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viewpoint

A deeper understanding of the world through service

| Thursday, October 1, 2015

This past summer I had the privilege of participating in the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP). It was an experience that truly met and exceeded all of my expectations for studying, traveling and doing service abroad. I made many amazing new friends, saw breathtaking sights, experienced an incredible culture while sharing my own, tried a whole new palette of food, expanded my horizons and ultimately came away changed by the experience. All this I expected. What I didn’t expect was the indescribable influence that the ISSLP had on my heart, my voice, my ears, my eyes, my hands, my feet, my heart and my God.

But these changes in me did not happen because of many happy, exciting moments. They were the result of challenging internal conflicts. At first, my experience in Uganda was incredibly frustrating. I saw inequality, poverty, malnourishment, an ineffective education system, a corrupt government, divisions between different ethnic groups, women who were treated unfairly and suffering on a scale I had not experienced before. A lot was made visible to me in a very short amount of time, and it quickly became overwhelming. As time went on, I began to more easily dissociate from the things I saw around me, and I grew pessimistic. I feared the suffering that I saw would become a part of me and become my own. I thought distance of the heart was the correct path to take so I could free my mind to try and understand these issues.

But God had other plans. My purpose in Uganda was to teach at a secondary school, and by getting to know my incredible students, my dissociation approach gave way to something much richer. I realized that it is in the joining in the pain of others and truly developing empathy where we reach our full potential as human beings. When I came in contact with the people affected by injustice, my identity merged with theirs. The injustices themselves are just words or concepts until you see their effect on actual people firsthand, and I think that is where the biggest disconnect in charity or serving others exists. I believe that people want to feel as though they are doing good for others, and they know that these injustices are bad. The conflict lies in the differences between the desire to help and actually committing to the heavy investment of time it takes to understand and confront these issues.

I learned more about what it means to be human by getting to know people who were suffering and in celebrating everyday life with them. I got to see firsthand the capability, spirit and love that exists at the core of each and every person. It is by diving into pain that you experience, also, the joy of the people suffering. It is a juxtaposition that forced me to realize that nothing is all good or all bad and that everything lies on a spectrum between the two. At the end, I realized that loving unconditionally is ultimately the only thing that matters when it comes to working with people because it is in love that hearts are shared.

I had no way of rationalizing the suffering that I saw and couldn’t find my place in a country where I had no power to reverse any of these big problems. It was incredibly hard feeling as though I should be working to solve those problems while at the same time knowing they were way above my head. Oddly enough, working in person with each frustration came to feel like the molting of a skin transforming me into a person that was better suited to be a servant to others. I came out with a heart that had more room for the people around me. Hands that were able to more easily reach down and pick up my neighbor. Feet that were willing to walk to the end of the world to help someone in need. A voice that was willing to speak up for the voiceless, to talk about injustices and to propose answers. Ears that longed to hear about a new joy or sorrow. Most importantly, I gained a God who I felt was much closer to me when I had nothing than when I supposedly had everything.

I learned that poverty is a relative term. Many Americans would see the people of Uganda as having nothing. The stereotype of Africans is of people who are struggling to survive, people who are uneducated and living in deserts, the poster children of poverty. The reality is we need their help as much as they need ours. Their way of life is one of simplicity, one where the smallest victory is cause for the largest celebration and one where trust and hospitality are the norm. It is a place where humanity is still raw and feels natural rather than dressed up in a costume of technology and excess that thinks it has progressed to new heights of evolution. We have created a world of interdependence where both the “least” and the “most” need to learn from each other and come to a convergence of culture that puts true equality above everything else. That is the mission of the ISSLP. It is an experience that makes service a calling of presence, focus and compassion. It is an experience that challenged me, pulled me in countless directions and changed me for the better. The ISSLP could change you, too. For you, like it was for me, it could be the first time in life where a purpose meets joy. It could be the start of a journey where responsibility to help others comes into the forefront and takes on a global perspective. Ultimately, the ISSLP is a changing of the heart so that the world can be changed.

Anthony Derouin is a sophomore studying architecture with a minor in ESS. Contact him at aderouin@nd.edu

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