Friday, December 29, 2017

Yuletide in York

I posted previously about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the whole season of Christmas in York has been quite the experience. They do start Yuletide early around here - November 1st is the start of the Christmas season and in August when I arrived, there were already Christmas decorations in the shops.

A little wine to get me through the season. 

As a non-Christmas lover, I thought maybe I'd try to get more into it this year. After all, I work for a church. I don't like a lot of things about Christmas: Excess consumerism, harmful practices to the environment, and chaotic rushing SHOPPING which as many of you know is possibly my least favorite activity ever.

But I thought OK, Christmas in England is bound to be super quaint, right? Like Charles Dickensy.
But Christmas in England is still full of consumerism, but I avoid it more here because I have fewer people to buy presents for and less money to do it with. And it's actually been a little busy, even for me, because I'm trying to prepare for a lot of things before taking time off around the holidays. And it's definitely bad for the environment, but again I'm managing to avoid that to some extent.

So while I can't say I'm Christmas #1 Fan now, it's been a refreshing chance to learn about English Christmas traditions.

Most importantly, I have been incredibly blessed by a number of wonderful people who have shared some excellent British Christmas traditions with me. So, I wanted to share a list of the Christmassy traditions I've experienced, as well as a few other facets of this year's Christmas.

Loads of Christmas decorations in York: Christmas trees, lights, and the Christmas marketplace set up in the center of town. It's light a festival every time you go in the city! I loved meandering around the stalls at least once a week to check it out.

Christmas Tour of York/York Museum Garden Christmas Lights with Shantonu!: I took Shantonu around York to show him the Christmas decorations and we finished this with a tour of the York Museum Gardens Christmas lights show. It was super beautiful and really cool to watch! They coordinated lights and music all across this large garden area.

Christmas Pantomime: The Island offered me a ticket to the Christmas pantomime! This was super kind of them because tickets were expensive and I hadn't planned on going. Pantomimes are really weird. British people are super reserved, in my opinion. Until they get onstage for a pantomime. The main character is always a dude in drag and it's like a crazy, wild story-telling of some classic. This one was Jack and the Beanstalk, and included characters dressed up like Star Wars characters and the Adams family.

Micklegate Mingle: A festive Christmas celebration in my neighborhood! There were games and rides for kids in the streets and the businesses stayed open late. There were also stalls for drinks and mince pies, and other groups offered hot chocolate and games. St. Columba's and The Island collaborated to have the church open on this evening. We offered mulled wine, mince pies, crisps, sodas, and we had crafts for kids and carols in the church. By the way, usually Englanders do great desserts because they don't overdo the sugar...but mince pies are sickly sweet. SOO much sugar. Same with mulled wine.

Advent at Church: We've been keeping the church open from 12-2 pm each day for people to come in and reflect, if they wish. Additionally, we did a Christmas-themed play on Sunday where I was the Angel Gabriel (you all know I'm so angelic, it was completely appropriate obviously). And we had a Carol Service on Christmas eve.

Besom/Island Christmas Hampers:  The  Besom made over 150 hampers for York residents in need this Christmas season with donations from churches and other groups in York and the York FoodBank. I helped with wrapping boxes (aka hampers), filling the hampers with the donations (like tinned goods, pasta, sauce, little presents, toiletries, Christmas sweets, and random others things - all useful and Christmassy), and delivering the hampers on the van. The Island does something similar for some of their needy families with just gifts. I helped wrap a tiny bit, and also got to deliver some hampers with the Island with Danielle!

Christmas activities with kids: Besides Micklegate Mingle, we did cute little Christmas celebrations with the two groups I support at The Island - Girls' Group and School-Based Mentoring. We made cards and did Christmas games.

Carol Services: My roommates and I attended a carol service at the York Baptist Church. It was super beautiful and well-done. There was even this video about the story of the birth of Jesus. Surprisingly it was a very historically accurate film. It depicted a pregnant really super young looking Mary, rather than a Mary with a super flat stomach who looks like she's a 35 year-old. AND it was fairly culturally sensitive, meaning the characters were dark-haired and olive-skinned, looking Middle Eastern than white. Which is much more sensible. Alleluia.

The carols were mostly really great and the soloists had amazing voices. The church was lit mostly by candles and that created a lovely, warm atmosphere. There were amazing sweet treats afterwards with everyone who had attended - these cupcakes with a ton of vanilla frosting and cookie dough in the center. I couldn't even finish it so I wrapped it up in a napkin and ate the rest the next day. So good. OMG.

One thing I don't like here is that the carols here sometimes have different tunes than at home. It's not tradition to me and I have no emotional attachment to the song if it sounds all different.

Santa Celebration at Murton: David and Mandy are two wonderful new friends I've made through being an international person here in York. David volunteers with The Island and also with Friends International, two groups I am a part of, and he is just super kind and welcoming. David took me, my good friend Chantal, and a few other international people to a Christmas village in Murton, which is a town outside York. It was at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. There was a little train ride on this historic train, and then mince pies and sherry in the cafeteria.

And then we participated in another Christmas panto. This one was a political satire around the idea of elves wanting to create their own politica parties. They had characters like Jeremy Corbelf (Jeremy Corbin, Labour party leader) and Borelf Johnson (Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary) who stumped for the vote of the kids in the audience. It was all outside and we walked through an elf-village. My feet were frozen but it was fun to meet some new international people. Afterwards we had lunch and cocoa at Mandy and David's gorgeous house.

Most importantly, in the petting zoo that we went to prior to seeing the panto, I got to PET A SHEEP!!!!!!!!!!! I really really really really love sheep. And I keep trying to pet one and they run away from me. So this was a highlight of... life.

I send all of you so much love and gratitude for being in my life. The Christmas season can be a wild emotional ride - fun, exciting, exhausting, stressful, contemplative, joyous, or grief-filled. Whatever it was for you, I hope you experienced some peace as your year winds to a close.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Eve & Christmas Day

Merry Christmas everyone! If you do (or if you do not!) celebrate, I hope it was a lovely, happy day filled with whatever you wanted it to be - family, friends, and food (and maybe other things - football, sleep, presents ;)).

For Danielle and me, it was a really nice holiday. Danielle is my friend from my YAGM program who came to visit for Christmas!! She arrived on the 23rd and after settling in, we did some city exploring and hung out together. I'm so glad she was here - a great friend and a perfect person to spend the holidays with.

On Christmas Eve, we went to church at St. Columba's and had coffee/tea afterwards. Then we quickly ate lunch and went out to deliver gifts to kids who participate in the Island's activities with Hayley (an Island staff member). It was a good way for both of us to see more of York - getting driven places changes so much about how you see a place. It's not as detailed but it's definitely helps getting to see places further outside of York, like Acomb, which is the area where we delivered gifts.

Then we walked on the city walls and saw more of the city - it doesn't take long to see the highlights of York but it's also a city you could spend a lot of time getting to know the ins-and-outs of. We came back to chill out for a bit before the Christmas Eve Communion Service that evening. It was a small but lovely service.

Then we ate tons of cheese, bread, grapes, hummus, and sausage rolls, drank wine, talked a lot, Skyped our families, and got ourselves up and out the door at 10.30 pm to go to the York Minster!

This was super super super cool. My friend from volunteering at Carecent, Uschi, is a congregant of the fellowship that worships at the York Minster. This is the largest gothic cathedral in the country, the second largest in Europe, and its East Window has the most stained glass of any window in Europe! It's also the sight of so many historical events and it's breathtaking from the inside and outside.

So Uschi promised to save us seats for the midnight mass. We got there early, or so we thought, but it was already filling up! We found Uschi easily and she led us to seats in the FIFTH ROW. We were up with family members/actual congregants. Super cool! And we could see and hear everything easily, which is remarkable in a church as big as the Minster. We tried to count the rows (which were all full) and estimated that there had to be 2,000 people there.

The service itself was really nice - there was a string ensemble, the Minster choir, and it was very full of the typical Anglican pomp and circumstance (like incense and lots of marching around and stuff). I liked it a lot. As Danielle said, do the thing you're supposed to do in the place you're supposed to do it. I.e., in Mexico on November 1st go celebrate El Dia de los Muertes, in Rio de Janeiro on Carnivale, go to a street festival, etc. In York, on Christmas Eve, you should go to the York Minster for the midnight service. So we did and it was amazing.

We came home exhausted and got up the next morning at 7.45 am to get to Carecent! I volunteer at Carecent every Monday. Danielle had said when we were first started talking about her visit that she wanted to volunteer somewhere on Christmas Day, so it worked out perfectly that Carecent serves a Christmas lunch.

I thought there weren't going to be many of us - but there were 15 volunteers, all of whom were SO NICE. There were a few people in the twenties like us, some there with their parents, and a bunch of other regular weekly volunteers like me. Lots of them had families waiting for them at home, which I thought made their volunteering even more generous. For me and Danielle, we weren't doing much else, but the locals had a lot more options.

We had such a lovely time prepping the food. Bread and cheese, chips, bread and pate, pork pie, and dips for appetizers, and then roast turkeys, potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots, carrot and swede mash, gravy, and stuffing for dinner (dinner = lunch here, and tea = dinner. So people say "I had a burger for tea" and it sounds like they drank tea and had a burger, but that's just how they say I had a burger for dinner). Then for dessert there was Eton mess, Christmas pudding, yule log, and chocolates. There was non-alcoholic mulled wine and cheese and other snacky things for after lunch. And we also gave out Christmas presents to everyone and people could take a sandwich and fruit for their tea.

Since we had so many volunteers, it meant that we could spend more time talking to our guests. Some of them I was familiar with from Mondays, but some I hadn't met. It made me happy to see the ones I know, and to meet a few newcomers, but it's also sad to think that some people are so estranged from their families that they don't have a place to spend Christmas - not even one member of their family, or any of their friends, to offer up a place.

The nice thing about Carecent is that I think the volunteers do a super job of making everyone feel welcomed and not pitied. It's easy to have the attitude that serving others makes you superior. I've seen it all the time. This is also part of what perpetuates injustices and maintains a band-aid of charity, rather than solving the root of the problem. But at Carecent, I've always gotten the sense that the volunteers are taught to know that we are all human, thus we are all equal. We all deserve love and care. It sounds so simple writing it! But it's one of the biggest reasons that Carecent is one of the highlights of my week.

Danielle was a superstar at talking to everyone and has a thousand new Carecent buddies, volunteers and guests alike. I had to drag her away when it was time to go home and get ready for dinner.

Derek and Isobel invited us over for 4 pm, so we came home, changed, had a quick Skupe sesh with family members, and walked across a very empty York to their apartment.

One of the best pieces of news I got when we got back in - Dorothy and Rajib (Shantonu's sister-in-law and brother) had their baby!! Aleina Kundu (pronounced Alina) was born on Christmas Day!!! So so exciting!

Being with Derek and Isobel for Christmas dinner was so, so special. It was such a nice evening and we were so engaged that I forgot to take pictures. The food was, of course, amazing, because they're great cooks. Turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, carrots, and sauteed cavolo nero, plus wine and champagne, and salmon crostini for appetizers. And for dessert, an English trifle! It's like a cake/cream/fruit/jello thing. It was super delish after a heavier savory dinner. Of course, everyone got along great, because Danielle, Derek, and Isobel are some of my favorite people. And it was so fun to share the evening with them.

And then we had Italian cookies that Danielle and I had made!

We made these the first night Danielle arrived. My cousin Mary makes the most incredible Italian cookies for Christmas Eve every year and I was really really craving them, So she sent us the recipe (and talked us through the process) and we baked our hearts out. While eating about a pound of cookie dough each. And we took them to Derek and Isobel's for an after dinner snack with tea. Thanks Mary for the recipe and the help!

After coming home, we showered and Skyped with more family and collapsed into bed. Exhausted!

I hope everyone had a superb Christmas day!!!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you all have a WONDERFUL Christmas, if you celebrate Christmas, and if not, a lovely and peaceful day!

Here's a YAGM Merry Christmas video made from across the globe:

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Starring The Island!

I have mentioned The Island a lot on here as a youth mentoring program for 8-13 year olds. They do great work. Here's a short video about The Island's work and starring Emma!

Emma was the first person from the Mission Partners that I met - one of the first six people that I met in York period, actually. I walked into church for my first meeting, and Emma was in the kitchen preparing for an event. I was really excited about the work of The Island so Emma invited me to help out with the event, which was a cooking class for a few kids still on their summer holiday.

I taught cooking and food justice classes to kids almost every week for an entire school year last year, but somehow this was the most challenging class I've been a part of. I felt SO awkward. It showed me just how hard it was going to be to figure out how to work in a new place with entirely new people.

But Emma was SO welcoming to me. She included me in the activities, introduced me to kids, ignored my awkwardness, and we had a good conversation when we went outside to let the kids play on the playground. It made me feel so much better. It was also good to have some social interaction and work activity, even if it was completely challenging, because it got the ball rolling.

So this video stars that same Emma talking about The Island and the Shine Award that she won for her hard work!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mission Partners Sunday

When I first became a part of Young Adults in Global Mission and Time for God, the idea of working at an unknown church made me really nervous. I had no idea what working at a church meant. Luckily, I'm finding it fairly interesting and challenging. My role at St. Columba's focuses on building our community as a church, learning from my the other congregants about what they want to do and helping make it happen, and supporting the Minister and Church Secretary. 

Part of what made me less nervous and more excited about the prospect of working at a church was this very idea of social engagement - churches theoretically are built on the foundation of serving the world around them. I wanted this as part of my service year and was very clear to YAGM/TFG about this. Lots of outward lookingness, rather than inward focused ministry; that's my calling.  

One of the things tasked to me was building a relationship with our Mission Partners. St. Columba's is home to three charities that use space onsite, all of which I've written about before: the Besom, The Island, and the Street Angels. They are our Mission Partners. I spend about 1/4 of my time serving with these organizations as part of linking them to the church activities.

These groups were mentioned on the initial job description and I did a ton of research before my interview about them because their work naturally interests me. The Island is a youth mentoring organization. The Besom connects families in poverty to donations and other resources. And the Street Angels provides night-time support to vulnerable and homeless people on the streets. Learning about these charities made me believe I could definitely enjoy working at this church and they are one of the reasons I wanted and accepted the role. 

The Island's office off the Main Hall

The Besom Van

It's interesting looking back, because at the time I thought it would be a rich opportunity to work with the Mission Partners, but it's totally exceeded my expectations. 

This is partly because of the congregation's relationship with the Mission Partners; it's one of the most complex things I've encountered in my job so far. These groups exist onsite at the church, using rooms as office space. The groups were invited to do so ten years when the St. Columba's Community Foundation was begun. This Foundation was started so that the congregation would become more outward looking and have a way to support charities that were doing work in their local communities. The charities get space in the church; theoretically, congregants would spend time and resources to make these groups a part of the ministry of the church. 

This hasn't happened. Basically, the Mission Partners have office space. The congregants also have space that they use for their activities. The four disparate groups are like little bubbles with very little overlap. No one seems to be doing anything overtly wrong but some church folks get snippy about the Mission Partners and everyone just seems to get upset about a bunch of really little things. I REALLY HATE THIS.

Buckingham Palace lawn (from my Sep. visit to London with my cousin!)

The more British (aka round-about and less aggressive) way of saying this: This baffles me. To me as an outside, having been here now 3.5 months, I see everyone involved (snippy-comment-making church folk included) is really basically a good person and doing good things. I do not understand why there exists such a tense attitude except that people are being inflexible with each other. It's all because of very minor infractions over things like space (which we have plenty of IMHO as the person in charge of church bookings, thank you very much) and who takes out the recycling. I see SO much potential for positive things to happen if we could be more positive with each other. 

And if we can fix the relationship problems, could more be done? Could the Mission Partners, as once believed long ago in the mists of time, actually be supported by the congregants in their ministry? And could the congregants be given a bridge to their local community by the Mission Partners? 

A yellow rose - the symbol of friendship!

When I began, one of my first actions was to propose a Mission Partners Sunday, which would be a day where the groups could worship together and also learn about each other's work. This took shape into basically a series of presentations by each group and myself (with me representing the church side of things) about the activities and goals of each organization. I planned most of the service order it with some help from the Minister; 

After sending a boatload of emails to everyone and going back-and-forth a million times with the participating groups to get their readings and hymns in order, I then focused on planning my portion, which was a Welcome Speech and then a presentation about the service work of the church as well as my own hopes for the Mission  Partners relationship.

I frantically tried to finish my speech before Shantonu came to visit at the end of November (which was the best thing ever and will be the subject of another blog post). The worship wasn't until December 10th but I didn't want it hanging over my head. I finished my speech, printed it out, and spent a lovely few days forgetting about it while enjoying my time with him. 

Then of course mid-week I had some inspiration and had to make changes, which happens with all my big and best writing experiences. Shantonu said some inspiring, thoughtful, and wise things to me about the congregation and the Mission Partners and life in general. I reflected on it more. Then I made him sit around for about four hours while I wrote and edited and talked out loud and wrote more and practiced it for him. 

Finally, the day came and the Mission Partners and the congregants were in one room. I was a hot mess of nerves. One by one the presenters went up to share about their work. It was such a lovely service. I felt rejuvenated all over again for the work I'm doing with the Mission Partners because their missions are just so good. They just really want to sustainably make the world a better place for all to have good lives. It was really beautiful and uplifting. 

I came last. I wanted my presentation to feel like a reflection of my time at the church thus far but also a reflection of the feelings of the congregation towards each other. So I tried to make it genuine, hopeful, complimentary, uplifting, positive, and praise-filled - but also CHALLENGING. 

Basically my thoughts while writing it: Everyone is inherently good and doing good work. I want to celebrate that and also celebrate my love for all the groups there, church and Mission Partners alike.

But also I wanted to challenge people. Whatever you think of as your Divine Guide (if you choose to have one), I'll bet he/she/they don't really care about the small infractions in life so much as the big ways that groups and people are working together to bring peace/joy/love to the world. Yeah, the small things add up, I get it. But if you're forgiving and accepting of each other, that adds up even more. That adds up to a positive outcome rather than a series of tit-for-tats that damages peoples' ability to practice their spirituality effectively and also to serve the world. 

Me speaking at Mission Partners Sunday (photocred to Shantonu) 

And so I told them this. I told the groups that God wants us to work in TANDEM with one another. We should build a home together here in this church so that we can better serve our community and make the lives of people who suffer - all around us in York - better. 

Personally, I think I did a good job of my speech. It went kind of long (a fact not missed by anyone but whatevs). It helped to be able to look out at Shantonu's face and see him sitting there in the congregation while I spoke. He empowered me to be bolder. He was like an amulet for helping me feel protected and strong. I feel that way a lot about my family and friends. I feel so lucky because I feel like when I feel alone/attacked/isolated here, I have an imaginary circle of radiant people who are there for me from afar. Luckily, I got to have one of those radiant people there in person with me and it was magical. 

I've attached my speech here if you feel like you're just dying to read something completely irrelevant to your life. I edited it while I was talking and I think it was far better read aloud than on paper. 

All in all, I have hope that the day was successful in a small way. One of the people who I hear most often offering bits of negativity about the Mission Partners' space usage brought in a table to donate to the Besom the following week AND donated some food for Besom families in need at  Christmas; I think that's an extremely positive and hopeful sign. 

Shantonu and me in front of St. Columba's

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Random Interesting British Things

An uncomprehensive list of some random things I've noticed about British life. 

-Vacation time: Lots more of it. Like 25 days a year minimum. WTF. I know. America is sad with their vacation policies. I would be happier if I had 25 days off a year.

Free tea, crackers, and jam at the Crabtree and Evelyn in York! 

AND Prosecco and mince pies. Wow! 

Yes. I did spend a half hour pretending to shop so I could get some free snacks. Hey. Free prosecco? This Italian can't pass it up! 

-Christmas: The British are obsessed with it. And HECK NO none of this namby-pamby holiday parties and non-denominational celebrations. NO WAY. Heaven forbid. Let's please not acknowledge that some people must not give a fig's toot about the made-up day Jesus was born. Nope, it's gotta be Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, in all situations and all occasions, even for the cute little Muslim kid in my mentoring group, from November 1st onward. Apparently British people think we're obsessed with Christmas in America. Ha. That's funny. 

This York's German Christmas store on the right side of the picture.

 I made this ornament at Friends International. It was surprisingly fun because I usually hate crafts.

I made this Christmas Card in Girls' Group, one of the groups I volunteer with through the Island. I ended up giving it to O, a cutie who likes hanging out with me during group time.

-Tea: Super important. Black tea with milk. A staple. Called "a cuppa" non-ironically by the vast majority of people here. Everyone always has a container of milk in their fridge and tea bags in their cupboard. And I've yet to visit ANYWHERE - a hotel room, a pub, a house, a church, even a straight-up BAR - that doesn't have a tea kettle. Whereas in the USA we'd specify that we were serving you black tea, which contains caffeine, that's not a thing here. Black tea is like the status quo tea and everything else has the adjective to describe the type of tea it is (Herbal teas and green tea are available just less commonly drunk. Drunken? Drank? Had.)

Hot chocolate - my drink when I want to splurge!

Plain tea, no milk

-Bunting: This random but cute decorative thing that everyone seems to love here. My roommate Emily's very artistic mom made this for us.

-Tons of packaging on produce. I don't know of any grocery store that sells many loose veggies and fruits. It's super annoying. But the Shambles Market does sell unpackaged stuff.

-But more solar panels: I see lots of houses and buildings with solar panels, more so than in the States. I've even seen solar panels on council housing! (Which is like government funded housing for lower-income folks.)

-British words: For the first few weeks I was here, I had a list of words that were British that I'd only ever heard on TV or used sarcastically/funnily by Americans who put on British accents when they said them. It included things like mate, cheers, ta, bollocks, bloody, brilliant, rubbish, Mum, etc. I used the word bollocks (said in a British accent) in place of my favorite gentle expletives "darn" or "drat" for a few weeks, thinking it was hilariously amusing every time I did so. Until my roommate kindly told me that it's actually a super bad word. And that I needed to stop.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

York Interfaith Week

I had a really good week during mid-November that I've been meaning to write about for a while. The York Interfaith Group sponsored a week of events to promote interfaith collaboration and education. I'm really interested in other faiths and cultures, so this was really exciting!

One of the things I struggle with being a Volunteer in a church right now is feeling a bit penned in by Christianity. I've never felt this at home at Ascension Lutheran or in my life in general, because my religion isn't such a dominant part of my working/personal life as it is now. But here I feel awkward when I tell someone I believe in ideas like reincarnation and karma but still consider myself a Lutheran. Christianity in the context I'm experiencing it is more structured than the context I've experienced previously. I know that myself and a number of other YAGMs are struggling with this right now.

But it's hard, because diversity in faith is one of the things that excites me most! And so I want to talk about it a lot. Some of the ideas I've learned from Gagan, who is Sikh, or from friends who are Jewish, really resonate with me and I've incorporated them into my spiritual practice. During college I began to really explore other religions and getting to know the ideas of other faith backgrounds. This continued after college by getting to know Shantonu's family and learning more about Hinduism and Islam.

On the whole, however, I feel most spiritually fulfilled by worshiping as a Lutheran right now and  holding my different beliefs at the same time. I love my church at home because of personal history there, its beliefs and action towards social justice, its warm and inviting attitude, and most importantly the great people.

Additionally, during my last semester in college, I took a life-changing class with my amazing history professor Dr. Grubb (I was a history minor). It was about the Protestant Reformation; it was kind of a cool way to end four years of a side-hobby of exploring different cultures and faiths (made easier by going to UMBC, the best ever and most super diverse university).

In the class, we focused a lot on Martin Luther. I really liked what I learned about the history of Lutheranism and its roots in social justice and that made me realize how important it is to me. This class, among a million other things, taught me how not to see in black-and-white when it comes to people. Martin Luther spread some AMAZING messages and made having a spiritual practice much more accessible for a boatload of people. But he was also crazy at the end of his life and said some not very nice things about Jewish people. Kind of like how some people love Gandhi and I also know people who think he was shitty and marginalized certain groups. Basically, no one is perfect but you CAN hopefully take the good from them.

That's how I feel about Jesus. He was human. He wasn't perfectly perfect. And I don't feel the desire to believe or carry forward ALL of the messages from the Bible about Jesus' life.

Because I don't fundamentally agree with the idea that Jesus was the ONLY savior and the ONLY representative of God's work on Earth.

Christmas decorations in the German Christmas store in York!

To me, Jesus was an amazing example of God's love and hope. God challenges us to make the world a better place; therefore, He gives us examples of how to be peace-bringers. So I really like Jesus. I strive to act in a way that is Christ-like (failing, more often that not, but don't we all?).

But I also strive to act in ways that are like Buddha, the Sikh Gurus, Mohammed and other spiritual and social justice icons like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. I love Jesus' message of tolerance, hope, and justice, but I don't see why I can't believe and accept messages from other peace-bringers too. I have a load of other beliefs that I'm slowly realizing since being here don't fit into the "Christian" mold but that's a post for another day :)

I wanted to begin to share some of my interest in other faith backgrounds with the folks at my church here, St. Columba's. So I asked four friends, all from different faith backgrounds, to write a short summary about their faith. I planned an activity where we'd read these blurbs and then each participant would write a blurb about Christianity, and another one about the United Reformed Church. This would be held during our Tuesday worship service, which is a short half hour service that is led by rotating members of the congregation and can take various formats. I really love these services and enjoy getting to see various members of the church take a turn in the spotlight and share their gifts.

I planned all this with the aim in mind of doing a session at a student night in October and then got the flu, so I postponed the session until November (when it was next my opportunity to run the Tuesday worship service). And it was super cool because it happened to turn out that the week I ran the Tuesday Worship service was the start of York Interfaith Week!! So we were doing something interfaith at St. Columba's without even realizing it.

Lights in the city centre for Christmas - so pretty!

The worship service was a mixed bag. On one hand, I really enjoyed reading the blurbs, connecting with my friends about their faiths, and doing my own reflection on world religions. On the other hand, during the worship service  I was a bit underwhelmed. I wanted a bit more discussion of complexities of world religions, but it basically wound up with some of the participants discussing all about the United Reformed Church, which is meaningful but even I, having been here only 3.5 months, had heard this conversation happen before multiple times.

At the end was a bit of chat about the world religions and their inherent similarities to each other and Christianity. I do like how all of the people at St. Columba's like to deeply discuss and talk about things - I was just hoping they'd talk about the other religions rather than their own Christian denomination this time around :).

I decided that regardless it was good, because the participants were interested in the different faiths - they took home the blurbs to read more in-depth - I felt like there was some growth for everyone involved (me included!). And I also felt like I got the rare opportunity to share some of my own life with the congregation, too, through my friends' words about their faith. 

The next day, I went to an Interfaith Cafe at the Unitarian Church in York with my friends Chantal and Aline. It was so fun! There were amazing snacks (like homemade scones and cakes and crackers) and I chatted with these two really nice women who described Unitarianism to me. It's basically a mixture of all faiths and congregants learn and worship in a variety of faith styles without sticking to one. I LOVE THAT. Learning from the teachings of ALL spiritual practices IS AMAZING. Lots of faiths participate in York Interfaith Group - Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, etc. I came away really rejuvenated spiritually because it felt nice to have more breadth and openness in a faith context.

The other activity I went to for York Interfaith Week was a Zazenkai service. It was super cool because it was held in the Dean's Library on the grounds of the York Minster. So this beautiful, very old room with thousands of ancient books and a kind of upper-crust British feel to it - in an Anglican church that was once Catholic - was home to a group of practicing Buddhists. I wouldn't say the service was spiritually fulfilling but it was interesting.

When I walked in I sat in one of the chairs around the room, but there were also a bunch of mats around as well. Practicing members of the group were intermixed with newcomers who came because of the Interfaith Week. We started with a 25-minute meditation so I quickly moved my butt to one of the mats and managed to get a spot where I could lean against the warm radiator.

Of course I promptly fell asleep and stayed asleep for the entire 25 minutes. I woke up kind of startled a few times with my mouth hanging open and drowsily tried in vain to make it less obvious that I was napping, but it was useless...good thing everyone else supposedly had their eyes closed too. It's just annoying! Because when I try to meditate I either a) fall asleep or b) worry about how I can't meditate or c) get distracted thinking about pretty much anything besides my breath and clouds and that shit. UGH.

Christmas cracker crown! 

Then we did some chanting, which was cool but kind of hurt my throat, and then walked around the room in a circle while we supposedly meditated. Obviously I was dwelling on what had happened that week, what I was going to eat for dinner, and the super old books that were on the shelves and how long the room must have been in existence and how nice the rug was and how many historically important people must have been in the room and pretty much anything else besides calm nothingness thoughts. To be fair, we were in socks so it was kind of cold and that always distracts me from calmness. But there was one spot where a warm pipe was running under the carpet and was briefly exposed so every time we passed that spot I tried to linger for like a split second longer so my feet would warm up.

We heard a lesson based on one of the teachings of Buddha, which was interesting - it was about how one of the Zen masters chops off this guy's hand to teach him a lesson and the speaker told us all not to take it literally and explained the metaphor really well - and then we did more chanting and more walking after that and then we finished up. Everyone was super nice and it was a nice calm environment but I didn't leave thinking, Wow I'm so going to be a Zen Buddhist now. I was more like YAHOO it's dinnertime!

The York Minster
Overall, the whole week was an awesome chance to learn more and broaden my perspective of other faiths. It was spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually refreshing.

If you want to read the blurbs about the four world religions (minus Christianity because I didn't write one that's good enough to publish) you can do so here! Special thanks to Tamie, Gagan, Saroj Mashi, Basma didi and Auntie Haifa, and Shantonu :)