Four weeks in July.
Thank you letter.
Somewhat cheesy, but do what you will with it.
Hello hello, friends!
I am back in the states after quite possibly the most wonderful, mobilizing, beautiful, challenging, affirming, transformational trips I have ever experienced. I cannot thank you all enough for your support – each of you contributed to a season in my life that will not easily be forgotten. It can only go forward from here! This trip solidified passions in me, sparked some new ones, and most of all stoked an already burning fire. I pray that fire continues flaming as I process our experiences, and strive to live a life transformed by what happened in South Africa.
At our first church service in Durban (the huge, smoggy, industrial, tense, violent, and undeniably westernized city on the eastern coast of South Africa) each of our six team members spoke to the congregation of about thirty people. I mentioned that in the family of God there is no Jew or Gentile, free or slave, man or woman – and, I added, no American or African. The applause and laughter indicated that this was the people’s sentiment as well, and that mindset carried us through the trip, being able to view very different people as one because of a common goal and a common desire to seek a God and a kingdom that transcends the politics and power of our own.
We worked closely with Mennonites Brothers Church in the South Beach area of Durban, far from the guest house where we slept, in the safer, whiter, richer neighborhood of Morningside. The daily commute was a cultural experience in itself, driving through the various boroughs of Durban in combies, packed mini-vans with gangster emblems and phrases all over the outside and Mr. Akon blaring on the inside. At Frere Mennonite, where we spent most of our days, we taught English lessons that invariably turned hilarious; helped build part of a roof to prepare for a nursery program (crèche); ate some delicious waffles, a standard South African dessert item; played with and took care of children for the “big mamas;” sang hours upon hours of French, Lingala, and English worship songs complete with uninhibited dance; cleaned up and painted the “backside” of the church (our friend Rachel left her mark beautifully through an amazing mural she created!); distributed food along with some very sketchy theology… But most importantly spent time with the people of the church, getting to know them and hearing their incredible, inspiring, and often disconcerting stories. The church was made entirely of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, except for our one Caucasian friend, Philip. Philip is an ex-diamond smuggler, who “never shot to kill, only shot to cripple.” He has one of the most crazy, transformational life stories I have ever heard! He said we were all invited back to Durban for his wedding next year… and we may take him up on it! Our favorite friend by far was an amazing man named Honore, French for ‘honor.’ He reminded us all of a young boy trapped in an adult body, a body that due to its incredible height and incredible lack of fat reminded us in turn of a giraffe! Honore has quite possibly the most gentle and generous spirit I have ever encountered – it has been a great privilege getting to know him.
Outside of the city, we had the chance to help lead two youth gatherings and speak to the junior high and high school students of Pietermaritzburg and Stanger, smaller towns about an hour away from Durban. The opportunity to share our hearts was a wonderful one, empowering for each of us and affirming in the fact we definitely have worthwhile words to share. The drives to each city were pretty phenomenal as well! Out of the city and into the country, we drove through some beautiful countryside and experienced those proverbial African skies. And yes, we managed to see some animals. We drove through two game park reserves and got close to the rhinos, buffalo, ostrich, zebras, wild hogs, lions, and giraffes. I must admit, one of my favorite moments was spent crouching in the brush and smelling the earthy, unadulterated scent that accompanies the chasing of a baby giraffe…
All our great experiences certainly came with some challenging ones. Money became more of an issue than we could have imagined. We discovered that we had severely under budgeted and would soon run out of money; at the same time we were worrying about our own caretaking, all those around us were in a much worse situation. Reconciling our vast American wealth, and simultaneously our friends’ great financial difficulties, was one of the most stretching mental challenges for me. We heard sentiments that suggested America is essentially heaven, the place everyone wants to be; such statements frightened me and truly awakened me to the reality of globalization and America’s imperialistic nature, intentional or not. Visiting a Target back in the states, a couple weeks ago, gave me a fair bit of culture shock… the idea that all the people in the store could afford to buy all they needed, and more, nearly made me cry.
Thankfully, through all the ups and downs of our trip, I had an absolutely phenomenal team alongside me. Us six FPU students, now including some of my closest friends, were able to connect and work together in a remarkable way, far beyond any of us would have guessed would happen. Although most of us didn’t know the others well, we felt connected already by the end of our week of pre-trip training.Sharing the journey with these incredible people was so valuable – we were able to come together each night to debrief, sing, process, pray, read the book of Acts, and support one another when things around us seemed to make no sense. I am positive that those nights in our little hotel room comprised some of the best “church” I have ever experienced. We do our best to keep that church together, seeing each other again every couple weeks. They did so much for me this trip, as a group who accepted, encouraged, and genuinely loved me for my whole self. I can tell I have returned to the states transformed espescially in my own self-image, and my five friends have so much to do with that.
Since we’ve been back, a fair amount of time has passed. And I do apologize for keeping you hanging for so long… It’s been filled with more retreats, the start of my sophomore year, much bicycling through downtown Fresno, some great class discussions on racism, the thrill and challenge of being an RA, spontaneous trips to the coast, organizing and planning for Building a Culture of Peace Week, making friends with some local anarchist activists, and much dancing! It’s been a good start to another good year – overwhelming at times, but the kind of overwhelming where I know that I am doing things that I want to do. And for that opportunity I am quite thankful. I’ve declared my majors as Biblical/Religious Studies, Intercultural Studies, and my minor as Peacemaking and Conflict Studies – although I know well that they may change!
Who knows what comes next? This school year is an adventure of its own, and next summer holds the potential for a study tour to Vietnam, overseas work with Mennonite Central Committee, a position in Chicago or Toronto as city host for exposing students to the reality of urban life… Or something else entirely! This trip has affirmed my belief that much of my life will be spent traveling and exploring what discipleship truly means, and I am stoked to live my life in response to that belief. It is an exciting journey to be on, and I thank each of you again for helping me along the way.
Thank you so incredibly much – I love you all.