**These are some final thoughts from South Africa which I wrote around late July and was unable to post until now due to lack of internet and due to some post YAGM travel through Zambia and Malawi on my way home. Sorry for the delay. Cheers - J
Well its official; its my last day at the Kwaz, I only have a few remaining days left in South Africa, and less than a month until I am home in Minnesota (give or take a bit for African time, but then again who is really counting). And, as all good things come to an end, I have to ask the question “what does this year mean for [me] as an individual, the MUD3 group, the ELCA, etc.” Now, I think it is always a bit of a dangerous question to ask “what does this all mean,” both in terms of my experience, the impending return to the States, for the overall group, the church etc., but I will see what I can come up with.
The quick and short summary of the ramblings about to be hashed out in the next few pages, is that I will never fully understand nor be able to put to words what this past year has all meant for me as a person and for my role in the global society. I also think that to try and figure out what this year has meant for me prior to letting the dust from the year settle is premature and shortsighted. If I were pressed to sum it up, and I would honestly love to leave it as such, I would say something like: I thought therefore I was, I listened therefore I learned, I met many people therefore I was challenged, I lived humbly and simply therefore I accompanied my brothers and sisters. But I reckon that to put it so simply makes sense only for me and I will try to be a bit more specific.
I once read that travel is the laziest form of learning. Just go somewhere you've never been, tend to your basic needs and lessons will be learned, if only about your basic needs. In part this has been true. This year has been about life changing experiences, furthering my worldview and global perspective, being spontaneous, making a plan, and just rolling with it. As a result I have never learned so much after doing so little. For a year I simply lived, focused solely on those around me being fully present in the moment, and did not worry about anything outside of my immediate realm.
Much is said while preparing for a time spent abroad regarding such a trip as a life changing experience. In many ways it is and it has been. However, I think there is a heavy misconception as to what this actually entails. Going into this year I had very few expectations and goals but what I really wanted to focus on was growing spiritually and discerning what I want to do “next” in my life and I was going to do this simply by traveling to the other side of the world. By making such a trek, I would sort out and focus on who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. This made sense to me.
To some degree I think I have accomplished these few goals. Looking back on the year, it is clear that in many regards of my life I have grown and developed especially when it comes to spiritual, global, and political aspects. For the first time in my life I have really been forced to, and enjoyed, forming my own viewpoints based on my time abroad, from both this year and in years/experiences prior. At this point I don’t have a clear blueprint of what I want to do next but I have a few ideas and I am very sure of what I do not want to do next.
What I did not expect was to fall in love with Africa and its most marginalized individuals. My heart has been touched and changed forever. I now see the people I used to walk past and not associate with. Relationships with people in my community have really formed me into a new individual. My viewpoints and global picture has been rocked and changed once again. Spiritually, politically, socially and globally I have a new lease on life.
Spiritually, the first half of the year was characterized by a heightened awareness of where I was at and in general the awareness of how little faith I had and how little my “faith” came into my daily life. In comparison to the first half of the year, the second half was characterized by trying to actively live out my faith and tending to my spiritual health. I became acutely aware of aspects in which my faith was lacking and how well I could say the right things to spark conversations around topics of faith that I really did not care about or did not know where my own beliefs were. Essentially I had become very good at playing the faith game, saying the right things, challenging others with my ramblings and all the while I was actively ignoring my own dormant faith. I was really challenged to find a way to grow spiritually this year and I think I will continue to grow as the result of this year.
Globally and socially, the entire year was a learning experience and opportunity to serve in an environment that caters to becoming more globally aware of issues related to race, poverty, religion, health care, disease, and globalization. I can tell that issues or the way people talk about certain things bothers me when before SA I more than likely wouldn’t even notice. The only way to really try to understand what is going on around you is to live and spend time in my community, eat what my neighbors eat, shop where they shop, travel how they travel, and wait for time to happen as they wait for time to happen. I have crossed barriers and layers of misunderstanding, hurt, and guilt that cloud many cross-cultural relationships in an effort to form truly lasting relationships. This experience has taught me many things about my role and what I represent in the global world, my goal now is to make sure I maintain this awareness so that being globally formed and globally informed doesn’t become a catchy phrase but really becomes something that I can hold on to as a characteristic and part of who I am as a person.
Politically. I used to see myself as a rather conservative right leaning American but lately after reading what I write in my spare time and listening to those around me I think I have had a shift in my views. As my mate A. Steele recently wrote:
My fellow liberal…Well, if I didn’t know better after reading your [latest piece of writing], I’d say you were an anti-war, peace and love activist who commonly puffs on the good pipe while expressing his liberal loins all over the place. I do have to say I am very proud of you for taking such a bold stance…I totally agree with what you are saying, and I think this year has really helped us put things into perspective. Continue thinking outside the box, your box, and all of the boxes we’ve been forced into throughout our two decades of American society.
That being said I am not joining any political party in the near future but I have really had the opportunity to challenge my viewpoints outside of the polluted American society in a global realm that often sees things from a new perspective than “our” own. It is very safe to say that I have many problems with the American viewpoint that we are the biggest and the best so we can do what we want. I am tired of our country being the forerunning in causing international issues and trying to fix everything.
In many ways I was challenged throughout the year and there were many frustrations amongst the successes. There were times when I felt that I wasn’t helping any one in my community or church. There were times when I felt like my purpose for being here wasn’t being fulfilled. I often struggled with questions regarding what my role in the church and community was. Yet, talking over these struggles and questions with friends both in the community and surrounding the community I began to see that I really was impacting those around me, as they were having an impact on me. Working under the accompaniment model it really became clear to me that God IS already here and I was just joining in his mission through grace. I stopped focusing on doing and focused on being. We are Human beings not human doings. The real key to success and growth is through relationships with ones neighbors and without my neighbors and friends I wouldn’t have made it through the year.
Looking back at experiences, both positive and negative, over the past year, one thing that is for certain is that the life I will be leaving behind at the Kwaz will be very different from what I will be encountering upon my return home. I will be going from a life that runs on a day to day basis to one that is much more practical in the western way of looking at things. I will go from seeing poverty in my backyard to experiencing seemingly overwhelming wealth around every corner. I will go from working with a high degree of self motivation focusing on relationships, projects, and learning from my fellow brothers and sisters in my community to having to search for a whole new motivation in life and on a daily basis. I will go from being someone special in my community and in the culture in which I served to being nobody special back home. And the one that scares me the most, I will go from serving with people who have a great world perspective to being surrounded by people, whom in many cases, do not care much about those outside their own little immediate circle of friends and family. There is no longer the exotic unexplored aspect of travel and international volunteer work that people once romanticized about. Many of my friends have been out of the country and through facebook, blogs, skype, etc. there will be nothing exotic and mysterious about my coming home. I will be arriving to mostly the same situation I left. These days with all our western electronics people are experiencing compassion burnout. They no longer have the true capacity to hear about poverty, HIV/AIDS, my experiences in rural SA, etc. since all of these things are beamed into their homes daily through the news and the web.
I think the worst part about coming home after spending an extended period of time in a different part of the world is the reverse culture shock. In many regards I have fully adapted to the rural South African way of life and I am not looking forward to living life in any different way. This feeling is based on the simple things such as teatime and braais but also on the basis of how one views time, productivity, relationships, friendships, etc. Rural African living has slowed me down. I now wait for time to happen rather than fill my time with time wasters. I am perfectly ok with just waiting around reading a book for a day or watching the world go by as I wait for someone to pick me up “just now.” I am also fully engaged in living simply and humbly. I wear a maximum of 2, maybe 3, shirts in a week and live off of a monthly budget that I would plow through in less than a week back home.
In this regard it is going to be hard to return to the western world. I have a strong distaste for western materialism at this point, but to truly survive and not drive away friends and family with rantings about wasting materials and money I will some how need to adjust back to the wasteful way of the west so as to not become critical of and alienate myself from those and others around me. It will be hard to not become judgmental of family and friends for doing exactly the same things that I used to do one year ago. Seemingly, out of necessity, it will only be a matter of time before I fall back into old habits to some degree, as I have with every other time I go abroad. The question is do I really have to and if I do how will I not become angry and frustrated with myself for once again becoming hypocritical? And is there a way to freely move back and forth between cultures and learned ways of life without challenging people in a way that is seemingly attacking the culture I come from?
One thing that has changed for certain, and hopefully for good is how I identify both with others and myself. I have found it to be a part of American culture to link ones identity with what they do or with what they produce for society. As such, my identity used to be based on my accomplishments, how I spent my time, what I participated in, etc. But recently I have come to the realization that I can only do things through Christ who strengthens me. Therefore, I do not derive my identity from what I have done; rather I derive my identity through Christ, his grace, and my relationship with him. This year has not been about physically producing anything. If you were to ask me what I did in terms of what did I produce or what did I do for work I would be pretty hard-pressed to give you an answer that would satisfy the western drive of productivity and production. I actually did not do much or work that often. Rather I spent time with my community and focused on developing relationships with people. As I had mentioned in an earlier writing this year: I am not hear to start something, solve the world’s problems, or really do anything. I am simply here to join in the work God is already doing.
In that regard, the most important part of trying to access what this year has meant for me is actually not to really look at what it has meant for me in any regard, but rather to look at what kind of return God is going to get on his investment in me throughout this past year. The question is not what does this year mean but rather what has God given me to share as a result of this experience and what has he entrusted to me. Throughout this year I have been given the chance to live in a foreign culture among friends who think and act differently. As a result I have changed. I am not the same person I was when I left. I have been molded for a purpose. Though at this point that purpose is still in question I believe that “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (luke 12:48) and therefore I have a duty to make a plan to use the sights, sounds, impressions, etc. that I have experienced this year and which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
One thing that I hope I leave behind, and that I hope the whole YAGM group leaves behind is a good name for both Americans, “missionaries,” young travelers, and globally formed and transformed individuals. For “a good name is more desirable than riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). The crazy thing about this year is that it is all much bigger than one individual, a group, or even the group that follows. The mission field is like a race. God has called and given us the opportunity to run a leg of the race and through his grace, in running our leg, we join the ranks of a long and illustrious line of people through which God has called to carry the baton of helping the poor and marginalized of the world. For some the race will be a yearlong and then they will have run their leg. The question is whether or not I will run short year long leg before passing the baton or whether this will be a lifelong call to continue in the great privilege of joining Christ in his ongoing missions and work in the world.
It is always hard to bring proper emotional, spiritual, social, and physical closure after being gone for such a long time. My friends here have become as dear and close to me as many long lasting friendships back home. How does one end a year like this? How does one say goodbye? These are all things that I have been trying to figure out in anticipation of a great year coming to an end in the next week. Lately, between leaving college life and now living in South Africa for a year, it seems as though my life has been characterized by meetings strangers, having those strangers become friends, those friends become as close as family, and then having those who are like family fade back to being strangers. And frankly, I’m not really ready to accept the inevitable that going to be leaving behind a great deal of friends and memories.
This year has been full of blessings, joys, struggles, friends, and ups and downs. I don’t quite know how to put into words my thankfulness for the wonderful opportunity and experience this past year has been. I have truly fallen in love with South Africa, KZN, my community and the spirit of Ubuntu that radiates through every interaction. I don’t know how to say goodbye and thank you to the people who have become my family and friends. One thing that is for certain though and that is there's this soul crushing realization that my life will never be this elegantly simple, free, and joyous again...until I return…and I will return.
The bottom line is that I really don’t know what this year is going to mean for me in terms of my life after YAGM and beyond. Hopefully it means that I have experienced a great blessing so that I can be a blessing to others (Gen. 22:17-18). But I don’t know what is going to happen and in that sense it’s still fundamentally an enigma and a mystery that is not readily available to put to words and solve. There are just too many x-factors. I threw myself into the chaos of the world and now I am returning with a life changing set of experiences and stories. I lost myself and re-found myself. In the mean time while I am sorting everything out, I think I will strive to wander, to learn, to explore, to need less and give more, to develop spiritually, to spread the love, to laugh often, to connect with like-minded souls, to taste different cultures and bask in new experiences while trying new things and drinking in the sweet nectar en route until the day I finally find the solution to the big question of “what does this all mean.”
Thank you South Africa you have truly changed me and my heart will forever remain in Africa.