San Luis Valley Summer Internship Reflection
by Amber Oxley
Hi y’all! My name is Amber Oxley and I am the house steward of the St. Francis House in Dallas, Tx. I joined the Missional Wisdom community three years ago in this house. We’ve experienced transition and joyful ministry in the house with various residents since we began with the support of Lakewood United Methodist Church three years ago this August. Last summer, I was given an opportunity to serve in a pastoral internship in the Rocky Mountain Conference. It all happened so quickly, and the Missional Wisdom Foundation supported and helped me navigate the details of managing the house for the summer. Because the other resident is an international organ rock star, she left for the summer also to compete in Taiwan (she won!!). The Foundation and I “closed” the house for the summer, until our residents moved back in early August. I’m very grateful for journeying with them, and living in a great teaching and affirming community. They asked me to write about my time in the San Luis Valley of Colorado:
The San Luis Valley is an eclectic culmination of myth, history, and hospitable communities. I came to serve for about two months, between semesters at Perkins School of Theology, as an intern in a two-point charge and a co-director of a locally supported camp program. There is so much activity in the valley during the summer, though the residents would disagree—many residents retreat to summer cabins in the mountains, so social and ecclesial attendances reflect their absences. Despite this seasonal migration, the streets flood with participants for events and parades, children attend summer programs, and local committees continue to meet. Each town in the valley is a step into the past, with main streets which serve as the downtown squares, and more gardening/supply shops than anywhere else. My clergy mentor took me on a historical tour of the valley, where we met with locals and explored their sites. At the southern tip, the valley hosts a walking path with statues displaying the stations of the cross. The path leads up a mountain to a chapel, built on an extending plateau above the town. I always knew I was called to serve and live in rural America, and this summer reinforced my yearnings. I fell in love with these people and this slower, intentional atmosphere.
I was nervous, serving alone while still in seminary—I worried about preaching versus dictating an exegeted, cultural research essay; I worried about being too physically deviant and therefore off-putting to people; I faced anxiety about actually being able to do this thing called pastoral ministry. I quickly absolved all these concerns—serving and being present with the Monte Vista and Bowen Community congregations became second nature after a short period. I quickly found a supportive, and affirming spirit in this valley. The congregants affirmed my gifts and offered critical responses that I discern and apply—reminders to slow down when I get excited, attention to what the important events coming up are, etc. I have multiple facial piercings, and short dyed hair—and whether it was because I’m only an intern, or because they contained genuine excitement, only a few ever looked at me funny; instead, they embraced me, allowing me to explore for a summer with them through the text, and engaging in their culture/life-style as farmers, ranchers, proud generational family ties, and country-folk.
Their support encouraged me to challenge the warning I received from the re-appointed pastor: steer clear of certain topics like the bishop, and politics. And I discovered a startling response from the congregations—they wanted more. I challenged myself and them through presenting conversations I take for granted at seminary, particularly about liberation and feminist hermeneutics. They were hungry for difficult conversations and discussions which challenge previously presented narratives that are revealed as harmful and oppressive—I preached one Sunday of the liberation of Rebekah, and almost a dozen women approached me telling me how they desperately needed to hear that they have equal value, and valid voices.
Interning in the Valley presents various opportunities and adventures. The valley is soaked in a vast history surrounding the outskirts, as well as its fair share of myths—did you know there are valley frogs which bewitch the onlooker with an overwhelming desire to return to the valley? Yeah, there’s also a UFO tower in the north! Down south, they laud their oldest congregations, and church building. I thoroughly enjoyed my summer, and grateful for the time and exposure to serve in a region so diverse, open, and spectacular. I visited many of the parishioners during my summer with them. One woman and I had coffee every other morning. One older gentleman took me on a “soil check” run, where I became an amateur crop inspector—I can check potatoes for fungi. Others “kidnapped” me for the day to the mountains where we fished and talked (that was awful, I hate fishing), and watched a play in a local theater. These mountain/valley communities are so transparent—everyone knows everyone else, but does not dismiss the visitor or tourist. Oh! I haven’t even touched the nature environment—the sunsets across the mountains literally take your breath away! Gorgeous.
Serving here means serving with a chance to explore the text with communities desiring to engage with you, and each other, to learn about the gospel message: love God, love others. During my time here, some of my gifts became apparent, and I discovered other limitations. Like, Joel Osteen was far more popular out here than I anticipated, and I got backed into a corner during a conversation one Sunday…navigating that conversation was work of the Holy Spirit. This same parishioner who defended Osteen, disclosed her affirmation of the queer community in the church, “they’re people, I don’t understand the fuss.” Talk about whiplash. I couldn’t reconcile her logic, but I didn’t have to try. I received a summer of exploration and discernment regarding my gifts, and my call; I found a lovely pocket of hungry Christians, full of love and wisdom, and need encouragement.