"mayami"

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Redefiniendo “servicio”

For English version click here

Todavía estoy asimilando que ha pasado un año y que ya estoy de regreso en Puerto Rico luego de servir como voluntaria en Miami. Este día se veía tan lejos…se siente raro y, por más que anhelaba regresar, uno le coge cariño a la ciudad que fue tu casa por todo este tiempo.

Me veo constantemente dándole para atrás al tiempo y reflexionando en cómo ha cambiado mi perspectiva, en cómo lo que he vivido ha afectado mi estilo de vida, y cómo este año he enfrentado más retos que en ningún otro tiempo.

No muchos entendieron lo que hice y el porqué. He llenado este blog de versículos bíblicos y de cómo me reafirmé en mi fe pero, más allá de eso, hoy voy a intentar compartir un poquito de lo que aprendí.

Antes de solicitar para hacer este año de misión, yo trabajaba en lo que había sido mi “dream job” desde la escuela intermedia. Por 4 años trabajé para un periódico y para muchos ya yo era exitosa solo porque cargaba ese carnet de prensa que me daba acceso a lugares que no estaban accesibles para todo el mundo. Y, como un amigo que estudió conmigo en la escuela me comentó una vez, yo era de las pocas de nuestra clase que estaba ejerciendo la profesión en la precisamente estuvo enfocada desde siempre. Entonces, me dio con este embeleco de pedir una licencia en el trabajo e irme “de misión”.

El reto no comenzó cuando me mudé a Miami, si no cuando empecé a explicarle a la gente lo que había decidido hacer.
”¿De qué? ¿a dónde? Pero si eso lo puedes hacer aquí…”

Pero algo que me tomó desprevenida fue experimentar el contraste en la reacción de la gente cuando decía que trabajaba para el periódico versus cuando decía que estaba haciendo un año de voluntaria/misionera. Fue ahí cuando me di cuenta que ni siquiera yo entendía el peso de mi decisión. Sin darme cuenta estaba renunciando a un estatus social de estabilidad y éxito para ejercer un rol completamente dependiente y menospreciado, y lo “peor” de todo: casi de gratis.

Preguntas como: ¿porqué tú haces esto si tienes un trabajo fijo? o ¿cómo tu sobrevives?, ¿qué vas a hacer después? me retaban casi a diario. 
Mi única -y no muy lógica- respuesta siempre fue: “Me sentí llamada a hacerlo. No me ha faltado nada. Y sí… vivo en Little Haiti.”… un barrio donde los “locales” no van ni de pasada… tu sabes… porque “eso allí es caliente, y es peligroso”. Incluso, dentro de la misma Iglesia la gente me cuestionó. Fue retante desprenderme de todo ese “feedback” negativo, darle más peso al apoyo que estaba recibiendo y reafirmarme en mi decisión.

No lo voy a negar, en muchas ocasiones me sentí sola, pero aprendí mucho. Más allá de enfocarme en “ser la salvadora del mundo y de predicar el evangelio a toda lengua y nación”, aprendí sobre mi misma, sobre lo enajenada que estaba de “la calle”, en cómo vivía una vida de privilegio sin darme cuenta y en cómo lo estamos haciendo todo al revés en la Iglesia. Aprendí a eliminar esas barreras que disfrazamos como “seguridad” y no son más que un reflejo de lo empoderados que nos sentimos. También aprendí sobre el peso de mi ciudadanía, lo mal repartido que está el dinero en el mundo, y que no todo el que está en la calle es porque es un “tecato”.

No tuvimos televisor, no tuvimos lavadora ni secadora, solo fui una vez al cine (y fue al final de mi año) y nunca me fui de shopping. Nunca entré al American Airlines Arena y mucho menos fui a ver al Miami Heat jugar, porque con lo que me salía una taquilla, nos daba para hacer una buena compra. Muy pocas veces fui a Miami Beach porque allá todo es más caro, incluso cuando estuvo a menos de 10 minutos de donde viví.

Definitivamente, las prioridades cambiaron.

Por varios meses estuve trabajando en un albergue de deambulantes donde me reunía con mujeres cada jueves en la mañana. Al principio fue un reto pues yo tenía claro que no tenía nada en común con ellas y que era muy difícil que ellas se identificaran conmigo. Pero aprendí que más allá de “predicarles”, lo que me acercó a ellas fue las conversaciones que tuvimos; las escuché y ellas me escucharon. Fueron ellas las que terminaron dándome las palabras de aliento que yo planificaba llevarles.

Durante el verano también trabajé directamente con la organización DOOR Network dirigiendo a grupos que venían de diferentes partes de Estados Unidos a hacer misión en Miami. Como parte del programa, yo estaba a cargo del tiempo de reflexión en la noche, luego de que cada uno de ellos sirviera en diferentes agencias en la ciudad. La experiencia que yo había tenido como voluntaria me dio una perspectiva diferente que me ayudó a guiarlos en su experiencia. Yo llevaba casi un año experimentando lo que ellos experimentarían en la ciudad por esa semana.

Uno de los mayores retos fue guiarlos a redefinir el concepto de “servir”. Podríamos pensar que “servimos” porque “tenemos para dar”. Por eso es que, luego de “servir” o de tener una experiencia de “misión”, le damos gracias a Dios por lo que tenemos y otros no. Y yo aprendí que la experiencia de servir no nos llama a hacer inventario de lo que tenemos, sino que nos reta al cuestionarnos cómo realmente nos relacionamos con los que viven a nuestro alrededor. Ese fue mi mayor reto durante este año. Yo estaba retando a los grupos a algo en lo que yo misma era constantemente retada durante mi año.

Yo jamás pensé cómo me iba a apasionar lo que hice en Miami. Mucho menos entendí que ser bilingüe era una ventaja en una ciudad como esta.

El que ha vivido en Miami sabe que no todo el mundo habla español, incluso, tampoco inglés. Se los digo yo, que viví en una comunidad donde predominaba el creól.

Yo había ido a Miami de vacaciones pero, sólo había ido a donde los turistas van. Es por eso que durante este año me encontré con un contraste diferente de manejar. La diferencia entre Coral Gables y Brickell versus Wynwood y Little Haiti es impactante. Esa realidad me confrontó a diario y me hacía pensar en las comunidades acá en Puerto Rico que también son marginadas.

Todavía me queda mucho por reflexionar pero, definitivamente puedo decir que redefinir el concepto de “servicio” es una de las cosas que me llevo de mi experiencia.

No hace mucho me pidieron que mencionara a alguien que me haya impactado durante mi año. Aunque me tomó unos minutos pensar quién, rápidamente vinieron a mi mente cada una de las mujeres del albergue. Ellas me sirvieron cuando yo pensé que yo era quien las iba a servir. Yo vi a Dios en ellas, cuando, en un principio, yo pensé que la cara de Dios iba a ser yo.

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Redefining service

Versión en español aquí

It still hasn’t sunk in that a year has passed by and I’m already back in Puerto Rico after serving as a volunteer in Miami. It seems so far away… it feels weird and, although I really wanted to come back home, I can’t help feeling something for the city that was my home during all this time.

I constantly see myself going back in time and reflecting on how my perspective and lifestyle has changed, and how this year has been more challenging than any other before.

Not everybody understood what I did and why. I’ve filled this blog with Bible verses and explanations of how my faith was strengthened but, beyond that, I’ve tried to share a little bit of what I learned during this year.

Before I applied for this program, I was working in what has been my dream job since middle school. For 4 years I worked at a newspaper where, for many people, I was already successful just because I carried that Press ID that allowed me to get into so many places. Like a high school friend once told me, I was one of the few people that actually achieved the career that I had set out to pursue since my high school years. 

And then, I requested a sabatical to go to work as a volunteer.

The challenge didn’t start when I moved to Miami but when I actually started sharing with people around me what I was going to do. “You’re doing what? Where? You could do that here…”

Something that really took me off guard was experiencing the contrast of people’s reaction when I said I worked for the newspaper versus when I said I was doing a “missionary year”. It was in that moment that I realized that I didn’t fully understand the weight of my decision in the first place. I was totally unaware that I was quitting a “successful and steady life” to start a completely dependent and undervalued role, and the “worst” part: almost for free.

Questions like “Why are you doing this if you already have a full time job?” or “How will you survive? What will you do next?” challenged me almost on a daily basis. My only –but not so logic- response was always: “I felt called to do it. I’ve never wanted for anything. And yes… I live in Little Haiti” …a neighborhood where locals don’t even dare to drive by, you know, because “it’s dangerous”. Even at church people questioned me. It was challenging to detach myself from all that negative feedback, focus on the support I was receiving and reaffirm my decision.

I’m not going to lie, I told myself. In many moments I felt alone, but I learned a lot. Beyond becoming “the savior of the world and preach the Gospel to every nation and tongue”, I learned about myself, about how clueless I was about “the streets”, how I was living a life of privilege without being aware of it, and how we -the Church- are doing everything the wrong way. I learned to erase those barriers that we disguise as “security” and are just a reflection of how empowered we feel. I also learned about the weight of my citizenship, how money is unequally distributed, and that not every person becomes homeless because of drug abuse.

We had no TV, not washer and dryer machine, I only went to the movies once (at the end of my year) and I never went to the shopping mall. I never went to the American Airlines Arena and neither saw, even once, the Miami Heat play, because with the amount of money we needed to get a ticket, we could use to buy groceries. Very few times I went to Miami Beach because everything there is more expensive, even when Miami Beach was less than 10 minutes away from our house.

Definitely, priorities changed.

For most of my time in Miami, I worked at a homeless shelter where I met every Thursday for devotion time with the women staying there. At the very beginning it was challenging because I was more than sure that I had nothing in common with them and that it was very difficult for them to identify with me. But I learned that, more than “preaching”, what really got me closer to the women were the conversations we had; I listened to them and they listened to me. They ended up telling me the encouraging words I was planning to share with them.

During summer, I also worked directly with the organization DOOR Network leading groups coming from different parts of the United States to do mission work in Miami. I was in charge of reflection time in the evenings after the groups came back from serving in the city. The experience I had as a volunteer helped me to guide them in their experience. By that time, I had spent almost one year in the city they would experience in that week.

One of the biggest challenges was leading them to redefine the concept of “service”. We may think that we “serve” because “we have something to give”. That’s why we, after “serving” or having a “mission experience”, we thank God for all that we have and others don’t. And I learned that serving doesn’t call us to make an inventory of what we have but challenges us to question ourselves how we really relate with those around us. That was my biggest challenge during this year. I was challenging the groups to do something I was challenged to do during my year of service.

I never thought I would be so passionate about what I did in Miami. I also didn’t understand that being bilingual was such an advantage in a city like this one. Whoever has lived in Miami knows that not everybody speaks Spanish, nor English. I can assure you that, specially after living in a community where Creole was the predominant language.

I have been in Miami before for vacations, but I only went to the places tourists go. That’s why, during this year, I recognized a contrast that was hard to handle. The difference between Coral Gables and Brickell versus Wynwood and Little Haiti is shocking. That reality confronted me daily and my mind kept going back to the marginalized communities in Puerto Rico.

I still have a lot to reflect on, but I can say definitely that redefining service is something I bring from my experience.

Not so long ago I was asked to mention somebody that impacted my life during my year. Although I needed some minutes to think about it, the women at the homeless shelter came quickly to my mind. They served me when I thought I was going to serve them. I saw the face of God in those women, when I thought I was going to be the face of God.

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"Just visiting" a detention center

It took me a while to actually sit down and write about this. 

Even tough I’m serving at a “national site”, I’m definitely serving in a different country. I’m speaking another language. And, a huge part of my experience here has been embracing my identity as a Puerto Rican, but on the other hand, realizing that I’m a “hispanic with benefits”.

As part of our community days, my roommate Suyeon and I went to Krome Detention Center in Homestead, Florida.

Suyeon described perfectly in her blog what the visit was about so I’ll share it here:

 ”Krome Detention center or Krome Service Processing Center is one of the many immigration detention centers in the United States where people who have violated the immigration law are held. They are not serving time for a crime. Many of them are detained, waiting for a removal process or court hearings, purely for “administrative purposes” we were told. We were background checked and went through security procedures. After we entered, an officer gave a brief presentation about what they do and what we will be seeing. Then, we toured the facility. There are 600 beds that are filled with detainees for some sort of conflict with immigration law.”

My visit reminded me when we had tours at the newsroom I used to work at. Journalism students would go through the whole building while we worked.

Somebody would say: “So this is the audiovisual area… and this is Michelle…” and then I would explain what I was working on. 

However, what I heard being “the visitor” at the detention center was something like: “So this is the room where they wait for a hearing… or for their lawyer…”, “…this is the room where they see their families through a glass…”, “…they wear color-coded uniforms depending on their violation level…”. At the same time I was listening to this, I would see them looking through the glass.
In that moment I realized that this was nothing compared to the journalism students tours. I felt uncomfortable and if I was in their shoes, I’m sure I would feel humiliated. 
After the “tour” we got to a room and met some of the detainees. We were split into small groups depending on the language spoken. Of course, I was in one of the 4 groups of people that only spoke Spanish - which was the majority in the room.

It was difficult to hear their stories and not feel anger and frustration. In my position, I could speak their language, relate to their culture, to their traditions but I couldn’t do the same with their immigration struggles.

"I signed a paper and I don’t know what it said because I don’t speak English. They just told me to sign it and I did." Things like this made me feel miserable, mad and upset… all at the same time. 
I thought I’d already realized this but it was not until that moment that I understood the privilege of speaking English and having that “permission” to be here. 

I thought I already knew what it felt like to not feel like a part of this place. I’ve encountered racism… and have been a victim of lack of awareness. But this was way beyond.

I consider myself an immigrant in this country, but, because of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, I may not count as one. Daily I find myself relating with those whose first language is Spanish but the challenge comes when I face the differences caused by my citizenship.

This was an experience, along with many other experiences I’ve had here in Miami, that have not made me say: “Oh! I’m grateful of what I have” but have challenged me to relate with those who suffer and struggle.

Like we see in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” When I see this, it’s difficult for me to rejoice.

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Reflecting after General Assembly

I would never have imagined in 2008, when I went to the PCUSA General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate (YAD), that I would be going back in 2014 as a YAV (Young Adult Volunteer). 

My perspective was so different then. I was living in San Juan and just graduated from college. This time around, I went after living and serving in Miami for about 10 months. 

There were many significant moments that made me feel grateful for all the experiences and opportunities that God has given me throughout these past months. Other moments were definitely challenging.

It was meaningful to attend the YAADs evening meetings and remember my experience as a YAD, but also hear some of the songs I learned and sang at the Young Adult Volunteer program orientation in August when I was starting this unplanned but blessed journey. Certainly, it was a reminder that I was where I was supposed to be.

It was interesting to see GA from a different perspective. After experiencing simple living for the past months, even fancy hotel rooms bothered me a little bit, but experiencing the Church in a whole new way and being supported by friends and family while I was there was a true 
blessing. 

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I had the opportunity to lead a reflection question and prayer with TJ Piccolo, currently serving in Nashville, where we asked the commissioners: "What is something small you’ve done for someone that meant more to them than you thought it would? Or what small act of kindness did you experience that meant more for you than the other person thought it would?

Although it was challenging to me to do this in English, it was great to share a little bit of my experience while being supported by other YAV’s and YAVA’s (YAV Alum).

Also, something called my attention while I was being commissioned on behalf of the YAVs 2013-2014. Every Presbytery delegates were asked to stand after they introduced every missionary. To see the Presbiterio de San Juan delegates standing up after my name was called was a beautiful reminder of the church back home that has been walking with me.

Living in the US has made me more aware of my identity as a Puerto Rican, aware of what it means to be a minority, and made me realize the position of privilege I have because of that tiny little detail in my passport that specifies my citizenship. 

That makes me have this “I’m part of, but I’m not” feeling. 

It was after having the opportunity to speak at the plenary, that I heard that somebody asked to refer one issue about Puerto Rico to the International Issues Committee, without knowing that Puerto Rico’s Synod and Presbyteries are part of the PCUSA.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend GA and realized how my mind set has been challenged and transformed since I was at GA in 2008.

I found myself noticing injustices where I didn’t noticed them before, and felt in peace with issues that were really bothering me. 

And… last but not least, I took my GoPro with me.

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Living without… money?!

"How do you survive?" 
A friend asked me that common question when I said I was working as a volunteer… with no salary… for a whole year.

For me, this is a new thing. Before coming to Miami, I had a full time job and that means: a full time salary. Money was not a concern for me. But now, I’m very aware of how much money I spend. 

It wasn’t until I went to Puerto Rico for New Year’s, when I went to one of my favorite restaurants, that I realized how much I used to spend in food. When I got the ticket I was like “how much?!” 

It was the very same thing I used to order always. 

Even last weekend, I went to a expo and I realized how many workshops and music presentations I missed because I had to pay extra. 

Now I’m more aware of the parking fares, on how I can get cups of water for free instead of paying $2 for a water bottle. I think whether is cheaper to go in public transportation or use the car before going to a place. I’ve learn how to get all the stuff I need for a trip in a backpack to avoid paying for luggage at the airports.

I’ve learn to “survive” with a very limited amount of money and, let me tell you something, everything is OK, I’m not starving… I’m not dying.

This experience has taught me to prioritize things. Well, I’m still learning. I’ve learned it is possible to live with a super limited budget, beyond what I thought it was “limited”. 

I may not go everywhere I want to, I may not eat at every place I would like to, but I’m not lacking anything essential. 

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Houseless but not homeless

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So we finally moved. It was a whole process but we are finally settled.

We spent 3 weeks staying at different houses (including our site coordinator’s house) until we got a new apartment.

Although it was frustrating to not have a house, I found myself “houseless” but not homeless.

I saw God’s love and care in every detail while I stayed at José Manuel and Vilmarie’s apartment.

José Manuel is the pastor of the First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami but he happens to be the former pastor of the church I’m a member of, back home in San Juan. And Vilmarie… well, I know her since I was little because we grew up in the very same church. I know those two very well and when I needed a place to stay, I didn’t hesitate to call them and ask if I could stay for a couple of days… that later became 3 weeks.

I knew I was going to be ok while staying with them, but while the days passed by, I started to feel like… should I go somewhere else? or am I abusing their generosity?

I knew I was there temporarily, but I didn’t know for how long. And that was challenging. I really felt I was invading their space, even though we have a very close relationship.

I’m so grateful for that home. I had great conversations with José and Vilmarie about church, bible, and even theology. We also had great time watching SNL videos and hanging out at IKEA.

It was such a refreshing time for me, full of luxuries like cable, Netflix, Wi-fi, room just for me and, last but not least, washer/dryer machine. Whoa! (How perception changes with all this “living simply” thing, right?)

I know they didn’t do all of this to be featured in a blog, but I really felt God through their support and care.

This is where I reaffirm that being part of a church and having that extended family available for me has been a true blessing.

And now…  this is my view on my way to the bus stop

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