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.

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Take-Offs and Landings

Abby wrote this right before she departed from South Africa after a year of service:

I remember reading once when I was younger that take-offs and landings are the most dangerous parts of any flight- the time when you are most likely to crash.

As a nervous flier prone to motion sickness, I’ve never exactly been a fan of flying, but the absolute worst parts of any flights are take-offs and landings. It is during these times of rapidly changing altitude, of literally altering your place in this world and watching the ground shift beneath you, that I am most likely to feel sick (in South Africa, we’d say I might “bring up”). I grip the seat handles until my knuckles are white, take deep breaths, and pray incessantly.

This seems like an appropriate time to reflect on take-offs and landings, as I am posting this from the Johannesburg airport, about to leave South African soil. I am not only in the midst of literal take-offs and landings, but also in the midst of great changes in my life.

I have left Cape Town. This last year has been…well…. I don’t quite have sufficient words for this year. The English language fails me in trying to encompass the struggles, joys, growth, depth, breadth, and overwhelming opportunity of accompanying communities in Cape Town for 11 short months. I have learned more than I expected, struggled more than I would have guessed, and been loved more than I could have imagined.

I have taken off from my newfound home, not only in Bellville South, but in the hearts of people who welcomed an outsider into their midst with hospitality, grace, and mercy.

I have taken off, again, from my YAGM-SA family. The nine other YAGMs and the Leiseth family have been a support system unlike any other I have ever known.

I will soon be taking off from South Africa, a country that will forever set my heart aflame and a country I truly hope to return to someday.

I will land, soon enough, in Phoenix, Arizona. I will land into the arms of my family and friends and congregations who have supported me in a multitude of ways over the last year. I will land in my first home, but I will not be fully at home. I will never again experience the simplicity of having everyone I love in one place, because I now have loved ones all over the globe. I will never be fully settled in Arizona, because a part of my heart will always live on in Cape Town.

I will also be landing into the unknown. In what ways have things changed in America? What has happened in the lives of my loved ones? How will the experiences that have shaped me and remade me in this last year translate? What does the future hold?

I still don’t have all the answers. I am sitting in the muck and the mess of the unknown, gripping the seat handles of my life, taking deep breaths, and praying incessantly. There is a distinct possibility that there will be turbulence. I have to adjust to this new altitude- this new me, in a once-familiar place, with my heart spread out across the world. I am in the middle of take-offs and landings. It is my least favorite part of the journey.

I may not know what will happen, but I am not going to stay on the ground just because it is easier. I am going to take off and land, take off and land, again and again in this world.  I am going to try to remember to breathe and pray, try to loosen my grip on the handles, and try to treat others with the same grace and compassion that I have been shown through this journey. Thanks be to God.

YAGM Retreats

10006958_10153971062685074_92670092_nEmily explains why retreats are so vital during a YAGM year:

Alright, big revelation comin’ at ya. You might want to sit down.

Here it goes:

YAGM is hard sometimes.

Woah, right?

Ok, enough with the attempts to be witty. Seriously, though. YAGM is tough.

Yes, I get to live alongside wonderful people in a beautiful place for a year. Yes, I get to learn so many things about a new country and culture. Yes, I have seen elephants and sat on the beach.

However, I am also living so far from home that I actually have no idea how many miles really separate me from my family. I am living in an area where the first language isn’t English. I am forced to go outside of my comfort zone just to do something as simple as get groceries. I am forced to face the remnants of apartheid head-on whether I like it or not. I see the beauty of this country and its people, but I also see the oppression and heartache.

Sometimes, all of these things weigh on me and my spirits. There are times when I just want to vent and let it all out. Luckily, I’m not the only person called to live and serve here. My YAGM year came with a built-in set of best friends and shoulders to lean on.

I honestly don’t think I would survive this year without the love and support of my fellow YAGM-SA family. However, we are pretty spread out across the country and it can get pretty expensive to talk on the phone all the time. This is precisely why retreats are so important.

For those of you on Facebook, you may have seen my pictures from our first retreat in November as well as our most recent one last week. Those albums are full of gorgeous pictures of beaches, mountains, good food, sunsets, and more. To many, these pictures make it seem like the words “YAGM retreat” are just code for “fancy vacation.”

In one way, retreats could be considered a vacation. We leave our homes (sites), venture to unknown places, and take a bit of a “break” from our everyday lives. We meet up with great friends, have fun, and eat wonderful food. However, that is not the point or reason for these retreats.

YAGM retreats serve as a time of community, reflection, discussion, spiritual discernment, and more. We have incredible conversations about our place in YAGM, South Africa, the United States, and the world. We bask in the rapid-fire English conversation and make jokes that only other YAGMs would understand. Our hearts, spirits, and souls are rejuvenated and reawakened. Generally, we leave with a new sense of calling and excitement to get back to our sites and communities.

So, yes, we have spent time on the beach, hiking in the mountains, and seeing elephants. However, we have also dealt with questions like “What is the power and privilege that I carry with me and how does that affect my life back home and here in South Africa?” and “How do I even attempt to say good-bye to people who have helped shape my life and who have welcomed me into their lives?”.

Trust me, discussing questions like these aren’t easy and don’t exactly fit into my definition of a “vacation.” However, they are necessary conversations to have and I wouldn’t choose to have them with anyone other than my lovely YAGM-SA family.

In my experience, YAGM retreats have been life-giving, incredibly fun, challenging, definitely needed, and much, much more than a “fancy vacation.”

Emily’s Top 10

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily sums up much of the YAGM-experience in her list of 10 things:

I love making lists. On my desk, I currently have an old to-do list, a more up-to-date to-do list, a list of addresses, a list of people to whom I have sent postcards, and list of blog ideas. Sometimes, I will even make a to-do list filled with super easy things like “Eat breakfast” just so I can make a list and cross things off.

A couple of days ago, I started a list of the things I love about YAGM. While I have only shared my top 10 with you, there are approximately 732 other things I could add as well. 🙂

 10. YAGMs are constantly trying new foods.

I would have never thought that I would fall in love with a sandwich piled high with French fries, cheese, an egg, and two kinds of meat, but here I am, ordering kota (the sandwich I just described) almost every week. Many people are proud of me because I will try almost anything, as long as I’m not told exactly what it is until after I take the first bite. Food is not only a fun thing to try, but it is also an excellent way to connect with people and a community.

9. I can now appreciate simply “being.”

Yes, I am an American. Yes, I studied Business Finance and Accounting in college. Yes, I like to get stuff done and be super productive. Yes, I have finally realized that “getting stuff done” may not be the most important thing in life. Some of my favorite days have been “unproductive” in the American sense, but filled with wonderful conversation and time spent with others. Surprising, I know.

8. Being able to find comfort in the discomfort.

This is one that took me a long time to appreciate. Trust me, being a YAGM is usually anything but comfortable. I have been thrown into more uncomfortable situations than I can remember. However, I have noticed that those situations are the ones that I learn from and appreciate.

7. I have been forced out of my comfort zone.

To piggy-back off of the last point, YAGM has completely and totally forced me to go way outside of my comfort zone. Exhibit A: Small-town Minnesota girl (that’s me) living in the largest township in South Africa, with a population of over 1 million people (that’s Soweto). Enough said.

6. YAGM has taught me so much about myself.

Through all of the challenges, joys, random experiences, conversations, and simple everyday life, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I have learned more about how I see myself as a Christian, as a friend, as a white woman, as a privileged American, and especially as a part of the greater global community.

5. I have learned how to rely on others.

Throughout my whole life, I have been pretty independent. I have always been able to do things on my own without asking for much help. Well, if I tried to keep that same mindset as a YAGM, I probably would spend the whole year sitting in my room doing nothing. In order to simply live in a new country amongst a new community, asking for help is a must. To be honest, I was afraid to do so for the first couple of months. I got through, but since I have started asking for help, I have learned so much more than I ever could have imagined.

4. You can learn a new language.

The YAGM Southern Africa program is fairly unique in the fact that no language training is provided at the beginning of service. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 10 volunteers here, we are attempting to learn 6 different languages. Yep, 6! South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, so naturally a lot of languages are spoken. For me, personally, language has become simply fascinating since I moved here. In my little neighborhood, I have met people that speak Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, and Xhosa as their first language. While this could create major confusion, people are incredibly helpful in translating things to English when I need it, while also trying to teach me some of the native languages.

3. I have made so many new friends.

Between my friends in my host community and my fellow YAGMs, I feel almost overwhelmed by the love surrounding me. First of all, in my host community, I have fellow volunteers, other co-workers, neighbors, and children of all ages that I now call my friends. Although they all know I will leave in only a few short months, they have all welcomed me into their lives and I will be forever grateful. Second, my fellow YAGM-SA family is truly my second family. When we are together, the air is filled with laughter, discussion, discernment, tears (of joy and heartache), and so much love. I cannot imagine going through this experience without them and I know we will stay friends forever.

2. YAGM makes you think.

Woah. The thinking that I have done. Seriously, I didn’t know my brain could handle all of these thoughts! Not only has my experience made me think about simple things like new foods and languages, but my time here has made me think about social justice, race issues, gender equality, economic justice, and more. I joke sometimes that ignorance really is bliss, because sometimes it is hard and frustrating to wrestle with these thoughts. However, I am extremely grateful for experiences that bring up these difficult thoughts, because now I feel the need and passion to work on these issues alongside my global brothers and sisters.

1. I now feel truly connected to the global church.

Seeing what YAGM has done here in South Africa as well as the impact made by fellow YAGMs around the world is absolutely incredible. I feel blessed to be a part of the greater church, but I feel even more blessed to be a part of God’s greater kingdom here on earth. I have seen God in so many unexpected places, and I now know that our Lord’s presence is truly being felt around the world.

Is that Zulu or Sotho?

DSC01228

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Emily shares some of her challenges and vulnerabilities in learning a new language or tow:

The title of this post displays a question that I have asked more times than I can remember. From my experience so far (three weeks already – woah!!), most people in my area speak either Zulu or Sotho (pronounced Soo-too). However, I am still fairly slow at recognizing when either language is being spoken. For the most part, the people at DAM [Diaconia AIDS Ministry] speak Sotho, so most of the time I can just assume that is what I am listening to. At the mall today, however, a salesperson started a conversation with me and tried to teach me how to say “How may I help you?” This was when my “go-to question” came out. Turns out, she was teaching me Sotho, which was a relief for me because that is what most people have been trying to teach me. Rather than attempt to learn both Sotho and Zulu, I think that one new language is enough for me. 🙂

In my short time here, I have become partly fascinated and partly annoyed with languages.  I am fascinated because I have sat in on so many conversations of which I had no idea what was being discussed. There have been many times when I have been the only person who doesn’t speak the language at all. I have had people try to teach me words, then chuckle when I try to pronounce them. I am also frustrated because I have noticed that I am literally the only person I know here that only speaks one language. Every South African I have met speaks their mother tongue as well as English. The German volunteers I work with speak German and English. I only speak English.

To add to that frustration (and fascination), the English I grew up with is not the same as what is spoken here. I have created a list of a few examples, which is both amusing and confusing for me and others:

-It’s not “I have to go to the bathroom,” it’s “I have to use the toilet.”
-It’s not “over there,” it’s “that side.”
-It’s not “six thirty,” it’s “half-past six.”
-They aren’t “diapers,” they are “nappies.”
-They aren’t “french fries,” they are “chips.”
-It’s not “pop,” it’s “cold drink.”
-It’s not a “sweatshirt,” it’s a “jersey.”

These language differences, whether between American English and South African English or between English and Sotho, are both barriers and opportunities. This experience is giving me the opportunity to learn a new language (or two?!) as well as discover new ways of communicating.

I’m hoping that my time here will open my eyes and ears to the multitude of languages around me. I pray that I become more comfortable with using Sotho in conversation, and that people continue to be patient with me as I learn. I also hope and pray that people don’t get annoyed with me as I continually ask whether they are speaking Zulu or Sotho.

A YAGM Year

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.

How Does One Say Goodbye?

Country Coordinator, Tessa, recently wrote about her own goodbyes of a year ago and the upcoming goodbyes of the YAGM crew in South Africa:

When saying last goodbyes, Tessa's daughter tried hiding under her aunt's deck so as to stay.

When saying last goodbyes, Tessa’s daughter tried hiding under her aunt’s deck so as to stay.

A year ago, we were saying our last goodbye’s to family and friends. Friends hosted farewell parties for us so we could see lots of people at one time. We were frantically packing and storing remaining items. And we were finishing the really hard goodbyes to family. At each place, we each cried in our own ways and were filled with love and well-wishes. Oof. It was hard. It brings tears to my eyes just to remember.

I just got an email from one of the young adult volunteers. She is in the midst of her own goodbyes at her site. She will still be there for a few more weeks. And yet, soon it will be time for her to leave her community for the final time. She lamented to me tonight that it is so hard to leave. It is.

I am really thankful that these young adults are struggling with their last weeks. No, I’m not actually thankful they are struggling. But I’m thankful that they have become so immersed in their communities that they are finding it painful to prepare to leave. That is how it should be.

A big part of this Young Adults in Global Mission program is that it happens through relationships. Each young adult has formed many relationships. They now see South Africa in general and their communities in specific completely differently than when they arrived. They now understand issues in new ways. They see and understand God in new ways. Frankly, they see life differently than when they arrived. This is because of the real people that they have been sharing life with over the last year.

In a month, these beautiful young adults will be landing on their home soil or on their way there. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. This is not an easy journey. But thankfully, it is a journey of love.