Three Little Letters

SST. These three little letters carry almost 50 years of memories for thousands of people. These three little letters evoke a wide range of emotions for many in the Goshen College community. When I hear these letters, a smile instantly comes to my face.

In the spring of 2013, I travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for three months. It was my first time out of the country, and I was more than a little anxious about what I was getting myself into. As I stepped on the plane with my fellow classmates, I had no idea that I was about to travel to a place that would eventually become a second home for me.

The first few weeks were hard for me; I have a hard time with transitions. However, after the first few days with my family, I started to feel at home. My host family was a little unconventional in that I did not live with host parents. I lived with a brother who was close to my age and a sister who was ten years older than me. I immediately felt like I was part of their family. Although there were times of homesickness and tears, my host family gifted me with many times of smiles and laughter.

One Cannot Exist Without the Other

I could feel the upheaval as soon as I entered the room. My mom was nowhere to be seen, and my Nicaraguan host dad, Reynaldo, was shuffling around in the kitchen. It was early in the morning, and he was aimlessly pacing around. Eventually, he put away a rusty metal serving spoon, hanging it on a nail in the wall. He turned to grab a wooden bowl off the windowsill, stared at it, and put it on a different shelf. He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself.

I was new to most things in Nicaragua, but I knew for certain that my father was not the normal family cook. Although I had seen him in the kitchen several times, it was only to bring pichingas full of water, chopped firewood, and sacks full of lechuga inside for my mother.

My dad looked at me, gestured toward the steamy arroz and frijoles warming on the clay stove, and said, “Your mother is in town today for a routine doctors appointment. She made breakfast before she left this morning.”

Really? I thought to myself, She’s gone one day and my dad can’t make his own food? I knew men and women in Nicaragua were expected to fulfill certain roles in the household, but this seemed ridiculous. I finished eating my arroz and frijoles by myself and walked back to the bucket of water sitting on the wooden countertop. Normally, my mother would take away my dishes before I had a chance to wash them, but today I was on my own.

The Unity of Song

When I went on SST, I wasn’t a student, I wasn’t in a host family and I wasn’t a unit leader. My father and mother, Harold and Patricia Yoder, led the 1972 group to South Korea. I was a sophomore in high school, barely two years younger than the youngest college student in our group. I was too young to be noticed by many of the students, but not too young to learn a lot about myself and the world.

My immediate reaction to Korea was to realize people at the college weren’t kidding when they talked about culture shock. This was the East; I was comfortable in the West. Many things were different: the hole toilets on the ground that you squatted to use and stall doors in public restrooms that went down to the ground; lots of fish instead of hamburger; marinated meat called bulgogie, which would become my favorite dish.

But even at 16 years old, I was no stranger to SST. Two friends had also gone with their parents as SST leaders to Jamaica and Honduras. My parents had always wanted to lead a unit but waited until the college sent students to South Korea. Right after they married, they did MCC work in Japan and Korea; my mother was the first civilian woman to go to South Korea after the war, and they wanted badly to go back with my family.

Filled to the Brim

I originally wrote a version of this story to use in a sermon given at my home church, Mountain View Mennonite Church in Kalispell, Montana.

When thinking back on my experience in Senegal, it is tempting to focus primarily on the things that struck me as being the most contrary to my life in the United States. The animals wandering the streets, mosquito nets over beds, and clothes hand-washed and hung out to dry were intriguing and exciting at first. These things are certainly noteworthy, and they had the most impact on me initially.

As the days passed, however, the novelty wore off. I grew accustomed to seeing such sights, and it was no longer out of the ordinary for a taxi to stop in the road for a herd of goats or a person to drop everything and pray when they heard the call to prayer. But throughout my time in Senegal, the attitude of the people who I encountered continued to amaze me. I experienced a kind of hospitality and acceptance that remains unparalleled in my life, which made the largest impact on me.

Causa for a Greater Cause

I have always loved cooking. Even ate the age of four, I can remember climbing up to my family’s kitchen counter to help make chocolate chips cookies. This passion continued throughout my life, as I worked at various restaurants and made artisan breads to sell at local farmer’s markets this previous summer. I hope to eventually have a career in food security, striving for easier access to healthy foods for all people.

While on SST in Peru, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a family during study who shared the same love for food. My host grandmother, Alicia, was the cook for our group and my father, Glicerio, was a cook at a local hotel. One Saturday I spent nearly six hours cooking with Alicia. We had a grand feast in the evening with all of our family, eating lots of Peruvian favorites, tallarín verde, causa and sopa de pollo.