As we dive into another year of taking students into communities around the world to listen, learn, and discover, I am reminded of how disorienting this experience of displacement and encounter is. But also how critical it is to growing towards a better understanding of oneself, others, and even God.
This year, we have students living in Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington DC during their first learning module focused on urban America. I always love hearing students first impressions of moving into new neighborhoods so different from where they came. One student will say, "This is a pretty sketchy place to settle into." By that, he simply means he isn't used to seeing a homeless person on the street corner near his new home. Another student might say, "I now live in the slums or the ghetto." By this she might mean to say, this place and space is foreign to me. There are lots of people with a different skin color than mine. I am uncomfortable here.
Discomfort is so important. Stepping outside of our comfort zone is an absolute necessity in order for us to grow towards understanding and loving both ourselves and our neighbor. We must learn to look at life from their lens. To hear their story. To let their life experiences be welcomed into our new framing of the world around us. The greatest surprise in this process is that it also involves an encounter with God.
I love this quote by Jean Vanier. "I have discovered the presence of God in my presence to the other."
I read a story of Jesus this morning that caught me off guard with its rich simplicity. Jesus was introduced for the first time to a young man named Simon to which the story says, "Jesus looked at him and said, 'You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas' (which, when translated, is Peter)." In Jesus' encounter with this young man, he saw something no one else could see. Jesus looked at him. He made eye contact. He exchanged humanity. And in this moment, he saw Simon for who he really would become.
My hope for each gap year student in their first few weeks is that they might, in their encounters with others, extend dignity and humanity. That they might even see in the 'others' eyes who they are really becoming. But that they would also allow others to do the same for them. And when this mutual exchange is welcomed, they will find God in the middle of it all.
You can follow their stories/struggles/surprises as they reflect on their own blog sites. Just click here.