“Why” Revisited – My Dark Night

This is a blog post that’s been a long time coming, and maybe even one I’ve avoided. My YAGM experience isn’t over, but the end is approaching quickly, and it’s made me start to take stock of my expectations of what this year was going to be like.

Looking back at my first post (The Question of Why), I realized that I haven’t been entirely honest with one of my main motivations for joining this program. I told everyone that I wanted this year to help me refocus my faith, or strengthen my faith, or expand my faith. But deep down, I think I was hoping it would “fix” my faith.

As I explained in that post, my faith hasn’t felt the way it used to when I was younger for some time now. It’s a powerful source of insecurity for me, as I listen to others around me describe their intense relationships with God/Jesus, or watch members of my community pray with earnest tears streaming down their cheeks. Sometimes I felt like a fraud – a missionary who isn’t even sure about her beliefs? Granted, this mission I’m on isn’t about convincing others about my religion, or preaching specific theology, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by or even ashamed of the lack of radical change I saw in my faith. Also, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which can send me into damaging thought spirals of not being good enough or becoming irreparably broken and alone.

I think I’ve been waiting for a specific feeling: that powerful, “God is here” thrill I once felt in my very bones that made it all make sense. My reliable, go-to sources for that feeling – praying, reading the Bible, attending worship – were letting me down, and I felt unmoored.

This isn’t to say that I have not felt that feeling at all this year. I have felt God’s presence during walks in a nearby forest, in the hugs of eager 1st graders, at a praise band concert in a huge arena, on the back of a boat speeding across a lake. I have encountered the love of God in places I have never discovered it before. But it’s a lot to ask for one year or one experience to satiate all of my spiritual hunger. And after a while, YAGM life becomes real life, with all its distraction and routine. My imagined idyll of uninterrupted God-time just wasn’t materializing the way I’d hoped. 

It became clear that I wouldn’t be returning home with the perfect, “intentional” faith I had promised myself. What would I return with?

A huge turning point in my year was the discovery of Barbara Brown Taylor. You may know her already – a prolific pastor-turned-author who writes honest, beautiful books about life and faith in a changing world. If I could, I would just copy and paste paragraphs from her books here to explain my faith journey, it’s that spot-on. I highly highly recommend you read an Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Darkness, and Leaving Church, three books that have fundamentally altered my perception of my own faith. The profound wakeup call I received from her work can be summarized into three main points:

  1. Not having the faith I think I should have, or that others have, or that I have been told to have, is OKAY, and even good. God does not love me any less, nor does my life hold any less meaning or purpose. You can’t fix faith – it moves and changes like waves, and everyone goes through dark nights (or just really cloudy evenings) of the soul. “The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.” (Learning to Walk in the Darkness)
  2. My faith comes alive when I am in community with others – it is more about relationship for me right now, less so about quiet, meditative prayer (which, again, is OKAY). Much of my perceived difficulty has been with my lack of ability to talk to God when I am alone – I feel like there is a spotlight shining on me, but I’ve forgotten all my lines. When I get to share hospitality with strangers, though, or have conversations about love and radical justice, or debate the meaning of Bible stories, my passion is genuine, and I feel God connecting me with people in my life that SHe knew I needed at that time, or who needed me. “I am not sure that I served Christ in them as much as I met Christ in them.” (Leaving Church)
  3. Faith is not steady. I cannot expect to maintain the strong flame of faith in the exact same manner as I did as a teenager, or for it to stay the same color. But even during what I perceive as a failing, or an absence of faith, my faith community gives me strength, and the message they share is one of love and hope, and that is worth believing in at all times, while I ride my own waves of change. “This faith will not offer me much to hold on to…[or] a safe place to settle. I think I can [live] inside this cloudy evening of the soul for a while longer, where even my sense of God’s absence can be a token of God’s presence if I let it.” (Learning to Walk in the Darkness)

So I’m not “fixed”, not in the way I’d hoped I’d be. And I still struggle with my own perception of faith and God. But I do feel that I am learning to have grace with myself. More and more, I feel freed from expectations of what faith should look like, or feel like, and I feel hopeful that I will continue to learn and explore as my journey continues. I honestly don’t think I would have discovered this new perspective were it not for the self-discovery of my YAGM year, and the gentle guidance and space to grow provided by my host community and my fellow volunteers. I am so grateful for them, and for everything I have experienced this year.

Now, and when I leave, and as long as I need to – as long as I can – I’m going to sit in this dark night. Not searching desperately for a way out, or for a flashlight, or for someone to sit beside me. Just sitting, with deep breaths and self love. 

“The dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It’s about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.” – Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Darkness


The Lord’s Prayer

New Orleans, Louisiana, July 2009: I am standing inside the New Orleans Superdome with thousands of other Lutheran high schoolers during the ELCA National Youth Gathering. This is the largest worship service I have ever attended, by a long shot, and I can feel my heart pounding with the energy of the crowd. We sing songs with the praise bands, listen to a sermon from the bishop, and even get communion from a flock of yellow-jacketed volunteers with baskets of bread. The service is nearing its end when everyone begins to say the Lord’s prayer together. Thirty-six thousand people, all saying the simple words I memorized in my bedroom as a child. It is an unbelievable moment of massive, deafening unity, and I know that I will never forget how it feels.

Birmingham, Alabama, March 2017: I am sitting with three of my friends inside my friend’s car outside of a Pep Boy’s Auto Repair Shop. Our marathon 33+ hours roadtrip to Florida for spring break has been derailed by a sudden and terrifying engine shut off on the highway. We have managed to limp our way here, where we have been informed that the malfunction may repeat itself immediately, rendering the car undrivable, or it may never happen again. The only way to find out is to keep driving, and the next town with an auto shop is 90 miles away. “Your leg is either bruised or broken – the only way to find out is to run a marathon,” we joke, but our laughter is bitter, and the air is thick with anxiety and sleep deprivation. As we prepare to resume the potentially disastrous journey, my friend asks if we can pray. I pause. Not all of the people in the car are the same religion, or even religious at all. Can we all pray together without it being, you know, weird? “What about the Lord’s Prayer?” Each of us acknowledges that yes, for whatever reason, we know that one. So we pray. And as we do, four exhausted, scared, and lost college students in way over their heads, I feel a sense of unreal calm wash over my body. My breathing slows, my fear eases, and I feel somehow lighter. I have never felt so physically affected by prayer before, or since. As we say, “Amen,” and glance at one another, somewhat self-consciously, I can’t help but smile. Suddenly the road ahead doesn’t look quite so daunting.

Hungary, September 17, 2017: I am sitting in a small chapel in a nearby town, where I have been brought by my mentor to attend a Saturday evening church service. I have only been at my placement site for four days, and at this point, I am entirely made of nervous energy and misplaced doubt. This is not my first Hungarian worship service, but it is the first I have attended alone, without the sneaky grins and shy giggles of my fellow volunteers to bolster me. As the service goes on, my mind wanders – I can’t understand anything they’re saying. It doesn’t even feel like worship. Why am I here if I can’t pay attention? The people around me stand, and I follow obediently. They begin to pray, and something about the rhythm of the words sounds familiar. I realize it’s the Lord’s Prayer. I am flooded with gratitude and relief, mumbling the English version quietly to myself. I already expected that my worship might take on a different form this year, and had prepared myself to explore new ways to connect to my faith. But I have to admit, it’s an incredible comfort to find the old ways are still there when I need them.


On Fear

Yesterday, in the lesson for my 12th graders, we talked about fear. The seniors are about to take their big end-of-high-school Matura exams, which will determine if they can graduate and what programs they can be accepted to. It’s a scary, stressful time, and they were all feeling some level of fear about the months to come.

I’ve written about fear a lot this year, on this blog, or my newsletter, or my own journal, and no wonder – I’ve done more new things in the past 8 months than I may have in the last 8 years. “Stay afraid, but do it anyway” (Carrie Fisher) has been my mantra since I applied to this program.

Recently, though, I realized two important things.

One: every day, almost everything I do would have scared the pants off of me a year ago. Plenty of things I do without even batting an eye now, like going to someone’s home, or shopping for groceries, or teaching a class, were really scary 6 months ago, or 4 months ago. I’m still anxious sometimes (often), of course. Heck, a few of my daily activities still scared me today. But it was kind of inspiring and grounding to realize how far I’ve come since the beginning of all of this, and how many of my fears I’ve worked through and sat with until they became part of my normal landscape.

Two: Usually, whatever I’m afraid of is never as scary as I think it will be. Sometimes, though, my worst fears have actually happened – missing my train, forgetting all my Hungarian, messing up my lesson plan past the point of recovery. I’ve sat through horribly awkward silences, nearly cried in front of a room full of students, and gotten food poisoning at the worst time possible. But all of that, even at the scariest moments – I got through it. I lived, and nothing exploded, and I still have a job, and friends, and I have yet to be smited by any holy lightning bolts. Even when my fears were confirmed, I managed to stick it out (crying, whining, denying, praying) and move on to the next challenge. I’m not trying to brag about strength – believe me, these were not moments of stoic dignity or bravery. I was, and am, scared a lot. But this year is teaching me, time and time again, that I can survive the scary, and learn from it.

Before separating to our placements, my country cohort talked about how fear can be a message from God. Fear can be God’s way of poking us and saying, “Hey you. This? Right now? This is important. Pay attention.” Based on how often I’ve been scared, this experience must be really, really important. So I’m paying attention. “Stay afraid, but do it anyway.”

Feb/March Mural of the Month (Double Feature….Again)

Once again, I’m a bit behind on my mural posts! As you know, I am sharing one mural each month from the Fresco Village Project in Bódvalenke, to highlight Roma stories and culture and bring more attention to this wonderful project! Check out my post about the project for more information here.


In Memoriam of the Victims of Kislétai

Eszter had spoken to us before of a series of horrific murders committed in Hungary against Roma people in 2008 and 2009. The last of these occurred in the village of Kisléta, before the right-wing extremists responsible were finally caught. (Read more here)

“Remember I told you about the serial murder against the Roma. This painting was done in memoriam [of] the last victims. The last victims, after which [the killers] were caught, were a woman in her early forties and her thirteen year old daughter. The woman died, the daughter got something like 600 pellets in her body. I saw her…[it was as if] her entire body was peppered with these pellets. She survived, but she has not really recovered from the shock so she is still in need of psychiatric help.

So this first part of the triptychon is devoted to their memory. That’s the mother and the daughter with this dark bird of hatred towering above them, with the grief and the mourning and the inability to comprehend what this is all about. The center part of the triptychon shows the only possible relief: our smiling Christ. The only possible resolution. Actually, this figure is very much beloved by the people of Bódvalenke. The old ladies tend to come here to play and very often they bring flowers here. And the last part, well, it’s not really according to the original design, that was supposed to be a kind of festivity showing what it is like when Roma people are happy. But instead the guy painted himself and his current girlfriend as being the expression of true happiness.” She laughs. “And there’s some truth in that.”


“You see the angel, you see Mary being told that she is going to have a child. That’s the first reading. The second reading is really a summary of the Ph.D thesis of Zoran, which very briefly goes as follows: You know that the Roma arrived in Europe sometime around the end of the 12th century, beginning of the 13th century. I don’t know if you recall in your history readings about the Avignon Papacy. That was a 13th century – it was a 90 year period when the popes had to leave Rome. And they were in conflict with all the kings and princes of the age, and everybyody was hostile towards them. So it was a pretty stormy period. And the popes needed trustworthy messengers who they could send with their secret messages to whomever they wanted. And the Roma served as their messengers, because they didn’t carry letters, nor verbal messages, but used the symbolism of the tarot cards that they brought along from India in those times to convey these messages. And you had to draw these messages, you had to paint these messages, and that led to the evolution of the first pre-Renaissance painting schools in Italy. And the first really great Italian Renaissance painters such as Caravaggio were all Roma. And what the second reading of this painting is, [is] that that’s the way…the Roma culture impregnates the European culture. And then there is a third reading and that’s nothing else but sex. The incredible, primeval tension between man and woman.”

Pork and Paprika: A Hungarian Disznotór

It’s just past 6:00 am, and I am standing in a stranger’s kitchen, peeling potatoes. Outside, the roar of a gas-fired flame torch fills the air as four men begin roasting the largest pig I have ever seen. I send up a silent prayer: Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

Thus began my first disznotór, or pig-killing. Usually taking place during the colder winter months, Hungarian pig-killings are full-day, ritualized, family affairs, beginning in the early hours of the morning with the slaughter of a pig. I had been invited by a friend of a friend to join their family for the day’s events, and I didn’t know what to expect. I had never seen a slaughter before, and while I was worried it might be uncomfortable to witness, I wanted to make sure to get the full experience. When I arrived at their home, however, even earlier than I had been advised to come, I was surprised (and, admittedly, somewhat relieved) to find the pig had already been killed, and was now in the process of being roasted to remove the hairs. The darkness and the early hour made everything feel almost illicit, like we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be.

My host, an exuberant and incredibly friendly woman named Ági, quickly pulled me into the shed/kitchen where the meat would be prepared later in the day. A cup of strong, hot coffee helped wake me up enough to chat with her in my broken Hungarian, and she put me to work beside her, prepping for breakfast. It is tradition for the blood of the pig to be roasted with fresh potatoes and onions for breakfast, a flavorful dish called hagymás sült vér. We also set out thickly-buttered slices of bread and homemade apricot jam, which disappeared quickly as the men rotated in and out of the room to get respite from the cold. When the pig had been completely roasted, and the hair scraped away, I was called outside to pose with the men and their prize. It was only a picture, but that simple gesture of acceptance and inclusion warmed me more than the brandy they passed around afterwards (also a tradition).

The finished product!

The next hours flew by in a blur. More family members arrived, and the kitchen filled with chatter and movement as the pig was separated into thick slices of fat for bacon, meat to be ground into kolbász (sausage), and even the organs, which would be ground and made into a special sausage called hurka. (The zoologist in me felt right at home in the midst of the dissection.) Most of the morning was spent grinding the meat for the kolbász, which soon covered the large wooden table. After seasoning the meat with garlic, salt, pepper, and piles upon piles of sweet and spicy paprika, one of the men handed me a plastic poncho and gestured for me to help them mix it all together. Usually, the women do not help with this part of the process, so it was a special honor that I was invited to participate.

(Ági took a video of this moment, and when I watched it later, I was struck by how at ease I looked. Laughing, responding to the a question in Hungarian, stained up to my elbows with orange, I look so comfortable and relaxed. You wouldn’t think I had just met those people that morning – I fit right in.)

The finished meat was then squeezed into sheep intestines and either smoked or fried. I got to help with this process a bit too! At the end, we fried up a small portion of the kolbász right then and there. Knowing that I had helped, just a little, to make the traditional Hungarian food I was eating made it even more delicious.

Just some of the 100+ kolbász made that day!

When the day had begun, I had been apprehensive, and shy, and completely out of my element. By the time I left, late in the afternoon, I felt as though I was saying goodbye to old friends, all of whom had guided me through one of their most treasured cultural traditions with patience, smiles, and hospitality.

In the end, my most important experience from the pig-killing was not the slaughter, or the meat. It was the cultural exchange, and the fellowship, and the early morning cry of, “Michelle! You came!

Ági’s husband Zoltân teaches me how to make kolbász.


The fried blood breakfast.
Ági smiles for the camera!

Dec/Jan Mural of the Month (Double Feature)

I realized that I forgot to make a Mural of the Month post for December, so here are two stories to make up for it! If you didn’t know, I am sharing one mural each month from the Fresco Village Project in Bódvalenke, to highlight Roma stories and culture and bring more attention to this wonderful project! Check out my post about the project for more information here.

The Birds

“That’s another fairy tale- that is, another legend of Roma origin. As the tale has it: once upon a time, the Roma had wings. And they flew freely like the birds from one place to the next. And they would never stay, but always go on. But one day they found this fantastic valley full of all the goodies that you can think of – a Canaan. And they didn’t go on, they stayed and they had their [fill] and were having fun and played music. And they grew fat! And by the time autumn came, they found that they had eaten up everything in that beautiful valley, and there was nothing left, so they had to move on. But they realized that their beautiful wings had withered into arms, and from then on there was nothing but wandering and poverty and the hope that some time it will be different. That’s the legendary past,” the left part of the mural, “that’s the age of wandering,” the center part, “and that’s the present day, of settlement and hope of integration” the right part of the mural.

Indian Blessing

“[This mural] really comes to life when the sun is shining and illuminates it. [It] was painted by a half-Polish, half-Ukranian Roma lady who spent most of her life in India. And she painted all the symbols of blessing, happiness, richness, whatever that should bring good fortune to the village on this wall. And when the sun shines you see that all these brownish things are really gold, and then it glitters in the sun and it’s very beautiful. Unfortunately the blessings have not yet materialized. Her (the artist’s) most recent exhibition was opened by the vice president of India in New Delhi.”



My First Magyar Christmas

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how I spent the holiday season here in Hungary, so I thought I’d make a post to update you all! If you read my newsletter (yep, this is a test), then you’ll know I spent most of December attending my students Christmas pageants, rushing through the last weeks of the semester, and going to morning Advent worship services at my local church. Going into the holiday season, I missed home more than I ever have. Like many of my fellow YAGMS, it hit me pretty hard that I wouldn’t be spending those special days with my family. So many people kept reminding me of how important it was so be around those you care about during this time of year. It made my heart ache.

Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending: my host community of Szarvas showed up for me in a big way. The weekend before Christmas and the holiday itself, I was invited to many homes to eat, laugh, and spend time with different families! Sitting in warm rooms filled with once-strangers, all laughing at some joke or reaching for some delicious fresh pogácsa (Hungarian biscuits), I felt hospitality in a way I have honestly never felt before. I finally understood why the YAGM program asks volunteers to stay in their placements over the holidays – words can’t adequately express how important that surprisingly powerful, welcoming grace was for me. I did spend the holidays with people I cared about, and who cared about me – more than I realized. Even after Christmas, I spent the winter break getting coffee with students, being invited for lunch, or setting off fireworks with friends for New Years Eve! I felt more a part of this community than ever, and I cannot express how grateful I am for that.

To close, I will share two short stories of tradition:

At home in America, at the Christmas Eve service, everyone holds a small candle and we turn off all the church lights while the congregation sings “Silent Night”. It’s a beautiful and special moment, and I was disappointed to be missing it this year. To my surprise, the church I attended here on Christmas Eve had the same tradition! When it came time to sing, though, I was dismayed to see no candle near me or any of my neighbors. I slumped back in my seat, resigned to watching the tradition as an outsider. A few moments later, though, several people down the row made a point of passing me a candle, and making sure I was able to light it. My eyes filled with tears – I was still participating in the same tradition, but with a community on the other side of the world, who made sure I could be just as much a part of it as they were.

None of this is to say I forgot about my family back in the US. Another tradition is my dad reading “The Night Before Christmas” to my brother and I (and, usually, our nosy dog) by the fireplace before we go to sleep on Christmas Eve. Here, when I got home that night, my dad FaceTimed me from the fireplace. It was only about noon there – not exactly the late-night reading my dad was accustomed to. But my dad propped up the phone, settled back onto the brick, and read me the book, pictures and all. We were both in tears by the end of it, but knowing my family was thinking about me and still making such an effort to include me in their holidays made me feel so loved.

I am truly, truly blessed with amazing relationships all over the world. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and I wish you an amazing 2018!