Belfast to border
Former Young Adult Volunteer Marie Kessler advocates for social justice in Tucson
"As a YAV in Tucson, I had learned about spiritual direction and discernment," says Marie
By Judson Taylor
When you give to the Pentecost Offering, you’re helping young adults discern their vocation to Christian service, including advocating for justice and human rights, thanks to the important work of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program. This ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) offers life-changing opportunities in Christian service for young adults in the United States and around the world.
Marie Kessler first learned about the Young Adult Volunteer program as a college student when she worked at a Presbyterian conference center. “After meeting several young adults who had served at various YAV sites, I was confident I wanted to participate in the program after graduation,” she says. “When I attended the YAV placement event, I became particularly interested in the work going on at both the Belfast and Tucson sites. Because I was drawn to international service, however, I discerned that Belfast would become my first placement.”
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, under the direction of longtime mission co-worker and YAV site coordinator Doug Baker, Marie worked with both a Presbyterian church and a community center. These placements were located in a religiously and politically “mixed” neighborhood where Protestants, Catholics and non-religious people lived. “Many of the families I worked with were also from low-income backgrounds and lacked education and opportunities for advancement,” Marie says. Her main responsibilities consisted of running after-school and summer programs for children and youth in this neighborhood. “I certainly can’t say that I made any significant contribution to the peace process during my time in Belfast,” Marie says. “However, I grew immensely through the process of learning about a country that has experienced a long history of sectarian violence. Doug provided me and my fellow volunteers with an amazing amount of guidance and mentorship around community building and reconciliation throughout the year.”
After Marie’s service in Belfast, she knew she wanted to pursue a career working with marginalized and low-income populations. “I had completed several internships with nonprofit organizations, and I was considering possible graduate school programs, but I was unsure how to proceed next,” she says. “Gradually, I began to think about the Tucson YAV site again. I had experience working with migrant populations, and I felt particularly compelled to learn more about the struggles migrants were facing on the U.S.-Mexico border. After reconnecting with the site coordinator, Brandon Wert, I felt affirmed that I was being called to a second term as a YAV.”
The Tucson YAV site seeks to serve faithfully along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Issues of globalism, U.S. economic and foreign policy and border security measures form the backdrop and context for all of our work,” Brandon says. “Many of the placements in Tucson engage border/migration issues from a faith-based perspective. Volunteers lead education seminars to the border region introducing participants to the harsh realities of migration and the underside of global economics. Volunteers work to build communities of trust between workers and employers, residents and police, and neighbors new and old. Volunteers have served in northern Mexico, working alongside Presbyterians, Catholics and government officials on both sides of the border to address the often fatal consequences of human migration across the southwest border.”
Many volunteers work to address economic realities of the poor impacted by the border by participating in home repair projects for low- and fixed-income residents in the Tucson Valley.
“Through their service, volunteers work alongside and serve people from a broad spectrum of social, theological and political views, creating one of the few opportunities left in our society to build authentic relationships across lines that divide conservative from liberal, rich from poor, citizen from immigrant, Republican from Democrat, Catholic from Protestant,” Brandon says.
Other volunteers work at the Tucson Community Food Bank developing avenues for underserved and poorer populations to access fresh local vegetables. Through school gardening programs, farmers’ markets and education programs, whole communities are empowered to produce and share a portion of their own food.
Volunteers also serve the homeless through several emergency service organizations, shelters, social service referrals and homelessness prevention programs.
“Over the past nine years, we have hosted 52 volunteers who have given over 96,000 hours of volunteer service to churches and nonprofit organizations in Tucson and in Northern Mexico,” Brandon says. “Through the Volunteers Exploring Vocation curriculum, 19 alumni from our program have gone on to enter ordained ministry or are in seminary. Many others have discerned calls to long-term mission service, education, law and nonprofit community development work. Five volunteer alumni have recently begun their own intentional community here in Tucson in an effort to deepen their connection to the communities they served as volunteers and to continue to explore the relationship between living in community and serving their larger community.”
In Tucson, Marie served as a volunteer with the organization No More Deaths, a coalition of faith institutions, human rights groups and concerned individuals seeking to curb the increasing deaths of migrants in southern Arizona. Throughout that year, she coordinated volunteers, provided direct humanitarian aid to women and men in the desert, and helped to launch a public awareness campaign in the Tucson community. “During this time, I became more certain that I was being called to a career in social justice,” she says. “I decided to attend law school with the conviction that a legal education would best prepare me to be an advocate on behalf of immigrants and others who face oppression in our society.”
Although Marie enjoyed learning about the legal system as a student, she did not feel drawn to practicing law as an attorney. Before and during law school, she found she gained personal and spiritual fulfillment through relationships and human connections. “As a YAV in Tucson, I had learned about spiritual direction and discernment,” she says. “Applying these tools, I came to realize that I wanted my vocation to involve more collaboration and community building than simply representing clients in legal proceedings. Today, I am fortunate to have joined the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.”
As the farmers’ market manager, Marie supports small farmers and works to increase access to nutritious food among low-income populations. “I have the joy of connecting with families, farm workers and fellow community advocates to work toward a more just food system and local economy,” Marie says. “I’m grateful that my experiences as a YAV helped to lead me to a place where I am able to combine my gifts and skills with my other loves and interests.”
Combining opportunities of mission service with mission learning often leads to important vocational discernment that young adults carry with them into their careers and throughout their lives. “The focus of the YAV program is on partnership and relationships,” says Shannon Langley, coordinator for young adult and national volunteers at the PC(USA). “Effective mission has to be something that is mutual.” Marie’s YAV experience exemplifies both the effectiveness of the YAV program and the value of supporting it through the Pentecost Offering.
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