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.

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.

Top 10 Lessons Learned … So Far

Abby’s Top 10 list, written a few weeks ago, encapsulates well much about the beginning of a YAGM experience:

Abby (waving) as she arrives in South Africa

Abby (waving) as she arrives in South Africa

I have been in my placement site for nearly two weeks now. I have learned more than I could ever explain- about South Africa, politics, culture, religion, people, what it means to be hospitable, and mostly about myself. But I love lists and short blog posts, so here are the top 10 lessons I have learned since my arrival!

1. Nothing good will ever happen if you don’t leave your room.

2. Sarcasm does not come across language barriers.

3. Anytime is a good time for tea time. Similarly, there is no such thing as too much hot tea.

4. Clean laundry is an unspeakable luxury that should never be taken for granted.

5. Some of life’s best pleasures are universal, like food, laughter, sleep, and music.

6. If you’re afraid to sound like an idiot, you’ll never learn to speak a new language.

7. Your parents were probably right about what you should pack. Unfortunately, it seems your parents are always right….

8. Patience is a muscle. Exercise it often, so it will be big and strong when you need it.

9. Never assume you know what tomorrow will bring. Actually, never assume you know what the next five minutes will bring.

10. Always graciously accept free food, warm clothes, and good conversation.

I can’t wait to see what else I learn, and to share more lessons with you!

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.