My eyes slowly shut out the expanse of both ruin and grandeur atop Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. I could no longer see the disparity between untouched nature and destroyed mountains, a symbol of the struggle between economic stability and extreme health consequences for the community I was visiting last week.
Our guide Paul’s voice lulled the chaos in my head. He reminded me to absorb the oxygen in which I existed, the oxygen gifted to me by the trees and mountains that so many felt entitled to destroy for the sake of coal. But I was not there to judge. In that moment, I could give life to the earth around me, and the earth could give it right back, and it was enough.
Paul says, “Let’s say there’s a massive flood that destroys the earth, and you had the opportunity to interview each individual raindrop that contributed to the flood. I’m telling you, not one of the raindrops would claim responsibility for the flood.”
“You can choose to be a raindrop in the flood, or a raindrop that gives life to the land.”
With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I fell back in time, exactly one year. Now standing atop a lookout on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska, I could hear a native elder’s voice point out the crunching leaves beneath us, the insects nipping our skin, and the wind combing through the tree branches. He told us that these parts of nature are his brothers, his father, his grandmother, his family.
This magnificent, shared commonality among all creation became the backbone of my experience on the Winnebago reservation. Despite the dark history of this nation’s relationship with natives, I was surprised to find that none of the people with whom we spoke felt hatred. A natural hopefulness and foundation of love acted as the central function for every relationship, word, action, breath for each person we met. To see this in action was to experience the urgency of love, of solidarity, of community, of creation working together again.
After this experience, I wrote, “Unity is important. The earth is important. God has left His imprint on absolutely everything around me, and that means something. Life, in the end, is GOOD.”
This Winnebago elder invested humanity and spirituality into the shadows of life. His words somehow led me to see God in my attempt to scratch a mosquito bite completely off of my skin. He led me to believe that my soul is integrally connected with the flowers I’m growing on my front porch and with your soul and even with the jacket I found buried in the sand in El Paso, TX this past spring.
With 15 minutes to fill with “personal reflection time” after seeing the US-Mexico border for the first time, I trudged through the desert land by myself, kicking sand with each step amidst my anger. I felt enraged by the lack of human dignity present in a wall that was built with the intention to injure anyone who attempted to climb over it, as a construction worker had just informed us that no one could jump the fence without breaking a leg upon landing.
Despite being consumed in my own emotions, I noticed a bit of blue fabric sticking out of the sand. I reached down and began to tug the corner, and after lots of pulling and maneuvering, revealed a blue jacket. A deep sense of wonder calmed the emotions swirling through my headspace, and I sat down, laying the jacket over my criss-crossed legs. After dusting it off a bit with my hands, I began to wonder if the jacket belonged to an undocumented immigrant, where they were now, why they left it behind, and how I could possibly know the answer to these questions.
One jacket in the sand became one drop in the ocean, and all I could think about was how many other jackets were buried in this desert, how many other stories were left untold, and how many people were unaware that these stories even exist. A sense of richness exists among the vast amount of human lives that had walked through the desert in which I pondered these questions, yet it was paired with an emptiness in knowing that many could be forever forgotten.
Above all, I felt a personal connection with this story, with this human, with this life. To experience this connection, to be present in this sense, brought Jacqueline’s words to the forefront of my mind. She says, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and if there’s one takeaway I want you guys to have from this week, it’s that our job here on this earth and in this ministry is to just be a human. Be present with people.”
When Jacqueline, the guide for my first ever service and justice trip to Cleveland, OH, spoke these words, I was unaware of the precedent they would set for the rest of my trips. I was especially unaware of the way they would guide my conversation with a man named Don later that evening.
Don is a twenty-something year old homeless man. My group served at a different homeless shelter each day of our Cleveland immersion, yet we still managed to see Don at least once a day, as he was always looking for food and warmth. He wore a suit and tie daily and never failed to share a long-winded, senseless ramble with us, or read from his journal filled with poems. As the goofiest and greatest source of joy throughout our week, no one in my group really expected Don to converse in a deeper way than he had been showing us.
Despite my desire to meet someone new on the last night of our trip, Don sat next to me, and began to ramble as usual. I felt frustrated because I wanted a bright, shiny new connection. I’d had my fair share of Don… or so I thought.
After Don spent half an hour describing the irreplaceable nature of his family and relationships, and sharing his belief that one’s human dignity is infinite in value, I had some different perspectives on good ol’ Don. It’s because we had more than five minutes to talk, and because remembering Jacqueline’s advice allowed me to experience true presence. Instead of ignoring the person God placed in front of me, I sat with my feet rooted in the moment.
With my feet placed firmly on the ground.
Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” in one of my favorite poems called The Summer Day.
I want to live with my feet placed firmly on the ground. I want to take each breath with the knowledge that the earth around me is immeasurable in power, that I am connected to every last bit of this universe, that I am one jacket in the sand, and that I must be intentional with each and every human interaction.
Remembering what my trips to Cleveland, Winnebago, El Paso, and Wheeling taught me means that I will never stop fighting for & with the crazy world in which we live, being a “raindrop that gives life to the land,” and working for solidarity each and every day. And maybe this goal will only create more chaos in my head in my head, but I know this goal will keep me grounded, keep me rooted, keep me alive.