What is YAGM?

Evan with Auntie Tina (holding oranges) and Auntie Lorna, members of his community

Evan with Auntie Tina (holding oranges) and Auntie Lorna, members of his community

Recently, YAGM participant Evan C. was asked at a retreat if YAGM should be called a year of service. Here is a portion of his response:

“Should we call your YAGM year a year of service?”

This seems simple enough, a normal knee-jerk reaction would be to answer yes, but after only a short time of deep thought, I realized that in reality, it was much harder to put a name to what YAGM actually is. To call this experience a year of service seems to sell the program short of what is really happening around the globe.

The YAGM program could be called a year of learning. Our learning started back in April at our Discernment/Interview/Placement weekend (D.I.P.) when we were first taught about the programs model of accompaniment, more on this later. Each day I step out into the community, I am shown something new. I learn more about the Xhosa traditions in the areas that surround me, I learn more about the history of the Colored people and more about the Khoi people from whom some Colored people originate. I learn more every day about what it means to be a white male and how my privilege has sheltered me from many of the realities of real life.

To call the YAGM year a “year of learning,” would again, sell the program short. We are learning every day, but we are doing more than learning, we are experiencing. There are some things that we are seeing that cannot be put into words. At our orientation in Chicago, we even had an hour long session on how to communicate our journey to people back home. Though the session mostly spoke about different social media platforms and ways to write our newsletters, it also tried to help us all understand how to better share our journey, which for many will be misunderstood. So then, should we call this a year of experiencing? We are, after all, experiencing an entirely new world, one that looks drastically different than everything we have known back in the United States. We are experiencing the stories of many people who come from places we could never imagine. We are experiencing the life of people that the world has forgotten about and we are experiencing the roll that we play within their lives. We are also experiencing what it means to be a Christian in a global sense, especially in a program like Southern Africa that is tied so closely with the church.

“YAGM: A Year of Experiencing” doesn’t quite fit the bill either. We are experiencing things, but that sounds like we are just sitting by and watching these things take place, when, in fact, we are living amongst people in our communities and we are sharing our lives with them. So then, maybe we can call YAGM a year of sharing? One of the most powerful ways of communication is story telling. By sharing stories with someone, we can get to know them on a much deeper level. Story telling becomes an invitation to see who a person really is. It is an opportunity to hear where a person is coming from and to hear the life this person has lived. Sharing stories is a way to share culture with people as well. When I hear stories about a Zulu wedding and about the gifts that were presented to the bride and the groom, I get to hear about the culture around marriage in the Zulu tradition. When I share stories about how my dad loves to cook for thanksgiving, I get to share the tradition of celebrating an American holiday with my Zulu family.

“YAGM: A Year of Story Telling” also doesn’t quite seem to fit. It is part of the program, but that title somehow makes it seem like we are constantly drinking tea and eating biscuits while telling stories. We do quite a bit of that here in South Africa, but that’s not everything we do. We do actually work with these people and walk along with them on our journeys. We are accompanying these people in their everyday lives. So then, can we call this a year of accompaniment? That is after all what the YAGM program is modeling. Accompaniment is a wonderful word that carries with it the difficult task of defining what exactly it is. Accompaniment is so much about action that it is exceedingly difficult to define in words. The journey of walking side by side with someone and sharing your life, just as you are, while also listening to another person share their life is close to what accompaniment is.

“YAGM: A Year of Being.” Much of the early part of our year was learning how to just be alive. We had to unlearn the very American way of viewing each day as the opportunity to accomplish something, and learn that each day is the opportunity to live. We are given only so many days, so instead of trying to accomplish something all the time, why not just do what we love? If we spent each day doing something we loved, we would be much happier. I spend each day playing with kids, reading books, and learning more about a culture that is very different from my own. While we spend a lot of time just being instead of doing, that still doesn’t quite match up with what our year is all about. It is a large portion of the year, but not all of it.

YAGMs are considered missionaries, and with that title comes a heavy weight, especially here in Africa. Missionaries have, in the past, come to Africa and told people that they need to change in order to be accepted. The YAGM model attempts to change that idea of what we are as missionaries. We aren’t here to change people, we are here to understand people, to learn more about what is happening in these different corners of the world, and to see new ways in which God is working around the globe. In this way, our communities are serving us, because they are helping to teach us how to better serve our world.

So then, we are back to the original question, should YAGM be called a year of service? Yes, I think it should, but not because we are here to serve the people in our communities, but rather because we are learning how to serve our world through the love and the accompaniment of the people within our communities. Before I left for South Africa, I was so confident about what I had to offer this community. I have been playing music for over 20 years, I have extensive experience with youth ministry, I have outdoor ministry experience, I have ecumenical knowledge about the church, and I know quite a bit about South African history. I felt that I had a lot to offer to this community.

When I arrived in Port Elizabeth, I realized that very little of my experience actually mattered. I thought for sure I could play the music in church, but with almost all of the music here being learned by ear, there was very little I could do for services. The youth operates very differently from the United States, so while I know quite a bit about working with kids, I found that on my own I was completely useless. My knowledge of South African history served me only as far as being able to ask questions. I had read the history from one perspective, and not through the eyes of people who had actually lived it. Books can tell you only so much, the stories of a whole community can change everything you thought you knew.  That, for me, is the final piece of accompaniment. Listening louder than I speak and hearing what the world actually needs. If I come into a place and think that I know how to serve these people who are from a very different cultural background from me would be arrogant and doomed to fail. Coming in and listening to these people and hearing the stories and hearing what these people actually need has taught me how to better serve the world.

So, yes, YAGM should be called a year of service, but only because a year of “experience, learning, sharing, story-telling, getting your butt kicked every day, being, realizing you might have some things wrong, living, seeing the world, experiencing God in new ways, and loving” is a little too long to fit onto one small pamphlet. “YAGM: A Year of Service,” only gives a small taste of what the year actually has in store.

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Care Not Cure

Rachel writes about the HIV/AIDS ministry of which she is a part and how it is shaping her understanding of service and caring:

Each Tuesday, “from 8:00” (meaning anytime after 8:00) I receive a phone call.  “Rachel!  Come!  I’m on the taxi!”  I rush up the road to the small local market where the shared taxis pass through my neighborhood.  My brisk pace, skin color, and Tswana greeting elicit giggles and stares from those that I pass. I wave to my left at the crèche children who scream, “MAMA RACHEL!” and to my right at the primary school kids who scream, “AUS RACHEL!” Once I make it to the main road, I wait at the corner, shielding the hot sun with my umbrella and wiping beads of sweat off of my forehead.  Taxis fly by with their horns hooting and hand signals flashing.  No stress about doing the correct hand signals to flag down the correct taxi.  On Tuesdays… I just wait.  Eventually – a taxi screeches to a halt in front of me and a warm voice from inside yells, “Rachel, my baby!  Get in!”  I crawl into the rickety 9 passenger vehicle, bringing about more surprised giggles as I hug Mme Moruti and show off my Tswana greeting to the others who have already boarded.

This is how I get ‘picked up’ each week for my time spent with the HIV/AIDS ministry ladies.  We arrive in the rural community of Wintervelt, meeting our third counterpart and continuing our journey by foot (passing the occasional goat along the way.) My love for Tuesdays grows each week as I continue to explore the power of presence in times of trial and chronic illness.  In the last few weeks, I have seen both extremes of the quality of life that those who are HIV+ experience.

The first was in the face of a middle-aged man.  He appeared weary, weak and discouraged, shivering despite the warmth of the sun.  He had had quite the week, battling an uncontrollable “running stomach,” fatigue, and confusion.  His visit to the clinic the previous day was the first time that his wife had heard of his HIV+ status.  The virus had been hiding until this point, unrecognizable to the naked eye…and he kept it that way.  But now, his shame and fear were out in the open, revealed by the full blown AIDS related illnesses that had recently hit.

I witnessed the other extreme in the face of a middle-aged woman.  She was jolly, full of belly laughs, and proudly showed off her plastic bag full of medications.  Two years ago, she was so “terribly ill” that her 17 year old son had quit school in order care for her.  When we arrived this week, she was busy bathing her grandchild and sprung up from the floor to greet us all with a hug and ear to ear grin.  She wasn’t shy to share her clinic card with me, displaying her medication regiment and check-ups.  When I told her how great she looked, she motioned to her pills and replied with, “It’s the ARV’s!”

The majority of both of these stories weren’t translated and explained to me until after our visits, as we walked along the dirt roads to see the next patient.  For most of each of the visits, I hadn’t a clue what was being said and in turn, had nothing TO SAY.  My eagerness to learn and help and use my gifts as a Registered Nurse made this all too frustrating for me.

This week, I have been busy reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Out of Solitude.”  In this short collection of meditations, he reflects on what it means to care.  He says,

“Still, when we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerated not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Well…I sort of had no choice but to be silent.  Two weeks ago in the front yard of that man’s home, I looked right at the face of despair and touched the hands of confusion.  And in that moment, had to embrace my very own powerlessness.  I arrived at his home (via a foreign form of transportation) with little knowledge, no cure, and no healing power.  But we sat in solidarity, both of us uncomfortably restless on rusty lawn chairs, not quite sure what was coming next.

Although the ladies that I accompany do come with advice, guidance, and wisdom, I know with all my heart that it is their ability to be silent and share in others’ pain that make their ministry so powerful.  I rarely understand what is being said, but recognize the most beautiful active listening imaginable.  I wish I could bottle up the sincere, “ooooh” and “mmmm,” that emanate from their souls as they intently listen to the joys and sorrows of their patients.

This is a lesson that I am, and will continue to be grateful for.

I think and wonder and panic about my RN qualifications often.  What will I do when I return to the US?  Don’t ask me yet.  But I know that this new perspective on human despair, wellness, and joy will come with me in whatever I do.

“To care means to first of all empty our own cup and allow the other to come close to us.  It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other.  When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts.”

-Henri Nouwen, “Out of Solitude”

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.

Making One Thing Count

“I only accomplished one thing on Saturday, but it was a very wonderful experience. It was born out of the busyness of working and meeting people during the week. But it was brought to fruition by the stillness of reflection and recuperation.” – Kyle

My days either seem to go at a 100 km/h or 2. I’m kind of all over the place right now, so I’m working on finding balance (but loving my placement). Tuesday through Thursday are crazy…I go to football training, then run home, shower up and go out on Home Based Care rounds, come back and eat quickly before helping out in the kitchen for a couple hours for the OVC/After School Program, after that I go to boxing training for a couple hours…dinner and repeat. The only aberration is if we have a training session, as happened last Thursday when we learned about income budgeting and South African insurance. The next four days are usually much slower, but sometimes even more busy if I get invited to a wedding or cultural festival.

I guess finding balance can be equated with finding contentment. Coming here to serve, I always want to be helping or doing or caring. Sometimes though, the events I’m at just need me on the sidelines for a few hours supporting. Other times, I must recharge my battery individually. I’m not always good at allowing myself to do this. Most of the time, my recharging comes in the form of reading books, email discussions about faith and life with other friends/YAGMs, or cooking a good meal. I sometimes think to myself, ‘Why am I not doing more?…I could just be doing this in Austin’ but I’ve seen the fruits of personal time manifest themselves in many ways. Some days, I only accomplish one thing (which can be frustrating) but I’m learning to make that one thing count.

On Saturday, one of my patients had a birthday. She’s a wonderfully strong lady at 71, but she just had an 8 inch brain tumor removed at the beginning of the year. The care and devotion her daughter puts into looking after her is something that resonated with me when I met their family last Tuesday. I knew I had to bring them a cake on Saturday to celebrate that she survived the past year. The open door policy here is something I’m working to get comfortable with. In the States, most meetings are scheduled. Here, everyone encourages me to pop by whenever. Also, talking and texting are expensive on a missionary budget, so dropping by is something that just has to happend to build relationships.

Saturday morning was rainy and cold. It got nice for a window of a few hours in the afternoon. However, I was in the middle of my South African economics book and started making excuses for staying in. ‘It’s late, they’re probably having their own party…they don’t need me.’ This internal monologue was motivated from fear about using the open door policy, and worry that my meager cake offering wouldn’t be well received. Eventually I bargained with myself to just drop the cake off and jet (I already bought the thing the day before, so I might as well deliver it). God had other plans. Side note: South African weather is very finicky. One can experience all four seasons in a single day. It has already hailed twice here and it’s spring! This is exacerbated by Soweto residing on a hill at around 1750 meters above sea level.

Carrying on, I hit the weather window perfectly around 5pm. Gray clouds were rolling in as I made the 5 minute walk, and it was giving credence to my decision to deliver and dash. I got to their house, walked through gate, knocked at the door, then let myself in. The first thing I got were warm smiles and kind welcomes that thawed the chill the weather was putting on my heart. The daughter (a spry 49 with three kids to look after in addition to her mother) relayed that her mother was very happy to see me. She’d been asking about me ever since the last visit. Okay, now I had to stay and chat because these people were just too darn nice. Five minutes into our conversation, as granny was finishing up her cake slice, it started hailing. It was really coming down, made even more intimidating by the reverberation off the metal roof. I originally thought I was trapped, but really I had just been freed to take the time our relationship deserved. We wound up having a great talk that lasted well over an hour, and will make me a much better care giver to their family in the future.

I often worry about the inadequacy of my gifts, or fear rejection. Finally though, I forced myself to let go of that and just do the nice thing I’d been planning. One thing I know about myself, it’s safer for me to internalize things and pat myself on the back for wishing others well. If it wasn’t the weather, I would have made excuses for something else. I didn’t come to South Africa to be passive or to leave with regret. The thing I held onto in bringing my gift was the following truth I came to during reflection: “Nearly every regret I have in life is related to something mean I did to another person, or something nice I could have done but didn’t.” I only accomplished one thing on Saturday, but it was a very wonderful experience. It was born out of the busyness of working and meeting people during the week. But it was brought to fruition by the stillness of reflection and recuperation. Next step will be learning to release negativity such as regret and worry, but I’m happy with my progress so far. I look forward to carrying out more small acts with great love in the future (maybe Mother Teresa was on to something after all).