Saturday, January 19, 2008

Packing our bags...again!

In a few days Kristen and I will begin our new E.L.C.A. Global Mission assignment as Country Coordinators for the Young Adults in Global Mission program in South Africa. We will fly from Chicago to Frankfurt (Germany), then from Frankfurt to Johannesburg (South Africa), and finally to Durban, which is on the eastern coast of South Africa. Considering we just returned to the United States after concluding our service in Guyana, when we land in South Africa, it means we will have been in four continents in about one month (…I recently checked to make sure our frequent flier program was up to date)!

Kristen and I have experienced a great deal of travel as of late, and I will be the first to admit that sometimes all the hustle and bustle can be a bit challenging. It seems like we are rarely in the same place for more than a few days (…how nice it would be to have clothes in a closet instead of a duffle bag)! However, even in the midst of all the shuffling around, there have also been precious moments of “stillness”. While our lives have been packed with activities and appointments, lately we have also made it a priority to carve out “opportunities of no responsibilities”, which have been absolutely wonderful. It is during these times of not having to be anywhere at any particular time that I have sensed refreshed feelings of appreciation, and I have found a renewed grasp of thankfulness for the numerous simple blessings in my life, the types of blessings that all too often get unnoticed.

Specifically, this past week I had the opportunity to walk through the forest near my parent’s home in central Wisconsin. It was great to explore the same areas I walked through (…and caused so much trouble!) countless times as a child. On this particular cold mid-January afternoon, the snow was resting gently on the tree branches above, the chilled wind was blowing across my face (…something that certainly never happened while in Guyana!), and other than a few birds, there were barely any sounds to be heard (…again, something that rarely happened in Guyana!). It was truly wonderful. After making my way around the trees and through the various deer-tracked paths, I stood still for a moment, and it was at that point in time that I thought, “I’ve been moving around so much, it feels good to actually be still!” I remained motionless for a few minutes, and as I thought about all the running around that would be coming in the weeks ahead, I laughed, and I decided to stand still and enjoy the peace and quiet for a while longer. I was in no rush to end the moment.

My time in the forest brought to mind Psalm 46:10, which reads, “Be still and know that I am God”. I thought about how, like many people, when I am overly involved in the hustle and bustle of life, I forget to stop, be still, and give thanks for the amazing blessings taking place around me. As I run from this place to the next, and as I think about what needs to be done (…and as I worry about how things are actually going to get done on time!), I forget to think about all the simple blessings I receive each day that have made my life a joy to live. Yet, as the Psalmist reminded me, when I stop, when I am still, and when I forget about “doing” and concentrate upon “being”, that is when I “know that God is God”, for I am given peace of mind in remembering the many ways in which my life has been a wonderful journey. It is said stillness breeds thoughtfulness, and that commotion often breeds confusion. I couldn’t agree more.

While in the quietness of the trees this past week, I thought about where Kristen and I had been, where we were at, and where we would soon be going. I thought about the amazing experiences we shared together in Guyana, and how challenging it was to leave the wonderful people who we served alongside these past years. I thought about how great it had been to celebrate the Holiday Season with friends and family in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And of course, I thought about the growing excitement and anticipation of our new assignment in South Africa, and I considered all the opportunities yet to be experienced and the relationships that would soon develop. Yes, I thought about all the hectic travel and transition over these past weeks (…and I thought about how I needed to apologize to Kristen for my ongoing bouts of “travel-induced mood swings”!), but most of all, I thought about how blessed we are to serve in Global Mission, and how exciting it is to live in such wonderful places alongside such amazing people.

When Kristen and I make our long voyage from central Wisconsin to South Africa, in the midst of all the activity that comes with airports, taxis, hotels, and foreign immigration desks, we will make time to truly “be still”, know that God is God, and remember the countless people in our lives who are making this voyage alongside us. We will remember our numerous friends who display so much care. We will remember our amazing family who offer endless amounts of unconditional love and care. We will remember the supporting congregations and other organizations who continue to provide so much support. And of course, we will remember each other, and thank God that we were brought together to walk this incredible journey together as husband and wife.

We do not know all that lies ahead, but what we do know is that we are blessed beyond belief, and we have an amazing opportunity in front of us.

Kristen and I thank you dearly for the ongoing outpouring of love. We look forward to being in touch from across the globe.

With peace and love…


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Leaving Guyana...

"I'm leavin' on a jet plane...."

I sit here writing this with paper and pen upon take off from Cheddi B. Jagan airport in Guyana. The skies are blue with cottony clouds above as sunny skies abound. We have taken off and as the plane rises I peer out the window to see green for as far as the eyes can see. For Guyana contains one of the largest and few remaining in tact rainforests in the world. We continue rising up and as we move north I see sections of land devoted to rice patties and sugar cane with canals hundreds of years old (dug by hand by slaves in the 16th and 17th centuries) providing irrigation. Although it is our biggest and most populous city, the capital of Georgetown is a mere blip on the northeastern most part of the Demerara River at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is brown and murky as it sits on the continental shelf, but within only an approximate 100 miles offshore it turns to a bright and clear Caribbean blue (lucky us huh?). We are off from a land we've called home for some years. It doesn't seem that nearly 4 years have passed since first laying my eyes on the "land of many waters".

Coming down to South America as a Peace Corps volunteer and beginning a life of service evoked many questions and thoughts in my mind. What will I do, what will this little known country (outside of Jim Jones and purple kool-aid) be like and finally as the cliche says...will I make a difference? I remember leaving Minneapolis with the temperatures a bitter -20 wind chill and arriving in Guyana to those exceeding 90 degrees! This is where following any sort of weather report that we often check went out the door. I have often thought it would have been the best job in the world to be a Guyanese weather, humid and sunny again! The challenge that began was how easily one loses track of when things occurred with the lack of seasons to denote them. Also shortly upon arrival I was matched up with my first host family, the Hopkinson's, and found out quickly that letting go of any sort of privacy would be essential with 19 people in the family on our compound. Many new ways of doing things took time, patience, observation and a humble heart to learn and watch life go by amidst the Guyanese people in a much different pace and light. My time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Linden with all the wonderful people and projects I was involved in, and the many adventures taken around the country were both exciting and challenging. I will forever keep close in my heart the children and teachers from Regma, the mothers, babies, and other patients at Vivienne Parris Clinic, the many unbelievable athletes I coached and played with, my long term host family the Josephs...just to name a few. But as I was closing service my biggest blessing arrived back in country and provided a new unexpected path ahead for my life. Brian came back in to the country and we quickly knew this was not a coincidence, but rather an "arranged marriage" meant to be. The two Wisconsinites coming all these thousands of miles only to be reunited in Guyana. So it was close of service for one organization, but a new beginning in a new town, a new home, in a very different part of Guyana with the Global Missions Unit though the Lutheran Church. The culture was much different in this part of the country than my first 2+ years, but Skeldon provided many new and wonderful opportunities for work, adventure and learning. I will dearly hold close my HIV+ adults and children from Roadside, the Moleson Creek families, the many groups from the parish and the Camp Centre, and our many friends and neighbors from the community. I was so blessed to once again be accepted and welcomed to a new place where many new projects emerged and grew.

Things pushed forward for some time with projects and successes were happening for the two of us in our many endeavors. We were then caught off guard as we were contacted about a potential new position with Global Mission. This process took many months and upon acceptance we began looking ahead towards our departure from Guyana and on to a new adventure in South Africa. As December turned and the Christmas season began, our time started to wind down and we realized we had much left to do and little time remaining. People began their holiday preparations as we were beginning our preparations to leave. As we were trying to minimize our possessions, many (just as in the US) think about what they are financially able to add to their home to prepare for the holidays ahead. In Guyana it is called "breaking up" the home with spring cleaning-like fever, putting up new curtains and buying the necessary ingredients for the traditional pepperpot with bread breakfast and gingerbeer with black cake sweets as they are able. Unlike the shopping frenzy that takes place in stores around the US for presents, the frenzy here is to try to 'nice up' the home and provide a meal for their family.

All of these preparations taking place for us and them got me to thinking about what was the most valuable life lesson learned from these many experiences in Guyana. The lesson learned was one that can be taken with me the rest of my life. It is the difference I've learned between "presents" and "presence". Although material things are nice and needed for many functions of life, I have found that the greatest gift I can offer is my presence with people. Presents may last a short while, but being present in the lives of people is priceless. Sitting, listening, observing, learning, teaching and sharing alongside the Guyanese people has been the most valuable gift we could have received from one another. Giving of our time and a genuine self are gifts that are free and we can all give. Sometimes these gifts can be the most challenging to make time for in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially in the holiday season. These times of presence in peoples lives are memories I will never forget. In this holiday season, and upon departure from Guyana to a new chapter, learning the true difference between presents and presence it is one of the best gifts of growth and learning I can ever have received. I am so blessed to have been taught this while living and walking alongside the Guyanese people. We are now descending to Trinidad and then will continue on stateside in a couple hours.

In these time of hellos and goodbyes we are so thrilled that one of our "layovers" will be with our families in the US before heading off to our next adventure and making our new home in South Africa. I thank you all for your continued support and prayers throughout these past years in Guyana and I ask that they continue for us into the future.
With peace, love and blessings to you this holiday season!

Kristen Konkol