I Am Because We Are

Soon after leaving her site in the Cape Town area, Jen wrote about the mark the year made upon her life:

It’s official, I’ve left Cape Town 😦

This year has been beautiful, it’s been a challenge, it’s been a mess, it’s been bigger and simpler and deeper than I ever could have imagined.

I am not the same.

People have walked into my life that have left their mark in a ways that I can barely put into words. The simple yet deeply real response I have is “thank you.” Thank you for accepting a lost American into your homes and hearts, thank you for laughing with me through the cross-cultural snafus and terribly cooked meals, thank you for letting me be witness to your lives.

Grace has truly carried me through this year. The grace of others through the ups and downs of accompaniment, grace for myself allowing my heart to feel deeply every bump in the road.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s of the beauty of community. I could never have made it through this journey alone. It’s been an adventure in itself learning to rely so much on others. The real beauty came in discovering just how powerful the love of a community can be in making us wiser, stronger, more vulnerable, more loving than we could ever have been on our own.

South Africans have a word that captures the heart of this idea, Ubuntu—“I am because we are.” It speaks to the truth that our humanity is dependent upon others to share it with, that the health of any individual is dependent upon the health of the community and vice versa. Stepping into this community so many months ago I had no idea how radically I would change. The unconditional, welcoming love of my family and others has given me the confidence to become more than I was—stronger, passionate, more open, vulnerable, rooted, loving. I became more because the quiet (yet sometimes sassy, outspoken) Ubuntu love of my community believed that I could.

Goodbye for now, Cape Town. Thank you for welcoming me, shaking up my life, and changing it for the better.

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10 Suggestions for Helping your Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) Return Home

Following is an excerpt from a blog post written in 2009 by the Mexico Country Coordinator for YAGM, Andrea Roske-Metcalfe (a YAGM alum herself).

10 Suggestions for Helping your Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) Return Home

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What as the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3.  Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days ina row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hid them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macy’s again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The rest of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

The Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe is finishing up her first call as Mexico Country Coordinator for the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program. While she and her family were far from their own re-entry process when she wrote this, they’ll return to the Twin Cities [Minnesota} in July 2013, so she is currently considering ways in which to take her own advice.

A Beautiful Vision

DSC_0427Inspired by an experience at one of her service sites, Taisha writes:

I saw the Father today. He was small, but strong. He was poor in the worldly sense. He was a father. His wife was dead, and he lived with his sons. As we pulled into his kraal, he was bathing his son in a plastic tub next to the house. His son was about my age. He was intellectually and physically disabled, so he was not able to wash himself. The father took his time washing his entire body with a cloth, then scrubbing with a stone, and then rinsing off. He washed with diligence until the son was truly clean. When finished with bathing, the father went inside and brought out lotion and soothed his son’s entire body.

I saw Jesus today. He washed his child, just as he washed the feet of his disciples.

I felt the Spirit today. It descended on a child of God and cared for his needs. It descended on his child watching the humble scene before her eyes.

I saw God today. The God I know washes us. He cleans every part of us and makes us whole. He gives us fresh life. He smooths us out when we have rough spots. He knows everything about us and cares deeply about us. I love that we have a Father who loves us so deeply, a Savior that taught us so much about how to serve, and a Spirit that lives within and guides us all of our days.

Here Is Our God

In the last week at his site, Kaleb reflects upon the last 10 months:

Kaleb in UmphumuloA voice says, “Cry out.” 

And I said, “What shall I cry?”
You who bring good tidings to Zion,
Go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
Lift up your voice with a shout,
Lift it up, do not be afraid;
Say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
– Isaiah 40

I have lived in Umphumulo for 10 months. For 10 months, this place and the people in it have been my daily life. For 10 months, I have been falling in love with this community. For 10 months, my soul has been stretched by the relationships that have embraced me here. For 10 months, I have been blessed beyond measure.

And now, in one week, I will leave.

I am overwhelmed, to say the least. I am terrified and excited and exhausted and inspired and confused and content and nervous and hopeful and so incredibly thankful. There’s so much to say, so much I need to express to the people all over the world who have been a part of this life-giving year. It’s like there’s a voice urging me to “Cry out!” And my over-full mind just doesn’t know how to say it all. What words could possibly convey the vibrancy, the graciousness, the utter fullness of a year like this? What language could hold my gratitude? “What shall I cry?”

Amidst all the confusion, there is one truth that has rooted me: The people of Umphumulo have become my family. It is normal in the Zulu language to call everyone by familiar names: baba (father), mama (mother), sisi (sister), mfowethu (brother). I have always loved this beautiful practice, but now I understand the deeper reality behind the words. Nowhere else have I experienced a conception of family as vast and inclusive as I have in Umphumulo. I truly do have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers here. I have love and grace abounding here. And it is not because of anything I have done to deserve it. It is because my family and neighbors in Umphumulo have allowed me to bear witness to their lives in all their beautiful and perplexing and mundane and glorious fullness. People like Sbo have been honest and vulnerable. People like Mvoto have the courage to cry and laugh and welcome me to be a part of it. People like Baba Mabaso have the grace to call me, with all my imperfections, by the names of brother and son. And by choosing to live alongside me every day, these people have given me the most precious gift they could offer: the gift of their stories.

For a brief time, our stories have intersected. Just as Ma Mabaso and Sno and Zamadelwa and Nzuzo are now a part of my story, our time together has become part of their unique stories as well. Despite all the barriers that threaten to separate us, we have walked together. And it is in the walking that our stories weave in and out of one another, transforming our difference into commonality.

The brief thread that has woven me into the fabric of Umphumulo is turning out to be stronger than I ever expected. I am heartbroken to think about leaving. I am terrified to discover what my story will look like without the interweaving of Sma and Akabongwe and Baba Nzama and so many others. What will I do with a year of beautiful and sorrowful and transformative stories? Since I can’t walk the same road as this community forever, since our roads diverge in one short week, I have a choice. I can keep this precious cargo to myself and mourn the briefness of a year. Or I can be open with the transformation I’ve received, open myself up enough to let these stories trickle out into every day.

I pray that I will choose the latter, that I will be genuine enough to live out the stories that have already become a part of who Kaleb is. My love for these people makes that the only honest choice.

And perhaps it is here that I find the most genuine answer to the overflowing gratitude in my heart. “What shall I cry?” I shall cry out the stories of this community, the stories that have woven us together and that give me the hope I desperately need. They are stories of strength in the face of challenge, acceptance in spite of differences, and grace that unites all of us as sisters and brothers who yearn together for reconciliation in our world. It is these stories that give language to this year. And it is by holding these stories with care and passing them on with hope that I can best express my deep gratitude.

Amidst the overwhelming flood of goodbyes, perhaps what I am called to do is just what the messenger in Isaiah needed to do. To lift up my voice, to refuse to remain silent, to pass on the story, to live out the gratitude, to be transformed by the welcome. To face my deep fear with a shout of the assurance, “Here is your God!” Because, after all, it is in the stories of Umphumulo that I have most clearly encountered God this year. Here, in their joys and sorrows and fears and hopes. Here, in the hands that have accepted me. Here, in the grace that has overlooked difference. Here, in the people who are no longer strangers but family. Here, in my family in the U.S. and all around the world who have upheld me. Here, in your own sacred stories as well…and the stories of your neighbors. Here, in the journey we share as sisters and brothers. Here is your God.

I have come to the end of my journey here, and I’m realizing that all along I have been constantly seeking and forever arriving at the most amazing yet most simple destination: home. It is a destination that is both miraculous and beautifully normal. I find myself amazed and yet not surprised at all. After all, what is more natural than feeling at home with your family? But what is more amazing than finding a family halfway around the world?

Here is my home. Here is my family. Here is our God.