Katie Swift, WV Youth Mobilization team
Years ago I read an article about the Celtic idea of “thin places.” These are “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses, and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine,” as Eric Weiner writes. I think about these places a lot, and I can list out the thin places I’ve experienced that have stuck with me: Worship on my last day as a summer camp director. Hiking up Mt. Sinai in the middle of the night. Listening to kids play in the field outside my dorm in Ghana. Looking around at all my friends and family at my wedding… After leading the Study Tour to Peru, I can add something else to the list.
This was my first year leading the study tour. What a lot of people probably don’t realize is that going to “the field” is not a given for most World Vision staff in our U.S. office – most of my colleagues go to work every day, responding to emails, making marketing pieces, writing communications, and they might never see our work with their own eyes. To get to see what we really do, to actually meet the children that we exist to help, to talk with our colleagues who do the hard work on the ground, is truly a gift. To take 7 teenagers to see our work and experience it through their eyes is even more of a gift.
These 7 students came from all over the country, and they brought with them many different lenses through which they viewed the world. Some had traveled to other countries, some had never left their state, one had never even flown on a plane. They are at different ages, between 15 and 18. They have different interests and aspire to do a variety of different things in life. But they all approached this trip with such grace and wisdom that it left me in awe. As we debriefed every night I scribbled down some of their observations. Here are some of the ones that gave me the chills:
“Our goal is to bring heavenly things to earthly things.” –Jaime, age 16, Texas
“The reality of all this is scary. I worry about people talking about me behind my back, but there are so many more things I can invest my worries and cares into.” – Deanna, age 17, Connecticut
“It’s made me realize that my church isn’t really doing enough… we spend so much time doing things that don’t really help others and I think that’s what the Famine is all about, getting out there and really feeling the hunger.” –Suzanne, age 18, Oregon
“You see photos of poverty, and then you see it, and you see that they are real people with real values and emotions and they are just as important as we are.” –Kate, age 17, Illionois
“I wish seeing this much happiness in the United States was that common.” –Michaela, age 16, Ohio
“It’s our responsibility to help them help themselves.” – Michael, age 15, New Jersey
“It’s not about us.” – Tanner, age 18, Washington
From the things they said, I have a hunch some of these students experienced a “thin place” while we were in Peru.
For me, the thin place was in a community called Huacachina, which is nestled in the Andes Mountains. In Huacachina we visited a school, talked with a teacher, sat in on a lesson in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom, and played an epic game of soccer. The whole experience was incredible, but as I stood on the sidelines watching our students play soccer against these tiny elementary schoolers (and get whooped by them, I might add), I felt it.
The Peruvian girls who weren’t in the game at the time started cheering for the United States, “¡Estados Unidos ganará!“ “The United States are going to win!” The boys stood on the other side cheering for Peru. They all giggled and laughed and hooted and hollered. Eventually the girls got in our goal to help out, and the boys got in their goal, and it became this huge ridiculous game of soccer. The World Vision Peru staff who were with us were cheering right there with the kids, suggesting new cheers and new antics. They were known and loved in that community.
Our students were out on the field, so out of breath from the high altitude, but smiling as big as they could smile. They had Peruvian kids hanging off of them and grasping onto their hands at any given time. These American teens were getting beat in soccer by children, some 10 years younger than them, but having the time of their lives.
As I stood and watched, I was overwhelmed with this sense that this is what World Vision is about. Not only that, but this is what Jesus is about. The World Vision staff were embodying Jesus, as they do every single day, as they set out to make life better for the children in their communities. The kids we were visiting were getting to be just normal kids playing a fun game. They weren’t worried about their food or their home or the future of their education. The students we brought with us were being nourished spiritually in ways they don’t get in the midst of their teenage lives in America. They were learning what it was like to help others, but they were also learning that sometimes when you set out to help others, you get far more out of it in return.
David (the other leader) and I, as part of the team who works on the 30 Hour Famine program, have the incredible job of helping transform the lives of the kids around the world, as well as help transform the lives of students here in the United States, who go to your churches, who are in your youth groups. Watching the soccer game, listening to the laughter and the cheers, it all came together for me. The things that we work for everyday, mostly from behind a computer screen in a cubicle, suddenly became very clear.
Heaven was a little closer to Earth in that place, in that moment. I don’t think I was the only one who felt it, and I hope it sticks with all of us for a very, very long time.