Each week, the Missio blog will feature a post from the global perspective, highlighting the nexus of faith, vocation, and culture beyond the borders of the United States. For some, their vocation involves reaching into or living in other parts of the world, pressing in on places of need and struggle, or discovering people, places, and cultures to which we as Americans might do well to listen attentively and from which we can learn. Others find that international travel or pilgrimage prompts clarity about or change in their vocations. Each week, we want to foster nourishing cross-pollinations of ideas, gathered from around the world. As the current editor of this segment, I welcome your suggestions of voices, institutions, articles, and blogs that fit this focus [email protected].
Andrew Walls, a masterful historian of the church, once said in an interview with The Christian Century that the expansion of Christianity has never been steadily progressive as other religions have been, but “serial.” The center of Christianity has persistently moved away from places of power. While it is true that the economic, political, and cultural engines of this world tend to emerge from its major cities — and without doubt, these cities are precious to God — the perceived “backwaters” are often places of surprising spiritual activity and paradoxical triumphs of the Kingdom. With this observation in mind, it is with pleasure that we introduce this first voice to the weekly Missio in the World.
I first heard about Brent Stutzman at a dinner in Amman, Jordan, in the summer of 2011. Regional representatives with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) were providing an overview on various MCC projects in the Middle East, and out of the many wonderful, unsung projects people talked about that evening, Brent’s story stuck out. As a young American volunteer with MCC’s SALT program (“Serving and Learning Together”), Brent had been serving at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in (of all places) the town of Salt, Jordan. In their yearlong cross-cultural program, the SALTers, as they are called, engage in home-stays and local initiatives of service throughout the world. In the process, they learn a good deal about themselves, others, and other cultures — wading deeply into life’s global complexities. When I first learned about Brent, he had already completed his yearlong SALT commitment and was well into an additional two-year commitment, which ended in 2012. Brent documented his experiences on his blog, Love Speaks Louder than Words or Images:
“When I signed up for the SALT program, I chose a placement with the following job description: ‘Interest in working with, and nurturing creativity in Deaf children and young people aged 4-20 years. Willingness to help with leisure time and playground supervision duties and teach English.’
“This is not what I’ve been doing the past three years.”
Rather, after a significant hour-long conversation with Brother Andrew, the director of the Holy Land Institute, on his second day there, Brent was assigned to the deafblind unit, where he worked long days teaching and serving one young man, 17-year-old Mohammed Iskander, whom Brent calls “Jordan’s Helen Keller.” Brent and Mohammed worked together, taught each other, learned to communicate with each other and others, and shared in the quotidian mysteries of life together. When Brent was signing up for a second and third year of work in Jordan, he was signing up to spend more time with Mohammed. Through this process, Brent gained a deeper, hard-earned knowledge of his own vocation of special needs work and advocacy. He is currently enrolled in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, working towards an M.Ed. in Special Education, and plans to pursue a career in that field:
“I went to Jordan because I wanted to put aside the things I was comfortable with and allow God to work through me. To have faith that I could live for God, and that I could find a way to love and serve others without letting myself get in the way. Now, I have another opportunity for the same kind of faith to take hold. I don’t yet know if I’ll ever go back to Jordan, or how my experience there will continue to shape me. Will I remain a teacher, work on international development, or become a consultant? But faith allows me to carry on in the present, put down the mirror, and be content at having a projection that lacks clarity.”
Brent’s story received some local media attention in the United States because of the uniqueness of his work. His now-concluded blog of his three years in Jordan is worth a slow, thoughtful read, but it’s worth highlighting some of his more recent and more broadly reflective pieces that plumb some of those vocational questions more deeply, in posts like “Striking the Rock” or “We Do Great Things.”
TWI’s Missio blog was privileged to interview Brent on his time in Jordan.
TWI: What were your goals and intentions in signing up for the SALT program? What were you hoping to “put into it” or “get out of it”? Did you have a hope to be assigned to the country of Jordan? Did you have any inclination to work in special needs in the past?
BAS: As a senior in college, I had been preparing myself for a successful career path that I was content in pursuing. I had a solid GPA with a major in biology, spent several summers doing undergraduate research, and had made professional connections that would help in finding a graduate program where I could study something like biomedical research. But, in all that, there was really too much “I”, and though much of college had prepared me to succeed, I wasn’t comfortable with the ideas that I had formed about what success meant. So, instead of that path, I signed up for the SALT program. SALT not only offered a chance to serve others, but it offered a different environment and culture where I could learn and be challenged to form different ideas about how I should live. I had settled so deeply into a niche that I wanted an awakening. Since I wasn’t sure how to go about it on my own, I turned to the incredible opportunity offered by the SALT program. The SALT program offers a wide variety of positions in many countries, and I really had no preference when I decided to apply. As I perused the descriptions, I started to narrow it down. I had no experience with Spanish, so I eliminated positions in Spanish speaking countries. I didn’t want to do office work or be a full-time English teacher, so I skipped over those. When I came across the position in Salt, Jordan, there seemed to be a broader range of responsibilities along with teaching English, which was much more appealing. Inexplicably, when I was reading the details of the Jordan assignment, I did not feel it to be daunting. It was the only one I felt called to. During college, I spent a semester volunteering with special needs children, joining them once a week for swimming for a couple hours. I found it to be tremendously challenging and immensely rewarding, but was astounded by the amount of patience and focus that was required. Although my older sister has a career in special education, prior to moving to Salt, Jordan, I had never considered it as a possibility for me.
TWI: What were key milestones for you in determining that you’d stay longer than your one-year commitment with the SALT program? And then for 2 more years?
BAS: Primarily, it was the relationship I had with my student Mohammed that influenced my decision. After only working with him for several months, I had the sense that Mohammed still had much to learn. With much prayer and deliberation, it seemed that I had much yet to teach, but also to learn from continuing as his teacher. After talking over the possibilities with my supervisors, extending as a service worker for a total of 3 years was the appropriate option. Still, it was strange to have such certainty when I was just getting a sense of how to work with deafblind children, had developing language skills (in both Arabic and Jordanian sign language), and was still uncertain if my student was even learning anything from me. That was all overruled by my faith that God could and would still utilize me in unknown ways if I committed myself to fully being there. Perhaps a year would have felt like a countdown to a return to the US, but 3 years wouldn’t carry such a looming finality.
TWI: How did your sense of vocation develop over those years? How do you understand “vocation” now after having served a very life-changing three years at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf?
BAS: Early on in my term, I was led to Matthew 25:40, in which Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.” I take this verse very seriously, especially when I think of my vocation. It is easy to think in minimalist terms, assigning value and deconstructing every action. With that perspective, I was devoting all my time to one young man, with a disability, who even with the best education would never attain the degree of independence enjoyed by his peers. The scale of change, of ministry, is so small. In my vocation, though, I don’t equate a worldly sense of grandiosity with a fulfillment of vocational calling. In Salt, Jordan, a dedication to serving “the least of these” was a disruptive and confusing message to the culture I was embedded within. To actively strive to embody Christ’s love in service to children with disabilities—this is a complex responsibility. It was not loud, or globally resounding, but it was a profound voice of ministry. And that is what I seek out in my life, in my vocation, and I learned how to better do that in Jordan. For me, the clause ends with “in service to children with disabilities,” but I think in vocation, we should all strive for it to begin with a passion “to actively strive to embody Christ’s love.”
TWI: Give us a picture of the culture in which you were serving. What is that culture like for people with special needs? For you personally, how was it living abroad? What surprised you? What did you learn from Jordanians and their culture? What spiritual challenges or opportunities did you encounter as a result of your cross-culture experience? How have you “explained” that culture to the one you’re from?
BAS: A shame/honor culture presents complex challenges for persons with special needs, and those challenges are further exacerbated by the familial and clan lines that are ever present in Jordan. A disability can be presented as a threat to the bloodline as well as a burden, and sometimes the response is to hide a person with a disability, relegating him/her to a life restricted to the home—unknown, inconspicuous, unobtrusive. While there are many working in Jordan to change this cyclic shaming and devaluing of persons with disabilities, there is still much to be done. Serving persons with disabilities is often assumed to simply be a matter of compassion and care. Those are vital, but it also must be about identifying strengths, abilities, and working to empower. Living abroad presents so many challenges, like being far from friends and family and not knowing the language or culture. And it gives you a whole new lens through which to see the world. I was surprised not by the quantity of challenges, but rather by the fact that so many challenges were completely new (not the day-to-day variants of challenges I was familiar with in the US). I was also surprised by how comfortable I was living in Jordan, never really feeling homesick or going through the ups and downs of culture shock. Certainly, Jordanians had much to teach me about hospitality, especially in how to welcome friends and strangers, greeting them with love and giving without reservation.
When I left Jordan, I felt that I had experienced hospitality and generosity, but still didn’t understand how to emulate it. I need much practice, I think. Also, after living in Jordan I would say that I have learned to be more aware of how egocentric my perspectives often are. I try to recognize my interconnectedness to the church, to my family and friends, to my colleagues. Life isn’t something I cling to as my own, and it seems much of my life is inextricably linked to other persons, experiences, and events. This change then spills over into the dialogue of how to live as a Christian, how to love and serve, and how much of that really needs a locus beyond the self. Spiritually, I encountered complacency and also found some of my strengths. For three years, I went to chapel services at the institute, and watched the children as they so openly spoke of God’s blessings, were thankful for friends, family, and school, and consciously prayed for peace. They did so using sign language, and open eyes and hearts, looking directly at volunteers and saying “Bless you.” They prayed before and after every meal. When I would talk of obstacles in teaching children who can neither see nor hear, it was not infrequent that teenagers would simply say, “God will support you.” And indeed, I saw God in every child at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf. How refreshing for God to be so present in the minds of children, and to also pull away my own veils that conceal God’s enduring presence.
Culture has such an impact on everyday life, and this becomes even more apparent when you are transplanted to a culture that you don’t understand. I can dissect pieces of the culture I grew up in and the cultures I encountered in Jordan. Indeed, I often do so to illustrate similarities and differences. But, just like an organism, there is an emergent richness in culture that cannot be described by the dissected parts. Like a symphony, there in an emergent richness that cannot be described by looking at singular notes. I feel no need to explain one to the other. Instead, I try to learn from the dissonance while the melodies of both cultures play in my head. Indeed, it is a blessing to have several rhythms that my heart can beat along with.
TWI: Where are you now? What are you doing? What are you learning at this stage in your vocation? How have your years in Jordan prepared you for your current studies?
BAS: I am currently in Boston, studying to get an M.Ed. in Severe Special Needs, with a concentration in Deafblindness (at Boston College). Additionally, I am a teaching assistant at the Perkins School for the Blind, working with students with multiple disabilities. It is humbling to work with people with years of experience and many different backgrounds. It is even more humbling to work with students with many disabilities, and to see their enduring strength, endless creativity, and pervasive joy. I am honored and blessed with the opportunity to disguise myself as a teacher while daily reaping the benefits of being a student. There is so much to learn, from students and colleagues alike. My experience in Jordan taught me to love my job for what it is. I was thrown into the profession without having to worry about salary or benefits. I worked long hours, created a new curriculum, learned about deafblindness, and failed countless times. But at the end of the day, there were no distractions. I could only focus on the amazing blessing that is each child, loving and valuing each one in the moment. Each child has abilities and strengths, and there is no greater joy than watching a child achieve. And yet, with my exposure to children with significant disabilities, I learned to decant the pressure of expectation so that I can love the child in the now, not for who he/she can become, but simply for who he/she is. This notion gives me patience and calmness without forfeiting my drive, my motivation to always challenge my students. I have been given many luxuries, but I try to quiet my sense of entitlement in order to help children that deserve so much more than I’ll ever be capable of giving. My time in Jordan taught me to be better at staying focused on these things.
TWI: Who are mentors or friends that have made a significant difference in your life? Who are your heroes? Are there books that you have read that have particularly shaped you, or to which you return for wisdom and to gain your bearings?
BAS: There are too many: my parents, my best friend (whose service with MCC helped give me courage to consider living abroad), and a college professor that I had many lengthy discussions about faith and life with, a good friend that spent a semester in Australia, and really inspired me to think more consciously about service. Then are my siblings, each in their unique ways and Mohammed, the young man that I worked with in Jordan. “Deafblind” is the first word that most people use to describe him. And while his disability has clearly made him different than his peers, my interactions with him show that he is different in many ways. I would call him the most stubborn person I have ever met, and he would probably take that as a compliment. Even with disadvantages, he finds his way in this world because of his endless courage. He is selfless, asking for so little, and needing no reason to share with others. He loves and forgives without reservation. He prays for people that hardly interact with him. He cannot describe the things that he values most, and yet his life shows that he clearly understands what is important better than most of us. But he is also human, with many flaws. In all the complicated human good and frailty of his life, he has taught me much about how to live a life of worship. He inspired me daily, and I will always feel honored to have worked with him.
TWI: How do you keep faith, or how does your faith keep you? How do you know the world — the particular parts of the world God has invited you to see — and still love it?
The transition to the US has been difficult, particularly because I am no longer working for a Christian organization. I am no longer living in a community that holds chapel services several nights a week, or even in a culture that so readily gives thanks to God. I have to be more intentional about knowing God’s presence. It was an incredible experience to have lived in a place where God felt so present. I believe it is Marcus Borg that refers to God as “context,” and I very much keep my faith in that way. In serving each child, in studying for each class, in loving those around me, and indeed everything I do, there is a context. And God is that context. The language changes, the job changes, the people, but I always have a rock to cling to. And the challenge, then, is to always put myself in a position where I can bring more people into awareness that God is the context that we all exist in. Whether in Salt, Jordan, or Boston, I want to acknowledge God as my context and honor that with the way I live.