living simply, loving intentionally


Iona beach at twilight

“Liminality / a thin place: a hallowed space and time when heaven and earth for a moment are one.”

While thinking of a blog to post this past week, I was feeling anxious about having four weeks left in my YAV year.  Often we can get so caught up in worrying about something coming to an end, that we aren’t able to rejoice in the goodness of the current experience. We get burnt out and don’t allow time or space to recharge (which is problematic when your job description is to serve, love and be present with others to the best of your ability). I wish I could say I wasn’t a worrier, but alas, I must constantly remind myself to breathe. Breathe in the goodness of God. This swell of anxiety brought me back to the peacefulness of presence I experienced in Iona; I was reminded how simplicity is key.

In May, the Belfast and Glasgow YAVs (along with the Church of
DSC_0706Scotland VVs and Belfast VBS-ers) ventured to Scotland for our third and final retreat.  Doug emphasized how the journey to get to the isle of Iona was a pilgrimage in and of itself, but the reward found on the island would be worth the long plane, train, bus and ferry rides.

I always say every long journey needs a good book, so I packed one written by the husband (Scott Dannemiller) of a past YAV married couple who served in Guatemala.  Emma had ordered the book, “A Year Without A Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting,” after our last YAV retreat to get a bit of a feel for how the YAV program’s emphasis on simple living could carry-over to our post-YAV years.  The couple decided to, as the title suggests, spend a year without making any purchases, with “usable items” (like hygiene products, food, etc.), “experience gifts” and fixing broken items (if a replacement isn’t available), falling into the category of allowed purchases, or viable exceptions to the challenge.


Iona Abbey at dusk

The Dannemillers were entering their own year-long, intentional journey to face the challenge of living with less in an over-abundant, material-focused world. Harder than it sounds, the book pinpoints the difficulties the Dannemillers faced during the challenge, but also the surprises and joys they discovered along the way. One part that really stuck out to me was Scott detailing a conversation he had with a taxi driver, Alex, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Somalia during a civil war. Alex said it was faith that kept him going – faith that was made real by the church bringing him and his family to safety in the United States. Scott is struck by this encounter, and calls it “one of those brief moments where the space between heaven and earth narrows and we catch a glimpse of the divine in another human being.”

Liminality. Thin places. Heaven meeting earth.

Iona abbey worship

Iona abbey worship

In Celtic spirituality, a ‘thin place’ can be described as “areas in nature where the boundaries between the spirit world and the physical world are less delineated and more permeable.” Iona has been called a ‘thin place,’ as the air is heavy with sacredness, and borders seemingly dissolve and diminish on the horizon at twilight.  Our pilgrimage around the island brought this imagery into focus.  The energy and life given in a place such as Iona isn’t meant to permanently draw us from reality, but rather re-charge and energize us to return at the end of our journey having found the holy: grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection. . . for ourselves and our communities.

From a reading on our pilgrimage: Murphy Davis, a founding member of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, once said here on Iona “Our hearts are set on pilgrim roads not to satisfy ourselves with finding one holy place but to take the experience of the presence of the Holy back into the thick of things.”

Reading Dannemiller’s book on the retreat brought the idea of living simply to reality.


“The well of eternal youth” at the top of Dun I with Julie

It’s not just the “stuff” in our lives that physically weigh us down, but more importantly the emotional weight that comes from being human. The anxiety. The stress. The selfish desires. The unhealthy comparisons. The fear of failure. The passive attitudes. The unconscious decisions. Scott discovered that the physical things, the ones which we hide behind and decorate ourselves with, mask the real issues we struggle with, and distract us from what’s important in life: an abundance of gratitude, love, and hope strengthened by faith. These things and thoughts diminish our ability to love ourselves as God intends, and to take that love and share it with others.

To learn how to live simply, is to learn how to love intentionally.  And when we learn how to live with less baggage, emotional and physical, we are able to open ourselves to other people without fear. Without stress. Without anxiety. We can meet people where they are with love, grace, and understanding. We can look for the divine, where heaven meets earth in humanity.

Another reading from the Iona pilgrimage: “. . .Setting out is not covering miles of land or sea, or travelling faster than the speed of sound.  It is first and foremost opening ourselves to other people, trying to get to know them, going out to meet them.” – Dom Helder Camara


Belfast YAVs with Doug!

Coming to Iona, different to the last two retreats, was a journey meant to take off the weight of worry and anxiety about our world and its people.  It echoed Dannemiller’s journey to live a simpler life. To take away the shiny distractions and let faith be the center stage.  To be encouraged and energized with the ability to love intentionally and wholeheartedly. To make heaven meet earth in our own communities, our own relationships, our own cities.

These next four weeks I’m challenging myself to focus on the ministry of presence, relishing in the relationships I’ve made here in Belfast, with co-workers, church members, fellow YAVs and friends of friends. I hope to find joy and peace in the goodness I’ve discovered in Belfast, and encourage others with my love for them and this city.

Iona is a reminder that Heaven is already here on earth if we’re willing to seek it.



For those interested in checking out the book by Scott Dannemiller, here’s a link to Amazon! A Year Without A Purchase


the priority of addressing poverty

DSC_0615“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” 

― Mother Teresa

Ever since our latest YAV retreat in Scotland this past February, I’ve been mulling over the definition of poverty, and the way in which its addressed in our communities.  While the history of sectarian issues in Belfast account for a lot of the division felt between communities, we can’t dismiss how poverty plays just as big of a role, if not bigger. One of the Glasgow volunteers, Iona, talked about her experiences witnessing the “poverty of childhood” as she’s grown up in Scotland and started working with the church. . .which  left me wondering: is poverty just monetary, or is there much more to the 7-letter word?

This morning the 4 Belfast volunteers met with Diane Holt, the Thrive Ireland and Tear Fund Ireland project coordinator to learn a bit more what poverty looks like in Northern Ireland.

Just some of the statistics we covered looked a bit like this: 

-In the five years between 2006/7 and 2011/12, the poverty rate among adults aged 16 to 29 rose by 8 percentage points to reach 26%. 

-Northern Ireland’s working class male life expectancy is 17 years less than that of a male from a middle class background.

Looking at these statistics, it’s easy to see how a community can be so divided based on class principles. Addressing poverty encompasses so much more than evaluating an individual’s income; it’s also about increasing quality of life (education, health, every day resources), empowering marginalized voices, addressing conflict, and creating connections that provide individuals and families with a loving community.

IMG_6846So how does the church respond to these class divisions? Diane found that her time working with The Link in Newtonards saw middle class Catholic families and middle class Protestant families having little issue creating relationships, but it was harder for middle class Protestants to connect with working class Protestants. Maybe class is the bigger issue here.

While churches are quick to put together a relief fund for third world countries, raise money for members in the congregation, or seek to create connections with neighboring Christians, they quite often look past those issues of poverty that exist in their own communities, right on their door steps.  I was reminded of conversations we’d had in Glasgow about the priority areas, and the lack of outreach to those overlooked individuals and families.  How often are children robbed of an adolescence, or told they aren’t worthy of anything? How often do we claim those on welfare are just lazy individuals? How often do we convince ourselves others are dealing with alcoholism and addiction by choice and an unwillingness to change?

I’m learning that as a church, we need to re-evaluate the way in which we look at “mission,” “outreach,” and “community.” As Diane mentioned, too often our churches fall into the “Believe, Behave, Belong” structure, wanting only to build on the numbers of Christians in the church instead of loving and meeting those living in our communities where they are, providing for their needs first and foremost.  FullSizeRenderHow many times have we seen a new person walk into a church and either A) Don’t take the time to introduce ourself, B) Are more concerned if they are a Christian instead of getting to know them first, or C) Think they wouldn’t ‘fit-in’ with the congregation? This structure is damaging to the church, and more damaging to those with whom we are trying to build relationships.

Instead we first need to make people know they Belong, and then the Belief and Behavior may follow.  We need to make addressing poverty a priority. We need to stop boxing-in God. We need to stop claiming ownership over the church, and acknowledge that God’s house is for anyone and everyone, no matter where they are in their relationship with Jesus (or lack-there-of). We need to “use our loaves” and show more love. As a volunteer, I need to remember how important the relationships are that I’m creating with people every day. It all starts with an introduction.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

This was a bit more of a relfective blog post, so if you’d like an update of the past month, check out my newlsetter here! : Belfast YAV Update #8

xx Hill

“Faith is Love; Love is Service; The Fruit of Service is Peace”



Frosty morning view in Comrie

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
― Confucius

On February 19 I found myself in Arbroath, Scotland, sad to leave a place that quickly became special in a matter of minutes.  I heard a sentence, and had a conversation, that was a reminder, and a call to action, about the definition of “service.”


Giant teapot at Comrie Croft. . .our mid-afternoon lifesaver!

Let me back-track. During my YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) year in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the volunteers go on three retreats. For our second this past week, we went to Glasgow, Scotland, where the newest YAV site has been planted.  In addition to our group of Americans from the PCUSA church, the Church of Scotland has started a similar scheme called Volunteering Vocations, currently serving in both Arbroath and Glasgow. The trip allowed us to see what ministries the other volunteers are working with, and gave us time to unwind and refuel for the next 5 months ahead. (We also stayed in the Comrie Croft hostel for part of the trip).

Our last stop of the week left me wanting to stay in Arbroath just a bit longer, but excited to head back to Belfast with the same enthusiasm, and a fresh approach. Martin Fair, the site coordinator for the Arbroath volunteers told us a bit about the St. Andrew’s Havilah Project, which aims to provide a drop-in service for anyone seeking company, conversation and nonjudgmental listening over tea, soup and sandwiches. Many of those who come for lunch are either recovering from a drug addiction or are dealing with mental health issues. Martin re-iterated a very crucial mindset for those involved in mission work: a Christian’s goal first and foremost is about serving.  You serve others with love, respect and acceptance, and then maybe somewhere along the line you get to have a conversation about faith. We must first put our faith into action.


Arbroath Abbey, dating back to 1178

After chatting with a few of the women about knitting for a majority of the afternoon at Havilah, in walks a man wearing workout gear and a friendly smile. While in line for pudding, Billy introduces himself and, immediately after noticing his Kukri running top, we get to chatting about his new hobby. He tells me on Sunday he will be running a half-marathon, and that he has signed up for his first full marathon this upcoming autumn. I was thrilled to hear about all of the races he’s already registered for, and has completed in the past: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Arbroath, Dundee. On this tiny similarity, our joy for running, we were able to connect.


IDSC_0389.jpgn our fifteen minute conversation
I didn’t get to hear his life story, although I wish I could’ve had the opportunity. I don’t know if he was an addict, or is just a man who lives in Arbroath seeking a positive, loving and accepting community. I don’t know if he’s a Christian, or comes to Havilah because he’s questioning the existence of God. But I did get to spend time with him and find common ground for a friendship, no matter how short-lived the relationship.  In the brief time we spent chatting, I found myself inspired by his passion and enthusiasm: “No matter the rain, you just gotta get out and run.  You gotta train it if you wanna to be able to finish the race.”

When Doug started giving me the *we are five minutes behind our schedule and need to be on the road right now so please finish your conversation* look because I was one of the last YAVs in the room, I had to quickly say goodbye to Billy. “It was lovely to talk to you, good luck with the Belfast marathon,” he said. The perseverance and passion he displayed during our conversation is something I’ll carry with me during the rest of my time volunteering. Martin’s reminder of a Christian’s duty to serve first and foremost is crucial not only for the rest of my time in Belfast, but for a lifetime.

Thank you Billy, for being a face of faith.



(more details & pictures about our entire retreat next post!)


Some of the Glasgow, Belfast and Arbroath volunteers after a mid-morning hike in Comrie! (Chris, Emma, Julie, Laura Kate, Me, Amy, Amanda and Sam)

“The Simple Path

Silence is Prayer
Prayer is Faith
Faith is Love
Love is Service
The Fruit of Service is Peace”
― Mother Teresa

As it is written


“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” 

― Lemony Snicket

The YAV program in Northern Ireland is currently operating for its 23rd, and sadly, its last year for the time being.  With 23 years of service and give or take 200 volunteers throughout its time, the collective YAV houses have accumulated stacks on stacks of books. These books range from Ireland travel guides dating back to the 90s, advice books for youth group leaders, cheesy YA and romance novels, books that break down the Gospels, and history books about The Troubles in N. Ireland.  I’ve always talked about having my own library as an adult, and I’d like to think this is the first step in the right direction.

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With a long commute to and from The Vine on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I’m thankful for this massive library to sustain my 1-2 hour morning travels.  Since September I’ve read 10 books (which is more than I’ve been able to read in a couple of months since I started university); I have the lovely Translink bus service to thank for its not always so lovely timing.

This years’ completed reading list:

  1. “To Kill A Mockingbird” – Harper Lee
  2. “McCarthy’s Bar” – Pete McCarthy
  3. “Love Wins” – Rob Bell
  4. “Go Set A Watchman” – Harper Lee
  5. “On Chesil Beach” – Ian McEwan
  6. “The Body In The Library” – Agatha Christie
  7. “Velvet Elvis” – Rob Bell
  8. “Traveling Mercies” – Anne Lamott
  9. “Knots & Crosses” – Ian Rankin
  10. “Paper Towns” – John Green

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Some have been library books, some I brought with me, others were left here by past YAVs, and a few have been borrowed from my current roommates.  But what’s so special about this bunch, though, are those that have collected dust on the shelf from past Belfast YAVs. As a huge fan of writing in the margins and highlighting quotes in textbooks and my Bible growing up, I’ve started to do the same with ‘leisure’ reads (as long as you don’t forget which books are borrowed from the library!).  When I went to read “Velvet Elvis” I could identify about 5 different YAVs scrawling messages and marking text throughout the chapters. 

Books given to the YAVs by family and people from their placements


‘Velvet Elvis’ notes

I love being able to compare notes, and feel as if I’m having a conversation with a YAV who may’ve been here last year, 5 years ago, or 22 years ago. The world may have changed a bit since the last group of YAVs were here, but these underlines and scribbles draw connections with the past, and show how relevant those same thoughts and feelings are in the present. We’re all human, all seeking God, all striving for peace, and all questioning where God fits into our world here and now in Belfast; it’s a reminder that God meets us now, wherever we are and whatever our circumstances are.

Making connections help us learn from those who’ve ‘been there, done that,’ and have wisdom to pass down.  These hand-written commentaries let us know we aren’t alone – whether they detail feelings about Harper Lee’s characters, or challenge and agree with Rob Bell’s theology – or they point out something we may not have noticed; it’s like being back in a college English course with multiple interpretations of one single text being discussed, dissected and analyzed.

writingI always thought it wasn’t appropriate that I highlighted verses in my Bible or wrote a day’s feelings and prayers next to a passage, but when we were told to Mod-Podge a Bible for the senior class at NWPC, I stopped hiding my Bible decorating during church. Then my youth pastor at the time, Lisa Hickman, published a book a few years later called “Writing In The Margins: Connecting With God on the Pages of Your Bible,” and I was finally able to feel completely okay about my so-called desecration. I saw that this ‘graffiti’ was more than just squiggly lines and letters, but an intimate conversation with the writer and other readers.

I’m a firm believer that books are published with margins for a reason: not be left blank but to be decorated with colorful words and colorful pictures.  I encourage you to order some used books off of Amazon that are listed in an “Okay” condition because they have markings and highlighting on the pages; you just might learn something unexpected, or find something in common with a stranger. 🙂




Rain is grace

“Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.” – John Updike

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Last week, we had our first snow in Belfast; I was so excited about the quarter inch of slush, you’d have thought I’d been one of those Americans brought up in the deep south who’d never seen a proper winter.  I was abnormally energized for my two mile walk to work that I take each Friday morning, bundled up in my thickest scarf and wool socks, camera at the ready. The hills behind the Harland and Wolff cranes were picturesque, an image of something you’d find on a postcard in Carroll’s, the souvenir shop. It felt like a little piece from home had shown its face that day, reminding me of my many Pennsylvania winters and the euphoria that always accompanies the first snowfall.

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Morning of the first snow in Belfast 15 Jan. 2016

There is a shirt in one of the shops that’s become one of my favorites: it has a picture of the four seasons with a sheep, carrying an umbrella in each image. As you could probably guess, it rains a lot in Northern Ireland, but it’s a different kind of rain than what I know from Pennsylvania. The damp lingers in the air after each rainfall, without the heat from an American summer shower to dry up the sidewalks. Torrential downpours are rare, as is the dry, static air that surrounds thunderstorms at home. I don’t mind the consistent, calm mist, or the contrast of green against grey, found in everything living among the hills and skies. The rain is like grace, constantly being poured out in order to give life. Sometimes heavy rain persists, causing strangers to become friends in the shelter of pubs and cafes (cue Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) – or the sun comes out to play and a rainbow appears in the distance, bringing about smiles and conversation on the bus.

During dusk, the grey sky turns into a periwinkle blue, outlining the dark silhouettes of townhouses and bare winter trees.  Puddles form differently on the streets, water collecting in cracks of cobblestone and uprooted trees.  On evening walks the smell of peat fires permeate the air, and the wet alleyways soak up the orange glow cast by the street lamps; for a second you believe you’ve been transported back in time, before fluorescent lights and concrete sidewalks drained the color from the night.


And when I lay down in bed after another rainy day, I can hear it pitter-patter against my skylight window, bringing with it a breeze whistling through the cracks of the fireplace. A little snow in the winter is a special stranger here for a short visit, but the rain lives right around the corner. The rain is a part of Ireland’s history, its people, its beauty, and its inspiration.  Even though I miss the snow in Pennsylvania, I wouldn’t trade the rain on the Green Isle for anything else.

Just for fun, here’s a band from Slovenia doing a rendition of a traditional Irish song “Walk In The Irish Rain” 🙂

A Walk In The Irish Rain – Bluegrass Hoppers

xo Hillary

You make me new

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.” -T.S. Eliot


If anyone knows me well, they’d know that January 2 begins the long stretch of my least favorite time of year – until spring hits.  The holiday season is over: decorations stripped from their respective spaces on walls and shelves in our homes, Christmas music replaced by Top 40 radio stations, the warm feeling of the coming Christ seemingly dissipated after His arrival, and the celebrations of Hogmanay already forgotten as we return to work and school.

There is one little part of the Christmas season that is all too often forgotten, though, and I was recently reminded at my last meeting with our supervisor in Belfast.  If you took your Christmas decorations down the day after New Years, you might need to re-visit the importance of this part of the story.

large-1.jpgJanuary 6 marks Epiphany, or the 12th day of Christmas, when the wise visit the new king.  Now, this part of the Christmas story is pretty familiar to us, because we’ll never forget those weird words “Frankincense” and “Myrrh” that we remember hearing as little kids – a central part to the first-ever Christmas gifts. But the important part, the bit we don’t usually remember, is hearing that the wise men leave Jesus to return home by another route. They leave changed. These men, from the east (probably what is now Iraq, Iran, Yemen or Saudi Arabia) travelled far to an unknown land, to search for something they had found in the stars.  They were unsure who exactly they would find, but they had faith that this star would lead them to something important. And when they found Him, they were warned that going home the same way would lead to danger; They left Jesus differently than they had arrived at Him.

What I love about re-visiting this story is learning how our faith is always becoming new, being shaped and molded throughout our lives. We can hear a story over and over again, but sometimes we are too focused on one little detail, that we miss another little detail altogether. We are so focused on getting the cookies baked, the presents bought and the carols rehearsed at Christmas time, that we forget about the actual story all together, let alone the days following Jesus’ birth.

IMG_5460.JPGHaving spent these past few months volunteering in Belfast, I know that I, like the wise men, will leave by a different route to my home destination.  I know that this new year for me represents a change of attitude about God’s sense of humor when it comes to the future, a new outlook on the massive span of God’s love for all of His people (Thanks Rob Bell, Anne Lamott and C.S. Lewis), and an ever-continuous adventure discovering God in the mundane, the ordinary, the simple, and the hidden corners of the universe. Maybe, just maybe, Epiphany has become my favorite part of the year: a reminder that we are being made new every single day.

My 2015 Bucket-List of resolutions looked a bit like this:  2015 Resolutions


Photobooth time at the NYE party in the Europa with my Garnerville Pres gang!

While some of these things were achievable in the year itself, most were simply life-long aspirations that’ve been added to my daily thoughts. 2015 was a good year – and was ended at a fancy party in Belfast with some lifelong friends – but was full of mistakes that I found myself discouraged by or ashamed of, instead of excited to turn those downfalls into positive life lessons.


Old and new friends from the University of Stirling, at a NYE party in the Europa Hotel, Belfast

For 2016, instead of writing a list that I can cross out as the time passes, I’m praying that, above all else, I will make mistakes. Making mistakes means we are trying new things, learning new things, pushing ourselves, changing ourselves, changing others and living life on the outskirts of comfort. Mistakes remind us that we are human. Mistakes show us that we are doing something, making moves, trial-and-erroring, instead of waiting for things to happen to us.

I hope to do things that I’m scared of, and won’t grow anxious or worry about all of the mistakes I’m going to make as I continue to seek my life’s purpose. I pray to let go of perfection and let the beautiful mess be. It’s in our vulnerability that we let God make us new. Let the mistakes roll!

Sláinte 2016,

Hillary xx

2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.”

Happy Christmas Belfast!

A wee happy list, enjoying all of the little things that have been making the past month so joyful.


Belfast City Hall

  1. The Belfast Christmas market becoming a staple stop after my day
    working at the Vine.


    Enjoying a Welsh “Belly Buster” inside Belfast’s Christmas market!

    The prices are pretty high so I often leave empty-handed, but I love walking around, watching tourists giggle while taking pictures in front of City Hall,
    and locals having great craic in line for the beer tent. The sounds, smells and sights give the ultimate Christmas spirit feeling! (Also getting to take the youth from Garnerville, and going with JoBo, Adam & Lauren).


  2. Wearing those paper crowns you see in British movies at Christmas dinners (and eating my first proper one with the lunch club at work!)
  3. The Paris climate change agreement. And #PrayForParis #PrayForPeace #PrayForTheWorld


    Belfast City Hall on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks

  4. Mulled wine and mince pies (still deciding how I feel about the mince pies. . .).
  5. Carol and nativity services at Garnerville and The Vine (and getting to learn how to play the bass guitar in the process!)
  6. “A Head Full of Dreams” album, Coldplay. And unbelieveably excited after 12 years of fandom to finally see them live with my mum in June!Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset
  7. Spending the afternoon at the Dock Café nestled in the Titanic Quarter, with amazing coffee, a comfy atmosphere, Christmas carolers, chilly winter air and seeing the first snow on the hills behind Samson & Goliath (the big yellow Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes).Processed with VSCOcam with m3 preset
  8. Cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies
    on tv after an exhausting day. That kind of movie when you don’t feel like thinking too much and you can just enjoy the happy ending.
  9. “The Best of The Pogues”
  10. “Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott
  11. Cards in the mail from Grandma Leslie.
  12. Smelling peat fires burning on a rainy walk.
  13. The Advent carol service at Newtownbreda Pres.

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    Newtownbreda Carol Service

  14. Christmas jumper party with my Garnerville house group, and Susie’s amazing baked Alaska!
  15. Baking my mum’s & my favorite Christmas cookie for friends and to eat with tea and coffee after church: ginger snaps!IMG_5173
  16. My favorite place in the world: wherever live music is to be had. There is no other feeling quite like it.
  17. Getting to be a part of Alex’s wedding, even thousands of miles away!


  18. Meeting Santa, face painting and watching Elf with the youth at Garnerville’s FoG Christmas party!

Cheers, Belfast! Thank you for these memories, friendships and new traditions. Thank you for being my home away from home.



All of the lights

. . .

“Those Christmas lights light up the street

Down where the sea and city meet

May all your troubles soon be gone

Oh Christmas lights, keep shining on”

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Lights on Belmont Rd.

One, two, three, four. . .twenty-seven houses. From Belmont to Circular Road, the adorned houses averaged 10 per mile, a hearty number so early in December. Remembering the drives to and from my Grandma’s house counting Christmas lights, I found myself recreating this competition on my 2.5 mile run through Belfast.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Derek and I would sit in the backseat of our parents’ car with our eyes frantically glued to each house whizzing by, hoping to see a glimmer of light in the windows. “Does it count if they’ve decorated but the lights aren’t turned on?” I’d ask. “Duh, Hill, the lights need to be on. No cheating.” We’d draw in the condensation forming on the windows, keeping a tally of our scores, humming along to the Christmas music if it was mum’s car, or WDVE if it was dad’s. 


Me and Derek Christmas circa 1999

Those 15 minute drives were always spent in awe, filled with the joy emanating from gingerbread houses lining the hilly country roads.  Each dip gave me butterflies, anticipating the surprises we’d find at Grandma’s house. Our fingers were always crossed for a box of Kraft spiral mac ’n cheese and Edy’s ice cream.


As I got older, I still continued to play the game, often on solo drives between my mom’s house and my dad’s house (the new and extended version).  I gradually watched houses change their Christmas decor and could remember which ones dazzled me the most: the ranch style home just after the first turn onto Valley Road with its tree-lined pond, or the one with the massive blow-up snow globe, bigger than the house itself. Although very excited to celebrate my first Christmas away from home overseas, I’ll miss taking that drive to Grandma’s house, knowing my family is on the other side of her door.

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Advent liturgy in the Belfast flat

Welcoming new traditions this Christmas, I’ve had the (very scary and anxiety-inducing) privilege of lighting the Advent candles at Garnerville Presbyterian.  Think about how nervous you get when it’s your turn to pass the wobbly tray of communion wine to the next person in the pew and multiply it by 150 eyes staring at you and 15 strides toward the lectern with the chance to fall flat on your face – and that’s how it feels to light the Advent candle. Now that I feel responsible for the observation of Advent existing at Garnerville, I’ve spent more time thinking about the lights of Advent and the Christmas lights on our houses.  With each week in Advent, we light one more candle, just as we slowly see more homes lighting up for the Christmas season. 


Garnerville Presbyterian Advent candles, week 3

The light counting tradition from my childhood may continue to change with age, but I now find love, joy, peace, and hope in images of those memories by looking upon the houses here in Belfast with each week approaching Christmas: love for family, friends and strangers, hope for the strength of our souls, joy for the beauty of our earth, and peace amidst the wars of our world.  In the chaos of the season, it’s comforting to relive little moments like these that take us back to simplicity.

To look upon the lights of houses and buildings and not only think about Santa Clause and Christmas dinner at Grandma’s, but to be reminded of the pillars of light that


Belfast Christmas market outside of Belfast City Hall

the coming of Christ represent, is a new feeling  from my Christmas tradition that I’ll continue to cherish.

Lights sparkle with love, lights glow with joy, lights beacon with hope, lights illuminate with peace. Lights bring about life.

“And God said ‘Let there be light'”

x Hillary

Finding comm(unity)on ground


“Equality comes in realizing that we are all doing different jobs for a common purpose. That is the aim behind any community. The very name community means let’s come together to recognize the unity. Come … unity.”

—Swami Satchidananda

Thankful thoughts about communion & community. . .

On a Friday evening around 8 o’clock on Bathgate Drive, one could walk past our flat and see the TV on mute, broadcasting a football or rugby match.  There’d be the faint sound of Simon & Garfunkel, George Ezra, The Pogues or BBC One coming from the kitchen, where one of the four volunteers is hard at work prepping our weekly community meal (which Leif, Emma, Mark and I share once Emma gets home from Friday Fusion at EBM).

I’ve found myself looking forward to it the closer we get to every Friday, especially when it’s my turn to cook! One thing I wanted to

cake cake cake cake

Emma’s sticky toffee pudding birthday cake!

challenge myself with this year is getting more creative when it comes to cooking and baking, by using ingredients we already have in the flat and maximizing the use of my stipend when a shop is required. It’s been interesting to say the least. . .but I was pretty excited about the Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake I made for Emma’s 23rd two weekends ago! Who knew that dates could make something taste so incredible?!

After a long week at our placements, it’s nice to have this scheduled time together, knowing we’ll all be home to sit and chat about our grievances, our musings or our excitements from the week. This is also when we have an open discussion about what we need to work on as we continue figuring out the adventure of living with (once) total strangers for a year. Before we say “Sláinte!” “Salud!” “L’chaim!” and “Skál!” to life and good health, we lay all of our complaints on the table, work out a solution, and leave the discussion behind us before we take a bite.

Two Sundays ago, I went with Doug, our site coordinator to a Taizé communion service at Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church. Taizé, a style of Christian worship practiced by the ecumenical Taizé community in France, consists of repetitively singing harmonized tunes interspersed with readings of scripture, prayer and moments of silence. Being my first Taizé I was excited to find how spiritually nourishing it was for me, as I’ve always found I connect the most with God through music.  The service was an organic, stripped-down and simple way to worship, echoing in the communion that followed. As we were partaking, I was reflecting on the different ways, and settings, in which I’ve experienced communion. Although there are common elements eaten, common words said and a common ritual performed, communion is never exactly the same because we are thankful to God for different reasons upon each meal. But the one thing that remains the same no matter the context, is that it’s taken with your community, never on your own. I suppose it wouldn’t be communion at all if we were to do it alone. As the Taizé service concluded and people started to leave, it no longer felt like those in the room were strangers because we gave thanks together, we remembered together, we prayed together and we were one body of Christ together – no matter our circumstances that brought us to the table on that evening.

Similar to taking communion in a church setting, the Belfast YAV community meals have become our adaptation of the Biblical story. Mirroring the ritual in a different setting has emphasized just how important it is to have community in which we can share our praise and thanks to God for the blessings He’s given us, and talk about ways we can do more to show His love in this world. As Thanksgiving approaches on Thursday, I’m looking forward to celebrating this traditional American


My Glasgow/Belfast YAV community: Sam, Leif, Emma, Mark, Julie, Laura Kate & Amanda

meal with my new community, breaking bread and giving thanks to God, and those around the dinner table, for my new home in Belfast and all of the wonderful things that have come along with my new setting.
(Although the stuffing, pecan pie and cranberry sauce are pretty incredible foods to be thankful for, too!)

As was once reinforced for me while reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into The Wild”: “Happiness is only real when shared.” [Spoiler Alert!] When Chris McCandless is lying on his death bed after running away from society, he realizes the mistake he made by abandoning his family and friends, no matter how broken his life may have been at the time.  He gave up, thinking he’d find happiness if he escaped his community and went searching for his individuality, his purpose. But what Chris missed out on, is that real happiness, real joy, doesn’t exist apart from celebrating life and God within our communities; it’s these people who help shape our identity.  I’m thankful for those I’ve encountered across the world, in Ligonier, New Wilmington, Stirling, Westminster and Belfast, that have shown me the importance of love for God and love for others. It’s this love, this thanksgiving, that’s our common ground. And that’s a good reason to celebrate.



This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for:

  1. My coworkers’ hospitality at the Vine Centre and the congregation at Garnerville Presbyterian.
  2. Literature that leaves you thinking about what you read the rest of the day. (Thank you Rob Bell and Harper Lee).
  3. My 3 housemates, Emma, Mark and Leif, and the community that we’ve created.
  4. Simon & Garfunkel, Jason Isbell, Nickel Creek, Ben Howard and Leon Bridges. Their music is always spot on and has gotten me through any of the bad moments these past few months.
  5. Reconnecting with old friends, keeping in touch with those faraway and creating new relationships.
  6. Having the opportunity to learn more about my faith and teach/share it with others this year.
  7. New challenges, goals and hopes for the future.

“When the air is wild with leaves”: Re-imagining seasons & symbols

autumn in belfast

Walking from Ballyhackamore to Belmont Rd at dusk

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”

― Ray Bradbury

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about the autumn, the way the leaves cascade to the ground with an elegance and grace that brings beauty to change. I’ve been re-imagining life here in Belfast; my preconceptions and notions have been challenged in a way that has given me fresh eyes and a perspective for my new home.


A lucky rainbow sighting eating lunch at the Vine Centre

The other afternoon I ran home from work because the autumn weather was at its peak: a brisk breeze swirled the crisp leaves around my feet, sun shone through the hollowing branches and dry foot paths ran the entire way from Garnerville to Belmont.  Halfway through my run I realised I wasn’t even thinking about where I was going anymore.  That’s the first sign of settling in and making a new place your home.  You don’t have to worry about making the right decision or going the right direction because your mind just takes you there. I’ve noticed a similar trend in regards to my placements at Garnerville and the Vine Centre.  IMG_4378I’m not stressing out about having the room set-up for mums & tots anymore, confusing the names of those at Coffee with Joan, losing sleep thinking about teaching a lesson at Knocknagoney or worrying about the kids at J.A.F.F.A. enjoying having me around.  I just show up, prepare to serve and work with others, and let the rest be.  It’s a transition from summer to autumn as the newness of my surroundings have fallen into place around me. It’s incredible how much can change in 6 weeks.


The Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery resting among the hills

A month ago the Bathgate crew and I spent the day at the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor with a group of Americans associated with Grace Presbytery in Texas (assorted pastors and elders of the PC[USA]) who were visiting Northern Ireland for a week to learn more about reconciliation and peace-making processes.  While there, we spent some time with one of the brothers who talked about his initial role in Northern Ireland: to pray for reconciliation.  When asked what he expected to accomplish or see happen, he responded by explaining how it’s unrealistic to expect to see the result of prayer, but today’s Christians (specifically the younger generation) are shaped by a society that is obsessed with productivity and seeing the fruits of our labour. Often we don’t see what God is doing through our prayer; it’s not up to us for Him to change lives and situations. This really resonated with me, as I often find myself getting caught up in the desire for immediate results, whether it’s prayer, introducing healthy habits, applying for a job/school, or practicing an instrument; we often don’t take the time for the change to happen naturally like the transition from summer to autumn, developing overtime into a fine wine (preferably mulled). [Side note: I love how the lessons I’ve been teaching in the Personal Development & Mutual Understanding (PDMU) class at Knocknagoney are still relevant in my life today (unrealistic vs. realistic expectations).] 

In addition to discussing his role in the peace process praying for the Catholic & Protestant communities, we also touched on the issue of defining one’s identity. Signs and symbols have become an integral part of our identity as humans.  What starts as an innocent representation of our origin, beliefs, interests or personalities becomes convoluted and distorted to stand for offensive, obtrusive and dangerous signs that create metaphorical walls – and sometimes literal – that divide people and their communities. 

The first trip I made to Belfast in December 2012 was affected by riots surrounding city council’s decision to limit the amount of days the Union Jack flag is flown outside of City Hall (from every day of the year to 18 days out of the year).  I remember being confused about the whole situation, because I wasn’t completely aware of Northern Ireland’s political history.  Most days we were unable to explore in the city centre because of road blocks and protests on the streets surrounding city hall.  This experience is one that I’m continually reminded of when questioning what define’s a person’s identity. 


Paramilitary murals in East Belfast, September 2015

Living in East Belfast, which is predominantly Protestant, the representations of identity I’ve become accustomed to are flags and murals that line the streets; these include the Union Jack (red, white & blue), the Northern Ireland flag, and numerous other flags that represent the Orange Order, local football clubs and various Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the UVF, UDA and UFF.  In West Belfast, which is predominantly Catholic, their streets are decorated with the Irish flag and murals honouring the IRA/Provisional IRA, the Gaelic language, and other images that commemorate events in the history of the country that negatively impacted the Irish community.  Seeing these, one has to wonder whether or not we let images define us and speak for us. Do we really need to wear a cross to identify us as Christians, or likewise the Star of David to identify us as Jews? Do we really need to fly a flag to feel British or Irish? Or the Confederate flag to feel Southern pride? These flags and murals act as security blankets marking territories and properties, giving power just by being present in the public; they acknowledge that there are still deep-seeded sectarian roots that are dragging out the peace process, both parties unwilling to forgive but never forget.  So once these inanimate objects become more dangerous than our actions, isn’t it time to let go of them?  And when these symbols become disconnected from their actual intended meanings, are we willing to move on from them?


The YAV house cross used for worship on Mondays

Having been at my placements for two months, I’m teaching myself to understand that I won’t see many results of my volunteer work while I’m here.  I won’t see all of the murals in East Belfast change from paramilitary paintings to Titanic memorials overnight or see identities in Northern Ireland non-physically represented.  I won’t know tomorrow if the children I lead Bible club with on Wednesdays will grow up wanting to love Jesus, or love people from different backgrounds. Change takes time; prayers require patience.  I’m learning it’s important to be proactive, and present where/when/what/whoever I find myself with, but even more important to stop worrying about the outcome of the work I’ve been called to this year.  Be still and watch the leaves turn; Be still and trust God.

I leave you with the best phrase learned so far in my Irish class: Ná bí buartha! (Don’t be worried!)

xx Hillary