Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Yay for Internet!

So the few blogs below this were supposed to be posted forever ago but our DSL line at the office was supposedly hit by lightning and Telkom our communications company really enjoyed taking their sweet time fixing it. But hooray...it's back. Enjoy some stories from the last few months and internet-willing more should be on the way in the coming weeks!

Thanks for all of your love and support and prayers! Love love love.

A Life of Tension.

When I first arrived with my new MUD3 Family in South Africa nearly 6 months ago for our year of service with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program, we began our orientation by disorienting ourselves. We immediately found ourselves in a new land where some things we found were surprisingly familiar (like palm trees for the lone girl from Florida) and others were expectedly foreign (languages, foods, music, etc.) We were led in wonderful discussions by leaders of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa and members of our own ELCA Global Mission department. One of the many topics we kept returning to was the notion of the tensions we would likely experience this year. These tensions included (but certainly weren’t limited to) patience vs. proactivity, settling in vs. getting going, the idea of being vs. doing, relationships vs. tasks, and what I think my gifts are vs. what my gifts could be.

I fully expected therefore to see and experience these but I think I less expected to see how some of these really connect to the tensions that exist in our everyday lives in the United States. I was forced to confront these drastically a couple of weeks ago while preparing to head back to Kimberley from a wonderful visit with some of the other volunteers and our coordinators in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province. At the end of an incredibly refreshing week of great conversation and experiencing the site of another volunteer located in a pretty rural area of South Africa, I re-encountered my love/hate relationship with technology. The 6 of us were busy waiting out yet another torrential downpour before heading back to the Kwazamokuhle Diaconic Centre, or the Kwaz as Josh’s site has affectionately become known, when I received a text and then phone call from my best friend. Stacy was letting me know that good friends of ours had successfully delivered their second daughter, Lily Raina, early that morning Eastern Standard Time. It was so great to hear my sweet friend’s voice and catch up for just a few minutes and hear all the great news. I loved technology in that moment for allowing us to rejoice together in this new life even though we are separated by thousands of miles. The rain eventually let up and we were able to make our way home, have dinner, and just enjoy the last hours of each other’s company. It was beautiful. I went to sleep late that night, exhausted but very happy, very reenergized, and ready to come home and get back to work in my community of Roodepan. The next morning I woke up to a text from another of my best friends. Kelly was letting me know that the father of another good friend of ours had died suddenly of a heart attack. It was still the same day in U.S. time and my heart broke. In that moment, it was easier to hate technology for carrying that news just as fast as it had carried the joy of Lily’s arrival.

But that 180 degree switch in my emotions, that desire just for the moment to be Stateside and share in the joy and sorrow and celebration of life with my dear friends, really made me think about the everyday tensions that I am seeing here in South Africa, those that I can recall from life in the States, and those that I imagine are experienced no matter the place you call home. Babies are born and people die every day, it’s a part of life, whether we are ready for it or not. That is just one of the tensions the Bible so blatantly outlines for us in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3 starts with the often quoted, “ For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” and then goes on to list all of these opposites like birth and death, weeping and laughing, love and hate, war and peace. How many times have I read this passage and not seen it as an outline of the “tensions” we feel caught between every day?

Since my arrival to South Africa, the tension of being vs. doing has probably been the most obvious that I have encountered on a day to day basis. I get up and go to “work” each day at one of my local sites and there are many times during each of those days that I am not actually “working” in our typical North American definition of what it means to work. Maybe it’s a day I’m at the orphanage in Galeshewe and the babies are thoroughly enjoying their nap time, maybe I’m working with the home-based care group and I’m listening to an Ouma (Grandma) tell her story in Afrikaans where I can pick up every 5th word if it’s a good day. These times don’t seem to be nearly as productive as when I’m helping one of the babies learn to walk as we toddle across the room or when I can use my strength to off-road with a wheelchair to take another Ouma to the local clinic for a checkup. And yet, these times when I get to just be in the moment and take a breather to take it all in, to realize that just my presence or whatever small seemingly insignificant attempt at a conversation in Afrikaans I try, does mean something to the people I encounter during these days of “work”.

I think that sometimes in the States we make ourselves busy so that we don’t have to be alone with ourselves, so that we don’t have to make time for what can sometimes be awkward conversation with someone we don’t know, so that we can always “see” the product of whatever we were working on. I have often been guilty of focusing more on tasks than relationships or doing instead of being. At times, this is ok, sometimes even necessary. But, I’ve realized that this isn’t how I want to spend every day of my life. I would rather take the time to just be in a moment and to really focus on the people around me and not look only for what value they might have to me or the task I need to accomplish. This year, these tensions, are teaching me to be ok with not always having a concrete product to show for my days here – most days that would be impossible. They are teaching me that in the end making time for people, a smile or conversation or donation to their cause (and not necessarily financially), is more important to uniting us as a human race than for me to spend my days avoiding those I don’t know and only speaking philosophically about ways to understand one another.

Tensions are a part of life. Even in our program so aptly named MUD. With all the rain we had that week in KZN, it would have been really easy to become fed up with being wet all the time. On the other hand, mixing rain with the dirt creates the very mud in which we all live our lives. Real life is muddy, messy, full of tension. How we choose to view those tensions, or to ignore them altogether, will shape the lessons we learn from life and those around us.

January 28, 2011. Welcome to the world, Lily. Thank you for all the lessons you are already teaching those around you, near and far. Rest in eternal peace, Mr. Baker. Thank you for all the lessons that you are continuing to teach us as we celebrate the life you lived.

Christmas in a Semi-Arid Desert in the Summer

What makes Christmas, Christmas? Is it the gift giving? Is it watching the ABC Family 25 Days of Christmas movie marathon? Is it attending a church service? Is it a particular meal with your family? Is it caroling or listening to your favorite winter song on repeat for the whole month? Is it lights and trees and gingerbread men?

I was talking with one of my host brothers just a few days before Christmas and he was asking about the traditions that my family and I have surrounding the holidays and in particular Christmas. I went on to walk him through our “typical” Christmas: the house is usually decorated (at least inside), we head off to church on Christmas Eve for the 7pm candlelight service (although my family is usually helping out at several of the services that evening so we’re probably at the church itself by 4pm), after the 7 o’clock service we stop by my Aunt’s house for some light evening snacks and time to just relax (when we were kids we always got to open one present on Christmas Eve, the rest had to wait for the next morning), then we head home and to bed. On Christmas morning my mom always makes a nice breakfast and we leisurely sit around opening gifts. My aunt and cousin come over in the early afternoon and we all make dinner and just spend some quality time together. For us there was never a particular book that had to be read or song to be sung or movie to be watched. Those are all wonderful traditions but my family is small and we enjoy the simplicity of conversation and just being with one another.

I think in his question, my host brother was looking for something tangible to be recreated here to make it feel more like the Christmas I’m used to. I didn’t do a very good job of giving him ideas since it really is for us about celebrating together with people that we love. I was already sure that South Africa was going to provide that kind of atmosphere for me and boy, Kimberley certainly didn’t disappoint. My new South African family is a family with flexible boundaries that also includes some of our closest friends. We attended church on Christmas morning and then ran home to finish a few things for our Christmas lunch (one of my brothers works a night shift from 4pm-midnight so we ate early so he could join us). Our pastor and his wife were originally supposed to be out of town and when plans changed they were looking for others to spend the day with. We went on collecting friends in the days leading up to Christmas in such a way that our family of 9 became 21 and we outgrew the capacity of our home. We became a party on wheels bringing plates, glasses, silverware, and copious amounts of food across town to our Pastor’s home. It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day full of love and laughter and celebration and prayer and thanksgiving. I was truly blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people and in the end, it was just like any Christmas I would have at home. It wasn’t about gifts, it was instead about spending time with those that are important to you whether they are related to you by blood or not. After all, we are all family in Christ, brothers and sisters, even across oceans.

This Christmas season was a wonderful reminder of that. I have found that in the USA, the miracle of Jesus’ birth can sometimes be lost in the hustle and bustle of sales at popular stores and the need to find just the right gift. I feel as though this is something that most of us have known for a while, and yet we continue to play into the marketing schemes. Sure, maybe we go to church but even there I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that they know the story backwards and forwards and what’s the point to hearing it again. People tune out, they don’t look to hear something new in the reminder of the incredible thing we are celebrating. South Africa for me was a breath of fresh air this year. Months before Christmas I had asked a family member if they even did a gift exchange and the response was that kids usually got a few gifts but really there weren’t these great exchanges as we seem to have in the States. My St. Luke’s community came to church and although it was earlier than normal and they’ve heard the story a thousand times, they listened intently to the lay preacher. I was even trying to listen intently – dying to understand but probably only picking up a very small fraction of what was said. But in the end, when we gathered over a meal, the prayers and the toasts that were offered were of thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Jesus and his ultimate sacrifice for us and for the bonds created in faith that allowed such a family of believers to come together to celebrate the occasion.

I have never had a white Christmas and Florida is typically much warmer than most states on Christmas day, so the summertime temperatures in Africa really didn’t seem all that strange to me. I found all I needed to bake an apple pie and a couple of desserts that I usually spend Christmas morning baking with my mom and brought those along to share with my new extended family. I was thankful for the technology that allowed my parents to call me when Christmas morning reached them and to share how I had spent my day. But, most importantly, I was still surrounded by family who helped to remind me what the Christmas season is really all about – the seemingly crazy way that God chose to send his Son, our Savior, to us as a baby, with first time parents who were probably just as scared and nervous as new parents today. He grew and acknowledged every person as his brother and sister and was willing to die on their behalf, on our behalf. Today, we are still that family of believers – no matter our latitude and longitude, who our parents are, whether we have gifts or no gifts and food or no food under our trees and on our tables when we remember the day. We must always be that family with flexible borders who isn’t afraid to bring in those who are without and share with them the love that was shared with us the day Jesus was born.

Christmas in a Semi-Arid Desert in the Summer? Yep, done that and loved every second of it.

A Family Affair

In my life I have found that family is always important. I have also discovered that who you consider your family goes much deeper than blood relations. The first family I had in my life was the one I was born into – and I don’t think I could have chosen a better one myself. I was raised by parents who loved and cared for my younger brother and I but also weren’t afraid to discipline us when we stepped out of line. They are largely responsible for the person I am today and without their constant support and encouragement I know I wouldn’t be sitting in South Africa right now. But we also have other people who exercise influence on our lives and continue that molding and shaping process begun by our parents. I discovered this notion of a larger family most distinctly when I left home for college. I found a new set of people that were walking through life with me and understood what I was going through. They were there to celebrate the good times – a good grade in a tough class, a birthday, another National Championship (Go Gators!). They were there to laugh until it hurt. And they were there in the rougher times – when my last grandparent passed away during finals week my first semester, when my mom found out her cancer was back, when things with another friend just weren’t working out. They were there to just sit and wait and encourage. These are the things I had come to expect from my biological family and sure enough they were qualities in a family of brothers and sisters that I was able to create for myself even hours away from the family I had always known.

When I embarked on this journey of living abroad for a year, I was also given a new family of people to rely on and share our similar experiences with. The 11 of us volunteers from all parts of the country, from all different kinds of families, were unknowingly being woven together to fill the voids of the families we were leaving behind. We were the last country group to leave our larger YAGM orientation in Chicago and begin our year of service and I think it was within a matter of hours that we began calling ourselves a family unit. Our last day in the States was spent with us split into two teams: one Team Laundry who spent the day washing all of our dirty clothes from the week; and the other Team Shopping who spent the day trying to economically replace the majority of one member’s wardrobe after his suitcase had been stolen at the airport upon arrival to the Windy City. Now that right there is a family in action. We may be scattered across different parts of South Africa but even as we continue to come together for church events, retreats, and just to visit one another, we find that we are that family – we laugh, we cry, we sit and do nothing, we talk and reflect on our experiences so far, constantly teaching and learning from one another; continuing that molding and shaping process our parents and our other families began. In the end these are the people who will likely understand better than anyone else what it is I’ve been going through during this year. But this new MUD family wasn’t the only family I was getting for the year.

Kimberley is a new site for the MUD program and just as with some of the other placement sites, mine includes living with a host family for the year. Instantly upon my arrival to the Northern Cape Province, I was thrust into yet another family. I could not be more grateful for this. The Julius family welcomed me into their home with open arms and lots of love. My host parents are always asking me how I’m doing, if I need anything, including me on day to day things like grocery shopping after work – just genuinely making me feel a part of the family. That also requires me to be a family member when it comes to washing dishes, cleaning up after our new puppy messes in the house, and other general chores around the house. It definitely gives that sense of normalcy to life since if I were in the States I would be doing the same things day in and day out. My host siblings are relatively close to me in age – 2 older and 1 younger – and have a good circle of friends that I was also welcomed into as soon as I arrived. We go to movies, celebrate weddings and birthdays, and take turns hosting casual brunches every couple of weeks. Again, these are things that make the transition to life here so incredibly easy and really make it natural to call Kimberley home. I find that even in leaving my site for a week to visit another volunteer or travel for an event or a retreat that I am eager to come home and catch up on all that happened while I was away. From half a world away, I never could have picked a better place or a better family to call mine for the year. Already, even after being here for just a few months, there is talk about when I will visit again after returning to the States – there will certainly be more weddings and events that will merely be excuses for me to come back home to see this family. While most visitors to South Africa will, and should, see places like Durban and Johannesburg and the Mother City of Capetown, it may be easy to miss treasures like Kimberley. I know though that any opportunity I have to return to this beautiful country won’t be complete without a long stopover to my home and my family.

In the MUD program we talk a lot about our purpose during our time here as being to walk alongside our local hosts with the goal of both giving and receiving and to just “be” and not always strive to “do.” To me that sums up what all of the families in my life have been exemplifying, including the most recent ones I have found myself in. Family is a two-way street, family is there for the good and the bad, family is sometimes shown in an action of doing but sometimes recognizes it is equally as important to just “be” together. The impact of family is forever, so biological or created along the way, remember that those families are the ones who are and have been shaping the person you are. Thanks to all the members of all the families I have been blessed to be a part of, no matter which hemisphere you call home, you are the people who are teaching me the most about life and what it means to walk with others.