You Are Beloved

The world today is full of conflict; external and internal conflict. Sometimes that conflict looks like two countries with different beliefs going to war, and other times it looks like to leaders not agreeing on a solution which causes an entire system to shut down for over a month. We have personal conflicts every day, too. Sometimes they’re minor and other times less so. Conflict is something that allows us to grow as people. The problem is that we don’t always know or agree on the best way to overcome conflict, create peace, and move to a brighter day.

All throughout the New Testament Jesus talks about who He loves. The often quoted John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And in Mark 12:31 we get this, “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” There are many more examples I could pull of Jesus talking about love and demonstrating love, but that would end up being a longer blog post than I really it need it to be. At church today I heard a sermon from Rev. Dr. Jonathan Barker, and he was talking about who is beloved by God. Beloved according to my friend Merriam-Webster means: dearly loved; dear to the heart. Rev. Barker went on to say, “Theists, you are beloved. Atheists, you are beloved. Agnostics, you are beloved.” What he said goes right along with what Jesus said in the Gospels. God loves the world. Not just people that look or think like we do, not just Christians. God loves the world. He loves people who don’t believe in Him, those behind bars, those who outright speak against Him, and those who are confused. He loves the world. And because of this, we should love everyone, as well. We should “love our neighbor.” Not just those who agree with us, but those who don’t agree with us (one might even say especially those that don’t agree with us), those who are different, those who are viewed as outcasts or undesirables. Everyone.

As a YAV who works with the undereducated population of New Orleans I work with the people that many would consider outcasts or undesirable people. And, if I’m being honest, that’s how I viewed these people before I came to New Orleans. I often thought, “well, why didn’t they try harder” or, “obviously they didn’t care enough.” But that just wasn’t the case as I got to know them. As I’ve come to know and work with the people at the adult literacy program I’m a part of I have realized that the people I’m serving are exactly that: people. They deserve love just as much as anyone, and I’m glad that is something that has changed for me throughout this year. I believe my faith is acting more as a filter on who I should treat others in the world. I try not see these people as undesirables or outcasts, but as people who are less fortunate or privileged than I am. My faith tells me that everyone should be loved, just as God loves all of us, and that not matter who they are or their plight in this world, we can show them the love and kindness that they deserve. Because we are all beloved.

I’m a big fan of the Netflix series Black Mirror. This show comments on society and technology and how misuse of technology can lead to catastrophic problems. Sometimes, I’ll watch an episode and immediately have to stop watching the show for the day because what has transpired is so heavy that I just need to go to sleep or do something a little lighter. One such episode was Men Against Fire. And at this point if you don’t want spoilers, skip ahead to the next paragraph. In this episode soldiers are fighting a war against feral mutants and trying to exterminate them. About halfway through the episode, one of the soldiers sees these feral mutants for what they really are: normal people. We learn that a chip in his head that makes these people look like feral mutants has malfunctioned and he’s able to see these people as they truly are.

I wonder how much the idea of certain people being viewed as outcasts and undesirables in society stems from a similar brainwashing in our world today. We don’t look at a man who is homeless and think about the humanity behind his sign that’s asking for spare change. We don’t look at the humanity of the refugees, or the immigrants, or the undereducated. We often see someone who is less than we are because of the situation they are in, and often times that situation isn’t self-inflicted. I believe the media is the leading cause of this brainwashing. It’s also just easier to not think about others because we have our own problems to deal with. But, I think we need to challenge ourselves to be peacemakers. I believe that if we show someone that they are loved, it will help bring peace to the world. And showing love is as simple as a smile, a wave, a hug, a phone call, or a simple text message to someone in need of a friend. You are beloved. And so is the person on the street, and the person in jail. We are beloved.

On Coming Home for Christmas

Christmas is quickly approaching. I’ve been made acutely aware of this fact by the Christmas music that has been playing since after Halloween in my house here in New Orleans. And, with the holiday coming soon, I’ll be taking a short trip home to see my friends and family back home in Indiana and Kentucky. Most of my housemates are really excited to go home. I hear a lot about homesickness, and missing family members and just general giddiness about being back in their home towns. And, I’m excited for them to be able to go home. But, as for me, I’m nervous about going home. So this post goes to my friends and family back home, and to anyone who may have similar feelings in this holiday season.

I haven’t really been far away from home for an extended amount of time until I did my YAV Year. I went to college 15 minutes away from my parents’ house. I’ve gone on trips for a week or two at a time, but never as long as I’ve been away from home this time. This has allowed me to grow and mature in ways that I wasn’t able to do in college with some many people I know and love nearby me. That, along with the fact that the YAV Program is all about growing and seeing the world in new ways while serving people who tend to be slighted by society, I feel like I’ve really grown as a human being. This growth came from experiencing new cultures and people, as well as from our YAV training involving recognizing racial and social conditioning and how we can try to counteract that conditioning at the beginning of our year. But, this added awareness has made me a little scared to go home. Not because of my family or friends, because they’re all great and supportive. But, because of a fear of what I’ll see that I didn’t notice before.

These past few months have been a time for me to remove my blinders and see the world in a wider view than I had seen it before. You know how in some movies they’ll go from one aspect ratio to another wider shot? A great example of this is the beginning of The Dark Knight. It goes from a standard 16:9 aspect ratio during the initial bank heist scene to a wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio immediately after it. This change of aspect ratio gives a scene a different feeling and makes it feel bigger and more grandiose than before. It also opens up the field of view for the audience to see new things. This gives the viewer a new and wider perspective of the world they’re watching and can sometimes reveal things that they wouldn’t have noticed before. (If all this just went over your head, I’ve included an example of aspect ratios at the bottom of this post.) That’s how I’ve been feeling lately. I see people and things that I would’ve never noticed before because my vision was cropped to a smaller field of vision. This is great for my growth as a person, but I’m scared of what I’ll see in my hometown that I never noticed before. I grew up seeing what I wanted to see, but now I see things I’d never even thought about noticing before. For example, we’ve all seen a homeless person on the side of the road. For me, when I saw someone in that situation, I tended to look at them in disgust or make assumptions about them that were probably untrue. But now, I see that person and wonder what has put them in this state. Is it their own choices? Did their previous workplace let them go and now they have nowhere else to work? There are many other possibilities and some lead to me questioning the institution and if maybe that is what has put them in this place. Working for the YMCA YES! Program here I see all sorts of people and I think that being with people who are homeless, or drew the short stick in life has made me more empathetic towards them and curious about the nature of the world that has created these kinds of situations.

So for those of you that see me at home, be aware that this is something I may be experiencing. I’d love to answer questions about my experiences and if I’m quiet when I’m around, a simple, “How are you doing?” will be a good way to get me to open up. I’m naturally a quiet person and tend to reflect on experiences internally, but I know that I need to vocalize my thoughts to be able to really form opinions and ideas of my own. So, on coming home in a couple weeks, I’m nervous about how my wider perspective will change how I see my hometown. I grew up thinking my town was pretty great, and I still think it is. Nowhere on this Earth is perfect, but there are some pretty good places out there. So how will my new perspective on life change how I’ve always viewed my home? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Aspect ratio example
Photo Nov 29, 12 46 47 PM
6/7 of the YAVs at the YMCA Corporate Cup 5k on November 10. This event helped raise money for the program I’m placed at here in New Orleans. (left to right: Emily Harden, Christina Hogan, Regi Jones, Ashtyn Bratt, me, Ellie McDermott)
Photo Nov 25, 6 42 55 PM
Hot Brown I made for the house with leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

A Quick Life Update

This is going to be a short blog post about a where my thoughts are regarding my next steps in my life after I finish my year here in New Orleans. (That’s still eight months away, thank God.) After graduating from college with a degree in music composition I wasn’t really sure what I would do next, but I had a few ideas. I could go back to school, get a master’s in composition and freelance as a composer and hope everything works out. I could go back to school get a master’s in composition and/or music theory and teach at the collegiate level. Or, I had thought about going a completely different route and go to seminary and get a master’s of divinity. In the end, I’ve chosen none of these options, but my decision is closest to the first option.

I have decided to study film/media composing. I’ve realized that the music in films is something that is incredibly interesting and is really a part of who I am as a musician and a composer. I grew up on John Williams with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter, and this kind of music always fascinated me. So now I’m going to go out and study that and hopefully get involved in scoring shows, movies, or video games in the future. This has been a process that started way back in the beginning of October, and now I feel like I can share it with everyone because all of my applications are in.

So the list of schools and the specific degree are as follows in no particular order:

New York University Steinhardt – M.M. in Scoring for Film and Multimedia

Columbia College of Music – M.F.A. in Music Composition for the Screen

Seattle Film Institute – M.M. in Film Composition

University of North Carolina School of the Arts – M.F.A. in Film Music Composition

University of Miami Frost School of Music – M.M. in Media Writing and Production

There will be more updates as times moves on, and hopefully at least one of these schools will like me enough to let me in. Until then, here’s a link to a project I did here in New Orleans for some of the application that wanted me to score a scene. It’s the opening scene of Halo 4, with my own music underneath it.

http://Halo 4 Opening Scene Rescore

Gaining My Independence

Growing up I was always scared of doing things on my own. Going to dinner? Had to take a friend. Going to see a movie? Had to take a friend. Going for a leisurely stroll along the Ohio River? Had to take a friend. This fear wasn’t so much about being worried that something bad would happen to me as it was a fear of being judged as a “loser”; someone who doesn’t have any friends. This fear persisted even through some of college and even beyond. I don’t think it was helped by the fact that I went to college 15 minutes away from where I grew and where my parents were. Their closeness made it easier for me to have people to do things with and to keep me from branching out. I finally convinced myself that it was okay to sit down and have a meal by myself, or go somewhere and just read a book. But, I still had trouble with doing certain things by myself coming into my year here in New Orleans. So I’d like to tell you a couple stories of how I’ve felt like I’ve grown up by doing things on my own here in New Orleans.

One of the goals we have as YAVs is to find a church that we can attend regularly and be involved with while we serve in our cities. This has been a struggle for me and for several people in my house that I live in here. I was going with people every week, but never on my own. I was worried about showing up to a church by myself. And, rationally, I knew that there wasn’t a really good reason to be worried about it because, generally, people at churches are very kind people. But, nonetheless, I was still nervous and anxious about the idea of going to church by myself. A few weeks ago, I decided to suck up my fears and step out of my comfort zone, and I went by myself to John Calvin Presbyterian Church. It was honestly one of the nicest church experiences I’ve had in a long time. The service felt very similar to what I grew up with back home and all of the people were very welcoming and kind. I wonder if it would have been like that had I brought someone with me and not been by myself. Would people there have been as likely to approach me when I had someone with me to talk to already? Either way, I met new people and was able to experience God in a way I hadn’t before. One of the people I met is the pianist for their service, and as soon as she found out that I’m a musician she invited me to play with them and join the choir. So this nerve-racking experience became one of the best experiences I’ve had here in New Orleans.

The other thing I’ve done on my own to branch out and stretch myself is volunteering at Animal Rescue New Orleans. This is a no-kill shelter in the Jefferson neighborhood of New Orleans. I had been missing being around animals, since I grew up with cats everywhere and ended up having and unplanned cat in college, so I decided to go out on my own and find a shelter to volunteer at. Now, twice a week, I go out and walk dogs and play with cats and just help out around the shelter. This time alone walking a dog at night is quite therapeutic, especially after a long day or week of work. I can get away from stresses of my life as a YAV and just walk a dog or pet a cat, and it’s been great.

Independence and allowing myself to be alone outside of my comfort zone has been something that I never really knew I needed, but has been one of the best things I have discovered here in New Orleans. I can get away from the busyness of my life or experience God without having to be around people I know. I’m excited to see what else this year has in store for my own personal and spiritual growth.


Photo Nov 17, 4 31 13 PM
Out on the bayou on our Fall YAV Retreat to Bayou Blue and other fun places. (photo cred: Ashtyn Bratt)
Photo Nov 24, 7 06 03 PM
This is Moo, from the animal shelter, and she’s a good girl.
Photo Nov 24, 8 51 01 PM
A few younger cats, also from the animal shelter, that just want love.

Ready? Go!

So, I’ve been in New Orleans for my YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) year for over a month now and a lot has happened in that time. We met up with all the YAVs in Stony Point, NY and had orientation there, and then the group I’m with in New Orleans flew down here and we had even more orientation in the city.  And then finally after 2 weeks of a lot of sitting, listening, and talking we got to start at our placements. I got to my job placement in the library and my supervisor had even more orientation and talking for me and the two other YAVs. This whole process of travelling, talking, and having tons of information thrown at me was incredibly tiring and I don’t know that I’d honestly recovered until recently. But, now I’m pretty well settled in down here, I’m pondering grad school (more info on that in a future update), and I’m feeling more “alive, awake and enthusiastic” each and every day.

But enough about that, let me tell you about what I’m actually doing here in New Orleans! I’m living in a house with 6 other people in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. We’re all working at various places throughout the city; some in churches, some in community gardens, and some in homes for the marginalized. I’m working with a YMCA program that is one of the only ones of its kind in the country. The program I’m working for is called YMCA YES! (YMCA Educational Services). This program is an adult education service provided by the YMCA of Greater New Orleans and I’m a teaching assistant in this program. YMCA YES! is unique in the education programs in the state because it accepts students with a 0 reading level and will work with them to help them reach their goals. Most adult education places in the state of Louisiana only accept students with reading level of 3-5 or higher, but doing this levels a large number of people struggling and they won’t be able to get the help they deserve. This program isn’t really about teaching in a classroom setting so much as it is for tutoring our students 1-on-1 which really helps in developing relationships with all of our students and this allows me to get to know their stories, and some of these stories are absolutely incredible. A couple of the things I wanted to learn from this program during my time here are:

  1. Why are adults in a situation in 2018 where they are illiterate?
  2. How have they managed to make it this far in life without being literate?
  3. What kind of things can I learn from those who most people forget about?

I would like to share a story about this last question.

There’s a student who comes in pretty regularly, and she has a pretty low reading level (about 2nd grade) and she’s one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet in your life.  I worked with her the other day to help her with some computer work and she was ecstatic to be typing a short essay she wrote into a Word document because she had never been able to use a computer before in her life. She had one at home, but didn’t know how to use it. She was so excited that she’d get on a roll just typing some words that she’d forget a space between words and I’d point it out to her and she’d say, “Oh! Oops. I just get too excited doing this!” One day, I sat down to help her with some reading skills and I after I got up to leave her to her work one of the permanent teachers came up to me and asked me to guess how many kids that student has. This seemed like an odd question to ask but I went along with it and guessed five kids. Nope. This student has 14 kids. 14! The next question she asked is what really blew my mind and really changed how I looked at these students here. She asked, “Guess how many students she put through college.” And at this point I didn’t even know what to say. This woman who is with us learning how to read and write put 12 of her 14 kids through college. This is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. I’m just in awe at what she has been able to do with her disability of being illiterate.

Literacy is something so many of us take for granted. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, and math has always been pretty easy for me. But there are people out there who society has left behind who can’t read, or write, or do basic math that we do without even thinking about it. This placement within the first month has been an eye-opening experience and I’m grateful for every single moment of it.