As you're reading this, I am now a fully fledged YAGM alumna. WHOA! That feels amazing to say and mind-boggling to even start thinking about.
I am so, so lucky to have done this program. It has been an incredible - and incredibly difficult - year. Young Adults in Global Mission and Time for God are the two programs that have financially, spiritually, and logistically supported my time in York. Their ministry is to support people serving all over the world; they do this generosity, compassion, kindness, thoroughness, and attention for each and every person in their care.
Both programs helped me to find the opportunity to live abroad almost a year ago exactly - much later than almost everyone else preparing to depart on August 15th.
Quick back-story: I was medically non-cleared from Peace Corps Nicaragua only eight weeks before I was supposed to leave. But with the assistance of YAGM and TfG, I waded through the placement application, visa, and placement processes in less than two months and then suddenly I was at Orientation in Chicago, about to leave for a year in England through the ELCA.
My YAGM cohort back in Chicago
I felt and knew this was what I was supposed to be doing, far more than I ever had with the Peace Corps. And in the end, I was right about that inner nudge to come to the UK, weird as it sounded on the surface.
Time for God prep conference back in September
I have loved doing a faith-based service year and it was perfect for me. I am full of immense gratitude.
The massive effort that the staff of YAGM and TfG have put in have enabled me to have some life-changing experiences, and I am so grateful to them. (I am a hardcore fan of YAGM and TfG - if you or anyone in your life is interested in one of these programs, I am happy to talk about them with you!)
Some of the experiences that YAGM/TfG enabled have been chronicled on this blog - thank you for following along and reading my long-winded posts!
Walking along the River Ouse
A theme which spans across this year was meeting new, interesting, and inspiring people. Some of the most meaningful relationships I've developed this year are with my friends in my YAGM cohort, and this was evident at our last retreat together.
They are one of the reasons I feel this year has been so right for me.
Outside Alnwick Castle
At the end of our retreat spent some unofficial time up in Edinburgh exploring the city and staying in a hostel.
Before that, though, we spent a few days up on the Northumberland coast (in northeast England) in a seaside village called Seahouses with the Time for God program staff. On our first night we took a fabulous boat ride out to the Farne Islands to see puffins and seals!
Side note about this boat ride: Everyone goes on and on about the puffins, which are famous, but my favorites were the seals. There were hundreds of them all lounging about on these tiny rocky islands where they live, and when the boat drove by they looked up bemusedly at us with warm, melty eyes and solemn little faces.
When the boat got even closer, some would get anxious and clumsily plosh their way over the rocks into the water. A few seconds later, a small sleek head would pop up out of the water to continue checking us out. It was magical.
Ok, back to the point: my YAGM cohort. Everyone in my group has had a different experience this year. Some people fell head-over-heels in love with England or the city they lived in. A few people were so happy to be working at their placement sites. Others really connected with their host families. We were all grateful to have each other, and the YAGM and TfG staff who really supported us.
Matt, our fearless leader.
Our (fantastic) country coordinator, Matt, led us in a few reflective exercises at our retreat, and something I noticed is that each person has some good and some bad in their year.
British people use the word "bespoke" a lot. It means made to order. This word applies so well to our collective YAGM years as a group, because while we had all had challenges, each of us also has had one or more Bright Spots. To me, those Bright Spots are things that makes the year worth doing.
Many people feel that God/the universe/your personal Higher Power puts things in your path to help you learn and grow, which are necessary and good for us eventually, even if they try us while they're happening. I think He also puts Bright Spots along the way for us - things that make the journeys easier.
Some of my YAGM Bright Spots on the boat. You can't tell how seasick we all are in this picture...
I've definitely had some less-than-fun parts about this year. As I've confessed previously, there are some significant elements of my placement site that I do not like. The minister of the church where I work was unsupportive, unengaged, and even antagonistic, and I felt all year that the church wasn't entirely sure why they'd gotten a Time for God volunteer in the first place.
At first I took all this on myself. I felt tremendous guilt over this and not feeling connected to the entirety of my host community. I thought that I was flawed in some way to have not had the "perfect" relationships with people. I'm learning to be a lot more sanguine about this fact. In reality, I did my best. Of course I made mistakes, but I also brought my A-game. I worked hard. And I was kind, compassionate, and professional with everyone. That's all that matters in the end.
And even better, for each part of my placement site that I did not like, there are a million reasons in my life, both personal and professional, that eclipsed it with being really good. The Bright Spots. There were so many. I know I will remember this crazy year with so much affection and love because of these Bright Spots.
Bloom! Flower Festival in York. Crafts with a Cause helped make recycled flowers for it!
On the fun side, piano lessons, attending Zumba, and going to Friends International were weekly Bright Spots - I am so grateful I discovered these fun activities. Zumba especially was an endorphin life-saver, and I loved my classmates and kind, exuberant teacher.
Despite the road-blocks to success that were put up by church leadership at St. Columba's, that part of my year was full of eventual triumph and joy. Part of this was building relationships with members of my host community; these friendships are so special to me. Members of the congregation like Derek and Isobel, Jack and Jacky, and Ian all come to mind.
Enjoying a picnic and meander with D and I in Aysgarth Falls in the Yorkshire Dales.
I've especially enjoyed spending same-age friend time with my dear friend Rachel and my roommate Emily.
Birthday cupcakes with Rachel.
York City Cruise with Emily and her mom.
And dinners, walks, lunches, day trips, and teas with various other friends!
Kiplin Hall (the family home of the founder of the state of Maryland!)
with my Carecent friend, Angela!
A lovely dinner in the countryside with David and Mandy
Exploring Sheffield with Grace!
Watching the World Cup Semi-finals with Jack and Jacky
Another Bright Spot is the city of York itself. I feel like a magical affinity for this wonderful place. Wandering the cobbled medieval streets, walks along the River, sitting in York Minster, bumming around the York Explore Library, and touring museums, parks, and gardens has been a way of coping with a job I don't like and the non-existent work/life separation.
It's truly saved me to just get out of the house and go! I know I will miss this city immensely in the future. I can't wait to visit again.
One very important Bright Spot is all of you - my friends and family and church family - who have supported me so much. I hope that I can be as loving to all of you as you have been to me this year. Phone calls, letters, postcards, Whatsapp messages, emails, prayers, and Facebook messages - thank you for reaching out and thanks for being a part of my life even when I'm far away. I am so grateful. (And especially thanks to those of you who could visit!)
One of my other favorite Bright Spots was, as mentioned, my YAGM cohort. I especially relished hosting Molly for a visit in early May. We went to Scarborough and toured York. And I loved getting to visit her, along with Grace, in Didcot in June.
Both of these trips were exceedingly special to me. Finding people you click with is rare, but my YAGM friends make me laugh and think, help me cope and survive, and keep me grounded and sane.
Ok, one final Bright Spot: All year I've been like, EW BRITISH PEANUT BUTTER SUCKS. And for the most part it really does. Why does it need to have sugar and palm oil and maltodextrin sucralose methamphetamine? Not sure. It's extremely frustrating. Peanut butter is a certifiable addiction for me and I eat it at least once a day, so this was a really sad thing.
Tears when we YAGMs said goodbye at our hostel in Edinburgh.
SO I finalllyyyyyy found a type of peanut butter I like, a brand called "Nowt But Nuts" from Yorkshire. (This is a cute play on the Yorkshire word "nowt" which means "nothing".) When I tasted the delicious nut butter...I just knew. I had finally found peanut butter glory. And that meant it was time to go home.
Back to the idea of "bespoke", one of the many fun British-isms I adopted this year. The thing about a bespoke YAGM year is that it doesn't mean it's perfect in every way. It means that it's hard in the ways that God knows you can be challenged, and nurturing in the ways that God knows you need. It is about taking the seasons, proverbially and literally (especially here in England), as they come.
For me, the difficult bits have actually made a lot of sense; they were, in retrospect, what I need to learn. The Bright Spots, too, were exactly what I needed to make it through. Day trips with friends, BBC on Derek and Isobel's couch, long walks through the city, Skyping with my YAGM friends and my Baltimore people - God provided pick-me-ups when I needed them.
This year has made me even more grateful for my life. For my home in the USA though I have mixed feelings of gratitude, love, shame, and despair about it right now. (At least it's not as cold as England.) For my creative, loving, non-judgmental family/extended family. For my interesting, passionate, and caring friends. For my thoughtful, open-minded church, Ascension Lutheran, and my second family there. Knowing I am surrounded by such a fabulous group of people is perennially one of my Bright Spots.
YAY for wonderful people! (Being weird in Edinburgh.)
What a joy it was to be able to add to that group this year with my YAGM cohort and other new friends here in England.
What a privilege to have experienced life abroad in England, of all places - a lifelong dream. What a blessing to be able to serve and change and grow during this wild and wonderful year.
There is some sadness mixed up with that joy, and some frustrations with the triumphs. But that is exactly right. It is as it should be. The good and the bad make up the whole. I cannot and would not change anything about this year, this bespoke YAGM year.