Young Adult Volunteers arrive as strangers, leave as family
By Sarah Henken | Mission Crossroads Magazine
BARRANQUILLA, Colombia – You won’t go to India to do something an Indian cannot do,” the Rev. Thomas John told me. He was the site coordinator for the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in India, and I was a college senior, interviewing to serve as a YAV on the other side of the globe. I don’t think I had any delusions of single-handedly transforming the world, but I was surely guided by a desire to help, to contribute, to be of service. That was in 2002. Today I serve as site coordinator for the YAV program in Colombia, and I encounter those same motivations again and again in current applicants.
In the end I didn’t go to India; I was placed in Uruguay. Still, Thomas John’s words unsettled me. “If local people can do the work,” I wondered, “why should I go at all?” It wasn’t until the end of my YAV year that I understood what he was saying. I had spent my days in the preschool of a church-sponsored community center in a marginalized neighborhood, helping in classrooms and on the playground. The most tangible thing I accomplished was organizing the small community library.
Before my YAV year, my life had been focused on achievement and meeting (or exceeding) expectations. In my experience as a YAV, those expectations were suddenly removed. Nobody in the community cared much about my GPA or my extracurricular activities. I had tasks to carry out, and I was able to lend my gifts in music and develop my skills in teaching young children. I worked hard every day, but what I was ultimately offering was not so much my work as it was my whole self.
As I understand it now, Thomas John was telling me that I would not go to “help” a community in need. I would go to share life with them and be changed by them. I would be welcomed by people who were different from me, and I would depend on their help and hospitality. I would bring my whole self into relationship with them, and be sometimes challenged or stretched, often cared for, and always accepted. I would learn that I’d been asking the wrong question; I started out wondering, “What makes me special?” and stumbled upon an answer to “What makes me part of the whole?” I was lending myself to a common vision — God’s vision. It was a slow-motion start to learning about mission in partnership.
In Colombia we use a word to talk about mission partnership that I’ve come to love: hermanamiento. It’s based on the word hermano, sibling. The -miento suffix gives a sense of process, activity, becoming. Hermanamiento can be defined as the action or effect of establishing a familial relationship, or bonds of friendship, to unite and join our lives together.
Establishing some of those bonds is one of the great achievements a YAV can aspire to. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and finding our place in that diverse and beautiful family is what partnership, hermanamiento, is all about.
Sarah Henken, a PC(USA) mission co-worker, serves as the peace initiative promoter and pastoral accompanier to the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC). Based in Barranquilla, Colombia, she also serves as site coordinator for the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program in Colombia. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.
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