10 Loves

As Caity,a YAGM volunteer in the northwestern part of South Africa, comes closer to the end of her service year, she reflects:

The 10 Things I Love About My Community

  1. Someone will always go with me

If I’m going to the store or headed to church for some reason, I never have to go alone. Similar to my image of the American South, people sit on porches to share stories and cigarettes. I can always find someone on a neighboring porch to walk with me.

  1. Everyone is Auntie and Uncle

Showing respect in South Africa is easy, just address an older person with these titles. In Afrikaans, it is Auntie/Tannie and Uncle/Oom. It is respectful without being formal like Sir/Mam, and it gives me a chance to open conversation with an older person (not always easy but usually worth it).

  1. Raw Musical Talent

The hymns at our church are unaccompanied, and no one is shy to sing out. After years of needing hymnals/powerpoints and organs/cantors, I have learned that they can all sing me under the table.

  1. Bread

I make a lot of bread these days. I love that bread here is not the dreaded “carbohydrates,” it is just delicious.

  1. Greetings really matter

People here ask “how are you” with such habit that when I forget that part of the greeting, I still get a “fine, thank you, and you?”

  1. Everyone has nicknames

At the beginning of the year, people would give me there proper names, only for me to get completely confused later. Everyone has a name, and a nickname, a lot of people have two.

  1. Pedestrians have right of way

Unlike the rest of South Africa, where you can’t even walk in a parking lot without fearing for your life, it is great that here I can walk down the middle of the road knowing drivers will stop. It helps that there aren’t many cars at all.

  1. Windmills

There are a lot of windmills around that add some variety to the skyline and generally make me smile.

  1. School uniforms

I’m glad I never had to wear a uniform, but I think the school uniform for Rietfontein is cute. The colors, forest green or light blue, are great. It’s less of a hassle than homework, so it can’t be too bad.

  1. Someone is always playing music

On quiet nights when our TV isn’t working, it is nice to sit outside and hear the distant music drifting in from someone else’s house. Sometimes you just want peace and quiet, but sometimes it’s nice to know people are having a good time.

 

Caity (left) learns bread making from her auntie.

Caity (left) learns bread making from her auntie.

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A Beautiful Vision

DSC_0427Inspired by an experience at one of her service sites, Taisha writes:

I saw the Father today. He was small, but strong. He was poor in the worldly sense. He was a father. His wife was dead, and he lived with his sons. As we pulled into his kraal, he was bathing his son in a plastic tub next to the house. His son was about my age. He was intellectually and physically disabled, so he was not able to wash himself. The father took his time washing his entire body with a cloth, then scrubbing with a stone, and then rinsing off. He washed with diligence until the son was truly clean. When finished with bathing, the father went inside and brought out lotion and soothed his son’s entire body.

I saw Jesus today. He washed his child, just as he washed the feet of his disciples.

I felt the Spirit today. It descended on a child of God and cared for his needs. It descended on his child watching the humble scene before her eyes.

I saw God today. The God I know washes us. He cleans every part of us and makes us whole. He gives us fresh life. He smooths us out when we have rough spots. He knows everything about us and cares deeply about us. I love that we have a Father who loves us so deeply, a Savior that taught us so much about how to serve, and a Spirit that lives within and guides us all of our days.

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.

Life Is Precious…Serve the World

Now at the half-way mark, Kyle articulates the impact this experience is having upon his life:

DSC00966Here’s an email I wrote in response to a question from youth in Delaware and Maryland. Their pastor reached out to the YAGMs for reflections on our service. 

What experiences have you had in South Africa while serving, and how do you plan to bring back what you have learned?

The experiences that have impacted me most in South Africa have been my encounters with life and death. Within a couple months of coming here, I was settling in to my role as a Home Based Caregiver visiting all elderly folks with different afflictions. It was hard seeing the suffering and depression of some, uplifting to see others recover, and heart warming to be universally welcomed with open arms into people’s homes. Then one day we got a new patient, and I was surprised to greet a young man one month older than myself crippled in bed with tuberculosis. Every breath was a struggle, every movement agony, and his feet were inexplicably swollen to three times their normal size. After a couple weeks, his condition deteriorated and he was brought by his family to the biggest hospital in Africa: Chris Hani Baragwanath. I find its size and location indicative of the myriad health problems here as it’s on the outskirts of Soweto, a 20 minute taxi ride from my house. My partner and I visited him in the hospital and did our best to offer encouragement, but he was visibly fading. We hoped that the doctors could help him, but his liver failed a few days later and he passed on. His name was Bongani.

The only person close to me I’ve lost is my grandmother, and while Bongani and I weren’t more than acquaintances, I was shaken. From his age and the hip-hop posters on his walls, I could see myself in his bed. Watching life carry on in his absence was disorienting. The hardest part was seeing other TB and HIV patients in his ward, all frail and trapped in their disease addled bodies while family members tried to feed them, or brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Unfortunately, life sometimes feels cheap here. The people are strong, but the pulse of hope is weak. Every weekend I hear of a funeral, and I’m told it was worse at the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Soweto, seventy percent of people are unemployed, over a quarter are HIV positive, and the education system is failing the children trying to escape from the cycle of poverty. These are harsh realities that I’ve learned not to talk around because Sowetans don’t beat around the bush.

In light of all this, it’s even more painful to hear stories from mothers and wives of their children and husbands shot over some cash in a wallet. It’s even more painful to read in the newspapers that over 1,500 South Africans died in automobile accidents during the month of December (many because of alcohol). It’s even more painful to watch people my age self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because their talents are squandered by poverty and lack of opportunity. The violence people inflict on themselves and others in my community is heartbreaking.

So the first part of my message is this: life is precious. There’s already so much disease, poverty, and suffering in the world, that the evils we enact on our friends and family are inexcusable. Every person encountered on a daily basis is a person worthy of love, and dignity, and respect. Those closest to us deserve the deepest of love and care. We are all neighbors, and the greatest commandment is to love our neighbor. From love for our neighbors, we must name our failures, and then act. The poverty created by our global economic structure leads to armed robbery, drunk driving leads to fatal accidents, experimenting with addictive substances will not lead to true peace and happiness. I feel called to speak as widely as possible to this effect upon my return to the US because in spite of my bleak presentation, Soweto has a beautiful spirit, a character that gives me hope. I see it when I tutor children who have memorized multiplication tables on their own initiative. I see it when HIV infected and affected people work at DAM to make a difference in the community. I see it in the dancing and singing of people in the streets. This year has allowed my empathetic side to flourish, which means that as much as I feel the pain of my community, I get to share equally in their joys. My course of action will be to speak about YAGM, but not to sugar coat it. International service is a wonderful thing which can change the world in the following manner:

Travel changes the lens through which we experience the world in a way that makes the seemingly trivial events of life more magical. This sense of magic and wonder creates gratitude in the heart for things such as coffee, sunsets, and understanding greetings in foreign languages. These are quotidian situations in which there is beauty and connection to our shared humanity. But the beauty can so often be swept under the rug when in a familiar setting. Through the simple gratitude travel fosters, respect for life, specifically empathy, is cultivated. Empathy is one of the most important qualities in people. It allows us to release attachment to the greed which creates the current global situation of growing inequality and mass impoverishment. It does this because we can begin to truly see each new person we meet as our brother, sister, mother, or neighbor and identify with their suffering. It breeds global communion. How could the US endlessly bomb and destroy nations such as Iraq if our citizens had traveled there and met the “insurgents”? If they saw the children who are collateral damage? How could the death penalty be legal if we truly cherished the lives of our brothers and sisters? I think it’s telling that peace makers such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Thich Nhat Hanh have been increasingly global travelers with the progression of technology. Thus programs such as YAGM are the start of a chain reaction which I believe is crucial for all people, but especially for people in a position of privilege to experience. It is a cure for one of the most important things I’ve learned in YAGM: “The benefactors of structural inequality have the hardest time recognizing it”. US policies reach so far that we must become increasingly conscious of acting with empathy.

The second part of my message is this: get out and serve the world. I want to encourage travel and service to people of all nations so that we know our global neighbors and can act from empathy instead of ignorance. Life must be viewed universally so that we don’t forget the downtrodden and voiceless. I also plan to join efforts to pass an amendment against the death penalty, because a government enacting or even allowing violence against its own citizens in a legal framework is deplorable. I also believe that it has a negative impact on the psyche of the public to live under such governance, and portrays us negatively to the world. One of the first three comments I get from people when I tell them I’m from Texas is…”you put people to death there don’t you?” Talk about holding up a painful mirror of how we are viewed internationally. Laws are a human invention, but the sanctity of life is fundamental. Violence does not solve or deter violence. I plan to bring this back with my words, and with my actions. As much suffering as I’ve witnessed here, I’ve also shared daily in the joy of waking up and living life. I choose to hold on to the joy while I work to alleviate the suffering.

The Language of Love

Katie reflects on her life in Bloemfontein:

“You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love.”

I want to give you a glimpse of my life here in Bloemfontein. Before I begin, I do want to say that I have the permission to tell you this story from my wonderful host mom, Mama Shoni. Yesterday, as I sat outside on the porch at Mama Shoni’s house thinking and looking at the view of the township of Manguang where I am living at right now, a little girl approaches me and sits right next to me on the porch.

This little girl’s name is Neo. She is a beautiful child. She is Mama Shoni’s granddaughter. She is about 7 years old and she loves to talk. The thing is… she only speaks Sesotho. She does know some English, but just the basics like hello, goodbye and few phrases. She is also Autistic. I honestly wouldn’t have known this until Mama told me. She goes to a school for children with disabilities called Pholoho which means ‘Rescue’. From what Mama Shoni told me, the school’s goal is to rescue these beautiful children from isolation and feeling alone to making them feel welcomed, accepted and feel like they belong in the community. What I will say though is that as I have gotten to know Neo, Autism does not define her. She is a normal young girl who loves to play and laugh like all the other kids. I also want to mention that she has a beautiful singing voice. She and I have become really good friends. It did not take her long to get use to me nor me to her. At the beginning of our friendship, she would always call me doctor. This is because all of her doctors are white so it is easy to understand why she would think that I am a doctor. It did take a while but now she has started calling me by my name. When she says it, you can tell that there is something special behind it.

You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love. This language can be understood anywhere regardless of where you are. It always warms my heart when I see the great big smile on her face and she says “Hello Katie” and I reply right back in that same language with “Hello Neo”. She has already won my heart and I know that she will be someone that I will never forget. She has been helping me understand why God has placed me here in the first place. Meeting her has really made my heart learn how to receive love as I give it. All I can tell you is that when I see this little girl, I see the face of Jesus.