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Small joys and big miracles: stories from returning HNGR interns

January 18 2018

Last Thursday, I found myself sandwiched between a HNGR intern and a Wheaton friend at the weekly “Mennonite Dinner.” As they enthusiastically shouted greetings at each other amidst the chattering of Wheaton students packed into the living room, I attempted to extricate myself and made a beeline for the outer rim of the room. On my way, I casually picked up a paper that was laying on a table near me and, when I could breathe comfortably again, I began to examine it. Thirty smiling faces stared back up at me.

“Me and my host father during one of the many national soccer games we celebrated.” (Photo Courtesy of Kalena Wong)

These 30 students were the 2017 Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) interns, who introduced themselves that night to everyone gathered at the dinner. Each intern told a different story. Diverse majors were represented: Applied Health Science, Geology, Spanish, Elementary Education, Bible and Theology, Economics — just to name a few. The interns had been everywhere, from Indonesia to Peru to India to Thailand to Rwanda. Each HNGR intern had been sent out into the world to live intimately with another culture, work with a variety of organizations and assist in world relief for six months. And yet their stories, while distinct in terms of content, often had a common theme. Each intern that I talked to emphasized how they saw God work in concrete ways through the people, places and opportunities they encountered on their experiential internship.

Senior Jeshua Hayden told me that his internship in Indonesia “was a really cool opportunity to see the image of God and experience his love through these people and see him working in their lives even if they didn’t share my faith.” Hayden, an anthropology major, credits his freshman HNGR 112 class with changing his career plans. “I originally came into Wheaton thinking I was going to do English literature and [then] I took HNGR 112 and it was a super impactful class. It ended up challenging me in a lot of ways and reshaping my idea of what I was passionate about — what I could see myself doing in the future,” Hayden said.

This newfound passion drove him to apply for a HNGR internship. He remembers feeling nervous excitement when he discovered he would be interning in Indonesia. His HNGR journey was not necessarily a smooth one, however. As his date of departure neared, health and financial setbacks threatened to block Hayden’s path to Indonesia. Even so, Hayden credits this experience with allowing him to “see God provide what was needed in order for [the internship] to happen.”

When he arrived in Indonesia, Hayden began working with an organization called Service to Asia’s Urban Poor. “They’re a group that practices incarnational ministry in slum neighborhoods,” he told me. “They feel that Jesus has called them to move into slum neighborhoods and build their homes there and start to build relationships with the people there, and out of that they’re trying to empower their neighbors in the slum to transform their communities.”

The hardest part of the internship was the material and spiritual poverty Hayden encountered every day. “My neighbors were mostly migrants who had come from rural villages to live in the slum in order to find work to support their families.… It was hard seeing the barriers that were in place. I learned a little about life, some of the struggles they experienced.” He marveled at these migrants, who go out of their way to serve others despite the few opportunities they have themselves.

Hayden told a story about working with his host family in their recycling and trash collecting business and encountering one of his neighbors, Eric, who began working with them. “Partway through the time I looked down and realized that Eric wasn’t wearing shoes. So he was walking across this big field of trash barefoot… helping us complete this messy load of dumping this messy load of trash,” Hayden said, shaking his head. “I think that was one of those moments of realizing … I could see Jesus and see the love of Christ through him being willing to get messy to help us with work that wasn’t his.”

“Horse races in a mountain town.” (Photo Courtesy of Kalena Wong)

Senior Eunice Kim also remembered special moments when God made a situation full of hardship into something that reflected him. She explained that her time in a rural town in the Philippines brought a season of loneliness that God redeemed in small ways. “Three months into my internship, my host father got really sick [so I] didn’t see my host parents for two months. So it was really tough,” Kim recalled. She was already wary of solitude coming into her internship, especially because she didn’t know the local language. But even through this hardship God provided small instances of people showing his love. Kim recalled one of these instances: “I was feeling really homesick one day, and I was telling my coworker, ‘Ah, I feel so homesick, I miss America.’ … The next morning for breakfast, she made me burgers. It was the sweetest thing ever. It was a cute set of three burgers, and then she also brought me black coffee, because she was like, ‘Oh, Americans always drink black coffee.’ So it was a very sweet moment, where I was like, ‘Wow.’ God was very present.”

Like Hayden, Kim faced hardship even getting to the Philippines in the first place. Originally, she was going to India to working a large hospital with an orthopedic surgeon, but God had other plans. She ended up having visa issues and had to switch to the Philippines, which was definitely not her first choice. Kim laughed as she talked about how much she hated the beach — she had even told her supervisor that she wanted to go anywhere other than a tropical place. When she was told that there was a spot open in the Philippines, she understandably resisted; after all, she hated the tropical climate, didn’t know the language and would be working with a rural clinic as opposed to a fully outfitted hospital.

Eventually, though, her decision came down to what God was calling her to do. “I [had told] God, ‘I really want to learn what it’s like to become irrelevant and to really strive for irrelevance, to put aside my own significance, and think of this as a time where I can really learn and then teach others,’” Kim recalled. “Coming back, [though,] I think it was very clear to me that God was telling me: ‘Oh Eunice, you said you wanted to become irrelevant. And you have to give up all the things you have in India.’”

Kim said that God soon transformed her attitude about the small Filipino clinic, the Philippines, and yes, even the beach. Ironically, the Filipino beach became her new favorite place. She realized, “Wow, God really transformed this physical location for me…this place that I [thought] was  irrelevant… I had all these preconceived notions, and now [the beach has] become a place where I really come to meet God. And it’s just crazy because I never pictured myself being there in the first place.”

Senior Kalena Wong also described how God worked most through the spur of the moment, unexpected events of her Peruvian internship. “When I got to Peru I still didn’t know who I was living with, and I had asked my organization multiple times for any sort of information because I was getting a little stressed — I don’t know where I’m living, who I’m living with, how many people are going to be living in the house, if I will have a room to myself, if I will be sharing a bed with an infant, it’s just nice to know those things in advance,” Wong said.

Wong acknowledged that, even when she was placed with a host family, the transition into Peru was difficult. But was made so much better by an unexpected friendship with a rescued dog. “I’ve liked animals before, obviously, but I’ve never had this love connection with an animal…. It was so awesome to see that even if I don’t connect with humans, I can still have connections that don’t have to do with words at all,” Wong said.

When she finally moved in with her host family, though, she was absorbed into their family almost immediately. She described how hospitable the people in her town were, even though she recalled feeling utterly useless. She didn’t know how to speak the language, she didn’t know how to prepare common foods, she couldn’t travel by herself and she didn’t know what her job entailed. Ultimately, though, this helplessness allowed her to experience Christ’s love in a human context. She marveled as she said, “You have so little to offer, but people still love you for some reason. It’s just incredible!”

“My regular stop at the picaron stand after work.” (Photo Courtesy of Kalena Wong)

Multiple HNGR interns told me that the hospitality of their host families and host towns was the biggest blessing they experienced over their time in another country. Whether they had been to Rwanda or China, each intern talked about how a change of pace and priorities caused them to reconsider their own ideas about how to live well. Senior Nathaniel Bovell interned with a small micro-business loan firm and lived with the Maasai people in Longido, Tanzania. He recalled how he “really appreciated different aspects of the culture of the people that I was living with. I think there’s a very deep value for hospitality and for just being present and being with people there. There’s just such a different way of thinking about time and what makes a good use of time … I think there’s a deep value of using time to love people well and to be present and be with each other.”

In addition, Bovell talked about how the Maasai people, while often portrayed in a singular way as a pastoralist people by National Geographic documentaries, have a much more complex way of approaching life than Western perspectives give them credit for. “There’s a lot more diversity in the way of life and the way they try to make sense of life in a changing world,” he explained, echoing the sentiments of Wong, who also bemoaned the lack of Western sensitivity to other cultures. “These people that are marginalized in society,” Wong emphasized, “are not those things that people think. They’re not lazy, they’re not dumb, they’re not worthless, they actually have value because we’re all made in God’s image.”

This conflict between Western confidence in the accuracy of our perceptions and the reality of life in a poor, foreign context caused multiple interns to take a step back and reevaluate their preconceived ideas about their respective host countries. Often, interns told me that they entered a country seeking to help the inhabitants but left feeling like they were the ones who were helped. Wong told me that “[as HNGR interns] we’ve seen our ignorance, and we recognize that although beforehand we might have thought we knew things, now we know we know nothing.”

Yes, HNGR was often lonely, difficult, discouraging, stressful, depressing, tense and uncomfortable. Even so, Kim summed up the shared experience of each intern that I interviewed when she smiled and said,“Small things give you joy on HNGR.”  Kim’s coworker making a special American breakfast for her, the stray dog that became like Wong’s own, Eric stumbling over a field of trash barefoot in order to help Hayden — the small indicators of God’s presence are often the biggest miracles to HNGR interns living and working in a foreign context.


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