Sunday, May 14, 2017

For the Beauty of the Earth

This weekend, there's been a "boarding festival" that included a camp out. Knowing it would be my weekend on duty, I heartily volunteered because I love camping, and there would be a campfire where I was determined to introduce the girls to s'mores. Before the campfire, there was story telling, a barbecue, and music. It was an absolutely beautiful day, and I got to spend it outside having fun with my friends. As the evening wore on, several people wished me luck with sleeping outside with two dozen girls to be responsible for. Still, once I was in my tent, I couldn't help but love the idea of sleeping out in God's creation. There's a line from a movie I love, where one character asks another if he believes in God. His response is, "Wonder at creation, worship the Creator." And, apart from a tent and the fact that the sky was entirely clouded over, there I was in the middle of it. As I lay there, I could feel the stress, frustration and annoyance drain out of me to be replaced by a sense of inner peace. So in the morning when people asked me how it went, I said it was great, even in spite of a rain shower that woke me up at around 2 in the morning. Later, there was a school evensong in the cathedral. At the very end of the service, a bird got into the cathedral, singing its way through the closing prayers and song. It was as though the two were calling out, each to each. The formal decorum of a choir singing a blessing in a physically beautiful and imposing demonstration of religion. The simple song of the bird, singing because it knows nothing else, but the joy of making music for the pleasure of being alive in the free world. The two joined together, praising a God who is equally as present amongst stained glass and columns as He is in trees and sunsets.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Church Ladies

When I had one of my orientations in Chicago, I asked some YAGM alums how to figure out what church to go to. One of them gave one of the best pieces of advice I've had for maybe this whole experience. Find the old church ladies because they will take care of you. After doing some church scouting, I've ended up going to, as I fondly think of it, the church of the old people. Most of the Sundays that I get to go, I'm the youngest person by about 30 years. Partly, I ended up going there because that was the church that felt the most like church I'm used to from home, but even more than that, I never leave church until at least half an hour after church finishes because so many people come up to talk to me. Today was no exception. Even though it's Good Friday, there was fellowship time after the service. One woman, that I don't remember talking to before today, asked what my plans are for Easter dinner. If it wasn't for the fact that I'm not going to be around for Easter, I'm thoroughly convinced that someone I was sitting near would have invited me over for lunch. For a while, earlier in my time here, I was really struggling with the fact that I didn't know any other Christians in my age range around my area. Part of that I realized was my own fault for not going to a "happy, clappy" church as I've heard them labeled, where there would be more people in my age range. But when I next went to church, those thoughts instantly vanished because everyone welcomed me so warmly. Maybe it's because I grew up as the youngest person in the family, but I love getting to listen to the stories of those who are older than me. I think that's been part of what helped me settle into being here. They've kindly told me about the place I'm living, people here, places I should see, and their experience and knowledge of America. So, although I love my job, my co-workers, my gap family, and the girls at school, I can't imagine what my life would have been like here if I hadn't found my English church family.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Who am I?

One of the things I've found challenging at several times during my year has been figuring out how I fit into this year of service. I'm part of YAGM with the ELCA, but I'm also part of Time for God. In addition to the 84 YAGM brothers and sisters I have serving around the world, I also have another 80 or so TfG brothers and sisters from around the world serving here in the UK, plus my gap fam with the 5 other gaps working at my school. I constantly question if I'm standing just in one community or another community, two communities, three communities, or no community. In other YAGM communities, the ELCA has partnered with the Lutheran church in whatever the host country is. I think the YAGMs in most countries work in Lutheran churches, Lutheran organizations, or at least have a Lutheran community to support them. I haven't met a single British Lutheran, let alone many people who even know much about the fact that Lutheran is a Christian denomination. In some ways, I feel most comfortable with my other UK YAGMs because with them, I don't have to question how, or even if, I fit into this puzzle. I'm just another piece. For most of my time here, I've felt more connected to TfG because that's who I see and work with now that I'm here. I had a YAGM retreat this past week, though, and one guy said he only felt like a YAGM because there's another TfG volunteer at his placement and he's had to explain to his community why she doesn't go to all the retreats he does and have as many privileges as he has. That was the first I realized that probably all of us are struggling with how we fit into the partnership of YAGM and TfG. When I found out that the director of YAGM was coming to our retreat, I questioned as to why she was bothering to come see us. It felt to me like the point of sending YAGMs to the UK was that TfG was already established here, so they could handle us without needing oversight from YAGM or the ELCA. In the end, though, it turned out to be really beneficial for me to have her, and a UK YAGM alum from a couple years ago, at that retreat. We all ended up having a really long discussion about how we maybe worried a little more than we needed to about how this relationship would work out before we got here, but we still feel a sense of disconnect from the other volunteers we serve with both here, and around the world. She was really great to listen to all our concerns and recognize they're things that need to be addressed in the future, but also helped us see the benefits of the experience of having both organizations support us. The alum that was with us said that he remembers feeling the exact same way we have been feeling while he was here. I think the most powerful thing, though, was when the TfG rep we've had at all of our retreats spoke up. Since he's been with TfG for a while, he can see how the relationship between YAGM and TfG works out. Some people brought up that they felt like YAGM didn't think they were tough enough to go to a country where they would have to learn a new language, and wouldn't have the same standard of lifestyle as we are afforded by going from the US to the UK, but he said he thinks we have to be some of the toughest people in the YAGM program. There are a lot of YAGMs that go to a country with a language they've never heard, so it takes them a long time to form deep relationships with their communities. We're able to start forming relationships from day one. In his head, there's no language or cultural barrier we can hide behind, so we can and have to get into the real dark and dirty side of the communities we serve in. More than anything else, I think that helped remind me that YAGM and TfG can exist together. I saw that it's not so much about the label of who we are that affects what we're doing, it's the impact we make and the relationships we build that are what's important about this year.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Cucumbers and Marmite

Today has been a tough day. Last week, the chaplain was in on a meeting with a girl who's been self-harming and not eating. A decision was reached that since she doesn't like the school psychologist, she has to talk to someone about the struggles she's having, and she surprised people by saying she wants the chaplain to be the person she talks to. Because of when I've been out of the office, I didn't meet her until today. In the past day or so, she said she's only eaten a few slices of cucumber and marmite on less than a full slice of toast. There are some questions if she's exaggerating her situation to get attention, even so, I don't think I'd even be able to stand up if I ate that little in a day. It was a hard thing for me to deal with. At one point the chaplain said to imagine being happy in her life, but she just shook her head no. It didn't seem so much like she couldn't imagine being happy, but that she wouldn't imagine being happy. He wasn't asking for her to believe there will be a time in her life when she'll be happy, just to imagine what being happy would feel like. I think that was the hardest thing for me. Not that she thinks her life is so bad she simply cannot imagine it getting better, but that she doesn't even want to try to imagine a better life. We'd go from these moments where we were trying to get her to agree to eat something, anything, for supper to laughing about stories of ridiculous taxi drivers. I've never knowingly had so much interaction with someone who's self harming and starving themselves, but I found it so hard to justify why someone who could seem so happy one minute was so convinced that her life is permanently stuck at rock bottom the next. It's been hard to figure out what to say to her. I can't imagine what's going on in her head, and trying to reason with her or offering encouragements that life will get better are getting nowhere. It seems like an impossible task, but at the same time, I feel like this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Wonderful Snow

Yesterday I went with the chaplain to do a junior school (essentially an elementary school) assembly. The assembly was about snow at first, which was surprisingly appropriate because he planned the assembly about a week ago, and we had a few hours of snow in the afternoon. But he got on to the real point of the assembly when he told about when he was a student sitting in a rather boring lesson at school about wonder. In the class were some international African students. During the lesson, it started to snow. The teacher stopped the lesson to point out their expressions. The African students had never seen snow before, and the teacher said that right there, all their faces was what he was trying to tell them about wonder. It's funny how I so often find the messages in children's stories more poignant than if the same story were told with an adult audience in mind. I suddenly started thinking about how often I actually appreciate the wonder in my own life. Most days I wake up and groan because I don't want to get up and go to work. It's not because I don't like my job, it's just that I inevitably went to bed later than I would have liked the night before, and my bed is so warm and cozy. But then I took a minute to think about all the wonder I don't pay attention to in my life. It's in the beautiful sunrise I never would have seen if I had stayed in bed. It's the little girl who takes my hand and looks up at me with the most precious smile I would never have gotten to know if I didn't help with music classes in the junior school. It's the girl whose mental health I've been worried about all year suddenly deciding she wants to be baptized and confirmed I would never have met if I didn't take this leap of faith to come here. Normally, I think of wonder as those things that do make you stop and appreciate how amazing life is, but I also think there are lots of little wonders that we miss everyday because we're too busy, or tired, or stressed, or upset, or a list of countless other things to actually pay attention to what's around us. I think our lives could be richer if we looked for wonder in the big things and the little things. So my challenge for myself is to look for wonder, and not let it just slide by me unnoticed.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

He's Got the Whole World in His Hands

Today on my flight over to Dublin was the first time I've really been able to enjoy the view out a plane window. I realized in a new way how small we all are in the grand scheme of things. We walk on the skin of this earth that that hangs in balance in the black void of space. I'm a fan of the show Doctor Who, and despite the fact that its thought of a a quirky, science-y show, it often has surprising insight. One of my favorite lines says something about the universe being vast, complicated, and ridiculous, but sometimes impossible things happen that we call miracles. Even though my ideas are an amalgamation of creation and evolution, I think that line from Doctor Who holds true about our planet. In the whole universe, there is one earth, and it's beautiful. I think people to often forget how impossible the chances of this planet being here are, so they don't realize what a miracle it is. Right from the start of the Bible, we see "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." ( Genesis 1:1-2). We have this tiny little planet in a sea of inhabitable darkness, that's held in place by the pull from our sun; yet God Himself decided that He wanted a something in the middle of it all. If He took the time to show off, maybe we should take more time to notice what a miracle it is.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

My Little Blue Book

School got out here really early for Christmas break, so I've had travel plans lined up for months. I'm going to be spending a week in Dublin, and I'm leaving in a few days. For a while, I've known that the other gaps have other travel plans. The girl from Ecuador is planning to spend Christmas in Spain with her aunt. Just in the last few days, though, I've found out that she has to have a visa to go there, and they keep asking her for more details and documents, so she still doesn't know when she'll get to leave. In a panic, I sent a message to the girl that was in my job last year. "Do I need a visa? I thought you could go to other countries for short vacations without having a visa. " And then I found out that was my American privilege talking. Because I have a nice navy blue, American passport, I can land in most European countries, tell the immigration officer that I'm there on vacation and be sent on my way. Meanwhile my friend has been trudging through paperwork for over a week. As is often the case in situations of racial/ethnic/gender inequality, I initially felt guilty. Guilty that I can hop on a plane to Dublin without a second thought, when she can't even have a layover in some countries without a visa, even if she doesn't leave the airport. For her to travel to most countries outside South America she either needs a visa along with any additional paperwork the country may require, or has to pay a large amount of money to go as part of a tour group. As I thought about it, I wondered if this is strictly a matter of my American privilege, or if any of it has to do with how relationships between two countries are. For instance, if I wanted to go to Russia, would I have a similar experience, or does my American passport come with fairly universal ease of travel? Since I never traveled outside the United States before I came here, I really don't have the experience or knowledge to answer that question. For now, I'm just praying that my friend can get everything to work out because no one deserves to be alone for the holidays.