Friday, August 24, 2012

Memorable Moments of my VIDES Experience in Germany

Most of the special experiences I had during my VIDES experience were small and personal. When I say personal, I mean a moment shared by myself and another individual, as opposed to something obvious to the world and measurable in terms of numbers or material conditions.

Working with the afterschool kids was very enriching because it allowed me to view my faith through different eyes—often the eyes of children who knew little about faith and religion. We hardly ever talked explicitly about religion, but sometimes it came up, especially when the kids needed help with their ethics homework. (Every student in the German school system is required to take religion class if they are Catholic or Lutheran, and all the rest are put into ethics classes.) Around Easter, the ethics homework was to copy a paragraph about Easter and what it means to Christians. I was working with this one Vietnamese girl who sometimes spoke to me about Jesus because of the crucifix I always wore. I was checking to see if she understood what she was copying, since she was still learning German. It didn’t seem like she understood everything, so I began to explain the idea of “resurrection” to her. I said, “You know Jesus, right?” She nodded. “Well, he died--” (her face became sad). “But then he came back and was alive again!” (Her face brightened). Her response: “Das ist doch unendlich cool!” (“That’s just endlessly cool!”) Seeing Easter through the eyes of a child who was just getting it for the first time helped breathe new life into my Easter season, when sometimes I started thinking “yeah…I know all that already…etc.”
Another positive development I saw with the afterschool kids was that they actually did start speaking more German. As we got to know each other better, they would talk to us more, and we could talk better with them. It was very encouraging to see some of the kids get moved up to the regular class with the regular German kids.

At the student residency, I had similar small experiences. My prayer group was a test in perseverance for me, because the average attendance was around two people per week, sometimes only one. On St. Patrick’s Day, however, I was able to draw in more girls with the promise of playing Irish music on my violin during the prayer group. (I was also looking forward to this, since I love Irish music.) At this meeting, we had four girls come, a doubling in number! What really made my evening, though, was that one of my closer friends, who had seemed to be feeling kind of awkward at first with the setup of singing praise and worship songs and then exchanging prayer requests actually shared a petition with us! This little bitty moment made me so happy because I felt like it was a big thing for her, since that kind of prayer didn’t really seem to be her style. Little moments like that made it worthwhile to keep up the prayer group, even though there was an evening when nobody but Jesus and I attended.

One more experience, which was typical of my time in Europe, happened on the train. A friend and I were headed to a Holy Week retreat on Holy Thursday in another town. We happened to get a group ticket with another girl and these two boys from Kazakhstan who were studying in Munich. We asked if they were going home for Easter and they told us they were Orthodox, so their Easter was later. This sparked a long and intense conversation about God and the Church—keep in mind these boys were complete strangers to us! It turns out that they had drifted away from any kind of organized religion and even from faith, preferring a more scientific view of the world (they were both studying engineering and physics or something along those lines). They had had bad experiences with relatives who were a little over-zealous in their religion and more attached to ritual than to really spreading God’s love (at least this is what I gathered from the boys’ account). In the end, they admitted that they believed in a certain something, whether it was God or not. The conversation itself, though, and the fact that we were total strangers talking about these most fundamental and deep things, was what moved to me. When we got off the train, I felt we’d known them for a long time.

I found many people willing to engage in these kinds of conversations, and many of them were very thoughtful. Perhaps this was because I was mainly socializing in Christian circles, though even with strangers and long-time-no-see relatives, my volunteering with VIDES often made a good talking point. People would often ask me if I got compensation for what I was doing, and I would reply that I got food and a place to sleep, and access to subway tickets if I needed them. This made one of my uncles comment on how remarkable it was that that was really all a person needs. Food and shelter, loving people and a purpose for life. These little things, these conversations in which people started thinking about God, were what made my mission time in one of the richest cities in Europe worthwhile. (Not that I wasn’t brought to some heavy thinking myself!)  The personal nature of these experiences really emphasized to me the need to get to know and love people individually before you go around trying to “convert” them to your way of thinking. I think this is a perfect example of the VIDES idea of accompaniment—walking the way with people on a journey to the Lord, not just standing there and preaching to them as they pass by.

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