Sunday, May 19, 2013

Declining the Peace Corps, and trusting God

I declined an invitation from the Peace Corps last week, and it was one of the scariest things I've ever done.

Ever since my great-uncle told me about his time in the Peace Corps, it's been something I've wanted to pursue. I like the PC's mission, its emphasis on serving the community and doing what the community needs, its desire to educate both Americans and those in our host countries in order to increase understanding and mutual respect. I know those are a lot of big words that could come right out of an advertisement, but these are things I've seen play out in my last few years working in the nonprofit sector. Projects don't last unless the community wants them to. Communication and shared experience are some of our best tools in creating peace; think how many conflicts could be avoided if ordinary people on both ends knew and understood one another. These are ideals that the Peace Corps works toward, ideals I admire and believe in.

Despite my long-lasting interest in the Peace Corps, though, when I got my assignment, I think I knew that it wasn't right for me. I was assigned as a health volunteer in Peru, which seemed to mean working with child development and HIV/AIDS prevention. The first interested me. In principle, I agree with the second, but I don't agree with the methods that are commonly used. Primarily, promoting condom use, even in students as young as fourth and fifth grade.

On both a practical and on a religious level, I have trouble supporting that practice. Condoms don't always work, and they aren't very accessible in many countries. They are poorly made, and the high levels of contracts being passed around leads to high levels of corruption, and more poorly made condoms.

Yes, all of that was really general. No, I haven't intensely studied the pros and cons or theory of HIV prevention. Yes, I know some people are going to attack me for that, but the simple fact is that outside of the practicals, this assignment just didn't feel right for me. When we teach young people to use condoms, to have safe sex, the underlying message is that sex is okay as long as it's safe. I don't agree with that. I don't think that's the message we should be passing on to children at home, and I don't think I'd be comfortable moving abroad and promoting that message for two years. There's a lot more to the Peace Corps than that, but if the community asked me to teach sex education, I would have to do so, and I didn't think I could do that.

The PC is really selective, and it's hard to get a first invitation. Getting a second invitation used to happen sometimes, but since there are so many applicants now, it's extremely rare. I knew that saying no to my first invitation meant saying goodbye to my dream, and that was really frightening.

The logical part of me fought it. I argued with myself for a full week. It was possible I'd never even have to touch this part of it, would spend the whole time on child development and other health aspects. Peru is a beautiful country, one I'd love to see. But do I want to live there? I already speak the language, could work on really becoming fluent in Spanish. But do I want to spend two more years learning a language I already speak, instead of mastering a new one? The Peace Corps is one of the few organizations I know of (and I've done quite a lot of research on this) that offers paid (sort of) international work while integrating volunteers into the community instead of creating a little expat community. I would leave in September, which was more than enough time to get over the burnout that's been hitting the last few weeks here and prepare for a new adventure... right? I'd be living with a host family, which would provide challenges, but I'd learn a lot about the culture and the language; I was ready for that...right? Sure, I was uncomfortable with bits of my job description, but that was just part of working for a non-religious organization, right?

One night, just before my decision was due, I decided it was time for some quiet time with God. I'm not very good at that, because I tend to fall asleep (six years of sleep deprivation catching up with me), so I went outside this time. It was a quiet night in Kabul, without a lot of passing cars or barking dogs. I sat in the swing in the garden, surrounded by high concrete walls, alone and yet able to hear the voices of every pedestrian who walked past our gate. I sang and re-sang “The Summons,” which is a song that's been on my mind lately (if you look at the lyrics below, I'm sure you'll see why.) I laid in the grass and read my Bible, tried to get inspiration from Jeremiah and Isaiah and Paul's many journeys.

And then, when the sun had set and I couldn't make out the words anymore, I laid in the grass and watched the stars come out. For the first time, I laid it all before God. I told Him that I'd go if He wanted me to, that my brain was saying I should go, but that it didn't feel right. If He had other plans for me, I prayed that He would make it clear to me. Maybe not what those plans were, although that'd be preferable, but at least that He'd make me feel without a doubt that this wasn't the plan. I prayed for certainty, after a week of battles between heart and head.

Lying there, looking at the stars, my uncertainty melted away. I knew that I was going to decline. I realized that I can't call myself Catholic unless I act what I believe, and how could I spend two years teaching something I'm against and my faith is against? How can I stick to my values on the small things and then turn my back on them on the big things? No matter what others believe, my values are my own, and they aren't much good if I abandon them in the very moment when I should be relying on them to guide my path.

So I said no.

As soon as I did, the most amazing feeling of peace came over me. It was like nothing I've experinced before. My job here is ending in just over a month, and after that, I have no plan. Nothing. No clue what to do next. Normally, that would scare me to death, because I ALWAYS have a plan for what's coming next. And yet, this time, I wasn't worried. For the first time in a long time, I trusted in God and followed what my heart knew to be right, and it felt wonderful.

The story could end there, because that's a pretty amazing ending. The equally amazing part is that that's not the end.

When I sent my email to decline, I told my placement officer that I'd like to be considered for a second invitation. He'd basically told me that I probably wouldn't get one, but that a panel of placement officers would review my application and my reason for declining if I asked them to, and then we'd see. So I asked.

I never expected to get another email the next day. “Peace Corps- invitation!”

This time I was invited to go to Morocco. Working with youth development at a community center, which meant I'd have options to teach everything from English to computers, soccer to debate, writing to dance. All the things I love to teach anyway, and chances to teach many classes on topics that give important skills to modern youth. Leaving in January, which would give me time (including Christmas) at home with my family, enough time to get tired of living in the US and be ready for an adventure, time to watch my sister's senior soccer season and another sister's dance recital and be a part of their lives for the first time in ages. Learning Arabic, which Dari has both spoken and written roots in. In a country that is Islamic but appears to have more diversity and more varied influences than Kabul- a chance for cultural learning without having to wear a headscarf!

In so many ways, this position felt right. It felt like something I'd be good at, something I find important, and something I feel comfortable teaching. It felt like a good fit for me, and I was so incredibly amazed to be given the opportunity.

Tonight, I responded to my second Peace Corps invitation very differently. I said yes. Fully confident that this is where I belong, where God wants me to go. I've had that surety so few times in my life, and it feels amazing. What an incredible ending to an up-and-down week and a half, and what a lot I've learned along the way!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I wish you could...

I wish you could taste warm naan on a cool spring evening. When you are walking home from work and the guys at your favorite naan shop call out to you to say hi, because you had a thirty-second conversation the first time you bought naan there and now they think you are best friends. When you see that the shop has your favorite type of naan, the thick kind with an almost-hollow center and little spices baked in the top. You buy one for only ten Afs and you can't picture anywhere in the States where you can buy bread like this for only 20 cents. When you take your naan and wave goodbye to your shopkeeper friend, heading down the street with the naan warming your hand. You tear off a piece and let it melt in your mouth, and it's a little piece of God's gift to man.

I wish you could watch as graceful hands swoop and swirl across the page, making strokes that mean words that you can't understand. You try to puzzle them out, try to force yourself to concentrate on possible meanings, but you are mesmerized by the way the pen dances from right to left, right to left. Loops and lines, dots and dashes. It feels like a Morse code that you haven't yet been taught, but you are content to watch magic be made.

I wish you could hear the cacophony of a Kabul street as the officer workers and fruit vendors and traffic police start their day. You hear the vendors hawking their wares- bedrang! Bedrang! Yak kilo da rupya! (Cucumbers, cucumbers, 10 Afghanis per kilo!)- from the back of a cart pulled by a tired donkey, and the ice cream man pushing his cart down the street as his horn blares the thousandth rendition of Happy Birthday. Big police trucks go past honking, armed guards sitting in their bed, and Indian music floats out the windows of little white Corollas decorated with flowers and on their way to pick up a bride and groom. Little red motorcarts, with carpets draped over over the backs to make miniature taxis, splutter their way to movement, and gangs of schoolboys in matching blue uniforms push down the street in a clump, their rapid Dari interrupted by farts and whistles and laughter- boy noises that are the same in any language. You see blue burqas with bright purple pants sticking out below and hinting at the person beneath the veil, hear the swish swish of colorful chadars bustling down the street, admire the music made by the stomping feet of a two-year-old with bright white shoes. It's a smorgasbord of sounds and colors, a world that seems straight out of Aladdin but is real, daily life.

I wish you could sit in the circle with us in the grass at the family park. When the sun has set and the stars are twinkling, but the bright lights around you twinkle more forcefully, decorating practically every stationary surface within the park. You sit on a blanket and eat a picnic with your host family for the week, as little children run around with delighted screams and the Ferris wheel across the park whirs to life. It feels like a Fourth of July celebration from childhood, like you are back with your family as you eat and laugh and chatter with one another. Families here are just like families from home, who just want the peace to sit in the grass and eat buloni and ride the mini amusement park rides.

I wish you could walk down a Kabul street with us and see the kids playing with sticks and rocks and bits of dirty rope. They play jump rope with a muddy piece of twine strung across the unpaved road, tied to a dumpster on one side and held in someone's grimy hand on the other. But the dirt and the mud and the grime matters so little to them, for their grins are a mile wide and their delighted shouts echo off down the street. They grin wider when they see you coming, for you've become fast friends in the months you've been walking past during playtime, and they scamper over to say hi. They hold out their grimy hands to shake yours, and you bend down to give them the customary air kisses- one, two, three. They grin even wider; there is nothing quite so cool as being kissed by a foreigner.

I wish you could be here to experience all of this with me.