Friday, March 30, 2012

A Week in Georgia

This past week I spent some time in Georgia with a spring break group from the Service-Learning Center. I went to Americus, GA with only basic information about Koinonia Farm and the history of the area, but I left with so much more.

The difference between this trip (as well as other S-L trips) and mission trips done by many church youth groups is the very prominent aspect of the service-learning relationship. It’s a reciprocal relationship. They received and we received. I not only got to work on a farm for a week (and eat a lot of pecans and chocolate), but I learned a lot about their community and the work they do every day for God’s kingdom. I feel very privileged to have come away with the things that I experienced and learned.
This past week I learned about the importance of setting aside intentional time for prayer throughout the day. The most wonderful times of the day on the farm are at 10 am and 3 pm when someone from the community would ring a bell and everyone on the farm would stop for just a few moments and pray or just be silent. This simple activity challenged me a lot. How many times a day do I stop my work even for just a few minutes in order to pray and talk to God? How often do I say that I am too busy to pray or read the Bible? I should never be too busy for God. Because of this experience I am striving to implement specific time each day to set aside for a time of prayer.

I also learned about the importance of gratitude. I know that may seem childish. Saying thank you is something that we are taught as children, but truly thanking people for what they do for you is something that can be really powerful. This past week we were able to attend Koinonia’s community potluck dinner. They have a tradition at the end of the meal to have a time for gratitude. The floor is open for anyone in the community to express gratitude to anyone else in the community for something that happened the past week. They were vulnerable and open. Through this time of expressing gratitude I was able to experience the powerful impact that this simple act has on someone’s life and attitude. The funny thing is that I personally felt the intimacy that was alive and well in the community and I didn’t even participate in the activity. I was just a bystander. Even though I was merely a bystander to the activity I was still able to experience the change of attitude that occurred after this expression of gratitude. It was truly beautiful, and I hope to implement this into my house dinner time each week as well.

Our hosts at Koinonia Farm spent a lot of time preparing for us to come. We worked hard on the projects they taught us how to do, and we worked equally hard at trying to live well inside of their community. I went into the trip not really knowing what I was going to take away from it. Fortunately I was able to learn not only about farming but community with others and with God our Father who truly deserves more of our time than we probably give. It was an amazing week of serving and learning, and I was so blessed to be a part of it.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring Break 2012: Letting Go and Letting God

That's right, they're off! Spring Break 2012 is officially in full swing and we currently have 13 amazing trips and around 140 total individuals (students of various grade levels, upperclassman student leaders, and staff mentors) who are out serving and learning together in communities across the country. This year we have trips connecting with agencies in:
Americus, Georgia
Baltimore, Maryland
Biloxi, Mississippi
Boston, Massachusetts
Grand Isle, Louisiana
Houma, Louisiana
Kermit, West Virginia
Knoxville, Tennessee
Mendenhall, Mississippi
Mobile, Alabama
North Carolina Wilderness
Three Rivers, Michigan
St. Louis, Missouri

It was so exciting to send off all of these groups On Friday! Yet, as thrilled as I was on Friday I am more excited (excited is an understatement. I absolutely cannot WAIT) to hear the stories they will come back telling - stories of joy and laughter, of painful sights and difficult realities, of all they have learned and encountered. Yet, in the aftermath of Friday's excitement, in back of my head I find myself saying 'what if that doesn't happen? What if they don't learn anything? What if they focus too much on the work and don't see the opportunity to learn? What if the group dynamics aren't good?' What if, What if, What if. Worrying. asking questions. having doubts.
Well that was yesterday. How perfect is God's timing that my devotional this morning was about not worrying, but trusting God to provide for us (check out Matthew 6:34). It was then that I remembered a sermon I once heard on this verse. It was about letting go of our worries and even the smallest of doubts and letting God work - because that's all we can do. We must do all we can, the best we can, as much as we can and then let God do the rest. We have to give it all to him and then leave room for him to work while we wait in expectation that his will WILL be done.

So today, I pray for every single participant this prayer (excerpt from the book of Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne):
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you: wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness: protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing: at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.

Peace and Blessings to all,

Friday, March 9, 2012

Brokenness, Fatigue

In my capstone class for Nursing, we have discussed the very real problem of burnout. It is an understandable issue when you consider that nurses are coming face to face with the sick, broken, and crisis-ridden every day. Their entire occupation centers on the fact that the body is fallible and weak, needing outside care from time to time. In my development courses, we discussed the fact that sustainable work involves trying to work yourself out of a job. The desire is that the work you do eventually brings enough stability and support, empowering those around you, that it can either a.) be resolved or b.) go on without your presence. I've done quite a bit of thinking about how development work overlaps with my understanding of nursing, but this is an area where I struggle. Clearly, the hope that nurses could work themselves out of a job is unrealistic. That will never happen in this lifetime.
There are a few questions in our covenant that address this frustration:

"For what are we hoping, as we understand that the kingdom is already but not yet?"
"How do we have hope for shalom in such a broken world? Especially when we will never get it right?"
"What will allow us to persevere?"

In facing future decisions, I've been asking myself this question a lot. How will I avoid the "brokenness fatigue" that can be plaguing for those who build a career based on service, while still allowing for appropriate amounts of lament? The reality is that this is a difficulty for everyone, since we are all functioning in a world that doesn't work the way it's meant to. Last night at staff meeting, I was reminded by the staff that it is through community and relationships that we can navigate the messiness of life. Lament is a healthy response, but can be mediated by a drive to do something about it with the support of people around you who are also motivated to bring justice and make changes.
What an encouragement. It is wonderful to be reminded that in your weakness, God's strength is manifested. The burden of the world does not lay on one person's shoulders alone, but collectively on all of us. Each of us has a very small part to play and while at times that insignificance is overwhelming, it is also liberating. The balance of these two extremes is important in allowing us to move forward.
I pray that our passion for justice and advocacy would not fade after leaving this immediate community (Calvin, the S-LC, the places we live), but that we would search out people and places that have a shared vision. I pray that our self-importance would be tempered with a sense of insignificance that encourages us to turn to those around us. Most of all, I pray that we would seek first the kingdom.

-Melanie Roorda, ABSL Coordinator

Somewhat relevant, but mainly a shameless plug: comes to Calvin March 31st.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Seed of Service-Learning Planted Abroad

Last semester I had the privileged opportunity of studying in Budapest, Hungary with 17 other Calvin students under the leadership of Jeff Bouman, professor and director of the Service-Learning Center. In Budapest, Jeff undertook the project of implementing Service-Learning while studying abroad. Students in our group participated at various placements, including schools, a coffee shop ministry for youth, church choir director, as well as working for volunteer coordination agencies. Kendra Haan and myself were assigned to a high school on the north end of Buda.

The Alternative High School of Economics (AKG) in Budapest is unique among schools and service-learning placements in my experience. Partly due to the foreign context, but also partly due to it’s inherent quality and characteristics. Twice a week, Kendra and I would depart the dorm at 9:00am, ride a tram to the 86 bus, and then proceed to with our commute north, along the Danube River, north of Margit Island. Our first classes began loosely at 10:05 or 10:10.


As the name of the school suggests, it is alternative in its approach to teaching, learning, and appearance. Although the building doesn’t stand out among its neighbors, if you look closely some windows are covered with artwork to be seen through the natural lighting. Entering the school, student artwork is ubiquitous. Hanging from the ceiling, adorning walls, filling shelves, and even covering railings and stairwells, you could not escape the art in this school.
Structurally, the school really stood apart from orthodox educational institutions I’ve witnessed, observed, or passed through. Striving to keep up with the educational reforms of the 21st century, the school splits learning into two phases. The first (7-10) is more generic and doesn’t record marks. The second, (11-13) offers students choices in a focus of interest and grants students more autonomy in the school.

Also unique is the school’s system of patronage. From the students’ time of entering the school, they are paired with a teacher as their patron. Each teacher typically has 8-10 students. The teachers purpose ranges from mentoring to discipline to friend, depending on the student and situation. The students and patrons will remain together until the time of matriculation.

When we started, the English department at AKG shuffled Kendra and I around to various classes to participate in circle discussions. After about two weeks of this, we were split into different classes with various roles. As the semester carried on, my role became more concrete in some regards. I was paired with three students who excelled in their English classes and we formed a conversation group that met every week. In other classes, I would attend the normal class session instructed by the regular teacher and join the lesson. For a few weeks in the midst of the semester, I filled in for teachers that were absent with illness or in the hospital. Overall, it was a very wide range of English class experiences. During one hour, I could be participating in a teacher’s planned lesson and English grammatical game, then I would sit with the three students in our conversation group in a public area in the school and have open discussion, and following this I might be given a whole classroom without a teacher and basically told to do whatever. Learning to deal with the lack of direction was a lesson that took me a while to grasp. Especially as a service-learning placement, I am used to having my duties laid out clearly. At AKG, this was not the case. They placed a lot of trust in us and I think it was helpful and beneficial for both parties.

I also struggled with whom exactly I was serving during the semester. My first class visit revealed a student population of affluence. I am accustomed to service-learning placements at churches and public school systems in inner urban United States schools. How can I serve an affluent group of people and have it be beneficial to the work of building the kingdom? I struggled with this question all semester. Then, it came to me that perhaps I had the wrong framework. Rather than serving a certain rung on the societal ladder, I have been serving the universal educational institution. I have (hopefully) benefited the learning of others, and perhaps been a role model to students who could also participate in service-learning placements in school systems around Budapest. Because service-learning was a bit of a new idea to the students, maybe our presence planted a seed.

Taking on the role of teacher before a classroom full of high school students can really stretch ones capacity to love as well. My life thus far has found me in the role of peer or student much more than teacher in any context. To love students as a teacher was a different perspective. Often times, many students would either disengage the lesson or discussion, or be subtly disruptive. At AKG, discipline is given a different approach than regular schools, and as a visiting English student, I didn’t have the power anyways. In these situations, I let it go and made the best of the situation. At the end of the day, I knew that I had done my part, and to the students that wanted something from the situation, they took advantage of the opportunity.

Overall, I am very thankful that I made the decision to attend service-learning at AKG. I really enjoyed the semester here, even if my role was often times unclear and I was tossed into situations I didn’t feel prepared for. Through it all, I think I learned quite a bit about an alternative approach to education as well as gleaned much from my consistent interaction with Hungarians. I hope my presence helped further positive social change, though in the context of the larger educational system, I affected a small facet of it. It could be that I’ll continue this avenue of thought next year at AKG as a hired staff member. On one of my last visits to the school, the director of the English department at the school offered me a position teaching English in the Fall. I'm still deliberating over this decision.