There’s Much to Celebrate

No mortar and pestle? That's fine. Use a rock for crushing spices.

No mortar and pestle? That’s fine. Use a rock to crush spices for the turkey.

Thanksgiving for me this year took on an entirely new form. If you would have asked me a year ago what Thanksgiving meant to me, my likely response would probably have consisted of something like time with family, food, and football. Which are all great things, and yes I am thankful for them, but those things mean so much more then the empty containers I use to put them in.

For the first time in my life I can honestly say that I was thankful for the food on the table yesterday. As a YAGM family we prepared an entire Thanksgiving feast together. It wasn’t grandma and mom slaving in the kitchen all day as I sat lazily in the living room watching football. It took all ten of our combined gifts and talents as a whole family to provide a meal for each other.

We found family in each other, and even maybe a new way to define what family really is. Not to say our families 8,000+ miles away weren’t in our thoughts or prayers, but for most if not all of us, we found a deep comfort in each other i’m not sure we were expecting to find.

It was a great reminder for me of how much we really truly have to be thankful for everyday. I desperately hope I can remember to thank God each and everyday for the things, people, and beauty he has brought into my life. And I don’t need a special day to remember where it all comes from in the first place. Happy Thanksgiving from South Africa!!

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On Accompaniment and Why It Is Important

DSC01235Rachel S. helps all of us better understand the role of a YAGM in a community:

A quote from Linda Crockett’s “The Deepest Wound” 

“Accompaniment goes beyond solidarity in that anyone who enters into it risks suffering the pain of those we would accompany…Accompaniment may include all of these actions [protest marches, pressing for changes in law, civil disobedience] but it does not necessarily share the assumption that we can fix, save, or change a situation or person by what we do. It calls for us to walk with those we accompany, forming relationships and sharing risks, joys, and lives. We enter into the world of the one who suffers with no assurance that we can change or fix anything…Accompaniment is based on hope despite evidence that there is little reason for optimism.”

For those of you who are unaware, accompaniment is YAGM’s buzz word. While my technical job title is missionary of the ELCA, I am not a traditional missionary. The job of the 60 YAGM scattered across the globe is to accompany – to walk with the people in our new communities, to share their sorrows, their victories, their lives for the short time we cross paths. We are not sent to fix, to change, or to rectify. We are sent to live, sent to grieve with our brothers and sisters, sent to find God in seemingly hopeless situations. We are sent to live, sent to dance with grandmothers and teetering toddlers, sent to witness God in all her splendor. We are sent to live, sent to pray with worried teenage girls, questioning church leaders, and God’s most faithful, sent to experience the entirety of God’s creation. We are sent to meet the human race. We are sent to listen to those who may feel voiceless, sent to shoulder some of the weight of impossible burdens if we can, and sent to be continually awed and humbled by our experiences within our new homes. We are sent to be filled – with the good and the bad.

There is pain in every corner of this world. Every single person carries their own suffering. To arrive as a stranger with no real understanding, no comprehension of those pains, with the intention of healing that hurt, is as destructive as the mind sets of the original colonizers. No matter how South African, how Zulu, I become, I will always be an outsider. As an outsider, I will never have the right answers for the pains I see in my community, in my new country. The only thing I can do is accompany. The only thing I can do is love and support and listen when and where I’m called. To try and fix what my community faces wouldn’t be faithful to the beautiful, challenging, complicated, messy reality of South Africa. It’s not easy. Some days it feels nearly impossible. But if doing so means that I can have an hour long conversation, across differences in language and culture, with my host mom, brother, and uncle about the increasingly high levels of teen pregnancy in this country; if doing so means that I get to fall in love with a community that is so wonderfully imperfect; if doing so means that I can learn about the remnants of the Apartheid era simply by being a white girl with black friends (which seems to be an oddity in my town), then my struggles and limitations seem insignificant. Instead, I’m faced with a world of possibilities, a latticework of hurts and pains and triumphs and laughter that reaches out and folds me into its tapestry. Each thread leads me to another friendship, heartbreak, or surprising plot twist, but every one is woven together into the exquisite narrative written by the one who really does have all the right answers.

When You Lose Faith, Listen for the Bells

Elise Anderson, an alum from YAGM in Southern Africa in 2011-2012 (MUD 4), writes about her faith journey:

Being the daughter of two Lutheran pastors does not leave you much of a choice in how you grow up. Like most PKs and other “church kids” (kids of council presidents, choir members, alter guild members and general awesome church people) my childhood was spent playing hide and go seek in the church basement, taking naps in the pews, and spending more time with your church family than your actual extended family. I was surrounded by theology all the time, but never felt smothered by it, my parents created a good balance and were generally great in that way. Where you were going to be on Sunday morning as well as your faith was never questioned. The people of the church weren’t just your faith community they were your faith family. It was an environment that I thrived in and that I loved, I knew my place, I was the “Pastor’s kid”, I was the constant acolyte, I was the Sunday School stand out, and I loved it. All the way through high school I didn’t waver, I never questioned my place. But, as us PKs and church kids also know, this doesn’t last. Once the time comes to go off to college and leave home, you also leave the rock that you rest your faith on, you leave your church. Suddenly you’re thrown the overwhelming task of finding a new church. This is seemingly impossible, you walk into a new church on Sunday and no one knows who you are and you selfishly think that they should. You have a Reese Witherspoon moment of “dont you know who I am?!? I’m the Pastor’s kid!”… but then you realize, of course, that the robed wonder in the pulpit is not, in fact, your mother or father, you will not be taking a nap in these pews, or be obligated to stay for 4 hours after everyone else has gone home and flip through the children’s bible to kill time while your parents are in council meetings. You can leave, like every other person there, because you, like everyone else are just another sheep in the flock. It is both liberating and terrifying… and lets not forget that in your mind, no pastor will ever live up to your pastor mom or pastor dad… so good luck with that. 

Some will turn to college ministry and spend their college years bonding with a super cool pastor who wears birkenstocks and doesn’t “robe up” for service and who is always around for those soul searching moments most of us have in college. Those years in university ministry feed a lot of young people’s faith and do a lot of good, but for some they don’t quite fit with the pastor’s style or the group of people that are the most active Lutheran students, this my friends, happened to me. I spent four years of college and two years of grad school absolutely avoiding the church. I wanted nothing to do with it. I had my faith in God, so why did it matter where I prayed or spent my Sunday mornings… why were my pastor parents freaking out about the fact that I had no church community??

So, feeling lost in almost every aspect of life I turned to change. I turned to YAGM. I’ll never forget my phone interview with Heidi and feeling absolutely terrified when she asked the question “so, can you tell me about your faith journey?!” How was I supposed to answer this?? I was the daughter of TWO pastors and I was basically a church dropout! No WAY was I getting into this program, I thought, I am a failure and a fake and they’ll see it. So I was honest… I told Heidi that I was currently uninvolved in the church and was struggling to find my place. Well, what I had clearly forgotten was that that was totally ok, that the church has room for the lost and the found. And for reasons unknown to me Heidi and her crew thought I deserved a place among the YAGMs.

Going to the DIP [Discernment, Interview, Placement] event was terrifying. There were people in our group who did daily devotions, volunteered to give the sermon on Sunday, to organize our church service, who taught Sunday school through college!! Who are these people?? That’s all I could think, the whole weekend was consumed by my inner struggle that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t good enough, that these other people were just on another level, a level that I was only on in my dreams. These are the people who my parents want me to be, I thought, and I’m not even close.

The faith journey continued through my year in South Africa and has only picked up steam  since I got back. Instead of being intimidated by the faithful awesomeness that was my fellow YAGM I became inspired by it. I’m going to find a church! I’m ready! I can do this! And I did…. I’ve found my way to an awesome church community and for the first time in YEARS I feel like I’m back where I belong. I even go to Sunday School! yeah, that’s right people…. gone are the days of sneaking in during the sermon and sneaking out during the last hymn. Those days are in the past.

During my inquirers class today, which was taught by the head pastor, I was blown away. This pastor, Pastor Tim, knows his stuff and I probably could have continued our conversation all day. But, what stuck with me the most was when he talked about the church being a faith family. And that when one person looses their faith they shouldn’t run from the church they should run towards it, because as a faith family we pick up the slack for each other, we believe for each other. I thought that was so beautiful and a concept I’ve never given much thought to. He talked about how a student of Martin Luther once asked him, “Luther, if I loose faith what should I do?” and Luther’s repsonse was “if you should ever loose faith all you need to do is listen for the bells, and when you hear them run towards them, because there you will find the faithful.”

And then it hit me, like a ton of bricks, when I went towards YAGM I went towards the bells. It was the community I needed to remind me of not just the awesomeness of the church but the awesomeness of my church, the ELCA. And with the echoes of the YAGM bells in my heart and mind I am walking towards a different faith community, one that I think, will keep me around for quite a while.