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Working for justice takes countercultural commitment


Young Adult Volunteers practice living in change

By Selena Hilemon | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Cammie Coulter works at Green Opportunities in Asheville, North Carolina, a partner dedicated to training and supporting underemployed people, connecting them to sustainable employment and helping them thrive. Photo by Selena Hilemon

I’ve always been stubborn. My mother has a picture of me as a child, with arms crossed and a determined squint that sums up most of my childhood and possibly my adult personality. Difficult, resistant, overly critical — I’ve been called many things throughout my life. Maybe that’s why I’ve always enjoyed Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Throughout this piece, Berry eloquently encourages the reader to do things like: “… do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. … Ask the questions that have no answers.” Berry not only empowers us to be cantankerous, but indeed goes on to warn that if we are not, we are putting our individual and, ultimately, communal moral compass at risk. Finally, my “troublesome” traits are vindicated!

Berry’s perspective is, I believe, the gift of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program. When volunteers begin their year of service, these brave young adults take a bold detour from the ever-growing mound of sequential expectations and pressures (think high school, college, post-graduate degree, financially successful career timeline). Their motivation is not fueled by fear of the future, but instead by a deeper well of wisdom. Unlike generations before them, this generation has recognized that, to be fully educated and prepared for the future, they must include a serious course in how to be cantankerous and live in a countercultural paradigm. Driven to engage in the activity that does not make “sense,” they spend the year learning how to get to work and buy food while living an abundant life with less. They work in nonprofits, serving those the rest of the community has forgotten while witnessing the increasing workloads that put nonprofit staff at risk of burnout. They travel through areas of our cities that have been deemed “dangerous” or “bad” and make friends along the way. They choose this educational detour because they know that if the moral trajectory of our communities is ever going to shift, they must practice living in change, be educated to recognize change, and be able to hear the voices long silenced along the path of that collective moral compass.

The last passage of Berry’s poem reads, “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.” What the YAVs, especially those serving in Asheville, teach me every day is that charity has not been and will never be enough. Older generations happily uphold the myth of community change based on good people doing some good work in their “free time,” but these young people recognize the fallacy in this myth. What’s more, YAVs learn that if charity serves as a moral release valve through which those with privilege relieve their guilt, then it in fact does more harm than good as it stunts the creation of justice. These young people are complicating their education — their religious practice — and teach me the difference between charity and justice. They refuse to take the fastest path toward “success,” making time instead to practice the messy business of resurrection.

Selena Hilemon, YAV site coordinator in Asheville, North Carolina, is executive director of Hands and Feet of Asheville, a nonprofit that connects YAVs with partner organizations in the community for transformative mission service to inspire a lifetime of caring.

This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit

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