Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s Blog

November 28, 2011

Pax Turkana: An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

Shortly before I left for Kilimanjaro, I was contacted by Alex Goodwin, Communications Director for the OCMC. He and OCMC Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi had planned an extended visit to Kenya and Tanzania in order to film a new video for the OCMC and further assess future mission prospects for that field, and they wanted to know if Maria and I would be interested in traveling with them to Kenya and being part of this! The experience would take me to a part of Kenya that I had wanted to visit anyway–Turkana, in the northwest part of the country. The OCMC began sending short-term mission teams to this region only a few years ago, and Orthodoxy has already gained a strong foothold there. I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to rest after climbing Kilimanjaro, but I also knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Maria and I were greeted at the Lodwar airport (a dusty landing strip in the desert with a small covered waiting area serving as the main gate) by Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob Orr, the cameraman who would be documenting our visit. We strapped our bags on top of the Land Rover (there wasn’t enough room for them inside) and started our 3+ hour journey into the desert. Fr. Martin mentioned that the last time he made this journey, the vehicle he was in got stuck in the sand three times. Fortunately, with the combination of our amazing driver and rugged Land Rover, we didn’t get stuck once.

Our first destination was the village of Loupwala. Loupwala has been visited before by OCMC teams, but it was my first time there or anywhere like it. It was the Africa that I had seen before in National Geographic magazines and on Public Television when I was growing up.

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The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists and rely mostly on their goats, camels, and donkeys not just as a source of milk and meat but also as currency for things such as bride-price negotiations and dowries. Not many crops are grown, but they do eat maize, beans, and ugali (maize porridge). During our brief stay, we had nothing but boiled cabbage and ugali–all of which we had brought with us from Lodwar. The Turkana also make use of a fruit that I had never heard of or seen anywhere else. It is called yangole in Turkana, and it is pretty much a fibrous pulp on the outside of a large inedible pit. The pulp can be ground off with stones and mixed in with flour or it can be chewed right off the pit [I tried the latter and can understand how the Turkana can easily wear down their teeth].

The Turkana dress very traditionally in the villages but not quite as much in the larger cities like Lodwar. Girls and women wear sarongs that range in color from purple to red to orange, and even bright green. Many of the women and girls wear their hair in a way that looks like a mohawk of small braids. The men also wear wraps, some covering the whole body, some just from the waist down, and less traditional shirts. Additionally, some of the older men or distinguished members of the tribe, such as shamans, wear hats decorated with ostrich feathers. One night, we all watched a movie about the life of Jesus that had been translated into the Turkana language. I was sitting toward the back, and one of the tribal elders was sitting right in the middle toward the front. Throughout the movie, I enjoyed watching the silhouette of a lone ostrich quill waving back and forth, brushing the faces of the actors on the screen. Both men and women wear beaded necklaces and bracelets. Many of the women wear a high-collared, brightly-colored beaded necklace that I can imagine takes a long time to make.

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The video shoot began almost immediately after we arrived. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob started interviewing individuals who had become or were in the process of becoming baptized. Maria and I interviewed some of the women and children about medical issues with the help of one of the Turkana priests, Fr. Moses, who speaks English, Turkana, and Swahili fluently. We spent the night sleeping in a boma (thorn enclosure) of another priest, Fr. Zachariah, who himself was originally from Loupwala. A few of the people in our group had tents, but I braved the elements, sleeping only on a mat and having a loose mosquito net resting on top of me. It was the first time I had ever gone hard core camping, and I enjoyed looking up at a clear night sky illuminated by stars, knowing that I was about as far away from the nearest city as I could be.

The next day, we visited a well that had been installed by the OCMC only a few years ago. The well was about a 10 minute walk from our campsite, but I learned that before the well was put in, people would have to walk up to 13 kilometers (each way) to get water that wasn’t necessarily very safe to drink. This well made getting cleaner water a lot easier for the people of Loupwala.

Later, we were honored with a celebration. The community members greeted us with traditional singing and dancing. As we arrived, a group of women, doing what I could only describe as a tightly-packed line dance, moved toward us while singing, blowing whistles, and waving around what I later found out were cow tails. Some younger people then sang and danced for us, and then we all joined in the fun. I especially enjoyed the high vertical jumping dance (if you’ve ever seen movies of Maasai dancing, it is exactly the same).

That afternoon, we walked for about an hour and a half to our next stop–a village called Nacabousan. To reach Nacabousan, we had to cross the Kerio River. The Kerio River, Fr. Martin explained, was usually bone dry in this area, but that every time he had visited, it was always flowing. This time was no different. Lightning flashes in the distance the previous night forewarned us that this would probably be the case. The river was only two or three feet deep at its deepest point, but the water was moving at a good clip. I had not anticipated this, and was concerned about 1) getting completely drenched and dirty, and 2) getting valuable possessions wet, namely my iPod. Before we crossed, I decided to give my valuables to Maria, who is much taller than me and who had a nicer backpack. That decision paid off. As I neared the opposite bank, I discovered (too late) that there was a sharp, slippery rise that wasn’t visible through the chocolate-colored water. As I went to my knees, I decided that I had nothing to lose and went all the way in. It was a decision that paid off because I felt much cooler against the mid-afternoon sun. Despite the fact that everything I was wearing was completely drenched and now a light brown color, I felt better and my iPod was safe.

On Sunday morning, we celebrated liturgy in the bush, just outside the village of Nacabousan. The altar table was built on the spot using sticks, palm leaves, and a small blackboard. The congregation sat in the shade of a large acacia–much needed because even at 9AM, the sun was already starting to beat down on us. I was surprised to see that there were matins and liturgy books translated into Turkana. The Turkana are a part of the same language group as the Maasai (different from the Bantu-based Swahili that I’m used to hearing), and I immediately noticed a similarity to the Maasai language when I first heard the Turkana speak. As with Swahili, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand every word that was being said during the liturgy. I still knew what was going on. Even with aggressive flies buzzing around, which are ever-present in the desert, I was lost in the experience. This was the first time an Orthodox liturgy had ever been held in Nacabousan. I began to wonder if St. Paul or the other early Apostles had similar experiences on their missionary journeys.

The liturgy was immediately followed by a mass baptism. 110 men, women, and children were baptized in the Kerio River. What was a curse for me on the way over had become a blessing. There was plenty of water for full-immersion baptisms! While several children splashed and swam nearby, a line of people from the river bank went into the water where Fr. Martin baptized them one at a time–again, like experiencing the early church but in the 21st century. The first one baptized was the head village elder from Nacabousan, named Salale. He and Fr. Martin had developed a strong relationship over the past few years, and I could tell that Salale’s conversion and baptism were monumental for himself, Fr. Martin, and the entire village of Nacabousan. There were at least 200-300 people watching from higher up on the river bank. Many of them went into hysterics at seeing their friends being immersed (some of them very reluctantly) in the river. We all went back to the “survival” altar that had been constructed for the liturgy and concluded the service. Watching dozens of people walk around the altar table together toward the end of the baptism was something I’ll probably never see again but won’t soon forget.

After the video shoot, we all returned to Lodwar where we met up with a short-term OCMC teaching team that had arrived the day before. Fr. Martin, Alex, and Rob stayed with the group for a couple of days before moving on to the shoot in Tanzania, but Maria and I stayed behind in Lodwar with the team for the duration of their teaching mission. They had each prepared different lessons to present Turkana faithful who had come from Lodwar and surrounding villages (including from over 3 hours away in Loupwala!). Fr. Moses, Fr. Zachariah, and Fr. Vladimir (who is a Turkana priest based in Lodwar) translated for the team and at the same time taught their people about church topics such as the Creed, death & resurrection, the Sacraments, and icons. I was even allowed to do a health education session. Based on a session I once gave back in 2008 during a short-term mission in Tanzania, I asked the group of about 70 “youth” to divide up into groups and come up with their own songs, dances, or sketches that highlighted major health concerns in East Africa, such as AIDS and malaria. The Turkana, like many other cultures in Africa, have a strong oral tradition that is passed along through songs and storytelling. Why not tap into that and use it for health promotion? I gave them 20 minutes to prepare, but they only needed 10. All of the groups did an amazing job, and I told them that I would put all of the videos I took of their presentations on the internet so that people all over the world could see how the Turkana use storytelling not only to pass along history but to teach others the importance of promoting good health behaviors.

Our visit happened to be in the middle of a paralyzing famine that affected the horn of Africa and spilled over into northern Kenya. Crops were failing and there was a severe food shortage. The Turkana, being pastoralists, were especially hard-hit when their livestock began to die off. People were literally starving to death. I had done a blog entry early on about African stereotypes, and I mentioned that a common misperception is that most Africans are starving and impoverished. I followed that up by mentioning that this was more of an exception to the rule–overall, they may eat much less food, but that doesn’t mean they are starving. Also, “poverty” is a relative term. If most of the people who live around you don’t have a lot of material possessions, that doesn’t necessarily make them poor. In fact, I regard most of my friends here as being richer on many levels. That said, whenever a disaster such as a famine happens, it throws what was once a delicate balance into complete disarray. Tribes like the Turkana, who can live comfortably on a basic diet and without a lot of possessions really feel the effect when the food or water supply is thrown out of whack.

I had no idea how bad the situation really was until after I got back to Bukoba. While waiting at the Lodwar “airport” for the plane back to Nairobi, I met a BBC journalist and cameraman who had just been to the same region we had. They told me that a piece they had just filmed would be airing a couple of days later and that I would be able to see it online.

Here is a link to that report: http://www.vimeo.com/27583238

Finding out about the severity of the famine after the fact made me appreciate my time with the Turkana all the more. I would have never guessed from the celebrations and fellowship we shared that they were in the middle of a major crisis. Please remember the Turkana, especially the newly-baptized, in your prayers.

Thank you to my support team!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

[Video from my Turkana experiences can be found on the OCMC website or my YouTube channel, username: mpagedas]

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September 23, 2011

Turkana Liturgy: A Video from Missionary Michael Pagedas

September 9, 2011

July 22, 2011

Video from Missionary Michael Pagedas: Easter Sunday

July 20, 2011

Video footage from Missionary Michael Pagedas: Good Friday in Bukoba

June 16, 2011

Fast, But Not Fast Enough: An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

Kristo Amefufuka! (Christ Has Risen!) Amefufuka Kweli! (Truly He Has Risen!)

The Orthodox Church of Tanzania has taken Great Lent and Pascha to a new level for me. Living next to the church, I was able to participate in all of the Pre-sanctified Liturgies, Akathist Hymns, and Holy Week services–something that had been all but impossible for me to do in the states. As with Christmas, I wasn’t subjected to holiday distractions like the Easter Bunny (which I recently discovered was a symbol taken from paganism!) and candy sales. Pascha was simply a feast day focusing on the Resurrection of Christ and nothing more.

This was definitely one of the more spiritual Lents I have had; but as far as fasting from food goes, I came up way short. Going into Lent, I knew things would be difficult, seeing as our daily diet is similar to what the monks eat on Mt. Athos and that we always take full advantage of any chance we get to stray from that diet. I decided that I would make this Lent more about what comes out of my mouth than what goes into it. It was almost like I knew what was in store for me. When Katie and I arrived in Nairobi (right in the middle of Lent) we soon discovered that fasting would be all but impossible. Our meals were included with our stay at the guest house, and it was all the stuff we missed eating stateside–burgers, pizza, and some of the best desserts we’ve had in almost 10 months. I gave in to the temptation based on 2 things: 1) it was the food that was prepared for us by our hosts, and 2) I knew that I probably wouldn’t get food like this until my next trip to Nairobi or until I got back to the states, whichever came first. Perhaps it was a cop-out on my part; but for me, fasting is more than just abstaining from food. Many Orthodox Christians (myself included) often put too much of an emphasis on fasting to the exclusion of faith, good works, and prayer. I made sure to embolden and underline the last part of that statement because I don’t want anyone to think I am downplaying the importance of fasting. Fasting is an essential part of Orthodox spiritual life, but all too often I have heard people either making a big deal about fasting or asking others about what they are giving up for Lent. St. John Chrysostom wrote:

“I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!”

One of the daily Lenten readings also resonated with me:

“They seek Me day by day, and desire to know My ways. As a people who did righteousness, and did not forsake the judgment of their God, they now ask Me about righteous judgment, and desire to draw near to God, saying, ‘Why have we fasted, but You did not see it? Why have we humbled our souls, but You did not know it?’ Because in the days of your fasts, you seek your own wills, and mistreat those under your authority. If you fast for condemnations and quarrels, and strike a humble man with your fists, why do you fast to Me as you do today, so your voice may be heard in crying? I did not choose this fast, and such a day for a man to humble his soul; nor if you should bow your neck like a ring and spread sackcloth and ashes under yourself, could you thus call such a fast acceptable. I did not choose such a fast,” says the Lord; “rather, loose every bond of wrongdoing; untie the knots of violent dealings; cancel the debts of the oppressed; and tear apart every unjust contract.” –Isaiah 58: 2-6

For me, this is what fasting should be about–not just abstaining from certain foods, but also from things like gossip, envy, greed, and lust. I still failed from abstaining from even those things, but that brings up one of the most important reasons why we fast: to show us that we can’t do this alone and that we need to rely on God’s grace to get us through.

Thank you to my support team!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

May 25, 2011

Why Are You Here? : An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

The last few weeks have been busy and full of surprises. We were treated to a visit by Fr. Martin Ritsi and His Grace Bishop Savas, who had just spent time in the Turkana region of Kenya. Katie and I then traveled with Bishop Savas and Fr. Martin back to Nairobi where Katie had made an appointment to receive follow-up care for her appendectomy. This was my first trip to Nairobi, or even Kenya for that matter, so I was happy to go along. Katie was under the care of a doctor who is quite famous, although it’s for something that almost killed him. Dr. Shem Musoke is a General Practitioner who works in a nondescript office at Nairobi Hospital. If you have ever read the book The Hot Zone (a book which inspired the movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo), you may remember reading that, back in 1980, Dr. Musoke treated a patient with the Marburg Virus, a virus that is very similar to Ebola. Dr. Musoke, himself, contracted the virus but somehow survived, making him a medical miracle. I had no idea who the guy was until Katie told me, but I feel honored to have had the chance to meet and get to know him.

Our lodging in Nairobi was the Mayfield Guesthouse, a resting place for missionaries, medical professionals, and even businessmen who happen to be passing through on the way to different parts of Kenya. The Mayfield was a place where the family of James Hargrave, who is now our Tanzania Field Coordinator, used to visit while they were missionaries living in Africa, and James had recommended the place to us. In addition to nice, comfortable rooms, we were given full board, and the meals were quite a substantial part of the stay. Katie and I ate food that we hadn’t eaten since leaving the states, and we nearly came to tears at how good it was to have that stuff again. Being a Christian establishment, it was customary for one guestto begin with a devotional before breakfast every morning. One night after dinner, one of the staff members approached me and asked if I would like to lead the next morning’s devotion. Whether you are a long-term missionary or even a short-term team member, there is always a chance that you will be called upon to witness. It’s something that you always have to be prepared for because you never know when it will happen. Even with that in mind, I wasn’t anticipating having to witness away from my “home territory” to a group of non-denominational Christians from all walks of life. I immediately went back to my room to think about what I could present the next morning.

That day had been a busy one. Katie already had a couple of tests done and was sent by Dr. Musoke to have a surgical consult. While we were sitting in the waiting room, Katie picked up a magazine and started reading about a nurse who was helping cholera patients in Haiti. Katie handed me the article when she was done and said, “This is the kind of work I had hoped to be doing.” There have been some “tie-ups” with getting the hospital here in Bukoba open, and because of that, Katie has not felt like she has really been doing what she was called to do yet. I responded that there was still a lot of time left in our two years, and that things could happen unexpectedly. What I didn’t realize at the time was that “unexpectedly” would come about 20 minutes later. On our way out of the building, we stopped at the pharmacy where I happened to recognize a family that was staying at the Mayfield with us. The parents were picking up medication and looked visibly shaken. They had all been in the bush for about three months, and one of their daughters had come down with a serious respiratory infection. They decided to bring their daughter to the hospital a day before they were to leave for home (a 40 hour trip to Alaska). When we met up with them, they were getting ready to take her to Radiology for a chest x-ray. The daughter looked very pale and was having extreme difficulty breathing. Katie immediately went into nurse mode and helped them make their way to the ER. Katie’s experiences in Tanzanian hospitals (and as an ER nurse back in the states) allowed her to help the family through the process of getting her daughter admitted and counseling them on what tests would be done, what those tests would entail, etc. As Katie and I left the hospital, we marveled at how we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “We were definitely meant to be there,” Katie said.

I decided to incorporate that experience into my devotions session the next morning. I began with one of my favorite verses in scripture: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) I then asked everyone a very blunt question: “Why are you here?” I followed that up by asking if they knew why they happened to be at the Mayfield Guesthouse in Nairobi, Kenya at that particular moment in time. I explained that we were all there because we answered a calling, but that there was also a plan for each of us at that very moment to be together at the Mayfield. The reason for that would be beyond most of our grasps, and perhaps we would find out much later on, or not at all. I then told the preceding story and concluded by saying that what happened was more than just a coincidence. We really were meant to be at the hospital at that exact time to help that family. The father and one of the daughters from the family we had helped were also at breakfast and attested to that.

It’s experiences like that which help me to feel more relaxed about being here in Africa to do my missionary work. I needed to be here, and now that I’m here, I really shouldn’t have to worry about anything else.

Thank you to my support team!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

May 6, 2011

Serpents and Doves: An Update from OCMC Missionary Michael Pagedas

You’re living/traveling abroad and a complete stranger approaches you while you’re walking down the street. He/she is extremely eager to get to know you, and the fact that he/she speaks English makes the possibility of a friendship more likely. Not knowing many other people (or the local language), you decide to reach out to this person to make a connection, having no idea if this will end up being a legitimate friendship or merely one of convenience for the other person.

Living in another country can be a very eye-opening and rewarding experience, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges. You are immediately plunged into a different set of customs and rules, and if that isn’t enough to make your head spin, you are forced to learn the art of interpersonal relationships. The dynamic of these relationships can be unfamiliar and can sometimes even become awkward.

Whenever I travel abroad, I am almost always in the company of locals I know and trust who can take me around to the nice places, steer me away from the not-so-nice ones, and serve as a translator if I have difficulties with the language. Even in situations like a short-term mission, you don’t have to worry so much because you are only around for a few weeks and, for the most part, you are kept in a protective zone by your hosts. A long-term mission is another story because it is impossible to have a local on-hand at all times to accompany you on your forays into the community and be there if you need a translator. You will need to be on your own at some point and when that happens, it’s better to know all you can about the culture you’re entering.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” One of the messages here is to not let your guard down and allow others to take advantage of you (wise as serpents), and when someone does take advantage of you or otherwise wrongs you, it is important to not seek retribution (harmless as doves).

When I arrived in Africa last July, I lacked the wisdom of a serpent. I was so focused on not making a negative first impression that I would be kind and open to every person I met. I had to rely on my new hosts to give me the “African perspective” of how things operate. One of my close African friends told me that I was being “too nice” and that I should keep my guard up wherever I go and not always be so trusting. This adjustment phase (which is still going on and will most likely continue for the duration of my term) involves setting boundaries for friends, acquaintances, and people who may greet you in passing on the street. The trick is being able to discern who the wolves are and not blocking out the sheep.

The hypothetical situation I posed at the beginning actually did happen to me when I was still living in Dar es Salaam. I was walking from the Salvation Army compound to an outdoor restaurant just up the road one evening when I saw a very tall guy dressed in shorts and a t-shirt approaching me. Even before he reached me, he was greeting me like we were old friends. He then started speaking to me in English without even hearing me say a word. He told me his name was Apollo and that he was a soldier in the Tanzanian Army. He was on his way out of the neighboring compound where he had been playing basketball. I was intrigued by him, so I decided to invite him to join me for dinner. We had a nice conversation, and my inner voice confirmed that he wasn’t a threat. On a subsequent meeting with Apollo, I invited him to come back to the Salvation Army compound with me so we could watch a movie. As soon as we got to the gate, the person who was guarding (someone I knew well) refused to let Apollo enter. I thought this a bit extreme, but the guard later told me that it’s generally not a good idea to let a stranger into your home. The guard’s explanation was this: the stranger may be a thief who will, upon seeing the possessions in your home, come back later to steal them. Even if the stranger isn’t a thief, there is still a chance that his findings in your home will be made public. For example, if he sees that you have a nice laptop, he may tell his friends about what a cool laptop you have. Even if this is done innocently, those friends may tell other friends, and so on, until someone finds out who may want to acquire your laptop illegally.

Another scenario: I try to take a walk into town every day, both to get exercise and to practice my Swahili. Bukoba being on the small side of urban centers, I will often run into someone I know or someone I don’t know who wants to be friendly. Usually, at some point in the conversation, I will be asked where I’m going or even where I live. Eight months ago, I would have answered those questions directly. I have since learned that I don’t need to volunteer specific information and that it’s often better to be vague. “Oh, I’m just walking around to get exercise” or “I live near the Orthodox Church.” The reality is that anyone who really wants to know where I live can easily find out. We live on a busy street and people see me come and go at different times of the day. However, I’ve been told that volunteering that information even to someone you think you know well can have results very similar to the previous situation.

I’m sure that the average Tanzanian goes through the same relationship-forming growing pains that we missionaries do, but the fact that we are obvious outsiders and on a different socioeconomic level makes us more noticeable. No matter how much we tell people that we don’t have a lot of money and are trying to live like Tanzanians, we are still on a completely different playing field, and that makes it all the more important that we be “wise as serpents.”

The flip side of this is becoming too distant and not letting anyone get too close to you. This may prevent someone from taking advantage of you, but it also defeats the whole purpose of mission work. So far, I have been blessed to be surrounded by sheep, but that doesn’t mean wolves won’t try to sneak in here and there. I have been struggling with how best to respond to those wolves. It is important to set boundaries and be firm when necessary, but I have two things working against me. One is the lack of anonymity (see previous paragraph). The other is the fact that I am being watched in everything I do–by fellow missionaries, by the people in my social circles, and by complete strangers. If I let my emotions get the best of me and lash out at someone, whether verbally or physically, then it won’t be very long before everyone knows about it. On the one hand, that may be good to detract other wolves from crossing the line, but it could also carry a stigma that may negatively (and irreversibly) affect my mission.

The nature of African relationships is different from that of American relationships. Each has its own set of expectations and boundaries. The role of money in the relationship is also very different, but I will talk about that more in a future blog.

Great Lent in Tanzania

Great Lent or Mfungo Mkubwa has begun! Before it began, I was confident that it would be easier to give up certain things here than if I were back home. Then I realized that I had been without those things anyway for the past eight months. The way we have been eating up till now has almost been like a fast in itself, save for the special treats we get in care packages, so I was concerned that it would be difficult to give anything up from an already basic diet. I then had to remind myself that Great Lent is about more than just fasting from food. I now have an opportunity to focus on “cleaning the inside of the cup” and participating in more Lenten services. That is something I never really had the chance to do back in the states. I would always get preoccupied with earthly matters and kept finding excuses to not go to more Lenten services. Now, I am free from a lot of those worries back home, and I live right next door to the church. I intend to take full advantage of that.

I have posted videos from the Sunday of Orthodoxy. One video is of the icon procession around the outside of the church.

The other is of the blessing of Fr. Spyridon’s new home (done after Liturgy on the Sunday of Orthodoxy).

I also recently had a Skype conversation with the Sunday School from my home parish (Annunciation Church in Milwaukee, WI). I have posted those videos, as well.

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGnaOHoXJno
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwG1INDi_lA

Thank you to my support team!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

April 1, 2011

When I was 35…An Update from OCMC Missionary Michael Pagedas

On February 22, 2011, I celebrated my 36th birthday. Of course, I had to think of a unique way to celebrate (spending a day by myself at Disney World was the previous record-holder), so I traveled to Mwanza and then spent my birthday in the Serengeti. This was my third trip to the Serengeti, and while I didn’t see as many animals as on the previous trip, I saw just about everything I wanted to see. This time I saw even more lions than last time, plus I saw a dik-dik (a tiny antelope) which I had never seen before. While I was in Mwanza, some friends of mine back in Bukoba called me to wish me a happy birthday. I met this family a few months ago on one of my daily walks. They live in a house right on the beach along Lake Victoria. In the beginning, I was a little unsure about the expectations of this relationship (more on that in my next blog), but I have learned that they are genuinely interested in being my friends and are delighted to have me stop over on a regular basis. I even began taking over some of my movies, and we watch them together. Since I wasn’t in Bukoba on my birthday, this family had me over for a mini celebration after I returned. They brought out a cake (a small round cake without frosting) and sang happy birthday to me in Swahili. Then they brought out some chicken soup. They raise chickens at their home, so I asked if we were eating one of their chickens. They said yes. The two daughters (4 & 11 years old) then presented me with handwritten birthday cards. Both were addressed to “Uncle Michael” and they thanked me for coming to visit them and play with them. This is one of the extra perks of mission work.

There was another event a week before my birthday that was an even bigger perk. Back in November, at the first priest seminar in Bukoba, I met a priest named Fr. Polycarp. We made a connection and further developed it when he returned for the second priest seminar here in January. It was then that he asked me to be the godfather for his baby son. Arrangements were made, and on February 14 (Valentine’s Day) I went to St. Eleftherios Church in Bugabo for the baptism. This was my first trip to Bugabo, which is a town very close the Uganda border. The church property is within view (almost a 180º view) of Lake Victoria and the weather is nice and cool. Fr. Spyridon told me that he had grown up close by and was a fisherman there before he was called to the priesthood. Seraphim’s baptism ended up being a mass baptism. 27 babies, children, and young adults were welcomed into the Orthodox Church. I imagine this is what it must have been like back in the early church when the masses were baptized by the hundreds or even thousands. I now have godchildren in three different countries, and for those back home who are trying to keep count, it’s up to 15 now.

What’s interesting about both of these experiences, and the many others I have had like them, is that I didn’t actively seek them out. They sought me out. It’s like I am already being rewarded (unworthy as I am) for my service here in Africa. If this is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what happens from here on out.

Thank you to my support team!

Michael

m.pagedas@ocmc.org

February 21, 2011

Why me? Why now? : An Update from Missionary Michael Pagedas

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!

Michael
m.pagedas@ocmc.org

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