Plans for prospering

Hannah Schultz

Hannah Shultz. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

By Hannah Shultz, BVS unit  #307
Chapel reflection May 6, 2015

“For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This was my favorite Bible verse as a child. There is something inherently comforting in the words, especially for a small child with an unknown future. But as I repeated these words to myself, I always thought that this promise from God was kind of vague. “Plans to give you hope and a future”—but what kind of future? “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you”—but prosper me how?

Last May I graduated from Juniata College where I had been actively involved in campus ministry. My senior year I was the president of the Christian ministry board on campus, and because of this role, had been asked to speak at our baccalaureate service the night before graduation. The verse Jeremiah 29:11 was the scripture that was chosen for this service, and as graduating seniors getting ready to move into an unfamiliar and unknown future, I felt that it was an appropriate message with which to send us off into the world. The promise of prosperity and a future is what all of us were seeking as we left Juniata.

As I prepared a few words to share with my graduating class I reflected on my favorite childhood scripture one more time, but again, as I read these words, I wanted to know more. What do I need to do to prosper? It turns out the answer to this question comes a few verses earlier. Verse 7 says: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Growing up, service was a big part of my life and it continued to be important during my time at Juniata. It was fairly easy to be involved with service activities. From spring break service trips, to events such as Science Olympiad, Relay For Life and Special Olympics, Juniata provided opportunities to contribute not only to the prosperity of the surrounding community, but the school also encouraged us to reach out to our world. Leaving Juniata I knew I would need to make an effort to continue making service a part of my life when opportunities were not as readily available right outside my door.

BVS seemed like a perfect fit, and I’ve felt so blessed to be part of the workcamp team where I’ve had the opportunity to plan service trips for youth around the country. From working on farms, to serving in soup kitchens, to spending time with senior citizens and working with the intellectually disabled, I feel confident that during these weeks we will be contributing to the prosperity of others, and that we will be nourishing our own journey with God and creating lasting friendships. In our service to others, we will also prosper.

In the past year or so, I’ve begun to recognize that prosperity not only comes from direct acts of organized service, but also from more subtle acts of compassion and from responding to causes you believe to be important. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any other identity used to discriminate and set people apart from one another, we are all human, and we all have a responsibility to one another. We are all being called to fight against human suffering, to produce love in the face of adversity and to bring fortune to those around us.

In light of the recent events in Baltimore, Jeremiah 7 has been running through my head. I was born in the suburbs of Baltimore and lived there until I went to college. Although I spent most of my time in the suburbs, with only infrequent trips downtown, I do consider Baltimore to be my home. I have family who live near the areas being destroyed and I recognize the names of businesses and streets where the destruction was occurring last week. My personal connections to Baltimore play only a small part in influencing my feelings regarding what happened. It would be heartbreaking to watch any city in our country or our world be devastated and torn apart by violent acts.

As someone who is not a part of a racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic minority I cannot pretend to understand the feelings of the protestors and I cannot pass judgment or pretend to believe that I may not have been tempted to act out in similar ways if I were in their situation. The reactions we were seeing in Baltimore were not just stemmed from feelings of anger towards the incident with Freddie Grey’s death. The problems facing Baltimore are rooted in decades of injustice, discrimination and police brutality. I fully support the right to be heard, and recognize that rioting is an avenue many have taken to achieve this purpose. A Time article recently addressed this exact point and quoted Martin Luther King JR as saying

“…in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met….”

It was however, distressing to watch the continual and systematic destruction of a place so many call home. Protesters were setting fire to their own homes, neighborhoods, places of business, of education, of worship, of recreation.

It’s a shame that the violent acts of destruction are the ones that receive attention. There were a significant number of peaceful protests on the streets as well, but the media had not allowed those protests to represent the voices of the discouraged. Alongside stories of peaceful protests, it has also been encouraging to hear about the actions those have taken to clean up the city and restore what has been lost. Posts on my Facebook news feed switched back and forth between status’ revealing opinions on the matter, and posts listing information regarding times and locations of clean-up activities, urgently calling volunteers to help for an hour or two. My pastor from my church at home posted a Google doc listing where help was needed, contact information and supplies requested. It was encouraging to see our communities come together in response to the recent events. Another beacon of hope last week came from an unexpected gathering of clergy and gang members who stood side by side to end the violence. Gangs who were notorious enemies came together to protect their community. These are the stories that should be flooding the media, these are the stories that inspire hope and shed light in times of darkness. It’s good news such as this that helps to promote peace and prosperity.

In the fall of my senior year I took a class called “God, Evil and the Holocaust”. After spending the semester discussing the atrocity of the holocaust and the role of God during those years, we were asked to write a final paper in which we answered where we thought God was during the holocaust, and how this affects contemporary faith. Regardless of the answer to the first question, the class unanimously decided that the darkness of the holocaust demands us to take full accountability for the destruction we commit against one another and calls us into responsibility for resisting injustice and helping the victims of suffering. The holocaust demonstrates the power of darkness in our world and challenges us to learn from our past and actively resist allowing something similar to happen in the future. There is an organization called Charter for Compassion that has a charter that talks about this issue beautifully. The last part of the charter reads

“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”


LamplighterThe call to compassion reminds me of a story I heard about the author Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story, Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed. But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, “See; look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.” I love the image of light breaking through perfect darkness.

One of our workcamp daily themes is “imitating Christ’s humility as light” and we talk about carrying the light of Christ into the world. This summer I’m excited to witness acts that drive light into dark places and I hope to inspire youth to make service and compassion a luminous and dynamic force in our world. I know feel like I understand the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11. This is the future God has promised me and I know that through the work I am doing, I am also prospering.


Living the simple life?

By Ben Bear

Ben Bear with pumpkin

BVS volunteer Ben Bear decapitates an innocent pumpkin. Photo by Laura Whitman.

Being a volunteer through BVS can be a radically different experience from person to person. Some of us live in single apartments, plopped down in a city or town hundreds or thousands of miles from “home” and hit the ground running with their project. Others end up living in intentional communities where they are immediately connected to other volunteers and a hosting congregation with a well-established role for them.

In the weeks since I arrived in Elgin, I have struggled some with the concept of living a simple life. As volunteers, we have agreed to live simply, within our means, and without (too much) excess. Having heard stories from other volunteers and seen some of their sites, some of them take this challenge quite seriously. For example, the New Community Project in Harrisonburg, VA has a homemade table at which they eat their communal, second-hand gathered meals. The kicker: the table is made of warehouse pallets. The table’s creator ballparked the cost of the entire process of making the table at around $20. Check it out:

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

On the flip side, my new role as the BVS assistant recruiter has me traveling all over the country in the coming year. Recently I was in the great commonwealth of Virginia, mostly hanging out down in the Shenandoah Valley. Fast forward seven days after returning and I was already back on the road, this time in Pennsylvania. I’ll be pretty impressed if I manage to put together an entire month back at Elgin between trips the rest of my time here. Granted, I knew this would likely be the case when I agreed to come back into BVS. Still, I sometimes struggle with how simply I’m actually living when I jet-set around the country so much and end up with rental cars that look like this:

Red rental car


And this:

White rental car

Also shiny!

Driving around in these well-maintained, relatively new, kinda sporty-looking vehicles is, admittedly, a bit fun. It’s nice to not feel constantly concerned that the [random car part] might break. They do get pretty decent gas mileage, too. Still, there remains an internal struggle of what it really looks like to live simply and to what degree I’m being successful in that endeavor.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to the justification for the life I lead here or how to alter it for the better. For a guy who really likes having answers, this might be one that is left for pondering. To that end, here are a few quotes that seem to grasp at the concept of a simple existence:

“Live simply, so that others may simply live.” ~ St. Elizabeth Seton

“It is impossible to detach from the love of material things unless it is replaced by love for things unseen.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~ Confucius

May the road rise with you…


The Kitchen

Sharing a meal at the BVS house in Elgin

Friends share a meal at the BVS house in Elgin, Illinois

By Katie Cummings

In my house
When I want to be with
I come
To the kitchen
And I sit
At the kitchen table.
Organically people may
Stretching on the floor after a run,
Shuffling pots and pans for dinner,
Reading a book in the glorious sun.
It is the heartbeat of our home,
Thumping to daily rhythms.

In the midst of cooking,
The kitchen becomes—
A stage
Our impromptu dance parties
Filling the spaces between
Linguine and cheddar cheese

With a warm cup of tea
And a listening ear—
I’ve stepped into
A therapy session
The linoleum floor bouncing back
The sacred words of our hearts.

With a hefty bag of thrifted finds—
The fluorescent lights reflect
The dazzling uniqueness of
A fashion show that only cost
Ten dollars.

In the heart of our home—
The kitchen

Our dancing stage
Can easily deteriorate to
An arena.
With a warrior on either side
For a death match.

The vibrations of the floor
Angry words and weighty sighs—
Slammed doors and broken conversations.

The fluorescents illuminate
The cracking pieces—
Shining lights into the deepest,
Most selfish parts of

And yet,
Those four walls
With open cabinets and an
Alphabetized spice rack—
Hold us—all.

As we come
To the kitchen table—
Angry with housemates.
Disappointed with work.
Fists clenched.
Jaw tightened.
Our hands open,
Reaching across the table
To hold another.
Fingers unfurl—
White knuckles regain their color.
Jaws relax,
Exhaling prayers
Inhaling the love inside
Homecooked food.
Eating brown rice or white,
Coconut curries and
We slowly find our way
To each other
To self.

The kitchen holds us—
Maybe better than we hold
Each other
The heartbeat of our home
The kitchen
Is that place that
Grace lives.

“I can’t believe this was a real day”

Marie Schuster

Marie Schuster

By Marie Schuster

BVS volunteer Marie Schuster lives and works at the Brot und Rosen (Bread and Roses) Community in Hamburg, Germany, a house of hospitality for homeless refugees. She describes one of her days:

My alarm goes off: once, twice, three times und Aufstehen! Since days at my last BVS project at the L’Arche community in Tecklenburg, I very much enjoy living “above the shop” and getting the most out of every second I am in bed in the morning. I throw on some clothes just in time for the bell…yeah there’s a bell. A single ring indicates the beginning of our Andacht (morning prayer). Those who feel called, file downstairs to our basement chapel. We sing, pray, and reflect together.

After a quick breakfast I set out for Cafe Exil where I will meet up with other faithful vigilers to demonstrate outside of the immigration office across the street from the cafe. Today I have extra cargo: my backpack is full of medicine and bandages to drop off at Caritas’ medical center for homeless folks. (There is a good exchange between the “MediBüro” and this center. We both receive different donations and have different needs, but with the same goal: health care for the marginalized.) I also have two banners rolled up under my arm. We had taken them home from the Cafe last Thursday to use in our Good Friday Stations of the Cross for the rights of refugees procession. They have slogans painted on them saying “No One is Illegal” and “Stop Deportations.”

It’s about a half hour trip from my home in Barmbek to the central station and then a 7 minute walk to Cafe Exil. Cafe Exil is a free and independent counseling/advice center for refugees and migrants. We connect people to organizations or lawyers that can help their case, make phone calls, or accompany them to appointments at the job center or immigration office. We are also known as a warm place with free coffee and tea so we have some “regulars” (generally non-German, homeless folks who need a place to rest for a few hours) during the colder months.

I get there around 9:45 and greet the other volunteers in the Cafe. The other men who do the vigil join me and we fold pamphlets that we will pass out as part of our demonstration. Peter arrives and we all set out to hold our banners on the darkest corner in Hamburg. This isn’t an exaggeration. The corner outside the immigration office is always in the shadows. It blocks the sun that rises behind it and the buildings across the street block it as it goes down. I find it very symbolic. On top of that it is located on a very busy, wide street that leads to the harbor which brings the wind.

Towards the end our hour-long vigil, a security guard from the immigration office comes out asking us for help / advice. There is an English speaking woman who has to go to the “Sportallee” place to apply for asylum. She is very pregnant and won’t be able to handle the stress of the complicated journey to get there. (S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, etc)

Peter asks what we should do. He feels it is the job of the office to look after people when they clearly cannot go on their own, as is the case here…and the case of a blind woman two weeks before. She requires a taxi, but who will/should pay? No real solution is reached and we end the vigil with the song: “You Can’t Kill the Spirit.”

Back at the Cafe I say hello to a few “regulars” and put on my jacket. I want to drop off the Meds, get lunch, and walk to MediBüro – it’s a beautiful day. Well it wasn’t in the stars. Thursdays generally do not go according to plan. A kind stranger had walked the very pregnant woman over from the immigration office. I didn’t see them come in but I saw her sitting alone on the couch. I figured it must have been the woman the security guard asked us about. I offered her something to drink. She refused. She handed me the paper the office gave her with a crude map and description of how to get to Sportallee with public transport. “I want Asyl,” she said, “I need to go here.”

Sportallee isn’t for everyone. Applying for asylum isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have a good enough (in the eyes of the state) case, you can be rejected and then be refused any future application. There are ways around it, but one has to know beforehand what they are doing, why, and how. Not easy for most people who find themselves wanting asylum. They don’t often find out until it’s too late the “could’ve, should’ve would’ves” of the situation. And they can’t be blamed either. The system is intentionally confusing and difficult so as to discourage applicants. It’s unbelievably frustrating to me and I am not even in this situation.

I discuss options with Peter. It seems this woman is mostly concerned with where she is going to sleep tonight and not what applying for asylum means. We do our best to gently ask her about the baby’s father. If he’s German she will have an easy time getting assistance. He’s not. She keeps saying she is tired and wants to go to the Sportallee. Peter made some phone calls to different shelters to see if they could take her in for a few nights before she decides what to do. He can’t find anything. He calls around for more advice. In the mean time other guests come into the cafe and I fall into my familiar role. A man comes in wanting to fill out an apartment application. Someone needs directions to another counseling center.

Peter had successfully heard from the head boss-lady at “Flucht Punkt” that we should take her to Sportallee, not to apply for asylum but for official permission to stay for humanitarian reasons. German law forbids the deportation of a pregnant woman 6 weeks before and after the birth of the child. So at least for this time she is safe and will be cared for. What happens afterwards needs to be discussed with a lawyer. She comes from a country in Africa that the state has determined is “safe” to deport folks back too. This complicates her asylum claim. We were advised to go to Sportallee, get her settled, not to discuss her country of origin, and make sure she comes to “Flucht Punkt” on Wednesday. I called a taxi while Peter looked up directions from Sportallee to “Flucht Punkt” so she would not miss her appointment.

I accompanied the woman. The ride was maybe 20 minutes long. Most of that we sat in silence I could see she was exhausted. I went over the procedure with her one more time. That we were not going to give them too much information until she had her appointment. I assured her they wouldn’t send her away so close to the due date of her baby. I said it will be fine. As soon as I said this I felt guilty. I don’t know if it will be fine. Times like this I wish I was less American-optimist and more German-realist.

It was my first time going to Sportallee. One of the guys I live with previously lived here for around 3 months. He said it was awful. It’s located in what looks like a pretty normal German, residential neighborhood. There are kids everywhere sucking on juice boxes and playing, shouting in different languages. We walk slowly from the cab (which let us out around the corner) to the main entrance. The woman I am with does not have much. A purse, a shoulder bag which is just a bigger purse, and a plastic shopping bag. I can see sandals and toiletries sticking out of it. I hold her hand as we walk up the few steps to the door. There are about five men in blue sweater vests, ties, and black pants. They are smoking and joking around with some kids. These are the security guards. They ask how they can help.

We speak in German, the woman stands patiently next to me. She doesn’t say anything; she doesn’t seem to be fully present. She is just letting everything wash over her. I tell them she is pregnant and wanting to apply for a permit to stay for humanitarian reasons. I had rehearsed this in my head on the way over. I wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t accidentally say “asylum.” The biggest guard said, “Not today.” I was confused, flustered, and angry; a full range of emotions in the half second it took for him to finish his sentence. “The office is closed, she can apply tomorrow.” They informed me she could stay the night and would get a food card and things would move forward in the morning. Then came the next question: “Where is she from?” I tried to change the subject. I said, she’s three weeks before her due date, tired, and cannot handle any more stress today. They had done this before and were not distracted. I am only talking to two men now. The younger one is smoking and asks more aggressively “Where is she from?” I hate him for smoking so close to this woman. I hate that he’s looking at me accusingly. I am scared and don’t know what to do. The other guard levels with me: “Look we can’t take her in if we don’t know where she’s from. We are not the office, but we have to know.” I level back and tell him I was advised not to disclose that until she has spoken to a lawyer.

I translate these goings on to the woman standing next to me. I realize in this moment I still don’t know her name. There is a bench and I walk her over to it. I try calling Peter for advice, he doesn’t answer his cell. I discuss it with the kinder guard a bit more and with the woman I am with and we agree to fill out the tiny form, including giving her country of origin. He tells me we want the same things for the folks here and I find myself trusting him. After a bit of a wait, they find her a key and bedding. She will not be in a normal room. She is in a container. There are about 10 containers stacked in two rows, two stories outside of the main building. They aren’t shipping containers, but more like the movable offices you see at construction sites. She’s on the second “floor.” An older guard with a gray beard shows us the way. The stairs are difficult and we go slowly together. In her room are two bunk-beds, a table, a few lockers and a single chair. There is only one other woman in this room. They do not speak the same language. She uses the toilets across the hall and I learn from the guard where the canteen is and at what time dinner is served. We settle her on the bottom bunk and I make up the bed for her. She still hasn’t said too much. She is hungry and tired. We’ve missed lunch time. I only have an apple and a banana with me. It’s hers. I help her put her things in an empty locker but put the flyer for “Flucht Punkt” on the table. I write out the German term for the permit she needs to apply for so the next day she can point to it during her interview. I also write down my cell number in case there are any problems. I hug her; remind her of her appointment on Wednesday, and leave. It feels very surreal.

I head to the bus stop and on the way call Hans who I would be working with in the MediBüro to tell him I may be late today. I also call a friend I meet through Cafe Exil. He’s a “regular” there and has been sick for over a week. I told him to go to MediBüro on Monday but he was applying for jobs and never came in. I told him I would be there today and he should come by. “Maybe.”

I change trains, get on a bus and arrive fifteen minutes before Hans. The MediBüro has just opened but there are already ten or more patients waiting in the hall. Already when I arrived, two other folks had opened the one classroom and were calling doctors. I collected some materials and began setting up the second room for when Hans would arrive. While I was waiting, I put out extra chairs in the hall for the patients. I had five minutes or so to have a cup of tea and listen to some Bob Dylan to calm down and help me transition my new roll. Its 15:30 and I have miles to go before I sleep.

What I like about working in the MediBüro is that it’s not as hectic as Cafe Exil. You get to sit down one on one (or two on one) with people and you are generally able to find a solution. They are sick, you find them the right doctor. It is relaxed and they leave happy (not always the case at the Cafe). I do a lot of the writing for Hans since his hands aren’t as steady as they once were. We only deal with the patient’s first name in order to protect their anonymity. We make an appointment, write out a letter, stamp it from MediBüro, and give them directions on how best to get there.

Even if MediBüro goes longer than expected, I leave feeling pretty good, not frazzled as is often the case when I leave the Cafe. Today we are done on time, 17:30. I am really famished and the sun is shining. I decide to walk through St. Pauli to the Caritas center to drop off the medicine and bandages that are bulging out of my back pack. There are plenty of Cafes and food stands along the way and the Drop-In Center is open 24 hours, so I don’t have to rush.

I arrived at the Caritas Drop-in around 18:30. The guy there was friendly, thanked me and I headed on towards the harbor. I sat there, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the ships, tourists, and Fischbrötchen. The sun was still out and I tried to soak up all the vitamin D I could. It was nice to be by myself, watching the crowds. But then I had enough and got on the train to go home.

The trip from Landungsbrücke to the Brot und Rosen door is about 45 minutes if the buses line up nicely. I was pretty exhausted when I got home but was happy to find group of folks in the living room watching TV. It was nice to unwind and laugh with three of my house mates before going to bed. It was a full, stressful, but ultimately good day.

Read more about Brot und Rosen

A Declaration of Love

Coffee Shop conversation

Katie Hampton (left) listening at Abrasevic.

By Katie Hampton

I spent three years and three months (2007-2010) as a BVS volunteer in OKC Abrasevic in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am still discovering all that those three years meant to me, but it is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life.

If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I freak out about the fact that I spent three years not earning/saving any money, or at the very least interning at some international organization which would look good on my resume. I spent a frantic year+ after BVS interning, working and not getting paid, job hunting, etc. During that time, Abrasevic, with its tiny budget, paid me TWICE! I was moved to tears by their solidarity.

But really, I would NEVER take it back. This is who I am. This is how I become who I want to be.

In Abrasevic, the most important thing is to show up and to be present. To talk to people. To make jokes. People are an end in themselves. When Arma stopped being a member of the management team, he spent even more time at Abrasevic than he had before (he had already been there ALL the TIME)—but now he was in the café talking to people, rather than up in his office working. (Nedzad, a longtime volunteer, took on his tasks.) Tina said, when we discussed it, “what’s important is being here; that’s more important than what you do here.”

[[I’m tearing up again thinking about all of them and longing to jump into a car right this minute and visit them!]]

Everyone in Abrasevic has their own artistic dream. Even the waiters are all DJs or musicians or doing street performances or graffiti. People are so supportive of dedication to artistic dreams. We’re always going to the concerts of Mostar bands to hear the same songs and going to the book promotions of Mostar (Abrasevic) poets. I also had a poem published in an Abrasevic literary journal (Kolaps) and showed my videos in the main hall.

One of the main things that I learned in Abrasevic is how important PLACES are for cities. It’s like “a room of one’s own” for urban spaces. It’s essential for Mostar to have an Abrasevic. It’s essential for every city to have neutral urban spaces that encourage people to come together. Like Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities” (which I studied in-depth in a video journalism course at Abrasevic), where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan the stories of a hundred cities, only to reveal that “all cities are Venice”; now to me, “all cities are Mostar, and must contain an Abrasevic”. When I move to new places, I am always looking for an “Abrasevic”. Of course I can never find another Abrasevic, as it is irreplaceable and unique. But in my life I combine the elements which made Abras so dear to me (solidarity, creativity, espresso) to try to live an Abrasevicy life.

There’s nothing like putting a camera in the hands of a young person. So exciting to see what they come up with. I have to do this again! My life will not be complete unless I can make videos and help young people to make videos! About Roma, skaters, beautiful ramshackle monuments, artists, poets, musicians and activists.

I learned to film and edit video footage.

I also got some experience in grant writing.

I learned about challenges in project design and implementation.

I was so inspired.

I learned about the impact of political conflict on daily life.

I was filled with hope.

– Katie Hampton, BVSer at Abrasevic from October 2007 to December 2010 (currently blogging at

Ways to tell I’m an American

By Julia Schmidt

Julia Schmidt with graffiti

Julia Schmidt. Photo by Kristin Flory.

As I have now been in Europe for a while, I have noticed quite a few differences. I do not feel like a typical American; in fact I am in the minority when I claim my pacifism beliefs and my worries about politics in the U.S. However, it is when I am far from the U.S. when I realize just how American I am. And so here we go, five ways you can tell I am an American.

1) The most obvious one is when I open my mouth. My Croatian is still very rough and I most often speak in English. And my English is obviously American. People will ask me where I am from and I answer the United States and they always give me the “duh, I know that,” look, followed by “which state?”

2) The second obvious way to tell I am American is that I am not afraid of going outside with wet hair or flats without socks, even in the winter. I should first say, when I do these things in the winter, I am walking perhaps 100 feet outside from my dorm to the library. I know I will only be outside a few seconds and thus I am not worried about getting sick. However, Croatians look at me like I am crazy! Croatians, like a lot of Europeans, believe that by going outside with wet hair or not wearing enough clothes, you will get sick! And I think this is true of them. I believe that if you are worried or think you will get sick, you are more likely to do so. However, I just laugh it off and tell people I am American and thus will not get sick. I doubt that I will ever wear as many layers or as heavy coats as Croatians… that just seems hot!

3) I think a lot about getting things done and being as productive as possible. This does not mean that I act in ways that are productive all of the time, but I feel like all my time should be spent doing things. Croatia is a relationship culture, meaning that spending time with people is more important than production. People regularly sit in coffee shops for hours over one drink just catching up with friends. They are not worried about what they have to do next or the fact that they are getting nothing “accomplished” during this time. Even in the work environment, I don’t see people as stressed as in America. Even though people want to get work done and done well, people still realize the value of genuine conversation and relationships. I admire this part of the culture so much and am trying hard to calm down and focus more on the relationships in my own life than worry about how productive I am being or should be.

4) I try to be as polite in any situation. I am not saying that Croatians are rude, but they can be blunt and they don’t believe in fake smiles. I was talking with one of my Croatian friends and she complained to me about the American fake smile, the one we give when we believe the other person is wrong, but we think it would be rude to say our opinion out loud. She hates this smile because you can see from a mile away that it is insincere. As an American, I have been trained to use this smile, believing that it is more important to be polite than sincere. Now, I see the problem with this. I am trying harder to not give this smile and more sincere. I don’t know think I will ever get rid of my extreme politeness, but I believe that Croatians are right not to beat around the bush and say things the way they are.

5) I do not use a multitude of emoticons. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but I have noticed when I receive a message from a Croatian friends, there are smiley faces after almost every sentence. In the U.S. we might use one smiley face every once in a while, but not nearly to the extreme that my non-American friends do. I asked a Croatian friend about this and she answered that they just want their writing to be more pretty. I respect that. And I have tried to use more just so I do not appear rude.

These are just a few ways you can tell I am American. I am sure there are many more. To my Croatian friends, if you read this and think of other ways you can tell I’m American, please let me know! I find cultural differences extremely interesting.

Find out more about Brethren Volunteer Service!

Shop till I drop

By Katarina Eller, Brot und Rosen Community, Hamburg, Germany

Katarina Eller in Germany

BVS volunteer Katarina Eller in Germany. Photo by Kristin Flory.

My days mostly consist of cleaning, chopping vegetables, and food shopping. Our day begins with devotions in the chapel, with a simple prayer-song-Bible-reading-silence-song-prayer model…. Like a sandwich, or an Oreo cookie. Almost all of the songs come from the Taize movement. (You know you live at Brot & Rosen when most of the songs stuck in your head are in Latin.)

Sometime after breakfast and light cleaning or email-checking, I might start with lunch prep. Leftovers from the night before are warmed up, and some type of salad is made. More often than not, it is a green salad. My favorite part of lunch prep is making the salad dressing (I never want to buy pre-made salad dressing ever again). And the worst is washing the salad. It is usually donated to us from an organic food store and can be very earth-filled and/or sometimes tiny-insect-infested. It can be the case that there is no green salad. But not to worry, other variations are possible! Carrot salad with grated carrots and apples, and oranges with oil and lemon juice for example; or red beet salad with chopped onions, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and caraway seeds. Or chicory salad with apples, oranges, bananas and a yogurt, lemon, curry dressing.

Katarina Eller

Katarina Eller at Brot und Rosen in Hamburg, Germany

I usually don’t cook dinner. Dinner is very intimidating. Often around 15 people show up, and the children don’t eat anything that might contain nutrition for healthy development. So I leave dinner to the professionals (unless of course they’re not around), and chop vegetables for them. We may be unofficially part of what is called the Slow Food Movement (correct me if I’m wrong). Since I’ve been here, I have made/or experienced the making of: salad dressing, bread, jelly, orange juice, tomato sauce, pralines, mixed drinks, pizza, vegan chocolate, vegan cheese, mashed potatoes, African chili salsa, guacamole, fufu European style, applesauce etc. I’m not gonna lie, one of my initial thoughts during my very first week at B & R was: uh-oh. Yeah, sometimes I still feel like that, but it’s all good, that’s why I live in community, so other people can take over when they see me start on a crazy culinary maneuver.

It is my job to buy everything that is not donated by the food bank, organic food store, or ordered from said store. So, a large portion of my shopping includes cooking oil, lemons, noodles, tomato sauce, and toilet paper. Sometimes I have to make more than one trip, even though I use a rolling shopping-hamper-thingy. (I don’t know what we call them, but they are all over Germany.) And sometimes the cashier is like, “Oh it’s you again!” and I think “Yeah, because if you only had a wheely cart and two little chicken-bone arms you’d be back again, too.” Then there’s the whole discussion of what we should buy fair-trade, regional, and organic. And, if organic tomato sauce from who knows where is worth the price, or even really organic, and whether it’s better to buy organic sugar or the normal sugar that says on the package that it’s made in northern Germany from sugar beets but is probably not organic etc. As usual with Brot& Rosen, as soon as I ask a question as to what I should buy, I get eight different answers. So as usual with Brot& Rosen, I just do whatever I want to.

That’s Christian Anarchy for you!

Find out more about Brethren Volunteer Service.

The Beginnings

By Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder, BVS unit #304

I will begin as most stories do, unless you’re Kurt Vonnegut, at the beginning. BVS began following World War II as an alternative to military action. It’s been ongoing ever since and has become a big thing in my church denomination, the Church of the Brethren. Basically, it is a smaller version of all of those organizations like the Peace Corps.

My BVS experience had a rocky start. My body reacted adversely to the anxious jitters and plane ride movement. I was greeted by people as nervous as I was about meeting them. It was awkward, as all first meetings go; one guy thought I was from Ohio instead of Iowa, a common mistake that happens a lot more than you think it would. Fortunately for our group, we were small and quickly grew used to each other in a way that made getting to know each other very easy.

I learned a lot from orientation as a whole. Most of our learning took place in the sessions that we participated in. I couldn’t tell you what each one was about but the overlying theme was developing people who could hold up and utilize their skills in their placements. The first week’s sessions tackled shopping and cooking on an extreme budget (basically poverty), conflict and finding the project placement that best suits you. One of the guest speakers who came during this week sold the project and location so well that I ended up there.

In between sessions, we had a lot of free time to do as we pleased, and at Camp Ithiel, in Gotha, Florida, there was plenty to do. I still can’t get over the fact that I played sand volleyball in the middle of February.

A lot of the free time in the first week was spent on creating our faith journeys on paper. This was a neat experience to both interact with the people in our group and reflect on yourself. Mine looked nice at the end but only because the one medium of visual art that I actually was good at and knew what to do with was available to me, smudge chalk. Drawing frustrates me. Mine turned a bit dark but that’s what my faith journey consists of and it’s made me who I am.

The sessions taught us about work styles and conflict resolution while the free time and devotion taught us about our fellow BVS’ers and the inner workings of a changing and growing self.

Three weeks isn’t a long time but in that kind of setting you get to know the people around you quickly and deeply. There are things that these people know that friends that I’ve had for a while don’t. I don’t get self-conscious about singing in front of them or sharing the stuff that I wrote with them. Jacob and I spotted two dolphins when we went to the ocean and ran after them on the shore without a care that we might look silly (it was amazing!). We did hymn singing twice during the three weeks and had a foot washing for the commissioning service and I participated in both without being ashamed and it was freeing. I trust BVS Unit #304 completely.

There is so much that I learned and experienced during BVS orientation, more than I can or dare say; wouldn’t want you getting bored. As a group, we learned how to create our own fun. I learned how to lose at a game I love (Settlers of Catan) graciously and that faith is a practice, not something you can preach at people without the discipline and understanding that it requires. Walking through Apopka, Florida, looking to help, I learned the capacity I have for patience, how fortuitous timing a thief had to dress in purple the same day as our group did and how to talk to the cops in that kind of a situation. I learned that it’s okay to be goofy and silly and that judgement is not as bad as you think it is. It was three weeks of self-discovery mixed in between sessions about peace and workdays and I left it as prepared as I could be for Cincinnati, Ohio, probably the farthest place from a country farm in Iowa that I could get.

Want to read more about BVS orientation? Or find out more about BVS in general?

Hyper-real Unconditional Positive Regard: BVS Orientation

By Emily Davis

Perception of reality is often so subjective and inconsistent that it can subvert being present with others. That in conversation or from moment to moment there is a sense of surreal space and time, where situations seem distant, foreign or magnified; where waking consciousness seems more sleep-like. A friend recently spoke so eloquently of these dream-states it made me realize their rarity and that I’d been feeling them most frequently in my life during transitions.

I spent the last three weeks in one of those otherworldly states, in extended moments of fantastic and absurd loving reality at Brethren Volunteer Service orientation.

BVS orientation candle

Photo by Emily Davis

Twenty-four volunteers, making up BVS fall Unit #303, chose year-long, individual volunteer placements, each at a domestic or international non-profit organization focused on social justice and peace work. Together, among the picturesque rolling hills and corn fields of New Windsor, Maryland, we considered our vocational callings, attended training sessions, cooked for each other, worked in the community, sang hymns, threw dance parties, practiced devotional meditations, told nonsensical stories and played ridiculous amounts of four square.

Our group of uncommonly kind individuals opened up to each other relatively fast. We shared deep insecurities, hard pasts, and current joys so fiercely that we cultivated a strong sense of trust and connection. And some vocalized a feeling of being part of a magic bubble or alternative reality made of communal strength and safety.

Our last weekend we stayed at Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren and volunteered with the Brethren Housing Association. For me, and others I think, those few days gave a vivid example of what the Church of the Brethren is about. Although there are a small number of congregants, there is an enormous, humble partnership being built with that community; where structural impact can be seen in many small but persistent ways. On Sunday morning Pastor Belita spoke of a multifaceted faith in God that is planted in grace and personal relationships in order to serve others. In Harrisburg and later, I fell in love with those combined Brethren ideals: living in peaceful simple community, serving others together.

Those values provided a framework of thought and action that was a central part of the mystical-community-reality of orientation. In that space I was hyper-sensitive to past feelings, present thoughts, and future expectations, and immersed in thinking about how to use my particular passions and gifts to serve.

Domestic volunteers from our unit moved to their placement cities and started work this week. Going out into the world where Brethren ideals are not the norm or structure of thought and where those expectations or intentions are not necessarily clear, is daunting. The task seems infinitely lonely and substantially more difficult without intentional community, where a winking smile, compassionate hug and true support were easy to find. It was a magical, surreal place because trust, acceptance and love were abundant.

I leave for Hinche, Haiti in early November and I want to stay in that dream-state of mindful reality during my service. Where moments may seem subjective, raw or strange but they’re hyper-real and CLEARER because I’ll be questioning my faith journey, vocation, power, paradigms of thought, and intentions; and actively working to make meaningful connections with those around me. I am SO thrilled for these two years of Brethren Volunteer Service because I get to work through the model of loving kindness and pragmatic solidarity, spreading and emanating that energy I found at orientation of cosmic unconditional love.

Find out more about Brethren Volunteer Service.

The Why

Jenna Horgan

Jenna Horgan

By Jenna Horgan

We leave for Central America tomorrow morning. We have been preparing for this moment for over two years now! I think we have told our story to at least 1,000 people in 1,000 different ways.

Everyone has different responses. “Oh wow, you’re doing mission work?” or “that’s nice that you’re going there, are you going to build a house or teach a useful skill?” or “be careful, I hear it’s dangerous.” Some people have expressed their own longings, saying they wish they had volunteered abroad when they were younger.

The one question I have not fully processed is “why are you doing this?”

I am still living my way into the why.

The heart of it is this: we are all part of this human experience. Gay, straight, rich, poor, Latino, white, black, Asian.

I have grown up with such privilege, such wealth that I cannot even begin to comprehend. Sure, in the US I would be considered middle class. But I do not know what it’s like to not have enough to eat, or money to spend. I quit my job two months ago and have lived off savings and the generosity of others, with no problem. Vacation is part of my yearly routine. I have an Ipod, a laptop, a car.

Yes, I do feel guilty, but I do not think guilt is the answer. Guilt will not get us anywhere, nor change our lifestyles.

There is another kind of wealth that is far more valuable. The wealth of community, and love. That is what I seek, and what I hope to share.

I will keep you updated on the why. We are off to Guatemala in the morning!

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

-Lilla Watson

Note: this post dates from 2012, at the beginning of Jenna’s overseas assignment. People serve with BVS for all different reasons! Would you like to read more stories of call? or find out more about BVS?