This is my first year as a city director for Mission Year, and within that role I have the privilege of walking alongside the team members in Philly as they live out the highs and lows of their year. A reoccurring conversation that I’ve been a part of with a few of them has centered around the ways that we experience God and the spaces we expect God to be. For some of them, the old avenues have been closed off, or they are exposed to realities that they’d been able to hide from before and now demand to be reckoned with. There is an invitation to blur the boundaries between sacred and profane and take ownership of their faith independent from some the influences they’d previously entrusted it to. They find themselves confronted with the types of death that precede resurrection.
It has been an inspiration and a gift to bear witness to the work they’re doing, whether it’s in asking the hardest of questions, taking themselves and Jesus more seriously than ever before, pursuing healing and wholeness, or learning to claim their voice and trusting what it says. One of them wrote in one of her newsletters: “What I have begun to realize though, is that I was holding myself and God to standards made by those around me instead of listening to my voice and trusting myself to name where and how I experience God. I have felt more connected to God while gardening, on walks home while the sun is setting, and in meaningful conversations with my neighbors than in structured church settings. But because those aren’t the ways that I was told to experience God, I wasn’t giving myself permission to acknowledge those moments as holy and sacred and expecting God to be in only specific settings in specific ways.”
Getting to sit with them and hear how they’re processing their experiences has also offered a welcome reexamination of my own. In seeing the ways that they move towards agency, freedom, aliveness, and gratitude as they begin to name experiences as sacred encounters no matter how small, simple, or secular, I have felt a revitalized excitement to open my spirituality up towards that kind of awakeness towards God again.
I often look back with deep fondness to my first year here, the ways that God was vibrant and vivid, present within my neighborhood in a way I’d never experienced before. But, as is often the case, I grew somewhat numb as Philly lost its sense of newness and more or less fell out of the practice and posture of praying with expectancy for eyes to see.
I can remember meeting with my City Director Ra for a one-on-one sometime in the Spring when I was a team member and talking about how important my walk from the bus into my house after work every day felt. At the time, like the team members I meet with now, I didn’t have words or feel permission to name that experience as a holy one. Looking back, however, I can see it for what it was: worship, encounter, prayer. Even in those first months, I loved living in Hunting Park. I loved the neighbors I was meeting who also called it home, I loved the invitation to integrity it offered me, I loved the energy of resilience and redemption running through it. But I didn’t have words for all of that yet. Those walks were a way of communicating what I didn’t know how. Passing by Mama and George’s house before making my way up our slightly too steep front steps and through the threshold back home. This was my daily liturgy, my way of expressing in a way more deeply than I could say with words “I love it here.”
A number of other moments occurred while on some of my many trips between North and West Philly on SEPTA, and given how much I used to resent the amount of time I spent on buses, that made them all the more unexpected. One stands out in particular for being the first time I trusted myself enough to name a moment as a thin place where God had burst through the cracks. Towards the front of the bus, I noticed a young boy sitting next to his grandmother, resting his head against her as she patted his hair. Almost instantly, I knew that I was seeing the intimacy of God the Father with His Son, the gentle love that God our Mother embraces all her children with.
There have been many, many other moments – ones from my arduous time at KIPP where a student was generous and kind, or while sharing a special Family Night or team worship with my housemates, or sitting around our table with a rotating guest list of neighbors and friends, being smothered in hugs at church. Those were moments truly spent recognizing and celebrating the Imago Dei. There were sunrises on painfully early mornings that I learned to interpret as “I love you” and buds of flowers at the park bursting into colorful life in the springtime shouting “Resurrection is real!” Time spent at marches, vigils, protests, and rallies where praying with my pounding feet communicated the anger and lament far better than my words could and God was near to me in the sea of bodies shouting holy disruption and defiant hope. The murals throughout the city sometimes quite literally stopping me in my tracks to communicate what I’d been needing to hear: the heart on Spring Garden with “BREATHE” running through it,” the mural at the Simple Way telling me “Do Not Fear For I am With you,” the triptych off Girard exhorting me to “RISE UP! WAY UP! STAY UP!” or the wall adjacent to the Magic Gardens saying, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.”
There have been so many moments where God has come near, offering presence above all else. And my spirituality was at its fullest, most awake and most alive when I was constantly asking for eyes to see that. I want to return to that, and even in naming that desire, I’ve been reminded that it never really stopped.
In Philadelphia, the blocks of row homes are packed so closely together that they literally share walls, and in the back they jut out at an angle to create enough distance for windows. While this is great, it also means that the light from the room next door with said window pours in through my own, casting my bedroom in a yellow glow almost bright enough to read by. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make for the most ideal sleeping conditions.
Typically, the light’s only on briefly –just long enough for Mama and George next door to brush their teeth before bed, I’d imagine– and the room is awash for just a little while. A few months ago, however, I remember a night where I’d been drifting off to sleep only to be woken by the sudden glow, my tired eyes squinting against the invasion of light, glaring as I waited for it to turn off. Except, this time, it didn’t.
I realized about twenty later that one of them must have forgotten to turn it off. If it had been any other neighbor, I probably would’ve laid there fuming, but because my love for Mama and George runs unfathomably deep, I tried to make room in myself to appreciate the light. I focused on how it made me think of them. How it reminded me of George’s endless stories and Mama’s bountiful hugs, the way you have to pry the shovel from his almost-80-year-old hands in the winter or how she always cooks two or three times more than she needs to so that she’s got food to offer her steady stream of visitors.
I thought of Mama’s commitment to our neighborhood, the countless hours she’s spent at meetings for community development organizations or working away in community gardens or sweeping the trash off of our block. I thought of the light that she brings to this place we both call home, and the Light that she professes as her source and hope. And then I breathed a sigh of gratitude for this light I’d previously been so bothered by, the ways it reminded me of these beautiful truths, the way it made me recognize: God was the light left on.
Luke 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.