This blog is intended to track my thoughts and experiences over the next year of life in South Africa!

Friday, August 19, 2011

What we Discover in the End

When an experience is over, when do our reflections on that experience end?

I hope that mine never do.

Truly, I can’t believe that an entire year has come and gone - at least the one that

I just passed through and especially one that was filled with more learning, challenging experiences and growth than an entire college career. What we discover in the end is that we do have to move on but we don’t move on as the person we were before we began that experience. Instead

we hope to move on as a changed, more discerning and transformed person; I am taking the story of my year with me holding it close to my heart knowing that it will always play a formative part of my future. My story is one that is not just about myself but it’s about the people I met and the impact they had on me, it’s about experiences and lessons and it’s about a relationship that was at the center of it all - a relationship that was refined by faith without expectations, refined by a relentless reminder of what it means to be a beloved child of God and refined by a relentless and purposeful love that could only come through Christ Jesus. It is is an extraordinary privilege to hold

this story so close.

I feel sort of caught in between places though - reflection is often difficult as it makes us desire what we have left behind. In the end I’m discovering how hard it is to take what I’ve learned and make sense of it for what comes next. I’m unsure of where to go from here; before South Africa I thought I had everything all figured out - now I’m not too sure. However, what I can be sure of is that I am not the same person I was a year ago and the following lessons are some of the reasons why.

1.) A year ago the thought of doing something challenging or outside my norm was overwhelming, now I have a great appreciation for doing new things and learning to embrace challenges that come through new experiences. What I’ve come to recognize is that life is good but it comes with challenges that are going to oppose that notion, the next lesson addresses this.

2.) You have to rethink your attitude and re-evaluate your perspective. Life is always going to have negative challenges; these challenges require that we weigh them in light of all the good and we should always allow the positives to be what we reflect on and how we should praise our Heavenly Father. I have a good friend who taught me to think of this as a popcorn analogy - pick the good kernels from the bad, then eat the good and throw away the bad.

3.) Living a meaningful story requires more than just a decision to do something that seems radical a the first decision, instead it is a daily and continuous decision making process. It requires that we move beyond what is comfortable each day by overcoming our fears which allow us to remain content.

4.) Allow yourself to be open to God. Faith was central to everything I did in South Africa and I learned to think of it more in relationship and in terms of what it means to trust. I suggest that we allow ourselves to be open to God because when we move beyond a passive Christian life we find God’s love in new and extraordinary ways. I could go on and on about this topic but I will stop with this, God cares about what we do but he cares infinitely more about our hearts and desires for us all to know what it means to be his beloved.

5.) Happiness isn’t found in material possessions but in new experiences. We live in an amazing world that should be appreciated and experienced - this is what challenges and shapes our identities and what ultimately allows us to be vulnerable and to grow.

6.) Learn to live without expectations. This is really hard and I am guilty of placing expectation on each new experience or person in my life but I’ve recognized how much better life is when we don’t do this. I think this is related to our understanding of living in a fallen world - when we live in expectation we will constantly be disappointed.

7.) Don’t live with presumptions about others for whatever reason, whether because they are from a certain place, of a certain faith or of a certain ethnicity. Every person is unique and they deserve to be loved without having to fit any certain category we like to fit people into.

8.) Be confident in who you are.

9.) Know that we are only called to try to do something, when we believe that we are called to do something we forget to live in humility that allows the necessary space for God to do the majority of the lifting. And then when we feel like we are called to try to do it, it is easer to fail because we were just trying and not doing.

10.) Transitions are difficult and they require time and they require grieving. This past year had many transitions for me - the reasons they require grieving is that in those transitions we often loose a part of our identity (as a college student, foreign service worker, etc.) and in that we must learn what ultimately forms our identity - Christ.

11.) The importance of family. While friends do come and go, family is always there so learn to learn from them.

12.) The importance of learning. Learning is how we grow and I think it’s really what makes us human - we must continue to question, doubt and discover or we will no longer be able to consider ourselves alive.

13.) Your home culture is only one of many many other home cultures.

14.) When you feel like you can’t make a difference there is still learning and there is still an ability to focus on building bridges to people who are different than yourself.

15.) Live with others in mind - live simply as an act of love towards your neighbors who are all part of one global community.

There are several other lessons, those considering the importance of community, the power of story, the nature of service, what it means to make a difference in a different culture, aspects of leadership, what being an American abroad means, being confident in my passions and several more that really don’t make sense to anyone but myself, but I hope these are helpful to you, so that you have an idea of what this year has meant to me.

Thank you for coming alongside me and following this journey, it doesn’t just belong to me it belongs to you as well.


If you would like to hear me talk more, there are two opportunities to do so:

Sunday, August 28th at 9:30 am (Sunday School Hour) at East Sparta Christian Church


Monday, August 29th at 7:00 pm at East Sparta Christian Church

The Church is located at: 9429 Main Ave East Sparta, Ohio 44626

Monday, August 1, 2011

Learning to say Goodbye

One year ago while considering the year ahead of me—the outwardly intimidating amount of time, the distance away from all that I knew and the challenge of doing something completely new, I couldn’t imagine that at some point all of that would end and I would return. Sure as the year progressed I would dream about the moment when I would arrive in the airport to be greeted by the familiar arms of those who I left behind when the year began but before I could get to that point I had to cross an expanse of time that seemed unimaginable.

Although I’ve experienced the passing of a year many times before, one year ago it seemed impossible to imagine one entire year; One year ago I was unsure of how I would make it, unsure of how I would respond to things unfamiliar and uncomfortable and ultimately how the lens through which I viewed my world would twist and change. That is why when the end did finally greet me I wasn’t sure how to respond—what was uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first challenged me and I enjoyed that challenge! Eventually what challenged me changed me and when the end came it also meant that I would have to again tackle a transition that could again potentially be uncomfortable—that of saying goodbye and heading home. While I knew there would be those I left a year ago eagerly awaiting my return, saying goodbye was not easy.

No matter your feelings towards the end of anything it’s always there; ready to greet you in a way of confrontation and denial. Its embrace is perhaps mixed and most probably awkward, but it requires us to face such a basic part of our life. It’s in these moments of life that we find the tension that seems to make life so difficult but it is also in these moments that we are reminded of what life is about.

Every time I find myself in one of these moments of life that are characterized by this tension I find that my response is often one of wanting to “fix” what ultimately cannot be fixed—but what I’ve learned is that the tensions of life cannot be avoided— in the end you must say goodbye. When we realize that we cannot fix the tense filled moments of life we must find ways to just live in those moments and learn what we can from them.

A goodbye is more than just words, it’s an expression of emotions that are deeply rooted by relationship to whatever it is that we are saying goodbye to. To leave the country of South Africa and the city of Durban I was required to say goodbye to more than just a geographic location—it was saying goodbye to the relationships that I had built while living there, saying goodbye to a different culture in which I was challenged, to great friends, to a unique workplace where I was able to learn and engage with a world in need and ultimately I was required to say goodbye to an experience that had allowed me to live and learn in a place of tension for almost an entire year. This place of tension was created by the constant challenge of living in the now, of embracing a different culture and learning to consider faith throughout it all.

There were enough tough goodbyes for one year but it’s because of those goodbyes that saying hello to all of those that I love and missed have been so good. While there will be so much that I will miss from my year in South Africa I will always recall the lessons I learned and the memories that I hope will ultimately draw me back for a visit someday.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Human Migration, World Refugee Day, and Redemption Song

Human migration is central to the theme of the human race and is essential to our understanding of the world and the human story. I suppose until the advent of farming practices there was no other way to exist. As a Caucasian living in North America I am the product of human migration and I would suppose just about every other person on our planet today is also a product of this theme which stretches throughout human history.

One of the most central stories that are told among the three monotheistic faiths is the story of Israel and the Jewish people. The Christian Old Testament documents the repeated migration of these people out of the land of Canaan into Egypt, back to Canaan, out of Canaan into Babylon, back to Canaan and so on. Joseph (son of Jacob) ended up in Egypt because of what, today, we would consider Human Trafficking or slave trade and his brothers ended up in Egypt out of famine and desperation. After the Israelites finally made it back into Canaan after 400 years in Egypt they were given the command on several occasions to show compassion and love to foreigners as a reminder that they too were once sojourners. Deuteronomy, which is a book of the Old Testament that describes the relationship between God and the Israelites, states in 10:19 “So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

In my last year of university as I thought seriously about bearing the responsibility that accompanies a university education I thought about what I was going to do to live out a narrative that is reflective of the story that we are called to create in line with the understanding of Christ’s Kingdom message. During my last semester I was in a political science class which read “Chasing the Flame” a book by a well versed human rights academic named Samantha Power. This book chronicled the work of a UN official named Sérgio Vieira de Mello who was a diplomatic genius with a passionate humanitarian focus (we won’t consider the state of his personal life). Through his efforts he helped bring some semblance of peace to a chaotic world driven apart by the conflicts that shaped the later half of the twentieth century—everything from Lebanon, Kosovo, to Iraq. Sérgio’s desire was to see the international community act in a way that could prevent occurrences of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other challenges our world still continues to face.

From the time that I visited Honduras on a short 10 day mission trip in the middle of my second year of university the way I thought about and viewed the world changed. I had an undeniably guilty feeling coming back from that trip—how had I been so lucky to be part of the 5% of the world’s population who was born into the abundance of wealth in North America? Thankfully I had professors and mentors who helped me make sense of that question while also reminding me of the challenge and message that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples. While I grew up believing that Christ’s message was only one about salvation from my sin I learned through my university years that it was also one about a new way of living—a new system that turns the world upside down both socially and politically when it’s followed in a way that’s radically in line with Christ’s command. That system begins with love; love God and love your neighbor—it sounds simple until you truly consider who your neighbor is! It’s not just the other Christian you live next to in your small-town-village in Ohio; it includes those suffering in countries like Honduras or Congo where people are exploited in the name of cheap labor or minerals that go into the products made or grown for all of the wealthy industrialized countries. It’s the young Buddhist family in China working to make your latest T-shirt and it’s the Muslim family in the Middle East who has been pushed off their land in the name of cheap oil or occupation of American and allied troops.

That’s why when the opportunity opened up for me to serve for a year in such a socially and politically complex and interesting country with people (Refugees) who are those we are called to love I decided that the fear of the unknown would not hold me back from living out this narrative. I had a mentor while I was in the American Studies Program in Washington DC for a semester who said that if I wanted to work as a lawyer in the area of human rights I would have to first experience it, firsthand. I’m not exactly sure how I got interested in human rights but I think it goes back to the idea that in-a-way it allows me to show love to my neighbor. Since I understand my neighbor to be inclusive of the entire world, becoming an advocate for human rights in some way is part of my role in sharing the radical principles of Christ’s Kingdom.

Monday June 20th commemorated the 10th annual World Refugee Day and the 60th year of the UNHCR —the organization which employed Sérgio Vieira de Mello and the same one which in part helps fund the organization where I am a service worker (Refugee Social Service is considered an implementing arm of the UNHCR in Durban). Our organization commemorated the day by hosting an art competition among primary and secondary schools in the area at the Durban Holocaust Centre. The art student s contributed amazing pieces of work that reflected the UNHCRs theme of “ONE REFUGEE”. This theme was to reflect on the personal struggles of refugees and who often live without—without hope, without a home, without protection. (On the left you can see some of you young artists with their pieces of art and above you can see the Durban Holocaust Center).

Hosting the exhibit at the Durban Holocaust Center was genius— it created very real perspective for understanding where the roots of the human rights movement lay, the protection of refugees and the 1951 convention (the international document that guides the work of the UNHCR). Before WWII the international system failed refugees—often those fleeing the persecution of the Nazi regime were turned away at the boarders of countries they fled to and were forced back to their homes which were not safe (This lead to the principle of non-refoulement). While WWII has been one of the greatest sores in the story of human history it allowed the human race to reconsider the role of the international community in the domestic affairs of another sovereign state.

Human Rights are seen as a child of the natural rights movement that became a reality for the American continent and France in the eighteenth century but had yet to go world wide by the time of WWII. President FDR spoke after the war began about “Four Freedoms” those of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear”—human rights advocate Lois Henkin considers this to be the birth of international Human Rights. While WWII and other genocidal tragedies since have scared our past, the human rights movement began in this aftermath and is hopefully creating a brighter future. I experienced that future on World Refugee Day as a diverse group of South Africans, Refugees, and other expats gathered to commemorate this day. Among this group there were people from all over—Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, DRC, Zimbabwe, Burundi, South Africa, Germany, Canada, the U.S., and more—persons who are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and agnostic. But we still have far to go, yesterday the New York Times published an article about the rebel movement displacing people and creating uncertainty in Sudan as the Southern 1/3 of the country moves towards independence next month. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/world/africa/21sudan.html?_r=1&ref=africa).

Lois Henkin also claims that today “the refugee remains the step child of the Human Rights Movement”. Even the guiding 1951 convention ignores the right to receive asylum—one can seek asylum and enjoy it but one doesn’t necessarily have the right to receive asylum. The newest statistics announced showed that South Africa now has the highest amount of Asylum Seekers out of any other country in the entire world! The UNHCR projects that in 2011 there are 470,000 people of concern in South Africa—unfortunately only a fraction of those are true, genuine refugees. That’s where my work has been focused over the last 10 months, listening to and discerning the stories of plight shared by the refugees who come to our office and determining if they are genuine. Because the UNHCR and RSS are not charities our commitment is to never just give away assistance—when a client receives assistance they know that it is in partnership and they bear the responsibility of making the most with the opportunity we provide them—our desire is to see lives challenged and changed so that refugees can lead productive and satisfying lives of integration in South Africa.

It’s a privilege to hear the stories of the people that step through my office each week. Each of them represent and reflect the same story of human migration and movement that is part of your history and my history—it’s a story about struggle and ultimately undeniable hope. Wie Jingsheng, a Human Rights advocate in China, says that “Human Rights and basic freedoms refer to the satisfying or realizing of this part of human nature. They are the sum of hopes and aspirations that emerge naturally and do not need to be taught”.

While at RSS one of my main responsibilities has been to process asylum claims, unfortunately since many of the people who come to our office do not meet the criteria set forth by the 1998 Refugee Act (the guiding body of refugee law in SA) which is in accordance with the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol there is a need to ensure that these clients have-in-fact fled their country because they faced persecution and had no other choice but to leave. This job often makes me frustrated and the stories I hear get me down but I am reminded that this is an opportunity to see the effects of the brokenness on our world—reminding me continually that our world is one in desperate need of redemption. While I can see the effects of brokenness in North America being here allows me to take in a new perspective that is remindful of the command to love my neighbor (inclusive of the entire world). Even when clients lie to me about their reasons for leaving their country of origin (thus they don’t have a genuine claim for refugee status) I have to sit back and remember that their movement is no different than that of Joseph’s brothers or my ancestors and while I can chose to be frustrated with these clients I also have to remember where they are coming from. These clients are amongst those throughout the world who are groaning with the pains of a beautiful and good creation that has been destroyed and broken by sin. Not only do these clients suffer in the adjustment of coming to a new land, they are escaping lives of hunger, inequality, a lack of opportunity for education, and disease. Seeing this brokenness has made me battle back and forth between my idealism and pessimism—but it has reminded me of the hope and redemption that lies at the end of suffering. Even though it might be tough to imagine, I believe the God I serve is there amongst those who suffer. Experiencing and hearing first hand these stories that hunger for a better life because of suffering I am granted an opportunity to ultimately re-imagine our world which is suffering from the disregard of all that is good, a world that is designed to receive redemption, through the radical love and message of Christ’s Kingdom.

Some people may be critical of development, critical of the UN, democracy, or even the idea of Human Rights being the ‘new’ colonialism. These are just my views—this is just my experience. Although democracy in South Africa is young it is working—and it is providing the opportunity for redemption from a past of brokenness and destruction, of a nationalist government that suppressed and limited its people but now it is a beacon to the entire continent—there’s no coincidence that South Africa has the most Asylum seekers in entire world! 25 years ago South Africans were knocking on the door of other countries seeking refuge and now they’ve opened their doors, remembering that they too were once foreigners in another land.

I don’t think that I’ll fully know the impact that this year has made on my life. Over time it will be more clear—but for know I’m thankful for all the good and bad that I’ve experienced—for growing in understanding of my world and forming a perspective that in accordance with a world bigger than North America. I only have a short time remaining as an expat, so for those at Home I’ll see you soon!

Friday, May 20, 2011

While Wandering Around the City

This past Wednesday was Election Day in South Africa. It was essentially the equivalent to the Mid-Term Elections in the U.S. However, most importantly because it was Election Day, it was also a National Holiday! I did not realize that I would have this unexpected day off so I thought I would use the opportunity to check out more of the city and to also get a sense for how democracy was being enjoyed by the citizens of the “Rainbow Nation”!

Because of my political science background it was interesting to contrast people’s involvement and emotions towards the election to the involvement and emotions of elections in the U.S. I probably asked more questions than was appreciated by friends and acquaintances but as a young and dynamic democracy it’s really something that I couldn’t miss out on! This weekend I’ll be sure to read up on the results in the Mail & Guardian which is like South Africa’s New York Times and until then I won’t say anymore about it!

So I set out on my bicycle which has been fantastic to have because it has allowed me to get some needed exercise and to enjoy parts of Durban I never knew existed before! My intention was just to get a few snap shots of the electoral process and the propaganda, but I ended up at the Durban Botanical Gardens, which is an amazing spot just outside the city! Although the political process wasn’t occurring there so much it was a great time to really appreciate the city were I’ve been able to live and serve for the last nine months!

There was a lot of propaganda and there are something like over 100 different parties to choose from. In South Africa you choice your party and to verify that you've voted your thumb gets inked!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yehla moya oyiNgcwele, usindis' iAfrika!

I don't recall ever going to a Good Friday service; I’m sure that I’ve been to one at some point in my life but I seem to only remember the Sunrise and Resurrection services that happen two days later on Easter Sunday. I’m sure I haven’t completely neglected to attend at least one—maybe I just haven’t had the intentionality to do so, who knows… I’ll guess have to ask my mom – she’ll remember…

This Good Friday however I did have the opportunity to attend a very unique Good Friday service. Along with my host family, which attends this service every year, I rolled out of with the cracking of the morning light to a service attended by 3,000-4,000 South Africans beginning at 5:15 am and ending just before 9:00.

The service is in its 26th year and has a rich history that celebrates the local movement of ecumenical churches to fight against the injustice that was perpetuated by the Apartheid regime. This is the Diakonia Council of Churches, which is also the organization which operates the Diakonia Centre where I work. The theme each year focuses on different issues that bring the focus of Christ’s suffering to concerns of suffering and injustice today (since Apartheid is over). The theme this year was The Cross of Transformation, a more overarching theme than previous themes which focus more on issues such as HIV/AIDS. It was great to be part of such a large ecumenical and multicultural services that brought together the different cultural and ethnic groups in this diverse city to celebrate the transformative and powerful challenge that Christ’s death created for all of creation.

Please take some time to read more about this service with this link! I would love to go into a further description of the service but cannot in this post!


I suppose I only remember the Easter Sunday services because as a Christian, Jesus’ resurrection lies at the heart of my faith. This resurrection isn’t just the symbolism of Christ’s victory over death and a detached item of my faith; it is woven into the very structure of the way that I live my life and for the lives of every Christian—enlightening the way that we view issues that are central to the working out of our faith.

The story of Easter is more than an amazing story that we take note of on Easter Sunday. Understanding the story beyond what we are told in Sunday school allows us to understand that we follow a Savior that is absolutely revolutionary. When he died on a cross it would seem that he had failed but what he was actually succeeding in was turning the world’s systems upside down and introducing a completely new way that exemplifies His powerful testimony of subordination, sacrifice and love—Christ’s Kingdom.

The death and resurrection of our Savior is central point in the story of God’s redemption and the inauguration of and building of Christ’s Kingdom is the continuance of that story. As I participated in the Good Friday service, marching through the streets of Durban as a silent protest against injustice, I was reminded how powerful Christ’s suffering was on the cross, how his death wasn’t just about the sins in my own life but about turning the whole world into a right relationship with it’s creator.

As I think about the way that the local church was able to fight against such an oppressive regime as Apartheid through the power of Easter my mind goes back to one of my favorite classes in university, Political Theology, where my view and understanding of the way that my faith responds to a broken world was challenged and shaped. In my final paper I wrote, “This is what I think the Kingdom looks like—Jesus dying on Calvary and then raising again, which turned the world of powers, violence, political parties, and us upside down. Carrying our cross usually doesn’t look like authority over people but rather the way that Jesus exemplified when he came under people to serve, honor, and love them.”