These Gifts, and Searching for Continuity

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Dear Facebook friends,
This is the most recent of the newsletters I've sent to friends and family over the last year and a half which are centered around my experience in Argentina from August 2006 to August 2007. I've usually sent one every month or so, but this is the first one I've sent since I returned home this summer, and it covers the last four months of transitions and readapting to the US as well as my last month in Argentina (July). If you're interested in hearing about what this experience has meant to me and continues to mean to me, you'll find that here. Writing this has been profoundly important to me, and I hope it is interesting or meaningful to you as well.

If you're looking for some background, here's the one sentence version: Last year I lived in Argentina in a town called El Talar doing missions work with the Lutheran church at a community center called “La Lechería” where I worked with a bunch of wonderful kids, and I lived in a home-stay with host parents named Pedro and Mirta.
A group of my friends and the banner they gave me as a going away presentFor a bit of a framework, my last official day at La Lechería was Friday July 20th, and I flew out of Buenos Aires on July 26th. I spent August with Dorea and my family doing some traveling and visiting friends. I moved out to New Haven and into the “blue house” on Wednesday August 22nd, and I started classes at Yale Divinity School on September 5th.

I've posted lots of pictures from the last four months on my picasaweb site. Some are included below, and all can be seen here (Justin's Photo Site). All my old newsletters are archived here (Past Newsletters), and the website for the program I was in is here (ELCA Young Adults in Global Missions program).

That's all for introductory stuff. I hope you enjoy. And if you get a chance, I'd love to hear back from you.

God's peace. Saludos,
Justin

These Gifts, and Searching for Continuity
Global Missions Newsletter for the Fall, 2007 by Justin Haaheim

Tuesday July 10th, 2007, El Talar, Argentina.
      “Ahh Justin, che.” –Pedro
      Seated around the table with Pedro tonight, talking about our lives, about God. A few times we would sit there after a bit of conversation, quiet, with the consistent whir of gas through the heater next to us. In Latin America. Here in Latin America. It's cold outside, and the streets are quiet now. Just me and Pedro. The sound of the heater. These people. This place. A year of seeing the world from this room in Pedro and Mirta's house, with the distant sound from the “panamericana” freeway like rushing water. These streets. These people. Sitting with Pedro in the silence of this evening I felt a physical presence of regret and sadness from him, as if what's left when the dogs are quiet and the radio is off and the cars don't pass by is an honest silence that has its own words and sounds and distant music. Pedro carries a weight and a spirit that is uniquely Latin American. From outside distant voices sang the silent harmony to his hymn. And in those wordless moments tonight with the whir of the heater focusing my mind on this place and this house I think I knew that song. Perhaps I've somehow become part of it. Perhaps my suffering this year has somehow given me the voice. I have this feeling that I will never be the same. That a part of me will always remain here next to that heater in cold July with the weight and warmth of the life I've grown into here.
      Pedro and I talked a lot tonight about our lives, our families, Christmas traditions, God, God in the lives of our families, Dorea, and more. He is a good person. God is in him, I know. God has given him the “dones” of openness, acceptance, humility, servility, and much love. Ojalá que pudiera haber tenido hijos. [“I wish he could have had kids.”] I am grateful for Pedro.

Sunday September 2nd, 2007, New Haven, Connecticut.
      It's now been over a month since I've been back home. I know that there is still a part next to that heater, but where is it? Buried like under my piles of clothes, obscured by so many familiar things? I've tried to be honest when people ask the question, “so how are you doing? How's reverse culture shock?” Hard. And not hard so much because I'm back in a culture that I loved before and am now more critical of, but because I can't find my Argentina-self – or, I can't find myself. Stuck between a distant place where I knew who I was a month and a half ago and this culture where I don't feel at-home, I'm left feeling half-full. I want so badly to feel Argentine, to spend sad nights thinking about the people I love there. Sometimes it comes in fits and spurts, but my life in Argentina wasn't a fit or spurt. It wasn't a trip or a jaunt. I lived there. I ate and slept there, and had friends there, and went to church there. I was there, with every part of my heart and my soul living through those days, but somehow that core of who I was has gone missing. How can it all feel so much like a dream?

Me and Johnny on the last dayTuesday July 24th, 2007, El Talar.
      Friday was my last day at La Lechería – “la despedida” (the goodbye). It was a day I've anticipated for a long time, wondering how I would feel standing on the edge of one life in one place, anticipating the long step to another life and another place. If there has ever been any question in this year whether or not I've changed I need only to search my feelings about my impending flight back to the states. I can now finally imagine leaving this place, and can at least accept that my life will be different, but as I imagine leaving I can't imagine arriving in the states. Similarly, as my departure date has gotten closer and closer I've been able to imagine arriving in Minnesota, seeing my family, and the things I'll do the first days, but I can't imagine having come from Argentina. I can't yet seem to connect these two initially disparate places. I get the feeling like that will be one of the important things in my coming weeks and months. Perhaps the important processing that I have yet to do of my time in Argentina and the understanding of what this experience means for my life – for who I am – will come when I can finally connect those last days in the Barrio San Pablo, with friends, at church and at home at Pedro and Mirta's with a 6000 mile flight and my family, my friends, my faith and my home in Minnesota.
      The last weeks and months have been good – in some ways almost too good. Throughout the year I've dealt with conflicting feelings of attachment and closeness to this place and at the same time distance and a desire to be back home, but now in the last weeks I've felt little of the latter. Perhaps due to the excitement and energy that friends and teachers and volunteers might naturally put into someone's last stretch of time in a place, many of my relationships have improved, my work – my ministry – has become more focused and more meaningful to me, and I myself have found a deeper love for the people and places around me. I don't want to go, though in other ways I'm ready to.

Thursday September 20th, 2007, New Haven.
      I look back on my last day at La Lechería and see in many ways a microcosm of my greater experience this year. My day started with excitement and expectations. Friday was to be the culmination of a year serving, working, ministering, sharing, being an example, learning, grasping, accompanying, being a friend, being befriended. To be honest I expected a day about me, but it was a humbling reminder of what this whole year has really been about – not just me, and not just them, but us – that for most of the morning and into the afternoon there seemed to be little acknowledgment or celebration or even talk that Friday was my last day. The end. I wouldn't be coming back. Three of the girls from Olga's class. Part of the series of photos I took of kids at La Lechería
      Friday was the culmination, too, of a project I had been working on for about a month, and had been envisioning and hoping to do since September. The project was to draw on my passion for photography and to use my semi-professional camera to take pictures of the kids that have been so important to me in the ways that I see them, trying to convey artistically something that I see in them personally. Around the beginning of July I brought my camera a couple times to “La Casita”, the orphanage, and then two days a little later to La Lechería. I ended up taking almost 300 pictures of all the kids I could, and then in the following days post-processed them (doing “digital darkroom” sort of stuff). In my last week at La Lechería I had them printed, some in large sizes, and brought them on the last day to give to the kids. My hope was to, in my small way, maybe have given the kids something that in some way they needed, and something that uniquely I could give.
      The reality of the project was that giving out the pictures wasn't as overwhelmingly well-received as I envisioned it being. Some kids seemed grateful. Others seemed indifferent. Yet others complained continually about not having received as many pictures as someone else, or for the kids that weren't there on the days when I took photos, not having received any photos. And it hit me then, too, that maybe the kids wouldn't know what to do with a picture of themselves. I had mostly envisioned them having the picture, and hadn't really imagined what they might do with it. Maybe some would give it to their parents, though I wanted it to be their picture.
      Between packing and working on this project, traveling to the developing shop, saying goodbye to friends, and the many other things that filled my life the last two weeks in Argentina, I was exhausted. Feeling the ungratefulness of some of the kids pushed me to the edge of breaking down, and I think in that moment I knew what the dangers are of this kind of giving ministry – the traditional missionarial sense of bringing something to people that I perceive them not having. In the kitchen on the last day
      At the end of the day all of us gathered in the kitchen. Chivy, one of my friends and a volunteer from the barrio, gave thanks for me. She expressed on behalf of all there a gratefulness for my gifts and for my time. I felt healing in that moment. It was healing from so many times of feeling unappreciated, times of walking through the barrio and being hassled or threatened or called things because of my skin color, my wealth, and my country of origin. Receiving their gratitude didn't validate my experience, but on a personal level it healed an emotional imbalance for me.

Saturday November 3rd, 2007, New Haven.
      I've wondered sometimes why I'm compelled to tell the personal sides of my experience in the ways I have in these newsletters. Why are my impressions, my personal battles, my relationships with kids and teachers, my perspectives, and stories about Pedro and Mirta important? What does any of this have to do with my “ministry” in Argentina as a global “missionary”, and in what capacities was I (or am I) really a missionary?
      I think I've made sense of it for myself by getting back to what my program is about in the first place. They call it “accompaniment”, and it's their vision for what mission is supposed to look like for the ELCA, which I mentioned in my September and March newsletters. Accompaniment is a departure from the traditional vision for “mission” that involves vertical relationships: those “higher” bringing to those “lower”. Bringing the Christian God to those we perceive to be lacking that.
      Accompaniment, instead, is about taking time to be with people. Expressing through presence a reverence for who they are and what things they hold to be culturally true. It's about making relationships and togetherness a priority before efforts to help, criticism, or even observation. Only through the mutual respect of those relationships should we then seek to share – to give and take.
      So I think the stories of my relationships with my friends here, my struggles, cultural observations, and so on really are in some ways what the whole year was about. Maybe I'm just answering a question for myself here – maybe it's obvious why I've been writing in this way. Nevertheless, I think these newsletters could rightly be said to be part of the whole broader experience and mission in accompaniment. To the extent that you that read my newsletters are brought closer to this experience and these people and this place, you too are “accompanying” – participating in the healing relationships that will offset the brokenness in this world from distance and lack of understanding, and economic and political policies. The barrio San Pablo, where La Lechería is
      For all these words I've written, I have felt few if any certainties since I returned from Argentina about what all this means except maybe these: we are called to be in relationship with people around the world, especially to the extent that we force political or economic relationship on them. We are called to not see us and them, but instead to let ourselves see just us.

Saturday July 21st, 2007, El Talar.
      I have a sense of going home, but maybe to make a distinction in words, not back home. I am coming out on the other end of an intense year that has been not only a time of finding God's love in my friends here and God's beauty in this different place and God's mystery in moments and days and weeks and months of struggle, of anger, of loneliness and distance, and of sadness and depression. I am coming out on the other end of an intense year now bound to this place in intense love.

Wednesday July 18th, 2007, El Talar.
      I could write fifty poems or tell sixty stories and still not have said what I see under and behind, around and throughout this year. I could quote seventy lines of Thomas Merton or eighty pages of Henri Nouwen and still not found a external expression of what I feel in God's depths in this year. But all the same it is there – some quiet snapping fire telling me to hold on to what I've found, and to be ready for new things.

Saturday October 20th, 2007, New Haven.
A poem by Mary Oliver,

       The Uses of Sorrow

       (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

       Someone I loved once gave me
       a box full of darkness.

       It took me years to understand
       that this, too, was a gift.

Thursday November 8th, 2007, New Haven.
      I've been wanting to write this newsletter for a long time. 3 months of half-starts and little stories, thoughts, criticisms. I just haven't found the words, but it's time to say something.
      I'm uncomfortable with my life at Yale Divinity School here in New Haven. The classes themselves are great, and within a purely academic mindset I'm enjoying myself here. The trouble is that I think “academic mindsets” can over time become consuming. I've questioned a lot how much of my desire to be here at divinity school is a desire to rejoin the academic flow, and how much I should listen to the daily and weekly internal objections.
      Argentina to Yale was a hard transition to make looking back, though I think at the time I took it and just about everything else as best as I could, trusting it was the right way. Within a month and a half I had gone from a simple life and a confident, internal Yes to my choices, my values, and the mission I was on, to an elaborate, bountiful life lacking in hardly any time to reflect, to read beyond my textbooks, to go for long walks and take pictures, to play music, to be in contact with friends from Argentina, or even to be in responsible correspondence with friends here. I can't help but question what kind of choices would bring me to this. The Argentina+Uruguay volunteers at the New Mexico retreat
      Last weekend was a breath of fresh air in unanticipated ways as I traveled to New Mexico for a “re-entry” retreat. The retreat was a chance to reunite with the roughly 60 other volunteers that I met during orientation, including the 5 lovely ladies I served with in Argentina, and to spend two days in intentional processing of our experiences. Seeing all of them opened something up in me that had closed since I got back home. Maybe it was feeling a kind of safety around them that I don't have to keep my guard up. I sometimes feel such a need to protect my experience even from people I trust – to not make it an “American experience” that I talk about in “American terms”. Being among those friends helped me to be open about some things I haven't even been totally conscious of, and put me back in touch with a way of seeing things, a way of thinking, a way of valuing experiences, that I think has slipped away from me. In some ways I think it started slipping away before I even left Argentina in all the excitement and commotion of the last couple weeks there. Being in New Mexico with them was such a refreshing change from the intense and pervasive academic lifestyle I had taken on in two short months at Yale, and a startling realization of the pitfalls of a mindset (the academic mindset) that's often accepted as a universally good one, or one that's somehow objective and clear and right, and even that's oriented towards the right kinds of things in life. Feeling myself sinking (drowning) into that way of thinking is scary, and it sometimes makes me want to get out.
      Argentina was hard but fruitful, but Yale is hard and I'm straining to understand the fruits.

Orange St, New HavenSunday November 25th, 2007, New Haven.
      There are lots of fruits of being here at Yale, and sometimes the challenge is just in seeing them. The community here is a blessing, and I've found lots of good friends here. I'm really enjoying one of my classes in particular: Systematic Theology. In the class we explore some of the basic foundations of Christian faith, and it has helped me to account for my own faith in ways that are really meaningful to me. The daily chapel services at the Divinity School are refreshing and rich, and I've enjoyed getting into liturgical percussion these last few months, playing at almost every service. The blessings here are many.
      One of my biggest difficulties comes out of just how many blessings there are here. Being at Yale Divinity School at Yale University, in New Haven, in Connecticut, in the United States, I am surrounded and sometimes feel inundated with privilege. It's a shock to my system coming from a year of living amongst little privilege and intentionally limiting my own. It's hard to know what to do with the extraordinary bounty here. I wrote on July 24th – two days before I left to fly back to Minnesota – that I thought one of my greatest challenges would be to connect my lives in the US and Argentina, two intensely disparate and seemingly non-contiguous experiences. I can't agree more, now four months later. I have felt in writing and compiling this newsletter that I'm searching for continuity. I'm trying to understand what it could possibly mean that I lived for a year in Argentina as a missionary, and trying to reclaim some of the happiness and certainty I found in living and “accompanying” there. I've learned to be patient with that search. I pray that it will continue to be fruitful and meaningful, and I pray in gratitude for the continuing support of you and all the loving family and friends around me. May the God of grace hear these prayers, may God continue to fold us together in accompaniment and relationships of respect and love, and may God bless us and keep us all in God's peace.

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