One of the biggest things they hammered into us during our two-week-long YASC training was the importance of relationships in Christian mission. Without relationships, it was noted, our interactions with the people around us often reduce to a benefactor-dependent dynamic. In our baptismal covenant, we are called upon to “respect the dignity of every human being.” As such, creating a benefactor-dependent dynamic is not only a poor way of approaching development work, but such a dynamic also runs counter to good Christian theology. And so the mantra–“it is more important to be in right relationship than to be right” –rang in my head as we discussed both cultural and spiritual tools for our time abroad.
Between the end of YASC training and my start date with the Carpenter’s Kids program, I had time to mull how I would approach this year of mission. I decided, even before I arrived in Dodoma, Tanzania, that I would be all in: interacting with Tanzanians as often as possible, and doing my best to prioritize relationships with Tanzanians over any other sort of person. After all, I reasoned to myself, I am in Tanzania for only a year. Why not spend my time with the Tanzanians who live there? Though well-intentioned (albeit a bit self-righteous), as the months went on it became increasingly clear this approach was flawed.
The Carpenter’s Kids (CK) program in the Diocese of Central Tanganyika (DCT) works to provide school supplies to orphans or otherwise economically disadvantaged children in the villages within the diocese. There is a long history of YASC volunteers serving with CK and I was happy to continue this work. No level of excitement, however, could have prepared me for the transition to Tanzania. The first several weeks were overwhelming. Given that it was my first time living abroad, I had never experienced feeling like everything was just so different. Swahili, cars on the left side of the road, an incredibly intense sun, power outages, squatting toilets… you get the idea. But slowly, over time, I started to settle in.
In December 2015, I took the opportunity to attend language school for three weeks in Iringa, a town 266 km (165 miles) south of Dodoma. Studying in Iringa gave me the chance to re-set, or at least recalibrate, my ways and expectations. Learning Swahili, even if only for a few weeks, lessened the language barrier that I found daunting. Staying with a host family in its village for the last week of language school allowed me to get a small taste of what daily life was like for many Tanzanians. And befriending two generous and welcoming Norwegian families (who were learning Swahili in anticipation of their mission posts) allowed me to relax and enjoy relating to others. Relationships looked like opportunities, rather than burdens. The stress that started to characterize my relationships in Dodoma evaporated, yielding to a more optimistic and easygoing approach moving forward.
Looking back now, language school in Iringa was quite the watershed moment. I came back to Dodoma refreshed and reinvigorated. Rather than imposing limits on the relationships I should build, I opened myself to relationships around me — deepening those I had already forged and welcoming new ones. Doing so allowed me to see my connections with Tanzanians in a warmer, less compulsory light. My compound mates, my co-workers, people I met through church, people I met simply walking down the street or in a shop or at the market, whether Tanzanian or Kenyan or British or Australian or Dutch or Norwegian or American, so many friends, so many familiar faces, so many people I will miss!
God calls us all to relate unabashedly and lovingly to God’s children. Jesus showed us what it means to do that, to relate to everybody, especially those who are downtrodden or outcast. To describe myself as an “outcast” is too strong, but there have definitely been times when I felt like a newcomer, a foreigner and even a minority on some level. My relationships were crucial to breaking down those feelings of not belonging.
Simply put, I have felt the love here. Where would I have been without the kindness of strangers who received me when I first arrived in Tanzania? Or without the support of people who I did not always agree with but who did display a steadiness of character that I will remember forever? Or without the little sacrifices of time and resources others have made on my behalf so that my way might be clear and easy? I believe it is these moments, which I have experienced over and over again in Tanzania, that are behind the (admittedly trite but I think hon-est) assertion that “I took away more than I could have ever given.”
I will be back in the United States at the end of July. A month later, I will start The Road Episcopal Service Corps program in Atlanta. A year after that, God only knows. But wherever I am, I hope to continue serving God in whatever capacity I can offer. Even though I will miss Tanzania and the people I have met here, the memories and lessons of this place are very much ingrained in my heart. Chief among my recollections of Tanzania will be the way I experienced God’s love through relationships.
Love your neighbor, serve God’s mission. The best part? You don’t need to be in another country to practice that.