"What are you actually doing?"

I was on the phone with my not-so-little brother yesterday and he asked, “What are you actually doing? People keep asking me what you’re doing over there.” I said “Dude, I don’t even know,” and he replied, “Yeah, that’s what I usually tell them.”

To tell you the truth, the plan was that I would come to St Barnabas and be a youth worker. I’d hoped that there would be some sort of structured role to step into but that was not the case. Youth involvement in this church has been steadily declining for the past 20 years for a bunch of different reasons that I won’t get into here. After some initial failed attempts to put on events, we’ve sort of decided to put a pin in the youth program expansion and focus on the youth who are already active at St Barnabas. This doesn’t take much of my daily time because I only see them a couple of times per week, so I have been finding other things to do around St Barnabas. Here’s what I get up to:

The “Weekend”

You’ll see shortly why I put quotation marks there.

Saturday

My first day off! Occasionally on Saturdays I’ll go up into London but not very often because it’s even more crowded than on weekdays. However, the Overground is a lot cheaper on Saturdays so sometimes it’s worth it, depending on where I want to go. Saturdays are also the day that there’s a community market (think farmer’s market + handmade goods + food trucks) just a 10 minute walk from me in East Dulwich. I don’t usually buy anything there (ya girl’s ballin’ on a budget) but I love to walk through! Usually I will either go on a pretty long walk after visiting the market or go home and watch Netflix (this will probably change in the spring but during cozy season, I really like to just cuddle up under a blanket, light a candle, and relax).

Sunday

Not a day off! I get to church a half hour before the service for choir rehearsal. The service lasts an hour and 15 minutes or so. Every other week I have youth group after the service; youth group is led by three young women plus myself: Frances, Liv, and Freddie. We meet in the church library and ply the youth with sweets. We chat about their lives, sing songs from musicals, and occasionally actually get to talking about the topic of the day. After I leave church I often go to a coffee shop to journal. Sunday evenings are a time to watch Netflix and lounge around in my flat, although I recently attended an evening service at a church near my flat. It’s hard to feel like I’m worshiping on a Sunday at the front of the church in my choir robe. I’ve been wanting a chance to worship somewhere with a more informal feel where I don’t feel like I’m at work. I hope to attend there every few weeks, whenever I’m not too burnt out from the morning.

Monday

My other day off! What I do on Mondays varies from week to week. Some Mondays I lie around all day doing nothing at all (sometimes I don’t even leave my flat!). Some Mondays I venture up into London–an hour’s bus ride–to do things that have huge crowds on weekends or just to wander around and see what I see. Most Mondays are somewhere in the middle; I go to the big grocery store (that’s a big undertaking as there’s really no good bus to take and it’s a 25-minute walk), do a bit of laundry and tidying up around my flat, and spend the rest of the day relaxing.

I am looking into joining a group of local young adults from many of the surrounding churches for a Monday night worship once a month and a meet-up at a pub on a different Monday once a month! I look forward to actually going to one of these events sometime soon (I met these folks at the aforementioned church where I attended a Sunday evening service).

The Work Week

Tuesday

Morning prayer starts at 9 so I usually arrive at St Barnabas at 8:55 or so, sometimes earlier if I really want to drink a cup of tea before prayer. To get there at about 8:55, I leave my flat no later than 8:33, which means that most mornings I wake up between 7:15 and 7:30. This day is the most variable of my work days. Sometimes I go to the local (what in the US we would call) public elementary school to do an assembly. Sometimes I go to the local church school (K-2nd grade-ish) to lead afternoon worship. Tuesdays are also my days to get caught up on whatever tasks I’ve been given like creating flyers for events and graphics for the church’s social media accounts.

Wednesday

I get to the church for morning prayer. There’s an hour break between morning prayer and the midweek Communion service, so sometimes I just have a cup of tea and chat with Faiza, the parish administrator, until that service. Sometimes I get right to work and skip the Communion service. One hour on Wednesday morning is set aside for me to meet with Liz. Liz is my boss, the curate at St Barnabas, one of my Moms-away-from-Mom, and a lovely human being. This hour is for her to check in with me and find out how I’m doing in every aspect of my life here: am I healthy socially, physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally? We talk a little about work too. Before I leave, she prays with me and for me. I look forward to this blessing every week.

Spoiler alert: on Thursdays I send out a weekly “here’s what’s going on in the parish this week” email. I spend a big chunk of time on Wednesday putting that email together. I choose a verse or two from the upcoming Sunday’s readings and find some art (think bulletin cover) to include at the top. I check (and double check and triple check) that week’s calendar of events to make sure the email is accurate. This is a tough task as I have two churches to check service times and types for, in addition to checking that all the scheduled events are actually taking place.

Thursday

I get to the church for morning prayer. On Thursday mornings, St Barnabas hosts a “Meet Up” for the residents of a local refugee shelter called Barry House. If there are young folks in that day, I usually go in to play with them and, if they speak English, chat with them. How long I hang out there depends on how much work I still have to do on the email that needs to be sent out that afternoon. Thursdays are also the day that the office staff (Faiza and Riccardo) finish up the bulletin for that week with all of the announcements and notices. I usually head back to the office mid-morning to see if they’ve finished compiling that part of the bulletin so I can include any last-minute additions to the notices in my “here’s what’s going on in the parish this week” email. After I send that email, it’s time to prep for Friday. This involves a nice roundabout walk to the nearest grocery store to pick up pizzas. It’s roundabout because there’s a big neighborhood in between the church and the store with no roads going straight through the neighborhood toward the store!

Tuesday through Thursday evenings

I stay for 5pm Evening Prayer with John and Liz and start heading home at around 5:30. These evenings are usually very low-key. I make something for dinner or I eat a little snack and drink some tea, read a book for a while, and go to bed around 10:30. However, every two weeks I go to a young adult Bible study at Frances’s flat (the day changes every week depending on when people are free). Once a month, I attend a poetry open mic night at a local coffee shop. It’s a nice balance of rest and busyness.

Friday

Fridays are late nights so I go in to church late too. Some Fridays I lie in bed until noon, other Fridays I leave for church a couple of hours early and go to my favorite coffee shop near church to blog, work on a newsletter, or write in my journal. I arrive for the 2pm staff meeting a little bit early so that I can make myself tea. After the meeting, I do whatever prep I need to do for upcoming Sundays or school assemblies. Occasionally I’ll have finished up all of my work for the week so I just kind of hang out! The first wave of kiddos shows up at around 5 for Junior Choir. The ordinand, Katie, and I fight with an iPad to check those kiddos in for choir, and then I head to the kitchen to start on dinner for the little ones. A man named Jeremy very kindly brings fruit and crisps (chips) every week, so all I have to do is make squash (kind of like Kool-Aid but made from actual fruit juice concentrate instead of sugar powder) and bake a couple of pizzas. Sometimes I have a couple of high school-age kids (here they’re called “youth”) there to help out, which is life-saving, and sometimes I do this by myself. Somehow, even though it seems simple, this is a really difficult task!

For example, this week I was running between the kitchen and the parish office, with a frantic mental to-do list:

  • check to see if the oven has finished heating up
  • go pull printed booklets out of the printer so it can continue (it quits if it’s about to overflow)
  • check to see if the oven has finished heating up
  • chat with the youth
  • put in two pizzas
  • find my phone (where did I set it down???)
  • set a pizza timer
  • pull booklets off the printer
  • chat with the youth
  • remember that I haven’t made the squash yet
  • make the squash
  • get out cups
  • check the pizza timer
  • look for the pizza cutter
  • panic because it’s nowhere to be found
  • tear apart the kitchen
  • finally find the pizza cutter (in the cupboard with the wine glasses, duh) with one minute to spare
  • pull booklets off the printer
  • get pizzas out of the oven and cut them
  • bring them out to the kiddos who are screaming for pizza because rehearsal ended one minute ago and the pizzas weren’t out there when they emerged
  • go pull the last of the booklets from the printer
  • make copies of the thing that the music director asked me to copy an hour ago but I couldn’t because the booklets were printing
  • b r e a t h e
  • eat pizza

After the little ones clear out, the 8-18-year olds show up for their choir rehearsal. They’re called “the choristers” and they’re technically part of the big choir but they get extra rehearsal time. They eat more pizza and chill out before their rehearsal. When they head out for rehearsal, I get to breathe. Sometimes I FaceTime my family in this little break because it’s a time that actually works! I get about a half hour of rest before the adults join the choristers for our combined rehearsal. Rehearsal is 1-1.5 hours long. Afterward, the adults have some wine or bubbly and the kids eat a bunch of sugar (and leftover pizza). This is the time that I really get to hang out with the children and youth. This is the time when the youth talk to me. They tell me about the things that are tough for them, the drama going on at school, or a funny thing that happened that day. Mostly, I just listen to them talk about boys. There was some Tom Holland-related drama last week. I love this time with them so dearly. I stay as long as I can and then a lovely woman named Vanessa gives me a ride home sometime between 9:15 and 9:30.

Other things I do at work

In addition to the things that I only do once a week, I also spend time in the office working on St Barnabas’s website. I can hear you now, saying, “Oh good! You get to use your degree!” Unfortunately, no. The website is overseen by a “creative agency” so I email them and tell them what updates to do. This poor website was extremely out-of-date when I got my grubby little hands on it, so I got to do one of my favorite things in the world: create a color-coded spreadsheet with all of the things that needed updating. It currently has 97 rows. Some of them are blank, but still. It took me a couple of months but the major changes to the website are almost done! I’m just waiting on some new photos to be taken and shared with me and for the website guys to take out one paragraph on one of the pages. Soon, I’ll have moved from major renovations to general upkeep and I am VERY EXCITED about this.

The other thing that I do throughout the week is chat (or listen to other people chat). The parish office is almost always bustling. Faiza, the parish administrator is there for most of my workday, and Riccardo, the assistant director of music, is also there for much of the day. Sometimes John, the vicar, comes in from his house next door, which is always fun! Dawn, the buildings manager, often has business around the church and stops by to chat. Liz’s study is all the way on the other side of the building but she usually brings her lunch into the office to hang out with us. Katie is only in on Thursdays and Fridays but her desk is in the office too so we chat quite a bit. These are the people I see most often!

There are many other people who are in and out of the office a little bit less throughout the week but whenever people stop by to attend an event, drop something off or pick something up, prep for Sunday School, or just have a cup of tea, we end up putting down our work and chatting with them. This can be tiring and frustrating when I have work I “need” to get done but I remind myself that the people standing in front of me are far more important than whatever I’m working on. The church newsletter that I “need” to finish can go out an hour later than my self-imposed deadline. The posters that I “need” to design and print won’t even really be seen until Sunday anyway so if I have to finish them tomorrow it’s not that big of a setback. The email that I “need” to send to the website dudes by the end of the workday isn’t that urgent; this website has been out-of-date for months so it’s not the end of the world if it’s out-of-date for 24 more hours. The work of loving my neighbor starts with caring for the neighbor standing in front of me, even when I have a million other things I could be doing.

Milestones #1

I struggle to figure out what to write on this blog. Working at a church means that I am very restricted in what I can share online (or at all). I will have to check the church’s archives of permission forms to see whether I can post photos of the kids I work with. Many of the things that I navigate every day have to do with church politics, which I know plenty about from home and definitely know I can’t share online.

Even so, you’d think I’d be able to blog about “big events” that occur or reflections on my experiences. There haven’t been many “big events” so far, at least not ones that can hold their own as individual blog posts, and things that I’ve reflected on in my personal writing and journaling feel too unrefined and personal to share with the internet at this point. So this blog has been largely silent.

So what I’m going to do for today is share some milestones that I’ve passed so far (some of this content will be reused and recycled from my latest newsletter #sustainability).

August 22, 2019

  • Unpacked my two suitcases and backpack
  • Looked through my flat’s kitchen cupboards (all except the one that I was warned not to open because the door would come off and hit me in the head)
  • Figured out which keys open which doors and gates
  • Used my converter to plug in my phone
  • Slept for 13 hours

Later in the first two weeks

  • Learned how to read the symbols on the oven and washing machine (they’re not the same!)
  • Figured out which grocery stores are cheaper but still have good quality
  • Figured out which grocery stores are so fancy that they don’t carry cream cheese
  • Learned that if you put money on your bus pass (Oyster card) but don’t use it in the next three days or so, it takes the money back off
  • Went out for drinks with some gals from the church who are in their 20s and involved in youth group stuff (Freddie, Frances, and Liv)

September 12-15, 2019 

  • Bought a moka pot from the grocery store and made my first cup of coffee, finally getting to use the coffee grounds they’d given us at Churchwide Assembly before I left the States but after I’d left home
  • Someone from the choir showed up at my house with an electric keyboard that I get to borrow for the year. I get to play piano to de-stress now.

September 25-30, 2019

My power converter + laptop charger combo started making the WORST NOISE so I navigated an Argos for the first time. This was very foreign to me: you walk in, place your order on a standalone iPad-type situation, get in line, pay at the counter, get in line again, and wait for them to bring your order out from the warehouse in the back.

Early October 2019

  • Realized that I would be miserable this autumn without an umbrella
  • Investigated the mysterious forbidden cupboard in my kitchen, half hoping there was a microwave inside. Found a large empty sugar canister and a small teapot. The door did not hit me in the face but there were a couple of close calls. No microwave.
  • Attended a poetry open-mic night which was extremely fulfilling and suuuuper good for my soul

Mid-October 2019

  • Cried in a department store because I hadn’t been to a department store since I got here and it reminded me of home. Especially the Disney merchandise.
  • My app told me to take the 12 bus and I said “uh, no thanks, that’s not as good as the 63” and took the 63 instead. Didn’t get lost.
  • Burst into tears and very dramatically fell on the floor at home when I found out that PLU’s basing their whole Christmas concert on my favorite choral piece and I don’t get to attend

Late October 2019

  • Went up into London for some sightseeing, met up with Kait from PLU, got bubble tea which I’d been craving for two months
  • Went up into London a different time with Nicki from my cohort to get Taco Bell for the first time since getting here. It’s similar enough to American Taco Bell for it to be really good comfort food, even if they don’t have Baja Blast here (I just found out that Mtn Dew is illegal here).
  • Had our first YAGM-only retreat where I actually processed some things that I’d been metaphorically carrying around with me for two months.
  • Bought a USB wall plug for my phone cord so I don’t have to carry around my converter everywhere just to charge my phone.

Beginning of November 2019

  • It’s cold. I started wearing a long puffy coat and a hat and gloves every time I leave the house. Midwest friends, don’t @ me. I’m always cold.
  • Finally settled on a couple of favorite coffee shops and I know which coffee shops to go to for different needs (one near the church to work in, one near my flat to work in, one that’s open later than the others, one that has bigger drinks).
  • The baristas at my two favorite shops recognize me.
  • Attended the second monthly poetry open-mic; people recognize me even though I haven’t had the guts to actually read any poetry at one yet. Maybe next month.

Serve the Lord Your God With Love

Over the last week I have been thinking a lot about my fellow YAGM all over the world.  Since leaving Chicago, the other cohorts have been in their in-country orientations and have just begun dispersing to their host communities.  I, on the other hand, have been in my host community for 19 days already. I’m not going to lie or sugar-coat it: that was really really hard for me at first.  I was already alone and lonely in my giant, empty, freezing flat. I no longer had friends right next door or just downstairs to grab for an evening walk or for some singing around a campfire.  I no longer had any friends at all. I could contact my cohort via group chat, and we talked about logistical things (What bank did you use? Are you being given a phone or are you getting a new SIM? When do we get our living stipend?) but we didn’t get to explore a small part of our new home together.  We didn’t get to literally be there for each other as we started the next phase of our YAGM journeys. We just… started. On our own. And it was lonely.

At orientation, Kara, Jackie, and I were often found singing the Prayer of Good Courage with our friends.  The prayer as we sing it, as best I can tell, was written by Kent Gustavson as part of an evening prayer service composed for Holden Village.  It was introduced to me by Kara, Jackie, and some of their friends from Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, where they use the song every year. The song’s lyrics are

O God, you have called us to ventures where we cannot see the end,
by paths never yet taken, through perils unknown.
Give us good courage, not knowing where we go,
to know that your hand is leading us wherever we might go.
Amen.

Here’s a link to a video I made of the song; the dissonance is intentional, the pitchy bits are unintentional (turn down your device volume). This song was adapted from a prayer that has appeared in several Lutheran hymnals as part of Matins (the morning prayer service). The prayer in the hymnals reads:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage not knowing where we go, but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. 

I don’t know if he was planning to do this all along or if he decided to use this prayer after he heard us singing it so much, but Dan prayed this prayer with us TWICE in my last 24 hours in Chicago.  When I asked him, he said he was trying to make us cry. It worked, obviously.

I was doing some more digging on this prayer because I just can’t get enough of it.  It turns out that the original version was published in 1941 in a book called Daily Prayer by Eric Milner-White and G.W. Briggs.  Its text reads:

O Lord God, who hast called thy servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown: Give us faith to go out with a good courage, not knowing whither we go, but only that thy hand is leading us, and thy love supporting us; to the glory of thy Name.

The prayer is not attributed to anyone in the text of the book, so according to the book’s introduction this prayer was either written by Milner-White or Briggs, and I think it is usually attributed to Milner-White.

Here’s where it gets crazy. Eric Milner-White was a British Anglican priest ordained in 1909 in Southwark Cathedral (the mother church of the Diocese of Southwark, which–drumroll please–is the diocese that MY PLACEMENT, ST BARNABAS, IS IN). He had attended Kings College, Cambridge and later returned when he was appointed as the Dean of King’s College. While he was there, he introduced the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is a Christmas tradition to this day and is broadcast on the radio all over the world.  Incidentally, I went to the chapel of King’s College on choir tour and we sang a choral evensong there, which was such an amazingly special experience (see below for some photos I took).

Milner-White also served as the Dean of York from 1941-1963, which meant that he was in charge of York Minster, which, SURPRISE, I also visited for an evening prayer service while on choir tour (again, some of my photos are below).  

This Prayer of Good Courage was written by a priest less than 250 miles from where I am right now. It has been said and sung by many people I could never know. It has also been said and sung by many people I know well and love.  I literally walked in the footsteps of its creator before I even knew how significant his words have been to my life. As with Scripture, liturgy, Communion, and even Taylor Swift’s music, it is really cool to be able to participate in the recitation/practice of something that means and has meant so much to so many people all over the world. 

I will never know what the adjustment would have felt like for me if we’d had our in-country orientation immediately upon leaving Chicago.  It might have been easier to start in my host community but it also might have been harder to leave my friends in the cohort. All I know is that while my own flurries of emotions have mostly subsided (for now), the folks in the other cohorts are probably feeling lots of different things as they are preparing to make their way out into their placements or are settling in after a few short days in their placements.  The Prayer of Good Courage is such an incredible reminder that even though my first few days away from my YAGM friends were very lonely, we venture together with God’s hand leading us and God’s love supporting us.

So for everyone but especially for my YAGM friends who are entering their host communities and my PLU friends who are starting classes, I leave you today with the sending song from my own camp, Outlaw Ranch:

So go in peace; serve the Lord your God with love, remembering God will be with us all until the end.

(And @ Mom, @ all my “moms away from mom” and @ my Mom Friends: don’t worry, my giant, freezing flat now has some borrowed books and jumpers to fill up space and I figured out where the thermostat is.)

FAQ

Emily facing away from the camera looking at a pink neon sign that says "good vibes only"
From my choir tour to the UK earlier this summer! This display was in a shop in Brick Lane Vintage Market in London.

This is a (very long) FAQ post featuring questions I answered a lot before I left and questions people submitted to me via Instagram. Here are the questions I’ll be addressing:

  • “Wait, why are you doing a mission trip to the UK…”
    • “…when the UK is historically Christian and there are so many places that need missionaries more?”
    • “…when there are so many places that need volunteers more?”
    • “…instead of getting a job? You have a degree in computer science!”
  • “Where ARE you?”
  • “What are you doing there?”
  • “Are you going to come back with an accent?”
  • “Does your phone number still work?”
  • “What is your biggest fear going into this year?”
  • “What’s been the hardest part so far?”

“Wait, why are you doing a mission trip to the UK?”

I have answered this question about ten different ways in the past few months and I still haven’t landed on the easiest or most succinct way to explain it. For this blog post, I am going to try to answer this question by addressing the different implied endings to this question.

“Wait, why are you doing a mission trip to the UK…”

“…when the UK is historically Christian and there are so many places that need missionaries more?”

And what is meant by that is “Why aren’t you going somewhere where there are more people to convert?”

A year of service with YAGM is joining a community in another part of the world—living, working, celebrating, mourning, learning, growing, and worshiping alongside the members of that community. It’s being a part of partnerships between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other Lutheran and non-Lutheran Christian churches around the world. It’s participating in the global body of Christ, not to convert but to walk alongside people of all faiths.

“Wait, why are you doing a mission trip to the UK…”

“…when there are so many places that need volunteers more?”

This is different from the previous one because what is meant by this is “Why aren’t you going to a developing country where they need way more help?”

I have a couple of things to say about this. Firstly, I was very careful in selecting YAGM as the organization that I would ask to help me do a year of service. I did a bunch of reading on the website and asked lots of questions in my interviews, all to make sure that YAGM was a community that is taking active steps to move away from the White Savior attitude in their mission work. I don’t have the time or space in this blog post to delve too deeply into this complex issue, so I encourage you to do some research of your own (I have linked to the Wikipedia page for starters). Done poorly, even the most well-intended mission/volunteer work can have really, really bad effects on everyone involved (see this article ). I wanted to be sure that I was joining an organization that acknowledges the harm that has been done globally by Christian invasions and colonization and works to find ways to subvert, if not dismantle, systems of oppression (in general, but also specifically ones that we as Christian US Americans are likely to inadvertently perpetuate unless we consciously work toward dismantling them).

One of the scariest things I see from people who have done mission work is extreme othering. When they come home, they talk about the beautiful souls and hearts of the people of (insert country or continent [YIKES] here), as if a week in one community can give meaningful insight into the complexities of a whole country or continent (again, YIKES). I would argue that one week in a community probably cannot even provide very much meaningful insight into the complexities of that community. This article does a good job of briefly addressing the attitudes that they see with short-term missionaries. You can must acknowledge and celebrate engagement with people whose culture is different from your own without becoming a spectator. Or using those people to make yourself look pious on Instagram.

I would be very concerned if YAGM claimed not to have the White Savior attitude but then only sent its members to developing countries where the “recipients” (YIKES) of the volunteer work would mostly not be white. I want to call attention back to what I see as the main goal of a year in YAGM: to build community. I call it a “year of service,” but although service is a large component of this year I expect that the most rewarding part of a year in YAGM will not be the daily volunteer work but rather the relationships that I form and the unique experiences that I will get to have as someone from the USA living in another country for a year. It’s not about sending volunteers to communities that are in desperate need of one (1) US American unpaid worker. It’s about building relationships and community. And with the USA actively alienating ourselves as much as possible, building relationships and community across borders (and oceans) is so important.

The last bit I’d like to say on this topic is that the “service” aspect of my year of service should come as an organic product of my full immersion and participation in my new community. I do volunteer work at home, right? I’ve been part of groups that provided flood relief in Chehalis and participated in community clean-up days in Kingston, I’ve worked in the community garden, I sang in the church choir, and a group of us from church went Christmas caroling in the senior living facility. In high school, I was in nearly as many service clubs as I could fit into my schedule (I was in National Honor Society and I dabbled in the clubs that were affiliated with the Lions and Rotary). Heck, when I was in elementary and middle school, whenever I got my schoolwork done I would ask my teachers what I could do to help them out around the classroom. Service is just what I do as a part of my community. This is the reason I’m doing a year of service. This is the attitude that I hope that I am bringing with me into Dulwich.

“Wait, why are you doing a mission trip to the UK…”

“…instead of getting a job? You have a degree in computer science!”

I’d love to be able to tell you that it was a really hard decision that I put a lot of thought and care into making, but it went a little more like this:

  • October or November 2018: I was thinking and talking about YAGM a lot.
  • January 29, 2019: I submitted my application. God said “You’re doing this,” and I said “Wait, hold on, what if I don’t get chosen?” and God laughed.
  • Early February: I had interviews. God said “You’re doing this,” and I said “Oh God, I really hope so.”
  • Mid-February: I was thinking and talking about YAGM in nearly all of my waking moments. I couldn’t tell whether the voice saying “Don’t worry about applying for anything else–you’re doing YAGM,” was God or laziness or delusion.
  • March 18, 2019: YAGM said “You’re doing this, most likely,” God said “You’re doing this. See, I told you!” and I breathed a sigh of relief.
  • April 14, 2019: YAGM and God both said “You’re doing this in the UK” and I said “Yup, okay, loud and clear!”

So uh… getting a job was never really on the radar. Was I afraid that I was making a mistake? Yes. Did people try to convince me to get a job instead of doing YAGM? Absolutely. Did this throw me off a little bit? YES. I didn’t know who to listen to. Was the voice inside me saying “You’re doing YAGM” selfish? Leading me astray? But then I talked to Pr. Jen about these times when people questioned my plans (don’t even get me started on “You’re too good of a coder to be a teacher!”) and she asked me how I felt deep down when people questioned me like that. I told her that it made me really defensive and I wanted to prove them wrong. And she just kind of looked at me… and then she said something like “Well there you go then.” And that was that.

So there are my answers to the question “Why are you doing a mission trip in the UK?” Also, it’s not a “trip.” I’m living here. I’m not (often) a tourist. I’m not here to dig a well and leave. I’m (hopefully) making lifelong friends and forging ties that aren’t going to go away when I move back to the US.

On to the other questions?

“Where ARE you?”

I am in a suburb of London called Dulwich. I’m working at a church called St Barnabas, which is in Dulwich Village. If I wanted to get to, say, St. Paul’s Cathedral, it would take me a little less than an hour by bus or rail.

“What are you doing there?”

Right now? Learning names. This week? Lots of planning. Ongoing? Attempting to revamp and revitalize the youth program at St Barnabas by providing after-school clubs and supplementing the programs that are already in place. Singing in the church choir. Helping run the church’s social media and helping to create and send out church newsletters.

This week I’m starting a fellowship time for ages 6 through 9ish. Pray for me.

Next week (maybe?) I’m starting an after school study hall space for …older kids. Not quite sure about that one yet. We’ll see what happens!

“Are you going to come back with an accent?”

Honestly… probably a little bit. I pick up other people’s speech patterns very quickly. I’m definitely going to come back using British words for things.

“Does your phone number still work?”

Nope. I’ve switched out my SIM card for a UK one, which I’m only using to stay in contact with Time for God, people from the congregation here, and my doctor’s office. You can contact me via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp (using my US phone number), or use one of those channels to ask for my email address (or contact one of my family members to get my email address).

“What is your biggest fear going into this year?”

I am a big worrier, so I have lots of little fears (What if I don’t make a difference in people’s lives? What if I don’t make any friends? What if the Queen dies while I’m here? Are people making fun of me behind my back for being American? etc.). I can convince myself that most of them are irrational or irrelevant, but what is my biggest fear? My biggest fear is that I will not be able to accomplish everything that my placement expects of me in just 12 months. I don’t want to disappoint them and have them talking after I leave about “what a shame that she was here so long and accomplished so little.”

“What’s been the hardest part so far?”

I haven’t been patient with myself.

  • My jet lag was a lot worse this time than it was the last time I flew to the UK. I had expected that I’d bounce right back like I did last time and that didn’t happen this time for a multitude of reasons. I hadn’t planned for that, so I was frustrated with myself for having a slow start.
  • Certain British accents are a lot harder for me to understand than I bargained for, and some of the ways that US Americans communicate ideas are completely different from British ways. For example, I went to a doctor’s office (called a “surgery”) to get myself set up with a primary care doctor. It took me two or three tries to explain to the receptionist that I didn’t need treatment, just to register with them. There have already been many instances like this and every time, I am quick to get frustrated with myself. We’re both speaking English! Odds are good that we’re both fluent in English! Why can’t I understand them? Why can’t I articulate what I’m trying to get across? Am I just STUPID?

EDIT: I wrote this post a few days ago and I would like to say that move-in day at PLU was also really hard for me. I miss my family but I can FaceTime my family. But when I miss the feeling of being in my favorite place with my favorite people looking forward to new classes and new friends and good conversations and ensembles starting up, having shifts in the Office of Admission and getting hugs from all my friends… I cannot FaceTime that feeling. @ my Lutes: I know you hear this all the time but ENJOY IT. You don’t have to enjoy every second of it, but enjoy what you can. I love you.

If you read this whole post, you’re amazing. Hi, Mom and Dad. 💙💙

By This Everyone Will Know…

A group of about 70 young adults doing wacky poses in the front of a chapel
The group of YAGM who were at DIP

[Jesus said,] ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:33-35

I had been wanting to share some thoughts about my experience at what YAGM calls the “Discernment, Interview, and Placement weekend,” or “DIP” for short. DIP was in April at a retreat center in Illinois, and even though this was just the beginning of my YAGM experience, I could tell that it had already changed me. I knew that I wanted to write a blog post about DIP but my journal entry about it was over 5200 words and I didn’t want to subject anybody to that. Eventually, I was presented with a great opportunity to talk about my experience at DIP. For the last worship service of the school year at University Congregation at PLU, I was asked to tell a story about a time that I shared love. Here is that story:

In trying to come up with a good story to tell for this, I did what any good social media influencer would do and I asked my Instagram followers to message me with a time that I showed them love. Almost everyone who responded said that I show them love every time I hug them. I was a little disappointed with this at first, to be honest. I wanted to tell a story where I could paint a vibrant picture of a single beautiful time when I showed love for someone. I thought it would be boring to talk about hugs. They’re so mundane, there’s nothing so extraordinary about a hug that I could talk about for a whole five minutes.

But then something happened that changed my perspective about that. Some of you may be aware that Kara, Jackie, and I were accepted into Young Adults in Global Mission, or YAGM, which sends young adults out into the world to build community and do volunteer work. In order to get to know us and decide where to send each of us, they gathered the seventy-three Young Adults, plus about twenty staff members and one alum from each of the YAGM country programs at a retreat center in the middle of nowhere, Illinois (okay not really… but basically).

Most of us didn’t know each other; there were a few groups of people who knew each other from camps, there was one married couple, and there were the three of us from PLU. It was fun — and exhausting — to make getting-to-know-ya small talk with seventy people, and I wondered at first how we were supposed to make meaningful connections and friendships in just a couple of days.

Speaking of exhausting: each day started at about eight in the morning for breakfast and ended at around nine at night after worship. We were each overwhelmed with:

  • information about each of our two possible placements,
  • “interviews” that weren’t interviews but felt like interviews,
  • ongoing personal discernment about country placements and our place in YAGM,
  • the awareness that that discernment was also constantly taking place in every interaction with staff members,
  • the possibility of being sent home without a placement,
  • the fear of being placed in a place where we wouldn’t thrive,
  • the knowledge that these four days would change our lives forever, and
  • the heavy burden of having to write a single note card that would serve as our only voice while the team of YAGM staff sat down to decide our fates.

During and after each meeting with country coordinators and representatives, I had to think about everything we’d talked about. I had to figure out how I was feeling about that placement. I had to identify what aspects of that placement would challenge me in good ways, and whether there were any aspects of that placement that might be unhealthy for me, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. This whole weekend was an exhausting 72 hours of being constantly vulnerable and honest with ourselves and each other.

The night that our fates were being decided for us, we had to turn in our cards as we went into worship. It was out of our hands and a small weight was lifted. Even so, throughout worship we knew that at every moment, decisions were being made. Normally the passing of the peace was about two-thirds of the way through the service but this night they put it at the end. The stress in the air was palpable. And I needed a hug. Good Lutheran folks give firm handshakes and say “Peace be with you,” or “God’s peace” during this ritual, so our default in this moment was to give handshakes. I gave hugs to a few people with whom I’d grown close over the past three days, and to Kara and Jackie, of course. Not long later, however, I noticed that most people were walking up to each other with halfway extended arms, tentatively saying “hug?” and most people were responding, “HUG.” Soon, nearly everyone I could see, new YAGM and alums, all 90 of us in a small chapel, were hugging everyone within arm’s length. I hugged people I hadn’t ever spoken to before. United by the prayer, worship, communion, conversation, and STRESS that we’d all shared in the previous hours, barriers were broken down. It’s a uniquely calming experience, having the words ”Peace be with you,” spoken in your ear as a person that you barely know holds you tight. It was like my skin didn’t have to hold my body together anymore because the people around me were holding me together.

Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” By this, I knew that God was in that place. These people had, over the previous 48 hours, barged their way into my heart and set up camp there. In these fifteen minutes of hug after hug, I could feel God’s presence in the community and in the love that we were sharing with each other.

Telling this story in University Congregation allowed me to look at that 5200-word journal entry and pull out the biggest takeaways from DIP. Here are a couple of those takeaways:

  • After just a couple of days, this YAGM community became a place where I already feel loved and valued.
  • I have so much love for the individual people I met at DIP that my heart feels like it’s about to explode.
  • I felt God’s presence so strongly within myself as my love for these people grew exponentially each day of DIP and I saw God’s presence so clearly in everyone who participated in and facilitated DIP. The love that we showed for each other was God’s love poured out.

Before the Journey Began…

I am a true procrastinator at heart, but the YAGM application opened on December 1, 2018 and I started the application process that evening. I don’t even remember when or where I first heard about YAGM but the idea of applying had been floating around in the back of my mind for a few months. After having talked about the possibility of doing YAGM with my friend Kara, who was also going to apply, I knew I at least had to see if I made it through the interviews.

This is the gif I used in a tweet the day the application opened. It encapsulates how I was feeling about starting the app that had the potential of changing my life.

After starting the application, I talked about YAGM to anyone who would listen (but mostly to Kara because she understood how I was feeling about it). Amazingly, I didn’t wait until the last minute to submit my application. This was actually important enough to me that I spent a lot of time answering all the questions and writing all the essays, but I also wanted to get everything done as early as I could. I was really excited when I got an email saying they wanted to have a couple of phone interviews with me (before the application deadline)! Talking with the YAGM alum and staff member in those interviews really solidified what I already felt deep down: God was calling me to do YAGM. I only hoped that the recruiters heard that call too.

Kara and the other Lute who was applying for YAGM, Jackie, had their interviews the same week I did, and then it was a waiting game. I didn’t know Jackie at the time, so I was messaging Kara every day talking about how agonizing it was waiting for our acceptance or denial letters. For a week or two after the interview, YAGM was all I could think about. I couldn’t focus in class. I didn’t want to apply for internships or jobs–I didn’t want to waste my time in case I received a YAGM acceptance letter a week later, but mostly I didn’t want to acknowledge that not being selected for YAGM was a possibility.

Jackie, Kara, and I started hanging out a lot. It helped to be around people who felt the way I did, who were also checking their emails every 3.5 minutes, who also didn’t want to apply for jobs or internships, and who also couldn’t pay attention in class. The day we heard that we’d all been conditionally accepted, we all (somewhat accidentally) congregated at the PLU Campus Ministry office. There were shrieks, there were tears, there was laughter, and there were hugs.

The next thing all the YAGMs had to do was attend the Discernment, Interview, and Placement (DIP) weekend in April. I might write a post about that weekend, but suffice it to say that it would have been a hard weekend without Kara and Jackie by my side. Those wonderful women were such huge sources of comfort; we helped each other work through emotions and navigate the cafeteria, we vented, we sang camp songs, we prayed, and we encouraged each other to make new friends. When it was unclear whether our flight was going to be delayed due to the weather, I was not too worried because I knew that with these two by my side, we’d get it all figured out.

After we got back from DIP, it was hard to transition back into our old lives, but at least we had each other. And a shared love for baseball. I can’t wait to see all the ways that my life and my whole self are changed through my year of service with YAGM, but I hope I never forget the amazing things that YAGM brought into my life before I even left–it brought me Jackie and Kara.

This game was a treat to ourselves to celebrate our placement in our respective YAGM programs — plus we got free hats!