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A taste of missionary life

[Episcopal News Service] A missionary's life can be full of surprises. When Mike Young, 24, of Abilene, Texas, signed up with the Young Adult Services Corps (YASC) as an Episcopal Church missionary, the last thing he expected was to be sent to First-World-known-for-high-development-and-electronics Japan, he said.

But because of his interest in sustainability and food production, he found himself working as a farmhand at the Asian Rural Institute, a training center for community leaders from Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa in Nasushiobara, Japan.

"Mainly I was a farm volunteer, but it's a religious, ecumenical program. We have a community of people living together, and I was just there as another community member to share my life," Young said. "My biggest contribution as a missionary was just being available for people to talk to."

Young was one of eight YASC missionaries, each recently returned from an overseas assignment, who gathered at the Episcopal Church Center in New York in early October for a "re-entry retreat" -- a time to share their experiences, joys and challenges with each other.

YASC offers Episcopalians ages 21-30 an opportunity to spend a year aboard working as mission partners with a local church, monastery, seminary or other Anglican Communion program.

"It gives the mission partners an opportunity to understand their own vocation from a baptismal sensibility and to understand who they are in connection with the larger church and how to engage in God's mission in the world," said the Rev. Douglas Fenton, a program officer for the Episcopal Church's Young Adult and Campus Ministries. "It also offers an opportunity to do some real internal work."

Many challenges From teaching English to young adults working to earn a high school diploma in South Africa to working as a translator in Colombia; from coordinating an education program for orphans in Tanzania to working with at-risk girls in Honduras or maintaining the computer systems at a theological college in Africa, the mission partners met life-changing challenges and tested their assumptions, both personal and cultural.

After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, Steve Day, 29, went to work at Msalato Theological College in Tanzania as a computer network administrator. It's a difficult job stateside, but even more so in Tanzania, where electricity is spotty and often unsafe, he said.

When Day wasn't helping students and faculty connect to the Internet or replacing surge-fried equipment, he was teaching church history and theology and learning to depend on others in the community located 10 kilometers outside the capital Dodoma. For an American used to independence and a car, relying on the community proved challenging, he said.

"It was good for me to be dependent … and connect with the people I was working with," he said. YASC fosters connections and interdependence from the start by requiring missionaries to raise $10,000 to help cover airfare, living expenses, medical insurance, a $500 monthly stipend and other related costs. At first, the thought of raising money intimidated Audra Krislock, 24, of Spokane, Washington, a recent college graduate and AmeriCorps volunteer. But once she broke the cost down to $28 a day, it became more manageable, she said.

"Then I realized, it's not fundraising just for me, you are able to include people in this experience, and that's part of the idea of fundraising, because they don't want you to pay for it yourself; they want people to feel like they have invested in this missionary and in connecting two communities that wouldn't otherwise be connected," Krislock said.

Krislock wrote letters to family and friends asking them to sponsor her for a day and promised to keep in touch with them. She also spoke at a couple of churches and gained the support of her bishop and the dean at St. John the Evangelist in Spokane. Krislock worked for the Diocese of Colombia translating documents and with children at different Episcopal missions throughout the country. She also worked on programs sponsored by the Diocese of Connecticut, a sister diocese.

'Radical hospitality' Witnessing churches from all over the world successfully work together to educate children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Tanzania is Elizabeth Boe's greatest joy.

Boe, 26, coordinates the Carpenter's Kids program in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, a partnership started by the Episcopal Diocese of New York that has provided primary education to more than 5,000 orphans.

Boe, who will return to Tanzania in December to complete a second year of service, expressed the desire to see Episcopalians practice the kind of "radical hospitality" she has witnessed in Tanzanians.

For Young, missionary work had a lot to do with listening. At one point, he said, five missionaries were living at the Asian Rural Institute, but they weren't missionaries in the traditional sense.

"It wasn't, 'I'm going to share the gospel with these people.' It's more about sharing your life," he said. "I don't think it was a matter of individual effort. I think ... just being present and available to talk was much more important than if I had gone to preach to them every night or read the Bible at them … [W]e would just sit and talk and discuss stuff, and they would bring up questions."

Young's roommates ranged from atheist to Buddhist to "pseudo"-Christian, he said. One wanted to know why he went to church every Sunday. And he explained that it was a community and that people came from the larger community, that he'd made friends young and old from whom he'd learned things.

"That was a big eye-opener for him because he'd never really heard that, and he was big on community building, so he thought that was wonderful," Young said. "It was the little conversations, the random interactions with people who don't necessarily believe the same things that you do."

A cradle Episcopalian, born in North Carolina, Young grew up in a family where, if they couldn't make the 45-minute drive to church, they would have Morning Prayer at home, he said. In the future, he said, he plans to teach outdoor education.

Second chances
The Rev. Valerie Miller, 30, of southeast Florida, the only ordained member of the group, served at the Little Roses Ministries for homeless girls in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Little Roses gives girls ages 6 months to 22 years old a chance to succeed by providing a home, education and support. Miller taught religion classes for grades one to nine. She also presided over daily chapel services – a challenge because they were in Spanish, she said.

Miller said she hoped to return to work at Little Roses someday after the political system stabilizes. (The military ousted President Manuel Zelaya in June.) "I hold the girls and everyone there in my heart," she said.

Courtney Dale, 24, of Bowling Green, Kentucky, served a year in Grahamstown, South Africa, where she spent mornings teaching English to adults working toward a high school diploma. In the afternoon she would catch a ride to the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery – an Anglican Benedictine community of men on the outskirts of town – to work at an afterschool program for children.

Fifteen years post-apartheid, racial tension remains palpable, with black and white South Africans living in separate communities and mostly separate lives, Dale said. At first it was difficult, as a white American, to find a comfortable balance, but she eventually found her place in both communities, she said.

"I found it easier to let loose around people who were more like me, but I knew I needed to push myself," she said. "Once you push yourself enough, it becomes easier to feel more like yourself around different people."

Spiritual expression, however, was much easier and more acceptable in South Africa than in America's Bible Belt, where Dale grew up, she said. Without home access to the Internet or television, Dale attended services three to four times a week at both the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown and at the monastery.

"It was a lot easier and culturally more acceptable for people to be open about their faith," she said. In her experience, people in the Bible Belt tend to cling to their personal beliefs and reject those of others, said Dale, who now is working in campus ministry at Kansas State University and is in the ordination discernment process.

In South Africa, she said, "It was much more acceptable for me to have an open conversation with people of different faiths and feel completely accepted."

-- Lynette Wilson is interim editor of Episcopal Life.

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