Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures: Every Nica Cloud has a Silver Lining

Doña Nubia, Daniel, myself, and Maria Los Angeles

by Andrew Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have opportunities to travel to many countries. Invariably I hear, and even find myself participating in, some form of this conversation:

Local: “How do you like our country?”

Tourist: “I love it! The people are so nice!”

The tourist in this instance is almost always alluding to how much nicer the people are in X country than they are in their home country. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these conversations because not only have I heard this from U.S. citizens traveling in other countries, but also from tourists visiting the States. Is it true that people are just magically nicer in every country but our own? Or is there something in traveling that pushes us out of our cocoon of familiarity and into interaction with strangers that makes us realize that, on the whole, humans are a whole lot better than we give them credit for?

That being said, the people here in Nicaragua are super nice. So much so that I’ve developed a new favorite hobby: getting caught out in rainstorms.

Although I’m sure it wasn’t a factor in choosing which part of the year to hold training, the rainy season in Nicaragua has been great for cultural integration. I have found the barriers to interaction between strangers to be so much thinner here than in the United States. A drizzle is excuse enough to be invited into a house, or huddle together under the awning of a business, and in the shared experience of escaping from the rain conversation blossoms. This was how I came to experience the most beautiful moment of my service yet: becoming friends with Doña Nubia and her family.

Back on September 11th two of my fellow trainees (Conor & Daniel) and I were on our way to the soccer field in town to use sports as a means to integrate into the community. When we reached the field the locals were disbanding due to the ominous clouds forming in the sky that we happened to overlook on our walk over. With the rainy season in full swing, we knew that we’d better not mess around and find some cover quickly. Although the coffee shop/cyber café was only a few blocks away, the clouds moved faster. Before we knew it we were caught in the middle of a torrential downpour. We found some trees to stand under, but they weren’t doing us much good. I looked up at the nearest house to see a little grandmother waving us into her house from her patio. Daniel, Conor, and I looked at each other for a second, wondering what to do, before we climbed up the steps to the patio, not exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into.

Forty-five minutes later we had become friends with Doña Nubia, her daughter Maria Los Angeles, and her niece Johana. We shared about where we were from, why we were in Nicaragua, and of all the delicious Nica foods we had tried already. In turn they told us of other national dishes that we must still try, taught us that the best vigoron and chicharones in the country come from the markets and bus stops of Grenada, invited us to come back to chat and drink coffee whenever we wanted, and exchanged phone numbers so they could invite us over and cook us delicious Nicaraguan food! I was deeply touched by this priceless display of Nicaragua hospitality and warmth, and felt such gratitude for the opportunity to be working for an organization where this kind of genuine human connection is what we are actively encouraged cultivate.

Over the seven weeks in my training town I returned several times to Doña Nubia’s house to delight in conversation. Through chats with her and her family I learned about the history of their family, the history of Nicaragua, their view on the current political landscape (specifically regarding the Grand Canal project), and the struggles and hopes they have for their country. I introduced them to Emily, and they showered her with compliments and asked her to tell them the truth about what kind of a guy I am. They called us a “beautiful, incredible couple”, and assured us that we would have gorgeous babies. They admonished me to continue learning about the Nica culture, but that I’d better not become machista, because if I stopped treating Emily with respect they’d come after me! I learned to time my visits for when Johana & Maria Los Angeles returned from their pastry baking class, and therefore became their most enthusiastic taste-tester and supporter. Although our busy training schedules didn’t end up allowing for us to share a meal with them, when Daniel and I said goodbye to the family on Thursday evening they made us promise that we’d visit when we returned to our training town, and assured that we had a place to stay at their house if we ever visited overnight.

The month of November marks the official end of the rainy season here in Nicaragua. I may not have the excuse of a thunderstorm to push me into conversation with potential friends, but from my experiences in my training town I’ve learned that they excuses may not even be necessary in Nicaragua. The people here are just that nice 🙂

Blessed to be a Blessing – Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures

handsby Emily Allen Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

Blessing.

This word has meant different things to me over the course of my  life thus far. It once brought to mind the image of an all-powerful God who was moving pieces of my life around like a life-sized game of muggle-chess (yes, that is a Harry Potter reference). I used to believe blessings came from God and you were lucky if He chose to bless you.  I no longer see it that way.

As I got older, theological questions began to cloud my once clear picture and understanding of God. Why would God choose to bless me and NOT bless others? If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all loving, how can extremely terrible things like natural disasters or genocide happen? Was God too busy “blessing” little ole me to do anything about those BIG issues. These questions and more plagued my heart and soul as I struggled to make sense of it all.

For a while, I wondered if I didn’t even believe in God, as least not in the same “God” I had before. I knew I believed in something; some collective, creative, connective power, but was that God if God meant all the images I had been taught for so long? I never felt comfortable saying I didn’t believe, because that wasn’t completely true, but I also couldn’t claim the concepts I once knew and stood by. I remember thinking that old saying “ignorance is bliss,” has so much truth in it. I wanted, on some level, to go back to my old ways of thinking. It was so much easier to just believe that God was in control, that God had a plan for my life.  If only I could take away the questions I wrestled with, the doubts that drowned me in darkness.

But I couldn’t go back.

I had been changed – by untimely deaths of friends and loved ones, by injustice that existed and still exists, by pain, by the cruelty in the world. I’d been forced to think – by hard academics/religious classes at Graceland (my alma mater), by friends going through similar faith crisis, by the questions that wouldn’t go away and shattered my pretty-ordered-God-in-a-box-world.

Even today, I’m not sure where exactly things changed. There was never a moment of clarity or insight, just a slow steady crawl to new understanding. There are truths I feel and recognize in my deepest soul; there is something more, there is some connecting spirit, we are many but we are one. Slowly, I began to claim God again. Not the same God as before, but I choose to still use the word “God” because I have no other word for “it.”

I believe in hope.  I believe in love.  I believe in the power we have to love and affect those around us.  I believe our thoughts and intentions are far more powerful than we have any idea about.  I believe the universe is a connected web of intentions, and relationships, and feelings rather like the neurons in our brains.  I believe that connective force that can transcend time and distance is what we have poorly understood as God, so we thought God should be more like us – human, white, male, and petty, choosing to bless some and not others.

The word blessing now means something very different to me as well.  Blessing is an active tapping into that loving, wise energy.  Blessing is about rooting oneself into that force and allowing one’s heart to expand.  It can be felt by individuals or groups, in times of sorrow, in times of joy.  Being blessed isn’t a passive state where God plays games with your life.  Blessing is listening to the callings and promptings, listening to the wisdom that exists in the lives all around us.  Blessings invoke ancient power within our own lives and souls, connecting us to each other and the Earth.

I now believe that blessings are far more about love.

This past Sunday was the last time Andrew and I would be with our local congregation for a few years.  On that day, we gathered with our friends and family to receive a blessing for our Peace Corps service.  It was an opportunity and invitation to accept love and support from our community.  It was an invitation to go deeper and to prepare emotionally to embrace the challenges and blessings our Peace Corps service has to offer.  It was incredible to feel such hope and such love.  Not many young adults participate in organized religion in the Portland area, but we feel the intergenerational relationships we have made the past 4 years, sharing with that community, have changed our lives for the better. We have their stories, their lessons, their support.

Regardless if you are Christian or not, or participate in any religion at all, it is my sincere hope that at some point in your life you feel the level of support Andrew and I felt last Sunday for transitioning to this new stage of life.  While it is difficult to say goodbye to people who have become our friends and extended family, we will carry their blessings forward.  Thank you, Tuality Community of Christ for being companions on our journey.

May we be open to the blessings today that our loved ones helped us find and feel.  May we listen with open hearts to the callings and promptings around us.  May we feel the love and support from this past Sunday so strongly that it can help sustain us and support us through our Peace Corps service.  May we be blessed.

A Culture of Caring – Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures

by Emily Allen Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

 

Growing up in the United States, my earliest encounter with another culture was the common rite of passage – the sleepover. Staying the night at the home of a friend opened my eyes to a whole new world. The meals and table etiquette were different. Bedtime routines were nothing like mine. Even the contents of a home provide a glimpse into the priorities of the occupants. These early intercultural experiences caused me to think about the world and the people in it a little differently.

Cultural differences exist all around us in our communities, friends, families, and occupations.  One particular community you may hear about from time to time on our blog is our church, Community of Christ. This small community of peace makers have deeply impacted our lives for the better through the relationships we’ve built.

(A few quick disclaimers for any of our blog clientele: Andrew and I are not the proselytizing kind. If you are not religious, or spiritual, or whatever, we are not offended or concerned about saving your soul. We actively choose to engage in a community that values the worth of all persons, unity in diversity, and the blessings of community and we are followers of the principles that Jesus stands for. But that is our story. That is where we have found healing, hope, and connection. This space is not to convince you that church is the best way or the only way to find meaning in life. Quite the contrary, as our blog itself is suggesting that you find and create meaning wherever you are in life.)

Being a part of a church or not is another cultural aspect of our lives that helps make us who we are.

Culture and church are the focus of the post because of a wonderful opportunity Andrew and I had this past weekend thanks to our connections with Community of Christ. Our denomination has congregations all over the world, including our close international neighbor, Canada. Last weekend Andrew and I had the honor of being guest ministers at a retreat with the Meadowridge congregation in Pitt Meadows, B.C. It was also my first time to Canada, so I was excited to interact and experience a culture that is so similar, yet different from our own.

Canada culture

While we packed a lot of “Canadian” things into our short weekend – poutine, Tim Hortons, 5 pin bowling – observing the compassionate ethos of the congregation was our favorite cultural experience. The members of Meadowridge focused first and foremost on caring for each other. It’s one of those things that churches often talk about, that people often talk about, but rarely actually do. We want to be there for others, but when push comes to shove, we’re too busy, it’s out of the way, it inconveniences us to help out. This wasn’t the case at Meadowridge, though. Whenever a need arose in the life of a friend, the others were there. It didn’t matter how big or small the need was. From addictions to divorce, from children needing a home to broken and wounded hearts, needs were met and the details were figured out later.  People were welcomed into the fold, comforted, taken care of.

We were brought up to be ministers to this small community, but, as often happens, we were the ones that left inspired by the opportunity to witness a true culture of caring in action.

May I take this lesson forward in my life as I encounter needs that seem too big. When we work together with the well-being of each other in our hearts, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.

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Emily & Andrew’s Peace Corps Adventures: Jumping Together

 big jump

Andrew – Pacific City, OR

by Emily Allen Nilsen
Re-blogged from: May We Suggest

I’ve always loved jumping pictures.

When I think back on good times with people I love, it amazes me how many jumping pictures I’ve taken. I think they show how much joy and excitement I truly get out of life. A good jumping picture, though, has to have some thought put into it. You have to make sure everyone is on the same page. Are we jumping on three or after three? Holding hands or striking a pose? Is the camera lady/gent ready? One…two…three…GO!

The past 5 years have been a series of jumping-picture-worth-events in my life.  I graduated university with my undergrad in Education.  I found and married an amazing, thoughtful, ridiculous partner.  After realizing I wanted to spend my life with said partner, I moved across the country away from my family and friends.  I completed my student teaching, taught for a session at an outdoor science school, and fell in love with a tiny charter school in rural Oregon.  I’ve  taught, laughed, grown, cried, struggled, and come so far.

Andrew has had his fair share of jumps, too.  While he moved home, he moved home with a fiancé and now spouse.  He’s shifted through changing friend dynamics, bringing a new person into his family, and entering the job world after college.  In a lot of ways, we have lived the emerging adulthood of the 20-somethings, even living our first year in Portland with Andrew’s parents as we yet couldn’t afford rent.

Transition.  Struggles.  Jumping.  Yes, jumps can be scary, but they can also be beautiful and freeing.

 

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Andrew and friends – Columbia River gorge

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Emily – moving to Oregon.

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Nilsen Wedding Party

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Mrs. Nilsen’s students – Outdoor School 2014

Like many other 20-somethings, we’ve been trying to figure out what to do with our lives.  While we’re no where close to figuring out all of those details, we recognized a few foundational truths: we love people and want to work on creating greater community and love in the world, we want to do some traveling before we settle down (house, family, etc.), and we want to embrace the adventures that life has to offer.  With all of these in mind, we applied to the Peace Corps last May.

After the long application, shifting and re-shifting our expectations, and the long hurry-up-and-wait-game (we’ll probably do a post on this whole process), we finally received our invitation!  We’ve been invited to serve in Nicargua as TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Teacher Trainers with a leave date in August.  So we’re jumping again.  It’s what we do in life, right? We’d only been dating a month and we knew. We jumped. Who knows where this adventure will take us and what hardships await, but that is what life is all about.

“Things can fall apart, or threaten to, for many reasons, and then there’s got to be a leap of faith. Ultimately, when you’re at the edge, you have to go forward or backward; if you go forward, you have to jump together.” – Yo-Yo-Ma

Let’s do this.  Together.

 

Emily and Andrew are two young adult members of the Community of Christ! Stay tuned to follow more of Emily and Andrew’s journey of adventures in the Peace Corps!

jumping together

Andrew & Emily – Pacific City, OR