Young Adults in Global Mission: Life without Consumerism

[1] “Is that really what it’s like in the United States, Heidi?” asked an elderly friend as we sat around the kitchen table one afternoon. “Isn’t it true that everybody has their own bedroom and their own house? That everybody has cars and big televisions and internet in their houses? I’d never go myself; I’m too old and too scared for that. But I understand why people do it. Everybody wants those things. Everybody wants a nice, comfortable life like you all have in your country. Who wants to spend every day worrying about whether you can feed your kids when you can go to the United States and just buy anything you want?”

[2] So went one of many similar conversations I had with friends and colleagues when I served as a long-term missionary in Mexico. These conversations often began as a reflection on a neighbor’s decision to try and cross the border into the United States as a means of supporting one’s family — a last-resort decision for most, and one that was never reached lightly. The frequency with which those conversations turned to my friends’ assumptions about the U.S. American consumer lifestyle, however, became for me a convicting commentary on my home culture.

[3] Many a social scientist has compared consumer culture in the United States to religion. Indeed, consumerism has shaped a series of norms and rituals that look a lot like religious practice. Receipt of one’s first credit card is as important a rite of passage as confirmation for many young people. The Friday after Thanksgiving — Black Friday — is consumerism’s most holy of days, calling people out of their homes and into places of worship where offerings go not into plates but into cash registers. Most of us can sing television commercial jingles as easily as we can sing the lines of old hymns.

[4] In a cultural milieu that preaches economic prosperity as the sole vision of the good life, the church has both an opportunity and a responsibility to lift up counter-cultural models of life and witness. The Lutheran theological tradition, and the ELCA as an expression of Christ’s church, is rich with resources to help us create such counter-cultural space. One of those resources is the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. (Those “in the know” pronounce fondly, if a bit awkwardly, “YAGM” as one full word.)

[5] I’m certain I’m not alone among clergy and lay rostered colleagues in saying this, but I’m convinced that I have the best call in the entire church. As Program Director for YAGM, I have the deep and humbling privilege of accompanying some 50 young adults each year as they engage in a transformative, year-long journey in international service. These young people, all between the ages of 19 and 29, serve alongside companion church bodies and organizations in one of ten countries around the world. They serve in a variety of areas, from congregational ministry to human rights work, from alternative education to health and development projects. The YAGM program is structured in such a way as to provide support for each volunteer. At the same time, it provides a challenging level of independence that impels volunteers to wrestle profoundly with questions of faith, justice, sense of self, and sense of call.

[6] The YAGM experience runs deeply counter to the U.S. consumer culture. It forms and transforms participants in remarkable ways that can only be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, many YAGM volunteers have already been shaped counter-culturally through experiences with other ministries of the ELCA. Liberal arts education in the Lutheran tradition taught many YAGM to think critically about life and the world. Service at Lutheran outdoor ministry sites has acquainted many with a lifestyle of simplicity and the gifts of intentional Christian community. Many are members of congregations, or have been part of Lutheran campus ministries at public universities, where the preaching and teaching focus on service and social justice. Not all YAGM volunteers share this formation profile. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of experiences that appear to open particular young adults to the challenge of living and serving abroad for a full year.

[7] Many components of the YAGM program contribute to the counter-cultural formation of our young adult volunteers. Some of those components seem simply to be the work of the Holy Spirit and are difficult to capture fully in words. Some themes, however, saturate the experiences of nearly all of the young people who serve in the YAGM program. These themes form a base by which our volunteers develop a deeper capacity to look askance at consumerism in the United States context. Among these themes, the following are central: learning how to live with less, discovering the gift of relying on others, and understanding relationship as core to our call as people of faith.

How to Live with Less
[8] YAGM volunteers are supported financially throughout their year of service. They receive full room and board, travel to and from their country of service, and health insurance. They also receive a small monthly stipend meant to help them live at a level similar to the community among whom they’re serving. That stipend is typically less than $5 per day.

[9] For many, it’s the first time they’ve come face-to-face with literally not having the cash (or the plastic) to do or buy everything they’d like. Almost every YAGM volunteer struggles at some point with the perceived lack of freedom that comes with having reduced financial resources. Amy, who served as a YAGM volunteer in Mexico, shared this in one of her newsletters:
“I knew my monthly stipend of 1200 pesos [about $90 US] would not last if I wasn’t careful…Realizing the month of October has 31 days and 5 Saturdays, I was really feeling the money crunch. My host family’s clothes washer was broken for 3 weeks and instead of paying for laundry services I decided to wash my essentials by hand (which is terribly time consuming) like my host family. The realization ‘I really don’t have the money to [get my clothes washed]’ was a startling one. Applying that to families all over the world that have to make bigger decisions than whether or not to wash clothes by hand was a lot to take in. Everyone ‘knows’ there is need in the world, but experiencing it firsthand really deepens the understanding.”

[10] Yet living on a stipend is an exercise in voluntary poverty. Like Amy, over the course of the year most YAGM become increasingly aware that, while they “feel” poor, they have the wild privilege of escaping that “poverty” whenever they like. At the same time, our volunteers witness daily the ways in which such escape is impossible for most people in their communities of service. One YAGM volunteer leaves her comfortable flat in Slovakia, where she is serving among Roma (“Gypsy”) people, only to witness a woman and her children digging through the Dumpster across the street in search of food and items they might resell. Another grieves with a South African family who has lost a child to AIDS, principally because they did not have bus fare to get to the clinic where free antiretroviral drugs were regularly administered. A third volunteer, who grew up on meat and potatoes, tries with all her might to develop a “taste” for the Malaysian rice-based diet. She seeks to be grateful for any kind of food as she serves her kindergarten student what she knows will be his only meal of the day. For a moment, at least, the YAGM stipend which once looked meager feels terribly extravagant. Those moments begin to multiply as the year goes on.

[11] It is important to state that pity is not generally a feeling that most of our YAGM connect to the witness of poverty in their friends’ lives. Far more often, I hear our volunteers reflect with humility on the tremendous strength of spirit they experience in the people among whom they serve. Even in the midst of dehumanizing situations of poverty, our volunteers discover in their global companions a confounding ability to live with joy. Such joy is wholly unconnected to “stuff.” Rather, it is lived in simple things like spending unhurried time with family, praying with neighbors, or sharing tea with a new friend. These kinds of experiences are often co-opted for our volunteers by the U.S. consumer culture. Time with family and friends is rarely unhurried. Rather, it needs be scheduled into an already too-busy day planner, and is almost always buffered by the fancy coffee shop, the big screen television, or the new video game which so often become the bases of our relationships. Being required to live with less frees our volunteers from consumerism’s demands that they accumulate more and more. Instead of finding “joy” in a latte they can’t afford, voluntary poverty allows our volunteers to reflect on what truly brings them joy. It allows them to rediscover life in all fullness, which God desires for each of us.

[12] The voluntary poverty that YAGM volunteers experiences also opens for them new ways of living in solidarity with God’s people. They learn from their communities how to live with simple joy. They also learn to move far beyond the maxim I often hear from people who have short-term experiences in communities of economic need — “they are so poor, but so happy.” The strength of spirit that our volunteers witness in their host communities is borne of deep necessity. There is nothing “happy” about not being able to provide for one’s family, nothing “happy” about burying a child because they had no access to medicine, nothing “happy” about a malnourished kindergartner. The life in all fullness which God so desires is found, in part, in the simple joys that host communities model for our volunteers. It also requires, however, an economic structure in which all people can live not just with simple joy, but with dignity. Our volunteers’ voluntary rejection of wealth is also a rejection of the economic powers that steal a dignified life from so many of God’s people. By learning to live at an economic level similar to that of their host communities, our volunteers are living the conviction that all of God’s people deserve access to a dignified life where their basic needs are met.

How to Rely on Others
[13] YAGM volunteers are drawn to the program because they want to be of service to others. Jesus’ commands in Matthew 25 are compelling. Like all of us, our volunteers are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, care for the sick.

[14] Coming from a monetarily wealthy culture, our volunteers — along with almost every U.S. American Christian I know — are accustomed to thinking of “the other” when considering who is hungry and needs food, who is a stranger and needs inviting, who is sick and needs care. How shocking, then, to quite suddenly encounter a complete paradigmatic role reversal of the call in Matthew 25.

[15] Imagine being plopped down in the middle of a country into which you have never set foot. If you speak anything of the local language you likely don’t speak it well. If you know anyone else in the country, it is likely only through one e-mail exchange. You don’t know how to use the bus system, don’t understand how the money works, don’t know how to navigate the local market, don’t know the appropriate ways to greet people, and cannot blend in no matter how hard you try. Such is the life of a YAGM volunteer.

[16] YAGM volunteers do, without question, provide tremendous service to their host communities throughout the year. But especially at first, our volunteers can’t function well enough to be of much help to anyone. They are the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, the needy. They find themselves, for the first time in their young adult lives, having to rely fully on the genuine hospitality and care of strangers. Discovering that they literally can’t make it on their own, and must learn to accept the gifts of their hosts, who typically have so much less in material resources, is both humbling and worldview-altering.

[17] The United States consumer culture teaches us implicitly to value people, at least in part, based on what they own. Even as early as elementary school, the kids who rise to the top of the “cool” crowd are the ones whose families have money. They’re the kids who come to school dressed in the trendiest fashions, or who bring of-the-moment toys for show-and-tell. As adults, we are pressured to keep up with the proverbial Joneses in various and sundry ways. Whether it’s the house or the car or the clothes or the electronics, we compare ourselves to others, often without even realizing it. The message comes at us, overtly and covertly, from all kinds of directions — you are what you own. There’s a sense of personal and social security in having lots of stuff. Our “stuff” helps us feel confident that we can take care of ourselves, and it shows others that we are successful people.

[18] Except when it doesn’t. YAGM volunteers board airplanes for their countries of service carrying just two pieces of luggage and a carryon. Many live with families who don’t own much more than that collectively. Yet in these families our YAGM volunteers discover a deep and radical hospitality, the likes of which they’ve never had need to experience before. They are welcomed in and cared for unconditionally, as Christ welcomes and cares for us. It is a simple gift of grace, and it’s one they can’t live without in this new context. Unable to rely any longer on the security of their “stuff,” our volunteers recognize that this sense of security was false to begin with.

[19] In learning to accept the gifts of their hosts, our volunteers also learn the value of shared power within the Body of Christ. In order for a gift to be honored and appreciated, that gift must have a receiver. Accepting the immense gift of radical hospitality is often very difficult for our volunteers. They know the economic realities present in most of their host communities, and they are accustomed to not wanting to put people out. Yet as they learn to accept the material and spiritual gifts of their hosts, they are swept up into a new vision of what it means to be members together of one body, where all have needs and all have gifts to share. They learn to supplant the false security of material goods with the deeper power of Christ-like hospitality.

Relationship Is Humanity’s Telos
[20] Reading YAGM applications reveals some fascinating things about the dominant cultural context of the United States. Young adult resumes include long lists of achievement awards, impressive grade point averages, prestigious leadership roles, and challenging internship experiences. Independence and self-reliance are often cited in essays as standout personality characteristics. When asked about personal strengths and weaknesses, nearly every potential weakness is couched in positive language. In short, our applicants do their best to sell themselves. And who could blame them? The very language of “selling” oneself is telling. Our very selves are commodities to be sold. Ours is a culture built on the values of achievement, competition, and progress. These goal-oriented values permeate nearly every aspect of our lives. There are noble things to be found in these values, to be sure. There is also a danger, however. In my experience, these consumer values lead us to believe that our primary worth and purpose as human beings lies in the things that we do.

[21] When entering into the YAGM experience, much of the things by which our volunteers have been accustomed to defining themselves are stripped away. Nobody knows the school from which they graduated and frankly, nobody cares. Their GPAs are immaterial. The prestigious choirs and sports teams and honor societies mean nothing. For most YAGM, this is downright terrifying. Of course, it can also be liberating. Just like one’s achievements don’t matter, neither do one’s failings. Dropped out of school? It’s a non-issue. Made poor personal decisions in the past? Nobody knows. In short, the cultural trappings that define our YAGM volunteers in the United States are simply rendered irrelevant in their new contexts. As they live into the year, it becomes abundantly clear that the only thing that really matters is one’s ability to create authentic, meaningful relationships with people from whom the volunteer is very different.

[22] Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters says this about the industrialized world: “What is sorely needed in the industrialized world is a recovery of the moral conviction that human beings are fundamentally social creatures, and an important aspect of the good life is the recognition that the social well-being of people arises from participation in community…” (from her book In Search of the Good Life). In many ways, the first months that our YAGM volunteers spend in service are akin to entering a recovery program. It’s a recovery from the capital-minded, goal-oriented, fast-paced world in which they were socialized. They don’t earn enough money to consider shopping as a form of “therapy.” They typically don’t have the resources to be connected to the internet 24/7. For those who do have television, watching it in another language, or based out of another cultural framework, often feels too much like work for it to be a mindless escape. They rest more. They read more. They pray more. I recognize that such a lifestyle may sound like a dream for many who read this article. Yet I can assure you that such sudden separation from all that one formerly used to define or care for oneself is extremely unsettling.

[23] It’s also a supreme gift. When all the cultural trappings are stripped away, our volunteers are freed to understand themselves anew. They aren’t the Honors Student or the Dropout or the Athlete or the Screw-up. They simply are. The oily cross is again traced onto the fabric of their lives — “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” That is enough. The pressures of a consumer society, which seek to commoditize our very beings, are washed away in the return to our baptismal identity. The good life, our YAGM volunteers begin to recognize, is not about how much stuff we can accumulate, nor about how accomplished we are. Rather, it’s about living into our primary identities as children of God, called into relationship with one another and with the world. The work they do is very significant to the lives of their host communities, but a YAGM volunteer’s first and most important “job” is to simply be present with people. They are called to bear witness to the movement of God’s spirit in the lives of the communities among whom they are serving, and to allow themselves to be shaped by what they witness there. They discover that their “good works” aren’t worth much if they are not first rooted in relationship. Such a discovery, to many of our young people, feels a whole lot like salvation.

[24] Learning to understand humanity’s purpose as something that we are rather than something that we do is perhaps the biggest challenge inherent to accepting the call to serve as a YAGM volunteer. But it’s also tremendously transformative, and not just for our volunteers. We are not “social creatures,” as Peters names us, simply for the sake of being social. We are “social creatures” — called into relationship — for the sake a world in need. It is impossible to live and work for a new spiritual, economic, and social order without being rooted in community. It is from the base of relationship, rooted in Christ and reaching out to one another, that we are able to exercise moral agency, able to create new ways of being in the world, able to support one another through the ups and downs of struggling for justice in a world seemingly stacked against the poor.

Coming “Home”
[25] I often tell our volunteers that, as profound as their experiences abroad have been, their most significant work as missionaries won’t begin until they return home to the United States. Coming home is hard. In fact, most of our YAGM struggle mightily to reconnect with the United States as “home” after a year away. Their host communities around the world shape and transform our volunteers in such a way that makes returning to the U.S. consumer cultural milieu feel like an intensely foreign experience. Thankfully, they have one another to rely on as they navigate the transition. It takes time, but as they slowly resettle into life here in the United States, our volunteers begin to recognize the major internal shifts that came as a result of their YAGM experience.

[26] About thirty percent of our YAGM volunteers end up in seminary following their journey in international service. Others attend graduate school for social work, medicine, international development, or environmental science. Still others commit themselves to another year of volunteering in the domestic sphere, or accept jobs with organizations like Bread for the World or ELCA World Hunger. Some enter into a period of discernment, crashing with Mom and Dad and serving for a time as coffee shop baristas. In all of these experiences, the lives of our returned volunteers become vivid reflections of the global host communities that shaped them. I am continually grateful for their witness in the world, and for the ways they will challenge this church — and all of us together — to live with joy and intention.

Heidi Torgerson-Martinez

The Rev. Heidi Torgerson-Martinez is the associate director for global service-YAGM and Recruitment in the ELCA's Global Mission unit.