We are called
Letter to the Editor | Monday, October 2, 2017
This past summer something called me to live in Komga, South Africa working with Open Arms Home for Children. Call it what you will: God, the Universe, a good application to the Center for Social Concerns’ International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), my imagination, etc. But something beyond myself brought me 5,065 miles from my home in St. Louis, Missouri, to a small, remote town in the hills of Eastern Cape.
Going into the summer as a Catholic with a broad faith and poorly applied practice, the concept of being called was not one I was particularly familiar or even comfortable with. I did not feel called to apply for an ISSLP, rather I thought it was a cool opportunity to do service learning in an unfamiliar country, a chance to face different challenges and meet new people. Nor did I feel called throughout the spring semester preparation class. It wasn’t until I returned from South Africa and reflected on my experiences that I felt I had been called to go to Open Arms.
To provide some background, Open Arms is an established non-profit organization registered with both the U.S. and South Africa. It serves the needs of 54 kids from the East London area who can no longer live at home or with their families for a variety of reasons. It was founded by two Americans, Bob and Sallie Sollis, in 2005. Originally intended to be an orphanage for children who lost parents due to the AIDS pandemic, Open Ams’ services have broadened over the years to include children who may need a temporary home. This is the information I knew going into my ISSLP experience at Open Arms, but it does not fully encapsulate the good being done or the beauty of the kids who live there.
My ISSLP partner, Jonathan, and I arrived in Komga after 36 hours of travel jet-lagged but ready for the eight weeks ahead of us. Two young girls first greeted me at Open Arms, and they immediately grabbed both my hands and pulled my luggage that was twice their size. This genuine welcome reassured me that Open Arms was the place I wanted to spend my summer.
I spent the first weeks learning the names of the kids and the childcare workers called Mamas and Tatas, figuring out what my role as an “Auntie” would be and adjusting to the culture. Each day looked a little different — playing with the kids, running errands with the other volunteers or even planning a group birthday party. There was never a “that-changed-my-life” moment, or a “I-changed-that-kid’s-life” moment. Rather, working at Open Arms could be best described as a summer of laughing, of getting laughed at and, most notably, of living in solidarity.
I won’t go into further detail about my summer because every service learning experience looks different, even for those who go to Open Arms. Instead, I want to share how it affected me, as I think this is more relevant and maybe more ubiquitous.
Throughout the eight weeks, I encountered instances of great poverty and suffering, but also of human dignity and authentic joy. I tried to live each day with a keen awareness of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) principles, a set of tenets in Catholicism I am familiar and completely comfortable with. These CST ideals helped me grapple with the injustice and hardships I saw, and showed me the beauty simultaneously present. Still, neither this past summer nor the CST principles have answered all of my questions about the world; I continue to contemplate and struggle with the issues of poverty and suffering. However, I try to focus on what I did learn, and let the joy and the beauty I encountered in the kids at Open Arms guide me in my life moving forward.
I still can’t quite place the feeling I have about my summer in Komga, but being called is the closest thing. I know I didn’t change the world, or even change the life of one kid. But I feel my time at Open Arms, being an Auntie to the 54 kids there, was God’s little push for me to move my life closer to the direction He thinks best; to give to others totally, to reflect thoughtfully and to love wholly.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.