What Words Could Hold

DSC01400

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.

Advertisements

Packing

DSC02605

Caity wrote this blog post in June as she was preparing to leave her community after nearly a year:

Packing. When I left the states, it was the only thing on my mind, and now it is pretty much an afterthought. Everything is just barely going to fit and I’m not so wrapped up in making decisions this time.

I was terrified that I was going to over pack and bring all of the wrong things. But I was pretty much perfect on about my packing (I’ll take my humble pie later). I didn’t really bring too much and the only thing I didn’t anticipate needing was bug spray (mosquitoes in the desert, who knew?). Each time I travel I get further proof that I can survive on a very simple packing list, but I have learned exactly how far you can go before it is under packing in a fashion forward culture.

But to be honest (and incredibly cliché) it is the non-tangibles that I am working so hard to pack.

My love of an entire new community, my newfound love of prayer and the goodbyes that may be forever. The hard won smiles from children, the friendships in spite of language barriers and the inside jokes between colleagues. My memories of bearing witness to a community that has been uniquely marginalized because of their race, of the pain that comes from years of discrimination, yet I can only carry these stories as an outsider. The stories I heard when people truly opened their souls to me and the days that were a struggle for me to be so vulnerable. All this has to fit somewhere in my heart’s luggage, and, just like my possessions, it all has to go home.

And then there are the things I am working on letting go.

The images of God that have crumbled for me this year. The preconceived notions I had about South Africa and about church. The many times when people assumed that as an American, my hands were not stained from the history and present of racism, and the moments afterward when I would relate segregation to apartheid, the present South Africa to the present United States. The anger at the year being over so soon, the disappointment with myself as a follower of Christ, and the shear pain of being away for important moments in my sending community. These are all working on sneaking their way into my luggage. Some of them will healthfully fade away and some of them will become scars.

The person who packed last August with the intention of becoming a fellow Christian to a new community is not the same person who is packing today. I learned a lot, through trial and error, about accompaniment and compassion, about walking in the places that are called “lowly.” I learned to pray in moments when there was nothing else within my control. I learned more about America that I could ever have imagined. And just as I am not the same person, America is not the same country. I am writing this on a day when Lutheran churches in America are mourning. Mourning nine people who were the victims of a hate crime driven by generations of racism and entitlement. If I can go across the world as a Christian, I cannot remain the same after all I have learned and still call myself a Christian in the United States.

Today I don’t have the answers and tomorrow I won’t either, but tomorrow the best I can do is start with myself, my passion for justice and my own experiences of inequality and privilege. Today I will mourn, but I know that tomorrow I have to be a different person.

End of the Year

Well, it has happened again. Another YAGM group has left. Watch for an upcoming post about the Close of Service Retreat. And please keep in your prayers Adwoa, Brett, Brittani, Caity, Dave, Emmeline, Hannah, John, and Mae Helen as they make their way back to their sending communities, friends, and family. Hambe Kahle (“go well”), friends.

A last group photo at the airport

A last group photo at the airport

 

 

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.

I Am Because We Are

Soon after leaving her site in the Cape Town area, Jen wrote about the mark the year made upon her life:

It’s official, I’ve left Cape Town 😦

This year has been beautiful, it’s been a challenge, it’s been a mess, it’s been bigger and simpler and deeper than I ever could have imagined.

I am not the same.

People have walked into my life that have left their mark in a ways that I can barely put into words. The simple yet deeply real response I have is “thank you.” Thank you for accepting a lost American into your homes and hearts, thank you for laughing with me through the cross-cultural snafus and terribly cooked meals, thank you for letting me be witness to your lives.

Grace has truly carried me through this year. The grace of others through the ups and downs of accompaniment, grace for myself allowing my heart to feel deeply every bump in the road.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s of the beauty of community. I could never have made it through this journey alone. It’s been an adventure in itself learning to rely so much on others. The real beauty came in discovering just how powerful the love of a community can be in making us wiser, stronger, more vulnerable, more loving than we could ever have been on our own.

South Africans have a word that captures the heart of this idea, Ubuntu—“I am because we are.” It speaks to the truth that our humanity is dependent upon others to share it with, that the health of any individual is dependent upon the health of the community and vice versa. Stepping into this community so many months ago I had no idea how radically I would change. The unconditional, welcoming love of my family and others has given me the confidence to become more than I was—stronger, passionate, more open, vulnerable, rooted, loving. I became more because the quiet (yet sometimes sassy, outspoken) Ubuntu love of my community believed that I could.

Goodbye for now, Cape Town. Thank you for welcoming me, shaking up my life, and changing it for the better.

Here Is Our God

In the last week at his site, Kaleb reflects upon the last 10 months:

Kaleb in UmphumuloA voice says, “Cry out.” 

And I said, “What shall I cry?”
You who bring good tidings to Zion,
Go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
Lift up your voice with a shout,
Lift it up, do not be afraid;
Say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
– Isaiah 40

I have lived in Umphumulo for 10 months. For 10 months, this place and the people in it have been my daily life. For 10 months, I have been falling in love with this community. For 10 months, my soul has been stretched by the relationships that have embraced me here. For 10 months, I have been blessed beyond measure.

And now, in one week, I will leave.

I am overwhelmed, to say the least. I am terrified and excited and exhausted and inspired and confused and content and nervous and hopeful and so incredibly thankful. There’s so much to say, so much I need to express to the people all over the world who have been a part of this life-giving year. It’s like there’s a voice urging me to “Cry out!” And my over-full mind just doesn’t know how to say it all. What words could possibly convey the vibrancy, the graciousness, the utter fullness of a year like this? What language could hold my gratitude? “What shall I cry?”

Amidst all the confusion, there is one truth that has rooted me: The people of Umphumulo have become my family. It is normal in the Zulu language to call everyone by familiar names: baba (father), mama (mother), sisi (sister), mfowethu (brother). I have always loved this beautiful practice, but now I understand the deeper reality behind the words. Nowhere else have I experienced a conception of family as vast and inclusive as I have in Umphumulo. I truly do have mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers here. I have love and grace abounding here. And it is not because of anything I have done to deserve it. It is because my family and neighbors in Umphumulo have allowed me to bear witness to their lives in all their beautiful and perplexing and mundane and glorious fullness. People like Sbo have been honest and vulnerable. People like Mvoto have the courage to cry and laugh and welcome me to be a part of it. People like Baba Mabaso have the grace to call me, with all my imperfections, by the names of brother and son. And by choosing to live alongside me every day, these people have given me the most precious gift they could offer: the gift of their stories.

For a brief time, our stories have intersected. Just as Ma Mabaso and Sno and Zamadelwa and Nzuzo are now a part of my story, our time together has become part of their unique stories as well. Despite all the barriers that threaten to separate us, we have walked together. And it is in the walking that our stories weave in and out of one another, transforming our difference into commonality.

The brief thread that has woven me into the fabric of Umphumulo is turning out to be stronger than I ever expected. I am heartbroken to think about leaving. I am terrified to discover what my story will look like without the interweaving of Sma and Akabongwe and Baba Nzama and so many others. What will I do with a year of beautiful and sorrowful and transformative stories? Since I can’t walk the same road as this community forever, since our roads diverge in one short week, I have a choice. I can keep this precious cargo to myself and mourn the briefness of a year. Or I can be open with the transformation I’ve received, open myself up enough to let these stories trickle out into every day.

I pray that I will choose the latter, that I will be genuine enough to live out the stories that have already become a part of who Kaleb is. My love for these people makes that the only honest choice.

And perhaps it is here that I find the most genuine answer to the overflowing gratitude in my heart. “What shall I cry?” I shall cry out the stories of this community, the stories that have woven us together and that give me the hope I desperately need. They are stories of strength in the face of challenge, acceptance in spite of differences, and grace that unites all of us as sisters and brothers who yearn together for reconciliation in our world. It is these stories that give language to this year. And it is by holding these stories with care and passing them on with hope that I can best express my deep gratitude.

Amidst the overwhelming flood of goodbyes, perhaps what I am called to do is just what the messenger in Isaiah needed to do. To lift up my voice, to refuse to remain silent, to pass on the story, to live out the gratitude, to be transformed by the welcome. To face my deep fear with a shout of the assurance, “Here is your God!” Because, after all, it is in the stories of Umphumulo that I have most clearly encountered God this year. Here, in their joys and sorrows and fears and hopes. Here, in the hands that have accepted me. Here, in the grace that has overlooked difference. Here, in the people who are no longer strangers but family. Here, in my family in the U.S. and all around the world who have upheld me. Here, in your own sacred stories as well…and the stories of your neighbors. Here, in the journey we share as sisters and brothers. Here is your God.

I have come to the end of my journey here, and I’m realizing that all along I have been constantly seeking and forever arriving at the most amazing yet most simple destination: home. It is a destination that is both miraculous and beautifully normal. I find myself amazed and yet not surprised at all. After all, what is more natural than feeling at home with your family? But what is more amazing than finding a family halfway around the world?

Here is my home. Here is my family. Here is our God.

Beginnings and Endings

The current YAGM group is in their last week at their placement sites and are deep into the good-bye’s. It will be tough a week from now. And on the other end of the spectrum, the next group of YAGM are just finding out about their placement communities and are imagining where they will be next year.  In honor of that, here’s a picture of the new crew. Keep everybody in your prayers!

Front row (L to R): Tessa (Country Coordinator), Rachel, Emily, Elle; Back row (L to R): Hannah, Joe, Keenan, Kelly, Abby, Brent; not pictured - Luke

Front row (L to R): Tessa (Country Coordinator), Rachel, Emily, Elle; Back row (L to R): Hannah, Joe, Keenan, Kelly, Abby, Brent; not pictured – Luke