An Object of Ultimate Concern

We live in an unbelieving age
but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual…
an age that has domesticated despair
and learned to live with it happily.
There is something in us
that demands the redemptive act,
that demands that what falls
at least be offered the chance to be restored.
…what <modern man> has forgotten is the cost of it.
His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,
and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is an unlimited God
and one who has revealed himself specifically.
It is one who became man and rose from the dead.
It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities,
one known early on as a stumbling block.
There is no way to gloss over this specification
or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.
This God is the object of ultimate concern
and he has a name.

~Flannery O’Connor from a 1963 lecture published in Mystery and Manners

He has an unpronounceable name,
this God of specificity,
yet still He asks us to breathe it out
with each breath we take —
even if we don’t believe.

This God of specificity knows our name,
as He formed each one of us for a reason
and it is His voice calling out to us —
even when we aren’t listening.

He is worthy of our attention as
we are the object of His ultimate concern.

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The Shadow of the Mercy of Light

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past, and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is a part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you go there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness, and joy. By passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high, original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the strait way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come in among these trees you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
~Wendell Berry, “Sabbath 1985 V”

We who live in the six day world, walking the six day path to the narrow gate forget too quickly about the seventh day Sabbath. The meaning of our existence is not defined by how much we accomplish in the week, or how capable we are at carrying our burdens.

We are invited to walk through the narrow way, where worries and heavy loads cannot fit the opening.

Passing through shadow is part of reaching the light. The mercy of the shadow is — then we know light exists.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
Light of the world, ever shining, shining!

Hope in our pain and our dying. in our darkness,
there is Light, in our crying, there is Love,
in the noise of life imparting Peace that passes understanding.

Light beyond shadow, Joy beyond tears,
Love that is greater when darkest our fears;
deeper the Peace when the storm is around,
nearer the Hope to the lost who is found.
-Paul Wigmore

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Prayer at Dusk For a Weeping World

At dusk, everything blurs and softens.
From here out over the long valley,
the fields and hills pull up
the first slight sheets of evening,
as, over the next hour,
heavier, darker ones will follow.

Quieted roads, predictable deer
browsing in a neighbor’s field, another’s
herd of heifers, the kitchen lights
starting in many windows. On horseback
I take it in, neither visitor
nor intruder, but kin passing, closer
and closer to night, its cold streams
rising in the sugarbush and hollow.
Half-aloud, I say to the horse,
or myself, or whoever: let fire not come
to this house, nor that barn,
nor lightning strike the cattle.
Let dogs not gain the gravid doe, let the lights
of the rooms convey what they seem to.

And who is to say it is useless
or foolish to ride out in the falling light
alone, wishing, or praying,
for particular good to particular beings,
on one small road in a huge world?
The horse bears me along, like grace,

making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken. For up, out of
the inscrutable earth, have come my body
and the separate body of the mare:
flawed and aching and wronged. Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,

or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
the whole weeping body of the world?
~Linda McCarriston, "Riding Out at Evening"


photo by Emily Vander Haak

On this, my 68th birthday, I pray for the world as if I am carried by the grace of a horse who bears not only me but all burdens as well. I am a bird who embraces the air that lifts its wings, tenderly holding to its breast the weeping world.

I have seen much goodness in seven decades, sometimes through tears of sorrow; I hope to see much more before I’m done.

I am grateful, so very grateful to have lived these years learning how love can heal, how tears are dried, and how the only thing that lasts forever is God’s covenant to carry us with grace through it all.

photo by Brandon Dieleman
photo by Brandon Dieleman
video of juvenile bald eagle by Peter Tamminga (down the road from our farm)

Whilst the world is weeping, let us do our bit.
We have the time to sympathise, to listen and to sit.
No needless thoughts, of the things we cannot do.
But appreciate all the good bits and look at them anew.
 
The warmth and comfort of our homes, the food we have to eat.
The family and friends we have, although we cannot meet.
The village that we live in, and the community we share.
So precious to us right now, so sit and think and care.
 
Whilst the world is full of sadness, anxiety and pain,
It’s hard to imagine our lives ever carefree again.
But nothing lasts forever, the clouds will always clear.
Let’s heal the world with love, so the sunshine can appear.
~Sandra Rickman “Whilst the World is Weeping”

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Being a Needy Sheep

I am a sheep
and I like it
because the grass
I lie down in
feels good and the still
waters are restful and right
there if I’m thirsty
and though some valleys
are very chilly there is a long
rod that prods me so I
direct my hooves
the right way
though today
I’m trying hard
to sit at a table
because it’s expected
required really
and my enemies—
it turns out I have enemies—
are watching me eat and
spill my drink
but I don’t worry because
all my enemies do
is watch and I know
I’m safe if I will
just do my best
as I sit on this chair
that wobbles a bit
in the grass
on the side of a hill.
~Sally Fisher “Here in the Psalm” from Good Question

On the surface, a sheep’s life looks pretty easy – grazing in beautiful pastoral settings, blending in as a member of a flock, with the primary job being prolific in wool and lamb production.

Sounds pretty swell, all in all.

Yet it can be a hard-scrabble existence with not enough food or water in rocky terrain that is steep and tough to traverse. The wool coat can be incredibly burdensome and hooves can get too long or too short.

And the enemies: there are plenty of those just ready to pounce, eager to pick off the too young or too old or anyone just not paying attention. That’s why a Shepherd is so critical to our survival because they pay attention to the threats and the needs and defend the defenseless.

I’ve been labeled a sheep for unquestioningly following directions given to me, blending in, and appreciating the wisdom of the proper Shepherd. I don’t consider being considered a sheep an insult. I know I don’t know everything, nor am I capable of finding everything I need when I need it and I’m certainly not strong enough to fend off my worst enemies.

Though life often feels like I’m sitting in a wobbly chair at a table on uneven ground, I keep my balance. I am looking at a feast being readied for me at great risk to the shepherd. For that, I am immensely grateful as surely goodness and mercy will follow and sit alongside me, sharing this meal together forever.

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A Frayed and Nibbled Survivor

I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world,
and I am getting along.
I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too.
I am not washed and beautiful,
in control of a shining world in which everything fits,
but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck
I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe delicate air,
whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections,
but overwhelmingly in spite of them…”
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.
~Herman Melville from Moby Dick

We all bear chew marks, some fresher or deeper than others. Maybe they came during childhood from the constant nibbles of a competitive sibling, or from the intentionally painful wounds left by a bully at school or work. Some folks grew up in home environments that continually gnawed away at their self-confidence rather than feeding their sense of value.

Somehow – despite our eating whatever we find tasty and being eaten because we ourselves are tasty – most of us continue to get along, frayed and fragmented as we are, searching for an eventual mending of our wounds and filling of our empty spots.

Like the marks in a trunk where a missing limb used to be, or the notch holes left by the springboards loggers stood on to saw down an immense tree for lumber, our scars represent the price of being a living sacrifice. We persist because nothing we endure are as deep and wide as the scars that were accepted by the Word made Flesh on our behalf, nor as wondrous as the Love that oozed from them, nor as amazing as the grace that abounds to this day because of the promise spelled out by them. 

Our scars have become beautiful as a result.

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They Are No More…


    …mourning and great weeping,
weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.
from Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15

Newtown, CT December 2012
There are the fields we’ll walk across
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the fields we’ll walk across.

There are the houses we’ll walk toward
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the houses we’ll walk toward.

There are the faces we once kissed
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
There are the faces we once kissed.

Incredible how we laughed and cried
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we laughed and cried.

Incredible how we’ll meet again
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
Incredible how we’ll meet again.

No small hand will go unheld
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No small hand will go unheld.

No voice once heard is ever lost
In the snow lightly falling.
In the snow lightly falling,
No voice once heard is ever lost.

~Dick Allen “Solace”

In mourning for the families of Uvalde, Texas

There is no comfort for these families.
Their arms ache with emptiness,
their childrens’ beds and pillows cold tonight,
dolls and stuffed animals awaiting all night hugs
that will never come again.

There is no earthly consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving only dust behind,
which is our beginning
and our end.

Christ came to us
for times such as this,
born of the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit.
God bent down to
be cradled in barn dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
to conquer such evil as this –
the slaughter and massacre of innocents.

He became dust to be
like us
He began a mere speck in a womb
like us
His heart beat
like ours
breathing each breath
like ours
until a fearful fallen world
took His
and our breath
away.

He shines His Light through
the darkness of tragic deaths
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation,
when there is no comfort.

He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.

God wept as this happened yesterday.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is our ongoing choice,
a decision made from our beginning,
but we can choose to end it now.

Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts,
abandon our evil ways
and sin no more.

We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears finally dried,
our cells no longer just dust,
as we are glued together
by the word and breath and voice
of God forevermore.

the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

Where the Joy Came In

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.

I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.

Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
~Christian Wiman, “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing. 

Coming to Christianity is like color slowly aching into things, the world becoming brilliantly, abradingly alive. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Simone Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
~Christian Wiman “Gazing Into the Abyss”

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.

Like this old pink dogwood tree, I now lean over more,
I have a few bare branches with no leaves,
I have my share of broken limbs,
I have my share of blight and curl.

Yet each stage and transition of life has its own beauty: 
bursting forth with leaves and blooms
after a long winter of nakedness adorned
only by feathered friends destined to fly away.

Color has literally seeped in overnight,
resulting in a riot of joy.

Yet what matters most is what grows unseen,
underground, in a network that feeds and thrives
no matter what happens above ground,
steadfast roots of faith remain a reason to believe.

Nothing is to be taken for granted.  Nothing remains as it was.
Especially me. Oh, and especially me.

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Fast Falls the Eventide

Forgive me if I forget
with the birdsong and the day’s
last glow folding into the hands
of the trees, forgive me the few
syllables of the autumn crickets,
the year’s last firefly winking
like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,
if I forget the hour, if I forget
the day as the evening star
pours out its whiskey over the gravel
and asphalt I’ve walked
for years alone, if I startle
when you put your hand in mine,
if I wonder how long your light
has taken to reach me here.
~Jake Adam York “Abide”

Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
~Henry Lyte, from the hymn “Abide with Me”

A Peaceful Day on a Shaded Porch
As a couple dozen Holstein cows
Swaying their great udders march
To the barn behind this house.
We rock in the chairs, drinking tea,
Thinking of the ones who died,
Working this farm before you and me,
Singing, “Fast falls the eventide,”
Thinking of all they must do
Before the end and the deep abyss,
They took great comfort from this view
On just such a peaceful day as this.
     Which says: our time is short, no time to waste.
      Let us improve today before we are replaced.

~Rozel Hunt, “A Peaceful Day on a Shaded Porch.”

On my grayest days,
as transient as life can feel,
I am no more
than a raindrop
on the fingertip of a glass blade.

We walk hand in hand, alongside
~abiding~
in Him whose Light reaches out
even in the depths of our night.

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me
Abide with me, abide with me

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Acknowledging the Abyss

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.
~Vladimir Nabokov from Speak Memory

I think Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.

~Jane Kenyon from “Reading Aloud to My Father”

Great Grandma Emma, granddaughter Andrea, great-grandson Zealand – photo by Andrea Nipges

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley
Great-Grandma Elna and Noah

And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup, leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding fast…

Whatever I saw
I had already passed…
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)
~Jane Kenyon from “What It’s Like”

The farther I am down the road, everything familiar seems to be receding fast. What I see on my journey, I have already passed by as I watch it disappear into the horizon.

I too often mistake this world, this existence,  as the only light there is,  a mere beam of illumination in the surrounding night of eternity, the only relief from overwhelming darkness.  If we stand looking up from the bottom, we might erroneously assume we are the source of the light, we are all there is.

Yet looking at this world from a different perspective, gazing down into the abyss from above, it is clear the light does not come from below –it is from beyond us.

The newborn and the dying know this.  They signal their transition into and out of this world with their hands.  An infant holds tightly to whatever their fist finds,  grasping and clinging to not be lost to this darkness they have entered.  The dying instead loosen their grip on this world, reaching up and picking the air on their climb back to heaven.

We hold babies tightly so they won’t lose their way in the dark.  We loosen our grip on the dying to honor their outreach to the light that leads to something greater.

In the intervening years, we struggle in our blindness to climb out of the abyss to see vistas of great beauty and grace as we pass through the shadows of our lives.  Only then we acknowledge, with great calm and serenity, where we are headed.

Ben packaged in a paper bag by Grandpa Hank
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A Restless Sabbath Love

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us, and God.

~Stephen Paulus “The Old Church”

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.
~R.S. Thomas “The Chapel”

It’s just a boarded-up shack with a tower
Under the blazing summer sky
On a back road seldom traveled
Where the shadows of tall trees
Graze peacefully like a row of gallows…

The congregation may still be at prayer.
Farm folk from flyspecked photos
Standing in rows with their heads bowed
As if listening to your approaching steps.
So slow they are, you must be asking yourself
How come we are here one minute
And in the very next gone forever?
Try the locked door, then knock once.

High above you, there is the leaning spire
Still feeling the blow of the last storm.
And then the silence of the afternoon . . .
Even the unbeliever must feel its force.

~Charles Simic, from “Wooden Church” from The Voice at 3:00 A.M.

The church knelt heavy
above us as we attended Sunday School,
circled by age group and hunkered
on little wood folding chairs
where we gave our nickels, said
our verses, heard the stories, sang
the solid, swinging songs.

It could have been God above
in the pews, His restless love sifting
with dust from the joists. We little
seeds swelled in the stone cellar, bursting
to grow toward the light
.

Maybe it was that I liked how, upstairs, outside,
an avid sun stormed down, burning the sharp-
edged shadows back to their buildings, or
how the winter air knifed
after the dreamy basement.

Maybe the day we learned whatever
would have kept me believing
I was just watching light
poke from the high, small window
and tilt to the floor where I could make it
a gold strap on my shoe, wrap
my ankle, embrace
any part of me.
~Maureen Ash “Church Basement”

Mom,
You raised your hands while we sang this morning
like I’ve never known you to,
but I guess until recently I’ve never really known you in a church that let you feel alive.

Were you tired of hiding,
or just tired?

Thank you for letting yourself be seen.

Thank you, Lord, for her.
~Griffin Messer from “An Analysis of Worship Today”

There is so much wrong with churches overall,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith,
we who look odd and lean awry,
so keen to find flaws in one another
when we are cracked open and spilling with our own.

Yet what is right with the church is
who we pray to, why we sing and absorb the Word-
we are visible people joined together as a body
so bloodied, bruised, being healed
despite our thoroughly motley messiness.

Our Lord of Heaven and Earth
rains down His restless love upon our heads
no matter how humble a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.

We are simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands, to kneel and bow
in a house God calls His own.

The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.

The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.

And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.

The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
~Stephen Paulus

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