What is YAGM?

Evan with Auntie Tina (holding oranges) and Auntie Lorna, members of his community

Evan with Auntie Tina (holding oranges) and Auntie Lorna, members of his community

Recently, YAGM participant Evan C. was asked at a retreat if YAGM should be called a year of service. Here is a portion of his response:

“Should we call your YAGM year a year of service?”

This seems simple enough, a normal knee-jerk reaction would be to answer yes, but after only a short time of deep thought, I realized that in reality, it was much harder to put a name to what YAGM actually is. To call this experience a year of service seems to sell the program short of what is really happening around the globe.

The YAGM program could be called a year of learning. Our learning started back in April at our Discernment/Interview/Placement weekend (D.I.P.) when we were first taught about the programs model of accompaniment, more on this later. Each day I step out into the community, I am shown something new. I learn more about the Xhosa traditions in the areas that surround me, I learn more about the history of the Colored people and more about the Khoi people from whom some Colored people originate. I learn more every day about what it means to be a white male and how my privilege has sheltered me from many of the realities of real life.

To call the YAGM year a “year of learning,” would again, sell the program short. We are learning every day, but we are doing more than learning, we are experiencing. There are some things that we are seeing that cannot be put into words. At our orientation in Chicago, we even had an hour long session on how to communicate our journey to people back home. Though the session mostly spoke about different social media platforms and ways to write our newsletters, it also tried to help us all understand how to better share our journey, which for many will be misunderstood. So then, should we call this a year of experiencing? We are, after all, experiencing an entirely new world, one that looks drastically different than everything we have known back in the United States. We are experiencing the stories of many people who come from places we could never imagine. We are experiencing the life of people that the world has forgotten about and we are experiencing the roll that we play within their lives. We are also experiencing what it means to be a Christian in a global sense, especially in a program like Southern Africa that is tied so closely with the church.

“YAGM: A Year of Experiencing” doesn’t quite fit the bill either. We are experiencing things, but that sounds like we are just sitting by and watching these things take place, when, in fact, we are living amongst people in our communities and we are sharing our lives with them. So then, maybe we can call YAGM a year of sharing? One of the most powerful ways of communication is story telling. By sharing stories with someone, we can get to know them on a much deeper level. Story telling becomes an invitation to see who a person really is. It is an opportunity to hear where a person is coming from and to hear the life this person has lived. Sharing stories is a way to share culture with people as well. When I hear stories about a Zulu wedding and about the gifts that were presented to the bride and the groom, I get to hear about the culture around marriage in the Zulu tradition. When I share stories about how my dad loves to cook for thanksgiving, I get to share the tradition of celebrating an American holiday with my Zulu family.

“YAGM: A Year of Story Telling” also doesn’t quite seem to fit. It is part of the program, but that title somehow makes it seem like we are constantly drinking tea and eating biscuits while telling stories. We do quite a bit of that here in South Africa, but that’s not everything we do. We do actually work with these people and walk along with them on our journeys. We are accompanying these people in their everyday lives. So then, can we call this a year of accompaniment? That is after all what the YAGM program is modeling. Accompaniment is a wonderful word that carries with it the difficult task of defining what exactly it is. Accompaniment is so much about action that it is exceedingly difficult to define in words. The journey of walking side by side with someone and sharing your life, just as you are, while also listening to another person share their life is close to what accompaniment is.

“YAGM: A Year of Being.” Much of the early part of our year was learning how to just be alive. We had to unlearn the very American way of viewing each day as the opportunity to accomplish something, and learn that each day is the opportunity to live. We are given only so many days, so instead of trying to accomplish something all the time, why not just do what we love? If we spent each day doing something we loved, we would be much happier. I spend each day playing with kids, reading books, and learning more about a culture that is very different from my own. While we spend a lot of time just being instead of doing, that still doesn’t quite match up with what our year is all about. It is a large portion of the year, but not all of it.

YAGMs are considered missionaries, and with that title comes a heavy weight, especially here in Africa. Missionaries have, in the past, come to Africa and told people that they need to change in order to be accepted. The YAGM model attempts to change that idea of what we are as missionaries. We aren’t here to change people, we are here to understand people, to learn more about what is happening in these different corners of the world, and to see new ways in which God is working around the globe. In this way, our communities are serving us, because they are helping to teach us how to better serve our world.

So then, we are back to the original question, should YAGM be called a year of service? Yes, I think it should, but not because we are here to serve the people in our communities, but rather because we are learning how to serve our world through the love and the accompaniment of the people within our communities. Before I left for South Africa, I was so confident about what I had to offer this community. I have been playing music for over 20 years, I have extensive experience with youth ministry, I have outdoor ministry experience, I have ecumenical knowledge about the church, and I know quite a bit about South African history. I felt that I had a lot to offer to this community.

When I arrived in Port Elizabeth, I realized that very little of my experience actually mattered. I thought for sure I could play the music in church, but with almost all of the music here being learned by ear, there was very little I could do for services. The youth operates very differently from the United States, so while I know quite a bit about working with kids, I found that on my own I was completely useless. My knowledge of South African history served me only as far as being able to ask questions. I had read the history from one perspective, and not through the eyes of people who had actually lived it. Books can tell you only so much, the stories of a whole community can change everything you thought you knew.  That, for me, is the final piece of accompaniment. Listening louder than I speak and hearing what the world actually needs. If I come into a place and think that I know how to serve these people who are from a very different cultural background from me would be arrogant and doomed to fail. Coming in and listening to these people and hearing the stories and hearing what these people actually need has taught me how to better serve the world.

So, yes, YAGM should be called a year of service, but only because a year of “experience, learning, sharing, story-telling, getting your butt kicked every day, being, realizing you might have some things wrong, living, seeing the world, experiencing God in new ways, and loving” is a little too long to fit onto one small pamphlet. “YAGM: A Year of Service,” only gives a small taste of what the year actually has in store.

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Home is Where the Heart Is

“Home is where the heart is.”

“There’s no place like home ” from the Wizard of Oz

“Home is the place where, When you have to go there, They have to take you in.” Robert Frost

I live several thousand miles from the place I call home. I grew up in a suburban town just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a wonderful place called Bloomington. Though being in South Africa and living in Port Elizabeth is awesome and full of adventure, it’s still hard to be away from the place I call home. Almost daily I miss my friends from school, I miss my church and pastors back home, I miss my dads cooking and my moms hugs. I miss a lot of things, especially the fall time in Minnesota. The weather is perfect and the sights are beautiful. There is almost nothing on Earth that can beat the view of a Minnesota fall. It is even more beautiful when you are surrounded by friends and family who love and support you.

Though it is difficult to be this far from home, I am always reminded that “home is where the heart is.” This age old quote helps me to remember that I am far away from my house, but my home comes with me always. In Matthew 6: 19-21, part of the Sermon on the Mount of Olives, Jesus addresses where the home is, especially within the context of this quote. Jesus says “19) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20) But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21) For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This passage answers the typical follow up question of “where is home?” Home is where the heart is, there is no doubt about that, but we can decide where our heart is. If we place our trust in God, if we place our treasure and our worth in God, we are always home, no matter where we go. So why did I leave and go so far away from my house to find home? I will answer that question with an example from Star Wars. The adventure that finds our hero, Luke Skywalker, is very similar to the journey that a YAGM experiences. Though we have less space battles and fewer encounters with evil Sith lords, we YAGMS answered the same call that Luke did in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Luke is a young adult living on his home world of Tatooine, a desert planet that is home to nothing but moisture farms and dangerous criminals. Luke has big plans for his future, he would like to join the Imperial Academy and become a pilot in the Imperial Army. This seems like a completely normal life decision for Luke. He knows that he is meant for something more than his life as a moisture farmer, but he doesn’t know exactly what is in store for him.

Through a few chance encounters, finding a droid, almost getting killed by Tuskan Raiders, and being saved by a mysterious man named Ben, Luke is eventually whisked away to answer a call that brings him off world. While he is finally leaving his home, traveling a fair distance further than I did, Luke has his entire world turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew, everything he had planned, his entire life, was suddenly changed. He could never go back and be the same, he would be forever different.

Jesus called people out to the Sermon on the Mount of Olives outside of town, he pulled people away from their friends and family and their previous lives, and brought them to a new place. It was here that Jesus began his ministries and began changing the world. People had never heard the things that Jesus was saying before, and they had never heard anyone speak with such authority before. If Jesus had spoken to these people when they were in their homes, or in their communities, there is a good chance that nothing would have happened. Some people would have followed him, others wouldn’t have, but the sermon would not have had such a profound effect on the people who heard.

It took Luke leaving his home planet to realize his true potential, thankfully, I don’t have to go that far, but it is important for us to leave our houses and to leave the places we call home in order to find our true home. YAGM has called 85 different people just like me to leave their houses and find their true home. We may not encounter evil the same as Luke, and I probably wont get to pilot and X-Wing fighter to destroy and enemies military base, but we have been called out by Jesus to be changed. We have been called out by Jesus to bring change to the world we know. We have all left our houses to hear what it is that Jesus is trying to tell us. Luke found his home as a Jedi Knight within the force, I have found my true home within Jesus, who brought me out to see his world and to be forever changed.

by Evan, 2016-2017

Dear YAGM Volunteers….

Dear YAGM volunteers,

I have a few thoughts about reading.

I read a lot before my YAGM year. To give you a ballpark, I definitely watched Netflix more than I read, but I have paid over $300 in library fines over the course of my life. $500 if you count the textbook that I lost in high school. In college, I majored in English Literature, in large part so that my homework would be reading books. Turns out that my homework was also to write papers, but I focused less of my efforts on that pursuit. Maybe all of these things point to a character flaw rather than build a case for my commitment to the written word. Who’s to say?

Nevertheless, I was familiar with reading, I brought way too many books with me (Tessa has an incredible library! Save yourself!), and I thought that I understood how books could shape my life.

That being said, before stepping off the plane in Joburg, I had never read a book from the African continent. Not a single book. Not that I remember. I had smacked into many books about Africa, gross reductions which lent themselves more readily to grasping colonization’s destructive power than to a meaningful understanding of how life can look on the vast and varied African continent.

As I spent time with wide eyes in my community and around the country, I came to see that travel books perform a similar, if less violent, reduction. While claiming to package the essential South Africa, those books invariably brushed aside the community that held me so closely throughout my year. Those books did not include a photo of my four-year-old host brother and his six, newly-missing baby teeth on any Top Ten list. I assure you that he is far more beautiful than Table Mountain. You will certainly see many beautiful things.

Reading books helped me to discover hidden treasures in my country of service. The treasures were voices that I had never heard before. They were hidden because I had not been looking. While Cry, The Beloved Country is complicated and important, it was written by a white South African who knew little about the Coloured experience in his country. Zoë Wicomb’s You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town helped underline the damp edge of subtleties in my context. It’s helpful to read what wins book prizes alongside what is local and printed in far fewer copies.

My dear YAGMS, you are a blessed witness as you walk beside people who have been living their real lives long before you were a thought in their minds. So, too, are you blessed with books written by these people about their lives—books waiting for you in libraries upon you return, but perhaps in this time of your life, when you are humbled and vulnerable and living amongst the authors of these stories, perhaps there is no better time to read them. What a raw, wild gift.

So, I offer these humble suggestions as much as to you as to myself as I ride the Amtrak to Chicago and think about what it means to read as a form of active listening.

Here we go.

Read stories that name the river that runs close to your home. Let those stories help you with new and ancient ways of seeing.

Read books that use words from Tswana. Or Venda or Xhosa or Afrikaans or Zulu—a language that you hear from the people whose names you are learning. Be brave and try speaking these new words out loud.

Read something that uses words from a language that you seldom hear. Be reminded that these pieces that you have no chance in pronouncing represent immense worlds that you can never know.

Read books that help explain parts of your country about which you do not know what questions to ask.

Read an author whose name feels impossible to pronounce. Learn how to say that author’s name.

Read books that weren’t written with you in mind.

Read something that rests close to the heart of someone in your country group. Be reminded that each of us contains multitudes and your fellow volunteers are so worthy of a witness.

Talk to each other about what you’re reading when things feel too big. As you read, you are joining a community that begins with the volunteers who loved those books before you and circles wider into the human community who tell stories and who hear them. This is sacred, and you are so ready.

Taylor (Southern Africa 2015-2016)

What Words Could Hold

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Abby (2nd from right, front row) with fellow workers at a Lutheran center for children. These women were an important part of Abby’s community for the year.

Before leaving South Africa, YAGM participant Abby J. wrote the following reflection in her newsletter to supporters, family and friends:

What Words Could Hold

None, I’m afraid. Which changes the hope from telling these stories in their completion to humming them at best; a subtle vibration you can feel, a familiar melody tucked inside for interpretation. In 2014, when I transitioned home from living in Ghana [after a study abroad term], I struggled feeling so full; without a knowledge of how to organize it and what to do with it all. Two years later, a hundred moments fuller on the edge of leaving, I struggle feeling so charged; hopeful and seeking for where to direct this energy, sensitivity and love and how to keep it. Love for the simple, the differences, and the marginalized. YAGM were told this year would be our training for the life that shapes afterwards and the world waiting at home. I’m equipped yet unprepared but what a waste of time is it to wait for “ready.” What friend could be waiting to meet? What wisdom could be harboring to share? What voice could breach from your throat? Life could be claimed as yours? I don’t have any idea and there is that fear that these words are just words; lofty, polished, hopeful. Words can be rewritten and spell-checked. Life is your best shot at the first draft; authenticities often dirty, scratched and squeezing. So I don’t know what versions are coming… and there is something exciting about that (I, as a compulsive planner, am learning to treasuring this foreign mindset). Whatever is included ahead, there’s certain to be goodness, togetherness and the Greatest Great holding it all.

Former YAGM-Mexico Country Coordinator, Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, originally wrote these tips in 2009. It has become a popular post in the YAGM community and is shared again for all those getting ready to receive someone they care about back home in the U.S. These tips are used with permission.  

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 hide 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.

freedom day

On April 27th, South Africa celebrated Freedom Day. YAGM-SA participant Ryan wrote the following reflection, shared with permission:

today, april 27th, south africa celebrates freedom day. this day commemorates the first truly democratic election in 1994, in which all citizens of this country were permitted to vote. this moment was achieved through the anti-apartheid movement, spearheaded by numerous sectors of the marginalized community here, most notably, the african national congress (anc). on may 10th, nelson mandela was officially inaugurated as president of the newly free south africa, after a resounding victory that made waves worldwide.

this day carries a lot of weight for me, because of the opportunity i’ve had this year to get down with amazing people in conversation about what it meant to go out & vote, casting their support for nelson. though, many have argued that the anc of that time is not represented in this current collective of leaders, it’s still special to go back & reflect on all it took to get free.

but, freedom. i’m still sitting with what that word represents on a human level. see, what’s been most revealing to me this year is that, though this country is not under the oppressive hand of the nationalist government, many symptoms of that struggle still have space (joblessness, poverty, lacking healthcare & education, etc.). there’s work to be done to open this democracy up to folks who are still the below.

this, of course, brings me back home to the states & the work being undertaken, as part of the black liberation movement & the many movements amongst all people of color. there are so many parallels which allow me to, in a sarcastic way, marvel at the lengths that upholders of white supremacy culture have gone to historically protect a belief that their domination is a god given right. that has played out in the systems of oppression that you can find across the globe. i’ve come to see that the black liberation movement is global, in this i find my call to be afro-centric – it’s self-love in solidarity. furthermore, i’ve come to see that all movements in which people of color are demanding liberation are interconnected & i think that needs to be invoked more. both of these have undoubtedly been my biggest take-aways from this year.

so, to grant one freedom – is it to merely unchain or is it to fully liberate? there’s a difference & the difference has cost us lives, so precious & valuable to our evolution as humans. no matter what you deduct from current affairs, people are tired & it’s obvious that they are justified in the fatigue. so, people are fighting to get a piece of the pie that’s been promised & will keep doing so. this fight spans all across the african diaspora, the states, brazil, mexico, palestine, you name the rest. these people will get all free. what side of history will you be on?

The Body Is Not a Building

by Abby J.

Through the rocky roads, tight between small, tin homes, tucked in the hill overlooking the Schoemansdal Valley is Jeppes Reef Lutheran Church. It’s a single cement room, arranged with plastic chairs for 250 people. Instead of a bell in a tower, the beginnings of services are signaled by the songs of those who gather early. Sunday is 2-3 hours and Tuesday prayer group is 1 hour. I’ve been going early to assist with Sunday School. This month meant practices for the first ever Nativity play!

Our pastor, Reverend Pereira, oversees many churches so is only able to come every 2 months. The hidden blessing surfaces as united care. My host mom leads the congregation but everyone holds equal responsibility for the worship created. When the scripture is presented, anyone is welcome to walk up and read. During testimonies, all are invited to share. The children, youth and adult choirs perform each week though in times of transition, someone always begins a song, committing proudly to its melody until the rest quickly join in. It is neither an obligation nor a performance. Whether you need to dance, cry, kneel at the altar, speak in tongues, step out for a snack or come in late, nobody scorns. The children are not hushed but rather lay in the aisle listening or munching on popcorn; the older ones caring for the younger.

Perhaps we fear that ‘holiness’ is fragile. It must be kept clean, orderly and infused with tight tradition to be safe. Here, there is still incredible respect but it’s lived in. It has breath and authenticity. And ‘holy’ is what God paints a space where love is uninhibited and thankfulness is organic. This church is not cement; it’s a body indeed.