Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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This section of the map marks our walk along Southern Avenue.

DC is a small city when you think about it. Just 68.3 square miles. It’s lovely diamond shape is easy to navigate. There are four separate quadrants with numbered and lettered streets (and state streets that cross diagonally). Thanks to the grid-like structure courtesy of city planner Pierre L’enfant, it’s easy to get around DC.

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The yellow pins mark all the boundary stones that exist along DC’s borders.

But after four years (this month!) since moving to DC, I realized that for all my adventures, there are still neighborhoods I have yet to explore. Sometimes I look at a metro map and think, “Have I been to that stop? What’s there?

This weekend, a like-minded friend organized a “DC Border Walk” to explore the southern edge of the city via its historic boundary stones. Quick history lesson: When Washington, D.C. was first built, city planners laid stone markers to signify where the edge of the city would be. Most of the markers are still there, although some have been destroyed. Some are on public ground, while others reside on residential property. Like a treasure hunt, finding these markers requires a sense of adventure, but it also provides the opportunity to see lesser-traveled neighborhoods.

On Saturday, we embarked on a 6-hour walk hike along Southern Avenue, starting at Capitol Heights and making our way southwest to very tip of DC at South Capitol Street. Just a few highlights from our (very hilly) urban hiking adventure:

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National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery: Located on the Maryland side of Capitol Heights, we stumbled upon the grounds of this Jewish cemetery en route to the first boundary stone.

Johnny Boy Carryout: At the recommendation of a colleague, we planned for a lunch break at Johnny Boy Carryout, where I had arguably the best BBQ chicken sandwich (the “hot” version of the BBQ sauce lived up to my expectations — and maybe then some!) Grateful I had some cooling cole slaw on the side!

Francis A. Gregory Library: We took a quick detour after lunch to find some shade, and a restroom, at the closest library. The Francis A. Gregory branch was redesigned just a few years ago, and boasts a stunning modern, light-filled design.

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church: Perhaps my highlight was meeting the rector of this local Episcopal church in the picturesque Hillcrest neighborhood. She spotted us walking and immediately introduced herself as a native Washingtonian. She was thrilled that we were out walking and learning more about our city, and we even got a personal invitation to Sunday’s service.

Hillcrest: If you thought gorgeous real estate only existed in Georgetown, think again. It’s amazing to see homes with such expansive grounds in the Hillcrest neighborhood. The Post calls it “Southeast’s answer to Northwest’s Cleveland Park” neighborhood. Fun fact: Hillcrest is also home to DC Mayor Vincent Gray.

Sometimes I think about how it easy it is get into a routine, and really only experience a sliver of what this city has to offer. It’s amazing the people you meet and conversations you can have when you decide to just go for a walk — even if it is 6 hours long!

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Five Days On Food Stamps

*Editor’s Note: To read about my food stamp challenge, including my daily meal journal and ways you can get involved in the fight to end hunger, click here.

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“If you had a limited amount of money, you’re going to spend on the cheapest calories you can get — and that’s processed foods.”  — A Place at the Table

There are two spectrums to the human condition: on the one end, we seek to decrease pain, increase pleasure: Buy another beer. Hit the snooze button. Bypass the panhandler. The other end is one of empathy, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This is harder, because it requires us to enter into the pain and suffering of another — to share in a friend’s tragedy, to weep for a loved one’s health. Empathy opens us up to things that we might otherwise choose to ignore.

I’ve found that every decision, every interaction puts me closer in one of those two directions.

Last month, I was in Los Angeles for the 2014 Justice Conference . During the film festival portion, I stepped out to lunch and bought a salad that I could eat while watching films. When I returned, the next film was A Place at the Table. I  quickly became absorbed in the stories of Americans living on food stamps. And just as quickly, I realized the irony of eating my $9 salad during that film.

You see, 47 million Americans (15 percent of the population) subsist on stamps, which comes out to $4, per person, per day. 

The issues of hunger and obesity are near and dear to my heart, both on a national and local scale: My previous employer worked to successfully re-authorize the Child Nutrition Act in 2010, which sought to establish USDA nutritional standards, and provide healthier school lunches. I also live in Southeast Washington, D.C., and serve in a neighborhood that is incredibly food-insecure:

This map shows the highest concentration of poverty and food deserts in Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of Metrotrends.org)

This map shows the highest concentration of poverty and food deserts in Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of Metrotrends.org)

  • Wards 7 and 8, which have the District’s highest poverty rates, also have the city’s highest obesity rates and are home to large “food deserts.”

  • Of the city’s 43 full-service grocery stores, only two are located in Ward 4, four in Ward 7, and three in Ward 8. By contrast, Ward 3 – the highest-income Ward – has eleven full-service stores.

A Place at the Table hit me hard. I could not imagine a diet lacking in fresh produce. I could not imagine having to rely on food stamps, soup kitchens or handouts. So I decided to try it: I would live on food stamps for five days.

My budget was $21.80, or $4.36 per day. As I shopped, and over the course of the week, I realized several inherent challenges to budgeting meals on food stamps:

  • Affordability and accessibility: Could I afford all the items I need for the week? Would the store have the items I need? For example, I was going to rely on bananas for my breakfast each day, but Safeway’s bananas were too green to eat. I opted for apples instead, but those were more expensive.
  • Quantity:  Would I have enough food to stay full throughout the week? How could I creatively make my food stretch? I found quickly that I had to repeat meals over and over again. That got old — really fast.

    Canned goods were a go-to item: cheap and high in protein.

    Canned goods were a go-to item: cheap and high in protein.

  • Nutritional:  Would I still be able to receive proper nutrients? Would I be able sustain myself and regular activities without feeling light-headed or lethargic? Most of my items were either processed food (turkey deli meat) or canned (beans, tomatoes). I tried to avoid over-exerting myself so I wouldn’t run out of energy.

To be sure, my five day experience is in no way a complete picture of living at the poverty line.  For one thing, I knew the end was in sight. I’m also grateful to have a stable job where I can afford rent, and indulge in a much more luxurious grocery budget.

But it’s hard to witness pain and suffering, and to remain silent. There is something about sharing that pain, though. I love this quote from a recently viral video on “empathy versus sympathy”:

“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” – Dr. Breñe Brown

I didn’t do the food stamp challenge as part of a church thing, or to make a political statement. I didn’t do it for fun, either (it’s not what I would deem the most enjoyable experience). I did it because I wanted to know the feeling of hunger — and to sit with that feeling for a period of time.

Simply put, I wanted to better understand.


What do you think? Could you take the Food Stamp Challenge? Find out how much you would have to live on.

Have another resource I should share? Leave it in the comments, and I’ll add it to my Food Insecurity pinboard

PS: There are some exciting innovations in the fight to end food insecurity, such as food packets in disaster relief zones overseas, and a mobile app to locate summer lunch programs in California.

PPS: Check out more resources and read my five-day food journal here.

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Christmas Traditions & New Kitchen Classics

Last month I think I spent more time in the kitchen than I did out of it. The Christmas season is filled with parties, potlucks and reunions with family and old friends.  I had a great time celebrating, and learned a few new recipes in the process.

My motto in the kitchen is: “the more flavor, the better!” but also And when it comes to potlucks, I try to provide an easy, creative dish that adds to the spread (Who wants a table of sweets, when you can add in something savory?!). So I now present to you a recipe for every holiday event:

The White Elephant Party: Mulled Wine & Oreo Bites

IMG_7436Mulled wine has quickly become “my” thing for Christmas parties the past few years. It’s been fun to (a) use the crockpot (because, why not?) and (b) experiment with different sliced citrus fruits for added flavor. I recommend using cabernet sauvignon (Giant had a sale on the Barefoot brand). Two bottles filled the crockpot and fed a party of about twenty. Tip: I used a cheesecloth this year, which helped to more easily remove the spices about an hour into the party. You don’t want your mulled wine to come off too strong!

The Oreo Bites were a bit outside my comfort zone, since I’m used to baking and cooking, as opposed to candies. But I enjoyed that it only involved three ingredients: cream cheese, mint Oreos and Hershey’s chocolate bar for melting and dipping. Just pop them in the fridge before serving. Tip: Use whipped cream cheese frosting instead of Philly cream cheese. It helps for a more smooth consistency. 

Christmas Dinner: Hearty Vegetable Lasagna.

My family normally does a ham for Christmas dinner, but this year my sister had to work (she’s a CNA). So instead, we opted for a simple meal: a hearty vegetable lasagna paired with texas toast (shhh, we didn’t even make a salad! I said simple, right?). Modification: I’d recommend two 9×9 pans in case you want to freeze one for later.

Home for the Holidays: Ginger Cookies.

For this recipe, I give full credit to my friend Rachelle, who shared about her Christmas Cookie Party via her blog. I loved her recipe for ginger cookies so much that I suggested making it when I came home. My dad and sister — both cinnamon lovers — absolutely adored this cookie. I think the biggest standout is that the texture reminded me of soft-bake style. Yum! Modification: Per Rachelle’s note, I also abstained from molasses and just used a bit of extra brown sugar. 

New Year’s Eve: Caprese Bites.

03fcafe4c934c11f444c6bddb637cbdfCaprese Bites are one of my favorite appetizers because they require little fuss, few ingredients, and look great on a plate. I’m also a big believer in making party food that’s easy to pick up and eat (no utensils required!). With mozzarella and tomato on right on a skewer, these are so easy to enjoy!

Happy New Year! The Last Chocolate Chip Banana Bread Recipe You’ll Ever Need. 

Hands down this is my go-to recipe that’s perfect for a “welcome to the neighborhood!” or “thanks for the sweet gesture!” or just “I need something delicious with my coffee.” I’ve been using this recipe for over three years now, and since Santa brought me loaf pans, I spent New Year’s Day making ten loaves. My house smelled amazing. Tip: Use bananas that have just peaked — it adds a nice sweetness and great texture to the batter.


In other kitchen news, Santa must have known I was in the market for some gadgets because he brought me a KitchenAid three-speed hand blender and my parents got me hooked up with a starter spice collection. Thanks, guys!

Want more ideas? Check out my favorite Pinterest boards: Party Hostess, Power Breakfast and Crockpot Creations.

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Field Notes On Transitioning

The cold has only just now arrived in Washington, D.C. Unlike my native Chicago, Washington, D.C. tends to be milder. So mild, in fact, that when a bit of white fluffy stuff lands in the nation’s capital, everyone panics.  Just a light sprinkling last week (all melted by noon) and the whole city got a snow day! Guess they could learn a thing or two from the Windy City.

So, it’s now been a good three-and-a-half months since I flipped my routine and surroundings. In the wake of so many transitions (new job, new neighborhood, new roommates), my blog went into hibernation mode. All of it, ultimately, has been good. I feel like I’ve been given some space to be by myself, to explore a part of town, to grow professionally. But change can also be disorienting and lonely at times.  That said, I thought I’d share some things that came into focus for me during this transitional period:

Mentors and friends are key. Intense change can bring with it a sense of instability, of inner turmoil. But it has given me the opportunity to see who I come to depend on — who I go to for advice. In a recent email to a mentor, I wrote: “I realized how lucky I am to have you in my life — guess it says something when I’ve come to you with a lot of the “big” questions, huh?”


One of my big transitions this fall was purchasing a bike! After three years of using DC’s bikeshare program, I decided it was time to own one. I’ve had a blast exploring the city on two wheels.

Time is precious. I say this not to sound self-important. But how I spend my time is a reflection of who and what I care about. Sometimes I don’t make the best decisions in this area, but I learn from it. Saying “no” is a muscle that needs to be used. Which leads to…


Rest is an art form; it is life-giving. I have taken more time to regularly enjoy time alone. Time to be spontaneous. “Alone time” is also coupled with loneliness. I think this is okay. In a world of constant stimuli, I think it’s important to know how this feels: to be quiet, to be bored, to be still. For someone like me — a bit Type A — the art of rest is still a work in progress. But it is extremely rewarding.

In the swirl of so many changes, one thing is constant. God is unchanging.  I think back to my last period of intense spiritual growth. One thing I remember is that in the midst of many changes for me. God uses these growth seasons to draw me closer to him. He loves me no matter what job I have, no matter where I live, no matter what happened yesterday, today and tomorrow — and that’s the kind of stability I can count on.

Posted in DCist, neighborhood, public transportation, young professional | 2 Comments

DC’s Very Own Gatsby Party

If the Smithsonian was attempting to reach a coveted demographic, indeed it did.

Friday night was #Smithsonianat8, billed as the “Smithsonian’s premier 21+ after-hours event featuring a unique mix of culture, art, history and science.” This event, the Night Garden Jazz Party, appealed to a Gatsy-loving, Prohibition-era, and very classy crowd.

This week’s event? What a steal! For $15,  you could enjoy the live band (Hot Club of DC) and 20s-style cocktails (with fun names like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Scofflaw”). If arts-and-crafts was your thing, what a great opportunity: my friend and I made glow-in-the-dark-painted mason jars, and painted paper moths, while a “moth-er” (yes, a real profession) from the Smithsonian staff showed us a moth from Southeast Asia. In another section of the garden we created boutineers, and a Smithsonian botanist gave us a tour of the “night gardens,” sharing the blooms that flourish in the twilight, including verbena and gardenia, both of which smelled lovely.

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A fun alternative to a sweaty, crowded bar? Yes. Classy? All the way.

What perfect combination for DC academic nerds and classy socialites. Bring it on, Smithsonian. Young professionals of DC will surely eat this up.

The next event, “Smithsonian Remix: New Spins on Archival Sounds” is Friday, November 18. 

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Book Giveaway: Faith Powered Profession

In my three short years in DC (they have FLOWN by), I’ve been blessed to connect with women who have mentored me in so many ways, whether professionally, spiritually — or in Elizabeth’s case, BOTH.

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Elizabeth Knox and I were paired up when I began leading a small group at church about two years ago. She was assigned my “coach” — someone to check in with me as I prepared to lead others. She helped answer questions, and also asked (sometimes tough) questions of me. Our conversations have always been enriching, high-energy and fun.

The relationship could have ended after X number of check ins, as required by church leadership. But it didn’t. As it happened, I moved into Elizabeth’s neighborhood, and for two years I continued to meet with Elizabeth, sometimes for coffee at the crack of dawn, and other times at the neighborhood pool where we’d chat-and-swim with kickboards (annoying all the “serious” swimmers, I’m sure).

During all of this, Elizabeth was writing her first book — on women in the workplace. At the time, I was brand-new to the working world, and I got to ask her all kinds of questions, and offer ideas of my own. So I was honored when she let me read her manuscript and offer input!Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 10.55.58 PM

As a Christian woman who has navigated the business world for many years, Elizabeth writes with a common-sense, thoughtful approach, answering the question of how to “combine a vibrant faith with a productive career.” I’m really excited about this book, and I’m even more excited for Elizabeth. What a neat gift to share with the world!

So now for the giveaway: I’m giving away TWO copies of Elizabeth’s book, Faith Powered Profession: A Woman’s Guide to Living with Faith and Values in the Workplace! Just shoot me an email at megbiallas@gmail with your name and mailing address, and then I’ll enter your names through random.org.

It’s that simple!

Related resources:
Elizabeth Knox Online 
The High Calling 
4Word Women
Institute for Faith, Work and Economics 
Center for Faith and Vocation (Shameless plug: located on the campus of Butler University, the CFV was where I had a ton of formational growth!)

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Blue Skies and Smelly Fish in Southwest DC

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Last weekend, I spent a lovely Saturday morning with a friend who recently moved to the Southwest Waterfront. Our adventure involved visiting the Maine Avenue Fish Market (known as “the Wharf” to locals). The Wharf is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the United States. Make sure you get the crab cake platter, and then you can sit on the dock and enjoy the view!

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Summer 2013, A Season of Change

This summer is one of new experiences; a season of change. I kicked off June with my first mission trip learning about human trafficking. In July, I began the housing search and landed in an accessible, vibrant neighborhood, close to church, friends and my mentoring program. This month, I will be starting a new job. (Are you exhausted yet? I am!)


It is with excitement that I announce I will be joining RAINN as Online Marketing Manager. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the United States, and created the first decentralized crisis hotline, circa 1994. In my new role, I will be managing RAINN’s online presence, shaping campaign strategy and creating multimedia products. (Of course, when you’re done reading this blog post, be sure to connect with RAINN on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google Plus.) Their work is crucial in shaping policy around sexual assault prevention and their hotline is key to providing victim assistance around the country. I am humbled to be part of that work.

It was nearly three-and-a-half years ago that I joined a small-but-mighty nonprofit focused on strengthening children, families and communities through public policy. My first step into the professional world has given me new insight into the great work that nonprofits are doing, and has instilled in me a desire to be part of that work. Washington, D.C. continues to be an inspiring playground in which I get to meet and network with talented and influential people. Each day brings me more gratitude than the one before.

Here’s to the start of a new season.

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[Cross-Post] Embracing a New Identity

[Editor’s note: This post was originally written for the aoneeight mission blog for National Community Church in Washington, D.C. You can read my pre-trip blog posts here and here]

“Why are you guys here again?”
“We are here because we want to spend time with you.”
“But why? I mean, don’t you know we are all just prostitutes?”
“That doesn’t matter. We don’t see you that way.”

Last month I was part of the mission team that learned about human trafficking and exploitation in the Southwestern part of the United States. The conversation above happened while working on a craft project with teenage girls at Streetlight USA, a restoration campus in Phoenix for trafficked children. The craft was fun and light-hearted, but out of nowhere, one of the girls asked us in a more serious tone, “Why are you guys here?”Our team leader, Circe, engaged with the young girl by denying her label as a prostitute, and encouraging her to see herself as full of worth and potential. In fact, many minors who are trafficked don’t see themselves as victims (even though they are). Many, like this young woman, cling to damaging labels and blame themselves for their circumstances.

In this particular activity, we encouraged the youth to create a “garden of my heart,” using different shapes to symbolize emotions, such as passion, joy and anger. After learning about the Streetlight philosophy from the staff, we made sure to incorporate the concepts of self-worth and positive images, as we taught them cultural dances, made ice cream sundaes and even during a slushy run to the nearby gas station.


Guests who visit Streetlight USA are invited to take home a painted rock as a memento. The rock is painted black to represent the darkness of the hearts of the girls when they arrive at Streetlight. However, the girls can paint colored designs over the black rock to symbolize their bright hope for the future.

One of my favorite rocks, which I took home to give to one of my supporters, showed several flowers with rain pouring down from the sky. On it, a resident had painted this simple phrase: “Room to grow.”

As children of God, we see how no matter how dark our hearts, God’s light is always upon us. We find our identity not in the label others give us, but in the identity we find in God

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:
The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

IMG_6294Just before we left Streetlight on our final day with the girls and staff, we added our name to their wall of volunteers, and included one of NCC’s core values: “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Our prayer upon departure was that the young women at Streetlight – past, present and future, would see themselves as bright and shining daughters of God.

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Confessions of a Short-Term Missions Skeptic

A Mission is a Movement from National Community Church on Vimeo.

I confess I had no intention of going on a mission trip this year. In fact, I was pretty determined to avoid the whole thing.


I highly recommend Brian Fikkert’s workshop “Helping without Hurting” and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.

Last year I read “When Helping Hurts” and it shifted my whole mindset about approaching poverty and missions work. Included in the book was a section on short term missions (STMs). The argument was that STMs all too often do more harm than good. In this post, I wanted to share about some of the negative myths I believed about short-term missions, and share why I decided to be part of my church’s trip to Phoenix and LA as we learn how to combat human trafficking.

I thought missions work was an all-or-nothing mentality. My picture of a missionary was someone who was making a huge commitment to live overseas. It always sounded very dramatic and self-sacrificial to me. While that’s not a bad thing, I think I also used that definition excuse myself from being part of the process. But I didn’t need to. As it turns out, everyone has a role to play in missions.  STMs can be a way to test the waters, or learn about a new issues that you can then learn more about back at home.

the-good-samaritan-2-b1297I thought STMs would be seen as a “vacation” or a tourist destination. Often, STMs are great for gaining initial awareness of an issue or helping put feet to the suffering in this world. But STMs can — and should — act as a catalyst for further, more concrete action. Our church now has small groups and ministries focused on AIDS and homelessness and human trafficking because of church members who participated in STMs to learn more about the issue. Sometimes, it takes a change of place and pace to gain a new perspectives. STMS can do that. The other day my friend Rachelle shared this fantastic quote from Martin Luther King, Jr:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

I thought human trafficking was just another “hot” issue, rather than something to address and abolish. In an ideal world, we should have more long-term missionaries than short-term. So yes, missions work should be sustainable. In fact, Justice Conference founder Ken Wytsma asks a good question in this video: “If social justice is a fad, will it fade away?”

As for trafficking, it may be trendy to talk about right now, but the truth is that is has been going on since the dawn of time. Right now there are more the 27 millions slaves in the world — many of them living in the “Land of the Free.” If that isn’t injustice, I don’t know what is. Trafficking and exploitation take many forms, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need stronger laws, more organizing at the state level, and better awareness of where our food and clothing comes from. Wytsma admits that trafficking may run its course as a “new” issue, but that justice is a cultural reality and value. Because of globalization, different issues around the world have been brought to our front door and our computer screens. “Justice [as a whole] is a deeper thing than say a particular cause [human trafficking],” Wytsma says.  “It is a cultural reality that will be here for awhile, and has a high chance of being passed on.”

It’s uncomfortable to ask people for money. But I’ve learned that missions isn’t really about asking people for money; it’s about inviting people to participate in the missions movement. Some people may not have the time to give to missions, but they can support those who go. God can also use opportunities to bring more people into his greater mission. 
So, as it turns out, I had the wrong idea about STMs. Everyone has a role within missions. They are a catalyst for change. They bring people together for a greater purpose.  As for my upcoming trip to Phoenix and Las Vegas, I’m excited about several things:
  • Partnering with a local church (in this case, the True ID ministry connected to Central Christian Church in Vegas)
  • Acting as “learners” on trafficking issues, and then applying what we learned to address the issue in Washington, D.C.
Check back here over the next month as I blog about my first mission trip with National Community Church to combat human trafficking and find out how you can help. Check out last week’s post “The Slave Next Door.”
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