Deep Pockets

DSC_0944Dave writes about his experience of heading to his site for the first time:

I just finished up a week of in-country orientation in Johannesburg with eight other YAGM companions, and our fearless leader, Tessa and her family. On Friday [the 29th of August], all of us departed our separate ways to our new home communities across the country; I traveled to Thohoyandou (8 hours north-east by bus from Jo-Burg). For the first time on this journey I felt alone, vulnerable, nervous, afraid, and anxious all at the same time, traveling alone in this vast country. I should also note there were a couple of unknowns before arriving to Thohoyandou, for instance, I did not know whom I would be staying with this year until I would arrive.

There were many stops before my final destination, and at the Pretoria station I still had an open seat next to me. An elder South African woman asked if she could sit next to me, I said, “Yeah, of course!” in a nervous/quiet voice. She smiled and sat down. From the first second she sat down, my feeling of aloneness, vulnerability, nervousness, afraid, and anxiousness were evaporated from my body. Even though we barely spoke to each other, I felt a connection of compassion and protection from her. She kept her hands in her pockets the entire ride, unless she needed something. She would take out a new thing every time; there was money, her bus ticket, Chap Stick, her phone, and even a salt packet for her Wimpy Fries. But most importantly in her pocket was a security blanket of comfort for a newcomer to this part of the world and brought it out when I was clearly struggling. She showed me a bright true side of South Africa, and how welcoming, hospitable, and friendly this place really is. I hope to pass on this characterization throughout my year here in South Africa, and have Deep Pockets of compassion and accompaniment.



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.

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.


DSC01233As her year begins, Hannah shares what the YAGM year is all about:

A YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) year is a year that encompasses many things. First, it is a year of accompaniment, which the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) defines as: “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. In this walk, gifts, resources, and experiences are shared with mutual advice and admonition to deepen and expand our work within God’s mission.” Accompaniment is being in community with the people around you and allowing life to happen naturally. There is no leader and no follower, but we each are moving together through our journeys. Accompaniment can take all forms. You can accompany someone by having a conversation (ingxoxo in Zulu), going to church with them, laughing with them, crying with them, praying for them, or sending them letters. Each person who reads this is accompanying me on my journey. Everyone at home who sends me their love and support is accompanying me. And as a Young Adult in Global Mission I have agreed to live in accompaniment (solidarity, mutuality, and interdependence) with my community in South Africa. And, in all of this, Christ accompanies all of us on our journeys in life. As we walk, there is God our Parent walking beside us. As we weep, Jesus weeps with us. The Holy Spirit works alongside us as we go through life. This is accompaniment.

 A YAGM year is also a year of vulnerability. This year I will be making myself vulnerable to my community in South Africa, my fellow SA YAGMs, and to the world at large. In this vulnerability I may feel weak and unprotected, but it will give me so much more room to grow and feel genuine love and compassion for those around me. During orientation in Chicago we spoke about being a servant and becoming vulnerable in servanthood. It is one thing to serve others, but quite another to become a servant. Serving others still allows some measure of control (deciding who, when, where and how to serve), but becoming a servant eliminates that control and makes a person truly vulnerable in that embodied service.

Fourth, this is a year of simple living within a community.  As part of accompaniment I have agreed to live on a small stipend and have limited phone and internet access. I will budget with that stipend for everything that I will need, and I will live as a part of my community. Through a year of simple living I hope to learn what it is we really need to nourish our souls: a roof over our heads, an offer of food from a stranger, communion, compassion.

In this year I will be challenged to get outside of my comfort zone so that I can grow in mind, body, and spirit. Allowing myself to be challenged will help me grow in faith and better understand who I am. This is a year of discernment where I will learn more about myself and who I want to become through these challenges. I hope and pray to come out of this year having a better idea of what I could be both in my career as well as spiritually.

My YAGM year is a year of both learning and making mistakes. I want to look at the world with wonder and simply take in all that I can take in. I want to learn the languages that are spoken around me and the way people speak to one another. I want to learn the history of South Africa and the reasons for how we got to where we are today. I also know I will make mistakes along the way, which I cannot say will be easy for me. However, I will make mistakes and from those mistakes will learn how to better live in community and accompaniment with my neighbors.

Lastly, a YAGM year is a year of stories. There are stories that we tell and stories that we hear. We have stories of ourselves and we listen to stories of others and to God’s story. As these converge we have the story of us, and that is the most beautiful one of all. This year I hope to better understand this story of us and begin to learn how to tell it with joy, love, hope, peace, understanding, and thoughtfulness.