Teens’ China service brings comfort with the unknown

by Wil LaVeist, Mennonite Mission Network

Radical Journey participants Laird Goertzen (left) Kate Swartz and Paul Dyck recently completed a 1-year service assignment in China. Photo provided by Mennonite Mission Network.

When many Radical Journey participants prepare for their first overseas mission assignment, they tend to use words such as “paralyzed” and “blurry” to describe their thoughts. A year later, they use words such as “maturation” and “new perspective” instead.

This is how participants Kate Swartz, Salford congregation, and Paul Dyck of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, described their experiences. Along with Laird Goertzen of Goessel, Kansas, they formed a three-member team that recently returned from a year-long stint in China as part of Radical Journey, a Mennonite Mission Network international learning and service program for young adults.

There, they taught English classes at North Sichuan Medical College and at Sea Turtle, a foreign-language training center for children. They learned Mandarin and connected with China’s culture and people as they explored God’s work in China and ways to join in.

Radical Journey participants are typically divided evenly among recent college graduates, college students, and recent high school graduates. In addition to China, two served in South Africa, five in Paraguay, and three in England.

Swartz, 19, said she was not ready to “jump right into college,” but knew that she wanted to explore mission work at some point in her life.

“I decided to just let them place me where they wanted to,” Swartz said. “I had preconceived notions about all of the places … I just allowed China to choose me.”

Dyck, 19, also found himself in the city of Nanchong in the province of Sichuan without a clear calling to serve in China.

“The only concrete ideas I carried with me were the same blurry and rather idealistic intentions that I had before I signed up for the program,” he said. “I was excited to behold the open canvas that this year could be, and start painting a picture, even if I didn’t know what colors were available.”

As Swartz and Dyck started their assignments, mingled with Chinese neighbors, and explored their surroundings, their minds began to transform.

“I learned that the majority of people are caring, complex, and are worth getting to know,” Swartz said. “The world is huge and infinitely more complex than I originally thought, and (the experience) expanded everything that I think about or perceive.”

Dyck cited an excursion he, Swartz, and Goertzen took during the winter break as one of their more enjoyable and bonding moments. They took the “scenic route” by train back from a conference in Hong Kong, and hiked with a Chinese group to the peak of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. They had to speak Mandarin with fellow hikers.

“China is actually a really diverse place, and it was amazing to see all the differences and awesomeness that is all a part of the culture in China,” said Dyck, adding that the trip was fun and educational. “Living off our wits and with our language skills for a month on the road gave our team lots of challenges and opportunities to bond and grow,” Dyck said.

They also benefited from frequent visits with mission workers Don and Marie Gaeddert of Larned, Kan., who are in the middle of a two-year assignment with Mission Network. Swartz said that spending time with the Gaedderts helped her to feel at home.

“They invited us over for a Western meal with regularity, and that was always really, really appreciated, as it would often be our only spaghetti or biscuits or whatever for the month or so … They were loving and welcoming, and it was wonderful to share portions of our time with them.”

The Gaedderts, who became mission workers after becoming empty nesters, said they were impressed that young people fresh out of high school would be willing to go across the world to serve.

Upon returning to America and Canada respectively, Swartz, whose home church is Salford Mennonite Church, and Dyck of Charleswood Mennonite Church, are still processing their experiences. Both said they’re more open to the unknown of where God is leading and that they’re ready for college. Swartz will attend Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and Dyck will attend University of Winnipeg this fall.

“Even taking spiritual and personal growth aside, this year was worth it just for the academic onslaught of insights on such an interesting culture,” Dyck said. “When you live abroad, one thing that is really clear is that everyone around the world is the same (sharing similar values such as family, community, and a need for love and affirmation). But the other thing that’s also clear is that everyone around the world is completely different (such as cultural perspectives and approaches to life). In China, everything seemed to have contrast, and it was a great space for us to look at the uniqueness of ourselves as we became more a part of these other people.”

“I’ve grown more confident, more at home with myself, and more at peace,” Swartz said. “I’ve also developed more tolerance and acceptance toward people who are different from me. The two are more likely than not directly correlated to each other. I want to connect more personally with others, as I’ve connected more personally with myself.”

This article was originally posted by Mennonite Mission Network and is reposted by permission.