Outtatown South Africa

July: Balance is the Blessing

We are all different, and so we inevitably clash on different things. From privacy, to food, to theological issues, we can and do disagree. I have learned that it is a "choose your battles" sort of thing. Should I stand up for myself, or is this something that I need to simply step aside from for the benefit of the community? You have to learn that the balance is the blessing. By living in community, you are forced to learn this, which is honestly amazing. It is something that I am thankful for because I know that I have learned more about living in community during the seven months on Outtatown than the years that it may take others to learn the same things.

Living so close with other people has blessed me with many good friends. I have learned something from every one of them. The funny thing is that by being a part of a community, I have also learned a ton about myself. Through my other peers I have become aware of things that I have to work on, yet they have brought out many good qualities in myself that I didn't know I had.

A key question that was asked of us by our leaders was, "where do you see Jesus?" I would have to say that I saw Christ through my community a lot. I learned so much about God through the actions and words of my friends. And in that, a lot of my own personal growth was in hearing God's wisdom through the people who surrounded me. God has taught me to listen carefully for His voice, and that I hear it in the ways that I didn't expect it, more than in the ways that I do expect it.

I hope to translate the news skills that I have learned from Outtatown back to my home community. My Outtatown community has taught me so much, and blessed me so much, and I cherish each day that I spent with them. 

– Bailey Cressman, South Africa student 2016-17

Canada Outtatown South Africa

June: Learning about Diversity

This past year on Outtatown I learned that there can be so much diversity within one country, let alone the world. It would be easy for me to talk about the diversity and racial struggles in South Africa, but I’m going to talk about my own country instead.

Travelling across western Canada, I saw how many different groups that our nation beholds. Growing up in coastal British Columbia, I’ve always seen the beauty of Aboriginal culture, especially in artwork. While in Manitoba on Outtatown, we learned so much immersed in life on the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation community, through experiencing traditional practices like the sweat lodge, hearing from elders, and watching one man make carvings out of deer bones. All of this was incredible.

We also had a day of learning about their past and the struggles and the pain that they’ve gone through. I had learned about residential schools and how reservations came into existence, but never as in depth as I did in Winnipeg during our blanket exercise. Hearing just how excruciating and horrific my European ancestors made it for the Anishinabe and other Indigenous peoples brought me guilt and anger. That being said, I am very happy to see how strong and resilient this group is, and I hope that we can continue to show them the love and respect that they truly deserve.

Canada is a huge country filled with people from all corners of the Earth. It was really special to enter into others’ holy spaces and learn about faiths different from our own. As Christians, we are called to love everyone and we cannot let a difference in faith or religion stop us from doing that. I have loved having the opportunity to experience so many cultures within Canada and South Africa, and Outtatown is definitely to thank for that.

– Cole Stewart, South Africa student 2016-17

Burkina Faso Outtatown

May: Press On

Our last five days were spent at a youth retreat centre in Ecouen, a town just north of Paris, France, where we celebrated together and debriefed our entire experience on Outtatown. Throughout our days there, many moments were spent reminiscing about the profound and hilarious adventures. It was during that time that I realized how special our community was; the place of belonging I had found and how God had impacted each one of us in a unique way.

Our group leaders led a session on story sharing on one of the days. We brainstormed the significant memories from our three months and then we were challenged to share the best stories in either a 30-second or 2-minute time frame. The idea behind this was that as us students transition back home, not everyone is going to want to know the details of our entire journey on Outtatown. To understand a story better is to tell a story better. The activity pushed me to really reflect on what was the big take away in each story.

On the last night there, our worship committee led us in a foot washing ceremony. As Jesus washed his disciples' feet before he left them, we washed each other’s feet before going our separate ways. After the foot washing, we sang worship songs together and spent time praying for one another through intentional prayer. I found myself fighting back tears the entire evening, as I could no longer deny that Outtatown was coming to an end. I was going to miss my new family, the sense of belonging and the energy that each person brought to our group.

As I look back on my time on Outtatown, I know that I miss my community. Despite the pain of moving forward, I’m excited for the opportunities down the road. God challenged me more than ever before in my life; I know that if I grew through these challenges, I will grow during my next journey. As Paul and Timothy wrote in Philippians, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I leave that message with all of you: press on towards Jesus. For my brothers and sisters from Outtatown, you are stronger than you know, you can do more than you can imagine because He dwells in you. He is with you every step of the way; if that is the case, will you press on?

– Liam Kachkar, Burkina Faso student 2016

Guatemala Outtatown

April: “Look at What You Have”

2 Kings 4:5 

Elisha and the Oil  "Look at what you have, take it and bring it to Jesus, then he will multiply it." 

"Stop focusing on what you don't have. Instead look at what you do have, and do something with that." 

We spent a week at Community Cloud Forest Conservation helping build projects, and learning about the cloud forest and the Mayan people who live in it. During the week, kids in grade 6 were there taking part in a school program. We were paired up in groups of two with one of these local kids for a two-night Mayan homestay. We piled into buses that took us up into a mountain valley. From there, we followed our new family to their home. The two of us were paired with Gladis, a beautiful 12-year old girl from the rural village of Cebop. We were in for quite the surprise when Gladis took us on a 30 minute uphill walk to her home.

We were welcomed by her father and shown the house. It was made up of two separate wood buildings connected by a tin roof. The floor was completely dirt, and all the furniture was made solely out of wood. We were given some fruit and tea, and sat down on the wooden benches on one end of the room. Slowly, children startled trickling in, and before we knew it eight kids aged 8-months to 13-years old were sitting across the room, staring at us. Some of the kids spoke a little Spanish, but their native language is Q’eqchi', a language that is incredibly difficult to speak, and of which we knew nothing. We tried to ask them questions like "what is your name?" or "how are you?" in Spanish, but all we got was silence or a whispered reply. Then Denis, our 8-year old host brother, appeared with a ball in his hand. From there, a game of catch started with us on one side of the room, and the kids on the other.

Then we tried out a new activity: take a notebook, and draw a picture of an object, and write the English word beside it: house, and the Spanish word: casa. The kids write out and teach you the Q’eqchi’ word: ochoch. The kids were a little apprehensive at first, but soon they got into it, all reaching for the pen so they could write in the word or draw their own picture. Some words were quite simple. Pineapple, piña (Spanish), and chop (Q’eqchi’). And others we still have no idea how to pronounce; flower, flor (Spanish), and uutzùuj (Q’eqchi’). We all had so much fun writing — even their parents came into the room to see what we were doing. 

The next day was even better, with us playing soccer outside with the kids, and them drawing endless pictures for us and reciting all the English words they learned. At dinner that night they kept teaching their mom all the words they knew, pointing at a dog and saying "dog… Perro… Tźí". 

We were there with only a ball, pens and paper, and our imagination to use. Somehow we had the greatest time and formed a beautiful relationship with this family. It didn't matter to the kids that we didn't have any cool toys or fun electronics for them to play with, or that we couldn't even speak their language. We took what we had, and used it as well as we could. By the end of our time there, we went from awkwardly staring at each other from across the room, to all the kids sitting on one wooden bench with us so we could share our two notebooks. 

Leaving this beautiful family after only two days was one of the hardest goodbyes of the semester. We had experienced what felt like a whole other world. At the same time, we had come to understand that this was all they knew and would probably ever know.

We reflected on the fact that next year, when we're sitting in a university lecture, Gladis will still be making the uphill trek to her home where her mom will still be making corn tortillas. We are left wondering what to do with that understanding… how can this two-night homestay be more than just another thing we did while on Outtatown? How does this apply to life in our own reality? As we struggle through these questions, we are trusting that God placed us in Cebop for a reason, that His plan is always greater than ours, and that he will use this experience we had and multiply it into great things. 

 – Stephanie Wadge and Shelby Sytnyk, Guatemala Students 2016-17

Outtatown South Africa

March: My Outtatown Experience

It was on my recent one-week taste of Outtatown Discipleship School in South Africa that I learned about giving yourself to a culture, learning from people whose life experience is massively different than your own. Kids in their desire to simply play with adults and have fun taught me to relax. Walking around Soweto and bombarding Outtatown’s South African partners inspired me to learn.

I talk about Outtatown like it's my job…because it is my job. As an Admissions Counsellor at CMU, I need to have a good understanding of our programs in order to explain them to potential students. This is why I went to South Africa: to experience Outtatown in person, so my excitement and learning about the program would translate to authentic conversation later on.

Outtatown gives students the chance to learn in a way that no university classroom or professor can offer. To gain perspective and deeper understanding of one’s self and of faith, one must get “out of dodge”, harbour a spirit of curiosity, and immerse oneself in something completely new. The people that Outtatown students connect to, inspire a desire to learn, and provide profound perspective on life.

Perspective starts with the little things. Arriving in South Africa, I couldn’t wrap my mind around driving on the left-hand side of the road. I exclaimed upon meeting the Outtatown group, “they drive on the wrong side of the road here!” One of the leaders, with sage patience informed me, “It’s not wrong—it’s different.” This was my first prompt to check my assumptions at the door and think before I speak. Dinner that night was my second prompt. Asking for ketchup at a restaurant won me looks of utter confusion from my server. From across the room, an Outtatown site manager yells to me, “It’s called tomato sauce, here!” I was humbled by my cultural ignorance, and steeled myself for a week of suspending all assumptions while assuming a posture of learning. This was not my country.

The next day we met Mpho, who has been a partner with Outtatown for over of a decade. He was our main guide when we visited Soweto. When I first met Mpho he spoke about his upbringing; that he was told where to work, where to live, who he could associate with. I thought he just had a really controlling family. Halfway through the conversation it dawned on me that he was talking about growing up under the rule of Apartheid, a system of oppressive governance instituted by the Afrikaans (white South Africans).

My lack of understanding was another perspective prompt; Mpho taught me that to understand the world, you need to engage with it—get out of your house and your community and talk to people. Conversation is transformative, and we need to seek it to grow.

I had to remind myself constantly that I was a visitor, a minority, and if I wanted to learn, I would have to embrace being uncomfortable. Humans don’t like discomfort—we like to have control, to understand what is going on around us. But when we relinquish that control we open ourselves to new learning and new life. God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. God calls us to love, to listen, to be kind—actions that take great effort and can cause great discomfort.

God will be found in the moments where we let our guard down and engage and embrace people who are different than we. This is what I learned in a week on Outtatown. To know myself, the world, and God in a way I couldn’t do at home. 

 – Mike Wiebe (CMU Admissions Counselor)

Outtatown South Africa

February: A Day of Silence

The simple act of laying everything at Jesus’ feet comes with a rich reward. During the first semester, we spent one day in silence at a Bible camp surrounded by the rolling hills of Alberta farmland with the majestic Rockies in the distance. I came into this week with so many doubts plaguing my mind and heart about God speaking to me. God shattered those doubts and removed my fears.

I started my day by watching the sunrise and saw the exact moment that a ray of light touched the snow-capped mountains. I was in awe of the majesty and beauty of creation. As I sat there watching night turn into day, I prayed about my doubts and fears and the barriers that prevented me from being a listener. As I was praying, I felt the vibration of a horse galloping. An Appaloosa from the barn was charging towards an electric fence. It stopped, became frustrated, and trotted away snorting. As this happened again and again, I saw this horse as an image of myself. I put all this effort into running to God, trying to please the Creator. Met by barriers of my own making, I fail to reach God, just as the horse couldn’t get past the fence.

I came into the day of silence very observant of events and divine “coincidences” that were happening around me. I decided to lean into those feelings and convictions and I prayed, “Father, help my unbelief, get rid of my doubt, show yourself to me. Rule and reign in my heart today.” God answered in the most unexpected way.

I fell asleep for the rest of the morning, which made me so angry, yet God knew that I needed rest. God was teaching me to rest, to cease striving, and the two words “be still” took on a whole new meaning for me. I went on a hike in the afternoon and found a field where I danced, worshiped, and sang. I felt like Maria from the Sound of Music! I was running around in complete abandonment, like a child just enjoying her father’s presence. God was with me and I lacked nothing.

Later, my thoughts started to wander and I remembered my grandma who passed away four years ago. She taught me how to play the piano and two of her favorite hymns were “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. The reminder of her that day spoke to me.Ten minutes later, our host played both these hymns on his trumpet!

I’m learning to live freely and lightly while I rest in the Lord's arms. Where will this lead? Only God knows, but my ears have been opened and I believe I’m hearing the voice of a loving God who wants a relationship with me.

 Naomi Wiebe, South Africa Student 2016-17

Guatemala Outtatown

January: Lasting Impact

It’s been nearly a year now since Altona increased their population by 1%, all with a vision from Build a Village to welcome five Syrian families into Altona—that’s 45 people. Build a Village was started by Ray Loewen, the owner of a car dealership in southern Manitoba, after his daughter Kristen returned from her year on Outtatown 15 years ago. Since 2001, Build a Village has helped support over 30 new comer families in their transition to Altona.

Build a Village is a non-profit organization that began because one person shared their story. Just days before Kristen was to leave for Guatemala, a devastating earthquake hit El Salvador. Although Guatemala was not impacted to the same extent as El Salvador, Kristen’s overall experience on Outtatown and her accounts of generosity in a country plagued by poverty inspired her father to make a difference. Build a Village has since been a part of building over 400 houses in El Salvador, in partnership with both Mennonite Central Committee and Habitat for Humanity. These partnerships demonstrate the power of collaboration and have caused Build a Village to grow. 

After hearing stories of generosity and hospitality from Guatemala, Ray wanted to make an impact on his home community of Altona. In the past 10 years increased support for local refugees has brought over 200 people (30 families) into the small town. In the last year alone, Altona has helped provide not just a house to live in, but a place to call home for five refugee families from Syria. They are no longer refugees—they are part of the diversity that makes up Altona.

Build a Village is a testimony of the impact Outtatown can make. All it takes is one voice with a story of resilience to build community and hope for many. Take time this Christmas to remind yourself of the ways you’ve been impacted by the generosity of others and how you might impact others with your own generosity.

  – Amelia Warkentin

Burkina Faso Outtatown

December: Billy’s Talent

While in Montreal, our site saw how urban poverty shapes communities and the people within them. On Thanksgiving Monday we experienced the inner-city, watched how people went about their activities, as we had the option to engage with people on the streets. That morning I, along with two others, met a homeless man in his 50’s named Billy. We spent a fair bit of time talking with this very intelligent, clean-clothed, and gracious man.

Before leaving, we told him that if we were in the area again, we’d come say hi—little did we know that we’d have that opportunity that very afternoon. After lunch, our leaders gave us a few hours and a bit of cash to go back into the inner-city community to “make an impact in the local community.”

We started off our afternoon with a lot of walking, sharing food, and enjoying small talk with those on the streets. A few hours later we saw Billy a couple blocks away from his morning spot. He was very happy to see us and we began to engage in more great conversation. We mentioned how we hadn’t really explored Montreal too much, so Billy said he’d be our own personal tour guide!

After 25 years of life on the streets, Billy had learned lots and had so much to share with us: This was evident in how we seemed to be respected by others on the streets. One example of this was when another homeless person began to heckle my friends for money. He was quickly quieted by Billy who said, “Leave them alone, they’re with me.” When we said goodbye to Billy outside a Metro station, we were saying goodbye to someone who not only welcomed us into Montreal, but became our unlikely friend.

Despite the amount of time and energy he spent on us, he never asked for any money or food from us. When we did offer him food, he only took it because we had told him that we had food for ourselves.

Billy was definitely not perfect, but he shared a certain essence of Jesus with us in the way he welcomed and led us—despite him being a poor, recovering drug addict living on the streets. What will you learn if you spend time with the people on the streets whom you usually walk past?

 – Sarah Isaak (Burkina Faso '16)

Outtatown South Africa

August: Finding Hope Through Hardship

A small part of the difficult and tangled history of Strandfontein was revealed to us as we lived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, a Coloured couple living in a well-appointed bungalow, nestled on a busy suburban street. Coloured is an official racial category in South Africa referring to people whose ancestry began with the intermarriage between couples of different races. At the Roberts home, we were welcomed with delicious Biryani, meat pies, and other delicious food, and our week of endless conversations about soccer, history, and Strandfontein’s struggles and triumphs began. 

Now in no way can you hope to attain a full understanding of a culture through one family’s stories and experiences, yet we learned so much. In conversation and through observing their life, we glimpsed a culture very different than our own. Be it through Mrs. Roberts’ fiercely imposed hospitality, or Mr. Roberts stories of segregation and political history, we were certainly immersed in a community that had been shaped by struggle, unimaginable hardship, and also hope.

Community so strong in fact, that tragedy produced tighter bonds and showcased this community’s graciousness and drive all the more. Weeks before we arrived, a strong community leader passed away – a leader from the Methodist Church who was a key figure in our homestay experience.  The fact that we were welcomed in the midst of this tragic loss showcases the community’s amazing hospitality.

Struggle and tragedy, however, is not the full story. It’s unfair, I think, to only remember stories of heartbreak or political corruption faced by the Coloured community and not remember our host family’s passion for soccer, for family, for close community, and for eclectic music. In hardship and joy, the Coloured community rallied together to create a truly memorable homestay experience.          

 – Sam Gillett (South Africa '15/16)

Guatemala Outtatown

June: Little by Little, One Travels Far…

There she was, basking in the warmth of the September sun, waves crashing against the Manitoba Pioneer Camp canoe, praying with an open mind and content heart—“God, this semester is yours. Transform me, I desire to know you.”

She wiped her slate clean, handing God the worries, hurt, and troubles from back home. It wasn’t easy, but it allowed her to dive into community, seek God with her whole heart, be intentionally present and make the most of every experience. I suppose it’s true when people say, “be careful what you wish for,” or in this case “pray for.” Not only did our Heavenly Father blow her expectations out of the water, He also transformed her in unimaginable ways. These transformations happened during the urban plunges, experiencing beauty and brokenness in various forms, living in community, and most evidently through outdoor adventures and the instructors who changed her perspective.

Jesus held her along the way, reminding her even in the difficult times that she was, and is, never alone; that she is deeply loved and created in His image.

Outtatown has been such an adventure! I was given the opportunity to find a friend and home in Jesus, our Savior, who rescued me. The multitude of experiences we’ve had in the past semester have impacted and shaped where I stand in Christ—deeply rooted in His love and grace.

I’ve found passions and God-given gifts in myself and loved being alongside 23 other people on this same journey of discovery. Our community has grown in a variety of beautiful ways and I look forward to discovering the places our Father will guide us in Guatemala! He is a great God who loves to give great gifts. I am eternally grateful.

– Alison Berard (Guatemala '15/16)