Thursday, July 21, 2016

Come Alive 2.0

Thanks to Facebook, I was recently reminded that I left my year of service in South Africa about four years ago. For those of you who don’t know, following graduation, I lived in SA for a year through the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program of the ELCA. Every July and August I find myself thinking about my time overseas, the current YAGMs who are returning from their service, and the ones who are getting ready to leave their homes in the States. I am realizing that the timeline of my life is definitely broken up as pre-YAGM and post-YAGM. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, but the most obvious would be that I did not come back to the United States as the same person that left. I learned and grew and was inspired in ways that I never could have imagined and that have changed my life. If you want to read about my time in SA you can look back at previous posts but this post is not for that reason. The end of summer has always been a time of transition, and, with the new changes happening in my life, I thought this was a great time to get some thoughts on paper.

So, what have I been up to? When I returned from South Africa I took a position as an Early Childhood Special Education para at a local elementary school in Lincoln. Although my degree was not in education, I had previously worked summer camps and at before and after school programs so being with children was nothing new to me. However, the special education aspect was definitely a new challenge for me. I was able to work with kids who have down syndrome, physical and learning disabilities, and autism. Although there were many challenging days, seeing the students’ growth and progress throughout the year made the tough spots worth it. However, the majority of my time was spent with individual students instead of being part of a larger group. While I knew I was making an impact on those few kids, I was also feeling pulled to do something more. Thanks to the help of one of the special education teachers I worked with, I was pushed towards going back to school in order to have a greater role in the classroom. Next thing I knew, four years after graduating, I found myself back in a classroom at UNL.

I found an accelerated 14 month graduate degree program which not only offered me a Masters degree but would provide teaching certification as well. I started taking classes last May and have just recently finished up my final course and will graduate in August. I was in class the majority of last summer before starting practicum teaching and methods coursework in the fall. This spring I was full-time student teaching before taking my capstone class this summer. It has been a hectic year but I was fortunate enough to be offered a contract with LPS and eventually a 4th grade position at Saratoga Elementary School. Luckily for me, I student taught in a 3rd grade class here so I will know the majority of my students when they enter my classroom in a few weeks.

And so, where am I now? Currently, I’m lying in the reading corner of my classroom where I have spent countless hours this summer getting my room ready, creating a theme and environment to inspire learning, and incessantly thinking about ways to motivate and engage the kids. I want so badly for my students to do well, as learners and friends and kids and human beings. I think there is something truly amazing about having the chance to make a difference in someone else’s life every day and I feel very fortunate that I will be able to do that with my students. I might only be a part of their lives for 180 days, but I have seen what a year of being challenged and encouraged and pushed and cared about can do for someone. As much as this is about me being there for the kids, I know that I will be able to learn from them as well.

I was recently talking to a fellow YAGM alum about teaching and the classroom that I was setting up when she stopped me and said “You just seem so happy.” And, to be honest, that was one of the best things I could have ever heard. I hope that when I talk about my job that people are able to see that it makes me happy. I recently came across a Brian Andreas writing that is exactly how I want to be:

Look, I’m not dumb. I know this year is going to be hard. I know there will be times when I need to vent about kids not following directions or putting in effort. I know there will be mornings when I wake up, think about how terrible everything went the day before, and fight to get up and do it all over again. But I know these kids are counting on me to be there and that is a responsibility I take on whole-heartedly. I also know I'm not doing this alone. I have unbelievably amazing friends and family who have supported me through the craziness and who continue to push me to be greater. I have an incredible group of cohort members who were in the trenches with me the last 14 months and have become great friends. And I have an awesome team of teachers and staff at Saratoga who are willing to help with anything.

I had a long stretch post-YAGM where I was really searching for a purpose in my work and life. I was seeing friends be wildly successful and who were finding the joy in their employment, relationships, and activities. And while it was easy to be happy for them, it was not always easy to be happy for myself. I applied for many jobs at churches for youth and mission positions with no success, I applied for educational jobs with no success, and I applied to various graduate programs including seminary. I now see why none of those seemed to be the right fit for me. It is nearly impossible to explain but nothing felt as right as this does. As the quote that this blog is named after says, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Teaching isn’t for everyone but I’ve finally figured out that it is for me.

I am not sure what shape this blog will take from here on out but I plan to post some reflections on the highs and lows of my first year of teaching because I’m sure it will be one crazy ride.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

10 Suggestions for Helping your YAGM Return Home

Written by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, YAGM Country Coordinator for Mexico

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Story Doesn't End Here

Although it’s hard to believe, I have arrived at my last ten days at the Kwaz and my final two weeks in South Africa. On July 10th I will head to Pietermaritzburg for a few days with the rest of MUD4 before we head our separate ways and return to the States.  I find myself filled with a myriad of emotions as the end draws near: sad, happy, proud, anxious, nervous, name a few.  It feels like I’m coming to the end of a book. I can feel that the pages in my right hand are limited and I am trying to balance between wanting to know the ending and enjoying the rest of the story.  However, if this is the end of a book then it would have to be a part of a series because just as my story didn’t start when I boarded the plane to Chicago over ten months ago, my story does not end when I go to Pietermaritzburg or when I get off the plane in Lincoln.

The difficulty now will be to figure out what the point of this book was and how it fits into the series.  What has all of this meant?  What has it meant for me, my community in South Africa, my community in Nebraska, my role as a YAGM, as a church member?  I don’t know if I will ever be able to come up with an answer that anyone else will fully understand but I will try to head in that direction. 

David McCullough, Jr. recently told a group of graduates, “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special. Because everyone is.”  I think that this is a great start to talking about my year.  I didn’t come to South Africa to say that I’ve been to South Africa or to say that I’ve lived in another country for a year. I came to experience.  I came to accompany the people, to experience a new culture and customs, to learn about the struggles that others face, to grow in as many ways as I could and to be challenged by all of it.  And to be honest, my time here was more challenging than I ever thought it would be but, at the same time, I know that the struggles I faced helped me to grow and to learn lessons I never could have been taught in a classroom or read from a book. 

--I experienced and saw the challenges that South Africa is facing; 
I learned awareness.

--I attempted to speak isiZulu which gave many opportunities for laughter; 
I learned humility. 

--I lived in a culture that lets time happen instead of being controlled by time; 
I learned patience.

--I sang at vigils for families who had recently lost love ones;
I learned empathy.

--I watched those same families dancing at a funeral a few days later; 
I learned hope.

--I celebrated during weddings, youth gatherings, and holidays; 
I learned joy. 

--I met people living in poverty but full of life; 
I learned faith.

--I lived simply which allowed me to better understand the lives of those around me;
I learned gratitude.    

--I had days where nothing seemed to go right but would wake up to the sun rising the next morning; 
I learned grace.  

--I became part of a family and community in rural KZN; 
I learned Ubuntu.

The reality is that this experience was never about just me.  I do not live in a world that is isolated from everyone else.  If you haven’t read any of my previous posts Ubuntu is a Zulu/Xhosa word that basically says that a person is a person through other people. We are all connected to each other as humans and, because of this, we are called into a greater community.  There are so many people that have made this experience possible and made it what is has been.  For that, I am forever grateful.  I was blessed with an amazing opportunity and I hope that I was able to be a blessing to those that I accompanied throughout my time here. 

I am especially thankful for Reverend Xaba and his willingness to help me get involved, everyone at the Kwaz for their daily smiles and greetings, Goodness who became my South African mom, the people of Ephangweni Parish and Ondini Circuit who welcomed me into their churches and communities, friends from Estcourt who gave me relief from the day to day grind, and everyone else that I met in South Africa this year.  Whenever anyone asks what I will miss about this place I think of the people because they are what make this place so special.  I am also thankful for my MUD4 family for all the great memories we shared this year and for always being willing to listen and discuss anything and everything.

I am also thankful for everyone in the States who has supported and continues to support me.  As Frederick Buechner says, “You can kiss your family and friends goodbye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” So a huge thank you goes out to the Sheridan community whose financial and prayer support allowed this year to happen, my parents and family who have always supported me wholeheartedly, my friends who were willing to listen to my frustrations throughout the year, and everyone else who supported me with prayers, or reading my blog or sending letters, emails, cards and packages!  You have a part in this book too and I can’t wait to share it with you--I’ll see you all soon!

I think it will take a while for me to truly understand everything that this year has meant and I might not ever be able to grasp its full impact but, as this book comes to an end, I am also eager to see what the plot of the next book will be.  Above all, though, I pray that I am able to continue to experience new things, to learn, to grow, to hope, to be grateful, to need less, to give more, to love much, to laugh often and to have a good time doing it!

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you, about learning to love a woman or a man, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?”
Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lessons from My Grandparents

It’s been three years now since my mom’s parents died in a car accident.  I’ll never forget hearing the news that day and the tough week and months that followed. I still think about them all the time and miss them terribly.  They left too soon but I know that part of them is still here and lives in me, my family and everyone who had the pleasure of knowing them.  The farm that they lived on, although now non-existent, was my favorite place to go when I was younger and I still think about it with great nostalgia.  I spent many summer weeks with them when I was growing up and I was able to learn many life lessons from them.

Work Hard
My grandpa was born on the farm that he lived and worked on his entire life.  By the time I was around they had pretty much retired from farming but they continued to grow a huge garden every summer.  When they finally moved into town they continued to work as the managers of their apartment complex. They showed me that nothing good ever gets done without a little elbow grease! (And fresh vegetables just taste better!)

Write Letters
My grandma would write letters to anyone and everyone, sometimes by hand and sometimes with her typewriter.  With computers and cell phones it is so easy to send a text message or email to someone and not think twice about it but I’ve learned that taking the extra time to pick out a card or hand-write a note means so much more.  It not only makes you appreciate your family and friends more but it shows them how important they are to you.

Enjoy the Simple Things
My favorite thing to do with my grandparents was playing cards.  When I would stay there at times in the summer they would invite over their friends and we would have card nights with fresh popcorn and root beer floats.  They taught me to have fun with cards and board games and just being in the company of friends. We didn’t need a television or gaming system to keep us entertained.  My family still continues to play cards and board games and family gatherings and still have a lot of fun doing it!

Learn to cook
Although my grandma rarely used recipes they aren’t hard to follow.  And making food for people creates a special bond with them as you have taken the time and energy to prepare something.  My grandma always made great food and I loved the way the smells would fill the house. As I’ve gotten older I’ve really enjoyed being able to cook and bake. Although I don’t do anything to fancy here in South Africa I am glad that I learned the basics to be able to fend for myself!

Be Generous With Your Time and Love
People said that my grandparents never knew a stranger.  I remember when I was younger and we would go into town and it seemed like every place we went to someone, or several people, would stop and talk to them and see how they were doing. I know that they came from a small community but it was still neat to see how much they cared about others and how much other people cared about them.  It was very clear how much their friendships meant to people when hundreds of people had to sit on chairs outside of the church at the funeral.  They taught me how important it is to put the people you care about first and that it will come back to repay you in more ways than you can imagine.

Losing people we love is never easy but they are never truly gone.  There is a video series by Pastor Rob Bell called Nooma and one of the videos is about death.  I came across it about six months after my grandparents died and it changed my whole perspective.  If you have 15 minutes you should watch it because it is a great video. Click Here to Watch It is easy to forget that God is still there when we are going through difficult times but that is when we should lean on Him the most. He is there for us even though it might not always seem like it.

"Though You have made me see troubles, many and bitter, You will restore my life again." --Psalm 71: 20

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Final Countdown

I don’t know if I have ever paid attention to time as much as I have since being in South Africa. Maybe it is because no one else cares about time so I’m trying to keep track of it for an entire nation or maybe it is just being away from what I was used to in the States. Either way, I have watched clocks and calendars a lot this past year.  I counted the days until the first retreat in November, I counted down until Christmas, until my trip to Cape Town, until the second retreat, until my parents came--I seemed to be counting down days all the time which is something that I had never real done before.

It started out when I spent the majority of my first month sitting in the office at the Kwaz.  There is only so much that I was able to do at that point so I spent a lot of time reading while waiting for the phone to ring.  Time seemed to move so slowly on those days.  I am sure part of it was my expectations of what I would be doing at my site and part of it was just learning the slow pace of life compared to the United States.  I am still challenged by the pace of life and the phrase “just now.” Coming from a culture were now actually means right away it is hard to adjust to nothing starting on time.

If the feelings about time have taught me anything it is patience.  I have come to realize that it doesn’t help if I worry about church not starting on time or if I’m waiting for hours for someone to pick me up. Things will happen when they happen and I just have to go with it.  It doesn’t do me any good to get frustrated so I might as well relax and enjoy the day.

The final countdown I have is the one until I will be back in the US and it is at exactly two months from today. I have often thought about what that first day back will be like and am both excited and scared.  I am so excited to see my family and friends again but, at the same time, it will mean the end of my time in South Africa.  It means leaving people who have become my family and leaving a place that has taught me more than I ever could have learned in a textbook.

During the first few months, when there were still over 300 days left, I honestly didn’t know if I would make it this far.  But now, with only two months separating me from Lincoln, I am embracing every day that I have left in South Africa.  I have been given an incredible opportunity here and will continue to have amazing experiences for the last 50+ days at my site.  I know that July 10th will come and I will have to say goodbye to the Kwaz but for now I am looking at each moment as a blessing.  I’m using every day as a chance to love these people, this place and the life that I am living.  Each activity, day of work, and conversation continues to become more and more precious.  I challenge you to do the same—Embrace the moment, love the people around you, and look at each day, person, and conversation as a gift. Because that’s what they are.

"Nothing lasts forever so live it up, drink it down, laugh it off, avoid the bull, take chances and never have regrets. Because at one point everything you did was exactly what you wanted."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Not All Taxi Rides are Created Equal

The majority of my transportation, especially long distance, is done in a minibus taxi.  These ‘taxis’ are pretty much vans with four rows of seats and filled with 15 passengers.  They go everywhere around the country and even to other places in Africa.  Below is a picture of a taxi rank, although most of them are much busier than and not as clean as this one. 

There are two things that I really struggle with when riding the taxis.  The first is that the taxi doesn’t depart until it is full so you never know when you will leave.  The other problem I have is that they are always so hot! For some reason no one likes having windows open no matter how hot it gets so I often arrive at my destination feeling sweaty and gross.  Somehow I often get stuck in the back row which is the only row that they cram four people into.  Oftentimes the last person to get in that row has to wedge themselves into a four-inch space.  Not much fun.

Last week, when I was going to Pietermaritzburg, my tolerance for the taxis was maxing out.  Going from Estcourt to PMB only takes about an hour but waiting for over an hour for it the taxi to fill is more the rule than the exception.  This time, after 90 minutes of waiting, the taxi was full but for some reason the rank manager decided we should go in a different taxi so all 15 of us had to get out and move to another taxi.  I had been in the back by a window which was great because then I could control how hot it was by me.  However, upon moving to the other taxi I ended up being the last one to have to squeeze into the back row, of course. After squeezing into a spot barely large enough for a small child we were on our way but with no control of the windows it naturally got very warm. I got to PMB and told Elise, another volunteer, that I don’t know how many more of those I’m going to be able to handle!  Then, right on cue, my return trip to Estcourt was very different.

Because there are so many taxis in one rank it can become confusing and difficult to find the one that is going where you need.  On my way back to Estcourt we had just gotten on the interstate when an older woman a few rows ahead of me started asking about where the taxi was going.  Granted, I couldn’t understand most of the conversation as it was in Zulu but I did hear her saying, “Tugela” several times which is another hour past Estcourt.  She was realizing, too late, that she had gotten on the wrong taxi.

She soon began to cry as she did not have enough money to then make the trip from Estcourt to Tugela.  Without pause, a girl sitting next to her began asking everyone to put some money together for her.  Through everyone’s donations the woman was given R75, more than enough to make the next leg of her journey.

I watched the whole thing in awe and humility.  God knew that this was just the thing I needed to renew my spirit as frustration and annoyance had begun to take over.  “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” is a Zulu expression meaning, “A person is a person through people.” In other words, we do not get where we are solely by ourselves.  There are so many people around us that make us who we are and help us along the way. The spirit of Ubuntu filled that taxi as a group of strangers were willing to help another stranger for no benefit of their own.  Such a small but awesome experience to be a part of and one I will not soon forget!

“Africans believe in something that is difficult to render in English.  We call it ubuntu or botho.  It means the essence of being human.  It speaks about humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable.  It embraces compassion and toughness.  It recognizes that my humanity is bound up with yours, for we can only be human together."
-- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Glory of Easter

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!  Well we have finally gotten through the trials and suffering of the past week and have gotten to the glorious Easter Sunday!  When we see the empty tomb we are, once again, reminded of the new life that we receive in Christ and the promise for eternal life. One of my favorite things to do here is to sit on my porch and watch the sun rise. I love watching the colors and feeling the warmth as it rolls up over the horizon. It was especially beautiful this morning and was a perfect symbol that shows that no matter how dark and cold things get, the morning will come and the sun/Son will rise again! Amen.

The following lyrics are from one of my favorite songs about Easter, called “Now Let Us Dance!”

Now let us dance for the victory is won!
Now let us sing for song has begun,
Now let us live in the light of the Son
Gathered and called and united as one.

When we see the grave, stone is rolled away
Hear the angels say, “He is Risen!”
When we rise from death, filled with God’s own breath
Dead in sin and yet we’re forgiven!

At dawn as they walked, hanging their heads,
They fell in reverence when angels said,
“Why do you look for the living with the dead?”
Their mourning walk turned to dancing instead!