El Amor de un Padre

I have met many fathers during my YAV year. I have vidid memories of some of them, amazed by the sacrifices they made for their children.

Victor

Victor was a client of mine at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Out of all of the cases I’ve worked on this year, I probably spent the most time on his. I got to know him pretty well through our many hours of meetings and conversation. Victor was a 17 year old from Guatemala who left his family, partner, and baby in hopes of better providing for them. During one of our meetings discussing his abusive relationship with his father, he told me that dads do not love their children as much as moms do, but that he was going to be different. He said that he was going to love his daughter and provide for her. When leaving the meeting that day, Victor pointed at a teddy bear that was sitting on a shelf in the conference room. “Do you like that bear? Do you want it?” I asked him. “Yes,” Victor responded quietly, “for my baby.”

Jose Antonio

I met Jose Antonio at Hotel San Marcos, a temporary migrant shelter at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church. One week each month, Hotel San Marcos opens to provide hospitality to asylum seeking families recently released by ICE. The guests usually stay for a couple of days until they leave via Greyhound bus or airplane to join loved ones already living in the U.S. Tanner and I volunteered for an overnight shift when Jose Antonio and his eight-year-old son, Henry, were guests at Hotel San Marcos. Being near the end of the week, Henry was the only child still at the shelter, so Tanner and I played with him a lot during our shift. We set up bowling pins for Henry to knock down and played hot potato with a bright, multi-colored ball. Henry would laugh and laugh at Tanner exclaiming “¡Hace calor!” when he was holding the hot potato ball.

We found out the next day that Jose Antonio and Henry’s bus was delayed. Having been transferred to a larger shelter in town (because Hotel San Marcos had closed) they would be stuck in a church basement with little to do for another day. Jose Antonio told me that he had spent weeks at a shelter in Mexico, a few days at Hotel San Marcos, and would now be waiting again. He seemed discouraged, disappointed, and bored. Hearing this, I asked if he wanted to go out for a bit, for a walk, or to a park. He said yes and excitedly put on his shoes and gathered Henry.

The rest of this day was one of my favorite in all of my time in Tucson. It happened to be the weekend of the Fourth Avenue Street Fair. Tanner, Jose Antonio, Henry, and I shared a massive plate of barbecued meat and french fries. We sat at a picnic table and listened to a mariachi band. Each time the band took a break and then returned to the stage, Henry became very excited and tugged on his father’s t-shirt to make him watch. We perused the street fair vendors and chatted with Adrian at the Cafe Justo booth.

We left the street fair and walked to a nearby park. It was a December day, but the sun was shining and the weather was wonderful. Henry, Tanner, and I ran around, raced down the slides, and played a zombie attack-game for hours! Henry’s beautiful giggle could be heard again as Tanner, playing the zombie, walked with stiff legs and arms and made groaning sounds. Henry belly-laughed as he climbed on the equipment and ran through the field to escape Zombie Tanner.

As we played, Jose Antonio sat on a bench, walked around a bit, and played music on his phone. He seemed relaxed, relieved. For weeks since leaving their home in Honduras, Jose Antonio was solely responsible for Henry. He provided for him and protected him on a journey of thousands of miles, multiple weeks, and innumerable dangers. Because of the circumstances, I also imagine that it had been a long time since Henry could be a kid: that he could play and yell and laugh freely. A few times I took a break from playing with Henry and sat with his dad. Jose Antonio told me about his wife and twin babies in Honduras. He showed me pictures of the babies, remarking at how their red hair was like mine. Jose Antonio described to me his life in Honduras, the violence, and the threats. Fearing for his life, he made the difficult decision to flee, to endure extreme risks so that he could protect himself and his family. He hoped that one day his wife and twins could join him and Henry, when he knew it would be safe for them.

Craig

I cannot write a tribute to fathers and their sacrifices without being reminded of and recognizing my own dad. Craig was 21 years old when I was born. He had a step-son who was four. (I am 23 now, and can barely fathom raising a toddler and new born). Craig worked and went to college and watched Babe– the pig movie- with his baby until she fell asleep. For a large portion of my life, my dad raised me as a single father. I had the support of my mom from afar, but Craig single-handedly dealt with the teenage meltdowns, supported me in school and extracurriculars, and instilled in me the importance of attending church every Sunday (yes, even if I had slept over at friend’s house the night before- ugh!).

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Craig and Dakota in 1996

I vividly remember the day that I received a rejection letter from the college that I had my heart set on. My dad and I were eating together at home, during my school lunch break. When I received the news, I went straight to the couch, curled up in a ball and began to cry. My dad came and sat with me, stroking my hair and comforting me, for probably thirty minutes. I was late getting back to school, and he was late to work, but that day, he was willing to make that sacrifice.

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Craig and Dakota in 2011

Since birth and Babe, through adolescence, tears, college, and beyond, my dad has given me the unconditional love of a father.

A Todos los Padres

To Victor, Jose Antonio, and Craig, happy Fathers’ Day! Your love and sacrifices do not go unnoticed.

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Faces of Our Faith

“There are many heroes of the faith, people we admire and wish to be. However, there are even more ordinary people of faith—those doing what they can with what they have to make a difference. [The Faces of Our Faith] series digs deep into 16 bold and untold stories of those often overlooked in our biblical narratives, hoping these characters remind us that we all play a role in shaping God’s story of redemption and grace.” From A Sanctified Art, LLC

Last fall as we were visiting churches in Tucson, one of the churches we attended, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, was utilizing a series called Faces of Our Faith from A Sanctified Art. The series used multimedia arts, and each week focused on an unsung hero from popular bible stories. Following the scripture reading and a sermon exploring these secondary characters, a member of the congregation would share about a person in their life who impacted their faith journey.

Having this theme in the back of my mind all year, I decided to utilize for the topic for a group discussion that I led on June 14. Ryan, Tanner, and I each considered people who have played a significant role in our life and/or faith, shared with each other, and wrote a blog tribute to our unsung heroes.

Kelly Allen

Rev. Kelly Allen was the pastor of University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in San Antonio, Texas when I first began attending in 2014. She was a bold and passionate leader, inspiring  a predominately white, wealthy church to take action in the wake of increasing injustices against migrant families and children. I imagine she took many risks in speaking out against these injustices. She challenged the status quo and blissful ignorance that congregations can tend to adopt when problems do not directly affect “us.”

Without her passionate leadership, my life may have gone in a completely different direction. As a fresh-faced college student from a small town in Wyoming, I was determined to become a doctor so that I could help those in need. My idea of what it meant to help was quickly challenged by Kelly’s ministry.

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Kelly preaching in front of University Presbyterian Church, San Antonio

Within the first couple of months living in San Antonio and attending UPC, I participated in a weekend-long mission trip to McAllen, Texas, which is near the U.S.-Mexico Border. There, a group of us volunteered at a Catholic Church whose parish hall was serving as a temporary resting, eating, and showering station for migrant families about to board Greyhound buses. I did not know at the time, but a seed was planted. In the following months I continued to listen to Kelly’s sermons, see her speak at community rallies, and watch a whole church mobilize. By the end of my first year at college, my dream of becoming a doctor was dumped because I realized that there is more than one way to serve those in need (and ways that more directly aligned with my skills and passions). I altered my college and career trajectory to focus on immigration justice. Kelly and the UPC congregation taught me how to put faith into action and to love the forgotten.

In 2016, following my second year of college, I was ecstatic to begin a summer internship in which I would assist and shadow Kelly in her immigration advocacy work. To the shock of our congregation, Kelly passed away unexpectedly on June 5, 2016 after suffering a stroke. It was a period of mourning for our congregation and community. Just as her living taught me so much about faith, so did her dying. I learned that one person cannot carry the torch. One person alone cannot be committed to faith, love, and justice. It takes many. Kelly inspired a congregation and a community. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition she helped found directly serves migrants everyday. UPC has many ministries committed to justice and called a pastor who has continued Kelly’s fight.

And even me, just one congregant, has been instilled with a passion that has driven me to serve God’s often forgotten children. Since experiencing Kelly’s ministry, nearly all of my internships, jobs, and volunteer work have been related to migrant services. It has been over three years since her death, and I am still working in immigration and know that it will be an essential focus of my future endeavors. I do not think of Kelly often, but when I do, it is so clear to the connect the dots and to see how she was such an impactful face in my faith.

 

 

Flash Blog: Opposites

During Community Discussion time on Friday, June 7, we were given a prompt by our Site Coordinator, and given 10 minutes to write. Enjoy! 

Prompt: Discuss a set of opposites that you have experienced during your YAV Year.

I am not sure if this qualifies as traditional opposites (like hot and cold), but when assigned this prompt, the first set of opposites that came to mind were calm and stressed. The word stressed could also be substituted for busy, anxious, or overwhelmed.

I have experienced a sense of stress, anxiety, and busyness a lot during my YAV year. I would say that the majority of my days at work at the Florence Project entail a high level of stress. I have to make very difficult decisions almost everyday, and I know that my actions, or lack thereof, have a direct impact on the lives of individuals.  I have also felt stressed when we have speaking engagements as YAVs. We have presented at numerous worship services and church meetings. In the lead up to those presentations, I feel worried about what to say, what the audience will think of me and of the YAV Program. Many of the systemic issues that we discuss and explore via readings, community events, or travel also leave me with a deep-seeded anxiety.

On the flip side, I have also felt very calm during my YAV year. The line between work and home is more defined now than it was in my life before. Yes, I often take work home emotionally (something I’ve worked on a lot this year), but I do not have “homework.” I do not have to stress in the evening about deadlines and assignments. Usually during the weekends, I can attain a certain level of relaxation, whether that be on a hike, playing board games with my housemates, or sleeping in. Sometimes just walking into our house gives me a sense of tranquility. It is a refuge where I can breathe and relax with my community. Perhaps confronting huge issues (yes, the same ones that make me feel anxious) has also taught me that so much is out of my control and that sometimes the best thing I can do for myself and the world is to enjoy a moment of calm.

In the Desert with Dakota

A recent highlight of my YAV year was the Desert Spirituality Retreat. It was an opportunity to just be with myself, alone in the desert. The experience was empowering and rejuvenating.

A panoramic view of the area surrounding my campsite

The What

The Desert Spirituality Retreat was a five-day camping trip from April 8 through 12 in Cascabel, Arizona. On the first and last day of the retreat, Ryan, Tanner, Alison, and I camped together. During the middle three days we each camped alone at solo sites, approximately half a mile apart from each other. We were each equipped with a single-person tent, a sleeping bag, a small propane burner, a tin mess kit, a variety of instant foods, three gallons of water, sunscreen, and a toothbrush. (I listed toothbrush because my mom, fascinated by the idea of camping alone in the desert, asked if I brought one). I also packed my journal and a novel for entertainment.

I described my campsite in a journal entry on the first day, writing: It is very calm out here. The only wildlife that I have seen are insects. A lot of them. Flies, butterflies, gnats, bigger flying insects, and bees. The wildflowers are in bloom and are very pretty: purple, yellow, white, and a few orange. All I hear is the occasional breeze, flies buzzing, and twice a swarm of bees passing overhead. Oh, and sometimes airplanes. From my campsite, looking south, I can see into the canyon with two layers of mountain ranges in the distance. Behind me to the north is a hillside full of saguaros. And on either side: shrubbery and rocks. A hill forms right next to my campsite on the east and about 30 yards away to the west.” 

Wild flowers, prickly pear cactus, and my tent

The Why

Some of my coworkers and family that I have told about this trip asked me, “Why!? Why did you do that?” I can understand the confusion. Deliberately choosing to be alone in the desert away from modern communications and comforts is countercultural. But, so is the YAV program.

The Desert Spirituality Retreat has been a tradition of the Tucson Borderlands YAV site each year since the program’s inception. Like many aspects of the YAV program, it may seem a bit odd to onlookers, but is rooted in spirituality, intentionality, and self-development. It is a chance to step away from our often stressful work placements and daily lives. It is an opportunity for challenge and growth. It is a new way to experience community support and solidarity. It is a time to be with God, to be with oneself, in the beauty of creation.

Mountain view from my campsite

The Wow

This retreat had been on my radar since my first interview with the Tucson site. We had talked logistics and drafted Letters of Intention in the weeks leading up to the camping. I was expecting it. What I was not expecting was the impact that the retreat would have on me.

It sounded cool when it was a far-off event, but as the date approached, I became a bit nervous. I was not worried about my ability to be self sufficient, but I was worried about three days of empty time in which my thoughts and emotions could run wild. I imagined becoming extremely upset and spiraling downward without anyone to console me.

My fears were far from my actual experience. On the third day, I journaled: “Overall, this three day solo sojourn wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I didn’t feel lonely. I didn’t get really upset about anything, which I feared may happen. I haven’t really ‘cleared my head,’ but I have let my mind wander without strong emotional reactions.” 

Relaxing in the sunshine

The most empowering aspect of the retreat was the being alone and the perspective that afforded me. I was reminded of my agency and limitations. I wrote: Actually, it’s been really nice to just be with myself. Doing what I want and not worrying about if it’s what I ‘should’ do. There are no demands to be met here, no one to approve of or be disappointed by my actions. So I am doing what I can to meet my desires and needs. I am listening to  my body, my thoughts. I am respecting myself. I am caring for myself. I am proud of myself when little things go right, like cooking something delicious, and letting it go when little things go wrong. 

“I can’t affect anyone else’s thoughts or feelings up here. I can’t alter the way of the world. All I can do here is care for, listen to, and respect myself. Perhaps I am naive to think any differently even when I am not in solitude.” 

 

The Weeks Since

I have noticed a difference in myself in the weeks since the Desert Spirituality Retreat. I have felt new rejuvenation and energy. I have a little more confidence. I have handled stressors a bit better. I try to remember my limited control of the world and the freedom that creates. I found peace, and I found empowerment in the desert with Dakota.

Desert Shadow

Quiero Ser Chef

“Quiero ser chef.” “I want to be a chef.” Braulio’s face lit up as he told me this during his legal screening. His cheeks rounded and his eyes brightened as a big smile formed. This was his response to my question, “Why did you leave your country?” In the hundreds of legal screenings I have done, I had not received such a precise, illustrative answer. I felt inspired by his enthusiasm, and I also smiled. The inspiration was replaced by dread fifteen minutes later when I had to mark Braulio’s intake with a “U.” U means unknown relief. U means that according to the information the child has disclosed during the screening, it is not clear that they are eligible for a visa. U means that Braulio’s intake will be put in a pile with others that we do not refer to an attorney once they are released and living in another part of the U.S. while in court proceedings. U means that Braulio will likely be deported. As I write the “U” on the upper corner of his intake, I feel a sinking in my stomach.

Wanting to be a chef, wanting to study or work, wanting to live with a parent or sibling who is already in the U.S., or wanting to escape extreme poverty and hunger is not enough. On intakes like that, I have to write a “U.” And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of children I meet who are fleeing gang violence, who have been abused by their parents, who have suffered injuries because of working as small children in dangerous conditions. But there are others, like Braulio, who either do not disclose to me, or just honestly haven’t experienced such horrendous traumas. And without that compelling trauma, they are not eligible for any legal relief or any path to potentially stay in the U.S.

This reality makes me feel frustrated, sad, hopeless.

I am frustrated by a legal system that cannot serve Braulio. It is not that legal assistants like me and attorneys do not want to help kids like Braulio; of course we do! But there are so few attorneys and legal teams who are already working tirelessly to help children who DO have a strong case, who have experienced substantial trauma, and, therefore, might have a chance at obtaining a visa. In an overburdened legal system, strong cases must be prioritized. If a child is to receive legal assistance, the sadder, more traumatic the life story, the better!

I am frustrated by policies that do not provide any options for people who are starving, who can no longer make a living due to global environmental and economic factors, or who want to be with family members who are already working in the United States to support their hungry, struggling loved ones back home. It is one thing to understand on paper that economic migration is not authorized, but it is another to look into a smiling child’s eyes when he says, “Quiero ser chef,” and know that he doesn’t stand a chance in this system.

With these immigration policies and these inadequate legal systems, we as a nation are telling Braulio that he is unworthy. He is unworthy to share in what we have and enjoy everyday in this country. He is undeserving of the time and attention of attorneys. Braulio is marked with a U. He is unknown.

 

March Newsletter Update

Tanner and I wrote the following letter to be included in the March newsletter at University Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, our faith community during college. 

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Hello, friends!

We are at the halfway point of our Young Adult Volunteer year! The program began at the end of August, and will end at the end of July. We last offered you a newsletter update in November. Much has happened since then!

In late November, we traveled to the border communities of Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico with the Young Adult Volunteers from Austin and Albuquerque. There, we participated in an educational border delegation led by the bi-national ministry, Frontera de Cristo. We had a very powerful experience there, learning about migration, but also the people who live in the borderlands. A strong sense of community permeated the international border.

It was wonderful to see friendly faces when Paula and Ben Henderson visited us in early December! We showed them our work sites, our house, and our favorite local food places. Later that month, we had the pleasure to visit family and friends over the holidays. This included our UPC family! On December 30, we attended worship with you and presented an update on our service year. My, how the church has grown in the short time we’ve been gone! It was rejuvenating to see so many old friends and to meet new ones!

Since we have been back in Tucson, our work has continued. In addition to being up on roofs and below trailers, Tanner has been successfully writing grants for Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, and spoke at the organization’s annual meeting. Dakota, who is working at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, has been continuing her work with migrant children who entered the U.S. without a parent. She has found that some days are very emotionally difficult, but she has found support in her coworkers and in YAV staff.

While not at work, we have had time for fun! We have been on several hikes, eaten lots of carne asada, and enjoyed movie and game nights with our housemate, Ryan. We continue to discern what our next steps will be, and you may be happy to know that returning to San Antonio is on our short list!

As always, we would like to thank you so much for your support that has made all of these experiences possible! We have been overwhelmed by your generosity. If you haven’t already done so, please check out our blogs for more in-depth reflections on our experiences! We look forward to the next time that our paths may cross. Take care, and God bless.

Fondly,

Dakota and Tanner Kohfield

Support System

Mostly written on January 26, 2019. Revisited, edited, and published on March 9, 2019. 

When exploring various options for a service year, one of the reasons I ultimately decided to apply for YAV over other programs, was its size and support system. It seemed that YAV was big enough to offer great opportunities but small enough to receive personal attention. I did not want to participate in a program where I would be a number among thousands of volunteers. Well, my inclination was accurate! As a YAV I have felt very supported on multiple levels by many people.

National Staff

The Young Adult Volunteer program has a small national staff, made up of five people. I first met a member of the national staff when I had my initial interview, back in January. Rev. Richard Williams, the YAV coordinator (head hauncho), spoke with me over the phone for probably an hour describing the program but also getting to know me and addressing my questions. It seemed that he really cared about my experience, that he wanted me to go to a site that would be a good fit, and that he would be available to me all throughout the process. The majority of my interaction with the national staff occurred during Orientation. The staff made up of five unique and quirky personalities offered training and support. We saw their serious side while explaining policy, and their silly side while performing in the talent show. Now, in my YAV year, I don’t communicate with the national staff too often, but I know that I could contact them at any time, and they would respond, knowing my name, and be happy to help. I was reminded by their presence and support when Richard sent me an email after I was hit by a car while biking to work in October. He told me that I was in the thoughts and prayers of the national staff, asked how I was recovering, and offered encouragement as a fellow biker.

Site Coordinator

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ve seen me reference our local Site Coordinator, Alison Wood, on several occasions. During a one-on-one meeting with her during my first week in Tucson, I told her that I wasn’t quite sure of the role of a site coordinator. She responded, “I’m not your friend. I’m not your boss.” Don’t tell Alison, but I think that she is actually both.

I understand the sentiment of her words, though. She is not my boss in the sense that she does not oversee my work at my site placement. She does, though, offer support related to my site placement and can serve as an intermediary between me and my placement supervisor if needed. She facilitates our community discussions each Friday, with a focus on developing vocational discernment tools and living into the value of intentional community. She holds office hours twice a week, which is an open invitation to chat one-on-one. She also offers not-so-optional opportunities to chat during monthly one-on-one check-ins. During retreats, we have played board games together and joked around. I like her sense of humor. After my bike accident, she drove me to the emergency room, and sat with me for hours, blowing up rubber gloves and telling me silly stories. When our 1998 Saturn, that serves as our program vehicle, does not start, she takes it to the shop. Really, she does a lot, so there is no way that I can include it all. The bottom line is: I can call her anytime, with an emergency, or with an existential question, and know that she will respond, not with answers but with challenging questions that allow me to grow.

Local Board of Directors

Each national YAV site has a board of directors. They function as the site coordinator’s bosses and an additional support system for us. Our board is made up of members of local churches, former YAVs, and community members. It is odd to refer to them as board members because they feel more like what I would usually call “family friends.” We see them at churches sometimes. Some have invited us over for dinner. Others have taken us to community events. I especially like when board members with young families invite us to do stuff with them and their kids! We typically do not interact with board members on a regular basis, but I know we can always reach out to them if we need assistance, and they will be happy to help and support us.

Discernment Partners

I do not know if other YAV sites have discernment partners or if it was Alison’s idea, but regardless, it was one aspect of the Tucson site that caught my attention during my initial interview. After getting to know us for about a month, Alison matched each of us YAVs with a discernment partner who she thought was similar in temperament, interests, etc. I prefer to call them “mentor buddies.” Our discernment partners support us as human beings. They are not our Site Coordinator, nor on the Board of Directors, nor associated with our site placements, so they won’t heckle us about fund raising or specific assignments. They are just people we can talk who will support us. The idea is that we meet about once per month. My discernment partner and I usually meet for coffee in the evenings and chat for an hour. Others have gone on hikes, shared meals, or participated in other activities with their partners. Per the title, I think they are supposed to guide and offer support especially as it relates to vocational discernment. My experience is that my mentor buddy likes to get to know me, see how I’m doing, and hear my reflections on various aspects of life. It’s nice to have a neutral person with whom I can just chat.

Other Supports

This is not an exhaustive list of my sources of support. I also feel support from my supervisor and co-workers at my site placement, my family, church members, and friends of the YAV program. However, I wanted to take the time to describe the levels of support that are inherent in the YAV model. Yes, I moved to a new city in August, but I did not feel stranded or estranged. I was immediately enveloped in a caring community, and for that I am very grateful.