The Overseas’ Survival Guide

images Today’s world is quite different than our parent’s and grandparent’s generation.  In the past, it was not uncommon to finish school, get a job, work the farm, marry, and have children all in the same location.  Nowadays, due to a need to find work, a sense of fun-loving adventure, and a desire to reclaim our own identity, many people find themselves in different cities, provinces, and even a world over.  Some have lamented the fact that this has split up families and whole communities; however, I do not think it is all bad.  To me, there is no greater teacher than life experience and one of the richest experiences you can have is to learn to thrive in a completely new culture.  Learning a new lifestyle and having new expectations helps to clarify some of your core convictions, deepens your sense of who you are, and helps you to establish a greater vision for your future.  Yet, even though there are myriad blessings to living in a completely new context, there are also several challenges.  You may suddenly find yourself crying over a bowl of pho noodles because you wish you could be eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon instead.  You may suddenly become homesick when you lack the ability to communicate fluently in a foreign language.  You may face a relatively harmless, short term illness, but begin to feel sad because there is no one around to take care of you.  All of these experiences will ultimately make you a tougher and stronger person, but in the interim, they are very hard to tackle.  While I cannot completely solve the problem of homesickness or culture shock for you, what follows is a list of some ideas of what has helped keep me going.  Through it all, I give the ultimate glory to God, because I know that as much as these ideas have been beneficial for me, if it weren’t for being sure that God had called me to this country and to this ministry I would have packed it in long ago.  I hope the following list can give you some inspiration and help you get through those super tough days of missing home.

Pre-Departure: The day has finally come.  You have spent months dreaming of your big adventure, and you have finally received word that it really and truly is going to happen.  You have been accepted into your volunteer/missionary/schooling/ministry/backpacking adventure.  Congratulations!  It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment (and you definitely SHOULD do something grand to celebrate), but before you actually leave your home country, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You will be gone for a long time. You may only be gone for a year or two, or you may be gone for much longer (potentially for the rest of your life), but just remember that even a few months will seem like an eternity to your family and your closest friends.  Therefore, it is important for them to know exactly what you are doing and why.  I recommend the following tips:
  • Send out prayer letters. Before my big trip, I created a Facebok group and sent out letters to some of my closest friends and members of my church who I hoped would support me in prayer.  I briefly highlighted what I was about to do and some ways in which they could keep in touch while I was away.  At first this was a bit awkward because whenever people receive these types of letters they often automatically assume that all you want is money, even though I tried to make it very clear that I was first and foremost asking for prayer.  On the other hand, some people find it a way to show their love to be able to give to your trip financially, and if that’s the case, it can truly be a blessing to you both.
  • Think about how to say goodbye. For about six months leading up to my departure, I had to say so many goodbyes.  This was especially sad because at times I had just started making a new friend, and I knew that I would soon be leaving them.  Goodbyes can be exhausting, but they are definitely necessary to your survival.  I recommend going out one-on-one for coffee with your closest friends, and then hosting a giant going away party for everyone to attend.  These are super fun and you can even get creative.  You can have culinary delights from the country you will be travelling to, play trivia games, watch movies staged in your new country, and have a “roast and toast.”  This definitely will be a memorable night to remember and everyone who takes part will feel like they are somehow taking part in your trip with you.
  • Have a Prayer/Sending Team. One of the best decisions I made before heading abroad was to create a powerful support network in my own country before I left.  I divided my group into two – a prayer group and a sending team.  My prayer group has been invaluable to me while I have been away.  They are a group of awesome guys and gals who have committed to intentionally praying for me and who I can email at any point when I am stressed, overwhelmed or homesick or even when I want to share about all the great things that are occurring in my life over here.  I also try to return the favour by emailing them about what they need prayer for.  This has been a great way to build friendships, especially with some people I didn’t necessarily hang out with all the time in Canada, and it is so important because, trust me, when you are in a brand new places, weird things will always happen (especially at the beginning).  The second group is my “sending group.”  This group is made up of my closest friends who intentionally helped me look at my decision for going abroad.  They shared in my passion and excitement and asked me piercing questions to ensure that I was ready.  Without them, my trip would have lacked a lot of purpose because I wouldn’t have been aware of many of the nuances I was previously missing.
  • Different people have different views on this topic.  Personally, I believe it is so important to know a bit about the culture before you even step onto the plane.  Obviously, you can’t know everything, but at least understanding a bit about their history, geography, social customs, and political climate, will help you be less in shock when you experience it firsthand for yourself.  Also, you may gain respect because people won’t simply see you as an ignorant tourist or “do-gooder.”  On the other hand, one of my good friends who has been a missionary for several years said she intentionally didn’t do any research before heading abroad and this helped her not to have any preconceived ideas.  However, if you do decide to research, the best places to look are at your local library, asking missionaries who have been to that country, and, if at all possible, checking out a local cultural community within your own city.
  • Bring Something Distinctly Canadian (Insert Country Here). Make a homesick emergency kit.  Fill it with some of your favourite things from your own country.  You may be surprised at some of the things you can’t find abroad… so ask your friends who live in that country or missionaries who have been over there what some of those things are.  I personally really enjoyed decking out my journal and day planner with Canadian stickers and bringing a pair of Canadian PJs.  Things like this will amuse your new friends and also make you feel like you took a part of Canada with you.
  • Ask Friends If They Have Friends In Your New Country. Before I came to Scotland, I hardly knew anyone in the U.K.  Thankfully, I met several people who had friends over here and this was really helpful especially in the first few weeks.  I have found that friends of friends are usually more than happy to show you around, host you for an overnight, or teach you something new about the culture.  It’s definitely worth the investment.

Upon Arrival: Your plane has taken off and after several hours of on-flight movies and beverages, you have now hit the tarmac in your new country.  You have arrived, completely jet lagged, unable to understand the local language, and looking like you have just lived through a hurricane.  You have no idea what this year will bring, but here are some ways to ensure that it is the best possible experience for you:

  • Approach With An Open Mind. When you are in a new country, there is invariably a temptation to compare this new culture with your own.  You may think that they are “backwards” or “chauvinistic” or conversely you may think that your own culture is rubbish in comparison with the values this new society seems to uphold.  My best advice is: try not to compare.  Approach with an open mind and realize that you will never learn all the intricacies of this new culture, but by talking with locals and living in this new environment, you may eventually begin to understand many of the things that puzzled you at first.
  • Be a Tourist. This may sound completely counterproductive to your original desire to be more like a local, but let me tell you: a little sense of tourism never hurt anyone, in fact, it can often enrich your experience.  Prior to my trip, I started making a bucket list of all the sights I wanted to see.  When I got to Scotland, I continued to ask the locals and add to my list.  Additionally, I committed myself to taking lots of pictures right from the beginning.  Always having new places to go and new things to check out will definitely help you when you are starting to feel homesick.  It can really motivate you to stay just one week longer because there is just one more thing you want to see in the country.  If you don’t get through your list (which you most likely won’t), it will give you all the more reason to go back to this country and see the sights you missed, not to mention, meet up with all of the new friends you made while you were abroad.
  • Think of the Randomiest/Craziest/Stupidest Goal You Can, Then Go for It. What is one thing you can do in this new country that you may never be able to try again? Going for an African lion safari right in the heart of Africa?  Going on an elephant ride?  Learning how to drive a boda-boda or water taxi?  Eating a live caterpillar?  Once you know what the scariest and coolest dream you have is: just go for it!  When I came to Scotland, I was completely mesmerized by the idea of driving manual on the left side of the road.  In Canada, automatic cars are the norm and it is a pretty big deal if a woman can drive stick shift.  I decided to go for it and try it out.  I did, and it has proven to be one of the coolest experiences I have had abroad thus far.
  • Journal Often. Journaling is such a powerful tool for unleashing your greatest thoughts, fears, and ambitions, yet sadly, it has become a lost art. Due to increased technology, many people find it completely pointless to sit with a pen in one hand, and a stack of paper in another.  Nevertheless, I strongly believe that journaling is one of the tools that has helped get me through some of my darkest hours overseas.  When you are abroad, you often have a temptation to put on a happy front.  Sometimes you may genuinely be happy, you may be having a great experience, and you may have a day when you are so proud because you scaled Ben Nevis and want to share it with the world.  But other times, you may act as if you are happy because you are worried about people in your homeland.  You may feel like if they knew you were unhappy or going through a rough time they would feel completely hopeless because they are so far away from you and you may want all your supporters to think you are having the time of your life so you don’t let them down after they helped fund your trip.  Therefore, your journal can become a really close friend and ally.  It is a place where you don’t have to pretend, you can just fully be yourself.  You can talk about how much you hate eating snake or how you hate not understanding the local dialect.  You can talk about how inadequate you felt when you were the only person who didn’t understand a cultural proverb or joke.  On top of writing down the negatives, though, always try to end each entry with at least one positive thought.  This will remind you that even during the hardest days, there is always some great reason why you were brave (read: foolish) enough to make such an impossible trek.

When you do decide to journal, it is so important to unplug.  Things like Facebook or Whatsapp can often distract you.  You may begin missing home and all the exciting things that are happening to your friends back in Canada or Timbuktu, but journaling time should be distinctly your time.  It is not the place to be influenced by any other pressures or voices.

  • Finding the Balance: An old song I learned in elementary school goes like this: “make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.”  It goes without saying that your friends back home will want to keep in touch with you.  Especially in the first few months, they may message you asking to Skype or chat.  You definitely want to make time for them because you know they will be the ones to sustain you when trials come and when you are back in your homeland they are the ones you will want to invest most heavily into.  At the same time, you are meeting all these new friends and you don’t want to appear “standoffish” or too preoccupied with your friends back home, so what do you do?

In order to remedy this problem, it is important to make sacrifices on both ends.  I am a planner.  This means that I oftentimes get extremely agitated with friends who request to Skype at the last minute, or who tell me they are going to Skype with me and then “forget.”  I get really upset because sometimes I turned down other plans in order to meet up with them, and then in the end of the day it seems like they really couldn’t have been bothered.    Additionally, when you first leave the country, you will likely have many people saying things like “keep in touch” or “we should Skype,” but then whenever you request a Skype date they habitually find some reason why they are “busy.”  Therefore, my first piece of advice would be to figure out who is actually interested in Skyping.  Determine the most reliable Skypers, and anyone who habitually forgets, make them less of a priority.  I know this sounds harsh at first, but it is really about protecting your own time.  After you have decided who you would like to Skype, try to find a time that mutually works.  This can be a bit of a challenge when you are in two different time zones, however, I often find for me that Skyping at 10pm GMT (5pm in Canada) works best.  This enables my friends to get home from work, put their feet up and relax for a bit, and it also means that my day in Edinburgh has come to a close.  If I want to meet up with new friends, but also want to Skype old friends on the same day, I usually make a compromise.  I will tell my new friends I can hang out with them for two or three hours, and afterwards will be Skyping someone from Canada.  This usually makes everyone happy and is a great way to get out of a situation if it suddenly becomes awkward and uncomfortable or if you just realize that you probably aren’t really going to click with this new friend after all.

  • Culinary Delights. Part of the excitement of going to a new country is being able to sample all of the exotic foods you are being offered.  Nevertheless, it may be important to do your research, especially if you have allergies, intolerances, dietary or cultural restrictions.  Being upfront about these things right from the start can really help your host family to provide well for you.  Determine early on what your favourite dishes are.  Don’t be afraid to try something even if it sounds strange at first.  For example, the idea of eating haggis sounds unappealing to many, but in the words of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, “how do you know you won’t like it, if you won’t even try it?”  Likewise, have fun introducing your host family to some of your own favourite foods from your country.  Even though most Canadians don’t eat poutine and tourtiere on a regular basis, I really love giving other people a “taste of Canada” and introducing them to a small part of my culture.  It makes me feel at home wherever I end up being.

And Remember: Once you are established in your country, these initial ideas will simply come as second nature to you.  However, there will always be little snags that pop up, so it is important to remember the following:

  • It’s Okay to Be Sad. There is no denying that you will probably feel homesick at some point.  Some people experience a sudden wave of homesickness right at the beginning, others face it more towards the middle or the end.  Since I had travelled abroad on several occasions before deciding to move abroad, I was no stranger to being in a foreign country for a month or two.  Yet it was during the Christmas holidays that I experienced my most acute form of homesickness.  When this happens, know that it is okay and completely normal.  Don’t rush yourself to get over it.  That doesn’t mean you have to be “depressed” or refuse to come out of your room, but it does mean that you are entitled to practicing a bit of self-care.  When you are feeling in a rut, it’s fine to treat yourself to some nice lotion or a movie.  It’s fine to snuggle up with a blanket and hot chocolate.
  • There is a Pattern. Many missionaries have discovered a pattern.  It looks something like this:

0-3 months – completely loving it! (Everything is great, you love being in a new country, you are enjoying learning a new culture and seeing all the sights)

3-6 months – completely hating it!  (You feel like you’ve just made the dumbest decision of your life, you want to go home, you miss having a nice hot shower or speaking English all day or having reliable internet.  You try to hatch an escape plan.)

6-9 months – reality sets in.  (You realize you aren’t going anywhere.  You are not a huge fan of this new country, but you are also starting to like it.  You still don’t understand many things, but you truly feel like this is now your home.  You even start talking and acting like a local.  You are now beyond tourist phase.  You realize you will survive and come out of this experience a wiser person.)

9-12 months – you think: “how is it possible that this trip is coming to a close so quickly?”  (You feel nostalgic about all the good memories you had and you feel attached to your new friends.  You are looking forward to going home, but you feel like a part of your heart and soul will be left in this new country.  Part of you wishes you could stay forever, but you know that may never be the case.)

This is obviously not the pattern for everyone and some people may experience different phases at different times, however, it does give you a general overview of what you can expect emotionally.  So when you start going through the various phases, remind yourself that it is completely normal and don’t rush yourself to get past them.

  • You Will Offend People – There’s No Way Around It. In the first few months, you are going to look like a complete fool.  You will likely say or do something that makes the locals think you are missing a few intelligence genes.  You may unknowingly make an offensive gesture, or you may tell a joke that no one else thinks is funny.  This is to be expected, so take advantage.  Usually the locals are very forgiving because they just think you are some “dumb” tourist.
  • The Issue of Dating. Oftentimes, going abroad provides a hotbed of people who are suddenly interested in you.  Your accent may add an exotic flare, or they may never have seen a red haired, green eyed beauty before.  At first this can be flattering, but you also need to exercise good caution.  You need to make sure the person is truly interested in YOU, not in your citizenship.  Don’t jump into anything.  If you weigh the Pros and Cons and truly believe it is best to enter into a relationship, do so wisely.  You won’t have as much support from friends and family you can really bounce ideas off of in the same way as if they had the chance to meet him in person.  Additionally, if he happens to be of a different culture than the country you are living in, you need to recognize the subtle layer of complexity dating someone of a different culture from within a different culture is going to provide you with.  It can often lead to heartache and misunderstandings, so it’s best to take it slow from the very beginning.

In the end of the day, your experience will always uniquely be your own.  I can’t live your experience for you, and you probably wouldn’t want me to.  Yet, I hope that some of these pointers have helped you to feel a bit better about being away from your family and friends.  Remember, you are living the dream.  So go out there, be yourself, be motivated, and go get em, tiger!

Have you lived abroad before?  Are you living abroad now?  What sustained you when you started feeling homesick?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The L’Arche Survival Guide

selfcare-is-not-selfish Living in community has definitely been one of the greatest and most radical decisions I have ever made.  However, life within any community also can come at a price.  The following are some suggestions for how to ensure your social, spiritual, and emotional well being within an often busy environment.  These tips are not meant to negatively reflect any experiences, but rather to simply share how you can make them even better.   The following are my own views and do not reflect those of L’Arche International. 

Living in community is a great experience.  It is a place where we learn to share things, where we discover vulnerability, and where our passions and giftings are most fully realized.  It is a place where human relationships are fostered and nurtured and where friendships are able to thrive.  Yet, it can also be a place of intense conflict and bitterness if we lack self-awareness or if we are unable to forgive those that we live with during inevitable times of mistakes and trials.  I can only speak for L’Arche as I have never lived in another intentional community, but I know that along the way, I have learned various lessons.  I’d like to share some of these tips with you now.  These are some pointers that I have picked up as I have journeyed in community over the years or that have been shared to me by other co-labourers committed to the cause of building a home together.  These ideas may never be shared with you formally during training or your interview, but I guarantee that if you follow them they will make any community experience you may have (whether living intentionally or not) much richer and deeper.  I hope they will be of benefit to you:

  • Have a favourite mug. In L’Arche we drink loads of tea.  Probably 2-5 cups a day on average.  Make your tea times special by picking out a favourite mug or buying your own.
  • Personalize your room. When we live in community we quite literally “share all things in common.”  There are very few places or things that are uniquely yours.  Utilize the space you do have.  String Christmas lights (even when it’s not Christmas), hang posters, draw lovely pictures, get a special calendar, deck out your room with Bible verses or inspirational quotes.  Do whatever makes you happy.
  • Do what de-stresses you. Community can be life-giving, but it can also be demanding and even draining.  Set aside some time every day for self-care..and I mean more than just mindlessly scrolling through Facebook (which is what I often tend to go for).  Go for a walk or jog, listen to your favourite music, buy a hot waterbottle or neck and should heater (they work wonders).  Also learn where in your body you store stress, try to eat healthy (which can often be a challenge because there are always sweeties on hand), and allow yourself to have a long bath and not think about anything.  Your body will thank you and so will your mind.  It’s virtually impossible to give unless we are also being generous with ourselves.  My friend who has lived in community for over 6 years refers to this practice as “selfish unselfishness.”
  • Once a week, treat yourself to something bigger. Many assistants find massages to be wonderful, others enjoy spending the day on a nice hike or going to a concert.  Give yourself something to look forward to that will also help you unwind.
  • Start each day with a prayer or positive thoughts. Get into the zone. Remember why you are here – this will sustain you when it’s 6am and you’d just rather be in bed.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. This is something I discovered in my 2nd year and it has been an invaluable tool.  Even on hard days when nothing seems to go right, you will soon discover that each day brings a blessing with it.  It could be as simple as an encouraging word or a funny situation or as big as celebrating your birthday… but there is always something.  Find joy in the little things.
  • People who have been at L’Arche long term really stress this point: PROTECT YOUR FREE TIME/DAYS AWAY. In community there is always something to be done and sometimes the leadership may even make you feel like you need to sacrifice everything.  But on your day away or during your four free hours, respect yourself.  Leave the house if you have to.  Engage in other interests.

NOTE: Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not telling you to never make sacrifices.  Sometimes I will give up my free time to attend a community function or when an emergency arises or if my house needs extra support.  But this must be gauged and you must be intentional when you make these judgement calls.  People will tell you “it’s okay to say no,” but will often guilt you when you do just that.  Don’t be afraid to talk to your house leader or leadership when the pressure’s on.  Stand up for yourself and you will gain respect.

  • Find a project that you enjoy. In my first year I decided to bake once a week and do the garden.  These are things I love.  It gave me a chance to still be at work, but to truly do something for the house that was also beneficial to me.
  • Discover a favourite dish. Mine is Baked Salmon and Rainbow Veg.  Mix it up a little, experiment with different twists.  Have fun in the kitchen.
  • I cannot stress this enough: each day is a fresh start. Conflicts happen in community, don’t hold on to them.  Forgive and move past all the negative situations.  Don’t stay stuck in the past, look towards the future.
  • Sometimes the mood strikes you to dress up fancy. Enjoy those days.
  • When I first came to L’Arche I was in love with the philosophy. I used to read Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen nearly every day and wondered why I was starting to get burnt out.  I wasn’t protecting my free time wisely.  I was doing L’Arche even when it was time to turn my brain off.  I suggest reading Vanier and Nouwen before you start L’Arche to give you a bigger picture and a greater appreciation, and then referencing it occasionally…but definitely not doing some indepth study.
  • It’s important to have friends both inside and outside of the community, but as my mentor who was an assistant at Daybreak for over 8 years put it, “try to become friends with the Core Members first. You’re there for them.  If you become friends with the assistants, it’s just an added bonus.”  In L’Arche we are constantly saying hello and goodbye.  It’s overwhelming and sometimes it can be difficult to make friends who will only be there for 4-6 months and then will move back to another country.  At first I found it a challenge because I truly thought I would keep in contact with so many people, but now I just try to let friendships unfold naturally.  Friendships can be unexpected, but a place like L’Arche is a great way to meet likeminded people.  At the same time, friendships can’t be forced.  We don’t always naturally click with everyone even if we live in the same house.  There should be no pressure to assume otherwise.
  • If you’re a Christian, I would recommend getting to know some of the older members of the community. Although L’Arche is founded on Christian princples and assistants are pretty good at upholding those values, L’Arche also attracts many very young assistants who are not yet at the stage where they can fully appreciate and live into this.  Getting to know some of the long term assistants has been invaluable to me in this regard – they have such wisdom and are rooted in the love and care of the community.  It is their life, not just a gap year.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to come to L’Arche just to check it out (that’s what I did at first).  But a commitment to L’Arche takes maturity to understand and must go deeper than just having fun.
  • Invite your friends over. Often L’Arche is impossible to explain to someone who has never visited a house.  Sharing a meal together moves us from idea into reality.  In fact, often my friends are surprised at how different L’Arche truly is from their original thoughts on the place or what it’s like to spend time with people who have a learning disability.  This experience opens windows and can be life-changing for many.  Also if you are considering being an assistant at some point, I definitely think it’s worth it to visit a L’Arche beforehand to get a feel for the philosophy and daily life.  There may not always be a L’Arche close by, or the nearest L’Arche may not be the one you end up applying to or being an assistant at, but if it’s at all possible, I recommend you try it out for an evening before committing long term.

Those are just my thoughts on the topic and I do realize that you may be part of another intentional community with different rhythms.  Yet I have discovered that the most important thing to sustain us in our calling and journey together is a trust that this is the life Christ has called us to live.  After this, the second and third necessary ingredients for long term commitment are good self-awareness and self-care.  When we have these three things, and when we practice what is good for us, we move from eating fast food to eating good food for the soul.  I hope these points nourish and encourage you.

Have you been part of an intentional community before?  Are you part of one now?  Let us know some of what has kept you going.  We’d love to hear from you!

Beyond Tourist – Confessions of a Chronic Wanderer

4534684-Cartoon-girl-traveller-vector-illustration--Stock-Vector-cartoon-tourist-suitcase Christmas day is fast approaching and for the first time I find myself feeling intensely lonely and homesick.  When I first moved to Scotland in August, I did not realize how much it would impact me to be away from home during the holidays, but let me assure you that it has indeed hit me harder than a truck going at full speed.  The Christmas season has especially been made harder for me as countless people have well-meaningly asked me if I would be going home for the holidays (as if I have over $1000 just to blow on one week) and because I have been graciously invited to numerous people’s houses on Christmas Day, but had to turn down every single offer due to the fact that I will be working.  Yet, as difficult and stressful as these four months have been, I honestly would not change them for the world.  They have been some of the most life-giving, special, and meaningful moments of my life and I would highly recommend that everyone spend at least six months, if not a year, abroad.

When I first boarded the plane four months ago, the lady I was sitting next to at the airport asked me what I was doing and why.  When I told her I had plans to go overseas and live in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future she asked me if I knew anyone there.  My answer was: no.  I do have a handful of friends in the U.K. and until recently the Republic of Ireland.  I even know a married couple in Glasgow, and for that I give thanks to God.  I am eternally grateful that I did not move to some foreign country completely to be alone and that I have been blessed with an exceptionally good community through L’Arche which has been far more than I could ever ask for or imagine.  But I did not have any close ties in Edinburgh itself upon my arrival and I had no idea how it would turn out.  For all I knew, it could have ended horribly with me bagging to pack up within the first week of my assignment.  I’m definitely glad God had other plans for me and for my time here. After the lady found out that I didn’t directly know anyone over here she said something that has stuck with me, and at times haunted me during my short stay in Scotland: “you must either be really brave or completely crazy.”  Looking back on this statement I definitely believe it was a mixture of both.

Many people have spent considerable time abroad for different reasons.  Perhaps they went on a short term mission’s trip for a month or two, took a semester abroad or decided to vacation at a ski resort.  Yet there is something completely different about going somewhere knowing that it will be short term versus knowing that you may be in it for longer than you imagined.  I have been to several different countries, I’ve experienced different cultures first-hand, and I am no stranger to the airport, but still boarding that plane alone for the first time in my life without a supportive group of friends travelling with me, and with the knowledge that I would have to learn to put down roots and call a new country home was a daunting experience for me.  I don’t think it matters how old you are when this happens.  You could be 18 or you could be 80.  Your very first exposure to 24/7 life in a completely new culture is going to shock you at first, but in the end I believe it will definitely all be worth it.

I have faced many obstacles since I have been here and it has not always been easy.  Sometimes something as simple as no store in the whole country carrying my favourite brand of mouthwash or having to ask a Scot multiple times to repeat themselves because I can’t understand their thick accent makes me wonder why I came here in the first place…especially on days when I am already missing home.  I can only imagine how much harder it must be for people who don’t speak the language or know a single thing about the culture when they first arrive.  Yet at other times I truly enjoy immersing myself in a new culture and getting beyond the mere tourist traps and into actual people’s homes to hear their stories, what matters to them the most, and what their favourite places in Edinburgh and Scotland are (and I can guarantee you that it’s often not the Castles).

Yet through all of this, I have definitely seen how God has been sustaining me.  In another blog post I will be sharing some ways that I have been able to keep calm and make the most of my overseas’ journey and I hope these suggestions will be most beneficial to you especially if you feel a personal calling to mission’s work or international adventure.  But for now, I would like to leave you with some of the most major lessons I have learned abroad and why I have become convinced now, more than ever, that every person should have an experience like this:

  • Living Abroad Makes You More Globally Aware

One of my favourite professors from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Dr. Brad Noel, once gave a sermon on how to understand God’s will for our lives.  In his message Noel said that sometimes we physically must move to a different place in order to experience God in a new way.  This definitely has been true in my case.

Since coming to Scotland I have become way more interested and invested in issues like homelessness, poverty, and mental illness.  Of course I was exposed to all of these things during my time in Toronto because I walked past homeless people every day, however, at that time in my life I didn’t have the same pastoral heart that is beginning to emerge at present.  At first this may sound completely crazy and you may wonder why.  The reason is because we often miss what is in our immediate surroundings.  When we walk past the same homeless person every day, we often close our eyes to them because they make us feel uncomfortable.  We may be so preoccupied with where we are going that we just feel we don’t have time to reach out to them with a smile or a word of encouragement.  Yet since coming to Edinburgh I am walking past different homeless people and all of a sudden I am beginning to notice who they are and what their stories are.  Another main reason for this is because over in Scotland I don’t have access to a car.  I could take the public transit, but oftentimes I just feel like the exercise and the walk isn’t so far, so because I am not in my safe iron cocoon I have no excuse not to pay attention to where I am going and who I am passing on my way.

Relatively early on, I also was introduced to the Young Scot movement that reaches out to young adults from 16-26.  The Young Scots have incentives for students and full time volunteers such as myself to explore various places in Scotland and also to do online activities.  Suddenly I have been immersing myself in topics related to the environment and learning about the impact that I personally can make on the earth.  Their website and weekly updates have been an opportunity for me to see beyond myself in a way that I just never chose to pay attention to before when I was still living in my home country.

Another important lesson I learned is how to stand strong in my faith even when no one else is doing so.  Although I attend church at least two or three times a week, the people I am often in contact with are largely atheists or nominal Catholics.  That’s not a shame against them as I believe religion is a matter of personal choice, but coming from such a strong Christian environment all my life, this has come as a complete shock to me.  I went from hanging out with Tyndale students whose idea of “fun” was to have a prayer meeting and Bible study 24/7 to being within the European culture where Christianity is very much out of vogue.  In fact, what you may have read or experienced about the European culture being atheistic is totally true.  Yet it is a hardened atheism.  It is not an apathetic atheism, but largely a once held Christianity that has since become passe.  Many people in Europe have no interest in godly things nor do they wish to discuss anything religious with you.  They tend to be highly intellectual and scientific and don’t believe anything that logical reasoning and physical proof can’t convey.  This has definitely been one of the most challenging things I have had to learn to adjust to.  Yet one day it really hit me because I was at my church’s Bible study and we were reading a passage from the Book of Revelation about the martyrs.  This sparked a discussion on martyrdom even within our current world today.  As I reflected on this I realized that many people in our world are facing religious persecution.  They may have been completely disowned by their families and they may be the only Christian within miles, but they still hold fast to their faith even though they are completely without support.  This taught me that even though it may be extremely difficult and painful for me to stand alone, it’s what I am meant to do.  Ever since that day, I have had a new interest and thirst to read the Bible and to spend time with God daily even though there is so much pressure around me telling me that this is a waste of time and not to do it.

Granted, this may all sound completely strange to you.  Scotland is, after all, a first world/developed country.  I essentially have the same access to all the services I would in Canada, but let me assure you that issues of poverty still do exist even in these sorts of countries.  Also, there is a tendency to think that because I moved to an English speaking Western country, the culture must really not be so different than Canada after all.  I will admit that Scotland and Canada do share similar values and outlooks on life and for the most part I have not experienced culture shock like I might have had I moved to an Asian or African country.  In some ways, this has made my experience abroad much easier.  I’m not struggling to learn a new language (except Scots – which is like English but with a wee bit of slang… it’s really not too hard to pick up) and so therefore I have more time to get to know the locals right away.  On the other hand, sometimes being in a culture so similar to your own makes it more difficult.  The reason is because everyone would expect you to feel homesick and to miss your culture if you were in a completely new country.  But when the country is similar to your own you often times will personally feel the difference, but yet you will find that many people are not as sympathetic to you and they may even be ignorant about some of the cultural changes because they have assumed you do things in the exact same way.  So, it definitely has its pluses and minuses.

  • Living Abroad Gives You A Greater Appreciation for Immigrants

I come from immigrant families on both sides.  My grandparents and my parent’s older siblings were all born abroad.  Of course I knew this growing up and it was actually one of the main reasons I had this internal stirring to spend time abroad.  It’s not something that my parents necessarily understood at the time, but I knew it was an important piece in my life that I really needed to come to terms with and experience for myself.  After being in Scotland for four months, I definitely have a whole new appreciation for my family background.

My Mom’s Dad first came over to Canada when he was around my age.  At that time he had no idea what would await him in this new country, but he boldly set out alone in search of a better life.  All he had with him was the clothes on his back and his prayer book.  It was a belief in God that sustained him during the first little while when he initially put down roots in this strange country.  My maternal grandmother, then came over when she was pregnant with my mother.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to make such a long journey as a pregnant woman, especially because at that time they did not have the same resources available that we do today.

When I consider this, I see how easy I have it today.  I actually knew the language when I arrived over here and the journey was considerably shorter as I took a plane rather than a boat, but still it has its challenges.  I know how often I miss home.  I think about my friends and my family every day and I pray for them.  One of the highlights of my week is definitely when I can Skype people back in Canada, but I can imagine how much harder it must have been in my grandparent’s generation.  Back then, they did not have access to things such as Skype, Facebook, or Email.  Their only choices were either to send a letter and wait weeks to hear a response or else to make a very expensive phone call (which they probably could not afford often at all).  I can imagine how much anxiety this must have produced since distant relatives and close friends were not able to be in contact about the most important life events such as weddings, the birth of children, or even deaths for weeks on end.  Additionally, they were not able to easily contact people back home to say something as simple as that they had arrived and were doing well in their new country.  I definitely have so much respect for the courage my grandparents showed since I am now living this life myself…but in a much simpler and easier way.

  • Hello, Confidence

Going abroad has definitely been one of the best ways to build up my confidence and personal development.  Although I am an extrovert, before coming to Scotland, I sometimes would make decisions just solely based on my network of friends and my comfort zone.  I turned down really great educational opportunities because I wanted to stay in Toronto close to the people I really loved, and when considering placements chose not to go abroad until just now because I was afraid of what I would miss.  The truth is: if you go abroad, you will always miss out.  Your friends will invite you to events even though you’re not there.  You will wish you could go, but you will know you can’t.  You may have to miss out on a friend’s wedding, baby shower, baptism, or engagement.  It may seem like you really are not gone all that long in proportion to the span of your entire life, but let me tell you: a lot can happen within a year or even within 4 months.  Yet, you can’t live your life preoccupied with the “what-ifs” or else you are never going to end up pursuing your dreams.  After four months, I am now much more confident in what I want out of life.  Of course there is a part of me that yearns to go back to Toronto and be with my friends, but there is an even greater part of me which knows this will likely never be a reality and so I must get on with my life and accept the inevitable that Toronto is no longer my home.   Don’t get me wrong.  This has nothing to do with my friends.  I still love them to bits and wish I had my old life back, but I have now learned to let go of places of familiarity.  I have learned that it is possible to thrive and develop friendships anywhere you go.  So as I look forward to my future, I do so praying about where God would like me to be located and also where the job opportunities are.  I am no longer afraid to move to a different province or even a completely different country, because I know I can manage.  I know that I can pick up the culture and learn new things even when I show up without knowing a single person.  I have learned that community can happen anywhere and thus I should not limit it.  In fact, the most exhilarating and life changing moments can happen when we are far away from those we love and care about the most.

One thing I have really loved about being abroad and that I highly recommend is that when you are in a completely new setting, you have the opportunity to start over.  Back home people will always be stuck in this mindset of who you were.  It doesn’t matter if you have changed, they just can’t seem to get past it.  This is especially true when you consider the people who saw you grow up.  They saw you when you were struggling in your teen years, and now they have a difficult time letting that go and seeing you as the capable adult that you are.  But when you move to a completely new place, people have no expectations or ideas about who you are.  You have clean slate and can introduce yourself in any way that you choose.
Back home people saw me as a complete extrovert, yet over the last three years since starting L’Arche I have noticed a change in myself.  I have begun to notice that I am not as extroverted as I had thought and that I actually like time alone.  This was very difficult to explain to my friends because they continued to see me as an extrovert, even though I tried to tell them I was changing.  Sometimes they would assume that maybe I was depressed or stressed and had things to do because I would rather watch a movie in my room instead of going to a late night party.  But since I came over here, people don’t know this side of my life.  Of course, they know I’m an extrovert, but they didn’t have any ideas of how extroverted I am.  Instead I have developed a real love for exploring neat places on my own.  I still do like hanging out with people and being friendly at my church group or doing something fun with my coworker once in a while, but I also feel completely at ease going for a walk in the park or even to the cinema by myself.  In the past, I would never do these types of things because I had told myself I needed to be with people 24/7 since I was convinced I was an extroverted extrovert.

Likewise, travelling abroad on your own can also be very good for introverts.  You may be quite shy, but you will have to challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people in order to survive in your new country.  You may be rubbish with directions (as I am), but you will learn how to ask random people on the street where to get to where you are going and even when you are in a big city like London or Manchester, you will have the confidence to ask around until you get to the right airport terminal.  After these 4 months, I am no longer scared to take random buses or planes by myself because I know that I’m truly not that bad at finding out where I need to go.  I’m not even afraid of driving manual on the other side of the road (but that’s a different story).

  • Living Abroad Helps You Understand Important Issues From The Local’s Perspective

One of the coolest things about living abroad is the opportunities to have coffee with a local or to go to their home for dinner.  This gives you time to actually get to know how they feel about important issues, and is really quite nice because you get to experience the culture for what it is.  Oftentimes when you go to a country for a tour, the guide only takes you to the nicest parts and he or she completely neglects any areas that make their country look bad or that will make tourists feel uncomfortable.  This is quite unfortunate because it does not accurately represent all of what happens in a country.

In Scotland at the moment, one of biggest issues is whether Scotland should separate from the UK and gain its independence.  Before coming to Scotland I really didn’t understand the depth and importance of this question.  But now that I have read so much of their history and also talked to many locals, it has begun to make much more sense.  I have a greater appreciation for why some people think they should separate and others think they shouldn’t. It has also given me a completely new understanding of some of the issues my own country is facing at the moment especially as I consider how Scotland and Europe in general is dealing with issues such as the refugee crisis or ISIS.

  • Lastly, Going Abroad Can Help You Put Down Roots.

This last part may sound the weirdest of all the things I have said so far, but it is definitely also the truest.  Going abroad has shown me exactly what I want out of life and what I need to do to get there.  It has made me a more patriotic Canadian and has allowed me to be more conscious about the things I often take for granted about my own country.  Whenever I am outside of Canada, I take pride in my country.  I love showing people some of our customs and introducing them to some of our foods.  At the same time, I also learn new things abroad that I hope to take back to Canada and introduce to people there.  I see ways in which Canada exceeds, and also ways in which Canada lacks, so it is truly eye opening.

I’m not going to lie to you: going abroad can be one of the loneliest times of your life.  For the past 119 days, my mind has flopped back and forth between loving every minute of being here and being glad that I made this trip to thinking it was the dumbest mistake I ever made and questioning why I ever did it.  I think this is completely normal, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Am I glad I did it?  Absolutely.  Do I wish I were still back in Toronto and would have accepted my job offer there?  Absolutely.  So my mind and heart are in this constant tension.  But now herein lies the real question: Am I glad I did it?  Yes, because it has honestly been such a time of profound growth and I sincerely doubt I could have experienced these kinds of lessons in any other way.  I hope that should you go abroad your experience will be just as good as mine.  If you have been abroad for more than a month or two, I’d also love to hear your thoughts.  What were some of the most transformative experiences you had while living abroad?  What would you change?  What advice would you give to other restless travellers?  How did you maintain your sanity and sustain your friendships back home?   I look forward to hearing from you.

 

 

 

 

Living Into Our Singleness

singleness  In John and Stasi Eldredge’s thought-provoking book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul they including the following timely quote: “We think you’ll find that every woman in her heart of hearts longs for three things: to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil beauty. That’s what makes a woman come alive.”

I have found in my own journey that human beings long for relationships.  From the time we are children, most of us crave friendships, and as we get older that friendship often turns into a longing for intimacy.  Yet, it is important to note that intimacy does not always start and stop with the sexual.  I do believe that God designed sex as the fullest culmination of human joy and delight, but intimacy also means so much more.  When I am having a deep conversation with a close friend and beginning to experience her life as if I were momentarily inside her own skin, I share in a non-sexual intimate moment.  When I bathe someone with a developmental disability and they allow me, ever so briefly, into their world, their struggles, and their vulnerability, I have once again entered into a time of intimacy.  When I am so drenched in prayer that my soul cries out for the needs of this world, I am joining in profound intimacy with Christ.  All of these experiences show that it is entirely possible for a single person who has never entered into a sexual encounter of any kind (and perhaps who never will) to have moments of deep trust and intimacy.  You see, singleness does not make you any less of a person… in fact, in some ways it may even make you more.

Being single is hard, especially because our culture is so romance and sex obsessed.  Through media and conversations, it almost makes it appears as if someone who is not in a relationship has something wrong with them.  But this is not the case.  Over and over again I have read countless blogs by women who were married in their late teens and early 20s offering some form of “wisdom” about singleness.  They often start off by saying something along the lines of “I have no idea what it’s like to be 30 and single, I was married at 18” (you got that right), “but I still feel I can tell you how amazing being single is.”  Wait a minute: why are you telling me how amazing it is to be single when you have spent every waking moment of your adult life in someone’s arms?  Do you truly know the ache and loneliness of spending Valentine’s day alone, going home to an empty apartment, or sitting down to an empty dinner table day in and day out?  If not, then I don’t think you are a good authority on this topic.

Lately, I have been reflecting on singleness a lot in my own life.  I have heard some of the following time and time again, but today I would like to offer it to you.  I’m not saying it as a way to judge you.  I’m not saying it as a 30 year old woman who is happily married with 3 kids and a 4th on the way.  And I’m not saying it as someone who has taken some religious vow to life-long celibacy.  Instead, I am sharing it as a co-journeyer.  I am sharing it as someone who is walking the same path as you and who has experienced many of the same doubts, frustrations, and poor self-image.  I therefore share these thoughts in hopes that they may also encourage you, just as they have encouraged me.

#1: It’s Not All About You

There is an inherent desire inside most of us to “fix” things.  Often when our hearts perceive a problem, our minds immediately fire off suggestions for how to make it better.  But this is not always realistic, nor is it healthy.  That’s because not everything is a “problem” and not everything needs to be “fixed.”

In my very first L’Arche house, there was a female core member who often assumed that if we were talking about anyone or anything we were talking about her.  Sometimes the best way to make it clear to her that she was not the focus, was to politely say something (in the nicest) way along the lines of “not everything is about you.”  That’s the same when it comes to singleness.

You’re not the only single girl out there.  There are plenty of others.  Yes, some are younger than you, but many others are your age or even older.  Never had a boyfriend?  I know people in their 30s who have never been on a date.

The reason you haven’t been asked out, haven’t been asked out as much as you would like, or you haven’t been asked out by the right type of guys is not necessarily because you’re chubby, there’s something wrong with your hair, you don’t look good, or you don’t have a good personality.  I know girls worry about these things, but time and again I have been with extremely gorgeous girls who have such a big heart and a big passion for life who have never dated.  So clearly it’s not all about them.  Don’t let the Devil fill your heart with these lies of self-pity or poor self-image.  If you do, that is only going to compound the problem ahead of you.

#2: It’s Not All About Him

This part could be divided into both a and b.

A) Quit making your future husband fill the role in your life that only God is intended to fill. If you think you will only be happy when you are holding someone’s hand, then think again.  Marriage is not a cure for loneliness, boredom, or lack of adventure.  Yes, it is awesome to have someone to spend your time with.  Yes, it is fantastic to come home to a pre-cooked dinner.  Yes, if marriage is done correctly it can be a wonderful adventure…but there will also be many other days when you will be at each other’s throats and want to throw the towel in.  Marriage is a commitment and commitments aren’t easy.  You know how you tried to go on that diet last year?  Well, marriage is even harder than that.  Quit placing so much pressure on your future husband to be this knight-in-shining-armour and to fill each and every emotional need you may have – that’s what your girlfriends are there for!

B) If you have had 3 or 4 boyfriends in the last year, it’s time to consider your role in this. It’s not all about him.  Yes, it takes two to tango.  He may have made mistakes and really messed up.  He may have hurt you in the process.  He may have not been who he said he was.  And don’t get me wrong that bites.  BUT you’re not perfect either.  If you are the type of girl always flitting around from one short term relationship to the other, I think you need to pause and consider why this is and how you can change it.

#3: Keep Being Who You Are

So many girls place way too emphasis on a man’s role in their life to the point of being willing to give up their own passions and dreams just in case something might work out with their new beau.  To me this is foolishness of the highest order.

In marriage there will be plenty of times to sacrifice.  Anytime you live with others there will have to be compromises.  I have never been married but I have lived in a L’Arche community for two years and had countless roomates in university.  I can tell you that although I wasn’t sexually invested into any of them nor did I have to discuss private matters like my finances with them, there are still moments when to keep the peace in the house or dorm room you will have to give up something important to you out of common courtesy and respect for those around you.  In marriage, sacrifice is even more important, however, I think that to say sacrifice is the whole point of a marriage is to get it completely wrong.
To me, the point of marriage is to help each other more fully live into your dreams.  I dream about getting a PhD.  If I met a man who said that if we get married I have to stay at home and raise five children, I would know he was not the person for me.  That’s not loving and it doesn’t fulfil my needs.  Likewise, if I met a man who dreamed of having children and I didn’t want any, and yet I denied him the chance to even have one child I would know that I am not the woman for him.  That would be unfair to him.  I shouldn’t have to sacrifice everything for him and he shouldn’t have to sacrifice everything for me.

Unfortunately in Christian culture, I have seen time and again that it is usually the woman who ends up sacrificing way more.  If you have decided that it’s okay with you to stay at home with the kids and be a homemaker then that is your decision and it should be honoured and respected.  Your husband should work hard to fulfill your financial needs and to give you necessary breaks and time away from the house to pursue other interests and hobbies.  But if you husband has told you that you MUST stay home with the kids and not given you any other option, then I cannot see how this is a loving partnership.

In the end of the day, being single is difficult.  You may try to console yourself by thinking of all the positives such as increased independence, greater mobility, and a self-designed life, but this may not take away from your aching desire for intimate and passionate love.  Through it all, God speaks to us and calls us into Himself.  He reminds us of how much we are loved.  We are loved regardless of our marital status. We are designed for relationships and we can experience deep friendship regardless of if we have a partner or not.  It won’t always be easy, but by switching our focus away from ourselves and our future partner and on to God, I believe that we will truly experience so much more than we have ever thought of, asked for, or imagined.

Reclaiming Peace: A Biblical Model of Pacifism from the Mennonite Perspective

Here’s a Copy of the talk I gave to the Catholic Workers in Glasgow tonight. 

Good evening and happy early Christmas.  Thank you for allowing me the wonderful privilege of sharing with you tonight about a topic so near to my heart.  Before I begin, I just quickly want to say, I hope you can all understand my accent.  I have been living in Scotland now for nearly 4 months, and I still occasionally have a difficult time understanding yours.

As you may have read in the short blurb Ross sent out about tonight’s presentation, my name is Deborah Ferber and I am an absolute pacifist from Canada.  An absolute pacifist is someone is who does not believe in war or violence in any form including when the government has sanctioned war against various countries or in the name of self-defence.  It is important here to note that if attacked, restraint may be an acceptable means of preventing harm to ourselves, but we never do it with the intention of hurting any other living being.  This view of absolute pacifism is held by the majority of people who are part of the Mennonite faith, which is the church I am affiliated with and which I will be sharing more about with you as the evening progresses.  While it is impossible to share all the intricacies of the Mennonite faith and practice with you during our short time together, I will do my best to explain a bit about who we are and why we believe as we do.  I welcome any further questions or comments after the talk and if I don’t know the answer, I will gladly either make up an answer that makes me sound intelligent or else direct you to a source that actually will answer those questions.

Since moving to Scotland in August, I have discovered that many people over here do not know who the Mennonites are and I may be safe to say that there is limited or no Mennonite presence.  Some of you may be familiar with our first cousins, the Amish who often live on communal farms with no electricity.  The Amish are technically considered part of the Mennonite family, or more widely known as the Anabaptist Christians, but they also are quite different than the majority of Mennonites today.

As you can see, I do not wear a head covering and I am not wearing a dress, but trousers.  I attended university and received a master’s degree in theology, and I also drive a car back home.  The reason for this is because the Mennonite faith is actually quite diverse.  Although there are still  many Mennonites who cling to our historical roots of simplicity and agriculture, we also have Mennonites like myself who are seen to be more modern and go on to work at normal jobs and lead lives that reflect those of the rest of society.  Yet regardless of what type of Mennonite you encounter, we all share the same common core values.  These values include: believing that adults should make their own decisions related to their faith.  This means that we do not baptize infants, but that we allow someone who is in their late teenage years to make a conscious decision whether they want to join the Mennonite church or not.  We also are forbidden from swearing oaths in a court of law, we believe that church and state should be completely separate and that there is no place for Christianity in politics, and lastly we believe in pacifism and social justice.  Although you may not agree with all or any of these Mennonite distinctions, we do not practice this things because we think that other churches are wrong if they want to follow different theological leanings, but rather because this is what distinguishes our church from any others.  Out of these main differences, the conviction we are most widely known for is pacifism and in fact, many Mennonites would argue that this is the most important conviction.  Someone can still be part of the Mennonite church even if they were baptised as an infant and we would likely not demand that they be baptised again nor would we shame a family that wishes to christen their child.  But, one cannot be Mennonite without being a pacifist.

Since our earliest beginnings back in 1525, the Mennonite church has had a long history of being peaceful even in the midst of wars, divisions, and persecution.  Our earliest confession of faith written in 1527 by Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler known as the Schleitheim Confession states that the sword (a generic term used to mean violence and war) is outside of the realm of Christian perfection.  This includes using violence against evil and in order to bring about the good, using violence against our enemies who are not Christian, and even becoming someone who must use violence as part of their job for example a police officer or soldier.

At first this may sound incredibly naïve, and even today many people regard the Anabaptist and Mennonite Christians as such.  In fact, it is truly a miracle that I am standing here before you today because I almost didn’t become a Mennonite because of the clause on pacifism.  When I was 16 I attended my church’s discipleship class which you may be familiar with as “catechism.”  16-18 is the average age for many young adults to formally decide if they want to become Mennonites or else leave the church of their parents and grandparents.  Not one year prior I boldly made the assertion that I could not become a Mennonite because I did not believe in pacifism.  God surely has a sense of humour because not only have I now been a Mennonite for nearly 10 years, but I even went on to study Peace Studies at a Mennonite seminary.  I have written various articles on pacifism and I have become a huge peace activist in many areas.  Yet, this truly has nothing to do with me.  It has everything to do with the fact that my pastors were patient with me and showed me through our Confessions of Faith and the Holy Bible the truth about peace and pacifism.  As I read the Bible more and more for myself I soon discovered that there is no place for war or violence within the Christian faith.  Christians are called to emulate the example of our master and role model, Jesus Christ, who said such profound words as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”  Jesus also never retaliated or used physical force in a way that harmed another human being.  Even when He was being beaten before His crucifixion, He remained silent and obediently underwent torture.  Jesus promises a new heaven and a new earth where all will be made right – completely peaceful and without the use of the violence and manipulation we see is so prevalent in our world and our media today.

Yet not everyone understands the importance of pacifism.  More times than I can relate, I have been asked questions such as “what do we do with the violence in the Old Testament?  Is war ever acceptable?  What about Hittler?”

I have discovered that while there may occasionally be times when these questions are valid, the majority of the time they are simply asked from a place of not wanting to be challenged.  Many times people truly do not want to know the answer to these questions, but simply refuse to join in a peaceful revolution because they are too preoccupied with seeing us as naïve.

The truth of the matter is that pacifism does leave some questions unanswered.  But I hope that I can clear up some misconceptions.  First, I want you to know that pacifism is not the same as being passive.  Being a pacifist does not mean that we foolishly sit quietly while people around us are being violated and manipulated.  It does not mean that if my children are being attacked I should helplessly do nothing.  If anything, pacifism takes more work than violence because it demands creativity.  I would like to very briefly share two stories with you, both are taken from Mennonite history.

In the first instance back in 1685, one of our leaders, Dirk Willems, was being pursued by a magistrate who was against the Anabaptist faith.  Dirk ran across a pond in order to escape this man, but unfortunately the ice was not thick enough and so his pursuer fell into the icy waters.  Instead of continuing to run, Dirk thrust his hand down and pulled his captor out.  What enabled Dirk to do something like this when common sense would have told him just to run?  It was the love of Christ and a belief that we should never allow any human being to suffer or die when it could have easily have been prevented.

The second story takes place during the Turkish revolution when a group of Turks planned to kill the Anabaptists.  During one scene, one Anabaptist stood in front of another brother who was about to be shot, spread his arms out in front of him, and uttered the words “brother, let me die for you!”  The Turks had never seen such a display of self-sacrificial love.  They were so shocked that no one was killed that day.

You likely will never find yourself facing these types of experiences, but we can all work on peace building every day.  The Mennonites spend a lot of time role playing, and our reason for that is good.  It’s because although we cannot know exactly how we would respond in the face of adversity and violence, by conditioning our minds to think creatively and to believe in alternatives, if the situation ever does arise we will be more prepared.  We will not act out of impulse and do something we will regret, rather we will remind our calling to be peaceful and to follow the example of Jesus.

Secondly, I want to share that I realize that being a pacifist is hard work.  It’s not easy, and it’s not for wimps.  Mennonites have an uncanny sense of humour and we like to make t-shirts with stereotypical Mennonite sayings.  One of the most common ones is a t-shirt featuring many different non-violent leaders from Jesus all the way to Ghandi.  The inscription reads “peace takes guts.”

Mennonite history is not perfect and even though we have always been peaceful people, there have been numerous examples in our history where fringe Mennonites have broken this important value.  There have sadly been uprisings and even deaths because of certain people who have since left the church.  One of the most devastating periods in our history took place during the first world war known as the Selbstschutz.  During this period, the peaceful Mennonites were attacked by many soldiers and many of the girls were raped and houses were ransacked. Some Mennonite fathers and brothers became righteously angry and wanted to avenge their wives and daughters.  Yet, sadly they wanted to do this at the price of peace.  They wanted to do it at the price of war and murder.  It was at this time that a well known Mennonite leader spoke these words that still have a huge impact on almost every Mennonite today, “anyone who takes up the sword even in the name of self-defence is henceforth no longer a Mennonite.”  These words may sound harsh given the circumstances and you may or may not agree with the sentiment, but they show us how seriously the Mennonites take our commitment and calling to peace.

Lastly, Mennonites today still find it important to live into our calling of peace.  Peace is not an abstract concept or solely an academic discipline.  It is true that the majority of Mennonites you meet have probably read hundreds and thousands of books on the topic, but it is far more important to actually live into the truth of what they are saying.  Our world is in a chaotic mess.  We read about ISIS, the attacks on Paris, and unrest in Africa and the Middle East on a daily basis.  It is hard to know how to react when these situations strike our world.  Some of us may also have experienced violence done to us a more personal level and perhaps manipulation and coercion has hit the people we love and care about the most.  There is no easy answer for this and I am not going to stand up here giving you a list of all the things you should do and all the things you should avoid.  Instead, let me say this: Jesus calls all of us to a position of peace and non-resistance.  He doesn’t promise that the way will be easy, but He does promise that He will help us when difficulties arise.  I hope and pray that this will be your experience as we all do what we can to help bring about a peaceful world in our own small corners and lives.

Thank you for having me and God bless.

 

 

The Real L’Arche (Lessons Learned Along the Way)

 am1The following views are my own and not representative of L’Arche                                International.

The doorbell rings.  It’s 6:45am, but the sounds of the house, the phone ringing, music playing, and my coworkers talking brings me back to a sense of reality.  These noises wake me from my slumber, pulling me from the warm covers of my bed and plunging me into the hubbub of community life – even on my day off.

I have been with L’Arche for over two years.  Let me be completely frank: you don’t get to be a 3rd year assistant without a lot of frustrations, stress, and occasional periods of burn out along the way.  BUT you also don’t get into your 3rd year without noticing significant growth and maturity in yourself, a sense of pride for stepping out and doing something different, and a completely new outlook on life.

I find that generally people who have not spent any significant time in L’Arche often have an idealized view of exactly what it is we do.  Perhaps they have read a book or two by Jean Vanier or even become Henri Nouwen scholars.  They may know the theory and practice behind L’Arche, but they have never fully lived it out in their own lives.  Many times people like to talk about how wonderful it is to be part of a Christian community, but they have never tasted the glorious sweetness for themselves.  So many people talk about me as if I am some sort of saint for being at L’Arche.  They believe it would be impossible for them to spend a year or two of their time and give their life to working and living so closely alongside adults with developmental disabilities, but they are unwilling to try it out to see if that is truly the case.  Although it is wonderful to have visionaries and idealists, what these people fail to realize is that L’Arche is made up of community gatherings, birthday celebrations, and hearty laughter.  It is made up of getting to know yourself in a new way, learning technical skills, and a quiet, yet deep spirituality that permeates everything we do, but it is also hard work.  It takes dedication and commitment.  It takes a special person who is willing to try to see beyond themselves and their own needs and look deeply into the experiences of someone else.  It takes someone who is willing to be vulnerable, but also who wants to live into their own gifts.  It takes someone who is not afraid to laugh at themselves, but also who can graciously accept criticism.  I say it takes a special person because these are not skills I have completely mastered yet.  Throughout my L’Arche journey I have often grown better in certain areas, but I know that there is still more work to be done.  I also know that L’Arche is not a “cure-all.”  It is a garden full of growth and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean the weeds won’t come.  It would be irresponsible for any assistant to believe otherwise.  Personal growth must first and foremost be a matter of choice.  If you have decided within yourself to make the most of your L’Arche experience then you will.  If you go at it as if it were simply a job, then it likely will never become more than just employment or a gap year to you.

Over the years, several of my friends have talked to me about their desire to join L’Arche.  Sometimes they do, other times they don’t.  When their first question is about the pay grade, I know right away that this will not be a good fit for them.  When they ask deeper questions that emulate a potential for reflection and thinking, then I know L’Arche may bring some special meaning to their life.  In all things, I try to represent L’Arche fairly, but also take into consideration who they are as a person.  Completely idealized people who come to L’Arche will often find that their expectations are not being met – you need to come with a sense of openness and realness.  It is equally important to note that there is a huge difference between how people experience L’Arche.  Some of my friends have been with L’Arche 7 years or more.  They completely love it, are utterly committed, and have had wonderful experiences.  This often is the result of a gracious and loving house leader and accompanier who intentionally walked with them during their initial years of L’Arche.  Yet, other people have left L’Arche wounded and disillusioned.  This could be the result of poor leadership or their own lack of self-care and self-knowledge prior to L’Arche.  In some cases this hurt can be undone, but at other times the assistant does not wish for it to be undone but continues to hold on to it for years to come.

Recently one of my friends asked me to reflect on the top three things I have learned in L’Arche and after much deliberation, I decided to share them more widely.  Would you like to know the real L’Arche?  Would you like to briefly enter into my world?  Then please allow me to be the tour guide.

#1: The Real L’Arche is Inwardly Transforming

When I first came to L’Arche I had recently just turned 22 and graduated from university.  Many people come to L’Arche in their late teens or early twenties, others come at different stages in their life, but I can guarantee you that L’Arche isn’t all about age.  If you have never experienced L’Arche before, you still have the potential to see amazing growth in your early years.  When I first came to L’Arche, I had to learn about how my past experiences have shaped my present reality.  Even today, three years later, I still find times in my own life when my woundedness and vulnerability hinders my ability to fully live L’Arche. This is especially difficult if some of those wounds come from previous L’Arche experiences.  After all, L’Arche (like everything else) is made up of imperfect humans.   I am constantly reminded and humbled of the mistakes I have made in community, but I am also gratefully aware of the support of others around me.  In my early days at L’Arche I went through some extremely difficult and painful things (not necessarily because of the community).  Yet, not too long after I became so aware of the fact that had it not been for L’Arche, I may never have managed through those things.  The community and the Core Members (people with disabilities) surrounded me during those times with their prayers and hugs.  I know that that had it not been for them, I may never have stuck it out with my commitment.

In L’Arche I learned technical skills I never had to utilize before.  I acquired a love for cooking, and became adept at cleaning.  I became familiar with all levels of personal care, and built relationships daily because of that.  Technical skills are important and transferable to almost any job and to life in general, but the intrinsic skills I learned are so much more valuable.  In L’Arche I learned how to truly listen.  I learned to become patient and calm even in the face of stress and difficulty.  I learned to forgive others and myself and the value of seeing each day as a new opportunity.  In L’Arche it is so important that we do not keep holding on to conflicts or disagreements.  We must acknowledge their presence and do what we can to resolve them, but then let them go.  Continuing to bring up the past failures of yourself, leadership, or another assistant only leads to bitterness and resentment and is in no way conducive to a good collaborative community spirit.

#2: The Real L’Arche Requires You To Take Things One Day At A Time

When I first came to L’Arche back in 2013, I had no idea that in 2016 I would still be there.  I came to L’Arche with an initial one year commitment, but with the idea that it could be longer term.  I came with the expectation that I would just let things unfold, and they definitely have.

Some assistants know right away in their early days that this is the place for them.  They have a sense that they can really give and receive from the community and a few of them stay on long term, but this is the exception not the norm.

Sometimes assistants feel so strongly in their early days that they could stay here forever, but they are usually the first to go.  They have such high hopes that they often become disillusioned by the long hours and challenge of community living.  I know that in my initial days I also had a sense of permanency.  I felt attached very early on and I was even encouraged by some in leadership to right away sign for a second year, but in hindsight, I’m glad I just took things one day at a time.

Many long term assistants can relate to this sense of joy and yet struggle.  There will be days when you absolutely love being part of L’Arche.  You may love your house and the people you live with.  You may become attached to the geographical location you are in or to the community in general.  And when that happens it is something to be celebrated.  But, you might also have days when you struggle and need extra support.  In those moments, self-care becomes so crucial.  Living in community has taught me much about my own strengths as well as my limitations.  It has taught me how to stand up for myself and be assertive, but it has also taught me how to sacrifice my own needs for the sake of others around me.  Most importantly, it has taught me the importance of building relationships.  I have found that when I have a relationship with someone (even someone I may have originally had doubts about clicking with) it becomes so much easier for me to journey with them into their own life and their own experiences.

#3: It is Possible to Live the Real L’Arche Even If You Aren’t A L’Arche Assistant

Sometimes people feel called to some of the principles and values of L’Arche, but not necessarily to joining the community.  Sometimes community life may be impractical or even impossible for some, but the practices of L’Arche are something everyone who wants to can attain to.  Here are some of the main ones:

  • A sense of openness, inclusion and welcome. L’Arche is about making home, even for and especially among those whom society often overlooks.  Throughout my years in L’Arche, a recurring highlight has been inviting friends over to share a dinner meal with the house and then stay for prayer afterwards or to attend one of our chapels.  In these moments I see how my friends’ lives are transformed even after only an hour or two.  L’Arche is about hospitality, and opening up our hearts, houses, and tables to guests.  This is something that anyone can do, even if you aren’t at L’Arche.  By keeping dinner conversations light and free from business talk, making the dinner table a conflict free zone, refraining from using cell and house phones and focusing solely on the presence of those around us, refusing to rush, and diligently taking time to plan and prepare a delicious home cooked meal, we are making this a reality.
  • A sense of fun. L’Arche is a lot of hard work.  We work long hours and have limited personal time. It takes sacrifice especially if you are the type of person who likes to be involved in many different activities as you may have to say no to several in order to satisfy the needs of the community, but it is also a lot of fun.  I do not think I have ever laughed so heartily in my life or enjoyed making a fool of myself so much.  L’Arche has been one of the few places I can let down my guard and not care about what other people think including myself.
  • A sense of healthy balance. In L’Arche we often work split shifts.  This means that on average we really only have 4 hours off per day.  Our day usually starts at 6:45 and goes until 10 or 11pm depending on the house.  At first, this can be a real challenge, but never have I had to learn to prioritize as much as in L’Arche.  In the beginning the four hours just flew by and I felt I had accomplished very little, but today those four hours seem sufficient for me.  This has definitely been a skill I have used in other areas of my life.  I have learned that even in a short amount of time, I can get everything I need to done and even have some time left over.  It is almost worth it to do L’Arche just to experience this.
  • A sense of ministry and calling. People come to L’Arche for different reasons.  Some come because of employment and this is their choice.  It is not my place to judge anyone’s motivations for wanting to join our community and each reason is valid.  Yet personally speaking, if I only saw L’Arche as a job I would not have made it this far.  L’Arche is pretty much all consuming and the pay grade is aimed at reminding us that it is less about material wealth and more about the intrinsic value of helping others.  Through L’Arche, many assistants have discovered their life path.  For some this means doing L’Arche long term, but for the majority it means staying on for a year or two, learning whatever it is they needed to learn and then moving on to other things.  Many people have discovered through L’Arche a new passion and have gone on to study their new interest in university or college.  Others have had their passion more fully realized.  I received a call from God about 6 months prior to my L’Arche appointment when I felt strongly that God was leading me into full time vocational ministry among people with disabilities.  It was this very calling that sustained me during the initial early and difficult days of L’Arche.  It is this very calling that continues to sustain me.  Although I did not first receive this calling at L’Arche, I have become acutely aware that L’Arche has really enabled it to grow and I am thankful for that.  I know that ultimately my personal and spiritual growth has come from God, but I know that L’Arche is one of the main vehicles He has used to make that happen.  When someone truly feels called to a specific ministry it is important to be fervent and to honour that calling regardless of what others around them might think.  Since I started L’Arche there have been many voices telling me that I need to stop and encouraging me in other paths.  Many times people feel they know your calling, but the person who knows your calling the best is you.  I am not saying to tune out those other voices at all, but you need to follow your heart and do what the Holy Spirit and your intuition tells you is the right thing to do.  And like I said, you need to take it one day at a time.  One day before my third year, I was out in the woods and talking to God when He revealed to me that L’Arche was not my long term calling, but that I needed to be faithful to Him and accept His call for me to do yet another year.  I did just that and it has ended up being among the best 4 months of my life.  I have really enjoyed my time and am continuing to learn so much from being part of the community.  To be honest, I don’t know how much longer I will stay.  It could be 8 more months, 1 year, 2 years, I don’t know.  But I have learned to put a quiet trust in God and to only move when He tells me to move.

L’Arche is not perfect.  It is a community of imperfect and wounded people, but I would not have it any other way.  Yes, there are stresses.  Yes, it can be difficult for some communities and countries to know how to balance professional and legal requirements with our spiritual life.  But somewhere in between, when assistants come to put their faith and trust in God and to truly live out the core values of L’Arche, they will find that it is something so much more than simply a job.  They will discover it as a ministry and as a calling.