Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My apologies for taking so long to update this blog! I arrived home to Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, September 30th, after an 18-hour flight (during which the two people on either side of me were sick and I watched four movies since sleeping had become impossible). I don't think I've ever slept so badly on a flight, and, therefore, I don't think I've ever been so grateful for my bed at home. It was, thankfully, a very smooth flight schedule and my luggage arrived late, but intact. I'm now spending time with friends I've been missing, looking for jobs, and enjoying time with my family. There are a few promising job possibilities but nothing yet; I'll let everyone know when that changes!

The social life really picked up towards the end of my time in South Africa. The last few days in Margate, especially, it seemed like I was going from one goodbye event to another, so much so that I was hardly eating at home! I certainly had friends and plans with people before, but the weekends started getting more exciting around six weeks from the end. Inevitably, at the end of my time in South Africa, I started to feel especially close to a few people, and began to realize who my closest friends there were. While there are many South Africans who I share memories with and made connections to, there are a few who I expect to visit and be in touch with over the long term.

There were a few moments in the last weeks that were especially special to me:

- My colleague Lindo giving a short speech at the goodbye braii that SDC had for me thanking me for my work and how I’d helped her  
- (at the last Co-Op Board Meeting) Hearing Lindo, the Co-Op Manager, explain to the farmers (in Zulu) my work over the past year and seeing their reactions and heartfelt thanks
- A farewell with my church home group involving pancakes (with every imaginable topping) and an intense game of 30 Seconds (similar to Taboo in the U.S.)
- Enjoying a wonderful South African breakfast with the hosts of my home group
- Giving a short testimony/speech at Gates of Praise telling everyone how I ended up in South Africa, how much I got out of the experience and what God taught me through it, etc.
- Nights I’ll always remember with people I’ll never forget ;) (you know who you are)

I ultimately left with the sense that I had been able to make a real difference and significantly help the Co-Op. I’m so glad it worked out for me to come to South Africa and do what I did. Even though I couldn’t have known in advance what the experience would be like, I feel like I hit gold in terms of the work, the people, the location, the church, and many other things about the situation. I’ll remember everyone I came into contact with there and hopefully I’ll be back to South Africa to visit before too long!

This year I’ve often felt a little self-absorbed, and I’ve also felt like people have been sort of affirming me in that self-absorption. When you go abroad and do something that people consider objectively impressive, you often get asked so many questions about your life there that people seemingly forget to update you on theirs. I feel a little bit out of the loop with life and friends here, and I look forward to catching up on that in the coming months. My phone number hasn’t changed (336-306-3587), so I’d love to hear from you all when you have the chance. Facebook is nice, but it’s not the same as hearing someone’s voice. :)

I’ve decided to continue this blog, though I guess I’ll have to call it something different now. Any ideas??

Monday, August 6, 2012

Since my last post there hasn’t been too much in the way of job news, except that the business that is the Community Fresh Produce Co-Operative continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Since the extensive training session SDC had with Josiane, an International Trade Officer at the Trade for Development Centre in Belgium, we’ve been discussing some of the long-term strategies we’ll have to implement to make the Co-Op sustainable over the long term. The main changes we’re going to make are:

1. Changing our pricing strategy so that farmers get a higher price for crops that are more labor intensive and/or give us greater variety (green beans, peas) and lower prices for traditional crops and/or crops that require very little effort ton the farmer’s part (bananas, avocados, mangoes).

2. Raising our prices by at least R1 for each crop and finding more high-end customers who are willing to pay top dollar (pardon the pun) for our produce. As we do that, the number of customers buying from us will hopefully increase, and the amount they’re buying will hopefully increase also. As this happens, we’ll start to rely less and less on our current markets, where most of our customers aren’t especially interested in the value of our unique product.

This will take time, of course, and any big change is going to be hard on an organization, but I hope the customers who already recognize the value of our products will keep buying, and that more customers will be added all the time. I won’t be around long enough to see what it looks like after the growing pains of these changes are over, but I’m sure the changes are for the best.

Joel and Erika, the last two Swedish volunteers, left on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Last Monday, the new SDC volunteer (an Italian girl called Bianca) arrived, and she’s staying in the volunteer house too. Her work with the Co-Op will count as her internship at the end of her Master’s Degree in International Relations, and she'll be here until November 30th. She’s a lot of fun, and I think we’ll really enjoy getting to know each other!

The cultural dynamics in South Africa, and even just among SDC and Co-Op staff, continue to be interesting, even formidable. I laugh when I imagine myself, less than two years ago, in a mostly white, middle class, American, English-speaking classroom of liberal-minded St. Olaf social work students in a class called Culturally Competent (Social Work) Practice. I think I’ve learned more about cultural competency in the last year than in the last 22 years of my life combined. The kinds of things we discussed in that social work class were easy to talk about in theory, but, as I’ve learned in the last year, they are extremely difficult in practice. I think the most important thing I’ve learned about communication during this time is that it’s never passive; it takes a tremendous amount of effort, even if you’re speaking the same language.

Certain things that I’ve heard people say about the people the Co-Op is helping have been vaguely bothering me for awhile, so I figured I’d share them here. The comment I remember best was actually said by a fellow St. Olaf student on the 2010 South Africa study abroad trip I went on. We had spent a few hours that day learning about SDC, asking questions, and being shown around the fields of a few Co-Op farmers. We were in our place of accommodation for the night and were talking about the day’s events, and as we were talking, one student (a fellow social work and religion major, in fact), who was obviously much enamored with SDC’s work, went out on a limb and said something like: “Maybe this will make me sound really ignorant, but it you give these people this one opportunity to make their lives better, and they don’t take it, aren’t they proving their own stereotype?” I know her well enough to know that she is not a racist, unfeeling person, and she wasn’t saying this lightly, but the fact that she said it at all still haunts me. One of the reasons why it’s hard for me to stomach comments like this is because I think they reflect what many, if not most, people are actually thinking when we discuss the difficulties we have in getting the Co-Op business to run effectively. This comment also, unfortunately, seems to reflect many white South Africans’ attitudes towards the poor, black, rural South Africans who the Co-Op exists for (“It’s great that you’re trying to help those people, but it’ s hard to get them to do anything, they’re used to handouts, they’re not used to working”, etc., etc.). At the same time, it seems so obvious to the student who made this comment (as it does to many people who aren’t used to being marginalized, oppressed, or poor) that if you know this work can give you a better life, you’ll do it. However, it’s not so linear a process for those who we’re trying to help. I admit it gets frustrating for me too when I see that farmers aren’t taking all the opportunities we think they should to become better farmers and make more money, but ultimately the decision to grow and sell to us needs to be their own, and not one that’s imposed on them from above. The Co-Op is, in fact, beginning to succeed: farmers are bringing more and more of their produce to sell all the time, and after a couple years of making losses, it's finally starting to make money consistently. (Also, many of the farmers SDC trains start growing for themselves and selling to each other, which is also something SDC encourages!) The long and short of it is that cultural competency, as well as empowerment, terms we throw around in social work classes all the time, is very hard work in reality. During this last year I’ve been very privileged to have the chance to see and experience what that sort of hard-won empowerment looks like.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The past few weeks have been full and wonderful as always, at least in retrospect if not always at the time.

We recently received some exciting news from Siyavuna’s end. We had been having trouble with the brand that we had been semi-legally calling our own: Kumnandi (“delicious” in Zulu). We found out too late that the name Kumnandi was owned by KFC, and so we were scrambling to try to come up with another Zulu word that also started with a K and that sort of meant the same thing; quite a stretch, as you can imagine. Fortunately, my boss was told recently that KFC had decided to liquify the brand, and though the paperwork isn’t official yet, Siyavuna now owns the rights to Kumnandi, which is spectacular news. If you haven’t already, please “like” our Kumnandi facebook page (I’ve already invited many of you) and invite your friends to like it too! Since I’m an avid facebooker my boss instructed me to build up the page, and if you have suggestions for it feel free to tell me.

Otherwise, working with Siyavuna continues to be, well, work. I’ve been even more needed lately because my colleague Lindo has been attending mandatory sales trainings for the past few days, and I’m the only other one there to make the Co-Op run in the meantime. It’s rewarding to see it grow, though; Lindo and I get competitive with each other to see if we can beat the other’s sales amount from the previous day!

The fun here continues to be had as well. Since my last post I’ve attended a wedding at Lake Eland, gone bowling with some friends from church at the Wild Coast Sun, had a semi-legal campfire on a beach with many friends and delicious (and entirely legal) s’mores, and attended the Ugu Jazz Festival, the link for which can be found below. Let’s just say that last one involved a lot of rain, some epic traffic jams, a random man helping me get the GCF car that I was driving out of a ditch as well as making sure I made it into the festival, no phone network (making it impossible to locate the friend I’d planned to go with), drunk people everywhere, not anther white person in sight, and another random man walking me home at 4:00 am. I certainly think I got R200 worth of stories out of that night!


Malin, one of the Swedes, left on June 17th, and Markus will leave on Monday, July 2nd, so soon there will only be three of us! (I think the maintenance staff will be crying when he leaves; he was so valuable they offered him a job here, but he had a girlfriend to get home to in Sweden so he couldn’t really accept it.) One of my South African friends also recently went to Redding, CA for five weeks, but of course I'll see him again before I leave. I’m still on the lookout for a new Co-Op volunteer who can stay with it for six months - one year, so tell me about anyone you know who might be interested. There is a girl from Italy (a friend of Wim’s) coming to work with the Co-Op full-time from July 30th - November 30th, so the Co-Op doesn’t need someone immediately, but when she leaves they will.

Perhaps my most exciting news is that I finally have a flight home. I’m going to fly to Cape Town with a friend on Wednesday, September 26th, spend Thursday and Friday in Cape Town with her, and on Saturday, September 29th I’ll fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then from Johannesburg to Washington, D.C.. I’ll arrive in D.C. at 6:25 am on Sunday, September 30th. I’ll also turn 23 the same day Nelson Mandela turns 94: July 18th, 2012. I don’t have plans for that day yet, but it’ll be a nice one I’m sure! From what I hear, he's kind of a big deal here. :)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fall is in full swing here, and I have to keep forcibly remind myself that at home graduations are taking place left and right, because due to the cooler weather here it seems like Halloween should be right around the corner. Since I’m someone who likes fall and winter much more than spring and summer, I’m very much looking forward to having two winters this year, especially since I had to suffer through two summers in a row before that (North Carolina’s followed by South Africa’s)! The mildness of the winters here actually makes me long for those bitterly cold Minnesota winter days; crazy, I know. Interestingly enough, the almost constant warm weather here seems to be paralleled in the lack of connectedness to a church calendar that I’ve been experiencing while attending a charismatic church. Life here sometimes feels like the theological equivalent of a Swedish summer, in other words, an eternal day, which can feel exhausting at times. Summer is beautiful, pleasant, and comfortable, but there is a proper time for winter too.

I’ve had the chance to take part in a couple interesting things here recently. First, Africa Bike Week, a huge outdoor festival where seemingly all the owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Africa ride around Margate together, happened in late April. The parade of all the motorcycles was very fun to see, but by the time it was over I was relieved that the level of noise in Margate was about to returned to normal!


Last Sunday I went to see two of the volunteers take a leap of faith via the Oribi Gorge swing; the highest gorge swing in the world. For some unexplainable reason, some people enjoy being strapped into a harness connected to a cable high above them and then hurled down 33 stories in a matter of seconds. The cable then gradually pulls them back up. It did actually look like a lot of fun to me, but I thought of better things to do with R450, so I was content to watch Erika and Malin do it.

The second group of volunteers I’ve been a part of (i.e. the group that’s here now) got smaller recently. Martin left to go back to Sweden on Sunday, May 20th, after four months here, so there are now five of us: Markus, Malin, Erika, Joel, and myself. We wished Martin could’ve stayed longer, but he had to get back to his job in Sweden. (On a side note, in Sweden they hold your job open for you for six months if you have a good reason to leave for awhile, depending on the company and, of course, depending on what the reason is. I’m glad volunteering in South Africa constituted a good enough reason for Martin’s employer to hold his job open for him.)

Though I haven’t arranged my flight yet, I’m going to be coming home in late September, as that is when my visa will expire. I’m very much looking forward to coming home, and often wonder how it’ll feel and how long it’ll take me to adjust back. Before I came I thought I might end up growing so attached to South Africa that I’d never want to leave, but instead I’m realizing more and more how much I left behind and how grateful I am to be able to come back. I’m sure to some degree when I think of any particular aspect of my life back in the U.S. (friends, family, church, education) I’m taking the best memories from each and merging them together, but overall I still think I have more going for me there. Regardless, though, coming here was a great decision and through being here I’ve learned, grown, and helped more than I ever anticipated I would be able to.

Working with Siyavuna is still a wild ride in some ways, but we continue to improve our systems all the time. Near the beginning of the year SDC hired a bookkeeper who has been tremendously helpful with keeping careful track of past records and presenting current figures accurately and completely. It also seems that sales are up; I remember in January R150 in a day of selling was the norm, and now R250-R350 is normal. I think our recognition in the community is definitely starting to improve. Since March we have been making profits, so hopefully this will continue. Starting July 1st we’ll be adding three more vegetable collection points (eight, up from five) so sales will have to go up if we’re going to maintain our current standard of selling most of our produce fresh and throwing away as little as possible.

There is some bad news from Siyavuna’s end, though: Wim, a Belgian development worker who’s the founder of Siyavuna, will be leaving at the end of July, when his contract expires, and going back to Belgium with his wife. Siyavuna is going to be stretched thin without him, but they/we are lucky to have had him for so long, and we wish him the best as he prepares to go back home.

On a related note, since I’m leaving soon I would really appreciate any ideas people have for finding a volunteer to replace me when I leave. Siyavuna will desperately need a new full-time volunteer, and though I’ve advertised this as a volunteer opportunity in many circles, I haven’t gotten any response. There must be someone who would jump at an opportunity like this the way I did, and I’m thinking/hoping/praying I find them! I would also greatly appreciate any advice or contacts people have for me as I start the job search, which is getting daunting fast.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Great article about mission work and why it often falls short of its goals. Thanks, Dad. :)

The Theology of Keeping Quiet

Anna Galperina Apr 30th, 2012 // No Comment

    Today “mission” is not just a fashionable word among the Orthodox, it is a fashionable trend. It is spoken of at all levels, from the Primate of the Church to simple parishioners. Everyone sees themselves as missionaries, bearing the Word of Life to people, burning lights, the salt of the earth. We readily write and talk about faith and Christianity; we have become adept at speaking the necessary and proper words. Priests have learned how to read smooth, rhetorically competent sermons; parishioners have learned how to talk with visitors kindly and cordially. We explain where to put up candles and how to write commemoration sheets, how to go to Confession and Communion.
    It seems that we are open to the world, that we are going out to meet it with our word. But the world escapes from us, slipping through our hands, and our catch is paltry. Useless fishers of men, we are not prepared to admit defeat, explaining everything away by the impoverishment of love in the world and by enemy opposition. And we tirelessly continue our work. Of course! After all, we are missionaries!
    Today there are many “missionary projects” and brotherhoods. Representatives of the Transfiguration Assembly of Small Orthodox Brotherhoods held a book presentation at the recent Boo!Fest. [1] They saw themselves as educators; they were ideal missionaries: open and friendly, readily answering questions. They were exactly like Protestant preachers, knowing all the answers to all the questions, having resolved all the problems for themselves. And in this knowledge was a certain, subtle taste of an advertising campaign. As in: we will tell you everything about this amazing vacuum cleaner – we know how it is constructed to the very last screw and how it operates. We will smile at you so you will buy our vacuum cleaners. And if you should turn around and leave, we will not be offended: you simply have not attained to the level of our products. There is puppetry and a certain disengaged readiness to talk to you. This person appears to be talking about himself, but he seems like a character out of a book. You do not see the real him, suffering and searching – he is hiding behind his “missionary work.” You extend your hand to feel human warmth, but instead you feel the handle of a vacuum cleaner.
    This is what all our missionary work is like: thought up in the head and then turned into a project, a presentation; a massive campaign with shares, the showing of slides, and the distribution of bonuses in the form of friendliness. Therefore, all attempts to “convert the unbelieving” seem inappropriate and intrusive. Why? After all, we want things to be for the better. We study theology, dogmatics, and exegetics; we read smart books and learn how to talk smoothly; we know at what point in the Mystery of the Liturgy the Holy Spirit descends and how He transforms the wine and bread into the Blood and Body of Christ. We have studied the basics of faith, as Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev has advised us, but it is of no use…
    Today the entire world lives by words. No, not by the Word, but namely by words, ideas, phrases, paradoxes, and word games. Our times can be called the blah-blah-blah-era. People see the world through advertisements and demotivators, through news releases and political speeches. In fact, we all live continuously in the information flow, like fish in water. Information noise surrounds us on all sides: at work, at home, on the road. Moreover, it is multidirectional and chaotic, reminiscent of Brownian motion, in which all roads and paths have long ago disappeared. What paths can there be in kasha? Or in soup? We taste one thing, and then another – we have become gourmet consumers, consumers of information.
    Where is the voice of the Church is this noise? It is audible? And what should be done to make it heard, apart from shouting? Shout in a different language? Wear bright badges and wave flags? Go to demonstrations? Perhaps one needs to say something that no one has ever heard before?
    To speak frankly, within this information noise the Church’s voice is just one of its multiplying factors. Our missionary projects are nothing more than one more information flow – one that is fairly weak, often unprofessional, and generally limp and boring – that is being drowned and lost among others. Should it be made more cheerful? Should it be decorated with pictures? This is pointless, for we are only one among the crowd.
    We take offence that we are neither heard nor listened to, explaining this away by demons, by spiritual wickedness in high places, by the imperfections of the church media, or by the lack of professionals. But the fact is that we are simply one piece on the information field. We are the same as everyone else. We do not differ from those who are fighting for the presidency, from those who under noble pretexts legally rob the elderly and poor, from those who come out either against abortion or for abortion, from those who are ruining education, or from those who are producing news programs along the principles of “the more horrible, the cooler.”
    Well, yes. We see ourselves as different; we know that we are bearers of the Good News. But, unfortunately, we are the only ones who know this. We appear to others as salespeople or insurance agents, who knock at your door with an offer to insure your life advantageously; so you can invest now so that, when you die, you will not end up at a bad resort.
    All the while, we feel that we should be listened to and heard. After all, we are so knowledgeable (see above). Moreover, we think of the experience of the first Christians, who went out to preach and converted the entire world. We, too – we, too! – should be like them.
    First of all, however, we are all loaded down by such enormous cultural and historical baggage that we cannot think of ourselves as poor, destitute, persecuted, and despised Jews, as such “dirty foreigners,” to  acquire sufficient humility in our language.
    The first Christians were “passing through”; they were not guardians of an “enormous cultural and historical heritage.” Some listened to them, others did not: they were not spoiled by imperial favor or by the experience of the symphony of powers of state and church; Christians seemed to be strangers and pilgrims on earth.
    The most ancient form of church communities, headed by a bishop, bore the Greek name “paroikia” (in Slavonic, and later in Ukrainian, this was pronounced like “parokhiia” and “parafiia”; in Russian it became “prikhod” [parish]; the word “paroikia” was later changed to “episkopi” with the increase of Christians.) The word describes a settlement of a certain kind of people among those foreign to them – in other words, a colony. This expressed the sense that Christians, having established a community among the pagans of a given town, were as immigrants among them. Practically every adult knows what it is like to visit an unfamiliar city – this is the sense, in principle, with which the first Christians had to live.
    What happened later? We began to dominate ideologically, culturally, architecturally, materially, and so on – which naturally changed our mentality. And what happened even later? Just compare a city’s tallest church with its secular buildings, not even necessarily the tallest. Churches as the dominant urban architecture is a thing of the distant past. The same correlation has likewise affected other parts of our  existence. Yet we have maintained this claim to dominance.
    In effect, we all know this. The first Christians were a challenge to the world, a paradox; they were somehow inexplicable. And if we want to “liken ourselves” to them, we should not carry out a mission that has today become akin to an advertizing campaign. We should act in contrary manner: the theologically paradoxical thing would be to keep quiet. Not to multiply information noise, but to destroy it. The Church should present itself to the world as a territory of unusual, heavenly quiet and repose, not one of vain and incessant chatter; it should be far from the life of those who studiously parrot everything that has been written in the two-thousand-year history of Christianity.
    What, then, about preaching Christ? Are we not called to do this? Yes,
we should, but not by words only. Only by life. Only by living daily and independently (in however crooked and stumbling a manner) in faith and love.
    Try to be Christians, all the while not pronouncing the words fasting, prayer, confession, preaching. Speak in human language about things that people can understand – and even then, only when asked. Weep with those who are weeping, rejoice with those who are rejoicing. Be with people in a real way, with all your heart, with all your strength – and not with words. Be with them unselfishly, without the goal of converting them to faith. Try to be Christians without saying a word about it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I figure now that I've been here for six months and have decided to stay where I am for another six months, it's probably about time I explain a little more about how and why I got to be here in the first place.

I had been interested in South Africa for a long time, even before I decided to study abroad there in January 2010. Certain books I'd read, news stories I'd heard, and what little I knew about South Africa's history made me want to learn more. I was especially fascinated by the country's history of racism and segregation, to which I could see so many obvious parallels in my own country. Studying in South Africa in January 2010 was such a fascinating and life-changing experience for me, almost an emotional overload, that I knew I had to go back at some point, and I hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

I was hoping to do a year of volunteer work abroad after graduating from St. Olaf. It was a dream I'd had a for a long time, and I figured it would never again be this easy to travel and see the world. I really wanted the volunteer work to be to South Africa, though in retrospect I realize I probably made an effort to seem open to never-before-visited countries also. Through a number of friends at St. Olaf I had heard many good things about a Lutheran global service progam called YAGM (Young Adults in Global Missions), and I knew they sent young people to South Africa, so I decided long before the beginning of my senior year at St. Olaf that I would apply to that program. After an interminable application process, during which time they sent me someone else's rejection letter before sending me my own, then changed their minds and decided I was accepted, I finally went to their four-day interviewing event knowing that I was interviewing for two country programs: Slovakia and South Africa. The interviews went well enough at the time. Afterwards, though, I started to feel vaguely uncomfortable in response to many things about the program's attitudes towards global service. Over time, those feelings of discomfort turned into outright revulsion.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself. Though I was still more interested in the South Africa program, and expressed my feelings to them, I got assigned to Slovakia instead. As immature as it may sound, I felt angry and gipped: I went through the whole process only to get assigned someplace I didn't want to go? I had been telling myself that I'd be open to going somewhere else besides South Africa, but the reality of having to choose between doing this program in Slovakia and looking at other options in South Africa made the choice very clear. I turned down YAGM without a clear idea of what I would do instead, while feeling very much like I was not winning at life.

In early June, after graduating from St. Olaf, I made contact with Marjorie Jobson, the woman who led the second half of our trip to South Africa in January 2010. I told her about my desire to volunteer in South Africa for a year or so. She told me about many of the initiatives her organization (Khulumani Support Group) would soon be soon starting, and how I could spend ~six months with Give a Child a Family and Siyavuna Dvelopment Centre to learn their ways, so to speak, in order to be of use to Khulumani during my second six months. I applied to Give a Child a Family, got accepted, and was suddenly faced with the reality of how I would pay for all that time here. (There had been a misunderstanding between Marje and I regarding the financial help she could offer me.) I was fortunate to receive money from, ironically enough, the Orthodox church I had attended as a St. Olaf student (whose priest is South African) and an Orthodox organization that's published a lot of my Dad's church music. Without those two grants (and the money raised from a smattering of summer jobs) it wouldn't have been possible, but I was blessed and I'm deeply grateful for the help I received to make this possible.

Now that it's been almost a year since I was struggling to lay out my plans for the year following graduation, I have a much better sense of why I intuitively didn't feel like I could, in good conscience, accept my offer to do YAGM. During both interviews, the program coordinators kept emphasizing that the point of being a YAGM volunteer was to "walk with" people, to be with them in their lives (which were almost certainly less comfortable than ours), and that we shouldn't really come in with high hopes of changing any of these people's lives. We were to be ambassadors of our country, and we were there to serve those we came to know in many different circumstances and organizations (apparently volunteers have a wide open range of options when it comes to the work they actually do) but the point was decidedly not to enact lasting change for the people we came in contact with. I found that I simply couldn't accept that. I didn't think then, and I still don't think now, that it's morally justifiable to go halfway around the world for a year, become a part of a community, use their resources, let them expend the considerable amount of energy necessary required to orient you, and only figure out what you're doing there after you get there. I decided that if I was going to go all the way to South Africa for as long as a year, I needed to know what I would be doing there long before I left. I also needed to know that I would truly be needed in a project that was truly making people's lives better. I never could have dreamed the degree to which my hopes and prayers would be answered. Not only am I getting great experience in so many workplace skills, and making a real difference in poor people's lives, I also, if I may say so, have no idea how SDC got all the work done that needed to get done before I got here. :)
The longer I attend Gates of Praise, the more great sermons I hear. Sometimes the message seems especially relevant for where I am at that particular moment. Two Sundays ago and last Sunday I heard a sermon like that. It was on hope, something I think we all need more of. There were a few main points, four explained on one Sunday and four the next Sunday:

1 Get excited when you find an area of your life that needs hope.
God is fully able to breathe life into hopeless situations (ie situations that look hopeless to our eyes). The facts might make a situation look hopeless, but God's truth is greater than the facts.

2. The belief that we can't change is a bigger problem than whatever problem we're facing.

3. Change in our beliefs comes from intimacy with God. The more intimacy we have, the fewer situations we find ourselves in that seem impossible because the more aware we are of the Holy Spirit's guidance.

4. Don't lose focus on God.
Along with this was the idea that even when nothing seems to be happening in our lives despite our prayers, God is working behind the scenes. The speaker used the GPS analogy of how God simply "recalculates" when we go off track. We will never be so lost or so far off track that God can't get us back to where we need to be.

5. Don't leave Christ's body and separate yourself. If you got hurt in the Body, you must heal in the Body. (For example, if your hand is hurt, don't cut it of to let it heal apart from your arm!)

6. Be with real friends; people who bring out the best in you.

7. Use faith to get a word from God (this is best done, of course, by reading the Word).

8. Give honor/praise in the area you were tempted to question His faithfulness in. If God proves His faithfulness in one area, never again can you doubt His faithfulness in that area! 

Excited about needing more hope? I often find myself feeling depressed when I comprehend how incapable I seem to be of fixing a dead area of my life on my own. But when this happens, God probably needs to become bigger so that the problem can become smaller. I'm also not entirely convinced about #2; or maybe it's just so counter-intuitive that it is in fact the truth. My rational self (which I think is growing stronger lately, probably due to reading Atlas Shrugged) would like to believe that the problem is the problem, and can I really be blamed for not seeing potential where God does? So, not sure about that one.

Those of you who know me well know that I have a hard time accepting the doctrine that Christians are supposed to be the happiest people around. I don't think following God is supposed to be easy, and I think happiness is much too slippery to be our natural, expected state of being for the majority of our lives. But the idea that Christians should have more hope than others, defined in this sermon as "a confident expectation of good from God that demands an action in the present", is right on. If we don't have such hope; that God is good, even in painful or difficult situations, how can we be said to have a strong faith? If the problems of our present moment consume our consciousness, how big is our God anyway?

Both parts of this sermon made me think for a long time afterwards, and they also gave me greater energy to go back into the world with greater focus. Some good sermons have the opposite effect; that of making you want to stay in church longer so that you don't have to face the world. It's great when a sermon can have the former effect.