What do you want of me, Lord? July, 31, 2014

Journal entry — Feast Day of St. Ignatius — San Salvador, El Salvador

I fell madly in love with El Salvador 20 years ago. I suppose the conditions were perfect — 2 years after the peace accords, connected with the humanity of the hospitable and organized community of Las Vueltas, encouraged by a trusted teacher to examine my own privilege and opportunity as a US citizen to insight change, and in a transition myself. This 17 year old kid was looking for the next step, the new frontier, and wanted to commit myself to a just relationship.

Former general of the society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, captured this sentiment in these words, “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love. In a quite absolute, final way, what you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you up in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

I didn’t know that immersing myself into a new culture would begin a life-long movement from infatuation to kinship. As a teen, my catholic education around the Eucharist and among people pushed me to take risks. I thought everyone felt this passionate about faith and competent enough to take initiative in just relationships.

I fell hard for the children in Las Vueltas. The joy amidst the suffering spoke to my deep formation and experience of the paschal mystery. I was tenderly touched by the memories of civil war and the desire for a new society. Hope was in this new generation, those who survived, and those willing to say yes to truth-telling.

Looking back, I can begin to see that this romantic notion in a new way. No longer is this relationship on a scale of one dimensional rhetoric in my head — “if you are not doing anything for El Salvador, you are failing as a human” or “thanks for the experience, off to the next thing to be consumed.”

20 years later, I can understand and appreciate the profoundly deep impact those 14 days of living in community with my classmates and neighbors had on me.

I am taking part in an active witness of the lives and work of the martyrs of El Salvador through a delegation of jesuit affiliated high school teachers, university staff, parish participants, and colleagues through the Ignatian Solidarity Network. We arrived last Thursday, and through the help of Crispaz, an organization committed to companioning Salvadorans and those who us willing to walk with them in their pain and joy, and are receiving an experience of reality and an education of justice. There are 46 of us on this journey together culminating and illuminated by the celebration of the life of St. Ignatius this day.

We listened to stories of colleagues here in El Salvador — from university president, Fr. Andreu Oliva, SJ at the Universidad de CentroAmerica to Catholic Relief Services Deputy Regional Director, Rick Jones. Stories filled with facts and figures that rooted their work in the reality of the current situation helped to ground us in the overwhelming truth. We also have listened to stories from our friends — organizers in the countryside and their stories of war, repopulation, and tribute and history.

I am scared, though. We are coming to end of our trip, and I don’t want these stories and experiences listed among the “things that I have done” or the “people I got to see.”

We have heard much about the misery associated with immigration, especially the plight of the unaccompanied minors. I don’t know why my love for El Salvador and its recovery from war blinded me from actually “letting in” the stories of horror and injustice. American society — both Central and North — must create a way, a safer way, a healthier way to live together peacefully in this world.

My love affair compels me to act with responsibility and clarity. The migration issue is not just a headline, or sadly yet a shallow blimp open the radar of my consciousness. This issue must become my issue now, too.

I want to be held accountable. I want to open my door just as Rosa did for me and my friends in Arcatao, Chaletenango. I want to put my education at the service of the least of these just as the 6 Jesuit martyrs (Ignacio Ellacuria, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Armando Lopez) and their two companions, Elba and Celina Ramos had done. I want to denounce evil and injustice, just as Archbishop Monsenor Romero grew to do. I want to live with open eyes to the truth and make no accommodation for irresponsibility.

Good and gracious God, help me re-commit my life, my choices, my purchases to encounters of peace. In a world so broken, so divided by power, poverty, and self- concern, strengthen me to become an instrument of courage, compassion, forgiveness, and unity.

 

 

 

Walk the Walk

I was hungry, tired, sweaty, and responsible for 7 high school students.  We had just walked through the city of New Orleans praying the Way of the Cross through the lens of justice, injustice, and dignity of each person. But now after miles of walking, praying, and singing, we get to the Mississippi River only to discover that we must return to our vehicles, where we started.

Alex, the other faculty chaperone, offered to walk and pick up a car while I shepherd the teenagers through the French Quarter.  We needed to make it to Café Reconcile for lunch before they closed at 2:30pm.  It was 1:51pm and counting…

NOLA WalkingAs we paraded through the Quarter on Royal Street, we ran into brass bands and street performers that reinforced our expectations of good music and good fun.  We saw beautiful pieces of art inside the galleries, bumped into a few other sight-seers, and briskly walked so as to shorten the time and distance between us and our lunch.

Our hopes of catching a Street Car were dashed when it passed us without stopping.  I suppose I should grow in some kind of understanding after all, the Street Car was bursting at the seams with locals and tourists alike.

So we continued to walk. Alex picked up half of the group and drove to Café Reconcile while four of us remain carless and running out of time.

So we continued to walk. With the gentle breeze and the ease of Spring on our side, our strides took us from one block to another, one corner to another. We swiftly took the most efficient paths from points A to points B… straight lines.

As we continued to walk, I noticed myself at the front a good 10 people’s length. “You should walk a marathon, Ms. Sideco,” said one of the students. “You’re really fast!” said another whose legs seemed too long to control. Their only real chance to catch up with me is when we consider pausing at the light, but if they are not too quick, my start out of the gate is stealth!

I began to walk backward as if I were giving them a tour of the city on foot. I found myself encouraging my students to dig deep and keep walking. I took their orders along the way and texted them to Alex so that our timing would work out. I began counting down the blocks left in our journey as though to signify our success upon completing the previous feat.  Little smiles would emerge on the corners of their mouths and an audible sigh seemed inherent in the moment.

twilight in New Orleans fa

With each turn at each corner, the student energy level seemed to fade. There was a moment when I began to consider how food could not and would no longer be enough of a motivation to counteract the exhaustion and the rising disappointment each new block represented… the “are we there yet?” sentiment seemed to loom over us like a dark cloud waiting for it to take main stage as thunder called it to action.

Then the hope of the end came into full view, “3 blocks!” I cried. The students seemed to perk up – their eyes brightened, their shoulders stretched tall, their strides became confident and certain.

Looking back I began to see how leadership works: some people lead, some people follow, some people encourage, some people or structure undermine, some people or situation motivate, some people are ambitious, some people accept the bare minimum as sufficient enough.

This walk through New Orleans helped me process my own  experience of managing and leading a non-profit agency amidst the disaster and brokenness of everyday life.

A shared vision and purpose enhances each individual person’s potential to self-initiate and cooperate with others.

Leaders must be at the front and walk alongside.  If the distance between those following and those leading becomes too great, this lack of communication will result in a breakdown of the process. And soon enough the vision will be lost and uncertainty will plague those following at the turn at each corner.

Leaders cannot just say one thing and expect people to blindly follow with similar charisma, energy, and clarity. Leaders must empower those who follow by fostering a safe environment where they are appreciated and where they can risk the big strides even in uncertainty.

And timing is crucial. Depending on others and not giving into doubt allows the grace of the Spirit to work and gently fill into those liminal spaces.

We walked those 1.9 miles within 35 minutes. We celebrated with Sweet Tea and generous portions of the best catfish in town. Upholding the dignity of each person, the story of our day goes like this: we walked the way of justice, we walked the way of “just us.”

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A New Dawn…Again

Special highlights this Advent include Pope Francis being named Time’s Man of the Year, Nelson Mandela’s death causes the world to reflect, ObamaCare continues to be under attack.

I guess you can say we are still waiting for the coming of Christ even when we have experiences of hope in the limited experiences we have now.

Pope Francis

Millennials are feeling free-er to question and doubt their faith with this new Pope. Last January, we held a Young Adult Retreat that was so needed that our spaces are halfway filled up this year even before the advertisement went out. Archbishop Dolan has seen a resurgence of youth in their 20s and 30s returning to church each month in New York. (Wayward millennials flocking to church).

This latest generation, un-churched or wrongly churched, is finding some kind of relief and joy with Pope Francis.  How fitting was Evangelii Gaudium as his most recent Papal Encyclical! Afterall, this does translate to the Joy of the Gospel.

As a friend of mine said, “I am always skeptical when leaders in the Church are not joyful. I wonder what Gospel they listen to.” Although she is not a millennial, she, like many others are feeling a sense of excitement with Pope Francis—not because he takes selfies with people or returns the phone calls of people who personally seek out his help, but maybe because cultural catholics, who have been accused of being cafeteria catholics (or picking and choosing which teachings and  doctrines to follow) are seeing themselves accepted by the “official” Catholic Church. 

Pope Francis as a “teacher” has extended humility and grace through his listening and his example of simplicity and modern sense.  I wouldn’t say common sense because the Church does hold a stance as a bold contradiction to some of the world’s priorities, but modern in the sense that his lived experience has connected with 20 and 30 year olds and many others in a truthful and authentic way.

Nelson Mandela

I was sitting with a friend when he read a tweet he had received announcing the death of long-time activist and moral beacon, Nelson Mandela.

Surrounded by children barely born in 1999, I sat there grateful for his witness and convinced that I can continue spreading his legacy by the mere act of sharing his story and re-telling his story.

President Obama spoke at his memorial celebration capturing the truth of Mandela’s life – that this generation will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. And yet, these words come from the first African American president of the United States, a possibility and dream to many of us just decades before.

Mandela’s witness to reconciliation, just action, and persistence echo in my being as rising doubt and fear try to paralyze me into believing that change is not possible or that the status quo is what will win in the end.

The Affordable Care Act

First it was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 that introduced a concept of government assisted healthcare, then it was Johnson’s Administration that enacted the Social Security Act in 1965.  Now we have agreed (certainly and tentatively according to some politicians) on the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

What a gargantuan effort to provide health care access to many more Americans.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has long advocated health care for all. In their 1991 pastoral letter, Health and Health Care, the bishops called for a “comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans.”

And yet, so many are disappointed in the website, criticize the lack of preparation and continue to nay-say the efforts of many people to transform our current insufficient system.

And, of course, we Catholics are all over the map when it comes to our opinion on this new law and its consequences. Ethically, how can we promote life in all its forms?  From the struggling family in poverty to the unborn child to the person who has sinned and committed crimes against others…

Hope is in what we say and what we do

St. Paul, in his first letter to the people of Corinth writes, “Love…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)

With the example of Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, and President Obama and all the LOVE-ly people that support them and their visions for a better world, may we, too, learn to speak of a better future AND act in LOVE and kindness to others as we build this kin-dom of peace, justice, grace, and love. May we begin to see ourselves in the examples of these men… that we are capable of humility, discipline, and truth.

And yet, here I am, a woman in the church, pressed for some GREAT examples of women includes in this column.  So, who better but Mary?  The  celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) gives me a new vision of Church and of kin-dom. A friend reminded me of Yolanda Lopez work and prayer.She depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe in three images. As I have just reflected on the three male figures that share the worldwide stage, I continue to reflect on a world that is inclusive and has room for all people.  Ms. Lopez’ depiction of Our Lady is stunning because she in the in reflection of herself, her mother, and her grandmother.

May God’s likeness be reflected in our very lives as well.  May WE bring about the revolution of a New Dawn, the Advent of our time… a CHRIST-mas! of sorts….

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Sacred Spaces and experiences of the Trinity along Europe

Saints and sinners alike greeted me as I entered Santiago and made my way to the Cathedral. I finished the ancient pilgrimage of over 600 km in about 25 days! I looked around to see tears running swiftly down cheeks of those who are not even the slightest religious, huge arms outstretched in thanksgiving and hospitality by some of the quietest people who spent most of their time walking alone, and the chanting, cheering and singingof hundreds of youth groups. Santiago was the place to be. Santiago was like heaven on earth.

It was here that people celebrated life. Exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, and proud, we all knew that our accomplishment was achieved and shared by many others. We made it. We did it. Wow.

We reflected on moments of difficulty with a lightness some people justifying just how worth it the entire journey had been.

We planned for our future reunions, collected Facebook requests, and attended mass together…wanting to bask in the glory of a shared transformational experience.

I snuck in to greet St. James early the next day so that I could have private moment to thank him. For his example, for his courage, for his inspiration, for his service and for his faith. Traditionally, pilgrims arriving to Santiago would come up to the saint behind the altar and hug him before visiting where he lay. Such a simple gesture, this hug. This was big for me. I do not consider myself a huggy type of a person. Yet, this action helped me to simplify my attitude and my posture in serving God and God’s people. I need to open myself up just a little more in order to welcome the holy spirit in my life and offer the peace and grace of God in the form of hospitality to others.

This invitation to embody this embrace continued to resonate with me as I journeyed through Cologne, Canterbury, London, Rhyl, Harrogate, Glasgow, Oban, Mull, and finally to Iona Island off the western coast of Scotland where St.Columba first arrived in the year 563.

It is in this sacred space that I witnessed God’s continued efforts to pronounce the Good News in sunsets and thin horizons that drizzled red in a clear blue sky, single boats adrift in the quiet sea, century-old stone that nourished new plants and flowers, a reconstructed abbey and ruined nunnery, puffins, otters, and seals, communal prayers where inclusive language is a way of being, and seekers from all over the world who believe that the trek is worth it in order to obtain peace and glimpses of the kin-dom.

Originally, I thought the space of prayer and dedication of generations of innovative Christian community and confident acts of justice is was why I was led this progressive abbey. But as the days unfolded, God’s abundant grace came to me in the form of living in community with families from all over the world. It was amongst my peers that God was inviting me to embrace life, open myself to their experiences and our experiences together. From hikes along the island to group reflection exercises to artistic attempts to uncovering God to quotidian tasks of chopping vegetables, setting tables, cleaning toilets, eating with one another, and praying loudly through song, spoken word, and action, God was making my life new again.

Now I know this hug is not just between me and God or between me and a statue of a Saint or me and just one person. This hug is about opening my arms out wider so that the dynamic of relationships takes centerstage.

Thank you, God, for opening my eyes, heart, and arms to a real and deep experience of the Trinity–God in relationship, God made whole through our very lives together.

The Camino and a spiritual way of proceeding

When I did the Spiritual Exercises more than a decade ago, I had no clue that the two main fruits of that retreat would continue to sustain me and my life choices. During those 30 days of silence (with only one meeting with my spiritual director each day), I prayed through the life of Christ with the help of St. Ignatius’ many meditations and exercises. I remember two powerful moments: one, Jesus’ voice calling to me, “Come, follow me”; and two, a passage from the Book of James: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in your heart” (James 1:21b).

Well, after stringing together a few odd jobs these past few years, I was able to save up enough cash for a flight to Spain and an experience of a lifetime. This week marks my second week on the Camino.

For many Spaniards, this is a physical exercise and communal time akin to the American camping experience. People pack their backpacks with enough water, toiletries and clothing to last a day or two. Cash in your pocket is handy and helps to settle your bill in restaurants, bars and albergues (hostels) for each day’s expenses.

Martin Sheen dramatizes an experience of the Camino de Santiago in the movie “The Way.” In his raincoat, waterproof pants and hiking boots, carrying a map and his pilgrim credential (a passport of sorts that has spaces for local stamps to color the pages, proving where you have been received as a pilgrim), he is able to walk and seek refuge among many of the hospitaleros (hosts at the albergues) along the way.

For me, my Camino began in Loila, the birthplace of St. Ignatius. His life and contribution to Christianity and Christian education have shaped my life and how I have come to discern decisions toward a freedom that loves more. He talks about the importance of the “composition of place” in his Spiritual Exercises. Here, the retreatant is encouraged to enter into a particular passage of Scripture and use all of his or her senses to be there. Standing in Ignatius’ bedroom, which is now a chapel, gave me a view he had of a wonderful countryside, a view he had during his convalescence. (A cannonball struck Ignatius’ leg, and he spent many months recuperating. This time is popularly known to contribute greatly toward his own conversion toward a greater desire to do God’s will.)

I continued through small countryside towns, listening to the strong and sharp language of País Vasco, or the Basque region of Spain. Ignatius’ certainty, flair for the dramatic and enthusiastic acts of faith made sense as I met ambitiously confident people whose independence and identity were sources of pride, accomplishment and commitment. Here, Ignatius’ gusto resonates loudly with the messages I heard throughout my years of education with the Jesuits: Magis (the “more”), “women and men for others,” and Ad Majoriam de Gloriam (“for the greater glory of God”). So after climbing the second highest mountain (only by 10 feet) in plain view, my bones and muscles and heart began to understand what my head had already known about how impressive Ignatius really is and why many parts of me follows in his footsteps.

After six days on the Camino Ignaciano, I learned more deeply the value of confirmation. As Ignatius lays out in a discernment process for seekers, he invites the retreatant to seek confirmation through an experience with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Jesus, with God, or with the Holy Spirit through positive emotions or consolations. After trying to decipher directions and minimal signage in Catalan*, the language spoken in Catalunya, a subtle orange arrow would appear about 50 feet ahead confirming my decision. Whew! Thanks, Ignatius, for allowing me an opportunity to truly trust in your ways.

And now, I am writing after a few days on the Camino de Santiago, named after St. James. Centuries of relationship create the way that is both well marked and well worn. I join hundreds of thousands of past pilgrims in this quest for God, for truth, for meaning, for wholeness. In this moment, there are about 50 or so I have seen in the same town each night, occupying the same albergues, the same restaurants, praying in the same sacred spaces. Whereas the Camino Ignaciano was relatively isolated with only two other companions, this way toward Santiago includes companions from Spain, Ireland, Italy, Bulgaria, Australia, South Korea, Sweden, Canada, New Jersey, New York, Texas, New Orleans and Oregon. I am overwhelmed.

To my surprise, this ancient trek adjusts to the modern pilgrim whose cellphone now can get the most updated Camino app. As for me, I left my phone, computer and earbuds at home. Here I want to continue to hear how God is calling me with every sense of my body.

To be continued with a reflection on my journey to Santiago, Canterbury and Iona Abbey.

Spring Ache

354I remember the first time the local newspaper reported “Spring Ache” when hundreds of thousands of high school and college students came pouring into the New Orleans area to spend their Spring Break in the most unconventional of ways –helping to gut, drywall, paint, clean, and rebuild their neighborhoods.  Traditionally, pictures of students on their Spring Breaks would include bikinis and bare chests, dancing at daytime parties, drinks in hand, and a tropical resort.  Since Hurricane Katrina and other recent tragedies, the student revolution has taken the form of an alternative to drunken nights trying to relieve the stress of rigorous education.   The students have chosen to be of service, to actually get deeper into the “work” by getting their hands dirty and their ideas challenged.

“I have to keep in mind that my own discomfort is at the service of someone getting back into the comfort of their own homes, their own lives,” says Daija, a high school Senior,  as she spoke about how difficult and challenging drywalling for the first time with her peers from California.  “I’ve never done this before, but  I am learning a lot about communication,”  says Cate, another Senior aspiring to get into AmeriCorps upon graduation.404

These students from Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA are one of many groups who spent the Triduum  and their Spring Break helping families in New Orleans get back into their homes.  The girls ranged from Sophomores to Seniors with little or no experience painting, drywalling, or tiling… but they did it.  This worked because there are others who have volunteered to lead their work crew, teach them how to work safely, and encourage them as they learn.  The girls learned how to use a drill, how to stand on a ladder, and most importantly, how to be present and show compassion to their neighbor.

So instead of parties on a beach, this revolution of service is seen in muddied boots, sweat-soaked t-shirts, dry and painted-on hands, and tired eyes.

The girls experienced their own Triduum as they began the week in memory of Christ’s example and ended with a some-what eerie and unknown certainty of Easter that is still filled with great and indescribable hope. “The week was hard, but I would do it again if I could.  I want to take my family back here and show them around,” says Makalah, a graduating Senior who wants to be a future Child Specialist.

Just like the aftermath Hurricane Katrina, human suffering, especially as we remember through Jesus’ own story of salvation, is like a dramatic story of love waiting to unfold.  We stop because we are shocked, and we choose to either dive in or step away and pretend that everything is fine. In fact, some people actually try to drown their worries in drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity.

As we celebrate these indescribable days of Easter in a post-Jesus, post-Katrina, post-life kind of way, we are invited to engage ever more fully in the discomfort so as to help bring healing to ourselves and our neighbors.  Perhaps this post-discovery of sex abuse, post-scandal, post-unorganized management of parishes time of the Church is dawning a new time of uncertainty.  Like most people who are hopeful for Pope Francis, perhaps this, too, is a Spring Ache for the church as we stretch beyond the comforts of our knowing and our past into the discomfort of the challenge and opportunity of developing a stronger community of believers – a place where people are heard, respected, and treated with dignity no matter who they are.

May the Church come into a deeper openness to systemic and seismic changes as we reflect on the alternative so many of our students have shown us.  Let us all continue grow as both people of faith and service  and people of hard work, conviction, and vision.

35 Mountaintop Prayers

Palo-Alto-Taxi

In a reality of smart phones, streaming on-demand videos, cloud storage reliability and accessibility, young adults hold in tension the pace of their daily lives with the longing for a whole identity as an individual and as someone within a community.   Demanding work or extreme sports have reaped the benefit of their energy for commitment, identity shifting developmental stage and community seeking “check-in” necessitating social location.

This is what I heard this past weekend on a Young Adult Retreat held at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos.

Conceived by an idea that a couple of graduates from the Jesuit School of Theology had, what began as a journey support an imagined and personal desire evolved to supporting 6 retreatants, then 18, then 22, then finally 30 just hours before the retreat was to begin.

Retreatants came from as far north as Sacramento, as far South as Monterey Bay, as far East as Tennessee to arrive at the edge of the West Coast to overlook and contemplate the beautiful San Francisco Bay.

Teachers and counselors, Silicon Valley Innovators, BioTech professionals, and artists heard the echo of their search for community, understanding, comfort and love in the conversations around prayer and spirituality alive in the silence, the small faith-sharing groups, experiences of communal prayer and communal meals. People being people coming to a peaceful understanding of themselves, God and how God desperately desires to be in their lives to offer love.

I was particularly moved by the retreatants’ desires to participate fully in the weekend.  People dove in and took refuge in the community of deeper thinkers, feelers, and followers.  They tried on new ways to be with God through a variety of Contemplative practices – from Our Father yoga to lectio divina, walking meditations, Ignatian contemplation, the Divine Office and the simplicity of silence.  The entered into practices of Centering Prayer and the Examen together. They ate together, they laughed together, they listened together.

And yet the tension I continue to feel is that our church is limited in the space we can offer to our Young Adults.  I am stuck in a place of wanting to create more room, but hitting the concrete walls of years of tradition and formation built by previous generations’ devotion to education and their Christian communities. More established communities of faith and religious organizations must provide both stability to a sea of seekers and hospitality that is willing to be transformed and mutually welcomed into the lives of these younger versions of renewal and possibility.

How can churches be a place that celebrates the tension of Young Adulthood?  With its disappointments, surprises, insecurities, and uncertainties, many Young Adults are faced with the harsh reality of life not as they expected.

It’s like what happened to the 30 year old Jesus.  He grew up in an uncommon household, baptized by family and God was pleased.  Then was tempted in the desert before significantly contributing to the healing of the people around him.

Our Young Adults know love and still are thrown into situations of anxiety and despair, doubtful commitments and true questions of faith and longing.  They are critical of the world and more now than ever, critical of themselves.

Let our church be continue to be a community of trust, openness, healing, and God’s grace.  Let our church be places filled with every age of God’s children – from the experienced to the experiencing, the youthful and the courageous. Let our church’s contemplation, or “long loving look at the real” (according to The Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt) celebrate the complicated position and posture of the faithful: open handed, open armed, open hearted like the 30 year old Christ born of family, formed in the desert and journeying to his passion and extending new life to others.

 

Thank you to all the retreatants for your faith.  Thank you to the staff at the Jesuit Retreat Center your openness and support. Thank you to the rest of the team: Michael Downs, Fr. Radmar Jao, SJ, Kyle Lierk, and Jessica Mueller for being contemplative companions on this journey.