AKRON, Pa. – Stephen Esaki, 27, dragged himself into his host family’s home in Tete, Mozambique. He was ready to jump onto the couch and kick back after building sand dams all day, but his host sister already had the couch occupied. This familiar situation reminded him of his high school years in Aapaa, Hawaii, when he would come home to find his own sister sprawled on the couch.
Familiar experiences such as this were rare for the 57 young adults from Canada and the U.S, who returned in mid-July from 11 months of serving with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 26 countries around the world. More often, their experiences with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program were unfamiliar.
“Sometimes I had a hard time feeling welcome in the community, said Trisha Fallon, 24, of Wheaton, Ill., who felt lonely for the first couple months that she was in Irbid, Jordan. “I didn’t really know if people wanted me there.”
However, friendships and relationships helped her to adjust, especially the Azars family, “who immediately make you feel like you are part of the family.” Just after she met them, Fallon said, she knocked on their door asking for help because her cell phone had died, leaving her without directions. Although they barely knew her, they enthusiastically offered to drive her anywhere she needed to go.
Daniel King, 28, of Hutchinson, Kan., said learning to take time for relationships rather than tasks was one of the ways he changed. In Brazil, his first assignment was to build a biodigester, which changes manure into fuel. One of the farmers who worked with King said he wished King would take time out to relax.
“Being the first project, I was pretty anxious to build and was always cutting my breaks short to get back to work,” said King, 28.
The farmer stopped by consistently and asked King to play pool, his favorite game. He declined each time until one day he agreed, which led to supper and “a great time that evening,” King said.
Meanwhile in Bolivia, Vicencia Abundis, 23, of Fresno, Calif., lived and attended church in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Abundis’ host brother is the pastor of the church she attended.
Abundis learned to be flexible as she related to people at the church whose practice of their faith was different than her own. To Abundis, the rules and restrictions that the church enforced seem “external,” she said, and few people asked questions. Nevertheless, she learned to accommodate the different approach.
Abundis’ said her host mother was flexible with her too, particularly with food preferences. She remembers her host mother saying, “Americans don’t like the eyeballs from the chicken – they like chicken breast.” This consideration helped Abundis to appreciate those around her more.
Several SALTers said that their faith was both challenged and strengthened.
Rosemary Till, 22, of Kalispell, Mont., served in Moundou, Chad, where many parts of her journey were out of her control. Till said she learned that she needed to trust God and to grow in her understanding that sometimes all she could do was “pray and love,” adopting her host mother’s approach.
Her host mother told her about a time of war, when she and her child crossed the river between Chad and Cameroon, slept under a mango tree, and then just moved on. She said that when things are tough, prayer and love are the only alternatives.
Lisa Anderberg, 23, said she became more observant of the world, most importantly the people around her, while she lived in Laos this past year.
Anderberg, of Seattle, Wash., said, “A little conversation or a little effort with someone who you may not see again really goes far.” She said she is now more aware that she should “acknowledge people’s [humanity]; it is so easy to dehumanize.”
Processing all these experiences was an important part of these SALTers’ transformations.
Stephen Esaki spent countless nights under the stars, dwelling on the meaning of his assignment. He said he came into his assignment hoping to improve sanitation for the people of Tete, Mozambique, but while milling over questions of faith, asked, “Did I make a difference?”
Transformed by lessons and restored minds, these six SALTers venture into the next steps of their lives, feeling more flexible and humble, and for Rosemary Till readily trusting God. “God is here and God will listen to your prayers; God’s will will be God’s will.”
Karina Daum served as an intern this summer with Mennonite Central Committee.