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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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.

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.

 

Christmas in South Africa

by Taylor W.

It has been three months in South Africa, three months since my first 12-hour Intercape bus ride from Joberg to Upington as I pulled closer to my new home. As my wide eyes took in the muted browns and greens of that dusty landscape, I felt prepared for a new season of openness in my life. No matter what I was expecting or what advice I had been given, South Africa was going to reveal itself in ways that were completely beyond my preconceptions. The bus pulled into Upington’s Intercape station, and I stepped into a period of wide newness and great dependency.

I am convinced that three months is inherently a weird amount of time, but ask me what six months feels like, and I will surely be singing the same tune. And while I thought that me titling this first chapter Be Open on a clean page and closing the book for three months had settled it, I have come slowly to reexamine that first chapter, this time with a bit more honesty. Including the previously unwritten subtitle, this first part now reads Be Open; Do Everything Right, and the World Will Bend to Your Will. Now, it takes up so much more of the page. It’s very inconvenient.

I absolutely want to honor the opening that has happened in me since arriving in Upington. It takes some fortitude to have life made completely new just as it takes fortitude to have the American that you’re graciously hosting present you with a dinner of essentially raw chicken.* With all of the opening, however, was this lurking expectation that I was going to make this year happen for myself, and that while, inevitably, days would feel unsettled and free-floating, with some determination, all of that could be smoothed away. I would excel in Afrikaans if I studied hard enough, and I would find my place here if I made enough of an effort. By Christmas, I kept telling myself. Three months is enough to find your footing.

Well, Geseende Kerswees, Christmas has finally arrived, and I am far less functional in Afrikaans than I would like to be. I do a bit (‘n bietjie) of studying each day (elke dag), but whenever I am feeling over-confident, the fast-talking, Afrikaans soap opera, Binnelanders, reminds me that I am still completely dependent on subtitles, both when viewing that show and in most daily interactions. People are still graciously bringing me along in so many ways. Last night, Auntie Charmaine brought me along to her huge family’s Christmas Eve celebration, and among the decorations was a sign that said, “The miracle of Christmas: We are never alone”.

And I haven’t been.

All along, I was harboring this conviction that if anything decent was going to happen here, I must be the one to make it happen by trying hard enough and by being good enough—that the ultimate responsibility for this year rests with me. This Christmas season, I am reminded that the beautiful and the grace-filled has not happened because I have earned it. This year is South Africa, my YAGM year, but this, too, is life, and when before has everything in my life made sense by Christmas? God operates outside of my arbitrary timelines. I can do only what I am able and trust the rest to other hands. The world is not here to bend to my will, and I’m slowly realizing, neither was the world I came from—a place that felt deceivingly more manageable.

Yesterday afternoon, my host mom Sissy called me into the living room and surprised me with a 3-foot Christmas tree, leaning against the couch. “Will you decorate it for us?” she asked, and her 3-year-old son Stanton and I went through the universal struggles of uncooperative lights and an untrustworthy tree-stand, trying to make it perfect. She arranged for an Aunty to bring that tree over to our house so that I felt more grounded during this sunny Christmastime. That felt like really blessed timing.

 

* My host mom Sissy very politely asked me “Is this how you people eat it?”, and I kept replying “Yes!”, thinking that she was commenting on my great breading techniques. I finally looked over and saw her very concerned face and the blood squirting out from her fork.

On Waiting

DSC01061The new YAGM-SA group is still in Chicago, waiting for all of their visas to be finalized. As they wait during this unexpected delay, Sarah writes about what she is experiencing and learning:

I’ve been anxious. I’ve been distressed. I’ve grown frustrated with waiting.

An update: We are still in Chicago. Due to a situation outside of anyone’s control, the visas for our group have hit several road blocks. Each has been handled in turn with as much patience and grace as possible, and all the items should be squared away now. We hope to be departing soon, but in reality, no one can say for certain when our departure date may be yet.

I think I’ve put a happy face on and dealt with our circumstances with a general air of positivity (most of the time). But below the surface, I’ve been letting it get to me. I told myself that acting like I was embracing this waiting period was good enough. But it didn’t make me feel any more satisfied or at peace with the circumstances. I settled into a confusing period of conflicting feelings and inner discord.

Then, today, my perspective and attitude was challenged in a beautiful way. Anna and I attended worship service at the seminary we’re staying at to see her friend Marissa preach. (She was wonderful, by the way.) Marissa preached on Mark 7:24-30, in which Jesus is annoyed by an interruption from a woman asking for him to heal her daughter and makes  what is usually interpreted as an unkind remark. But the succeeding conversation he has with the interrupting woman changes his worldview and the work that he is doing (Marissa, in all of her wisdom and seminary educated-ness could, and did, put it much more eloquently. But bear with me). Marissa went on to discuss how the interruptions that plague us, that annoy us, and that frustrate us, are often the interruptions we need; they are the interruptions that will give us the time, the words, or the insights we need to see clearly and proceed with wisdom.

She went on to make several more great points, but the message I needed to hear today was already echoing in my mind.

I’ve been living carelessly day to day like this waiting period is just a burden to bear before I depart on my YAGM year where I will live simply, intentionally, and mindfully, and will be open to learning from people and circumstance. But truthfully, this waiting period is the beginning of my YAGM year, fully a part of what I am setting forth to do and be, and the time to apply the principles that I am going to live by is already at hand.

God didn’t keep our visas from being processed in a timely manner. At least I don’t believe that. But God has the power to make something beautiful out of the situation at hand.

So today is the day that I challenge myself to turn my attitude around and to better appreciate the beautiful things God is doing with our waiting time in Chicago. Not just to pretend to appreciate it, but to really, fully and deeply, embrace the opportunities for learning and becoming. Below is a list of things I have to be thankful for in this period of waiting, in no particular order.

-A chance to witness fall, and see the beauty of the leaves changing and the landscape transforming before we go.

-The opportunity to get to know my YAGM South Africa cohorts on a deeper level and to become like brothers and sisters; laughing, chatting, cooking together, playing games, fighting, cuddling, storytelling, and the list goes on.

-Our time here being like an intro course to skills we’ll need in SA; we’ve already gained, for example, knowledge on budgeting, simple living, and how to cope with lots and lots of free time.

-The gift of extra time to spend making the most of things we took for granted and now realize will be more difficult to come by in the coming year: phone calls with loved ones, long walks after dark, a favorite food (tacos, in my case).

-Time to spend in gratitude for those who have helped us make it this far; writing thank you notes, letters, and emails to our supporters, and contemplating the network of love that sustains us.

-A lesson in how to be a humble receiver of hospitality; the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, our host in this interim period, has gone above and beyond in inviting us to use their facilities, encouraging us to join them at meals, and inviting us to worship and social events. Likewise, the network of YAGM alumni in Chicago has opened their arms to us as well, inviting us into their homes and offering to put together events and activities to keep us busy. We have been blessed to be hosted so lovingly.

-A beautiful opportunity to become familiar with Chicago, the city I now hope to move to in the near future. The time to explore the city and find my way around has proven to be a marvelous adventure. Since we are to be waiting somewhere, I’m glad to be waiting in Chicago.

-The blessing of becoming a part of new communities, be it our own YAGM SA community, the LSTC community as we bond with seminary students during their orientation, the Chicago Hyde Park community as we visit local shops and restaurants and get to know the neighborhood, or the community of unique and downright beautiful folks that ride the #55 bus and the red line train to downtown Chicago.

-The gift of patience, which we are all learning whether we want to or not.

It’s hard to let go of the way we hoped our journey would be. But I’m only beginning to realize that the interruptions ARE the journey, and that what I’m expecting to learn and experience in the year ahead is going to be constantly interrupted by what I’m actually meant to learn and experience. This is just the first of many interruptions that will shape my journey and, for that matter, me, in indispensable ways.