Doin’ the Dishes

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Rachel writes about doin’ the dishes:

One of the many blessings of being placed in host family is the daily occurrence of a shared evening meal.  My host sister does most of the cooking each night and although she does her best to teach me her ways, I mostly stay out of her way and let her work her magic.  I am used to shopping, cooking, and cleaning all on my own, so the relatively small amount of energy I have to put into these daily meals sometimes leaves me feeling a bit guilty.  (Especially knowing the effort that other SA YAGM put into each meal they eat!)

I have always despised doing the dishes; far too often letting them pile into the sink until I (or my poor roommates) couldn’t handle it anymore.  This is no longer the case…

I now gladly accept the role of dishwasher — partially as a way to ease my feelings of uselessness in the kitchen, and hopefully as a sign of gratitude for the meals that have been served to me.  I have come to love the time after meals, either in silence by myself or in conversation with another; hand-washing the dishes with a full and happy belly.

Hospitality is top notch in South Africa, and a sign of immediate thanks that I am often inclined to give rarely seems to be expected.  In my experiences, people give and share freely because they know that the gift will be returned to them in one way or another.  It seems to fit right into the Ubuntu attitude of being well in this world because we are in community with others.  Nobody keeps tabs or holds grudges about I owe you’s — people give joyfully and without hesitation.

Over the New Year, six of the other YAGM and I took a holiday away from our placement sites, and spent time together in Cape Town, SA.  We saw the sights, laughed a lot, and certainly did not help out with any dishes.  How interesting and humbling it was to jump into this week of privilege.  The time spent with my beloved YAGM was refreshing and rejuvenating, but also left me a little disheartened.  In our placement sites we are living so close to, if not directly in, the deep poverty of South Africa.  Spending a week much closer to the other extreme of the economic spectrum brought a new light to just how far South Africa (and the world) has to go before reaching equality.

I feel guilty, just as I sometimes do eating meals prepared so graciously for me.  So what do I DO with these feelings?  Mmm, not exactly sure yet.  But I know that I’ll keep doing the dishes, silently lifting up prayers of gratitude for what I have and for what others continue to bless me with.

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You Can’t Manage Conversion

Kaleb reflects about expectations and conversion:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”    Matthew 28:5-7

I’ve thought a lot about expectations during the past several months. This summer, before I left for South Africa, I persistently told myself to abandon my expectations for the year ahead. As much as I longed to know what was coming on the other side of that plane flight, I also knew that if I arrived with too many expectations, I would be setting myself up for a rough transition. Even during in-country orientation when solid details seemed to be finally falling into place, we were warned that things can change, that we shouldn’t be too attached to any one image of our host communities. In the midst of a monumental transition, we sought to embrace the uncertainty and to see the value of remaining open to surprise every single day. We were fighting hard against our expectations.

I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at this whole no-expectations business. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve hopped in someone’s car with pretty much no idea where we were going or why we were going there, just that it would be a valuable learning experience in the end. Every morning when I wake up, I rarely know exactly how I’ll be spending my time for the rest of the day. It all depends on who asks for my help, who I bump into on the road, who invites me to their home, and even whether or not it happens to rain that afternoon. While it sometimes leaves me feeling totally out of control, that’s probably exactly what my control-freak self needs right now. Abandoning expectations can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating.

But during the past month or so, I’ve begun to realize that giving up control is more complex than just abandoning the daily planner. I’ve really been struggling to put words to this discomfort, this yearning, this unanswered question that has been churning in my mind. But during our first YAGM SA retreat, Pastor Philip Knutson, a long-time representative of the ELCA in South Africa, offered a framework that has helped me begin to sort through this lesson-in-progress.

Working from a lifetime of missionary experience, Philip had an enormous wealth of wisdom and insight to share with the YAGM crew. But the phrase that has stuck with me the most is this: You can’t manage conversion.

I believe that, in many ways, the YAGM year is a time of conversion. Although the word “conversion” certainly carries some baggage, and although every young adult’s experience is ultimately unique, I think we all hope to be changed by our experiences this year. I’ve had lots of conversations with other YAGM about changing our perspectives on power and privilege, changing our lifestyles to be more simple and less focused on consumerism, changing the way we engage those of different culture and background, and changing the ways in which we see God at work in the world. We hope to be changed, to be molded, to be shaped by our brothers and sisters around the world and by our God. We are certainly not here to convert other people, but I for one sure hope that I undergo some conversion this year. In many ways, I am here to be changed, and one of my deepest fears is that I will come out of this year unchanged. Spending a year of life as a YAGM is too much of a privilege to miss that opportunity.

And so I’ve spent a great deal of energy and worry these past months trying to make sure I don’t miss out on the conversion this year has to offer. Some days, this yearning for change is a positive thing…it helps me push outside my comfort zone, and it encourages me to stay open to the lessons each day offers. But then other times it has become a big source of frustration. That day when I made 3000 copies in the diocese office didn’t seem very much like the conversion I had envisioned. I get angry at myself when I feel like my incredibly slow progress with the Zulu language is keeping me from really getting to know people in my community. I feel guilty when I take a bath with running, heated water, and I think to myself, “Am I really living in solidarity with my community when I know that many people in this area live without running water?” I get frustrated when I feel like I’m not learning “enough” about the history of South Africa. I daily ask myself, “Am I trying hard enough? Am I putting myself out there enough? Am I changing enough?” And every day, I struggle with trying to figure out where God is in all of this.

And so here I am. Trying to abandon my expectations, striving to live into the unknown opportunities of each day…and all the while grasping tight to a vision of conversion that I must somehow achieve if this year is to be “successful.” Sure, I can deal with not having my day scheduled down to the minute. But it is another thing entirely to realize that I cannot, no matter how hard I try, make myself change on my own terms. Who am I to say that making 3000 copies isn’t a learning experience? Who am I to say that my imperfect Zulu is a barrier rather than an opportunity? Can I really dictate exactly which lessons of simple living I’m going to learn this year? Is it really in my power to make my friends and neighbors tell me about their experiences with apartheid?  Can I really be the one to decide whether I’m living intentionally enough, whether I’ve changed enough, whether I’ve been converted enough? And, for goodness sake, who am I to determine where God is at work in all of this?

I can’t manage my conversion. Just like the women at the tomb, I showed up here and expected to find Jesus right where I thought he should be. “Here I am, show me Jesus,” I said. But, thank goodness, there was a voice—or in my case, many voices—that reminded me, “He is not here…He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.” Jesus does not fit into the box of my expectations. And the road to Galilee—the road of my conversion—does not follow my well-mapped plan. As usual, God is messing with my expectations. Even the way I think about change is changing.

And I’m certainly not in Galilee yet. Every single day, I find in myself the impulse to hold on tightly to control, to somehow force the change I think I need out of every day and every interaction. I too often assume that I know where I’m supposed to end up at the end of this year’s journey, that I know the person I am supposed to become.

It is in these moments that Jesus meets me, reminding me that the path of conversion is far from tidy, comfortable, and predictable. It is a daily journey to the tomb, a daily reminder that “he is not here; he has risen,” and a daily willingness to travel the road toward Galilee, to trust the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us to meet us along the way. To share the companionship of brothers and sisters who will often point us in surprising but meaningful directions. To trust the call to abandon control. And, against all expectations, to trust deeply that this journey is one of abundant conversion.

The Brave Little YAGM

Rachel is a Brave Little YAGM as she learns to milk a cow during orientation.

Rachel is a Brave Little YAGM as she learns to milk a cow during orientation.

Rachel shares about being a Brave Little YAGM:

Since arriving in South Africa I’ve read many thought provoking, educational and inspiring books.  But none of them have moved me quite like “The Brave Little Fish,” a story read in the Grade 6 class I help out in.  In the story, a bored young fish tells his mother that he wants to leave the only stream he’s ever known to see what “lies beyond the mountains.”  He says:

“…I’m tired of swimming in circles.  I want to see the world; I want to see what’s happening elsewhere.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life swimming round and round in this spot.  I want to see if there’s another way to live in this world.  Once I have learned, I will come back and tell you about it.”

I was literally choked up in front of the entire Grade 6 as the teacher read this story.  It might as well be called, “The Brave Little YAGM.”  I wouldn’t go quite so far to say that life before S.A. was nothing more than swimming in circles, but the fish’s desire to ‘see if there’s another way’ resonated with me like crazy.  The teacher had the kids imagine ways that they can break away from their own ‘boring circles’.  They shared things like: be the first in their family to pass Matric (High School), not become pregnant as a teenager, and go to University and get a job to support their family.  Pretty inspiring and humbling as I discern my own vocation…

As I swim through the foreign seas of Mabopane, the people I meet along the way never fail to teach me what it means to be brave.   My friend often uses the phrase “Ke tlaba strong”…I’ll be strong.   She described it as the equivalent of when I say “I’m fine,” but am actually not fine at all. Since learning the phrase, I’ve noticed that the teachers at the crèche say “O tlaba strong” …you’ll be strong… when kids fall and scrape their knees and such.  In either form of this phrase, there is no choosing whether or not you’re going to be strong and courageous.  Even if you don’t want to be, you just WILL be.  I mentioned to one of the crèche teachers how tough I’ve noticed all the kids are.  She responded, “Well, they must be.”

I don’t know how the story of the brave little fish ends, just as I don’t know how the story of the brave little YAGM will.  But I’m continually grateful for a community at home that sent me away to explore with such grace.  It’s a blessing to be a part of the beautiful things that God is already doing in Mabopane.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

One of the many ways Jen takes in the world is through her camera lens

One of the many ways Jen takes in the world is through her camera lens

Jen writes about expectations and Christmas in another part of the world:

It’s a scorching 34°, the sun is shining, summer is just heating up…perfect timing to take out the snowflake-covered Christmas decorations. Wait, what? Snowflakes? Snowmen? Picturesque cottages all nestled in snow and pine trees? With all this heat I doubt even a snow cone would last very long.

All I can say is I feel incredibly sorry for the poor man in a fur-lined Santa suit as I’m sweating in my shorts. He deserves and raise and an ice cream cone.

When I came halfway around the world I guess I expected things to be a lot more different. Don’t get me wrong, South Africa is incredibly unique and vibrant in its diverse cultures, long history, breath taking landscapes, and mix of languages. But no matter how far away it is, Westernization still plays a huge role in modern culture here. It can be seen in the music on the radio (the same I blasted this summer around CA), the hair extensions that look like smooth European hair, face bleach creams, and, yes, even the visions of Christmas. Pictures of snow and pine trees for the holiday sure didn’t originate here, that’s for sure. Oh, and I still haven’t heard anything about Kwanza.

While as Westerners we may not have planned for our culture to be broadcast around the world that doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening. There are always gains to be had from learning about other cultures, but what about when it is one-sided? We rarely see African movies/music/stories/photos (other than those of hungry children and safari animals). What is lost in the process?

There’s no way change what’s happening but we can make it more even—to take the effort to listen to what’s happening around the world, hear their stories, learn from their experiences.

Maybe it’s our turn to return the favor and simply pay attention.