This months book titled, 'The Unlikely Disciple' is about a Brown University student who decides that in order to study a subculture he will not leave the country...he will go to Liberty. Liberty for those of my readers that may not yet know of it, is a conservative christian school in Lynchburg, VA. A far cry from the liberal ways of Brown.
I'm not finished with the book yet (I know, a book club no-no) but it did bring me back to memories of my own 'in house' experience with culture shock. After a radical change from Fine Arts Photography & Printmaking in college to Sociology (a midway through junior year decision), I decided it was time to get my hands dirty in the social work field. I signed on for a 300 hour internship with Americorp. Quite possibly my best educational decision to date.
My placement within the program was to teach classes during a summer program at a Boys and Girls Club in inner-city Indianapolis. I didn't go into the summer expecting it to be an easy, mindless job but I also didn't expect for those children's lives to be as shockingly different from my fairly simple upbringing as I would later discover.
I will pause now to address the questions I know some of you are already thinking...'simple living'? The truth is despite my Dad's career within the NFL my parents purposed to raise us simply, with the focus first and foremost on God and our relationship with him. After that, family, friends, education, charity, etc but never fame and never fortune. We did have some unique opportunities to experience things within the sports world that many teenagers never will. However, I would say that all-in-all I've lived a wonderfully simple life filled with love and not 'things'.
I didn't get a brand new car for my 16th birthday, or a car at all actually. We didn't go on wild vacations to exotic places. The farthest I ever traveled for Spring Break was Tampa (once living in Indiana). My parents believed in driving on all family vacations to promote 'bonding'. I worked consistently from 15 on to pay my own gas, car insurance, etc. So I thought, my life is great but not fancy.
Well, that all might have been true in 'my world'. Come to find out while inner-city Indy was less than an hour commute from my parents posh Carmel home, I might as well have gone to another country with the stark contrast of living conditions. Later, I would learn that having my own bedroom and bathroom was a luxury I'd never given much thought too. So was my parents having a car even in the days when I didn't. Having proper supervision. Eating three meals a day regularly. My family never had to share a home with another family or live with our grandparents. I didn't grow up in fancy neighborshoods but I could also play in the streets without fear.
I was able to finish my high school education without being considered a provider for my family financially. College wasn't just an option, it was attainable and expected. My parents never dealt drugs to put food on the table for myself or my siblings. I wasn't taught to steal or bully as a mode of survival.
Before you judge me for being so naive, put yourself in my BCBG heels! I was going to Purdue University at the time and my day-to-day life put me in contact with an array of people from different walks of life. Heck, I thought every day was expanding my knowledge of how other people lived. It was, in fact. However, the majority of the 40K students that attended my school came from families who were able to afford them a few more luxuries than the children I would encounter that fateful summer.
It took me exactly five minutes to fall in love with those kids. By the end of day one I would have taken every last one of them home with me. They were funny, bright, energetic, and endearing. They made me laugh, often times at myself. They beat me at pool every time (even the five year olds) and they tried to teach me to pop, lock, and drop it. A band of them would meet me at my car every morning to carry my things for me, into the club and to my classroom.
The saddest moment for me was when I was given my curriculum for the summer. A program called 'Methsmart' meant to teach the kids the dangers of getting involved in a lifestyle of using, abusing, and distributing methamphetamine. I was to take the binder home the weekend between training and our first week of summer and prepare for my classes. My class were to by of 5-7 year olds and 8-10 year olds.
I remember going up to one of the leaders at the site I was posted and saying, 'I can't possibly teach this to 5 year olds, they're not even going to know what I'm talking about!'. Bless her heart, she didn't laugh in my face for being so ignorant. She encouraged me to go in the first day of my classes and ask the kids what THEY knew about this drug that honestly, was pretty new to me at 21.
I won't elaborate on the answers I got except to say that when they started naming ingredients I almost had to remove myself to cry for them. Indianapolis it turns out is known for being quite the hub for meth and some of these darling children I wanted to keep for myself were going home at night and seeing their own parents make this deadly drug in front of them. I was mortified to say the least.
I drove home that day and sat down with my baby sister. She was 15 or 16 at the time and I asked her what she knew about meth. She didn't wasn't even sure what I was talking about.
That summer changed my life forever. Not only because it confirmed in my mind forever that I want to serve people. I love social work in every aspect because it's being proactive towards bettering peoples lives. What could be more rewarding than that? Beyond that those children opened themselves and their lives up to me and allowed me a 3 month glance into their souls. They will never know how touched I was by the experience. I love each child I spent that summer with and their pictures are up even today in my Florida home. Reminding me of not only how fortunate I am but to inspire me that I have a duty to fight for those who aren't in a position to fight for themselves.
I will close with one funny story about that summer...
My family was fascinated by my response to that summer. I survived a horrible car accident during my week of training from an uninsured driver. I was fortunate to recover with no permanent damage. After which, I was back in action immediately and excited every day to go to work. Finally, I invite my Mom to join me for one day at the club. I wanted her to see why I was in love with those kids. I wanted her to love them too.
On this day one particular girl hung around my mom the ENTIRE day. Finally, she told my mom simply 'I want to stand by you all day because you smell just like febreeze'. My mom and I laughed until we cried about that comment in the car, afterwards my mom mentioned that Burberry may not have appreciated the comparison. But the truth is, febreeze was probably the best thing she smelled in her life their so to her it was the highest compliment.
All this to say, you don't have to travel to another country to experience a culture unlike your own. I challenge you to place yourself outside your comfort zone and keep your mind and heart open to the experience. It just may change your life.