Monday, August 31, 2015

From the Safe Side of the Window

The three of us landed in the tiny San Pedro Sula airport and were greeted with hugs and bananas by the local MCC staff. We took our bags out to the MCC car and were hit immediately with a wall of heat and humidity. This wasn’t the U.S. Midwest anymore: palm trees jutted up in every direction; within seconds our arms and faces shined with sweat.

We looked out of the windows of the car as we approached the city, staring at the unpredictable clusters of Pizza Huts and pulperĂ­as, traditional homes and towering malls. Mountains loomed over us, and on the nearest one in letters big like the Hollywood sign, I could just make out – Coca Cola. I was back in Honduras.

Ben, a social work grad from Kansas, will stay on in San Pedro Sula to work in the bordos, neighborhoods perched on riversides that are particularly prone to instability and violence. Jesse, from Indiana, will go to La Ceiba on the north coast to work teaching peace and conflict resolution in schools. And soon I will head south to the capital, Tegucigalpa, to work with AJS. But this week, we’re in training together, exploring San Pedro Sula.

It’s hard to know how to talk about this city. If you type it into Google, you’ll see article after article condemning it as the “most dangerous city in the world,” with more murders per capita than any other city, in the country with more murders per capita than any other country in the world.

These numbers aren’t false, but the story they tell isn’t entirely true either. As we’ve walked the city this week, reacquainting ourselves with public transportation, delicious street food, and colorful markets, we’ve been cautious, but we’ve been safe. The violence in the city comes primarily from the gangs, who do not target foreigners.

In all frankness, San Pedro Sula is a dangerous city. But it is not so dangerous for me. The truth is, as a white U.S. citizen hosted by an organization that knows the context and area well, as someone with access to a safe house, a car, and money enough to meet any of my needs – I’m not facing any big risk to be here.

Of course we take different cautions here. When the sun sets around 6pm, we don’t walk outside. We’re learning to be watchful and not to carry anything we’re afraid to lose. But on the other hand, despite the precautions we take, we’re looking out at this city from the safe side of the window, an option that many of our neighbors don’t have.

The city we look out at is a beautiful city, busy with a different sort of busyness than I am used to. In the markets, you can hear five different songs playing at once, the bass beat thumping as vendors shout out their wares. You can smell a dozen things at once, from chicken grilling to ripened fruit. You can see children running after each other in the street, bright fabrics, shiny packages of chips.

As we’ve gone through safety manuals and conduct codes, had passports stamped and plans arranged, we’ve had time to live in the busyness and color of the city. We’re all crowded into the house of the country representatives Ilona and Matthieu, a lovely couple from Switzerland whose conversations drift effortlessly between German and English and Spanish. The two, along with Emily, our coordinator, have taken us to church and traditional restaurants, on mountain hikes and even to a perfect production of Arsenic and Old Lace by San Pedro Sula’s own theater company.

Through all this it’s clear, even as I accustom myself to locked gates and barred windows, that the statistics about San Pedro Sula aren’t about me. They’re about the people living in the bordos who have no choice but to live in the middle of violence, about the homeless who have nowhere to go but the streets at night, about children who have turned to gangs as the only family they have ever known.

Of course safety is a high priority and I’ll continue to be careful. But I want to do this remembering the people on the outside of the window, people for whom statistics are faces, not numbers. These are the people AJS fights to protect and defend; they are the reason I’m here.

Ben and Jesse and I are off to our Spanish courses tomorrow, and tonight will be my last night in San Pedro Sula for a long time. I’m thrilled and giddy to be back, but also sobered at the realization that my reality is still so different from those around me.

Here’s to a future in Honduras where security is not determined by wealth or means, and where safety is an assumption, not a luxury.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Unpacking the Acronyms: What is MCC?

I tell people I am going to write for an organization in Honduras, and they understand. It gets a lot harder to explain when they press for details. By the time I tell them that I will be working at AJS through the SALT program of MCC most eyes glass over. I’ll be unpacking that sentence piece by piece, starting with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and how on earth I got here.

First, a clarification of terms:

Who are Mennonites?

All Mennonites are Anabaptists (people who believe that it is adults, not infants, who should be baptized), but not all Anabaptists are Mennonites.

Anabaptists came out of the Radical Reformation centuries ago, and since then have splintered into many smaller groups, among them the Mennonites, the Hutterites and the Amish.

To clarify, Mennonites are not Amish, and are more diverse than any other denomination I can think of. Some more conservative Mennonite congregations wear specific dress and head-coverings and eschew certain modern luxuries, but many more dress the same as I do and have the same phones, laptops, and TVs as any of their neighbors.

There are about 1.6 million Mennonites in the world, and over half live outside of the United States and Canada. Immigration and conversion have produced Mennonite churches everywhere from Brazil to Indonesia, and these churches are growing faster than any in North America.

So, what exactly do Mennonites believe?

Mennonites are Christians, and their similarities to my past congregations far outweigh any differences. These differences include pacifism, nonviolence and nonresistance, all a central part of their identity and their theology. Other key aspects of their identity are simplicity (not having more than you need), mutuality (service that aims not to be one-sided), and radical discipleship (being like Jesus even when it is difficult, particularly when it comes to peace).

What does that have to do with me?

The Mennonite church hosts an organization that works for relief, development and peace. The organization, called Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), began in 1920 as U.S. Mennonites’ response to other Mennonites starving in Ukraine. MCC sent famine relief for a few years, sat dormant for a decade or two, and then began relief work in Poland, England, and France as World War II began.

A key part of MCC’s beginning was overseeing the Civilian Public Service (CPS) for conscientious objectors to the military draft. CPS enabled drafted men to serve instead on humanitarian aid or peace-making projects.

MCC’s name is an admitted misnomer, as it is neither Mennonite (the organization includes Brethren in Christ congregations, and Amish congregations donate time and talents as well), nor particularly central, nor exactly a committee. But nearly 100 years after its founding, its name is one well-recognized in development circles.

Which brings us to how I got here.

In addition to long-term service workers who work around the world, MCC hosts three short-term programs for young people aged 18-30, all of which place individuals to do work for a year in a country where MCC is working. These programs are:

YAMEN (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network): In this program, individuals from the Global South (sometimes called developing countries) work in other countries in the Global South. For example, I will attend orientation with one YAMENer who will go from India to Honduras.

IVEP (International Volunteer Exchange Program): In this program, individuals from outside the U.S. and Canada come to work here. They may assist in schools, work on organic farms, or do accounting for a nonprofit. For example, one IVEPer came from Colombia to teach at a bilingual kindergarten in Pennsylvania.

And finally:

SALT (Serving And Learning Together): In this program, individuals from the United States and Canada go to serve in the Global South. While some work directly with MCC, many, like me, will work with partner organizations, like AJS. Wherever SALTers go, MCC provides both training beforehand and support during.

I am still learning a lot about Mennonites and MCC, and I’m grateful for the graciousness of everyone who’s answered questions for me so far.

Sources:, SALT training, and Development to a Different Drummer, Anabaptist/Mennonite Experiences and Perspectives – required reading in Prof. Kuperus’ capstone class last Fall!  

Preparing to Go

Trying a slack-line between training sessions
After months of waiting, I am so ready to begin my work in Honduras that at first I was not looking forward to an entire week of training.

Because I will be working at AJS through Mennonite Central Committee’s SALT program [see next blog post for descriptions of acronyms], I was required to attend the SALT orientation alongside other young adults from the U.S.A. and Canada. We also shared our orientation with an equal number of young adults from all over the world who are coming to spend a year serving in the United States.

I didn’t think it was possible for six days of trainings to be interesting, let alone as life-giving as they have been.

But there is something electric about a room full of young people passionate about bringing peace to God’s world. Brothers and sisters from the United States, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Indonesia, Germany, Cambodia, and many more countries are gathered here, and we are teaching and learning from each other.

The orientation is about more than tax forms and program policies. In groups, but also over dinner or hanging out before bed, we are asking each other hard questions about privilege and power, about communications, expectations, gender roles, religion, and culture in each other’s countries.

I have worshiped this week in Spanish, Ndebele, and Croatian. I’ve played Korean games and danced until a new friend from Uganda fell to her knees laughing so hard tears came from her eyes. “But,” she gasped, “Do all Americans dance off-beat?”

I love this idea of an exchange – that as I go to Honduras, someone else is traveling from Kenya to Illinois, or from Colombia to Pennsylvania. It reminds me of a deeper reason why we go – not only to do the good work prepared for us, but to bring the ends of the earth closer together.

After this week, I have so many more tools to bring with me on my journey – tips for cross-cultural understanding, spiritual nourishment, self-care – but I also better appreciate the scope of the church that is sending me, a church that is already present and active in the continents where we go.

On Wednesday morning before the crack of dawn, I’ll set off for the next step of my adventure. I’ll have more days of country-specific orientation, two weeks of language school, and then I will finally begin. Perhaps to use that time most wisely I could sign up for some dancing lessons? 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Not Here to Save the World

I never wanted to be Superman.

When my younger brothers tied blankets around their shoulders as capes, I cradled my stuffed animals and covered them with Band-Aids, saved plastic dinosaurs from hurricanes, set up Barbie orphanages that would empty into perfect doll families.

I was never Superman or Wonder Woman, but that is not to say I craved no glory.

When I was young, I read biographies of missionaries and heroes: Florence Nightingale, Gladys Aylward, Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson. They seemed good as I wanted to be good. They seemed remembered as I wanted to be remembered.

I carried these desires into adulthood. While my siblings would tell you I faltered at times in kindness or selflessness, I made human flourishing my passion and my field of study.

I learned of injustices – from the plight of stateless refugees to the ritual lawlessness of some of the world’s most powerful – and my heart swelled with the assurance of those in the right. It was easy to become a champion of already-popular causes. It felt natural to put the convictions of others on my lips.

I was no Superman, but, I thought, I could still save the world.

Now newly graduated and heading off to work in a country that isn’t my own, I reel from the perfume of praise. “You’re a good person,” someone tells me, “They’re lucky to have you,” adds another. For a moment I believe them, swell with pride at my abilities and inclinations.

This desire to be a hero is a compelling idol because its motives seems so pure. Yet the more I learn and the older I grow, I become convinced – I am not here to save the world. I am here only to live faithfully in it.

The difference between these two roles is the difference between that of the savior and that of the servant. I am a servant, not a savior, a “worker, not a master builder,” and I serve a God who saves through his very servanthood.

This means what I have always known – I am no Superman. No special powers distinguish me, no calling sets me above and apart. This marks a path of humility in the place of glory, and derision, at times, in the place of praise.

The path to a better world is not quick, nor is it easy, exciting, or even always rewarding. It is a path of unpopular opinion (“we are fools for Christ”) and dogged endurance. This is the only path forward – the only change more meaningful than the flashiness of superheroes who leave cities rubbled in their wake.

I am not here to save the world, but I am here to be a part of it. With humility and diligence, I give myself over to the task.