I was tired. I had traveled for over 24 hours. I had slept in places that left my back aching and my eyes baggy. I had crossed timezones to come to this place, and when I finally stepped off the plane, I could still somehow make out through the fatigue and heat that this was a place I had been called to come, even if only for a little while.
It is hard to know where to begin this story, but as I reflect, no matter where I start, the beginnings are almost identical. Almost two years ago to the day, I set out on a journey to Southeast Asia with the Young Adults in Global Mission program to serve for a year in Malaysia. I left Chicago on August 21, 2013 and nearly 24 hours later, I walked off the plane to arrive in my new home for the year, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. To be honest, I wasn't sure why I was there. I knew and trusted the global mission personnel of the ELCA to help discern where God was calling me in this world, but that did not mean that my human/Sarah-nature was not full of questions and concerns as I entered into this new reality. Slowly, but very surely I grew to love my home in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. I lived with Mrs. Soong, my Chinese grandmother. She taught me more about what hospitality means than I had ever experienced before. I had two site placements, a kindergarten and a home for adults with disabilities. I had wonderful friends from church and my community. I learned about what it means to live in a richly celebrated diverse community. I was forced to rely on my faith and God's faithfulness in ways I hadn't before. I ate amazing food. I learned to live in the present. I was taught to allow myself to be loved fiercely, and do everything I could to send that love back out.
Then it was time to leave. Saying goodbye is the absolute worst. But, I've done my best to remain in contact with family in friends in Malaysia, and if you've had conversations with me in the year I've been back, I hope you know that my experience there has forever changed the way I see myself and this world. I did leave my English/Malay dictionary behind in Malaysia, because when would I need that again?
Nanti. It is one of my favorite Malay words. It doesn't have some deep, beautiful meaning. I just like to say it. It means "later". Helpful to know, right?
So when would I need that dictionary again? Nanti.
I had a friend who was also serving as a YAGM in Malaysia, Jenna B. She is one of those people who has more connections than you see as being humanly possible. It is beautiful, and I love that about her. Jenna also worked with people with disabilities in Malaysia. She worked at a school for children with disabilities. In that time, she met and fostered relationships with people who work with Special Olympics Malaysia. And by that I mean, she climbed (one of) the tallest mountain(s) in Southeast Asia with the SO Malaysia team. I'm serious when I say she's a star. Earlier this year, Jenna was contacted by the SO Malaysia team to serve at the Special Olympics World Games in LA as their delegation liaison, meaning she was would be the one who helped host, problem solve, and help with language and logistics for the team. Jenna was heading back to Asia to teach for two years in Hong Kong at the end of the summer, however, so she had to say "no". But you know who has been pretty available for adventures since returning to America from Malaysia? This girl. So Jenna reached out to me, connected me to the appropriate people, and next thing I know, I'm heading to LA for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games!
It took longer than expected to get there, about 24 hours. I was so tired when I arrived. While I was excited for the adventure, I was a little anxious about what the next 2 weeks with the Malaysia team would look like, and incredibly anxious about my rusty Malay. I was unsure of the specifics of this role I had said "yes" to, but having arrived a day late, I had to hit the ground running. I was welcomed to LA by the other delegate liaison for Malaysia, Tiffany. She is from Malaysia, but has lived in the US for about 10 years. She picked me up, had water and granola bars for me in her car, and off we went together to begin our 2 week adventure. This was the first of many times that Tiffany proved to be an incredible blessing during the LA games.
That evening, we welcomed team Malaysia to LA. 39 athletes and coaches made the long journey from Malaysia. Suddenly I was surrounded by the Malay language, of course talking all about the food I loved and the athletes' favorite foods, we journeyed together to our host town for the first couple days, Culver City where we stayed to get acclimated to LA and take some time to prep for the games.
Once we moved from our host town into our respective lodging at USC and UCLA, the games began. I spent my days accompanying the team and cheering at the track, pool, bowling alley, soccer field, equestrian center, golf course, and bocce court. We dealt with questions and situations as they came up, but mostly my time was spent doing what I learned to do in Malaysia- being. It was a busy "being", as in some days I didn't necessarily have time for all my meals, I woke up early and went to bed late, but those 2 weeks were full of such joy. In our first days together, the Malaysia head of delegation, Mr. Jayasingh gave Tiffany and me a Special Olympics pin. He said, "You're a part of this family. Whatever we do in the next 2 weeks, we do it together." It's funny when you think you are called somewhere for one thing, only to learn that something a little different is in store. I went to LA to help host the Malaysia team, but oddly enough I found myself being hosted and welcomed by team Malaysia, too. Jesus is sneaky like that, I think.
The connections I found with this team were pretty incredible, too. I was talking with one of the coaches one evening. She was from my state in Malaysia, from the northern tip of Borneo. I told her the church I belonged to while in KK, and she said, "Oh my cousin goes there." Turns out, her cousin was my cell group leader at church. Just casually finding incredibly close connections with people from my home halfway around the world. One of the athlete's families had an apartment in the part of the city I lived in, so I could talk with them about the shops where I missed eating breakfast and dinner.
Two weeks passed so quickly. Before I realized it, competitions were coming to an end, Malaysia was brining in medals everyday, and athletes were celebrating their incredible accomplishments as a team. Malaysia brought home a total of 21 medals from the games. It was an honor to have the opportunity to be a part of this worldwide event. It was funny, most of the delegate liaisons had some ethnic/national connection with the team they were serving. Then I would walk by with team Malaysia and people would give me a confused look. "Its a long story," I'd say. Because the road to this specific adventure is a little unique. But being in LA, going to Malaysia in the first place, being a camp counselor… all of these experiences continue to affirm for me that God equips us for adventures and experiences we can't even begin to see coming.
Again, it was time to say goodbye. And still, goodbyes are the absolute worst. But leaving this experience, I'm a little more hesitant to say I'll never use my Malay again. Nanti.
My stories end similarly, too.
I left feeling full- full from good conversations, full from time spent with incredible, loving people, full from meeting Jesus in the faces and words of so many people. And while I arrived feeling tired and a little scared, I left having found rest. I was content and at peace in ways I hadn't been in so long. The camp I worked at in college had a hashtag one summer after I was gone, #TotalKairosMoment, to describe times when God's time and our time meet. I am one who finds myself looking to what's next often, almost always in a countdown mode of some sort. But there are times when I am pushed away from the countdown. Nanti, what's next will come… later. But now, be present and aware of the ways God is actively at work in your midst.