Adventures in Faith: Learning to Listen in Serving Others
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12
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When I graduated from high school, I decided I wanted to take a gap year before I went to college. As I began to plan for the year, I realized the apparent endlessness of different opportunities I had. Work close to home? Travel with friends? Learn to play guitar? While I was very grateful for the extent to which I could choose what my year entailed, it was also very overwhelming. The one thing that I did have my mind set on was that I wanted to help people in some way. This drive to help others was something that had been instilled in me since I was very young, both in church and in the rest of my life. In church school I had been taught that Jesus Christ led by example by feeding the hungry and healing the sick. My parents, teachers, and role models taught me in various ways to love my neighbors as myself.
After much contemplation (and too many months), I made the very conscious decision that my first adventure was to reach for this goal of helping others by volunteering with a British non-profit organization called Raleigh International. While I was weary of the dangers of ‘voluntourism’ and irreverent service trips, this group advertised their sustainable change-making process in communities around the world. So I got on a plane, and for three months I lived in Nepal with peers from around the world as well as peers from all over Nepal. We worked on building water systems in rural villages, living in homes within the towns and learning about everything from their festivals to their daily way of life.
Most of these interactions and exchanges were very valuable and beautiful, but there were other times that felt a little bit off. After we had finished construction on the water system, one of the goals we had was to ensure that the people of the community would be able to care for and use the water in a safe and healthy way, so we planned presentations to share this information with the villagers. One of my Nepali peers Akash, who was the same age as I, saw what we were asking him to translate and refused. He said that this stuff like washing your hands or not letting your dog (or goat) drink out of the same bowl as you, was condescending, and were things that these people and people all over the world understand from childhood. In that moment, some of my other European peers didn't understand why Akash wasn't cooperating and got frustrated, but this was one of the moments in which I began to question my place in this situation and see the reality of my white saviorism. While our intentions were to make the best of the work we were doing and contribute as much as possible, we were coming into a world that felt super different and was foreign to us, but was more similar, and human, than we may have consciously recognized. These people were just as much our neighbors and peers as any person who could understand us without translation or any person living down the street from us at home. What we should have done was to listen first to Akash, who had a more direct line to what the community needed and the change we were trying to make, and then create our presentation from there, in order to love our neighbors as best as we could. I don’t want to discredit the hard work that we and this organization put into preparation and planning or the fact that Akash’s translation was something we had access to and was very valuable. However, there was a disconnect between our intentions and their impact because of the way that language barriers silenced the voices of the community and global power dynamics and internalized assumptions silenced Akash’s key role in the success of our collective goal.
Later on in the year, I spent another three months on an island in Nicaragua where I worked on a farm and again lived with a family in a small community. This time, I learned to speak Spanish from the people around me at the same time that I was getting to know them. In this case, the language barrier disappeared, and I was able to see more deeply into the unique personalities and attributes of the individuals around me. Marina, my host mother, was the most incredible cook who used all the food that we produced on the farm, and was also the mother of two daughters, a survivor of cancer, depression, and alcoholism, and the strongest woman I've ever met. Kiore was the keeper of the keys to the farm and was incredibly loyal to his job. Salomar loved the plants like they were his children and loved his local baseball team even more. Nevis was quiet, but was always learning something new online about how he could make the compost better or the fruits tastier. Kyra was five years old, a bundle of joy, and kept her mother young. As we heard in the scripture, each member of the community had varieties of gifts, but To each was given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, by the same God.
Although I was still a foreigner, a white foreigner, and very aware of the weight and power my identity carried, in this situation, no one was silenced. These people taught me everything about how to do my job and allowed me to use what they’d taught me to find my role on the farm and in their lives. They showed me what Paul calls a more excellent way.
To me, what happens when all those voices join together as loud as they wish, that’s the holy spirit. When communities are filled with openness and kindness and love, God is able to speak through us. I believe that God is the force of understanding that leads us to listen when we need to listen and enables us to speak up when we have something to say, so that the Holy Spirit can do its work through us, the hands and ears and mouths of the body. At some moments, one voice is needed more than others, and that’s why listening is just as important as being heard. I am so honored to find this role and share my voice with you, but I also have been doing my best to listen first to God’s voice in others, especially in regard to this current moment of change-making in our nation.
What these experiences and people taught me was also the beginning of my journey towards understanding my role in the greater world. I am now studying Food Systems at the University of Vermont; a unique, interdisciplinary major that I think will set me up to have an educated and practiced role in improving how people feed and get fed on every level. This is my way of feeding the hungry. This will be my way of loving my neighbors. This is my gift and my service.