Michaela Esau is a Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) participant with the Tucson, Arizona, unit. This article was adapted from a blog entry on her website. MVS is a program of Mennonite Mission Network. Apply now for the 2023-24 MVS term, and join the neighborhood!
When I was a kid, I loved astronomy. I used to sit in the hot tub with my dad in the winters and hunt for constellations, admiring how it was possible that all these galaxies existed around us. I grew up a 15-minute drive from the Cosmosphere, a space museum that holds camps for kids every summer. I went one summer. We piloted a mission on one of the museum's simulators. We built little rockets, and we spun around in the multi-axis trainer.
I never liked science much, though. I was always too impatient for exact measurements, too spatially challenged to understand physics, too squeamish for biology. Astronomy was the one thing in science that I loved. I loved studying moon phases and learning how cold Mercury was or how many rings Saturn had. I loved trying to understand the expanse of the universe, something that felt incomprehensible, even though we have images and data at our fingertips.
One of the members of our MVS host church, Buddy, works at the University of Arizona's Mirror Lab. The lab constructs mirrors for telescopes — not little compact mirrors for backyard telescopes, but massive mirrors, eight meters wide, that find their way to the summits of mountains. Buddy took us on a tour of the lab last weekend, and most of the facts he shared made my head spin. The aluminum coating that covers the eight-meter glass circle is only 1,000 atoms thick. The mirrors are polished, so their slope curves to within nanometers of an ideal. I don't even know what a nanometer is. Buddy tells us, "It's not rocket science," but it almost exactly is.
I might not understand the physics of the world around me, but I have been enjoying the world. These past two weeks, I spent a lot of time outside. I went for a run by the dried-up Pantano Wash and made use of the bike path. I was surprised by how clean the path was, how expensive the jackets and bikes were that other people on the path had. I have been in Tucson for nearly five months, but I forget that it is a more economically diverse city than the neighborhoods where I live and work. When I ride the bus, the people I encounter push walkers draped in all of their belongings. My walk from my bus stop to work passes by a soup kitchen, right at opening time, and I watch crowds of people sipping soup out of Styrofoam cups. We drive on roads that ripple and bump, passing by litter and barred windows and tents of people. Yet, when I went running just 10 minutes east, I was surrounded by nice houses and clean roads. It was a completely different environment. Where you live can leave you blind to so much of the world. Your picture of reality is not always "real;" your vision isn't an eight-meter telescope mirror.
This week, our unit got to have dinner with the SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners, a program of Mission Network) volunteers who live in campers on the church's lot. The SOOPers asked us what our plans for the future are, but I don't have concrete ones. Then, the SOOPers shared what they thought they would do with their lives when they were in their 20s and what they ended up doing. Nobody has finished on the path they started. There are still new chapters, even when you're no longer a twenty-something year old, fresh out of school, learning how to pick the right sized windshield wiper blades and finding the cheapest groceries at Fry's. It is a nice reminder that I don't have to know everything now.
I want to know how light reflects, how many stars are in the galaxies, how diverse landscapes form and how diverse people come together. The question is: How can we know these things, and what can we do with the information?
I find myself caught at a crossroad, stuck between science and spirituality. Part of me believes that we can and should know all that is around us, even within nanometers of an ideal. And then, there is a part of me that doesn't think we can ever have precise certainty about what the world holds for us, that the knowledge of how the universe works is too holy and too big for people to discover. A massive telescope, created by the mirror lab, sits on the top of Mount Graham, a sacred place for the Apache people. Science and spirituality come head-to-head. There is a way of knowing that involves prayer, and there is a way of knowing that involves data, and I find both valid and desirable. Yet, they often contradict each other, and it is not easy to live within contradictions.
As I listened to the SOOPers this week, I found a space between two contradictions. I think storytelling, as a means of knowing, exists at a place between science and spirituality. It's an essential part of the Bible, and it's an essential part of research. We collect data from peoples' lived experiences, and we find examples of divine intervention within their life's journey. Alone, I may not be able to know all there is to know about how the world works, but I do think people are a lot like mirrors. We are hit by the stories of the people around us, and we reflect on that light and send it back out. For me, doing MVS is finding that mountain for my telescope, that new ground that allows me to have a different vantage point to reflect on new experiences.