Every year young people live abroad and serve through MCC's young-adult programs. They work with MCC partner organizations, live with hosts or in community, learn new skills and offer their service. From teachers and nurses to architects and communications professionals, the work participants do is varied. But they all have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and deepen their relationship with God.
Six of the participants in out Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) share about their year in service.
These reflections were originally published in the SALT and IVEP yearbooks and have been edited for length.
Natalia Andrea Vaca Bastidas (Colombia)
Served as a community center worker at the Thrive Community Support Circle in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
First impression or differences: The first week we were in Toronto for orientation I thought that Toronto is a beautiful city because of all the trees and green areas it has. The next week I arrived in Winnipeg and the first thing I thought was that Winnipeg was a gray city without trees. They were fixing many roads; the weather was colder in the fall and everything looked sad. Fortunately, the next day we went to more areas of Winnipeg, and I could see how beautiful this city is too; now I love being part of Winnipeg. On the streets I thought I would see many white people with blond hair and blue eyes, but most are from the Philippines, China, Vietnam. I thought: ‘Oh, I’m not in Canada, I’m in Asia.’ But I’m glad to know that Canada is a country where many immigrants can come and establish their lives.
Memorable or funny experience: One of my greatest wishes when I was little was knowing the snow, and this dream was fulfilled in my IVEP service year. It’s something so magical that every winter day I’ll be happy. Starting new friendships with wonderful people throughout the world was a joy that will last forever. I’ve seen the love and reflection of God every day I’ve been in Canada, without missing a single day. I always see his love for me in the people around me.
MCC photo courtesy of Natalia Vaca Bastidas
Faith journey: I have always liked social work and that is one of the strong characteristics that identifies Mennonite churches. So much of my life has been dedicated to action, and I have forgotten the spiritual part that is equally important. That’s why, when I came to Winnipeg, one of my goals was to start having a more spiritual connection with God. I started having times alone with God doing daily devotions. I even searched on YouTube: How to do a devotional? That was funny. And what started as a time of 10 minutes, now became about 45 minutes. I realized that if I don’t have those spaces alone with God, it’s as if something was needed during the day. So, I am very happy to have found that space here in Canada, that maybe in Colombia I would not have discovered it. So, if God brought me here today it is because that was one of his purposes with me, to connect more spiritually with him.
New perspectives: How not to miss my mother’s fried plantains, juice of curuba, tropical fruits, going out in summer clothes, asking for discounts in stores, greeting everyone with a peck on the cheek, and if it was not enough, another at goodbye; sharing with my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my community of faith, the pile of things that God allows us to enjoy daily. Canada is a beautiful country, but Colombia for me is even more so. God made us Colombians because it was his desire, so we must be good representatives of what God granted us. My perspective of this beautiful experience is that I can value my community knowing other communities.
Future plans: My plans for when I return home are two months of volunteering with the organization Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) in Barrancabermeja, being a support for peasant communities ravaged by violence. I want to encourage the young people of my church with my experience to empower them and to be future ambassadors of Colombia in this amazing experience. I want to share with my family, my boyfriend and friends, my joys, my challenges and my adventurous trip in Canada.
Melissa Jantzi (Virginia, USA)
Served as a nursing teacher assistant at the Macha School of Nursing in Macha, Zambia.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Jantzi
First impression or differences: Some of the major shocks upon arriving were learning how to live with water that only runs a few hours a day and the closest grocery store being over an hour away. But of course, with time these things have become normal, just like the new set of foods, being surrounded by a new language, and a new climate. There have been many differences between here and home, but all of the important things – God and wonderful people – are still here.
Memorable or funny experience: Some of the highlights have included watching babies be born at the Macha hospital, going on game drives to see elephants, zebras, antelopes, etc., and of course meeting and getting to know so many people!
Faith journey: I have loved experiencing a new kind of church in Zambia. Before I came, I was already looking forward to the beautiful and energetic music that is found here, but another blessing has been the extraordinary way that prayer is built into church services and daily life here. This has been a time when I have been trying to practice “praying continually.” I know that my prayer life will be forever changed from my time here.
MCC photo/Melissa Jantzi
Career/professional development: Working at a nursing school instead of working directly with patients as a nurse was a new experience for me. I also had a huge learning curve with understanding the healthcare resources and services available in my very rural community. But the nurses at the hospital and instructors at the nursing school have taught me so much about how to provide good care with minimal resources and high patient ratios. I have found new appreciation for the fundamental, hands-on nursing skills that are the same everywhere in the world.
New perspectives: I have definitely learned to appreciate the simple things in life. It’s possible to live very comfortably without regular access to internet, shopping, or restaurants. Living in rural Zambia has helped me better appreciate the natural beauty around me and has taught me how to slow down and enjoy being more than doing.
Future plans: I plan on finding a nursing job in a hospital close to home. As much as I have enjoyed my year at the nursing school, I am also really looking forward to working with patients again.
Sitha Mpofu (Zimbabwe)
Served as office manager and extended case manager with Episcopal Migration Ministries Wichita, Kansas.
MCC photo courtesy of Sithandweyinkosi Mpofu
First impression or differences: At first, I felt very overwhelmed. It was a lot to take in being in a new environment. At the same time, I was amazed at how nice the people were both in my community and work place. It was almost as if they knew what I was going through and they made efforts to make me feel comfortable. There were differences of course between my home and my host family. My major adjustment was having to change from living with a family of six to living with just one person. Despite the change I still had so much fun with my host. I loved the way people were a family at work, and church was always a blessing to attend.
Memorable or funny experience: My memorable experience was when my kindergarten Sunday school kids brought me chocolates just to tell me they loved me. I so enjoyed spending time with them and for them to do that was just so heart- warming. A funny experience was when I went ice skating with my host mum and the junior high class from church. Needless to say, I was so terrible at it. There was a lot of falling on the ice because it was so hard to balance. Most of the time I had someone holding my hand, so I wouldn’t fall. In as much as I was so bad at it, it was just so much fun, and also funny to those who were watching my helpless-self fall so much.
MCC photo courtesy of Sithandweyinkosi Mpofu
Faith journey: I was able to fit into church and that was a huge relief to me. I joined the church choir and taught Sunday school and that helped me feel rooted in my faith. I also had a Sunday school class with people my age and through that I was able to interact and study the word with my peers. Having an active church life made my whole journey much easier because I had people from church to lean on when I needed it. Having them pray for me always was also a huge blessing to me.
New perspectives: I realized that people are different. Our thoughts, goals, beliefs, aspirations and views will never be the same. Sometimes the important thing is not making someone else agree with you; it is actually listening and giving others an opportunity to express their views. Being around IVEPers from different countries made me realize that no matter what cultural differences we may have, we are all just the same people. You just have to learn to be open to others so that they can give the same to you.
Future plans: I am looking forward to doing more volunteer work because I enjoyed helping people in my placement. It seems like something I would enjoy doing. At the same time, I look forward to furthering my studies and doing my master’s degree in law.
Zury Dayana Lemus Vega (Honduras)
Served as a Spanish conversation partner at Eastern Mennonite University Harrisonburg, Virginia.
First impression or differences: My very first impression was during orientation week. We went with other IVEPers for a walk in Akron to see where we were. We saw big, beautiful houses with large yards, but no one in the streets. Everything was so quiet and peaceful, like if no one lived in those houses, and in that moment, I thought, “If we were in my country, this would be totally different." I was used to seeing many people in the streets, to hear music from the houses, and then, I realized I was in another world.
The seasons, the time of sunset, the roads, the climate, the houses, the church; everything is different! I had the blessing of experiencing the four seasons for the first time in my life and it was beautiful! However, something that is not different is God’s love reflected in the people. Being in a Mennonite community gave me the opportunity to share with amazing people and to realize that despite of our differences, we love and serve the same God, and that is not going to change.
Memorable or funny experience: I loved snow! Our midyear conference was in February in Canada, and I had never seen so much snow. Locals said it was not as much as other years, but it was the first time I saw that much. I remember the landscape as a beautiful white post card: walking through green pines totally covered with snow and through a path where the snow easily covered your entire foot. Amazing.
Photo courtesy of Zury Dayana Lemus Vega
Faith journey: Amazing but challenging. At the beginning, the English language was a barrier because it was painful to adapt my brain totally to English. After a few weeks, it was much better. It was hard for me to understand that everyone worships in a different way. However, I have learned that God loves me and that he never leaves us alone. I am growing in his spirit and learning more from him. I want to share with others that God’s love is beyond borders.
Career/professional development: I am very thankful for God because he gave me the opportunity to work with many professors that helped me learn new ways of teaching. I am not a teacher, but I want to be one. Being able to see how teachers do their job in United States gives me a new perspective of techniques and options I have, to help my students learn better.
New perspectives: One of the most amazing lessons I had this year was to learn about myself. I have learned to know me better, to take responsibilities for my actions and to love me despite of anything. I now have a wider idea of different countries, people and cultures. It’s amazing how different we are, but how we can find similarities between us, because after all, we are all images of God. I had to learn more about my country to be able to share it here, but I also learned about this beautiful country and why many people decide to come here. I met with a lot of Hondurans who haven’t been able to see their families because of the migration process here. They don’t want their children to lose the blessing of being in a country like this because our countries aren’t able to provide a space of security, education, and health appropriate to us. I’m still learning much more and that’s the best part of this experience. Being able to see, learn, know, share, and love what God has given us.
Future plans: This experience gave me the chance of learning a lot of things. I now have another way of seeing the world and more knowledge about it. I want to become an English teacher and I want to be part of an organization back in Honduras that works with and for people.
Juan P. Albizu (Ponce, Puerto Rico)
Served as the peace project assistant with Fundación, Paz y Esperanza in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
First impression or differences: At first glance, Santa Cruz seems like a developed city, but it is not until you are part of the community, that you begin to see social problems. Although I come from a Latin and Spanish-speaking country, I found a great cultural contrast, and it was a shock that I had to deal with. Life in Santa Cruz is very fast paced and you have to adapt to that life. The people in Santa Cruz are very friendly if you compare them with other areas of Bolivia that can be more reserved. I have visited the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, the prison and sectors affected by machismo and violence. It has been eye opening to see that area and how much need they have for justice and equality.
I believe that Bolivia has a beautiful culture, an exquisite cuisine and some very kind and blessed people as part of this beautiful country. For me it was a blessing to be able to taste and understand this culture, to be able to make great bonds of friendship, family and brothers, and above all carry a piece of Bolivia in my heart.
Memorable or funny experience: I have shared life with great Bolivian friends and with a host family that has warmly received me. I have had fun moments here, from confusing people, losing the means of transport, forgetting something important, saying the wrong word or one that has a different meaning in my home country. The story that I will never forget was the day I was in a mall, and I confused a girl with one of the SALTers (Joia), and when I approached to give her a surprise hug, it was not her. And things like that happen when you’re in another country for one year, but they are moments that impact your life and you will never forget.
MCC photo/Juan P. Albizu
Relationship with God: I think this has been the key point during my service. I believe faithfully when the Bible says that “everything has its time.” And it’s true, during your service you will have time to share moments, sightsee, talk, enjoy, etc. But there comes also the time to be alone and seek to connect with God and seek that peace that only he can make you feel. I went through several stages of learning due to illness or a particular situation and in each one of them I could see the hand of God when I cried out to him for mercy and peace. Definitely to be able to start and finish a service, you have to be connected with God.
Future plans: There are many plans that I have. Have a career in law, do another service program with my future wife, be able to motivate other young people to do and be part of a volunteer program. And my dream is and will be to work somewhere helping and serving immigrants.
Rina Maria Garcia Rosal (Guatemala)
Served as a teacher’s assistant in the Spanish Immersion Program at the Locust Grove campus of Lancaster Mennonite School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy of Rina Maria Garcia Rosal
First impression or differences: No doubt my first impression was to think, where are the people? I am a city girl used to being surrounded by houses, cars, buses, shops. You can find me all the time with a neighbor talking, sharing a greeting, or running to the store that is two houses away because I need an egg.
It was a very big change because I had to live on a farm, and the only thing I thought at the beginning was, where are my neighbors? I have lived surrounded by trees, harvests, and enjoyed a lot of time of peace and tranquility. I went to big cities like New York and being in this stage I can assure you that nothing would change the blessing of living in this small town of New Holland. I have so much fun when the people in Guatemala do not believe that the U.S. is not just a country full of cities, and that life in the countryside will always be the best.
Another of the biggest differences has been that I come from a hot culture. People are more expressive, more emotional, while here people are more direct, colder. Although it has been complicated, over time, I’m still not sure if I have learned to be a cold person, or the people that surround me here have learned to be warmer like me, but I must say, we have done very well together.
Memorable or funny experience: I have had the opportunity to live with a quite original family. I remember that one day with a lot of snow, all the IVEPers shared photos of their snowmen (like normal people) but I could only share photos of me sitting on a metal disk tied to a huge tractor that my host dad pulled around the farm. I discovered that in the snow there are many interesting things to do if you have a family that’s a little crazy.
Faith journey: I understand that God is not wrong. He has shown me many things through this time, but above all he loves me and has great plans for my life. There were moments where I did not want to be here. I was frustrated not understanding the language and I did not feel happy, but God filled me with strength and with special people and God opened my mind and heart. Although I still have complications, today I can say that this will always be the best present and the best experience of my life.
Career/professional development: I graduated as a teacher four years ago and this has been one of the best opportunities to learn new ideas, new methods, and new teaching methods, and certainly learn from education and its methodology here, which has inspired me to continue working and trying every day to be a better teacher. I want to change the lives of children in my country.
New perspectives: It has been a very impressive change, since many times we do not value what we have until we are far from our country. It has opened my mind to want to continue working for my people, always fighting for a better future. It has taught me also that we are all so different and meeting people from so many countries has been the best opportunity to understand that despite the differences we serve the same God and together we will continue to transform lives for His service.
Future plans: I want to finish my career as a social worker. I want to find a job that allows me to continue serving others and share the love of God through different actions. My dream is to continue knowing, learning, traveling and living my life, something special, for the service of God.