Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Hello, friends!

I just completed two weeks of orientation in Chicago with the folks from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Reformed Church of America, the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, and the Presbyterians (I missed my program's orientation in June, so I got to join the greater ecumenical party...). Reflecting on the orientation, I find myself more mentally prepared for my radical relocation than I was two weeks ago. Most importantly, I've fully realized that this is indeed a "radical" step for me - I'm starting to get down to the reality of this next year. I found it difficult to really propel myself forward into my new context while sailing in Maine. I needed to talk with other mission workers, start learning Japanese, take some time to reflect and question... (the fruit of which you can see in my first post here).

And now I'll have many friends in Japan! There are a bunch of mission workers from the other denominations teaching English in Japan next year, so I'll have some support when I arrive in October.

Speaking of October, I've attached a picture of the fall leaves in my town, Nasushiobara in the Nasu District. Looks like they rival New Hampshire's stunning foliage! (Yes, Dartmouth friends, I'm becoming a leaf-peeper...) The more I learn about Japan, the more excited I am to get there!

In closing:
"Let us pursue knowledge and wisdom, for mutual understanding.
Let us pursue respect and compassion, for mutual up-building.
Let us pursue justice and peace, for mutual reconciliation."
(See link for a great video of dancing around the globe and through communities!)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Current happenings

I'm trying to educate myself about Japan and some of its current public debates - I thought I might share some resources in case others are interested!
  • Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation, (1997). A great book (admittedly, I'm only about half way through... but it's wonderful so far!) from a career journalist who lived in Japan for many years. Smith works through the Western myths and misconceptions about Japan, particularly related to the reconstruction era following the war. He also explores some of the cultural pillars of Japan - the educational system, the status of women, the evolving definition of public versus private space, the "salaryman" culture, the place of history in current political debates... a really interesting cultural and intellectual survey.
  • Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2004). Not about Japan, but a great read about global poverty issues (in the context of Haiti, Russia, and Rwanda) and how poverty is fundamentally linked to basic resource issues.
  • The New York Times profile on Japan. Includes links to past articles and other online resources.
Cheers for now! If you have any good reads about Japan, please drop me a line!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A journey begins...


Welcome to the first of many posts about my journey as a volunteer with the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Nishinasuno, Japan. I will be working at ARI through the Episcopal Church's partnership with the Anglican Communion in Japan

ARI is an international training institute for grassroots leaders from developing countries. The institute teaches leadership skills and sustainable, small-scale agriculture techniques in the hope of facilitating development in the students' home communities. Affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Japan, ARI welcomes students of any religion (as well as those of no religion) and promotes the spiritual development of its students through its philosophy that spiritual peace begins with the material peace of shared resources.

Okay. Sounds nice, but what exactly does ARI do?

ARI is a farm. A small farm that provides about 80% of the food for a community of about 60 students, teachers, and volunteers that manages the institute. The farm is designed as an experimental school that allows the students (leaders sponsored by their home communities or home parishes) to receive hands-on instruction in organic farming, animal husbandry, fish culture, etc. - and the shared management of the institute enables students to gain experience in running small-scale cooperatives and in community leadership. I think of ARI as a type of farm camp for community leaders. As a UCC affiliate, ARI also brings an interesting theological dimension to its social work. Back in 2007, the institute hosted a symposium called “Peace From the Soil." It looked at the problem of violence and war in our world and concluded: “Peace begins within and peace is possible when there is food on the table. Peace within a human being, peace of mind, and peace within a community, all require that basic needs are met so that there is security of life and livelihood, and the opportunity for physical, mental and spiritual health." We are stewards of creation - yet we have abused our environment and must now work to repair some of the damage. ARI seeks to provide its students with the means of caring for their part of creation.

For some color, ARI stats from the current YASC volunteer there, Mike from Texas:
  • 30 participants from 18 different countries (China, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone). 8 volunteers (US, Germany, Japan, Korea). 12 staff (Japan, US, Ghana, Philippines, Myanmar).
  • 450 laying hens, 18 roosters, and 100 chicks
  • 5 sows, 30 piglets, and 40 growers (fatteners)
  • 3 cows
  • 2 sheep
  • Indeterminate duck population ("As," according to Mike, "we butcher the old ones from last year and continue to hatch ducklings for this years rice paddies...")
I'm still a little fuzzy myself on my daily duties, but I suspect I'll basically work as a farmhand, helping out wherever is necessary. And yes, Mom, I'll probably be asked to kill a chicken while I'm there...

I'm still struggling to clearly understand and articulate the "why" of my decision to serve as a volunteer with the Episcopal Church's Young Adult Service Corps (YASC). My motivations are mixed. During my orientation in Chicago, the facilitators asked us to identify some of our motivations within a list of options. I selected: "to have an experience, to help the poor, to pay my dues to the world, to find a new direction in my life, to really be engaged in 'mission,' to seek adventure, to teach others, to learn a new culture, to learn the gospel from others, to get away from the affluence of Americans, to enable others, to share life with others." I'd say the spiritual discomfort that nags me when I see inequity met with the intellectual need for an international adventure to compel me to seek out a program like YASC.

Why through the Epsicopal Church? One reason, frankly, is that I did not make the church an important part of my life during college, and I hope to regain the sense of faith and community I had during high school. The principle reason, however, is that I trust the church as an instrument of change and of social justice. Few institutions (of power) promote such a message of inclusion - "we are all one body." I have heard so many stories of ineffective NGOs, thwarted, despite their best intentions, by their lack of resources or organization or ability to see the larger picture. Obviously the church is not a perfect institution, but I do trust the spirit of its mission.

For example, the Episcopal Church recently redefined its mission workers as "mission partners" rather than "missionaries." On one level, this seems a cosmetic change, a bow to the pressures of our PC culture. But I believe that the change reflects an important shift in how the Episcopal Church, USA engages with the greater global church. One church official stated in June 2009 that the term articulates "a more accurate description of the role of mission personnel in the 21st century, with an emphasis on relationship building and the acknowledgement that we all mutually grow in our understanding of one another and of God when we nurture relationships with other parts of the body of Christ. The hope is that the change will help us all think about mission as being mutual and interdependent." "The reality that when we engage in work overseas, we are learning just as much from those we encounter as we are able to teach." We are invited guests and collaborators, not self-appointed fixers. And frankly, I like the change because I'm still personally uncomfortable with labeling myself as a "missionary" - a history major specializing in French colonial history, I find myself bringing too much historical bagage to that term...

Wow, I don't think this Episcopalian has ever talked so much about her faith in such a public setting! (I remember my minister from Virginia once made a crack about how uncomfortable we Episcoplians are about public displays of faith...) Thank you, dear readers, for your patience and understanding.

I leave for Japan on October 1, 2009; I will return almost exactly twelve months later. Until then, I'm working on the coast of Maine as a sailing instructor, spending time with my wonderful family and my boyfriend, Eric, and preparing for my dramatic relocation. Please keep me in your thoughts as I wrestle with the Japanese language, the paperwork of crossing national borders, and the reality that I can't take my kayak with me across the Pacific Ocean...