I decided to make this trip into a series of stories. This is an introduction of my basic thoughts on the entire trip, and what I ultimately got out of it. This has been on my heart for a long time, and after three years of processing it, I think it’s time to let everything come out.
Three years ago in September, I began a journey in South America, in the oceanfront city of Puerto Madryn, Argentina. I was unsure of what was going to happen, whether or not leaving everything behind for the next five months would be worth it.
How did I end up there? All thanks to an organization call Youth With A Mission (YWAM) or JUventud Con Una Mision (JUCUM) in Spanish. With monetary support from my parents, I left my home in New York, and went on a journey to meet a group of strangers in Argentina. This group was all meeting together for the Discipleship Training School (DTS).
Here’s a quick summary of what all these acronyms and names mean. YWAM is a ‘nondenominational’ Christian missionary organization. Hundreds of ‘bases’, or YWAM locations around the world host these schools, which mostly host DTS programs (Some are more specific, like sport and performance art programs). The DTS program is a 5-6 month program, broken down into two sections: Christian Theological Studies, and Missionary/Humanitarian Work. The former takes 3 months, the humanitarian portion is usually done in another area or even another country (my group went to Brazil, three other groups in my school went to Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru) and can be anywhere from 2-3 months, depending on which base you go to study.
Usually when I mention my trip, people always ask the following questions: Why did I go, what did I do, and what was it like?
First question: I went because I was raised in a very conservative Christian home. I was a conservative Christian myself. I had no issue with going to youth group, or learning more about god. However as I got older, I began to have my doubts in god and myself. The Bible seemed to become less and less cohesive. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. During my teens I felt ‘led’ by god to become a missionary and to go to Argentina. Many people I knew in my church did this YWAM missionary program, and seemed pretty happy, so I looked into it. Sure enough, there were bases in Argentina. I picked the one in Puerto Madryn because I didn’t want to be in Buenos Aires, (I’m not really a city girl) and the timing of the schools seemed right. (Started in September, ended in February.) And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be by the water? I have lived close to the water my entire life, so why stop now? My mother was ecstatic that I was going, she knew it would be a positive experience and I’ll ‘grow in god’.
I have done short missionary trips with my youth group before in Belize and Ukraine, so traveling was something I enjoyed. Do it while I’m young, some people would tell me.
I look back and that statement is all too true. I’m not even married or have kids, yet as a college student I am still bound here at home. I really, really want to travel again. Thankfully I found a man who shares the same interest. Now we just have to get the time and money…….
What did I do: A LOT. Monotony was not a word ever used there. Everyday there was something going on: working or doing a performance somewhere, celebrating someone’s birthday at the base, going to classes, visiting the town on the weekend, stuffing my face with food. (I gained 20 pounds on this trip. That’s one whole pound a week. Their food is high in starch, so it felt like a brick was in your stomach sometimes. But damn was that food good. Facturas (like a crusant with jellies), Empanadas (a half moon ‘meat puff’ stuffed with meat and veggies), Tortas (cakes), Beef (Patagonia is FULL of cows, beef is cheaper there than chicken!), Maté (Ground tea leaves you put in a wooden cup, and use a bombilla, a straw with holes on the bottom to help siphon out the hot/cold water), dulce de leche (basically a thick caramel), alfajores (a chocolate-covered soft cookie sandwich with dulce de leche) I could go on and on.) It’s really hard for me to summat everything. We visited churches, old folk homes, kids on the street, the homeless and more.
The people of Argentina and Brazil were so friendly, generous, and as sweet as the dulce de leche on a slice of bread in the morning. (Random Fact: Argentinians are not breakfast people. They thought I was weird and liked to poke fun at me for buying cereal and fruit to eat as a breakfast. They eat cereal as a snack, which is why you if you see any Argentinian brand cereals, they are in small bags.) I loved the people there, to this day I still think about them and miss them.
The last question: What was it like? Well that can be quite general. The country was beautiful, I learned a lot, I had fun. I still occasionally get in contact with some of the people down there. All in all it was great.
But that’s sounds too fake. It was hard. I did a survival camp for a week, I had never been in so much physical pain in my entire life during that week. I would get homesick. I had my lows.
As for the school, it was a mixed experience. Some parts were great: met many diverse people, (we had over 50 people at the base, both staff and students, all coming from 13 different countries) experienced many supernatural spiritual events, and got to really explore parts of a country and people, not just be a ‘tourist’.
However the bad, is unfortunately from what I’ve researched after going there, flaws that the entire organization seem to struggle with, not just this particular base. Here’s my top three issues:
#3: No outside theological studies
Everything we were taught was only on the Christian doctrine, or what they believe that doctrine to be. They did not have us study any of the other religions. This is a problem I have with most of Christianity: People are so narrow-minded that they refuse to even attempt at legitimately studying other doctrines and religions. If you are so ‘grounded’ in your faith as you say, why not study other works? If you are as sound as you say, reading about other religions in depth is not going to make you ‘sway away from the faith’ as some argue, unless you choose to no longer follow Christianity. If anything, wouldn’t it make you more sure about your faith? I thought these DTS programs are suppose to be designed to strength people in their faith and open their minds. If that is the case, why not lay out all the cards? Let us see everything, then choose for ourselves. This isolation of religions causes people to be unprepared for the real world. This brings me to my next point:
This was more of a problem when I went to Brazil for humanitarian work portion of the program, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The base we were at the time was in a small secluded area, 5 kilometers from Puerto Madryn, call Las Quintas del Mirardor. There was no internet access, and to use the phone you had to buy a phone card which if you were lucky would last you more than 10 minutes. Calls were also limited to the evening so the office phone could be freed for administrative calls during the day. The only way to buy these phone cards was to go into town, which we could only do on our two days off each week from our studies. Thankfully there were plenty of internet ‘cafes’ or hubs in town, costing only a few pesos and hour to use a computer. Then I discovered Skype. Skype has to be the BEST invention since the portable computer for a traveler. $10 worth of Skype credit can last a couple of months worth of phone calls to the States. This became a part of my routine on the weekends in town: Groceries, internet, eat at a restaurant, done.
Even with these limitations during my stay in Argentina, I didn’t particularly mind. However, they encouraged having a lack of contact with your family, loved ones and friends. I remember telling one of the leaders I decided to confide in, my ‘discipler’, about my frustration with the phone cards (they weren’t working) and that I was homesick. She told me flat out, to forget about them and just focus on being there. I get the fact about not being distracted, but is it really a sin to care and want to talk to your family?
This only became worse when I went to Brazil. We were there for 5 weeks, with 2 or 3 of those week without ANY contact, not even with our base. We weren’t busy enough to say ‘oh we’re so busy we don’t have time to stop!’ as an excuse. This leads to my number one issue, something that still haunts me to this day:
#1 THE LEADERSHIP
Dear. God. The nights I have stayed up, the therapy sessions I have gone to….okay, I’m being a little dramatic (not really). It could have been much worse. These leaders weren’t cops or nazi-like. They were just horribly misguided.
The biggest problem is basically anyone can be a ‘leader’ or ‘discipler’ on the base. If you work for the base long enough, behave, and ‘feel led by god’, you can lead a bunch of innocent students, through hell or high water, or the very pearly gates themselves. As a result, you get a lot of students who become leaders, who have barely grasped the correct ways of properly guiding someone and basic psychology (oh, chalk that one up for another thing they really should have taught).
The other issue is they taught that you cannot question authority, because god ‘chose them to led’. You are not allowed to challenge a leader’s decision. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Funny, that sounds like the characteristic of a cult.
My discipler was a sweet older woman, although she did some things that were not necessarily for my own good. She was one of those ‘Get up and rise! You can’t be sick! YOU ARE HEALED!’ kind of people. If I had a fever, she would gently shake me and nag me, telling me ‘get up!’ until I got up. Sometimes I’d feel better, other times, not so much.
The other issue goes back to isolation. I had a boyfriend at home, however I was unsure what was to become of the relationship. I was unsure about my future with the organization, whether or not I was going to work for them straight after, or just head back home. My discipler told me I needed to drop him, if god wanted me to be with him, he’ll bring my boy back. Now when I say ‘drop’, I mean cease any and all contact and basically break up with him. They tried to reassure me that it was for my own good, another woman did the same thing and she ended up marrying her guy after the program.
Just a quick note: Dating, starting any relationships during the program was a big no-no. They wanted you to just focus on god, nothing else. If you started to have feelings, you had to talk to your discipler about it and ONLY that person. This does not mean that your feelings are confidential however. They would tell the discipler who works with the person who is being crushed on to verify if that person has feelings as well. If they did, your discipler would not tell you if the other person had feelings. Think of it as a weird way of playing cupid. After the program, and once you got the go ahead from your discipler and the directors of the base, you could be ‘special friends’. That’s an actual term they use. You take that time to get to know each other, and pray to see if god wants you love-birds together. You can only hold hands. If god (and the leaders) wants you together, then you can start to date.
I found out much later that one of the guy students at our base was still allowed to contact his girlfriend during the program. This aggravated me and showed the double-standards and lack of consistency at the base. If having a boyfriend/girlfriend is so distracting, why was this guy allowed to keep contact with his girlfriend? He would mention her on occasion, so obviously she took up at least a portion of his mind. I would talk about my boyfriend as well, but it didn’t feel like it was at any higher of a level than him. Most of the conversations I had with my boyfriend, before I had to cut contact, I kept to myself. It’s not like I was like “BOYBOYBOYBOYBOYBOYBOY” all day. I knew I had a reason to be there, and I stuck it through.
Then came Brazil. My team had two male leaders, both in their 20s or young 30s. Sometimes they seemed more like frat boys than leaders: pulling pranks, teasing (I’ll get to that) and generally joking around. While I am fine with being light-hearted, it is not ok when it begins to infringe on my character.
There were several occasions that they would criticize the way I ate. This is mostly because of cultural differences (both leaders were from Argentina) and I wasn’t exactly raised on practicing perfect manners.
‘You don’t need that much butter on your bread!’ (I’m OCD and I like to cover the entire slice of bread with a thin layer of butter. I guess they only use a tiny spot of it. So excccuuusseeee me.)
‘Roll the spaghetti in smaller portions!’ (No shit. I try to avoid rolling m spaghetti since I am more likely to splatter sauce on myself when I do that.) It goes on.
One time we passed by a pharmacy and they had one of those scales outside. Curious, I stepped on the scale and I weighed about 60 kilos, or 144 pounds.
‘Oh my god, you’re heavier than me!’ my leader exclaimed.
Never. Ever. Say. That. To. A. Woman.
I was already sensitive about my weight, I knew I gained. My shirts started to show a bulge from all the food and lack of proper digestion. I couldn’t help it. People were extremely generous and fed us till we popped. And the food was so good. So good. I’m pretty sure I sinned from all the gluttony. But it was glorious gluttony.
Then they did something that still bothers me. One day at lunch, while I wasn’t looking, one of the leaders took pictures of me with one of the student’s camera while I was eating, chewing a wad of food in my mouth. So let’s break it down:
You criticize the way I eat.
You criticize my weight.
Then you take pictures of me eating without me knowing it. An action that is never a sight to behold, especially if you found my eating habits weird enough to criticize me.
I found out about the photos days later. Both the leader and the student who owned the camera loved it and wanted to keep them, despite my protests. I ended up having to steal the camera while they were busy and delete the photos.
I lost all respect for them at that point.
There were other decisions they made that were off par. Again, isolation. We went for 2-3 weeks without being able to call or use the internet to contact home or even the base back in Argentina. The last time I spoke with my family was while I was in Buenos Aires getting our visas before going to Brazil. (THAT is a story for another blog post. Gawd.) They wanted us to ‘live the missionary experience’ since missionaries can go weeks without talking to anyone. Stupid reasoning, but I dealt with it.
One day, one of the leaders went off to go to an internet place and buy our bus tickets to the next town. Okay, fine. It’s just bus tickets. Fine. We stayed at the house that was were staying at; Reading our bibles, resting, talking. Nothing was really going on. We waited for the leader to come back so we could go out and do mission work.
We waited for three hours.
He comes back, smiling ear to ear. ‘Hey! Where’ve ya been man?’ I said. He bought the tickets online, then spent three hours on Skype talking to his girlfriend.
We waited THREE HOURS. We accomplished NOTHING at that house for three hours, while he was able to talk to his loved one. God freaking forbid we could have all joined him and spent 30 minutes calling our families.
To this day that still boggles me. We had nothing planned for the day at that time. Why couldn’t have we gone?
Okay, one more story. The icing on the cake. The ultimate smack-in-the-face.
I’ll admit, I was a bitch on this trip. I was not the best team player. That student I mentioned about the camera? I basically spent the entire trip in Brazil belittling her, and I still feel terrible for the things I said to her. She didn’t deserve it. We had very different personalities (I’m very reserved, serious, stoic. She was very whimsical, naive, silly.) and I didn’t take to it too well. No amount of apologies in the world could make up for what I did or said.
The last night before we were to headed back to Argentina, ending our trip to Brazil, my leaders confronted my about my behavior, and literally backed me into a corner.
‘We’ve been watching you the whole trip, how you have been behaving towards her. She came to us in tears about what you said. You never came to us for discipleship during this entire trip. You hurt the team because of your attitude.’
Let’s back up. They have been watching my behavior. They did NOTHING during the entire trip to stop it from occurring. They waited until the last day.
Instead of confronting me as soon as they saw it, they sat back. There’s a word for that. It’s called enabling, or in their language, permitendo (there’s not a real translation of the word, but close enough). They are just as guilty for the crime as myself. If I was confronted in the beginning, the whole mess with the girl coming to them heartbroken from my harsh words could have been completely avoided. Interventions were invented for a reason. People can be blind or in denial to the damages of their behavior.
There’s a time where I need to learn initiative and speak with you, and there’s a time you have to get some balls and come at me, bro.
This is an intervention. You need to stop being a bitch. See, not so hard, now was it?
The reasons I did not come to them for ‘discipleship’ was because
1. I have a distrust towards men. I was verbally abused and bullied by boys for three years during private school. But they wouldn’t know that since I never talked to th–oh wait! Silly me! I spoke about my life story, which included that situation on several occasions during the trip to help me preach about god! I guess they just weren’t paying attention.
2. They ruined any trust I developed with them because of the situations listed earlier. I’m sorry, but if someone is going to criticize, tease me, and take pictures of me without my consent, you’ve lost any ounces of respect I had left of them.
For every bad leader, there were some good ones. Just not on my team.
One of my classmates was in another group travel bound to Peru, and their leader was not afraid to pull someone immediately out of a situation and tell them flat out ‘This is wrong. You need to stop doing this, and do that…, etc.’ My classmate was one of these people, and she would just stand there, tears streaming down her face as the leader would confront her. Does getting confronted suck? Heck yes. Does it work? Yes.
After I came back from South America, I felt happy, peaceful, and light. Despite gaining 20 pounds, I felt as light as a feather inside. It’s hard to explain that feeling. Every morning I woke up, full of life and energy. Unfortunately, that feeling did not last. I don’t know how to explain it, but it just left. That is a feeling I still miss.
Basically, while I try not to think about the mistakes, I still find myself licking my old wounds. This trip taught me a lot, it taught me that while Christianity can take me to a new spiritual deepening and awakening, ironically in the end the devil is in the religion and the organization of said faith.
I no longer practice Christianity, I feel I do not agree with the hypocrisy of the church, the principles, and much of the religion. Now do I deny god or no longer believe in him? Yes and no. I do not have the kind of closeness I had before with him, however I would not go out and say he does not exist. Currently I am still trying to figure out the ultimate answer of whether or not he exists.
If I had the chance, would I do it over again, stupidity and all? Hell yes.
It made me who I am today. Reality would have struck me sooner or later. It just took a few doubts, a few mistakes, and a few bad leaders to help me realize the hypocrisy in it all.