Monday, June 23, 2014

Diversity

I miss the call to prayer.  I miss the beautiful sound of singing, calling believers to prayer finding me throughout Malaysia.  It took some getting used to, I won't lie.  Especially when I found myself spending the night especially close to a mosque, the morning call would wake me up at times.  But, I grew to find a lot of peace in the constant reminder to pray.  Even if not from "my" religion, I found at times the call to prayer would remind me that I too, was in need of prayer.  

Fun Fact: I learned this year that the call to prayer is not a recording.  In each mosque, there is a person chanting the call to prayer 5 times a day.
Halal, the regulations Muslims had on their diet (similar to "kosher" for Jews) became something I grew accustomed to observing by default.  "Serve no pork" signs were in the windows of many shops in Malaysia.  Though many Chinese shops served pork, the majority of restaurants I ate at and products I bought in grocery stores were Halal.  Malay food, often called "Makanan Islam" might be some of the most delicious food I've had.  (I could write a blog on the food I miss from Malaysia... but I digress.)

Temples, mosques, and churches weren't uncommon.  As I took the bus into town, I would pass Chinese Buddhist pagodas and temples, a few mosques, and the BCCM KK church as well as the Anglican church.   All together, sprinkled throughout town.  

A Buddhist Temple in Singapore
When I found out I was serving in Malaysia, I had just finished my senior capstone on interfaith reconciliation.  When I learned that Malaysia was as religiously diverse as it was, I was so excited to be a part of dialogues and interfaith efforts.  Reflecting on this year, however, that intentional interaction didn't happen, or at least wasn't incredibly common where I was serving.  However, what I did live among was interfaith cooperation.  Religious diversity is a reality of life in Malaysia.  People are genuinely friends with those of different faiths.  For religious holidays, there were open houses where the host invited their friends of all faiths to be a part of the celebration.  It doesn't scare people that a mosque is being built down the street, because they know Muslims... they have Muslim friends, therefore a mosque is a place of worship and not a threat.  Granted, there are interfaith conflicts, especially within politics, but on the ground, people usually are friends and respect one another. 

The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
Aside from the people (and the food), the diversity of life this year is what I will miss the most and is what I am more anxious to arrive back to in America.  The pictures I have shared of mosques and temples or stories I have shared of interfaith experiences people have commented on as "beautiful" and "a wonderful experience".  But I wonder what the reactions would be if these pictures I posted and stories I shared were from the US.  It is my fear that the reaction wouldn't be as positive.  Why is there such negativity associated with what is "different"?  And why are "different" experiences only ok when they are far far away?  I think the reason I have seen the temples and mosques, the orange robes of Buddhist monks and the hijabs worn by Muslim women as beautiful and exciting is because it is not a reality where I come from.  People who are not Christian in the US have to down-play their faith.  Muslim women have to get used to not wearing their hijab because of the harassment that comes with it.  Towns put up fights when a mosque is built because the call to prayer violates "city noise ordinances".  Festivals and ceremonies of Buddhism and Hinduism are seem as uncivilized.  And all these feelings and actions are justified because we are "one nation under God."  

A Buddhist Temple in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
This year has taught me that my faith is what calls me to be loving and welcoming to my neighbor, whoever that may be.  My faith cannot justify discrimination, it just can't.  The discomfort or even dislike I feel when in the presence of someone or something that is new or different is not a conviction of my faith, but a product of sin.  And there have most definitely been times when I have had to work to overcome those feelings of discomfort, they aren't always natural responses.  

It is my prayer that those living in the US, regardless of their faith, can be open with who they are, and loved and welcomed for it.  It is my hope that one day, interfaith dialogue will be seen as unnecessary not because of ignorance but because of rich interfaith understanding and celebration.  It is my dream that people of all faiths can be voices for one another, that faith will be something that unites and not divides.  

I'm coming home, America, and I want to see change.  

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Borders

Visas, volunteer visas, tourist visas, immigration, border-runs...

These are all words that have become a pretty regular addition to my vocabulary this year.  While serving in Malaysia, every 90 days our group had to leave the country so that we could be reissued a tourist visa upon reentry.  Now I am in Thailand, and because I was issued a 30-day tourist visa when I arrived, I need to leave the country before Tuesday to avoid overstaying my visit, travel to a bordering country to obtain a volunteer visa from a Thai embassy, then travel back into Thailand to finish out my time of service.

While I've grown weirdly comfortable with the idea of traveling to renew a visa, I've also grown to feel a bit of anxiety when I'm in an airport these days.  I had a huge fear of flying before this year, but I've flown so much that the fear of the actual airplane has subsided.  I've noticed that the anxiety only occurs from the time I step into the airport until the time I clear immigration.  Those men and women hold a lot of power, and even though there is nothing illegal about our travels, there is a certain anxiety that comes with knowing your fate of departing and reentering the country lies in someone else's hands.

I was supposed to leave today to go to Laos to obtain a volunteer visa.  However, I LOVE to have a medical adventure and decided to come down with the flu instead.  Seriously, who gets the flu in June??  Not the point.  After a hospital visit yesterday and today, I received a medical letter to immigration requesting my stay be extended so that I can fully recover before I fly off to do visa business.

All these situations, as positive or negative as they have been, have been voluntary.  I willingly entered into this year, and if anything, the color of my passport (or the fact that I have a passport at all) has made a lot of immigration situations a heck of a lot easier for me than they are for other people.  I've felt conflicted many times this year about my anxieties surrounding immigration.  The unsettledness I feel in an airport is certainly real, but I can easily remove myself from the situation if I needed to.  There is a place that is safe for me to go back to.  But what about the people who don't have that?  What about the people whose reasons for crossing borders are completely different from mine?  Today, I could receive a letter requesting permission to stay in a country because I have the flu, but what about people who are sick in a country but can't even receive the healthcare to know what is wrong with them?

Borders exist, and the movement between those borders is happening more and more.  People are moving in and out of those borders for more reasons than we know.  And I don't have answers to the ever-growing question of immigration.  In the ways that immigration has consumed conversations and thoughts of mine at times this year, I cannot even begin to imagine the ways in which it affects those whose lives are so dependent on where they find themselves, and whose hands their documentation falls into.  Tonight, I am especially mindful of those who are away from their home-country or who are stateless, as well as those who make the decisions regarding their fate.  There is corruption in this world, but there are also beacons of light.  And it is my prayer that the light can outshine any darkness.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Camp.

Let's flash back to my first experience at Lutheridge.  No, it was not my first summer on staff as a counselor, but instead was the summer of 2001 I believe, when I was 9 years old.  I went to camp with a friend the same week that my dad was taking his confirmation group up to camp for a week.  I had a top bunk, my counselor's name was Courtney, and I was in Frye cabin in Pioneer A.  I was excited, but as is a tendency in my life, I was a bit... or possibly extremely anxious.  The entire week of camp I cried and cried.  I made myself sick and did all that I could so that they would send me home because I did NOT want to be there.  It wasn't that camp wasn't fun... I specifically remember enjoying the pool, going to crafts, and singing songs.  I was just extremely homesick.  I would like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to Courtney, wherever you may be... I had to have been the most difficult camper EVER.  Bless your heart.  But your efforts weren't for nothing.  I like to think that you sewed some seeds that just took a little while to pop their heads up.  I was so sure that my camping days we over at the conclusion of that week.

Let's fast forward to November of 2009.  I was a freshman at Presbyterian College, and as I like to do, I was planning ahead for what my summer would look like.  I had thought about working at a camp, but wasn't sure where to apply or how the whole "outdoors" thing would go for me.  Despite all of this, something lead me to apply to Lutheridge.  I had my interview (after being very concerned about how to look professional yet earthy), I was offered a position as a counselor for the summer, and off I headed to spend the summer of 2010 as a counselor.  As we went through training, I was taught all sorts of procedures and techniques for all kinds of camper situations.  As we talked about homesick campers, I had flashbacks to Courtney living all of those out.  She was better than I realized.  The real learning came from week to week, as I laughed, cried, was challenged, and grew from all I was experiencing.

My first summer at Lutheridge left me wanting more of what I had just experienced, so I returned for another summer as a counselor and the following summer on senior staff.  Each summer brought with it stories of joy and stories of challenges, but absolutely every summer opened my eyes and lead me to places I did not see myself before the summer of 2010.  Here are just a few ways my life was changed by my time at camp, lessons I learned, and why I believe it is such an important ministry of the church...

Absolutely my faith was significantly challenged and strengthened in my 3 summers on staff at Lutheridge.  I was forced, in the most lovingly of ways, to rely on God and God's people as I navigated situations that I had absolutely no clue about.  I learned the beauty and support that exists in community, the joy of celebrating in community and being able to be honest in your struggles.  Some of my dearest friends I made while on staff.  I learned to trust the tugs on your heart.  Those 3 summers were huge as I discerned where God was calling me to be in this world.  

I learned that the church is much, much bigger than my home congregation.  There is a much greater body outside of what I knew in Lexington, South Carolina at work.  For starters, I was exposed to other congregations, pastors, and members of congregations of the ELCA.  I learned from their styles of ministry and grew in my understanding of what worship is, what "Lutheran" is, and how we are all connected as the Body of Christ.  Another piece to this exposure was the realization of the ministries and opportunities that exist in our church.  The ELCA is doing awesome things on community, state, national, and international levels.  Outdoor ministry is one of the ways the church is in action, and I was loving my time there, so I became curious what else was out there.  Through people I had worked on staff with, I heard about Young Adults in Global Mission.  Through discernment (much of which came from talking with friends and fellow staff members from camp) I knew I wanted to engage with the global church and see what else there was to learn in this great network of Holy Spirit wonderfulness!  And the rest is history...

Wether you're Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist... be a part of your greater church!  There exists amazing opportunities to serve, learn, and grow!  Parents, send your kids to a week of camp this summer.  You never know where one week at camp may lead them.

And, as a personal plug, I think Lutheridge may just be the best option for your child: http://www.novusway.com/our-sites/lutheridge/