The beginning of this past June marked by my fourth and final “Come & See” weekend as a team member of Mission Year. These weekends create space for the family and friends we have from home to come join in on a weekend here in the city and share in the lives we have created here. Over the past two years, these weekends have held some of my most cherished memories within my time in the program. Each held unique gifts and opportunities, and this one coincided with Mission Year’s 20 Year Celebration in Philadelphia commemorating the two decades of work God has done through the program here in the city.

As a part of the celebration, I had the privilege of introducing Mama and sharing a small glimpse of what her friendship and mentorship has offered me the past two years. Because this was Mama’s fourth and final year as a landlord and next door neighbor to a MissionYear team, it felt fitting to take some time to honor her and the ways she has supported, cared for, and guided team members for a fifth of MissionYear’s time in Philadelphia. I used my time to highlight some of the invaluable lessons she has taught me, ranging from how to get to the root when you’re pulling weeds or make tostones to how to be a good neighbor. However, more significant than any of those things has been the ways she has taught me how to believe in God.

To highlight this, I shared a story from a few months ago after she had returned from visiting her family and community in the Dominican Republic. Back in the States, she was forlorn about the sad state of the baseball team the kids belonged to in the DR, and she was lamenting to me that they should have better equipment like those from wealthier areas do. I agreed with her, saddened by what she was sharing but ultimately feeling as though there was nothing that could be done. A week later, I stopped by Mama’s house on my way home from work and heard her call out to come in rather than greeting me at the door. As I stepped inside, it made sense why: The entire front of the room was filled with overflowing bags and bins of baseball equipment! Making my way through the makeshift labyrinth of baseballs, gloves, bats, helmets, and the like, all I could say to Mama was, “HOW?!” She tilted her head back, grinned at me and said, “Luca, I serve the Living God!” Her confidence and trust in God, even in the midst of what often feels like constant chaos and challenge, has been a critical tether that has kept my own faith rooted, and it was so meaningul to get to share that with her and so many others.

After hearing from a number of Mission Year alums, neighbors, and friends share their own reflections, our executive director Shawn Casselberry began his closing talk with an observation. “After hearing all of these stories,” he began, “it’s really clear how central the idea of family is to Mission Year here in Philly. People are going from strangers to neighbors, yes, but it goes beyond that too. Strangers are becoming friends. Neighbors are becoming family.” His words struck me as deeply resonant, especially on this weekend where my own flesh-and-blood family was visiting and in so many ways they seemed as connected to some of my neighbors as I did, as if Come & Seek Weekend had become a family reunion.

After the celebration, Pam and Jacob joined my family and I at Mama and George’s, where my mom, sister, and brother were staying for the weekend. It was my mom’s fifth time staying there and my sister’s third, and even with it being Blake’s first visit to Hunting Park, he already knew Pam and Jacob from when they came to stay with us for a week last August. We spent the rest of the night simply enjoying each other, and as I continually took in the gift it was to be in the same space as all of these people at one time, I kept hearing Shawn’s observation echo in my mind. Mission Year has, without a doubt, expanded the boundaries of who my family is, and that will forever be one of the absolute greatest gifts that it has given me.


Image credit: Luke Hillier


LukeHillierLuke Hillier Mission Year Philadelphia’s City Director and former Alum Leader and team member. Originally from Pataskala, OH, he attended Denison University. Support him and learn more on his blog.