Under the Stars and City Lights

The first time I drove myself to college at night, I was shoved off the interstate onto the wrong exit and got lost in downtown Dallas. As a somewhat inexperienced driver who had been downtown only once in fourth grade, to say I was terrified is an understatement of massive proportions.

The scene that greeted me only heightened my fear. The buildings were old and run-down, nothing like the glittering skyscrapers I had seen from the highway. It seemed like the lanes were two sizes too small and were always going the wrong way. And the nearby pedestrians… well, I could tell they weren’t exactly hitting up the Myerson Symphony Center anytime soon.

I pulled into a gas station and drew a deep breath (after making double-sure my car doors were locked). There were only a couple of other cars in the station, but the empty parking lot next door was practically paved with glittery glass shards. I could only imagine what had transpired over there—where those glass shards came from and how they got there—and I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. My hands were shaking, not from the January chill as much as from fright, as I pulled out my phone to Google Map my way to campus.

I passed that parking lot on my way back to the interstate and didn’t think about it again.

About a year later, in the following December, I found myself burned out on the service project I had been doing for the last two and a half years. Despite the project being similar to what I had grown up doing (working with children), I never felt that invested, and I knew I was wasting valuable time (which is a whole other blog). I was growing miserable; I dreaded service every week, and I hated that such was the case. Service was supposed to be fulfilling and rife with opportunities to see God at work, not stressful.

Hearing about my struggle, a friend suggested I join him for his service project. He had been serving in a homeless ministry ever since I had known him, but I didn’t know much about it. I was curious, and I knew it would be safer if I went in a group, so I agreed.

We carpooled with some other DBU students and made our way to the city. I wasn’t driving this time, but I recognized the dark parts of town, and the nerves began to take over again. However, with my friend in the seat next to me and my pride to maintain, I forced my anxiety to stay in my head.

We parked in front of a bakery, and the whole group convened in an empty parking lot—one I recognized as the one I had seen on my little expedition back in January. Before I could fully process that realization, the leader of our group started explaining what was happening. This wasn’t just a ministry or some offshoot of a bigger church—it was a whole, independent church that met outside and served the streets of downtown Dallas. We, as volunteers, were to walk the streets and ask anyone we came across if they had any prayer requests or were interested in free Chik-Fil-A.

Every alarm bell I had went off. For twenty years, I was told to never speak to strangers and to avoid compromising situations of all types, and I was being asked to break both of those principles at the same time. And there were no children in sight to hide behind.

The friend I had come with, of course, was a nonplussed pro, only shooting me a quizzical look at my expression before someone started to pray.

Pray I did—and with my eyes open, too. (I know, so rebellious.) I had no idea what to expect as I trotted behind my group for the rest of the night.

One year after that fateful Wednesday night, I have been attending West End Church almost every week. I’ve been able to serve actively in ways I never was able to serve in my home church, and I’ve found fulfillment in a place I never thought I would. I have never feared for my own safety; instead, I have grown more comfortable with and more aware of my surroundings. And, most significantly, I have learned so much about how people relate to each other and to God.

I’ll be frank: I grew up in what most people would call a rich-kid town. Even though my family wasn’t particularly well-off compared to some of our neighbors, I was still raised with certain expectations for everyday life. Even though I knew these expectations were unrealistic for most of the world, it never really changed the way I thought or behaved. It took some time hanging out downtown twice a week with people who live such a different life from my own to really make that knowledge real and relatable.

Just driving through that scene wasn’t enough. I actually had to leave my comfort zone—get out of the car—and interact with the things that frightened me to discover what life in the city streets was really like. Most of the things I was scared of turned out to be much less scary when I obeyed God’s leading, and I’ve grown tremendously as a result. I’ve learned that the places that look the least God-like are the places where He wants to send us, to mold us and shape us all into kingdom-minded followers.

And you know what? I still don’t know what to expect each time I cross that parking lot and venture onto the streets. I’ve learned to face the unexpected with grace—or at least more grace than I had the first time I was down there. My comfort zone stretches just a little bit more every week, and even when the weather is cold or wet and I just want to go inside, I love it.

Written by Catherine

Image credit: Charles Guo, a member of the church. The friend who first invited me is mysteriously missing from this picture, but there are plenty of other friends here!

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The Man on the Train

At a train stop somewhere between Berlin and Frankfurt, I dragged ten days’ worth of luggage from one car of the InterCity Express to another. My seat was at the end of the aisle, and my seatmate—an elderly stranger—was already settled into the window spot.

Two steps before my row, I was intercepted by one of my group leaders. “Do you want to switch seats with me?” he asked.  His intentions were sweet, but his inquiry was based on a false assumption that I, a female American student, would have a problem riding next to the German gentleman.

“No, that’s okay,” I assured my classmate, mulling over the possibility before me, “I’m fine.” To prove my point, I hoisted my bag into the nearest luggage rack and slid into my rightful seat. He looked skeptical, but he quickly forgot his concern and re-submerged himself into the conversation consuming the majority of our fellow DBU classmates.

This was the final day of our study-abroad class in Germany; first thing tomorrow morning we would be on a non-stop flight back to Dallas. Everybody—professors included—seemed to be done. Done with learning and done with new cultural experiences. I couldn’t blame them. It had been a long, exhausting trip. The introverted part of me, the rarely-disputed queen of my personality, longed to put in earbuds and mentally disappear from the whole world. Too bad, though, because I had a hunch that I might be sitting next to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Either he was being polite or the rowdy chatter of the other Americans had somehow evaded his notice, because as the train pulled out the gray-haired man addressed me with the most obvious of questions: “Where are you from?” I couldn’t fathom how he could mistake us for anything but Americans, but I didn’t care. He spoke English. And even better, he was speaking to me.

“We’re college students from Texas,” I explained, “We’re here to study the Reformation.”

His eyes lit up the way mine do when people talk about the American Revolution. “Ahh. Martin Luther.” He smiled and motioned out the train window. We were already racing past open fields. “This is Luther Country.”

I nodded earnestly, but said nothing. I didn’t want our conversation to die, but my natural shyness was creeping to the surface. “It’s…beautiful,” I managed.

Almost as afterthought to his own comment rather than a response to mine, the man added, “If you want to know about anything, please ask me.”

I let his words sink in slowly.

To my left, the guy who offered to swap seats was engrossed in a book about Reformation leadership. I’d always dreamed of traveling to a foreign country and befriending a local, an eyewitness to history who could teach me what no tour guide or professor ever could.

Behind me, the other Americans shared a collective laugh, probably about one of the memes in the group message. I aspire to experience culture apart from tourist traps and to resist the natural urge to retreat into my own worldview.

To my right, the fulfillment of my dreams sat between me and the German countryside which was alive with yellow blooms. The seconds felt like minutes. Take him up on his offer, I begged myself. Ask him something. Ask him anything.

I stared out the window, denying myself the words I so desperately wanted to form. Yellow and green fields flashed by.

“The flowers,” I blurted, bubbling with excitement. “I’ve seen those yellow flowers everywhere. What are they called?”

It was all I could come up with, but somehow it was enough.

For the next hour, the man on the train, whom I learned was a retired professor, gave me a crash course in all things German. He talked extensively about growing up in post-World War II Germany in the days before reunification. My new friend shared stories about taking the very train we were on to visit his relatives in East Germany. When we barreled past what he said was the former Soviet checkpoint, the other Americans didn’t lift their eyes, but mine were wide with wonder. I soaked up the professor’s wisdom on distinguishing the economic, geographical, and architectural scars of a divided Germany. I marveled at his insight on the evolution of Germany’s political landscape. I even enjoyed pictures from his vacation in the United States.

Before I knew it, his stop arrived. After talking so easily over the past hour, my mind once again struggled to form proper words of gratification for all he had shared.

As it turned out, it was he, not I, who would deliver a thank you goodbye.

“Your country is going to be okay,” the professor assured me as he collected his things. I realized he was referring to the discussion we had about the current situation of American politics. “You’re a strong country.” He paused. “I am grateful for what America did to help Germany form a democracy after the fall of National Socialism. Without that, we would not have prospered the way we have.”

I was stunned. Had he just thanked me, as an American, for the gift of democracy? “Thank you,” I insisted.

He smiled one last time. “Enjoy the rest of your time in Germany.” And with that, he was gone.

I never did catch his name.

The last leg of the ride was the most void of people, but it was also the noisiest. My homebound friends enjoyed themselves openly with jokes and stories. I finally appeased my introvert queen by inserting my earbuds and hiding behind my travel journal, content to remain an outsider of my group. I had a wealth of memories to record before the exhaustion of the journey faded the memory of my brief time with the professor. There was much to say, but I knew where it was important to begin.

“I am grateful for what America did to help Germany…”

Written by Savanna

Image credit: Savanna Mertz

Letter to the Returning Writer

Hey, friend. I’m not sure how long it’s been since you’ve written for school or for fun. Whether it’s been a semester, a year, five years, or even twenty years, the effects of passing time can be reversed more quickly than you might suppose. Although writing is a skill which can always be improved upon, it’s also a bit like riding a bike; those who have learned will not forget how to do so just because they haven’t gone for a ride in a while. Once you’ve conquered the mental road block that you’ve “forgotten” how to write or “don’t know enough anymore,” you can adhere to the following tips in order to maximize your success.

  • Read over your old papers. Horror writer Stephen King is known to lock away his manuscripts for ten years before revisiting them to correct mistakes. Why? Because the passing of time enables us to notice more potential improvements in our projects than if we read our own paper we wrote yesterday. By laughing at the old mistakes you’ve made, you can enter the new semester feeling confident that you’ve learned since your last writing attempts.
  • Visit the Writing Center. Yes, this is the shameless plug. But I have no shame in it because I’ve seen students arrive at our center the first week of fall semester feeling rusty and unsure of their skills. Most of the time, after sitting down with a consultant, the worry vanishes from their face. A second opinion is sometimes all that is required to reignite the writing part of our brain that’s simply been dormant for a while.

As you enter the new semester with eagerness and hope to improve your skills and learn inside the classroom, remember that you are not alone. No matter what your writing skill level may be, perfection is impossible; this should grant you hope! You and every student around you can work toward improvement, but few of them do. By reading this blog, incorporating advice, and visiting the Writing Center, you are taking a greater charge of your education than many students ever feign to do. Give yourself a pat on the back; you’re already ahead of the game. “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” – Octavia E. Butler.

Written by Karoline

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The Writing Center Is a Home

The DBU Writing Center has been around for more than 20 years. In that time, many student workers have come and gone, but every once in a while, they return to visit and catch up. The UWC must have been a wonderful experience for them if they are still coming back after years away. Even though Directors have changed and the layout of the room seems to always be shifting, the work done inside the walls of the UWC coupled with the people who work there create an atmosphere of comfort and acceptance.

Life in the Writing Center has its ups and downs. No work place is perfect, but the UWC strives to create a family setting for the individuals who work there. When people are confined to the basement in a room with no windows, tempers can run high. However, that is not the case in this space. Two walls feature cross configurations; token decorations from Christmas’ past are scattered around; and beautiful art work and books fill any extra space there may be. Even with what seems like clutter in every nook and cranny, the UWC has a homey feeling about it.

I remember this one time when a lady came in, let’s call her Agatha, and she was taken aback by the room. Being an older lady, she was a little overwhelmed at first. However, as Agatha kept coming back for session after session, she has opened up to me and the rest of the people in the UWC that she feels comfortable in this space. She can learn and not feel judged in this space. That was the most encouraging comment we, in the UWC, had ever received. To know that our room is a safe place for learning and growing is so comforting and uplifting.

Now fill the space with people – people of every gender, ethnicity, and major. Of the six free chairs in the UWC, almost all of them are filled with a wonderful soul at every hour of the working day. These people serve students like no other. Whether sitting at the Receptionist’s desk to welcome students and answer phone calls or being a Consultant and working with students on their papers, the employees of the UWC strive to represent Christ through their work. And it is not just students that the UWC serves; they serve each other as well. Through secret encouragers, kudos kards, and simply inquiring about each other’s lives, the people of the UWC want to form a family unit that is strong and edifying.

Just recently, the UWC had a staff meeting. We revealed who each of our secret encouragers were. There was an abundance of tears, mainly from one person. We filled out comment cards regarding how we felt about the whole arrangement. Being able to read through those comments made my heart so full because everyone was engaged and felt loved. I hope to continue secret encouragers in order for it to continue to be a way that we can build one another up in love and support.

Even though every person’s time in the UWC is different, they will always leave feeling loved and appreciated for the work they have done and the friends they have made.

Written by Maddison

Image credit: Kā Riley

Letter to the Opinionated Writer

The Great Gatsby, written by the infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells the lonely tale of a wealthy man: known by everyone, yet never truly seen. Nick Carraway, a pathetic lowlife who moves to New York in hopes of gaining popularity and fame, narrates the story, which is kind of unfortunate because his character is really annoying. At the beginning of the story, Nick goes to dinner with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, the novel’s most high-maintenanced and selfish character. She and her husband, Tom, live in a rich neighborhood. Nick obviously doesn’t belong, but he is lucky because, by the grace of God, he is introduced to Daisy’s golfer friend, Jordan Baker, who Nick quickly titles “Lady Friend of the Week Award,” yet he never actually verbally admits to it. One would think that their acquaintance would be the highest point of action at this particular dinner party because, hello, he’s Nick, and she’s supposedly gorgeous and richer than rich can get. But then, Nick finds out that Tom is having an affair with some side-chick, Myrtle Wilson, and everybody knows about it, including Daisy. Still, nobody directly addresses the issue with Tom, and instead, they all continue about their extremely awkward, I-can-literally-see-the-tension-in-this-room kind of evening. Weird, right?

Then, a couple days later, Nick goes with Tom to visit this Myrtle character, which is extremely uncomfortable for everyone, and Fitzgerald really shouldn’t have put the experience in his book at all, but then again, he’s from Minnesota, so he’s probably accustomed to weird circumstances, don’t yâ knōw? Anyways, eventually, Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Señora Baker all end up at the most extravagant party, hosted by Mister Jay Gatsby himself. Well, it says that he hosted it, but literally nobody sees the guy until he very creepily and gently whispers “well, hey there, Old Sport,” into the ears of Nick, who is spending time with his “friend,” Jordan. Then, he asks to speak with Jordan alone, which one would think would leave Nick feeling pretty jealous because, if Nick and Gatsby were to get into a fist fight, we all know Jay would sock the “k” right off of the end of Nick’s incredibly unoriginal and over-used name. However, when Jordan leaves, Nick transfers all of his emotional energy onto Daisy, who we all know he secretly, but unadmittedly, has a crush on, and it’s like Jordan doesn’t even exist until she comes back to tell Nick about a secret love that Gatsby and Daisy used to share, which blows everybody’s mind and definitely gives the readers clarity on why Daisy acts like a complete and utter psychopath. And that’s pretty much all of the most important parts of the story, or at least, the only ones worth reading.

The end.”

Well, kind of.

It’s at least the end of a terribly long, and border-line offensive, example of a highly opinionated summary of Fitzgerald’s most popular piece of art. That’s right, the information above is in no way factual, practical, or acceptable for use by any of you hooligans looking for information to include in your own book reviews (I’m talking to you, highschoolers; just READ the book). In fact, the only purpose for the nonsense written above is to prove this point: personal opinions, while valuable and worth having, seldom have a place in academic writing. Even if one might think that Nick is the bratworst*, that information is not, in anyway, relevant to the events that actually took place in the story, unless the author specifically said so. Trust me, there are times when I, too, want to rip a story to shreds and tell my professor exactly what I thought about every character and event that took place, but I can guarantee you that there isn’t a single professor on this green earth who would have accepted the work above as a book review of The Great Gatsby without handing it back with some pretty stern, probably red, opinions of his or her own written on it, too. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place when opinions are acceptable, even welcomed, in academic writing. Most professors love hearing about their students’ personal thoughts and perceptions of things; however, when those are what they’re after, they make it abundantly clear in their instructions. So, when you’re unsure if you should include personal opinions in your writing, look to your assignment sheets, syllabi, and Writing Center family to help you determine if doing so would be appropriate. In fact, consider taking an even bigger leap and ask your professor directly! Doing so will not only clarify what he or she wants, but it shows that you truly care about your work and want to succeed.

So, to the opinionated writers who have stuck with me this long, know that you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it really is difficult to completely eliminate opinions from certain assignments, but it is possible, and the UWC is here to help.

* Brat•worst, (brätˌwurst): a play on words. Taking from the extraordinary vocabulary of The Karoline Faith Ott.

Written by Haley

P.S. I promise The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and I respect Fitzgerald’s work with all of my being.

P.S.S. I have nothing against Minnesotans. All good things here.

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How to Combat Summer Boredom

Summer is finally here. As a student, I really look forward to summer every year. It seems like I have so much going on during the fall and spring semesters, and at least one aspect of my life is always completely out of control. If I don’t have eighteen projects due for my classes in the span of one week, then I’m preparing for a big weekend with the media team at my church. If things at the church aren’t crazy, then I’m dealing with some family crisis or my friends suddenly want to hang out until way past my preferred bedtime. The problem is that I care about all of these areas of my life, so I want to give them all as much attention as they require. During the summer, it seems like every area of my life comes to a screeching halt. Suddenly, there are no classes to attend, no homework to do, and maybe no one on campus to hang out with. I find myself wondering what to do with all of my free time. Maybe you do, too, dear readers. Don’t worry. I’ve got some ideas for you to combat summer boredom.

My first idea is a pretty simple one. During the school year, there are a lot of things that get put on the backburner. Summer is a perfect opportunity to get some of those things done! At different points throughout the year, I’ve wanted to read some of the Harry Potter series, re-watch The Office, play a video game called Undertale, clean out my closet, and have my sister come to stay the weekend with me. Now that I have a few months without anything too crazy happening, I can probably do all of those things and more. Maybe some of you readers have goals you always seem too busy to reach. They can be small goals, like the ones I listed, or really big ones. Even if your aspirations are too high to reach in only a few months, maybe you can get your start this summer.

Another thing you can try if you find yourself bored out of your mind is going on an adventure. I grew up in a small town where there wasn’t much to do and there weren’t many places to go. In this boring environment, my friends and I used to come up with small adventures to keep ourselves busy. We would go to our nearest movie theater and see the worst-looking movie playing, just so that we could laugh at how bad it was. We would buy sidewalk chalk and draw murals at our local park. We would take a road trip to visit the closest zoo on half-price ticket day. We would walk to the highest point in town to watch the sunset overlooking our neighborhood. Sometimes, we would even just sit in my living room and watch the first episode of a bunch of different shows on Netflix. There are all kinds of adventures to be had if you open up your mind and use your imagination.

phineas and ferb

My last tip for staving off summer boredom is to just rest and relax. I know it might seem counterintuitive to try to rest when you want to be busy doing something, but that’s kind of the point. During the school year, I tend to become so busy that I run myself ragged. Without the presence of that busyness, I realize how slowly time can move. This summer, I want to take a deep breath and revel in a change of pace. I want to take the time to appreciate the world and the people around me without distractions. I’ve spent a lot of time in prayer over the past few weeks, and that time has made me really hungry to understand my God more. I’ve never felt a hunger this strong, and I want to run with it. I want God to show me new things. I think the perfect environment to foster this desire is a few months when I’ll be taking things slow, when I can rest, be still, and know that He is God.

Those are just a few ideas to fight the beast of boredom. Hopefully your summer will be a fun, enjoyable few months. Even if your summer will be busy with classes, work, mission trips, or just life in general, I pray that the God of peace will give you rest.

Written by Becca

Image credits: Header image, Phineas and Ferb

Letter to the Fiction Writer

Thud!

“Ow…” My forehead is regretting my decision to slam it into the desk, but I don’t particularly care. The monitor in front of me continues to glow, heedless of my disgust, displaying one blank word document with a blinking line at the very top. It’s waiting for me to do something. But what?

“I don’t know,” I groan aloud. The pieces of some vague plot are scattered in my brain, but they simply refuse to come together for long enough to get a good look at it. I can think of nothing to make those pieces sound interesting or compelling. Are they interesting or compelling? Am I fooling myself just by sitting here? Can I really write fiction?

I turn my head a little in an attempt to avoid a bruise in the middle of my forehead, and I happen to glance at the door to my room, which has been shut to the world for hours. I blink when I notice something white on the floor; a second glance confirms that I have never seen this object before. It’s a slip of paper, folded in half.

I rise from my chair and stoop to pick up the paper, half expecting to recognize the content as I unfold it, but no such luck awaits me. Someone has written in Sharpie, in handwriting I am unfamiliar with, “Inspiration awaits you out of doors.”

I stare at the words for a few seconds, turn the paper over a couple of times, and stand up again. Any normal person would wonder who had written the note, or what such cryptic words could be referring to. Those thoughts briefly flit through my head, but ultimately, the one I debate over is the one I ask out loud; “Where outside?”

Willing to suffer whatever consequences could await depending on this mystery writer’s intentions, I open the bedroom door for the first time all day, pass a glance at my fish tank on the kitchen counter as I strut through the house, and throw open the front door, squinting into the sun’s harsh, midday glare. All I can do is look at the ground for a few seconds. On the doorstep, just as if my guest predicted my actions, there is another piece of paper, this one sporting an arrow that points down the porch stairs. I spy another one on the tree, pointing left. Without stopping, I follow the arrows, only vaguely aware that I am being lured into the woods like some character in a horror movie. More arrows appear on trees as I go deeper and deeper into the woods. My only companions are the birds and squirrels I’m scaring away as I power through the brush.

Finally, the arrows stop. I wander helplessly for a moment before I notice a clearing. When I shove aside the last bush, I gasp: the ground is covered in wildflowers of every color imaginable, and the only thing to break the sea of sweet-smelling pops of color is the most inviting tree I’ve ever seen. It’s big and strong, its branches are thick with leaves, and there’s an alcove naturally set into the base of the trunk. Careful to shuffle through the flowers, I gingerly approach the tree to find a red spiral-bound notebook resting in the alcove. I weigh the stack of pages in my hand for a moment before daring to open it. There, in the same handwriting as that first note, is a letter.

Dear Fiction Writer,

Hello, you brave soul!

So you have dreams of becoming the next great American novelist. Or maybe you want to see your short story published in a magazine. Or maybe you just want to write down that plot bunny that’s been hopping around in your head for who-knows-how-long. Congratulations on breaking the bubble of academia and going for creative writing! You have chosen one of the most thrilling and most challenging modes of writing that exist.

I hope my little surprise helps you feel less like writing is a dull, thankless task. Sometimes, all it takes is a change of locale to get the creative juices flowing. Everybody’s “writing spot” is a little different, so I hope you like mine.

I took you on this adventure to make you feel an adventure. The emotions and physical sensations you just felt—those are what make fiction come alive. The crunching of dead leaves, the scampering of the squirrels, and the sensation of your heart pounding all come together to create one story—the story of how you recklessly followed a mysterious trail into the woods. The big story is the main focus, but the details make it worth reading.

Write what you want to read. I promise, there is someone out there who will read it. Maybe you’ll become famous in your lifetime, like C. S. Lewis. Maybe you’ll become famous later, like Emily Dickinson. Maybe you never will, and you think that’s just fine. Be happy in any case, because you’re going to write for yourself—no one else.

Before you give up, try it my way. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding beyond measure.

Happy writing!

I take a deep breath; the scent of hundreds of flowers fills my nose. I rip the pen out of the spiral and, for the first time, I write without boundaries.

Written by Catherine

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