“Everywhere you turn there is the face of God.” 2:115 Qur’an
Kathryn Deckert: International Volunteer Exchange Program Canada Coordinator
Like life, my work is cyclical. I coordinate an exchange program for young adults through the Mennonite Central Committee. Every year, 60 young adults from 23 or so countries around the world come to Canada and the United States to volunteer for 11 months. They serve as teachers and speakers, thrift store workers and architects, pastors and shop workers. They are here to connect the global church and build bridges between the peoples of this world. They arrive, serve, and leave: I orient them, support them and then drive them to the airport. Despite the yearly comings and goings, the hellos and goodbyes of each new group are still meaningful. My interactions with each participant are a chance to learn from and connect with another reflection of the image of God.
This past weekend I attended the annual church retreat of Charleswood Mennonite Church. We spent time together, as a priesthood of believers – examining the ways our lives and the life of our church are intertwined. In creating a life river filled with the monumental moments of the church and the monumental moments of our individual lives, the depth of the river grew as the life of the church and congregants layered over one another.
When our congregation explored the ways we experienced God’s presence in our lives we found that many of the stories resonated with the sense that we experienced God’s presence through the actions of one another. I’m reminded of the Southern African concept of Ubuntu, often summarized as, I am because we are. I am the church because we are the church. Or as Bishop Desmond Tutu says, “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” Part of being present in the life of a congregation is searching out the ways we can best serve each other. I find it both humbling and exhilarating to think that God gives each of us the chance to be used in this way.
One of the joys of my job is that it enables me to travel around the world. I meet with selection committees and sending communities. I stay in the homes of alumni who have lived life in another part of the world and understand how different and the same we all are. Still, some of the most valuable cross cultural experiences I have had are those that I’ve experienced here at home- the ones that shake my assumptions. At the end of my first year of work, I sat with a participant waiting for her flight home. Her plane had been delayed and we had a few hours to sit and talk. She was a strong woman whose leadership abilities were easily recognized. I was feeling increasingly guilty for being a part of a program that pulled her away from her home community and temporarily set her down in a society where she could lead both men and woman without reproach. And now we were returning her to a culture where woman had few freedoms and she would need to hide the gifts in her that I saw to be so clearly evident.
Finally I couldn’t hold the question in any longer. “Was it worth it?” Was it worth leaving home and experiencing more freedom knowing that you would have to give it all up? She looked at me and simply said, “In your country people live without knowing their neighbours.” She was right, there are still things I want to change about this world, but I need to remember that I surely don’t live in the promised land.
There was a spiritual Director at the camp retreat who led a one hour session on the purpose of spiritual direction and why people seek out a person to walk their journey with them. She taught us a chant from the first spiritual directors’ conference that she attended. In one of the sessions, a Rabbi led the group in a chant of a verse of the Qur’an . My church sang the words together,
“Anywhere you go, there is the face of God.”
I’ve thought of these words many times since the retreat. This past week has brought me to the hospital to celebrate the birth of my new niece, and has brought me to a church to celebrate the life and mourn the death of a coworker. Whichever way I turn, present in the cycles of my life, and the cycles of my job, is the face of God. Like we say to participants at the beginning of their term of service, “Go in love, for love alone endures. Go in peace, for it is the gift of God. Go in safety, for we cannot go where God is not.” The cycles turn and our work changes but through it all God is present.
Kathryn Deckert has travelled extensively in her role as the IVEP Canada Coordinator. She attended Conrad Grebel University College where she majored in History and minored in peace and conflict studies and gave the valedictorian address for her graduating class. She’s completed a CIDA internship in Rwanda, has led a short term service and learning trip to Guatemala for MCC Ontario. In October 2011 she travelled to eastern Congo with Healing streams, an NGO whose mandate is to operate in high needs and postwar environments by providing holistic, culturally-appropriate leadership and counsellor training in partnership with local organizations.