In Stalwart Step

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Picking coffee in Dabeiba. PC: Hannah McKerley

Before coming to El Tres, I only met a handful of people that were familiar with the town. Many attended Presbyterian churches in other parts of the country and warned about long services and unwritten rules against dancing. A few folks from the United States had visited the town as accompaniers through the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Their tone was mostly one of reverence about the people there and the violence in the region.

After spending three months in this place, it becomes increasingly difficult to characterize—especially when I’m learning new things just about every week. I can say this for certain: there are lots of bananas. Banana trees grow for miles by the highway and my host dad has worked in the banana boxing factory for 35 years. On my morning runs, I often greet a herd of goats eating a pile of rotting bananas. I say, “Hey, you goats! Have a great day!” as locals stare at the rare foreigner (and even rarer, a runner) jogging along the road.

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Hannah, another Colombian YAV, walks through banana trees outside Barranquilla.

The kids that know me aren’t shy at all about saying hello as I go by. I’ve been working with some of them at the after-school center based in the church. Most of the time, I help students with English homework or putting together lessons to slake their curiosity about the language. We also spend time playing soccer together. So far, my ability to dribble a ball is improving at a much slower rate than my Spanish.

Last week, I returned from a few days in Medellin. Spending time in the city was nice for a while especially since the Spanish they speak there is so clear. I could understand the gist of most conversations. In Urabá, the region where I live, folks tend to speak rapidly and abbreviate words. It’s been a bit tedious to have to ask folks to slow down when speaking, but I think the immersion has done me more good than anything.

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The family I’m living with is between houses right now. Whie the new one is built, we’ve been living in the nearby ranch.

That being said, the last few months have been hard. The first few weeks were confusing especially being in a culture that feels so distant from what I’m used to. This place is a powerful teacher and it requires a great deal of honesty to sort through what there is to learn. That can be difficult at times.

A lot of those lessons are still forming. I hope to share more soon from what I’ve learned by picking coffee, making new friends, building a new house, and praying in a different language.

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With Confused Language

“Do they please you, the strawberries?”

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Monserrate in Bogota

Years of Spanish classes had prepared me for this question. The answer? Simple. “Yes, I am pleased by strawberries.”

Next question: “Is it cdsjduxkl for the sjkfldsac on the airplane?”

Meeting new people and learning a language at the same time adds another layer of confusion. I can only think about what it’s like to be a dog. At times, you’re simply noted before blending in with the furniture as others talk over you. In more exciting moments, people become fascinated with your ability to listen and speak on command—a fun trick which doesn’t quite make up for feelings of uselessness and a lack of thumbs.

This year, I’m serving as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) through the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Colombia. The program encourages spiritual and critical reflection through a year of service in placements across the country and around the world. For me, this work focuses on creating intentional relationships and teaching English at an after-school program for children in the northwestern part of the country.

But what does that mean?

About a month ago, I left Michigan for Stony Point Conference Center just outside New York City. Approaching the unknowability of the year ahead, explanations to friends had by then marinated in an unconvincing abstraction of my hopes and fears. Even using words now to explain the weeks since orientation seems inadequate.

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Monserrate in Bogota

YAV orientation wasn’t so much about trying to solve that question as much as give us space to struggle with it together. For a few days, sessions focused on understanding our complicity in white supremacy and racism as part of this program. At other times, we just laughed about friends that remain convinced we’re spending a year proselytizing on street corners.

For the first few weeks in Colombia, Sarah Henken guided Hannah and me through meetings with mission partners in Colombia: various schools run by the Iglesia Presbyteriana de Colombia (IPC), programs for interfaith dialogue around peace, and support for displaced farmers.

Especially while learning a new language, this can sometimes feel like an endurance activity. The mind just sort of takes in as much as it can while much of the new information falls away.

We visited Monserrate in Bogota, a Catholic church that sits 2,000 feet which attracts a lot of attention from tourists. It felt oddly comfortable to be surrounded by other people also shifting through broken Spanish at the same time.

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Bogota, Colombia

Language understood through words alone is incomplete. This is the thought I keep returning to as I run through my Spanish-English dictionary. A thought, no matter how interesting, that’s cut in half by the hurried silence of someone trying to find the exact wording can break a conversation.

Still, I find faith with those that have ears to hear. I think about the missionary who coaches me through door-closing etiquette for Colombian taxis and the church administrator who teaches me “to cry” (llorar).

As for now, I’ve settled into my second full week at my site placement. My host family has been great in helping me adjust, and the kids here are curious to learn English. I’m finding this all to be overwhelming at times, but it’s easier knowing I’m not doing this alone.


To stay updated on my year, submit your email here. If you have questions or just want to talk, please reach out: cabsmith@umich.edu