Wednesday, December 9, 2015

on homesickness

Taking a quick break from writing the longest report ever on GBV activities over the last two months, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed this morning and a feeling washed over me that I haven't felt before:  my first bout of tear-inducing, chest-aching, stomach-turning homesickness.

Don't get me wrong; I've been missing home. I missed my dad as soon as we parted directions at San Miguel's and drove home teary-eyed. I missed Anna as soon as she dropped me at the airport and had to sit and collect myself before walking through security. I've been missing family and friends and Sewanee and fall and Netflix and, as my mother can attest, double-stuffed Oreos, all along. I even miss driving, which I don't normally enjoy. It's strange - the things we long for. This is the most beautiful place I've ever been, but I still sometimes miss the familiar beauty of home.

Eleven weeks in I'm still struggling with the metric system and which way to look when crossing the road. Trips to the grocery store still take a surprising amount of mental energy. Even though I am safe and well, I have to constantly be aware of my surroundings and have never been so preoccupied with assessing my physical safety. This is compounded by the fact that I know I'll have to readjust when I return, that with each passing day America becomes a stranger to me, whose habits and customs I'll have to re-learn.

And yet - I haven't felt this until now. Maybe it's because the holidays are approaching, and for the first time in my life, I don't know how I'm going to spend Christmas or with whom I'll be spending it. I know I won't spend it alone, but I've never had to wonder about it before. Maybe I feel guilty that Christmas doesn't feel quite like Christmas in the middle of summer because I know that isn't what Christmas should be about. Maybe I feel guilty that I'm working for the Church but have barely been attending church or observing Advent like in years past. Maybe I'm selfishly bummed that life goes on at home without me.

Homesickness is a funny thing. It isn't a dull ache that comes to stay until you grow accustomed to the feeling. It comes in waves - all at once, with varying force and momentum, quickly retreating. It's always replaced by something else:  gratitude. I know how lucky I am to be here, to have this opportunity, to be constantly learning, to form new perspectives, to establish new friendships, to experience new things. I know how lucky I am to have multiple places to call home when some have none. And I know how lucky I am to have people who are good enough to miss.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

a franciscan blessing

As some of you may know, today is my 24th birthday! This means that I am no longer the youngest person in the office because Thandeka tells me she stopped having birthdays after 23 - mysterious.

But I share this day with another very special lady:  a dear friend who inspired me to apply for YASC and who continues to inspire me, Sara Lowery. Before I left, she gave me a handwritten copy of this Franciscan Blessing, and I wanted to share it with all of you now.

Sara, I hope your day is filled with as much love as you have for others. I hope that God continues to bless both of us with these things in the coming year.

xo - Lacey

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

on being a woman

I love to dance. It is a spiritual act for me, this awareness of my body as I occupy it fully. I am not a good dancer. If someone were to record my dancing and play it back to me, I would likely stop dancing. That is, until the next time bass vibrated through my body, beckoning me to move it wildly, gratitude and worship filling my bones.

Recently I went out dancing with two new friends. We found venues with good vibes and great music, and we all had a lot of fun. I was also subject to harassment - both verbal and physical - countless times and in multiple locations - walking down the street, in clubs, at a McDonald’s.

We live in a world that teaches women in myriad ways that our bodies do not belong to us, are not the precious gifts from God that I know them to be. We live in a world in which we regularly have our autonomy denied, our rights violated, and our protests ignored or mocked.

This is what it means to navigate this world as a woman: to endure all of this and return home at the end of the night, alive and breathless, and say “I had so much fun!” - and mean it. Because if I allowed harassment to become the focus of my experiences, I would suffer from anxiety even about trips to the grocery store, outside of which strange men have stood and catcalled me - not only here but also in my small hometown.

The fact is that I cannot prevent these unwanted experiences. I could do my best to limit them, but I would in turn be limiting myself. That does not mean that I have to resign myself to them, that I am complacent or accepting of the way things are.

I will continue to go out, to seek music and fun and, upon finding it, to move my body in ways that make me feel alive and free. I will continue to be subject to harassment, and I will continue to fight, to push men off myself and my friends, to call them out, to yell on the streets with all of the energy of the bass pumping through my veins. I will return home to write and speak about it.

I will do this because, to borrow a favorite quote from the brilliant Audre Lorde, “your silence does not protect you.” I will speak out because violence exists on a spectrum, and the same attitudes that allow men to believe that my body is theirs to touch and comment on freely also allow them to perpetuate more serious forms of violence against women. Because I cannot encourage other women to do so unless I am willing to do it myself. Because there is no end in sight until women are acknowledged as fully autonomous beings, as fully human.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

gender-based violence

Since I've been here for almost two months, it's probably time I shared a bit about the work I'm doing. You can learn more about HOPE Africa, the organization I'm placed with, by following the link here or at the top of this page.

I'm working on HOPE Africa's Gender-Based Violence Programme, the newest of its efforts launched in 2014 with the vote to establish a gender desk in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and beginning with a We Will Speak Out (WWSO) international campaign. The ultimate aim of the program is prevention through a survivor-led movement.

So what exactly is gender-based violence? Currently, HOPE Africa focuses most of its efforts on violence against women, specifically domestic violence and sexual assault as those are most common in the Western Cape. But gender-based violence (GBV) is a broader term than violence against women. Aside from domestic and sexual violence, GBV can include virginity testing, honor killings, infanticide, child marriage (ukhutwala), female genital mutilation/cutting, ritual male circumcision, "corrective rape" or other violence on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, violence against transgender individuals, sexual harassment, and human trafficking.

Some of the ways we are working to create change are by conducting research and compiling reports, creating support groups to empower survivors, hosting training opportunities for faith leaders, organizing campaigns and events, providing a platform for survivors to share their stories, and partnering with government entities and NGOs. I am based in the office and am responsible for administrative tasks here, but I also co-facilitate support groups in the field with social workers. I'll be posting more about survivors I've been working with soon and throughout the year.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

young adults in the church

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, life, love, faith, and purity.” - 1 Timothy 4:12

My evangelical upbringing in early childhood certainly came with some collateral damage, but the best thing it gave me was a Biblical literacy that most cradle Episcopalians lack. Knowing Scripture by heart was a requirement, and often verses were set to music to aide our memorization. These are the ones I still remember almost two decades later, lodged deep in my memory along with the lyrics to most early 2000s pop music. I often wonder what I would have the capacity to learn if so much space were not occupied by Britney Spears songs, but I digress. One such Bible verse is the one you see above from the first of the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy. I’ve had it stuck in my head all week long, pondering the significance of those words.

This week I am attending a pastoral counselling training hosted by HOPE Africa to equip clergy and lay leaders with skills to counsel victims of gender-based violence. My role is to assist Pumla Mncayi, the consultant we hired to facilitate; collect pre and post evaluations from participants; and to observe and write a report. I’m learning a lot about the culture and attitudes from the participants themselves, who are lively and engaged. Pumla keeps referring to them as gevaarlik, literally “dangerous” in Afrikaans but in this case used as slang referring to their tendency to embrace controversy with their questions and comments.

On the first day of training, I sat a table of faith leaders during lunch and listened to the conversation that unfolded around me. They were discussing groups who are often marginalized within the church and what can and should be done differently, and many of them began to cite young people’s influence in helping them to see these issues in a new way. Aside from one 30 year old youth pastor, most participants are much older - late forties to sixties. Here are some of the sentiments I heard concerning young adults in the church:

“I’ve gained a lot from the young people I work with. They ask hard questions. They challenge me and force me to consider things in new ways. They'll really push you. My faith is stronger because of that.”

“I hate when people say that young people are the future of the church. They are not the future. They are the present.”

“If all of the members are older, the church is dead. The Anglican Church is losing younger members to the [contemporary non-denominational churches] because we do not value them; we don’t give them leadership opportunities.”

We have to stop equating wisdom with age. Hopefully you are wiser now than you were last year. Hopefully we never allow ourselves to stagnate. But we have to understand that we can learn from everyone, that even those younger than us have things to teach us. We have to acknowledge that none of us has all the wisdom.

When a young person sees something differently, take it as a challenge and consider their perspective. For Christ's sake (and I mean that literally), please don’t dismiss them with a laugh and a “Talk to me when you’re older.”

Young people of faith - if you are being ignored, speak louder. Don’t let them look down on you. You have the potential to influence real change. Your experiences and insights are valid, not something to be discounted until you are older. When others are blindly stuck in their ways, set an example. Dare to be gevaarlik. Jesus certainly was, and aren't we all trying to be like him anyway?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Miss America" the expat

Hi everyone!

Wow - where has October gone? I can't believe I've been here over a month already. I guess that means I should fill you in, eh? (Yes, people totally say "eh" here - more on language later.)

I'm living in Rondebosch, which is in the Southern suburbs of Cape Town and where the University of Cape Town is located, nestled in the foothills of the majestic Table Mountain. I live in St. Paul's Anhouse - the UCT Anglican student house - with 12 students. My room is very small, but I have it to myself which is nice. We share a nice large kitchen with plenty of refrigerators/freezers, cabinet space, and two stove/ovens. We also share just two showers, which is sometimes inconvenient, but my schedule is pretty different from everyone else's so I can manage. 

St. Paul's Anhouse - my home for the year
I've covered practically all of my wall space in photos and memorabilia
Even though it's the Anglican student house, not everyone is Anglican or even Christian. One of the women in the house is a Muslim from Tanzania. She has a husband and a child there and is in a PhD program here so she can get a good job where her husband lives. Mad respect for her independence and ambition. Three of the students in the house are from Zimbabwe - there's actually a pretty huge Zim population here. The rest are from different parts of South Africa. It's been cool getting to talk to some of them, and everyone has been really nice and welcoming. One even let me borrow his University student id and password to access wifi on campus. 

The school year here runs February-November so everyone will be leaving for their summer holiday soon. During that time some people will stay for graduation in December or will stay for internships or jobs. It's kind of strange getting here just as everyone prepares to leave. Some of the students will be back in February but a couple are graduating or moving out.

I work in Kenilworth, another Southern suburb, and I take the train to and from there everyday. Monthly train passes are R250 which lets me save a lot of money (it costs R10 for a single trip). I'm still getting used to thinking in rands instead of dollars, as well as Celcius instead of Fahrenheit and the metric instead of the imperial system. Everyone here says the US likes to be different even when it's more confusing. They are not wrong.

My ride to and from work each day - each ft. impressive graffiti
Our office building used to be a home for retired bishops and is a large gated compound. It houses HOPE Africa, Growing the Church, Anglican Alliance, Anglican Youth, and Green Anglicans. I was here over a week before I realized that I shared a building with another American missionary and Sewanee grad from Nashville! Her name is Nicole Corlew, and she works for Growing the Church. She's been here for three years and recently married a South African man. There are so many Sewanee connections here. In fact Bishop Neil Alexander (Dean of Sewanee's School of Theology) joked that I could stand on a street corner in Cape Town and yell "Sewanee," and people would come running. This doesn't seem far from true; when I wore my Sewanee hat last week, Carol asked me about it and told me she had completed its Education for Ministry program. 

The HOPE Africa office building in Kenilworth
My coworkers have all been incredibly welcoming and helpful. Ignatius (Iggy) was in charge of getting me settled; he picked me up from the airport, showed me how to use public transportation, took me shopping, and laughed at me during my first grocery store visit. I realized that grocery stores and names for foods are not the same everywhere. Not only that, but it's incredibly difficult to determine what brands to buy and what reasonable prices are. Please, if you ever know someone who has newly arrived in the country, offer to go grocery shopping with them.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the title of this post... On my flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town my seatmates were a lively (read: drunk but harmless) duo who started referring to me as Miss America. I was amused by it and told Iggy about it, and he still calls me that sometimes.

The HOPE Africa staff after our silent retreat
There is so much more to tell you, but I'll stop there for now. I promise to post soon about the work I'm doing and some of my adventures here so far.

Friday, October 9, 2015

learning to leave well

So much has happened in the last few weeks that it’s been hard to find time to write about it or even to know where to start. I’ve decided to break my reflections up into a few posts because there is just too much to tell you, starting with preparing to leave.

I spent the days before I left in a whirlwind of packing, taking care of last minute details, and saying goodbye to family and friends.

My friend Brooke grew up as the daughter of missionaries in Haiti. As such, she knows well the experience of saying goodbye to friends she’s come to know and love - there and in the States. Just before I left, she admitted that she hasn’t always dealt with it well, but her mother taught her the importance of “leaving well.” Rather than distancing yourself from people, feeling angry or isolated, or shutting down emotionally, it is important to express gratitude and leave in such a way that leaves bridges intact. Missionary work, after all, is ultimately an exercise in bridge-building.

I left my position as an Americorps VISTA and those I worked with in Grundy County. My year there was hard and rewarding. I experienced the frustrations that come with bureaucracy, nonprofit work, and small town politics - often complacent and slow to change. But I also grew - personally and professionally. I learned to find creative solutions to obstacles and to be more flexible. I learned to listen more than I talk and to ask for help. I made new friends, built bridges, and expanded my community. The experiences I had will translate well into my YASC year and beyond, and I’m grateful for all of them - the good and the not-so-good.

I also left behind the Sewanee community where I’ve spent five years. I said goodbye to other young alums, student friends, and beloved professors and mentors. It is hard to realize that a place will continue to grow and change without you, that life will happen even if you aren’t there to witness it. It is infinitely harder to leave something good for something uncertain, to wonder whether you will find the same love and support and community that you are leaving behind. It is on this point that Dr. Pamela Macfie reassured me that if we find community, it is because we cultivate it, because we seek it out, because we draw others to ourselves.

I left behind familiar places, favorite spots for reflection and playtime, the many holy grounds where I’ve encountered God. I checked things off a bucket list - including a 22-mile hike of the Perimeter Trail surrounding Sewanee’s 13,000 acres.

I said a series of goodbyes to family and friends - some filled with laughter and others with tears - people I’ve known and loved my entire life, or gotten amazingly close to over a few short months. I received heartfelt notes that will continue to encourage me this year, a glass vial necklace filled with Sewanee soil so I can “take a piece of the Mountain” with me, and hours worth of music for listening on the plane and throughout the year. It became abundantly clear to me that I am well loved and will be well missed, and I’m grateful to have people in my life wonderful enough to miss as well.

Of course, I will see these loved ones again, and these goodbyes and this leaving serves in a way as practice for the real task at hand:  learning, loving, and leaving South Africa well over the next year.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

where my trust is without borders

Here's where I have to admit that I don’t find myself listening to a lot of “Christian” music, particularly contemporary Christian music. I find that it often feels shallow or forced. Plus I tend to agree with Frederick Buechner that “life itself is sacramental” and with Anis Mojgani that “every breath we swallow is worship.” With this in mind, one of my favorite worship songs is Florence + the Machine’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” and looking up at the heavens and singing it with her at Bonnaroo was a profoundly sacred experience for me.

Florence killing it at Bonnaroo

One exception to this is Hillsong United's "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). I've listened to it countless times in the last few months, and it still moves me every time. Here's a lovely YouTube version with lyrics for you to enjoy. If you read my sermon from Growing in Grace, you'll notice that the lyrics echo a lot of the sentiments I described. I pull strength from it and use it as my prayer when I'm unable to find the words on my own.

Monday, September 21, 2015

prone to wander

Last Sunday I was commissioned at All Saints during the morning service and gave a sermon during Growing in Grace, the informal evening gathering. Both experiences were incredibly meaningful and memorable, and I'm so grateful to Tom Macfie, Melissa Hartley, and Rob McAlister for making everything come together.
I wanted to go ahead and share my message from Sunday night here. Talking at Growing in Grace had to be one of the most intimidating experiences I've had, but having some friendly faces in the crowd to support me helped so much. I'm glad I pushed myself to do something outside my comfort zone. That is where growth happens, where we find grace and find God.

When Rob told me the theme for Growing in Grace this semester is “Prone to Wander,” I almost had to laugh. Not only is "Come Thou Fount" my all-time favorite hymn, the theme of wandering is just too obvious in how it relates to my life right now, as I prepare to wander all the way to Cape Town, SA to serve as a missionary through the Episcopal Church.

But we are all prone to wander. While you’re at Sewanee maybe you’ll study abroad, hike the Perimeter Trail, go on an outreach or SOP trip, or get involved in the local community… But how can we wander for God rather than away from God? How can we use our wandering to grow closer to him?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his reflections on morning that each day “is long enough to find God or to lose him” - are we seeking God each day? Are we asking ourselves where we saw God today? Are we keeping in mind the things of God or are we more like Peter, focused on human concerns?

As we venture, are we seeking God where we go? Often we only seek God in the places we expect to find him - maybe just in church on a Sunday. Or maybe we imagine that we are taking God with us into the world, or we simply wait for him to show up and knock us down. But if we enter a place with the knowledge that God is already there, that he has already been at work, if we search intentionally for signs of that, perhaps we’ll encounter him in a new way, perhaps we’ll get to know him on a deeper level.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, she devotes a chapter to reverence. She writes that “you can learn as much about God from a love affair or a wildflower as you can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” We simply have to commit ourselves to what she calls the “Practice of Paying Attention” as we wander about.

Jesus asks the crowd what good it is for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul. This is often interpreted with a sense of finality, but there are small ways we gain the world and forfeit our souls each and every day. We forfeit our souls when we fail to hear them, acknowledge them, and nourish them. We forfeit our souls when we strive more for acceptance than for authenticity. We forfeit our souls when we focus too much on human concerns, when we allow our anxiety and fear and doubt to distract us. We forfeit our souls when we forget that those around us have souls as well. We forfeit them when we imagine that God sees the world the way that we do, rather than challenging ourselves to see the world the way God does.

Your soul is the very essence of who you are, it’s the purpose for which you are created. It is a unique reflection of the image of God. Theologian Howard Thurman refers to it as the sound of genuine in each of us. In his baccalaureate address at Spelman he describes gaining the world and forfeiting our souls in this way: “You may be famous. You may be whatever the other ideals are which are a part of this generation, but you know you don’t have the foggiest notion of who you are, where you are going, what you want.” 

Are we wandering in ways that bring us closer to the people we were created to be? Are our wanderings providing enough stillness to listen to the sound of the genuine in ourselves? Or do they serve as distractions, drawing us more toward others’ expectations of us than to who we really are?

We also must take the time to listen for the sound of the genuine in others. When we forget that those around us have souls, we lose ours as well. We are bound together in our common humanity, created by the same God and all in his image. In our baptismal vows, we promise to seek Christ in all persons. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes in our wanderings, we find ourselves cut off by another car on the interstate. And then we forget that the car has a driver and the driver has a soul and we curse them with the same mouth we use to worship their Creator.

Other times as we wander, we simply fail to notice people or take them for granted. We don’t say thank you or ask how they are and wait for the answer.

And other times in our travels, we treat people as a commodity. We go near or far away to serve others and we forget that they exist for more than to make us feel good about ourselves. We forget that children are more than a new profile picture or instagram post. We forget that we can learn something from everyone. 

Max Warren warns in these interactions that “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.”

I think another way we gain the world and lose our souls is through refusal to be vulnerable, to admit the places where we struggle. We allow others to put us on a pedestal. I’ve definitely felt like people have tried to do that to me since I've announced my plans to serve as a missionary, but I don't want it to be that way.

A lot of people have commented on how strong my faith must be to take this leap. But I find myself reminded of another time Peter is rebuked by Jesus, another time he fails to keep divine things in mind. In Matthew we are told the story of Jesus walking on the water. He's told his disciples to go ahead in the boat without him, and they're way out when they see this shadowy figure moving toward them. So clearly they are freaking out, and Jesus is like, "It's cool, y'all. It's just me, casually walking on water, nbd or anything." Peter is eager to leap out of the boat, bidding Jesus to call him out onto the water. It’s hard not to be impressed by that level of faith, right? Except that as soon as the wind began to blow, Peter gets scared. He loses faith, and he begins to sink. Jesus calls Peter, the rock, “you of little faith” here.

I am just like Peter. Sure I’ll take those leaps of faith. I’ll wander to new places, I’ll immerse myself, I’ll walk out onto the water. But I lose sight of God once I’m there, and I start to drown.

In fact, I do this time and time again. I did it when I first arrived at Sewanee, struggling to find my place here and ready to give up and transfer halfway into the semester. I’m so glad I didn’t because I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this community. Sewanee was a major part of my life and faith journey. And after graduating and returning to the mountain as an Americorps VISTA, I once again doubted a decision I had been so sure was right. For the first couple of months I allowed anxiety to distract me from that initial sense of purpose, and I neglected the self-care I desperately needed.

And now, before I’ve even arrived in South Africa, I find myself fighting that same anxiety and doubt. I momentarily forget that initial sense of calling I felt, instead focused on my own fears and insecurities. I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, rather than having faith that God will continue to guide me. I focus on human concerns rather than the things of God. I've spent an enormous amount of time and energy making lists, buying things, packing, all in an effort to be prepared when we all know that I can't possibly be truly prepared for this experience. But I know that I don’t want to gain the world - with its false senses of security and certainty - and lose my soul. I know that if I wander prayerfully and intentionally, things will fall into place and begin to make sense. And I know that I don’t have to do it alone, not only is God with me, but he has placed some incredible people in my life to offer support and love and encouragement.

I want to leave you with a prayer by Thomas Merton that has gotten me through a lot of these moments and I'm sure will help me through many more to come. I think it is perfect to keep in mind as we wander, to center ourselves on the things of God rather than the things of men.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015


I officially have a departure date set for September 23!

Last week I had to visit New York City again to apply for my Visa at the South African consulate. Everything seemed to be in order, so keep your fingers crossed that my visa arrives in time!

While I was there, I got to meet with Holly Milburn, the former YASCer who had my position with HOPE Africa two years ago. I'm so grateful to Holly for passing on her knowledge and experience to me. To see pictures and read more about her time there, check out her YASC blog here.

I'm so humbled by everyone's generosity. I was worried that I got a late start to fundraising, but in six weeks I've received roughly $8000! A sincere and heartfelt thank you to those who have donated - I couldn't do this without you. Donations will continue to be accepted even after I leave, and I'll be sure to update everyone when I reach my goal.

I couldn't get the link to work properly on my original attempt at a donor calendar, but here is a new one. If you previously donated and didn't claim a day, feel free to do that. Or if you claimed one and don't see it marked, please accept my apologies and correct my mistake. The template is courtesy of Naomi Cunningham, who has already begun her YASC year serving at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Tomorrow morning I'll be commissioned at All Saints Chapel in Sewanee, and I'll also be speaking at its informal Sunday night service Growing in Grace. Look for a post about that soon!

Just 11 days away - the countdown begins!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

pictures and highlights from orientation

This post is long overdue, but between wrapping up my year as an Americorps VISTA and preparing for my year as a YASCer (and a short and much needed vacation to San Francisco!), I've had a busy month! I hope you'll forgive my absence and promise to try to do better while in Cape Town.

In July all 25 YASCers met in New York for Mission Orientation. I can't emphasize enough how good it was. We stayed once again at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park. The monastery and grounds are absolutely beautiful, and it was a welcomed change of pace. Wifi access was limited at best so it was nice to have an excuse to unplug. We also got to spend a lot of time with the brothers there, learning from their wisdom and experience. If you ever need a quiet and relaxing retreat, you should visit them there. Not every YASC group has gotten to stay there, and I feel so grateful and enriched by that experience.

Naomi, Thomas, and me on the train to Holy Cross

Most of our time was spent in lectures and panels and workshops, learning about everything from cultural theory to the tedious but important logistics of health insurance. I could talk about Orientation forever, but I'll give you some of the highlights instead.

We arrived at Holy Cross on a Sunday and spent a week there. On the second Sunday, we all took a train to David Copley's church in Tarrytown, NY for the service and a luncheon. The service was bilingual - everything was translated in both English and Spanish - because of the large number of child refugees in attendance. It was the first time I've been to a service like that, and I was moved to tears at one point. We were also surprised to be called to the front to introduce ourselves and receive a blessing.

We then took a train into Manhattan where we checked into the Pod hotel to stay for two nights. They gave us the rest of the day free, and the Museum of Modern Art was conveniently nearby so Naomi and I ventured there. Art museums are always number one on my list of places to explore in cities, and this one was probably my favorite in terms of permanent exhibits - plus there was a special Yoko Ono exhibit that was as wonderfully weird and intriguing as I could have hoped.

Art selfies with Naomi and The Man in Yellow Pants
My favorite day of training was the multi-faith day we had in the city. We started the day by having breakfast with the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Meeting the presiding bishop, especially the first woman to hold that position, was basically a dream come true for me. I wrote down questions for her in advance because I like to be prepared when I meet my personal heroes. (I'm also preparing what I'll say if I ever get to meet Desmond Tutu). 

I obviously couldn't ask her all of my questions, but I did ask something along the lines of "From your unique vantage point as the first woman presiding bishop, what do you see as growth areas in the way the church relates to women? And, what can we as YASCers do to further elevate the status of women in the church?" She gave a beautifully thorough and insightful answer to both parts, pointing to some of the challenges for women in the Episcopal church and emphasizing the importance of modeling. She blessed us all before she left, and I made sure to ask for a picture.

Elly, Presiding Bishop Katharine, and me
We then went to an LDS temple and chatted with four Mormon missionaries who were placed in NYC. I wasn't sure what to expect since their concept of mission focuses on proselytizing and ours on building relationships. Ultimately I learned a lot about a religion that I didn't understand before. I was impressed by how respectful and interested they were, and I was struck by the sincerity of their faith.

We went back to the church center for lunch with Hanadi Doleh, the program coordinator of Park 51, dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque" in the aftermath of 9/11. Unfortunately due to reconstruction, we weren't able to visit the mosque, and while there are plenty of mosques in the city, the YASC staff wanted us to hear Hanadi's story. Hanadi truly has the gift of storytelling, and her poignant account of growing up as an American Muslim, age sixteen at the time of 9/11, moved me to tears. We asked her questions, encouraged by her candor and sense of humor. For instance, when one YASCer asked how she'd respond to accusations that Islam oppresses women, she gestured to herself and asked, "Do I look oppressed?" Short answer: no, she didn't, and she isn't. Religion doesn't oppress women; cultures do. Just as Westboro Baptist Church uses scripture to defend their despicable actions and beliefs, so do extremists within Islam. The unfortunate difference is that the media portrays those extremists as the norm, resulting in fear and ignorance. (I could write a whole post on this, and I probably should sometime.)

From there we went to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a beautiful synagogue and museum interestingly located in the middle of Chinatown. I loved touring and learning about its history, and it featured some of the most gorgeous stained glass I've ever seen, including the giant pieces pictured below.

Another highlight of training was getting to watch two nuns make their profession of vows. It took place on the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene and was also the first service I've ever attended that incorporated inclusive language, which was really incredible. The best part was watching Sisters Shane and Elizabeth dance joyfully up and down the aisles during the closing hymn "Marching in the Light of God." I probably have never seen anyone filled with that much joy, and it was absolutely infectious.

Probably the best part overall, as I said in my previous post, was spending time with the other YASCers. I'm looking forward to keeping in touch with them this year, and I'm fortunate to be going to the same country as three of them. Team South Africa is comprised of Tim Hamlin, Thomas Balch, Jacob Nastruz, and myself. More on South Africa and my placement there soon!

Team South Africa

2015-16 YASCers, aka the raddest group of missionaries ever

Thursday, August 6, 2015

the danger of a single story

Chris Pullenayegem, the consultant who led us in our training sessions on all things related to culture, had us watch Chimamanda Adichie's TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story." I had watched it previously but found that it is just as powerful each time. It's shorter than a sitcom and much more thought-provoking so I highly encourage you to take the time to watch it now.

Friday, July 31, 2015

a holy harmony

I returned last weekend from YASC orientation in New York, and while I'll post again soon with pictures and highlights, I wanted to go ahead and write the reflection that was really on my heart. Reflecting on discernment weekend in February, I found myself surprised at how intimately connected I could feel to people after four days. At mission orientation I was once again struck by this. Having spent less than 3 combined weeks with these individuals, I feel that many of them know me better than most people I have known for years.

During one of our orientation sessions, we read excerpts from Howard Thurman’s “The Sound of the Genuine,” a beautiful baccalaureate address to the graduating class of Spelman College in 1980. Thurman posits that within each of us is “the sound of the genuine” and that we must first learn to hear our own, lest we live our lives “on the ends of strings that someone else pulls.” He goes on to describe that when two people allow themselves to be vulnerable with one another, the sounds of the genuine in each of them form a harmony, the beautiful noise that Thurman claims inspired God to make man in his image.

During our two weeks at Holy Cross, I heard this holy music daily - during small group sessions and one-on-one chats, shared meals and walks to the river, a bilingual church service, the moving story of a Muslim woman, and countless other occasions. 

In our baptismal vows, we promise to “seek Christ in all persons.” When we listen for the sound of the genuine, that is what we are doing. We are acknowledging humanity and divinity simultaneously, and it is a joyful noise indeed. 

It is also much harder to achieve in the hustle and bustle of everyday life than it is during a two week stint at a monastery. But the goal is to bring that intentionality into the world with us, to bring it to our daily interactions whether with family and friends or while waiting in line at Starbucks.

My goal is to achieve this holy harmony as often as possible during my year in Cape Town and beyond. To those who honored our safe space and practiced vulnerability with me, thank you. Keep exercising that holy courage, and please keep in touch. I love you and miss your beautiful souls already.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

thomas merton prayer

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Monday, May 25, 2015

and we're off...

I can now officially begin fundraising now that my account has been set up with the Diocese of Tennessee (big thank you to everyone in the Diocesan Office for your tremendous help so far)! For more information, go to my Support Me page. Donations can be made online here - just be sure to select the "YASC, Lacey Oliver fund" from the drop down menu.

Also shout out to/shameless plug for Gabby Valentine for taking some fantastic photos for me to use for publicity, like the one you'll see on my updated Meet Me page. I'm so lucky to have such talented, kind, and supportive ladies in my life.

lost in a fit of giggles mid-photoshoot
I'd also be remiss not to thank Belinda Morgan for connecting me with her friend Nickie, who just moved back to the states after 12 years in Cape Town. Through our email correspondence, she's already provided helpful information, advice, and recommendations, and I'm incredibly glad that the world can seem so small sometimes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a letter of gratitude

I am filled to overflowing with gratitude for those who have helped me in this process thus far. While I couldn’t possibly do justice to everyone, here are a few thank you’s that couldn’t possibly wait:

To friend, sister, and former YASCer Sara Lowery for being there for me every step of the way, including when she proofread my essays an hour before the application was due and last week when she talked me through a classic "what have I gotten myself into?!" breakdown (the first of many, I'm sure). You have been such an incredible friend and mentor, and anyone who accuses me of following in your footsteps can just keep the praises coming.

To Tom Macfie for serving as my Catechist two years in a row, for his calm wisdom and understanding, for supporting me in my journey toward Confirmation, for recommending me for YASC, for being a friend and confidante, for connecting me with Bishop Bauerschmidt and introducing me to the Archbishop of South Africa, and for so much more.

To others who recommended me, three amazing women who have taught me so much: Tonya Garner, my supervisor and partner in crime, whose fearless example of throwing herself into life headfirst will no doubt continue to motivate me; Pamela Macfie, easily one of the most intelligent women I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, a favorite Sewanee professor (evident in the record she holds for most classes I’ve taken with a single instructor), a trusted advisor, and the owner of a most impressive scarf collection; and Virginia Craighill, whose World Literature course introduced me to South African literature and challenged me to write one of the most provocative pieces I’ve ever written (which I was able to adapt for a YASC application essay).

To my parents, for not having completely lost it yet. I know this is not what you had in mind for your daughter, but you haven’t tried once to talk me out of it. I’ll miss you dearly, but we’ll skype often, and it’d be a great excuse for you to visit a beautiful country!

To my best friend Sara Smith. Thank you for your unfailing willingness to share your wardrobe, your bed, and your precious thoughts and feelings with me. Thank you for teaching me that our trauma doesn’t define us but it can make us stronger, and for learning alongside me that vulnerability is strength. We have separation anxiety after a few days, so a year is going to challenge us both, but I can’t wait to show you around Cape Town.

To Anna Wyse, one of the most amazing women I know. Thank you for filling me with laughter and light, for supporting and encouraging me, and for looking up plane tickets to South Africa within minutes of hearing my placement. Thank you for painting a picture of grace by giving me more than I deserve.

I’m beyond blessed to have these and countless other wonderful friends and mentors in my life. If you are reading this right now, know that I am grateful for you and hope you’ll continue to follow me in this journey.

xo, Lacey

Monday, May 18, 2015


As you may have heard by now, I'll be moving to Cape Town, South Africa this fall to serve with the Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church for a year! You can call it YASC (rhymes with "ask") for short, and it's basically the Peace Corps of the Episcopal Church. I'll share more information about the specific work I'll be doing and how you can be a part of it very soon, but for now I want to speak a bit about my journey toward this opportunity thus far.

It's been almost a year since I sat across from my dear, jetlagged friend Sara Lowery, eagerly listening to her tell me about her YASC experience over lunch. For the next few months, I waited patiently (mostly) for the application to be made available. In the meantime, I watched promotional videos, read blogs, and just generally learned everything I could about the program. In October, I sat with Rev. Tom Macfie in his office in All Saints Chapel to discuss my plans to apply for YASC. In the beginning of January, I submitted my application, a document which likely received more time and effort than any assignment I’ve ever completed. In February, YASC gathered 36 of its applicants at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY for Discernment Weekend. Through a series of presentations, small groups, panels, and conversations, we were encouraged to decide whether YASC would be the right next step for us. Later that month, I received my tentative acceptance in the form of a background check (since I’m sure you’re holding your breath, you’ll be happy to know I passed). After waiting what felt like forever (and was in fact just two months), I received my placement in Cape Town, South Africa, working with a social development organization called Hope Africa!

There are 25 of us moving forward with YASC, but those who aren't are amazing servants of God and their neighbors, and I am excited to see where this year takes them as well. Together, we will serve in 15 countries and every continent (except Antarctica and Australia), doing everything from teaching children to working with refugees. I’ll post more about what others are doing with links to their blogs later!

My work is nowhere near done in preparing for this journey. It costs the church $25,000 to send one of us for a year. The National Church pays $15,000, but it is my responsibility to raise the remaining $10,000. I’ve received permission from the Bishop of Tennessee, the Rt Rev John Bauerschmidt, to fundraise in the diocese. I’ll post soon with details on giving, should you feel so inclined. While I have experience fundraising, I’ve never raised money for myself. It feels intimidating and humbling right now, but I’m excited for the opportunity to talk about what I’m doing and to invite others to participate. Not everyone can go to South Africa for a year, but anyone can be a part of the work I’m doing - whether by donating, sharing my story, praying for me, following this blog, or some combination of those.

God's Peace,

edit: an earlier version said that 30 of us were moving forward. It has been corrected to reflect that there will be 25 YASCers this year (not including those who are staying in their placements a second year) - still an impressive number!