and is a member of Central Presbyterian Church in Miami. She just graduated from Coral Reef High School and is getting ready to go to Kenyon College in Gambier, OH.

Working this summer with DOOR has been a blessing that I never saw coming. I mean, I knew I’d have fun, I knew it’d be a great experience, but I didn’t expect to love what I was doing so much and to be so passionate about it.

Just a short month ago I was thinking about what a bummer this job would be, since I’d be out of town for all the festivities and such before everyone left for summer semester. Sure, there were plenty of parties and get-togethers in the time that I was working, and sure it’s wasn’t fun to see it all go down on social media, but there was really nowhere I’d rather be than Miami Shores, usually hanging out in the DOOR office.

Despite the fact that I worked almost every day from 6:30 in the morning and kept going (with the occasional office nap...oops) ’till around 9:30 or 10 pm at night, I loved every minute of it. From dealing with fussy leaders, to hearing the kids talk about their day (or about anything in general), it’s been a wonderful experience.

One of the best parts of this whole experience, however, was working with and meeting all the different DOOR staff and program participants. From Michelle, Danny, and Shinhye, to the rest of the YAVs, they’ve been so kind and so much fun to be with – I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Really, there’s rarely a boring time when I’m with them. They’re the type of people who are comfortable to be around when we’re making jokes, but also comfortable to be around in times of silence (that’s what happens when 3/4 of us are introverts). We’ve cooked ground beef together, navigated through tricky leaders’ meetings together, and (most of all... most often of all) eaten plantain chips together.

The time I have spent with them has been both life giving and empowering. The conversations we’ve had have pushed me out of my comfort zone, have made me aware of the privileges I do and don’t have, and have made me rethink the way I see myself and envision my future. From Michelle and Shinhye, I’ve come to view language and life in a new light. Their stories about their experiences arriving to the States and the struggles that came along with that move have made me more aware of my identity as a person of color, and have debunked my single story about those who are still picking up English as a second language. In Quinten, I’ve found someone who can relate to my nerves about moving to a place completely different than the place I’ve called home all my life. Going along with that, our book discussion pushed me out of my comfort zone to talk about race, a topic that leaves many uneasy; a topic that I admit to not having enough confidence and knowledge to speak up about. Through Natalie and Danny, I’ve found even more pride in my identity as a member of the PC(USA), and have questioned what else is out there that can help me further explore my faith. Because of Patrick, I’ve recognized the importance of diving head-first into things, whether it be initiating a conversation with someone new, or ordering your food in a language you don’t speak.

On a more personal note, my time as a Discerner really let me think and reflect about a lot of things, especially with the multitude of changes coming my way in the fall. The time apart from my parents was helpful (and healthy), something that will definitely help us in the process of me moving away from home. I’ve also had time to reflect about what I want to do next, and what my priorities really are. Through my time with DOOR, I’ve discerned (pun not intended) that there is a difference between doing something you love, and doing something you love that helps others.

All in all, it’s been a great ride. The conversations that I’ve had this summer and the dialogues I’ve heard are some of the best I’ve ever (and probably will ever) had. Everything has been a renewing, refreshing, and learning experience all wrapped up into one. Though my time with DOOR seemed to have started so quickly, and come to a close just as fast, the fact that I got to experience and live it was enough of a blessing.

DOOR Atlanta welcomes Chad Wright Pittman!

DOOR is pleased to announce that Chad Wright Pittman has been hired as the DOOR Atlanta City Director. Chad will join Justin Chambers, National Recruitment Associate and Atlanta Assistant City Director, to run DOOR’s programming in the city.

Chad describes himself as a serial optimist, husband, musician, artist, and theologian who grew up in Knoxville, TN. He received his BM in Music Education at Middle Tennessee State University in 2010, and worked as Youth Ministry Director at First Presbyterian Church of Murfreesboro (TN) during his time there. He spent a year with the DOOR program in Denver and then a year with the YAV program in New Orleans where he gained experience in social work and chaplaincy. Through those experiences and in his time at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Chad has discovered a deep passion for empowering people to connect their faith, gifts and passions with service and love for the community. A candidate for ordination in the PCUSA and recent MDiv graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, he and his wife Lauren are learning to love the uniqueness of Atlanta and hope you’ll visit and catch a glimpse of the beautiful things God is doing here!

DOOR looks forward to having Chad and his passion for the church and Atlanta join the staff team on July 5, 2016. 


DOOR Los Angeles Welcomes Elizabeth Leu!

DOOR Los Angeles is excited to introduce Elizabeth Leu, our new Los Angeles City Director! Elizabeth is from Texas and moved to LA in 2010 to attend Fuller Seminary. She has a deep compassion and empathy for those experiencing injustice and oppression, having grown up as a minority woman in a broken family. Her faith and commitment in Christ empower her to seek reconciliation and life-changing transformative opportunities in the community by the power of the Holy Spirit. With experience in both business and ministry fields, she seeks to use her talent and gifts to serve God in this community. Previously, Elizabeth worked at three multicultural churches, and she continues to feel called to do racial reconciliation work. In addition to working with our Discover, Discern, and Dwell programs, she is excited to partner with other churches and ministry networks. She believes Los Angeles is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and everyone should come to LA to experience the wonderful things God is doing here.

DOOR Hollywood to Change Name

We are excited to let you know that DOOR Hollywood is in a process of changing our name to DOOR Los Angeles!  We have always worked in the greater LA area, and, especially the last four years, God has clearly been building our program towards increased intercultural ministry and reconciliation work. We are still located in Hollywood, the storytelling heart of LA, and be sure to keep your ears open for the larger launch party sometime later this year!

Powell to Conclude Service with DOOR

A longtime Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR) staff member, Tonya Powell, has announced that she will conclude her service with DOOR in June 2016.

In her four years with DOOR, Powell has served as DOOR Atlanta City Director. As Atlanta City Director, Powell oversaw the weeklong Discover program, hosting an average of 440 youth and college service participants per year. She also guided 17 young adults through the yearlong Dwell program, helping them discern God’s call in their lives while engaging them in civil rights history and continuing systemic issues. Powell worked to increase the impact of the Discern program, predominantly hiring local young adults to serve as summer staff, develop leadership and professional skills, engage vocational discernment, and build faith and spiritual practices. Powell worked with 30 young adults, primarily from the Atlanta area, helping them pursue school, employment, and leadership opportunities beyond DOOR.

DOOR thanks Powell for her years of dedicated service and wishes her well in her next ventures.

Tired of Talking About Racism

by Tonya Powell, Atlanta City Director

I am sick and tired of talking about racism.

I am sick and tired of talking about racism when I serve a God who is love. Lately all the race talks I have had reek of some underlying hatred with no one trying to understand anything. Don't get me wrong, it is almost unbelievable to have a job with an organization that does staff book studies and even hosts BCC meetings where someone who looks like me can freely speak their mind. A job where city directors across the country bravely try to tear down the walls of racism and teach understanding through service work and reflections. But I am tired of talking about racism when there is so much hatred that I have to respond to.

This week we have over 40 Discover participants. We have had a fun week so far. Tonight I had the opportunity to drive one of our participants back to the church after we finished a service project. It was just the two of us in the car. Our conversation was great. She has such a great spirit and it was awesome just to have her positive energy around. Then her phone buzzed and I noticed her face dropped. I asked if she was ok. She told me she was but she was trying to make plans to meet her aunt and have dinner with her while she was in town. I told her I was happy that she was able to do that. She responded that she wasn't. She continued to tell me how her aunt was prejudiced against people of color. How she knew the dinner would be hard because her aunt would probably say some offensive things about people of color during their dinner. She said she would not even allow her aunt to pick her up from the church because she was afraid of what her aunt may say to the people she saw there. The more she talked the sadder I became. I heard her say most of her family feels this way except for her mom who "taught me to love everybody." I told her so did mine.

I thought she was brave to share all that she had with me, but I wondered how many more of our participants had the same issues. Then I was reminded of how important it is for us to talk about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. this week. I am so sick of talking about racism, but tonight we both agreed with our mothers that God is love and we should love everyone!

To know that people who don't even know me hate me because of the color of my skin is my reality. However, this reality does not make me feel any less. I love the color of my skin. I can't help that stereotypes help allow others to look down on me. No, I am not the stereotype of the angry black woman because I am naturally quiet, but when I do speak, I speak my mind. That's not anger, that's confidence. I am not only confident, but I am strong. I have great reasons to be confident and strong. Not only am I the seed of Abraham, but I also am the seed of slaves who endured captivity, a treacherous boat ride, ridicule, and shame. Yet my ancestors survived. I am the seed of a grandfather who, although hated in this country for being a person of color, still had enough dignity to go to another country who hated him even more and defend this country and its citizens of all races in WWII. I am so sick of talking about racism, but if I never talk about it how can I help others to better understand?

Schmitt to Conclude Service in May 2016

A longtime Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR) staff member, Matthew Schmitt, has announced that he will conclude his service with DOOR in May 2016.

In his eight years with DOOR, Schmitt has served as DOOR Hollywood City Director and as DOOR Staff Care Coordinator. As Hollywood City Director, Schmitt oversaw the weeklong Discover program, hosting an average of 260 youth and college service participants per year. He also guided 46 young adults through the yearlong Dwell program, helping them discern God’s call in their lives while engaging them in addressing the root causes of homelessness and other systemic issues. Schmitt worked with Marvin Wadlow, former DOOR Hollywood Assistant City Director, to increase the impact of the Discern program, predominantly hiring local young adults to serve as summer staff, develop leadership and professional skills, engage vocational discernment, and build faith and spiritual practices. Schmitt and Wadlow worked with over 30 young adults from the DOOR Hollywood neighborhood, helping them pursue school, employment, and leadership opportunities beyond DOOR.

Schmitt and Wadlow focused on building more bridges between faith, service, racial reconciliation, and social justice in all of Hollywood’s programs. They often encouraged supporters and former participants to ask deep questions about dominant narratives, to set tables of dialogue and fellowship across common racial divisions, and to engage these topics through social media beyond their time in Hollywood.

As Staff Care Coordinator, Schmitt took on a pastoral role, regularly connecting with fellow city directors to share frustrations and joys.

DOOR thanks Schmitt for his years of dedicated service and wishes him well in his next ventures.

Wadlow to Conclude Service

Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR) Hollywood staff member Marvin Wadlow Jr will conclude his service with DOOR at the end of December.

In his three years with DOOR, Wadlow has served as DOOR Hollywood Assistant City Director. Wadlow had a major impact on all of Hollywood’s programs, increasing the focus on the connection between faith and racial reconciliation and social justice. While he worked with the Discover and Dwell programs, Wadlow’s biggest contribution was to the Discern program. Discern is a program that hires local young adults to serve as summer staff, develop leadership and professional skills, engage vocational discernment, and build faith and spiritual practices. Wadlow worked with over 20 young adults from the DOOR Hollywood neighborhood, helping them pursue school, employment, and leadership opportunities beyond DOOR. He has also been instrumental in developing a Discern program curriculum now being used across the DOOR network.

DOOR thanks Wadlow for his years of dedicated service and looks forward to the ways we will continue to work together.

DOOR San Antonio has closed.

San Antonio joined the DOOR network in 2004, continuing the work of the previous SALSA program.

In 11 years with DOOR, San Antonio helped shape the lives of thousands of young people. Over 4,800 participants came through the Discover program, learning about faith and social issues through service. The San Antonio Dwell program hosted 39 young adults for a year of service and reflection, listening for God’s call in their lives. San Antonio also worked with 76 Discern summer staff participants, most of them local young adults, and helped them develop leadership skills to speak for their faith and communities.

The DOOR San Antonio local board and staff were instrumental in pushing the Discern program to focus on local young adults and in pioneering what it means to have local urban young adults participate in the yearlong Dwell program.

The DOOR network thanks San Antonio for its years of dedicated service.

Blog: We see you…te vemos

As I stood outside and looked up at the jail window cells and saw the tiny windows where I know inmates where looking down at us, I wish I had made a sign that said “We care for you, we love you, pray for you, forgive you, and fight for you. You are not forgotten.” Although I did not have that sign, I imagine that our presence alone and what we were declaring meant something to the men in the correctional facility. It’s like another woman speaker had stated, “I pray being here reminds these men that they are not forgotten. We still see them.” I hope that the imprisoned men grasped the message we all desired to give them: one of love, care, support, forgiveness and of not forgetting or leaving them behind.

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Blog: Marinating on Orientation

So here I am. Three weeks in. A bit settled in, but yet a tad bit restless still. Still trying to gather the shards of my thoughts after they were broken at Orientation.

Orientation was something else. I met so many unbelievably amazing people, and gave me faith in so many things. Lessons were taught where I not only learned things about the world around me, but also deep things about myself (like my love language might just be words). Games were played (Bunny, Bunny, and KanJam- Jam that Kan!). Stories were told that were unbelievable to hear, and that really reminded oneself to not judge a book by it’s cover.

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Blog: There’s No Room for Selfish Bridezillas in Intentional Community

After some time trying to figure out what specifically went wrong that morning, I realized the only wrong thing that happened was with myself. I was so focused on one style of music not being my preferred style that I forgot to see the beauty in my friends’ faces as they sang along with the praise band. I was so focused on trying to eat with unfamiliar utensils that I forgot to watch the joy of my housemate who was finally able to speak her mother tongue to other native speakers. I forgot that community does not mean that everyone is going to be super thrilled with what is happening all of the time, and that’s okay. I had momentarily turned into one of the bridezillas from Four Weddings who wants everybody’s wedding to be just like her own wedding. Living in intentional Christian community means that these amazing people I live and serve with are my family and, just as I want them to be happy alongside me, they deserve for me to be happy alongside them.

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Blog: the orientation by Quinten Balzer

How to start? I find myself sitting in the most iconic American town I’ve ever been in, surrounded by people the look exactly like me. It may seem weird, but white people cause me to feel uncomfortable. I grew up in a neighborhood in Denver where I was one of the only white persons, and where I was immersed in minority culture ever since I could remember.

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