From Belfast to Nashville: One YAV’s Journey of Faith
The Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin would not likely be a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today if she’d stayed in her homeland of Northern Ireland — and never found the Young Adult Volunteers (YAV) program.
“The YAV program saved my life,” she says. “I’d been working as a youth and community worker in Belfast. I had considered going into ordained ministry over there, but as a gay woman I would have had to keep part of myself secret. I chose not to do that. My relationship with my home Presbyterian church broke down, and I was angry.”
Same-sex married couples are not allowed to be members of McFaul-Erwin’s home church in Larne, Northern Ireland. She calls trying to stay in the closet “a dark place to be.”
“I didn’t know how I would be able to do this work I felt called to do. But then through the YAV program I found a place where I was not only allowed in, but celebrated,” she says.
While looking for ways to serve in a faith community that welcomed her, McFaul-Erwin came across the program at Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The church was offering a year of service with area nonprofits through its Nashville Epiphany Project — and it was clear that the congregation embraced and welcomed every person.
“My heart soared to learn there are people in the church who would welcome me and where I could be myself and not hide myself,” she says. “This is when logic went out of the window and I let the Spirit take over.”
It’s not unheard of for young adults from overseas to take part in the YAV program, but it is unusual. McFaul-Erwin was directed to contact the PC(USA) offices in Louisville, where they encouraged her to “figure out my visa and they’d do the rest.”
Things moved quickly. Within a year, in 2011, she was in Nashville serving as a YAV for the Martha O’Bryan Center’s Top Floor Program. The program was based in one of the high schools with the lowest graduation rates. McFaul-Erwin says Top Floor is focused not only on graduating more students but helping them plan for what happens after high school — helping with college applications and more. She still keeps in touch with many of the students she served.
The YAV program is supported, in part, through the Pentecost Offering and, as it was for McFaul-Erwin, is often a path that leads to a lifetime of community service and leadership within the church.
“I’m proud that our denomination has a program so committed to that,” she says. “The YAV program helps young adults learn how to live out their faith — not just in church but embedded in the local community.”
After her year of YAV service ended, McFaul-Erwin returned to Northern Ireland and began exploring options for seminary. She eventually returned to Nashville, attending the Vanderbilt Divinity School while also managing a group home for adolescent boys. She also completed Clinical Pastoral Education, serving as a chaplain for women coping with drug and alcohol addiction.
She now lives in Long Island, New York, with her wife Erica, whom she married in 2015. The pair moved to the area in July 2019 so McFaul-Erwin could serve as the Community Outreach Pastor at Setauket Presbyterian Church on Long Island.
“The YAV program laid the foundation for being embedded in the church and the local community,” she says. “They gave me this feeling of freedom and opportunity to be my authentic self. To be authentic is so much at the heart of ministry, whether I’m preaching on a Sunday morning or visiting a local homeless shelter. To be able to be fully who I am has been an incredible gift.”
You can find additional resources and ways to support young people and their own faith journeys at pcusa.org/pentecost/.
Give to the Pentecost Offering to continue the valuable work of the Young Adult Volunteer Program.
This was originally published for Presbyterian News Service on May 12, 2020.
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