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A letter from YAV Andy Bair in Northern Ireland

January 4, 2010

Email: Andy Bair

On Travelling, Cozy Hats, and Being a Young Adult Volunteer
Depending on where you are, hostels can be a fantastic or a horrifying experience.  Of course, this also depends quite a bit on your state of mind when you walk through the door.  Also, like any other experience, it also depends disproportionately on your expectations.

On the subject of location, Camden Place Hostel in Dublin and Astor Museum Inn in London are tops.  I won't really go into further detail here, that's something for you to find out for yourself.

Concerning state of mind, it really helps to arrive at a hostel if you've been walking for miles in the rain through crowded shopping districts, or if you've been playing human Tetris for hours on a very small, very overcrowded train through North Wales, only shortly after an equally harrowing experience with booking ferry passage across the Irish Sea.
I think that's self-explanatory, as well.  If you really want to enjoy a hot shower and warm bed, take advantage of the horrible weather of the British Isles first.

(Incidentally, after living in Belfast for several months, London feels downright tropical.  In my flatmate Rob’s words, London is completely south of any Scandinavian country.  Belfast, on the other hand, might as well be in the Arctic Circle.)

The subject of expectations is where my story gets a little tricky.  My only real experiences with hostel life consist of one night in Peru, and one night in a Hungarian villa, next to a very sketchy hostel.

Oh, and the truly terrifying movie 'Hostel.'

Naturally, I had mixed feelings about our accommodations for our holiday, but, being the socially responsible, low-budget volunteers we are, hostel-ing seemed to be the most prudent option.  So, on the morning of December 29th, we set out for Dublin, and Camden Place hostel, which definitely had what we were looking for — a warm bed, a hot shower, friendly staff, free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and I'll stop before I start sounding like a bad advertisement.  The Astor Museum Inn also gave us what we needed — a place filled with awesome people that served as a great home base for exploring the vast expanse of London.

Now, I realize that this is NOT at all what the average hostel-vacation experience is like.  I have plenty of friends who can tell horror stories about flooding toilets, kleptomaniac roommates, and far-too-wild hostel parties.  I can only imagine how bad it could be, so I know to not have such high expectations for other low-budget accommodation experiences in the future.

Something's Missing
But, if even hostels can be so awesome (sometimes), what else am I missing by continuing to live a comfy, Eastern Virginian life?  For example, at the beginning of summer 2009, I never would have expected to spend a week in the powerfully beautiful mountains of Montreat, North Carolina, with a group of six truly fantastic youth from First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Virginia.  Even more surprising was driving through South Dakota's Badlands with family and friends less than a week after returning from Montreat.  Less than a day after that, I was in a small town in North Dakota, a short drive away from the world's largest fake buffalo.

Buffalo:  check.

The wonder of the World Wide Web gave birth to a ridiculous number of 'best-of' lists at the end of 2009, which, being the sentimental technophile I am, I read voraciously.  Lists of the top 29 movies, the top 15 albums, the 10 best gadget ideas of the decade, the five funniest Twitter users to follow, the best of everything — whatever I could think of, I found a list for it.  Remarkably, though, in 2005, I never thought that half of these things would exist, much less that I'd appreciate them as much as I do.  Twitter?  The Netbook?  Peruvian hats with ear flaps?

Peculiar hat:  check.

I also never pictured that I'd choose to very abruptly pack a few bags and relocate to Belfast for a year.  To be honest, at that time, I was completely certain that I'd be in Africa by this time.  Or Japan.  Or maybe South America.  Instead, here I am, writing from a flat in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland, decidedly not on a medical-school track, working in several churches and organizations where it seems that my biggest contributions to date have been vegetable soup, giant chewy sugar cookies, and donning a lab coat and fairy wings while miming deep conversation with Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth.You read that right.

Fairy wings:  check.

A Year of Service, a Lifetime of Change
My favorite household chores have always been the sort where I can see the progress I've made — mowing the lawn is a great example.  I know when I'm done, I can see what I've changed, and while it might take some extra pushing to get me started, it's a generally pleasant experience.

Not so with the task of 'mission in partnership.'  It is not the glamorous work that gets presented by national news outlets (well, not often, sometimes, they catch wind of what we're doing and decide to share it).  It is not a sexy, Nobel-laureate sort of field.  It is not the saving-the-world stuff that makes people in coffee shops and bars flock to hear stories.  In fact, it's very hard to explain, and probably even harder to understand.  I recall a funny story about that from a night in Dublin — ask me about it sometime.

What's this "year of service, lifetime of change" business about, then?  It is the YAV t-shirt slogan, after all.  An obvious "lifetime of change" would be the immense experiential value of the year to us volunteers.  We practice socially and environmentally responsible living.  We live in intentional community with the churches we work with, as well as the other YAVs.  We have great cross-cultural experiences.  We participate in worshipping communities.  This list could go on and on.  I certainly don't want to diminish the value of any of these things — I find all of these things and more in the work I've been doing, but I think there's something much, much deeper there.

The YAV home office likes to use an incredibly simple, very weighty phrase to describe what being a volunteer really means:  "Being, not Doing."  I remember hearing this a lot working in university Residence Life, as well.  The job was really all about being available for those around you, co-existing with them, and trying to encourage them to do the same.  The real impact didn't come from fancy bulletin boards, awesome hall meetings, or (thankfully) how many times I strapped on a pair of wings and pretended to be the angel Gabriel.  It's not about how much I get out of it, or even how much anyone else gets out of my work, but about meeting someone's needs, whatever they are, in whatever way I can provide.

Not about meeting their expectations - if I tried to live up to everyone's expectations of me, I'd be a very exhausted volunteer with no time for myself, not to mention being very disappointed with my lack of success.

Not about meeting my own expectations, either - if I tried to that, I would never have seen the Badlands, I'd never have started wearing my peculiar (and very warm) Peruvian hat, and I'd probably be frighteningly unfulfilled in medical school.

One Small Child That Saved The World
(And Ten Million More That Probably Could)
The intellectual-progressive-hipster Presbyterian in me shudders to say this aloud, much less share it with the world through the Internet, but the only thing I can do in a situation like this is rely on God.  Thankfully, God has a very fortunate pattern of helping out, and, well, being God.
I realize this is a vague statement.  It's meant to be, simply because this Parent-Son-Spirit God is wonderfully artistic and expressive, and downright mysterious.  It's terribly hard to find God sometimes, and I'm not always the best at that sort of spiritual searching.  It's especially difficult when most days of the week feature things like being tackled by nine-year-olds or serving 64 children cocktail sausages.

A lifetime of change?  It's hard to imagine that those sausages will cause too much serious change other than potentially increasing someone's blood pressure someday, and that the kids using me as a jungle gym has definitely made me a bit stronger physically.  However I may feel about the work at the time, though, God's not missing from the equation, she’s just sitting quietly in the corner of the church hall, waiting very patiently to be talked to.

Lifetime of change:  check.

Read more on Andy’s blog.

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