My articles are intended to bring Africa back to you with me serving merely as a window or even a prism to those experiences. I never really wanted to make any of these all about me, but since I just passed my 6-month milestone in Africa, I thought this might be a good time to talk about the journey I have had so far just getting to this point in my life. Even those of you reading this who know me well probably don’t know the whole story. To put it like The Grateful Dead: what a long, strange trip it’s been.
I graduated from college (Washington University in St. Louis) back in 1997 with only somewhat of an idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had gone through four years of the pre-med curriculum assuming all along that I would go on to medical school (I had also taken the MCAT and applied to medical schools but without success). Medicine seemed like the family business: my dad’s a doctor, my mom’s a nurse, two of my uncles (on both sides) are doctors, and the wife of one of those uncles is a nurse. I had declared a Biology major within my first year and was forced to take classes like Organic Chemistry (1 & 2), Calculus, and Physics for my pre-med core classes. I didn’t enjoy most of these classes, but I also took some electives that I did enjoy, like Spanish and Anthropology. Two of the Anthropology courses I took were Archaeology courses. One was “The Prehistory of North America,” and the other was “The Prehistory of Africa.” I didn’t know it at the time, but what I ended up doing in life would have a lot more to do with the electives than the core classes.
Six months after graduation, I was working as a temp for an Environmental clean-up firm. I had considered environmental work as a career, and the temp work seemed like the next logical step. I was also working part-time at a prominent medical research facility in Milwaukee–a job I’d had on and off since the summer after my freshman year of college. One day, early in 1998, I happened to be speaking to a close friend of mine on the phone when things were spelled out for me. This friend had been on short-term mission teams with the OCMC and asked me if I had ever considered applying to be on a short-term team. Of course I had, but the timing never seemed right. “What’s holding you back?” He was right. I had missed the application deadline, but I applied and miraculously was assigned to be on a team that would be going to Mexico. The team I was on didn’t go to Tijuana (that’s Project Mexico, although I later did that, as well), but instead went to a small village outside of Merida in the northwest Yucatan Peninsula. There had been an Orthodox Church in this village for only a few years, but Orthodoxy itself had been introduced almost a century before by Lebanese immigrants. A Lebanese man had owned the property where the church was later built, and there had been an old chapel on the property that he had wanted converted into an Orthodox Chapel. Our team worked on restoring the small chapel that time had forgotten, and today it is still in good shape and being used by the community. In addition to the work at hand, I also had the chance to meet a lot of the community members. Many of them came from the outlying village, which I quickly discovered was a Mayan village. When people hear the word “Maya,” images are conjured up of archeological sites like Chichen Itza & Uxmal and movies like Apocalypto. It’s a commonly held belief that the Mayans all died out because their ancient cities were suddenly abandoned, but it’s actually the empire that collapsed, not the people themselves. It would be like saying that all Italians died out after the Roman Empire collapsed. Anyway, as I had an interest in ancient American cultures from my recently-passed college days, I developed a keen interest in the Mayan culture and especially the Mayan Orthodox culture. I have returned to this same area on my own 8 or 9 times since, and I have become a godfather to several children from this community. I have also traveled around to many of the Mayan ruins, including some that are way off the beaten path and not as crowded as the sites like Chichen Itza. All of this made me want to see more of the world, but I just didn’t know how…yet.
That first mission trip ignited a spark, and I knew that down the road I would have to go on another one. I even tossed around the idea that I could do it long-term, but I would always have a reality check because I needed to be more responsible with my life and get a real job, or so I thought. In the meantime, my newfound fascination with travel and different cultures led me in a slightly different direction. Since I didn’t want to become a doctor, I wanted to think of a way that I could still work either in the environmental or health field but ply my trade elsewhere. Back in college, I had entertained the idea of one day joining the Peace Corps, so I thought that might be a good way for me to get experience and make a difference at the same time. I enrolled in the Peace Corps and found myself in El Salvador in January, 2000. My assignment was to augment the Spanish that I had been learning since middle school and to learn about water sanitation and then apply what I learned in a local village for two years. The people in El Salvador were extremely friendly and looked after me, but I got really sick within my first week, and that set the tone for the overall experience I had. After a couple of months, I accepted the fact that I wasn’t ready to continue on and fulfill my two-year commitment, so I became what the Peace Corps refers to as an ET (Early Termination). In the group of 25 or so people that started out, I was the 5th to leave, a high attrition rate even by Peace Corps standards. For the record, I still think very highly of the Peace Corps, but it just wasn’t right for me.
Now, it was the spring of 2000, and I was back at the starting block. I still wanted to do something involving different cultures and health-related. I decided to focus on Public Health, and in the fall of 2000 I began my Masters Program at Boston University. At the time, my main goal was to be able to work with Native American populations in the US, so I tailored my concentration around Social and Behavioral Health (developing, implementing, and evaluating health behavior-changing programs). I even volunteered at the North American Indian Center of Boston and was able to get my hands dirty by helping to organize an annual health fair. The BU School of Public Health also offered an International Health Concentration, but I was afraid that this concentration would pigeon-hole me into a career in international health, and I wasn’t sure that I would be doing anything like that (if I had only known!!!). I finished my degree in only a year and a half but came out to a lousy job market. It was just after 9/11 and things were very slow all around. I managed to get a part-time job working for a minority health center in Milwaukee, but it was only a temporary assignment. For about the next 5 years, I found myself looking for anything I could do, health-related or not. In that time, I worked as a health inspector in south Florida (I inspected facilities like schools, tanning salons, and mobile home parks), a curatorial assistant at a natural history museum in both the Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology Departments, a file clerk at a hospital, and even as a travel agent (which lasted for about 3 weeks). I became very discouraged because I thought getting a Masters Degree would solve all of my problems and that job offers would come flying in my direction. I revisited the idea of long-term mission work, but I still needed something to fill the stop-gap period. I enrolled in an employment counseling company which, although to some extent seemed very legit and helpful, ended up doing nothing for me. I remember one of the counselors at that company telling me that a long-term mission experience wouldn’t do anything to help with my employment rut. Then one day, I showed up to find the doors locked and the office moved with no explanation. Having no other viable options and not being able to get hired because of my lack of real world job experience, I consulted the OCMC in the summer of 2007 (“Here I am! Send me!”). They had just brought on new staff members for the long-term missions department, and they seemed very eager to see me through the process. They decided that instead of sending me right out to become a long-term missionary that I should go on an “extended short-term mission.” I told them to send me wherever they wanted. In January, 2008, I learned that I would be heading to Tanzania in July of that same year. Africa! I had always wanted to go there and had an obsession with African animals and cultures since I was a kid. I was finally getting my chance at the age of 33.
I spent a couple of months in the summer of 2008 as a team member on two short-term teams. The first one helped build a chapel, and the second one taught at a summer youth camp for Orthodox young adults in Tanzania. Both were in the Archdiocese of Mwanza just outside the city of Bukoba, a very pleasant small town on the western shore of Lake Victoria. It was during the teaching mission that everything clicked for me. I was giving a presentation on AIDS prevention, and everything about it felt right. I had discovered what I was really meant to be doing. After I returned home, I consulted with the OCMC and did a lot of thinking before beginning the process in October, 2008 to become a long-term missionary. I thought, “This will be great! I’ll be out of here by next summer and I can finally be doing what I’ve always wanted to do.” In early January, 2009, toward the end of my first day of work back at the hospital following a family vacation in Disney World, I was called into my supervisor’s office. I was told that the hospital was downsizing and that I had the rest of the day (which for me was only about 30 minutes) to collect my things. As floored as I was, I can’t say that I didn’t see it coming. In addition to the overall poor economy in the US, the hospital where I worked really started to feel the effects and had laid off the president and several department directors and managers, including in Radiology where I worked. I was a “sometimes person” with a flexible schedule, and the new director of Radiology decided to eliminate that position entirely. It was OK, though, because I would be leaving in a few months, right? Well, not exactly. I didn’t realize that the process to become a long-term missionary would take a lot longer, and I still had to raise my own money before I could leave. Plus, the OCMC had to coordinate with the Metropolitan in Tanzania to determine the missionaries’ job descriptions and when the team would be able to leave the states. The fundraising campaign was extremely long and draining, and I put a lot of miles on my car, but in hindsight, it was totally worth it. I also know that I could never have done it while working even a part-time or temporary job, so maybe getting laid off was what I needed. I had a lot of money saved up to help carry me through slow times, and that ended up being enough to get me through the drought. I made the best of my fundraising experiences around the US and enjoyed telling others about the amazing journey I had the previous summer. I hope the communities I visited were able to experience even a little of what I experienced in Tanzania. In May, 2010, I met with the rest of the long-term team in St. Augustine for our Pre-field Training, and on July 4 I left the US.
It’s now over six months later, and I still feel like I’m where I need to be. I’m no longer concerned about the future because the doors that were once locked are now swinging open. It’s easy to look back and see how clearly everything was laid out (like the Anthropology courses in college and the feeling I had after both mission trips), but it was still very hard for me to not want to take control of the situation entirely by myself. I knew that God had a plan, but I wasn’t willing to yield completely to it. In a sense, I was like Jonah running from it instead of toward it. I felt like I needed to live my life the way others around me expected me to live it (to get a “real job” instead of running off to a foreign land to become a missionary). All the while, I wasn’t feeling any reward or sense of accomplishment in what I was doing. When I finally answered “The Call,” I was amazed at how easy things became.
If there is anyone out there who is going through the same thing I did and who thinks that a long-term or even short-term mission experience might be the answer, I will say to you what my friend said to me back in 1998: What’s holding you back?
Thank you to my support team!