Sugar Cane Shepherds

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura (on the right) hangs out with co-YAGM, Taisha, during a recent retreat

Laura reflects upon sugar cane farmers, shepherds, and God’s love for everyone:

Each week day morning and afternoon, my host father goes to a farm to lead a devotion for the farm workers. There are about ten different farms that he ministers to around the area I am living in. Each different farm is run and owned by white farmers who provide housing and wages for the black African farm workers and their families. The work they do depends on which growth phase the sugar cane is in. Most of the work is difficult physical labor including: planting, weeding, hoeing, cutting, burning, hauling, and packing onto the trucks.

Some days I wake up and go with my host father, and as much as I am not a “morning person” and love to sleep in, I have begun to look forward to these particular mornings. We leave our house at about half past five, with a coffee mug in hand. We drive through the foggy, mist covered dirt roads that my father has driven thousands of times. I however, cannot usually tell where we are going, as the vast fields of sugar cane are all I can see through each side window of the car. When we arrive, we greet the workers and I lead one of the isiZulu songs that my host siblings have taught me. My father then shares scripture and a message, and I end the devotion with a prayer which my father translates into isiZulu for the workers.

This past week the scripture for the devotion came from Luke 2:8-12:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

The farm workers are like the shepherds. They do not get recognition or praise for the work they do, but it is some of the most important work in the community. Without the harvest these workers do, other people in the sugar cane factories would not have work either. Therefore, I would argue that these beginning stages are the most important, because they are the start to the long process the cane goes through, ensuring jobs for so many South Africans. The work the farmers do is seen as the lowest of jobs by other Africans. However, these workers are committed day after day in order to provide for their families and communities.

And God comes to these people, just like he came to the shepherds. He comes to bring them good news, and says that this good news is for ALL people. Economic or social status does not matter when God sends His angels to share the joy of Jesus Christ. The shepherds hurry off to Bethlehem to witness this good news they have heard, and in Luke 2:20, they return back glorifying and praising God for the joy of the birth of Jesus Christ.

There is hope for each one of the farm workers I worship with during my time here. And there is hope for all people in South Africa, and in the world, because of the day when the angel came to the shepherds in the fields. In this Advent season, through  our struggles, we can live and wait in hope for the Christ who comes to ALL of us, regardless of our background.

I know Christmas will be different over here, much simpler than the past ones I have celebrated in Minnesota which have good intentions but are often filled with an over-abundance of food, unnecessary consumerism, and plenty to distract me from the reason we celebrate Christmas. I am anxious to see how the traditions, church services, meals, and family time over  here will reflect what we are truly celebrating, Christ’s birth. The first Christmas in Bethlehem was so very simple, and I am hopeful that Christmas here will be filled with that simple mindset of the one who comes to bring us everlasting joy.

Um, why are you in South Africa?

Taisha packs communion wafers made at her site

Taisha packs communion wafers made at her site

Taisha puts language to why she decided to spend the year with YAGM in South Africa:

This question has probably been in the mind of many as they have heard, one way or another,  that I was going to South Africa for a year. I have also been asking the same question. Here is my feeble attempt at how I got here and why I am here.

As of this past year, and pretty much the majority of my “senior” years, I have not had a clear grasp of a vocational calling. Most of my searching has been in the medical field, so I majored in Cell Biology & Neuroscience (Montana State’s fancy name for a premedical degree), which I graduated from in May. Many probably figured I would follow the straight and narrow right into medical school, as my high school class voted me “Most Likely to be Successful”, but I didn’t. Something was missing. I couldn’t make the commitment to at least eight more years of my life if I wasn’t completely sure. What do I count as success anyways? Is medical school a grasp at success? As of late, I have been realizing my definition is becoming more and more distant from the norms American society raised me to believe.

Therefore, if I was not continuing my education, what on earth was I going to do with my life? Something new. Somewhere new. But, who knew what that would be? One day while I was making small talk with the Lutheran campus ministry pastor, whose office just happened to be in the same building I lived in, my future came up.  I explained that I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation as I didn’t know if the commitment and lifestyle of a doctor blah blah…blah blah blah. After listening, pastors’ specialty, he told me I should look into Young Adults in Global Mission, as I am a Lutheran.

I, checked out the YAGM website and looked into the country programs they had available. After perusing, I knew that this could be a great option because, not only was the time commitment right, but, moreover, it was through the church that I trusted and focused more on being rather than doing. I was ready to ‘just be’ at the end of finishing the university years of ‘do do do’.  I wanted to serve – not succeed. Live – not produce. Attempt to not be selfish? I really don’t know if it is humanly possible, especially after living here about three months, but always worth striving for.

Many think I am running. Many think I am scared that I may not succeed in med school. Many think I am doing this for selfish reasons. Honestly, all of those thoughts are valid, and true in some way or another, but I hope that my main motive always remains true: I want to know and follow God. I want to experience and trust Him like never before, and it is happening – in the most unexpected ways.

Listen Deeply

DSC01020Jen writes about listening deeply in her new place:

Heerlikste Jesus, sterke Wereldheerser, koning op die hemeltroon, lof, dank en ere aan U, o Here, my hart se vreug mi siel se kroon….

You catch that? No? Me either. While I’m in the process of learning Afrikaans, everyday conversation is still way beyond me.

In case you were wondering, that was the first verse of the hymn “Beautiful Savior.” All of our church services are almost completely in Afrikaans. At first I was a little frustrated with the fact because it meant I had no idea what was going on for a good deal of the service. I have to take cues from everyone around me about when to stand up, sit down, sing, or when something else happens. Having no access to what was going on was tough until I began to listen to the messages behind the words.

Unplanned harmonies ring throughout the crowded chapel as people from all different walks of life come together to create one beautiful song of worship. I may not understand what the words mean but just listening to the sound of so many voices coming together as one speaks volumes about how God can bring people together in peace. The joy on people’s faces as they sing and greet one another speaks more than their words could say.

In some ways the language barrier has been a blessing.—it is forcing me to think with my heart instead of my head for once. Without the easiness of communication through language I have to listen deeply to intent rather than content to understand. Yet in slowing down enough to do so I feel like I am looking at church and life in a way I never have before: in paying attention to the very real joy and peace and community that church is meant to be all about.

The Great Thanksgiving

Kyle shares about his journey and Thanksgiving away from home:
Communities do many things: support, nurture, annoy, complicate, love. I’ve seen examples of all of these during my time here. On my little YAGM island in Soweto, the complications can loom larger than other positive aspects and make it hard to see the beauty all around me. Thankfully, our program had a retreat over Thanksgiving that motivates the title of this blog and brought ‘Gratitude’ to the front of my mind (as Rachel has beautifully tattooed on her arm). We had a wonderful time in Pietermaritzburg and Lesotho, but even before the retreat, Alex and Jen visited me in Soweto. Our three placements are wildly different, and I was blessed to have them around for a couple days to show them the sites and sounds of South Africa’s largest township. They reminded me of so many blessings I’ve had handed to me and friendships I’ve built around here, and I couldn’t help but smile at the wonder on their faces around every turn.
Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Kyle carves one of the Thanksgiving turkeys

Another thing that community impacts is control. When we were cooking our Thanksgiving meal, I worked really hard not to hover over everything that was happening in the kitchen. You can ask anyone at Tessa’s house though, I was definitely stressed. This was for two reasons. One, I really wanted everything to turn out delicious for our group and I found myself making stuffing and carving the turkey (two rather important things I’ve never done before). Secondly, and more surreptitiously, I realized how attached I am to the way things happen in my family for Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite part of the holidays. I love the way my family does Thanksgiving, and as I watched dishes being whipped up differently than I would have done them (while sweating over my potential failure), I was hurting that I couldn’t hold on to the comfort of normalcy. Then something amazing happened…everything turned out absolutely delicious. Nothing went wrong despite all my worrying. In fact, I played a much smaller role than my ego would like me to think. And even better, I got to taste life from other traditions, and everyone had something special to contribute. It’s impossible to compare to any other Thanksgiving I’ve had, but it really was a Great Thanksgiving. Not just from the awesome food, but the people, the conversation, the many gifts around, everything about it was incredibly special. And so I left with a new understanding of this year of service, new goals in mind, and deeper friendships than I had mere days ago.

A Day in the Life of a YAGM

Alex with the Youth Center in the background

Alex with the Youth Development Center in the background

Alex describes a typical day for him as he serves in a rural village in the northern part of South Africa:

At the break of dawn, at around 6:15am I’m up and at ‘em! Every morning I awake to the sound of the “cocka-doodle-doo!” of roosters that belong to my neighbors. Not to mention the great and colorful variety of birds, of which not two have the same chirps. What a tapestry of sound it is to be woken up by! I slowly gather myself to make coffee and sit down to write letters or  read a book to prepare for the day. Before long, after a couple cups of coffee and a few spoonfuls of strawberry yoghurt, muesli with raisins, and a banana, it is almost eight o’clock and I am in a frenzy to get to the crèche, the local daycare centre. Along the way to the crèche, I greet and am greeted by anyone and everyone in the village: children on their way to school, women walking their children to the crèche, people fetching water from the local water tanks, and elders taking their morning walk. I start with a friendly “Thobela (Formal hello)! Le kae(how are you)?”, the person will then respond with a smile and a “Ah, Thobela! Re gona (I am fine)! Le kae?”. Such a greeting is short and joy-filled. It always makes my morning just that much more bright. A short distance from the crèche, around eight am, I am greeted by the sounds and workings of my day ahead. Crying babies to be attended to, the screams and yells of children playing on equipment and, what especially makes the caffeine from my coffee seem a little more special, are the laughs and loud chatter from the women I work with at the crèche. What a joy! By one o’clock p.m., I am finished at the crèche and take the five-minute walk up the hill to my house. I’ll spend a  couple of hours around the house refilling my water bins, due to no running water in the village, cleaning the house or more reading and writing. After the time at the house I will go to the Youth Development Centre, and spend time playing games with  more kids. Children are around Masealama at all times of the day, and that has been such a joy. Our group of eight ELCA volunteers in South Africa for the year 2012-2013 work through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA). Specifically for my time in Masealama, this means any number of things. I have been spending time at church on Sundays, attending Youth League (council for youth members) meetings, and singing in the local church choir. I have also enjoyed singing in a youth church choir through the Turfloop parish, which is in the nearby town of Turfloop. Singing in the choir has been a great way to meet others my own age and with similar attitudes! Traveling to nearby cities, such as Polokwane and Tzaneen has been a great way for me to get to know the area and to become more culturally adjusted.