Olivia serves in Lebanon with SALT
Photo courtesy of Olivia Litterell

Olivia Litterell works as a Program and Educational Activities Assistant at Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in Beirut, Lebanon with MCC's Serving and Learning Together Program (SALT).

Name: Olivia Litterell                             

Hometown: Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho 

Assignment:  Through, MCC's Serving and Learning Program (SALT) I am working as a Program and Educational Activities Assistant for Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in Beirut, Lebanon 

Typical day during SALT:  The beginning of my day isn’t so different from the beginning of my day anywhere else - a disheartening alarm goes off, coffee, cereal and a probably insufficient level of attention to my hair.

Once I leave my little room - the adventure begins. I head to the bus stop, making my way down the crowded street, fending off honking taxis benevolently offering their services. Walking down the sidewalk without tripping into a hole, running into a car, walking into a person or stepping in garbage or animal poo always proves to be an engaging sport. If I make it to the bus in once piece, depending on traffic, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to one hour to get to work.

My job during the day tends to change depending on what reports or other things are due. I usually find myself helping write, revise, or edit report or proposal documents. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favorite, because I spend time at the kindergarten that PARD runs.  I teach English classes to the kindergarten teachers. They’re a fantastic group of women I’m privileged to know. 

SALTer Olivia Litterell from Idaho takes a selfie with two kindergarten teachers that she teaches English class to at Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in Lebanon.  MCC photo/Olivia Litterell

After work, I head back home to the theological school. I live alongside students and residents from Syria, Palestine, Germany, Switzerland, and other assorted countries. I  eat dinner with the students and residents. Our dinnertime discussions can range from discussing the origins of certain English idioms, arguing about some obscure theological concept, or showing each other YouTube videos of underrated music from our home areas. In the evenings after dinner, I either hang out with my MCC team, watch a movie in one of my friends’ rooms, play games with some of the people at the school, or just hang out in my room until I go to bed. 

Why I applied to SALT:  I was on the lookout for ways I could spend some time working in the Middle East. Someone told me that I should check out MCC because it seemed to coincide with the things I stand for.  I Googled the SALT program, it really caught my attention. I had looked into a lot of different overseas positions, but this one stayed in my mind. Hoping for the best, I applied. I sent my application in the day before the deadline. One failed visa, lots of changed plans, several last-minute e-mails and Skype calls, and a whole lot of plane rides later, I found myself in happily in Beirut. 

To anyone considering SALT: If you’re thinking about SALT, there’s a whole bunch of reasons I could give you, both for and against dropping everything and moving overseas for a year. But at this point, I can assume you’ve already thought through most of them. I surely had. Extensively. I knew it was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure if I was actually ready to pack up and move to a country sight unseen for a year. I finally figured that if I had thought about it for as long as I had, and I still couldn’t abandon the idea, then I should probably just go for it. I haven’t regretted that choice, and I’m betting you won’t either.   

Challenges: I tend to have similar challenges everywhere I go, or any time I venture out and do something new. One common theme is recognizing and accepting the areas where I fail and being okay with that. Being able to recognize my weaknesses and still be okay with myself, while working toward positive change is always something I have to work through. When doing anything new, you’re bound to fail at something at some point, and it’s been a really important lesson for me to learn to expect that and to be able to learn from it and keep moving forward instead of letting it shut me down. 

Joys: I’d spent quite a lot of time thinking about working in the Middle East before I ever came here, so honestly, I’m just glad to be here. Sometimes, when I’m at the kindergarten with the teachers, or when I’m hanging out with the students at the school where I live, or maybe even just when I’m in a crowded shop, some small thing will happen. It might be a smile, or a beautiful phrase someone says, or an interaction that I watch, but suddenly I have this strong feeling, like I’m right where I’m supposed to be. In that moment it’s like my mind steps back and takes a broad look at everything I’ve seen and done and each person I’ve met and each story I’ve heard since coming here; I take in all that wonder and joy and pain at once, as if it’s all been condensed into a beam of energy that’s ricocheting off me and surrounding me. And then, the moment is over and it’s back to business as usual, but those couple of seconds, it is always profound. 

Things I will never forget about this experience: I remember things best in smells. The smell of fish and saltwater on the corniche. The smell of thyme and bread baking in every man’oushe stand along the sides of the streets. The smell of the chocolate chip cookies we buy at the little supermarket down the street. The smell of diesel mixed with cigarette smoke (and occasionally mixed with garbage) that is ever-present while walking or riding the bus. The smell of strong coffee and cardamom. The smell of cake in the little toaster oven that burns everything. The smell of every spice imaginable mixed together as I walk past the spice shop. The smell of the trees and the dirt when we go to the mountains outside of Beirut. The smell of fresh bread in my room after I come home from the grocery store. These are the things I will never forget.  

Olivia enjoys a day skiing and snowboarding at a team retreat with MCC team serving in Lebanon.Photo courtesy of Olivia Litterell

Things I am learning about myself: I’m learning that I can do a lot more than I ever thought I could. My one hesitation heading into this job was rooted in my fear of not being good at the aspects of this job that I had never done before. But, I’ve realized that I’ve been able to pick up a lot of skills that I might not have learned otherwise. I feel a lot better prepared to take charge of my life and make some of those responsible adult decisions that I like to avoid. 

Learning about Faith:  Lebanon is a place deeply entrenched with so many different branches of faith backgrounds. I think that as I learn and experience more about different people groups’ perspectives of God and of faith, my own perspectives have broadened a lot more.  

Another thing I’ve experienced a lot here is seeing God in the little, daily moments of the people I meet and know. I’m learning to see God in a child’s smile, in a teacher’s caring hands or a woman’s eyes as she remembers her home a lifetime away. There is oneness and humanness there, and in those moments, God feels very close. I find holiness in shared humanity. 

Life after SALT: I’ve never been known for having well thought-out and articulated plans, but this I know: I will consume an exorbitant amount of cheese and kombucha.  I will smell all the pine trees within reasonable distance. I’ll get in a car and just drive down a road with no traffic. I’ll make good use of the unlimited and fast Wi-Fi. I’ll sit down and have actual face-to-face conversations with my family. And after that? I could end up anywhere.