Last Thursday evening, after all the Philadelphia team members got off of work, we took off for the Pocono mountains for an overnight Solitude and Silence Retreat. About halfway through the drive there, I was struck by an odd recognition of how familiar this recently unfamiliar experience was. Instead of sitting on a crowded SEPTA bus with a host of strangers, I was seated in a van with housemates and friends. Instead of driving by the countless unique cornerstores of Philly, I was passing chains -including my beloved Chipotle- that I knew well. And instead of hearing the ceaseless soundings of the city, I was listening (and, of course, singing right along) to bad pop songs on the radio. In some ways, it felt just like the normal I knew from the past three years of so, which were filled with roadtrips with friends much like that one. And yet, I couldn’t shake the sense that it also felt undeniably different.
Some of the changes within myself that have taken place in the past month since I’ve moved to Philadelphia are obvious. The newfound norms of relying on public transit have begun, which include frustration (Why is the bus always driving away as I get to my stop?) and fear (If you know my navigation skills, this one makes sense) but also some tremendous moments showcasing the cuteness of kids and kindness of strangers. With a weekly $10 budget to make October’s $60 last and save a little for later, that burrito bowl is no longer an option for dinner. And the moments of quiet are simply less prevalent in a city crackling with energy and movement at all hours of the day, and night. Beneath those, though, there are greater lessons to be learned, like how to give gratitude for small graces, or deny myself and the consumerist culture I belong to, or find beauty and peace in ways I haven’t before. And beyond those simple lessons, I can tell there are many more that are outside of my grasp right now, something made clear during the retreat described above.
Although it only went from Thursday night to Friday evening, the trip still provided some meaningful moments that I have a feeling will significantly shape my year here in the city. Removed from the weekly rhythms that have taken root and given ample time and space for intentional solitude, silence, and prayer, I was able to see myself with new eyes and take note of the small and subtle shiftings that have been happening inside – seeds of real transformation. This sort of growth, of course, was something I desired deeply prior to arriving here. However, after being exposed to the often unrelenting symptoms of injustice, corruption, and sin that plague the people here – my neighbors in Hunting Park, my students at KIPP DuBois, and countless others – I found myself overwhelmed by the need for liberation of the masses, both spiritual and systemic. During a conversation with my City Director, though, I was reminded of a critical truth: “The liberation of the world is bound up in our own personal, spiritual liberation. One can’t happen without the other.” This was reaffirmed again and again during the retreat, leaving me with the gift of a powerful hope for the transformation and growth this year is offering. I am excited about the person – the son, the brother, the friend, the neighbor, the artist, the student, the teacher, the follower of Jesus – that I am becoming.