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)

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June 16 – Youth Day

10441327_10154285774145074_2456973897392330603_nLast week was Youth Day in South Africa. YAGM Alum Emily D. writes about her memories of being in Soweto, South Africa, on Youth Day in 2014.

June 16, 2015

One year ago, I was living in Soweto, South Africa. The organization I worked for, Diakonia AIDS Ministry, was holding an event that we had been working hard to plan for weeks. I was wearing a Morris Isaacson school uniform and marching through the streets of Central Western Jabavu. I was watching the youth I worked with sing songs, perform dances, and have a live debate. I was cooking kota and working in the kitchen. I was exploring a newly-opened museum in my neighborhood. I was taking pictures with friends and having the time of my life.

39 years ago today, however, was a different story. School children in Soweto were having laws forced upon them that made learning difficult, if not impossible. These same students were planning and executing a peaceful protest of these laws. Police were reacting to the protest in hurtful, intimidating, and deadly ways. People were upset, angry, and scared, but not defeated. The world was slowly starting to realize what was happening in South Africa as a result of Apartheid.

Now that I have been back in the United States for almost a year, I realize that my memory of June 16 in Soweto is seen through rose-colored glasses. For me, June 16 was a day to learn more about the history of my community and spend time with my friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Overall, I would call it a wonderful memory.

For many people, however, June 16 is a day to remember the heartache, pain, and suffering of that day in 1976. For many others, it may bring up memories of the apartheid era in general. Still, for others, this day may bring up feelings of pride and honor. June 16 means different things for different people.

Having grown up in a small town in Minnesota and not being born until about 15 years after the events of 1976, I cannot even fathom what the youth of that time were going through. I also cannot understand what June 16 means to a native Sowetan. Despite having lived in Soweto for a year, I know that I will never truly understand what June 16 is and what it stands for.

These feelings of not completely understanding June 16 are frustrating. I want to comprehend people’s feelings of hurt, pride, pain, and joy. I want to be able to articulate what Youth Day means for Soweto and South Africa — but I know I never will.

What I do understand is that June 16, 1976 is not only a day to be remembered and commemorated with a national holiday. It is a day to be mindful of and to learn from. It is a day to listen to stories and learn more from others around you.

For me, June 16 was, and still is, a day to celebrate the power of youth. It is also a day to remember the wonderful people I met in a South Africa. It is a day to think about my second home in Soweto and the history and culture that makes that community unique and vibrant. It is a day to appreciate people of all ages and their individual and collective capabilities. Finally, June 16 is a day to be thankful for those brave enough to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the cost.

Thank you, Soweto youth of 1976.

The Day that Changed Everything

Emily served in YAGM-Southern Africa during the 2013-2014 program year. Here is her reflection about the day that changed everything.

Leading up to December 5, 2013, I had spent the previous 3 months living in Soweto as a YAGM.

During those three months, I got acquainted with my new home. I figured out the taxi and bus system. I learned a little bit of Sesotho and isiZulu. I met amazing neighbors, coworkers, kids, and random people around the community.

However, I must be honest – the first few months as a YAGM can be really hard. Despite all of the great things that happened, those few months were also very difficult for me. At times, I felt like I may have been placed in the wrong community. I kept seeing Facebook and blog posts from other YAGMs about how great they were doing and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to become a true member of my community. I doubted myself and God for putting me there.

It seems strange to say, but December 5th, the day that Nelson Mandela passed away, stands out in my mind as the turning point in my YAGM year.

Despite the agonizing circumstances, the events surrounding Madiba’s death gave me a new outlook on Soweto, YAGM, and God’s plan for me.

By learning more about Mandela and Soweto, I was able to recognize and appreciate the culture and history that is ever-present in that area. I felt proud to be living in a community that fought so hard for freedom during Mandela’s life, and continues to strive for a better future to this day.

While traveling to Mandela’s memorial service, I met people who found time to offer help and guidance to a lost, foreign, stranger. While at the service, I was welcomed into a period of mourning, despite the fact that I had no level of understanding of what Madiba meant to my South African neighbors and friends.

I finally began to trust in the fact that God sent me to Soweto, South Africa, a place just far enough outside of my comfort zone, in order to learn and be shaped in astounding ways. God knew that I would be challenged, but made sure to surround me with history, culture, and, most importantly, people who would be there to show me the way and continually provide encouragement.

And finally, I witnessed Nelson Mandela’s values of love and respect being lived out by the most ordinary, yet absolutely outstanding, people.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for your life, your passion, and your lasting legacy.

Hamba kahle, Madiba.

video board display at Mandela's memorial

video board display at Mandela’s memorial

a building in Johannesburg, lit with a message for Madiba

a building in Johannesburg, lit with a message for Madiba

The Mandela Legacy, part ii

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Katie Justice served in YAGM in Southern Africa in 2012-2013. Below, she shares the impact of Nelson Mandela on her life:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  –Nelson Mandela

Hearing the news that Tata Mandela passed away on December 5th, I can honestly say it took me by suprise. I sort of thought it wouldnt because of the fact that he became really ill during my year in South Africa and was close to dying. Hearing that he had passed made me realize what a great human being he truly was and how there will never be another Nelson Mandela in our lifetime.

Madiba (as he was affectionately called by the people of South Africa) has always been an inspiration for me. His struggle to bring human and equal rights to all is one of the many qualities that I have admired about him. The quote above to me defines what God’s love in the world should look like when practiced. He also realized that for South Africa to move forward from the dark memories of Aparthied, forgiveness and reconciliation is the gateway for working together as a family.

The quote above always reminds me of the purpose that God has laid on my heart. Forgiveness, reconciliation and the struggle for equal rights for all is something I will continue to strive for and I hope to see achieved in my lifetime and, as Madiba said himself, if need be Im prepared to die for.

Tata Mandela, Thank you for continuing to inspire me and many others around the world. You have served your country well my friend. May you rest in peace and celebrate with Our Father Almighty in heaven.

The Mandela Legacy, part i

The YAGM program in Southern Africa is in its sixth year. All of the participants have been influenced by the work and witness of Nelson Mandela. Now with his death, a few alums share their reflections:

from Elise Anderson (YAGM in Southern Africa / MUD 2011-2012):

Nelson Mandela was a person I have had a great amount of respect for all of my life, my parents protested apartheid and they kept up with the events in South Africa. Hearing my parents talk about those things I never thought that I would spend a year of my life in that beautiful country. When I found out that South Africa is where I would spend my YAGM year I became more interested in the history and politics and the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It wasn’t until I was there and had lived among the people of South Africa that I truly started to understand what the books and documentaries were saying. The history was no longer just words on a page, it was emotional. I could relate stories I had heard and things I myself experienced to the history. Every conversation led to the past and to either how far South Africa had or hadn’t come since the end of apartheid. The country was covered with the scars of apartheid and many of the wounds left were still open, it truly felt hopeless at times. But, along with the scars there was also a feeling of love and healing and the hands that were responsible for that healing were Mandela’s. His face was everywhere, his name in every conversation, his spirit felt by all.

Mandela taught everyone in South Africa what it was to love, to forgive, but more importantly what it was to walk along side not just your friends, but your enemies. What he taught us all was the ultimate lesson in accompaniment. As YAGMs we focus on the idea of walking along those who we are hosted by. Not to lead, not to follow, but to work in a partnership of love and understanding. Is there a better example to follow than Nelson Mandela? His lessons in forgiveness and cooperation are what have always stuck with me and after living among the people of South Africa it is what I feel has stayed with them as well and continues to work in and through them. Nelson Mandela’s death is terribly sad but with death does not come darkness. The light that shined in Mandela will only burn brighter now. And we will continue to walk along with each other, until the great peace and understanding, for which Mandela was prepared to die for, is realized.

——–

from Nicole Holtz (YAGM in Southern Africa / MUD 2011-2012):

I remember learning about Nelson Mandela in school. He would be compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I saw him as a world leader, someone able to influence men and women of any color. He was a symbol of resilience, freedom, and forgiveness.

During my year living in Kimberley, South Africa I learned about the personal influence that Mandela had on my South African friends and family. Descriptions about Mandela didn’t just include, “he is the universal symbol for social justice” but also, “he helped free my grandparents and my parents. He freed me and all my people.”

Upon hearing of Mandela’s passing, my South African brother wrote, “Rest in peace Madiba, thank you for your immense contribution to my future.” While I was learning about Mandela in school, my South African brother thanks him for his very presence in higher education and the successful future he will most certainly have.

My prayer is that Mandela’s life continues to influence my own, freeing me from selfish and angry ways into a life of forgiveness, compassion, and understanding.

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.

Relationships: Ubuntu & the Red Thread

Katie (middle) enjoys her YAGM friends during her Close of Service Retreat (July 2013)

Katie (middle) enjoys her YAGM friends during her Close of Service Retreat (July 2013)

Katie served in South Africa in 2012-2013. She writes about her life since returning to the U.S.:

Since I have returned from South Africa, I have slowly getting back into prayer meditation and Bible study to feed my soul. I found an online website run by Jesuit monks in Ireland called Sacred Space. I have started doing a daily prayer that the website offers to help out with my prayer meditation and to process and unpack my life in SA. As I was doing my prayer today, this was part of my prayer:

” I exist in a web of relationships – links to nature, people, God. I trace out these links, giving thanks for the life that flows through them. Some links are twisted or broken: I may feel regret, anger, disappointment.I pray for the gift of acceptance and forgiveness.”

I can honestly tell you that this sums up my life not only in SA but here in the U.S. as well. I think of ubuntu which means I am who I am because of who we are and I also think of the red thread which comes from China which reminds us that we all connected in relationships.

I believe there are days and maybe not only days but a lot of life we forget that we all connected to each other not just to our family or friends but to people in our nation and throughout the world. If we took the time to meditate and realize how we are all connected to each other maybe then we could realize the suffering that happens to our brothers and sisters in the world also affects us.

The prayer that I also posted reminds me that relationship on not perfect. In fact it reminds me that it always has been broken and twisted and even though it is twisted and broken it still has beauty. This web of relationships also reminds me that God is at the center of this web.

Would it be too much to ask for us to actually think about how we are all connected to each other? If we took the time to see how we all connected to one another would we view the world differently than we do now? Would we realize that the suffering that happens to our brothers and sisters throughout the world also affects us? What about how we are connected to nature and the earth?

I also know that I am not perfect with this either and I know this will be a work in progress for me but as I remember how UBUNTU has affected me and how intentional community and relationships have been a part of my life before and after SA, I have come to appreciate how we are all connected. Not only to each other but to nature and God.