A New Season and New Experiences

Happy May to everyone!  It has been awhile since I updated you about my adventures here in Texas.  The last three months have been full of highs and lows for me, but mostly highs.  Back in mid-March, in connection with my immigration law work, I had the opportunity one evening to assist immigrants at San Antonio’s Greyhound bus station.  That very day, these women and children had been released from U.S. immigration detention facilities in Texas.  They were making their way across the country to live with sponsors while they awaited their next immigration court hearings.  The U.S. Government is proceeding with these immigrants’ cases such that the women and children may have to wait in legal limbo for another one to three years (or more) or so before immigration courts will decide whether they will receive asylum in the U.S.  That evening, though, they were travelers in a strange land, surrounded by a language they didn’t speak, looking forward to arriving at new homes in distant cities.  As several of us volunteers kept the immigrants company, we learned where they were headed.  One family was leaving close to midnight for Los Angeles; others were going to Houston and Florida.  We took a woman and her son to a local church, where they stayed with other immigrants before journeying the next day to Philadelphia.  As detention center guards dropped off the women and children at the bus station, we learned how to identify the newly released detainees based on the type and color of the bags (issued by the U.S. Government or nonprofits) they carried.  These seemingly trivial clues let us know whether the immigrants had been released from the Karnes or Dilley detention centers south of San Antonio; or if, instead, they had come straight from Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Texas border towns such as Brownsville, Hidalgo, or McAllen.  Perhaps most important of all was seeing the relief on the faces of the immigrants when they entered the bus station, as they realized that they were not traveling alone.  Rather, as their first point of contact after being released from detention, we helped them prepare for their journeys, and then we traveled with them in spirit to their new homes.

I have been keeping busy in lighthearted ways, too.  Back a few weeks ago, I went to the Poteet Strawberry Festival, an annual tradition dating back to the 1940s and earlier in the town of Poteet, just south of San Antonio.  An event that draws strawberry lovers and volunteers from around the world, tastiness is the theme of this occasion, and it was apparent in forms such as judged strawberry competitions, strawberry shortcake, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and strawberry ice cream.  The festival also boasted carnival rides, local merchants, and musical performances.  From the look of it, this was an event not to be missed, as miles-long traffic jams clogged every road heading into Poteet.

In mid-April, I joined several men from my host church on a weekend retreat at Lake Bastrop, east of Austin.  Though we were pounded by severe thunderstorms for part of the weekend, we nevertheless had fun together, whether hiking, throwing horseshoes, or talking about life on the Westside, our neighborhood here in San Antonio.  I found it very interesting to hear how these predominantly U.S.-Latino men have been shaped by their cultural and faith experiences here in the United States.  Some grew up in migrant worker families, moving across the country to follow harvests as the seasons changed.  Others have deep foundations in the Catholic Church, and those experiences, combined with their exposure to the Protestant Church, have given them intriguing insights into their faith.  It was wonderful to be refreshed away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Lastly, I would like to thank you all for your prayers and support, especially as I discern what I may do next year.  My term of service as a Young Adult Volunteer ends this August, and as you may know, I have applied for a second year (I can serve a total of two years).  I am considering serving in one of five different cities: Miami; New York; San Antonio; Tucson; or Washington, D.C.  All five cities would allow me to continue working with immigration issues, or branch out into related or unrelated areas.  Of note, in New York I may work at the PC(USA)’s representational mission to the United Nations.  If I work in Washington, I may be placed at the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, the Church’s government relations arm.  Please pray that regardless of whether I serve a second YAV year, that God would lead me in discerning how I can best serve Him next year.

Life in the New Year

To start off, I would like to apologize for taking so long to post this piece. My various commitments here have been changing to some extent, so I have been lax at writing an update. At any rate, I would like to thank all those of you who have supported me with your prayers, thoughts, and financial gifts. With your help, not only have I surpassed my required fundraising goal of $3,000.00—at last count, I had well over $3,100.00!—but I am happy and healthy to boot. As always, I remain grateful for all your support, regardless of its form. Once again, thank you for all your support; I greatly appreciate it, and I could not participate in this program without all that you have given me.

The last several weeks in San Antonio have been somewhat slow, but enjoyable. In my work at my immigration law practice, I started conducting application interviews with clients from El Salvador who are renewing their Temporary Protected Status (TPS) here in the United States. This relatively unknown immigration program provides limited opportunities for certain illegal immigrants to gain lawful status in this country. TPS recipients from Central America fled to the U.S. in the late 1990s after their respective home nations were ravaged by powerful hurricanes, and just recently the program was extended to include people running from Liberia and other Ebola-stricken West African countries. In theory, the program is authorized only for as long as these people’s countries are unable to guarantee minimum standards of living for their citizens. In practice, however, the countries continue to struggle to meet those standards, and so the TPS program is reauthorized for each country separately every one or two years. Life for the immigrants who receive TPS is not a cakewalk, however. They must reapply to the program every time it is reauthorized—every twelve to eighteen months or so. Just because an immigrant was approved consistently over the course of many years does not mean that he or she will receive that status yet again. Furthermore, not only does each person have to pay close to $500.00 every renewal cycle, but this also means that her permission to work legally in this country—and, therefore, his job—is put in jeopardy just about every year. Consequently, every year or two these people are subjected to the very real fear of being deported if their TPS renewal applications are not processed and approved in a timely manner.

Just today, I began working in a new position at my immigration law firm. Instead of dealing with refugees, TPS applicants, and other immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, now I am working with the cases of the Central American children and families being held at U.S. immigration detention centers in Dilley and Karnes, Texas. So as not to delay this post any longer, rest assured that I will talk more in-depth about my new work in a coming update.

To wrap up, I will leave you with a piece I recently wrote on my experiences with the homeless here in San Antonio.

While serving as a Young Adult Volunteer in San Antonio, Texas, every so often I have the privilege of meeting homeless people. Engaging with these citizens is not one of my duties at my work placement; rather, I encounter them on the streets, typically while I am commuting in the morning and evening. The homeless citizens I meet are not dressed poorly, and often little, if anything, about their outward appearance or behavior gives me reason to suspect they are members of this shunned societal group. Categorically speaking, they are incredibly humble toward me, speaking quietly and acting gently when they approach me. Every once is a while, one of them inevitably asks me for spare change, whether it is so that she can pay her bus fare or he can buy a meal. Most of these citizens want to talk with me for a minute; it seems doubtless that many other passersby ostracize them. As I rummage through my backpack for spare change, I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 (NIV): “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” I may not have much, but I have more than they do: a roof over my head, food in my stomach, a salary, even something as simple as a bus pass. Yet in their challenging situation they do not hesitate to give me what they have—love, cheer, and goodwill. Although I seemingly cannot provide these homeless men and women as much mercy, care, and compassion as I would like, God teaches me everyday that I can do His will by showing the least of society the tiniest acts of kindness. Just as He tends to the needs of those who are homeless, so too does God provide for me everything I need. By exposing me to San Antonio’s homeless citizens, God continues to break down barriers not only so that I may love His children, but also equally importantly so that they may reciprocate that sentiment by teaching me about God’s love for me.

Ready to Become a YAV?

Are you interested in learning more about the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteers Program? Perhaps you want to become a YAV? Do you want to know what constitutes the typical YAV experience? If any of these statements applies to you, then you are in luck. As the application cycle for the YAV Program’s 2015-2016 year is upon us, I have put together a list of some of the websites detailing the program and the experiences of current and former YAVs. This is not a comprehensive list, and it does have a certain focus on my YAV site of San Antonio, Texas. Nevertheless, I hope these resources will inform you even more about YAVs and the YAV Program—who we are, where we serve, what we do, and why we have chosen this path.

For information on the YAV Program:

For more information on other YAVs’ experiences:

  • Caroline Tonarely: Caroline is a current YAV in San Antonio.  She also has a mini guide for new YAVs that is suited particularly to those going to San Antonio, but that is relevant to all new and returning YAVs.
  • Mallory Tober: Mallory is a second-year YAV serving in San Antonio, so her first YAV year’s experience in the Philippines also is detailed on her blog.

Information on the DOOR Network

As always, if you have any questions or comments about the YAV Program, please leave me a comment and I will be happy to respond!

A very Happy New Year and joyous, healthful, and safe 2015 to all!

New Life

Christmas and the New Year form a time when we draw close to those whom we love.  We yearn to be surrounded by family again, and so often that longing is satisfied by home—whether creating a new home, strengthening an existing one, or visiting one from the past.  Sometimes we manage to work in two or even all three of these, and often it all happens under the same roof.  I do not mean necessarily that people build houses at Christmastime; particularly in the northern climes, the frozen ground may well prevent this!  Rather, I mean that we focus on our families—how they grow and change, and how we respond to and welcome both new and old family members and friends.

This is along San Antonio’s River Walk.  Candles in bags light our way, while lights strung overhead in the trees create an enchanted forest scene.  A brightly lit tour boat can be seen cruising down the river.

This is along San Antonio’s River Walk. Candles in bags light our way, while lights strung overhead in the trees create an enchanted forest scene. A brightly lit tour boat can be seen cruising down the river.

Here in San Antonio, we YAVs have been busy cultivating our own family—the one that we have built together since August.  Not long after Turkey Day, with images of the Thanksgiving feast still fresh in our minds (and our fridge still stuffed with leftovers), we headed downtown to the Alamo to witness the annual lighting of a Christmas tree in front of the historic landmark.  The jovial crowd milling about in front of the blazingly colorful tree reflected the joyous spirit of the season.  We relived this festive mood two weeks later, when one evening we took a stroll down the city’s famed River Walk.  The soft glow of hundreds of candles nestled in white paper bags lit our path past restaurants and souvenir shops along the river.  Overhead, thousands of colorful bulbs hung in long strands from trees, such that it seemed as though we were walking through an enchanted forest in the middle of the city.  Tour boats decked out in more lights plied the waterway, their passengers soaking in the spirit of wonder that hung in the air.  Yuletide wreaths adorned the sides of buildings, while up on the street level, in front of the Alamo, the young and young-at-heart had their photos taken with Santa.

During the tamalada, Mexican women are seen preparing tamales.  The tamales are the yellow-white items that look similar to burritos, while nearby vats contain different ingredients.

During the tamalada, Mexican women are seen preparing tamales. The tamales are the yellow-white items that look similar to burritos, while nearby vats contain different ingredients.

One day, a couple weeks into December, we attended two events with our church congregation—a tamalada and a posada.  During the morning of that day, we YAVs met with some of the Mexican and Mexican-American women from the neighborhood to participate in the tamalada—an event at which we prepared tasty tamales.  One prepares a tamale by coating the (relatively) smooth inside of a cornhusk with a cornmeal dough, after which ground meat is layered on top of the dough.  The husk then is rolled up, twisted at one end, and boiled, with the end result being a miniature meat pie of sorts inside the husk.  The cornhusk itself is not eaten; rather, one unrolls the husk and peels it away from the cooked dough and meat mixture, then proceeds to devour the savory insides (Gerald Ford, in the famous photo, mistakenly ate the cornhusk).  The edible part of a tamale can be eaten with a knife and fork, but often it is just easier (and potentially far simpler and with less mess) to quickly pop the dough and meat into one’s mouth before they have the opportunity to crumble.  We prepared some of the 500 tamales that were cooked that morning, all in preparation for the posada that evening.

Here is a scene from one of our stops on the posada.  Our pastor (wearing the sombrero) leads the members of the house in singing the part of the innkeeper.  In the foreground, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, the Three Kings, guitar players, and the rest of us in the peanut gallery plead for a room at the inn.

Here is a scene from one of our stops on the posada. Our pastor (wearing the sombrero) leads the members of the house in singing the part of the innkeeper. In the foreground, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, the Three Kings, guitar players, and the rest of us in the peanut gallery plead for a room at the inn.

Come evening, we headed back to the church, where we joined around 100 people from the congregation and neighborhood on a pilgrimage of sorts.  A posada recalls the story of Jesus’ birth, and specifically Mary and Joseph’s frantic hunt in Bethlehem for a spare room at an inn.  Led by our pastor, who was clad in a sombrero and traditional Mexican shawl and who sported a bamboo shepherd’s crook; and flanked by a couple dozen local children dressed up as Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, and the Three Wise Men, our group departed the church and walked to preselected houses in the neighborhood.  When we arrived at a given house, we began singing the traditional call-and-response posada song, in which we begged for a room at the inn, only to be told by our pastor and the family at that house that they did not have a spare room they could give us (never mind that we, collectively Joseph, called Mary the Queen of Heaven—it was still an uphill battle!).  After singing several verses, a prayer was offered and a Christmas carol was sung, and then we proceeded to the next house, still singing carols, and with the family from the first house having joined our group.  After visiting seven six or seven houses, we arrived back at the church, where we sang the posada song again, along with some verses in which the innkeeper recognized us as Mary and Joseph, and allowed us to end our wanderings by entering the church.  Once inside, we were treated to the sight of Mary and Joseph—played by young adolescents, so probably not that far removed from the real ages of Jesus’ parents at the time of His birth—cradling baby Jesus, played by a cute and impressively serene infant from a neighborhood family.  Following more carols, we and a couple hundred of our closest friends sat down to a dinner of the tamales we had prepared earlier, along with rice, beans, and cake.  While we ate, we enjoyed a dance performance by a troupe of women outfitted in traditional Mexican dresses.  All in all, we enjoyed the lovely festivities and the chance to make this custom a part of our new familial repertoire.

In the middle of this season of warmth and love, we YAVs embarked on a retreat—in the middle of the city.  A mere few miles from our home in the city’s Westside neighborhood, we settled down at La Casa, a large house owned by DOOR San Antonio just south of downtown.  Ensconced in this haven of peace, we laughed, played games, and swapped stories, and, most importantly, loved one another.  We baked nightmare-before-Christmas cookies using Halloween-themed cookie cutters—we had plenty of bats, ghosts, and coffins on hand, but no trees, stars, or angels.  We also attempted to make sense of why the buttons on our seemingly possessed microwave refused to work, yet the unit effortlessly beeped at us in Morse Code-like bursts.

This shot was taken at the naturalization ceremony I attended, just after the ceremony concluded.  The man in the foreground (with the manila and white envelopes under his arm) is a new U.S. citizen, while in the background other new citizens are in line to have their photos taken with the judge.  On the far left, way in the back, between the U.S. and Texas flags, is the judge (in black) posing with a new citizen.

This shot was taken at the naturalization ceremony I attended, just after the ceremony concluded. The man in the foreground (with the manila and white envelopes under his arm) is a new U.S. citizen, while in the background other new citizens are in line to have their photos taken with the judge. On the far left, way in the back, between the U.S. and Texas flags, is the judge (in black) posing with a new citizen.

Finally, just as I was in the middle of building a new home and family this holiday season, I had the chance one afternoon to witness 492 people find a new home here in the United States.  I attended a naturalization ceremony at which men, women, and children from around seventy countries and every inhabited continent swore an oath to become U.S. citizens.  JROTC cadets from an area high school presented and retired the colors, and a new U.S. citizen originally from Belgium spoke briefly about what motivated him to come to the United States.  Afterward, most of the newly minted citizens lined up to have their photograph taken with the presiding judge, who, over the course of well more than two decades, has used these ceremonies to swear in close to a million people.  Just as the new Americans found a home after years or even decades of being stuck between their culture of origin and that of their new homeland, so I, too, have built a new home and family with my fellow YAVs here in San Antonio.

As we celebrate this season filled with generosity, I am thankful for all the support—prayerful, emotional, and financial—you have given me.  Because of your generosity, I am pleased to announce that I have met and exceeded my required fundraising goal of $3,000 ahead of schedule—I have raised over $3,300 now!  Due to numerous significant unexpected costs over the last few months, however, DOOR San Antonio—the office that supervises me directly—needs to raise over $21,000 by December 31 to stay in the black.  If this deficit continues into 2015, that will have a significant impact on the experience we YAVs have in San Antonio, leaving us with less money to spend on everything from food to transportation to enriching community activities.  Please consider helping us continue to have a joyous faith experience by making a tax-deductible contribution.  There are two chief ways you can help us:

Please give through the DOOR Network.  In the “Donation Designation” box, please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio.”  Under “Additional Contact Information,” please provide your contact information so you are mailed a tax receipt.

Please make checks out to DOOR Network, 430 W. 9th Ave., Denver, CO 80204. Please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio” in the memo line.

As always, please continue reading my blog.  I am grateful for all of your prayers and support for me.

A Merry Christmas season and Happy New Year to all!

Giving Thanks for Life

First off, I apologize for posting a bit late for November. Nevertheless, while we still are in this time of gratitude and thanksgiving, perhaps you can take a moment to pause and reflect on the spirit and meaning of this season.

Halloween and Thanksgiving. One at the end of October, the other a month later. The first to remember death, and the second to celebrate life. These two holidays are not that far apart on the calendar, yet it may not seem logical that they are related. Though beliefs and traditions vary from one culture to another, here in San Antonio these differences come together to form a rather festive autumnal holiday season.

We saw this statue of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, or possibly a conquistador, on our ghost tour of San Antonio.  Commissioned by Saint Augustine, Florida, to celebrate the birth of de León, the city’s founder, the city rejected it upon learning the purportedly life-size statue was about 6’6” tall—de León was only 4’9”!  San Antonio subsequently bought it, placed it in front of the city’s historic Spanish governor’s palace, and declared it was a statue of one of the conquistadors who colonized the region that became Texas.

We saw this statue of the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, or possibly a conquistador, on our ghost tour of San Antonio. Commissioned by Saint Augustine, Florida, to celebrate the birth of de León, the city’s founder, the city rejected it upon learning the purportedly life-size statue was about 6’6” tall—de León was only 4’9”! San Antonio subsequently bought it, placed it in front of the city’s historic Spanish governor’s palace, and declared it was a statue of one of the conquistadors who colonized the region that became Texas.

We YAVs started the season on October 30 by embarking on a ghost tour of downtown San Antonio. It seems that everyone in this city has a ghost story to tell from his or her personal experiences, and this was an interesting way to dive into that side of local life. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs on the existence of ghosts, we all had a fun time learning about the spine-tingling tales that have shaped many of the locals’ views on death and the afterlife. Perhaps San Antonio’s most famous ghoulish residents are the defenders of the Alamo, who 178 years later regularly are seen peeking out of upper story windows in the old Spanish mission-turned-fort. It is common knowledge that, due to so many past battles and struggles around here, one cannot take more than a few steps without walking over at least one body buried in the earth below. When the city installed wheelchair-accessible sidewalk ramps downtown several years ago, construction crews found so many bodies that instead of reinterring the dead, they simply poured cement over the corpses, permanently entombing them beneath the streets of San Antonio.

Much of this fascination with the dead is driven by Mexican and pre-Columbian traditions, which have combined over the centuries to form a popular veneration of death. Santa Muerte, or Our Lady of the Holy Death, is revered by many in Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and the United States as a way for people to remember the dead while looking forward to the future. It is based on this tradition, then, that on October 31 and November 1 and 2—all three days collectively known as the Day of the Dead—families visit the tombs of their relatives so they can give thanks for those who have passed on. The festive spirit of the occasion reminds everybody that this is not a day to be sad; rather, it is a time to celebrate life—past, present, and future.

Some of us YAVs recently celebrated life and those we know and love by attending a neighborhood Thanksgiving dinner at Divine Redeemer Presbyterian, our host church. A longstanding annual event, the dinner typically attracts 400 participants. Though we did not know the majority of the people in attendance, nonetheless there was the sense that everyone present was giving thanks for their families, friends, and blessings. After a short worship service, people lined up for plates of Thanksgiving favorites such as turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and—remember, this is San Antonio—jalapeños!

As we celebrate this season filled with generosity, I am thankful for all the support—prayerful, emotional, and financial—you have given me. I now have a favor to ask of you. I almost have reached my fundraising goal of $3,000—I only have $165 to go before I reach my January 1st deadline. Due to numerous significant unexpected costs over the last few months, however, DOOR San Antonio—the office that supervises me directly—needs to raise over $21,000 by December 31 to stay in the black. If this deficit continues into 2015, that will have a significant impact on our experience, leaving us YAVs with less money to spend on everything from food to transportation to enriching community activities. Please consider helping us continue to have a joyous faith experience by making a tax-deductible contribution. There are two chief ways you can help us:

Give through the DOOR Network’s website. In the “Donation Designation” box, please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio.” Under “Additional Contact Information,” please provide your contact information so you are mailed a tax receipt.

Please make checks out to DOOR Network, 430 W. 9th Ave., Denver, CO 80204. Please write “Matthew Cowell/DOOR San Antonio” in the memo line.

Be with God until we meet again!

We gave thanks for each other and the beauty of God's creation while camping at Guadalupe River State Park, north of San Antonio.  We also gave thanks that the raccoons that raided our food the previous night failed to pry open our guitar case--one of them nearly succeeded in that venture!  Perhaps it wanted to learn to play the instrument, or possibly snack on it instead.

We gave thanks for each other and the beauty of God’s creation while camping at Guadalupe River State Park, north of San Antonio. We also gave thanks that the raccoons that raided our food the previous night failed to pry open our guitar case–one of them nearly succeeded in that venture! Perhaps it wanted to learn to play the instrument, or possibly snack on it instead.

Finding God in Daily Life

Hello everyone!  I hope you all are doing well.  I have been having a blast here in San Antonio, learning lots while having great fun.  My work at the immigration law firm RAICES has been going well.  Since my last blog post, I have become more involved in working with refugees, and I may start participating in naturalization ceremonies for these refugees and other immigrants.  In my experience, the refugees typically come from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries such as Bhutan, Eritrea, and Iran.  Sometimes one member of a family comes as a refugee to the United States and, after receiving his or her legal permanent resident status (or green card) here, petitions the rest of his or her family so they can immigrate to the U.S.  Often, however, an entire (nuclear) family will come to the U.S. as refugees.  Regardless, after the refugees have been in the U.S. for one year, they are eligible to apply for green cards, so that is where I come in, wading through the mountains of paperwork and deciphering often-complex legal jargon.

Naturally, I get to learn something about the refugees’ stories and what circumstances compelled them to leave their homes.  Here in America, they rebuild their lives from scratch—learning English, starting jobs in unfamiliar fields, attending schools where they may be the odd ones out, making new friends.  Some may be lucky enough to have relatives already living in the U.S., perhaps nearby, but many more are here without their extended families, forging new futures in a land far away from their original homes.  Yet many of the refugees I have met have made it clear that the U.S. is their new home and that they would rather stay here than in their countries of origin.  The refugees, while perhaps sad to leave their homelands, are grateful for the opportunity to restart their lives in peace and stability, and to do so here in the United States.

Recently, the other YAVs and IIMG_20141018_105105 went on a church retreat to the Texas Hill Country, at a retreat center about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.  (For those of you who are addicted to your electronic devices, we had to drive about fifteen miles away from camp to get a cellphone signal.)  At the retreat center, we relished in the beauty of God: rising rock cliffs, the Frio River, picturesque forests, abundant wildlife, and the innumerable stars and bands of the Milky Way in the heavens.  In the stillness and peace, we had a great opportunity to reflect on the glory of God and how He shows up in our everyday lives.  The writer of Psalm 19 explains that whether we are immersed in the hustle and bustle of our lives, or we have retreated from it all and are in isolation, God is with us and is watching over us, leading us along a path He has chosen for us.  How do you see God in your life, and how do you and God meet each other everyday?

I appreciate your prayers and support for me.  For more information on how you can get involved, please click here.  Go with God until we meet again!

Don’t Fear the Snake!

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of speaking at University Presbyterian Church, a PC(USA) congregation here in San Antonio, about my service as a Young Adult Volunteer and DOOR Dweller. For your enjoyment, here’s a loose version of what I presented:

 

This past Saturday, a few of the other YAVs and I headed south of San Antonio to attend a festival celebrating American Indians and indigenous peoples of Mexico. To get there, we took a route that devolved from Interstate highway to a muddy goat path. After we liberated our car from the muck, we feasted on fire-roasted rabbit and tried tacos filled with cacti (nopales) and the Aztec delicacy cuitlacoche (corn fungus—tastier than it may sound!).

 

Peering into clear plastic boxes at one booth, we could see a couple dozen varieties of snakes, including the most venomous snake in North America, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. On the other side of the display, nestled near a baby alligator (only two feet long!) and a Gila monster, were a few royal (ball) pythons. These nonvenomous snakes, popular as pets, received their names both because African rulers would wear the snakes as jewelry and because the animals curl into balls when frightened.

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I became rather close friends with one of these royal pythons when the snake, wanting to get out of the rain, slithered out of my hands and inside my rain jacket! It adventured across my shoulders, over the back of my neck (occasionally licking me with its forked tongue), and down the (outside) front of my shirt before finding a cozy nook where it could stay warm while watching the world go by. It never bit or threatened me; indeed, when another YAV tried petting its head gently, the python recoiled into a ball, preferring to remain hunkered down in my clasped hands. That fun experience allowed me to meet the snake hands-on while learning not to fear it.

 

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My reptilian encounter may make some people squirm or feel uncomfortable. While not every YAV will meet a snake during his or her service, we all are called to be uncomfortable this year in order to learn from God, those around us, and ourselves. I live in a small house with six other people who mostly were strangers to me two months ago. I moved to an unfamiliar city and region, and in my neighborhood I’m one of a few Anglos in a sea of Latinos. I’m working in an immigration law office, a field that’s new to me. In order to finance my service, I’m fundraising at least $3,000.

 

Yet, just as the snake didn’t harm me, but surprised me with its friendliness and gentleness, so too God is opening me, teaching me to trust in Him as I make my way forward in this new life. I don’t know what is around the corner, yet I trust that God will make a clear path for me so that I may do His will while expanding my horizon and discovering more about Him, this world, and me every day.

 

Landing

Hello everyone!  Since I last wrote to you in late August, I’ve been a busy little bee.  I would like to explain to you a little more about what we did during YAV orientation, and then discuss (fairly briefly) what I’ve been up to since that week.  (For any YAVs and YAVA reading this, yes, I know a month has passed since orientation, but I hope these thoughts will rekindle good memories for you.)

 

Halfway through orientation, other YAVs and I got to spend a day visiting a Sikh Gurudwara, or temple, in Glen Rock, New Jersey.  Having originated in India, the monotheistic Sikh faith is marked by pacifism, a deep respect for God, and a profound commitment to community.  In the few hours I spent as an outsider in that Gurudwara, I encountered more love and acceptance than I’ve found in some Christian churches.  (If you see a man wearing a dastar, or turban, in all likelihood he’s a Sikh, not a Muslim.  We were told that if you identify a Sikh as a Sikh and not a Muslim, you will make that person’s day—so talk to people wearing turbans!)  On our last day in New York, we fanned out to various Presbyterian churches in the area for commissioning.  I attended Palisades Presbyterian Church, a 151-year-old congregation just north of New Jersey, in a town that is home to several world-renowned celebrities.  Although we didn’t glimpse Al Pacino at a café he patronizes regularly, we did eat lunch with our host pastor before strolling down to the banks of the Hudson.

 

The next day, August 25, we went our separate ways, fanning out to our various service sites.  (The folks heading to Chinook, Montana—twenty-some miles from Canada—left the retreat center at 3:00 A.M.  Those traveling to Zambia arrived last, in the evening of the next day, I think narrowly beating the Philippines-bound travelers for the title.)  After a day of travel across the U.S., all seven of us San Antonio YAVs were met with tacos made fresh at a local Latino eatery.  Tacos, and Tex-Mex food in general, have become major components of our diets.  As part of this culinary fusion, I’ve made some very tasty peanut butter and jelly quesadillas!

 

We live on the Westside of San Antonio, the city’s original residential area that, in recent decades, has developed a predominantly Latino population.  It also is a poorer neighborhood, often deprived of public development funds.  On a typical day, we are treated to nearby roosters crowing from deserted lots, stray dogs running after us as we walk to the bus, and seeing boots hung over telephone wires—an indication that drug dealers are nearby.  But it also is a rich neighborhood: a vibrant mixture of Latino and U.S. cultures, tortillas sold next to peanut butter and jelly, Spanish and English intermingled so they form one language.  There is the very real sense that this is a place where Latin America and the U.S. are intertwined through the creation of Texas.  I think this may well be (or at least be part of) the famed Texan spirit: Anglos, Latinos, and other ethnicities and cultures united for positive change and a better world.

 

Here in San Antonio, I experience that unity everyday in my employment.  I work at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).  Started as a response to the wave of Central American refugees who came to the U.S. in the 1980s to escape civil wars at home, today RAICES serves immigrants of all stripes, by both helping clients themselves and advocating for immigrants’ rights nationwide (including, most notably, through extensive contact with the U.S. Congress).  As the preeminent nonprofit immigration law firm in Texas, RAICES has offices in Austin, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio.  During the last several months, RAICES has been responsible for processing all of the approximately 1,600 child refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua who were housed in a temporary immigration detention facility at Lackland Air Force Base here in San Antonio.  As for me, I am wading into my work, but already I am working with refugees and learning immigration law.  I have visited the San Antonio Immigration Court a few times and witnessed cases brought before it.  I also am starting work as RAICES’ Policy Advocate, serving as a link between the law firm and members of Congress with regards to immigration issues and cases.

 

Here in San Antonio, we YAVs are supported by Divine Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a century-old PC(USA) congregation.  The church is bilingual: each Sunday, two services are offered—one in Spanish, the other in English and Spanish.  We also serve under the direct supervision of Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), a Mennonite Church USA- and PC(USA)-affiliated urban ministry organization.  Both Divine Redeemer and DOOR allow us to grow closer to our community by forging personal bonds with the members and affiliates of those entities.

 

As always, I am grateful for your prayers and support (please click here for more information on how you can support me).  May God be with you until we meet again!

 

Disclaimer: Please note that in addition to my earlier disclaimer (see below), this blog (as my own work), along with any and all links on this website, in no way whatsoever represents Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES); any other attorney, legal professional, or law practice; any legal or bar association; any local or state government or authority; any part of the U.S. Government, such as the San Antonio Immigration Court, Executive Office for Immigration Review, U.S. Department of Justice; or any employee, staff member, contractor, affiliate, or client of, or person or group otherwise related to, any of the entities listed above.

Living Well

“Be uncomfortable. Grow a corn on the bottom of your foot.”

 

With these words, we Young Adult Volunteers began orientation for our service this coming year. Along with her colleague Laurie, Jessica, a trainer on crosscultural issues, urged us to expand our horizons as we serve in diverse communities around the world. During a week jam-packed with lectures, discussions, and debriefing sessions, we explored not only the cultural contexts in which we will serve others, but also the ways in which we can reach across socioeconomic barriers to empower and learn from those to whom we will minister. The material presented during the week was intellectually stimulating, and participants were challenged to approach others with love and humility.

 

While I may not have to develop a corn in order to climb out of my comfort zone, the analogy above still rings true. Here in San Antonio, at the beginning of my service year, I find myself living and working in a new city with a group of YAVs I met only eleven days ago. Though I’m thankful that some of my housemates are from San Antonio (and that they, along with the rest of our local community, can help us learn our way around), there still is much we YAVs need to do and learn not merely to live, but rather to live well.

 

Living well is not always a matter of having the most popular consumer goods or conforming to the latest trend. In this case, it is defined by one’s involvement in the life of his or her community. Whether sharing a house with other YAVs, becoming active in a church, interacting with the neighbors, or just keeping up with local news, in order to live well one must be involved in a community. A life like this often means stepping outside one’s comfort zone, a process that, while uncomfortable in the beginning, can be rewarding in the long-term.

 

You may not have to grow a corn in order to challenge yourself, but taking even a small risk can open new doors, the results of which can be beneficial. This process is gradual, so be prepared for a long, but educational, adventure. To close, consider this question: In what ways should you step outside your comfort zone?

 

 

 

Disclaimer:

 

The views expressed in this blog are my own. In no way whatsoever do they represent the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program; Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR Network); any partner organization of the aforementioned entities; or any employee, staff member, or volunteer (including YAVs and DOOR Dwellers) of any body listed above. Unless noted otherwise, any quotations or images I post either are mine or are copyright-free. Unless otherwise stated explicitly, I do not endorse, create, or maintain any website linked to this blog or the information those sites contain; nor do the sponsoring people or entities of those sites endorse, create, or maintain any of the information presented on this blog.

Casting Off

Hello, and welcome aboard my blog!  I’m glad you’ve joined me in my volunteer year in San Antonio.  I hope we all will learn more about God and this wonderful world He created so that each one of us may discover more about ourselves.  Although I will blaze a trail down which you may venture virtually, from the comfort of your armchair, I believe that the written word can be a powerful substitute for personal experience, so I pray that you’ll travel with me on this intellectual, multicultural, and spiritual voyage.

 

My name is Matt Cowell, and I’ll be your guide on this journey of faith, discovery, and insight.  I recently graduated from Troy University with a Master of Science in International Relations.  I spent the last few years working in retail, prior to which, in 2009, I graduated from McDaniel College with a bachelor’s in history and Spanish.  Although I reside in Columbus, Georgia, I’ve lived most of my life in Europe and Latin America.  This mobile life has meant that I have participated in congregations representing several Protestant Christian denominations.  My varied experiences have contributed in no small part to my desire to embark on another adventure.

 

This past April, I was selected by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to participate in its Young Adult Volunteers (YAV) program.  An initiative of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s World Mission branch, the YAV program allows adults aged 19 to 30 to work at faith-based or related employers for one academic year while living with other YAVs and engaging in Christian congregations.  YAVs serve worldwide: starting this month, YAVs will be sent to 15 U.S. cities and six foreign countries.  From Belfast to Boston, Daejeon to the District of Columbia, Lima to Lusaka, 87 YAVs will work to help their neighbors and others in their communities as commanded by Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40) while growing personally and spiritually.  Put another way, the YAV program is somewhat similar to the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but with a faith-based twist.

 

This coming year, I’ll live and work in San Antonio, Texas.  I likely will work at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), an immigration law office with branches in San Antonio, Austin, and Corpus Christi.  My fellow YAVs and I will live together as a family, sharing housekeeping duties while forging friendships.

 

While in San Antonio, we YAVs will be supported by two local sponsors.  We’ll serve under the auspices of Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), an urban missions organization with ties to the Mennonite Church (USA) and the PC(USA).  With branches in six U.S. cities, DOOR teaches short- and long-term missions groups how God is present in the city by inviting participants to break down cultural, faith, and socioeconomic barriers through community service and outreach.  Divine Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a multicultural PC(USA) congregation, will be the hub of our faith lives.

 

Soon, I’ll travel to Stony Point, New York, to spend a week with my fellow YAVs in orientation and training.  From there, we will fly directly to our cities and countries of service.  Once in San Antonio, we’ll receive additional orientation and training before starting work at our various employers for the year.

 

While you, my friends, cannot travel with me to San Antonio, you can accompany me in other ways.  There are three ways you can support me:

 

  1. I ask for your prayers for me and the people with whom I will live and serve this year, as well as those to whom I will minister.
  2. Please continue on this journey yourselves by reading my blog.  I’ll be happy to speak to you and your church or organization when I return.  If you have a comment or question for me, please write a comment or send me an email and I will write back.
  3. Please give a tax-deductible contribution, either as a one-time gift or in installments over the course of my year of service.  As a condition of my service, I’m required by the PC(USA) to raise at least $3,000 by January 1, 2015.  (The actual cost of my year is $20,000; the PC(USA) finances most of it through its annual Pentecost Offering and other giving opportunities.)  I still need to raise $550, so a gift of any amount will be appreciated.  The funds I raise are pooled with those of the other YAVs at my site, so please give my name when contributing.  Please click here or on the “How to Support Me” link above for information on how you can give.

 

Finally, I’ll post on this blog at least monthly, although I will check it (and any comments or questions) more often than that.  With all that said, please sit back, relax, and join me on this journey of faith.  Happy reading!

 

“By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.  Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22)