Evan Digman shared this reflection on Sunday, January 30, 2022. You can watch it online here.
Our 2022 Break With a Purpose trip was to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where we spent a week offering hospitality to Afghan refugees waiting to be resettled around the country.
Jewish Social Services is a resettlement agency located in Madison. With the support of volunteers through Open Doors For Refugees, they are resettling families and individuals in and around Madison. Visit opendoorsforrefugees.org to learn how you and/or your congregation to volunteer.
While at Ft. McCoy, our group wrestled with what it meant for us to be there.
Here we found ourselves on this military base amidst flurries of chaos and complexity. We encountered a full spectrum of experiences. I questioned my role in supporting the Afghan guests housed there awaiting resettlement. Aspects of our week weren’t like any service I had done before; for example, keeping track of fabric allotments in the sewing center and sitting alongside military personnel during an Amazon job fair presentation. It felt unsettling and surreal to watch an Amazon employee describe the “great opportunity” of working in their warehouses while knowing the audience likely included skilled nurses, engineers, or doctors. For me, using Amazon will never be the same.
I also felt a lack of clarity in not knowing the needs of the Afghan community and if our work was actually supporting them. It was hard knowing how to serve, being aware that the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan so greatly influenced the guests needing to leave their homes. Simultaneously, I also intended to embody the prayer of St. Francis, which begins with, “Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace.” What I had to offer was myself, my values of kindness, compassion, and joy. While challenging emotions called me to armor my heart, I also heard the echo of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark when he said, “For they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). I leaned into being present with the unfolding process that God laid before me, the gifts of children, smiles, and human connection. Though this trip challenged me, I am also reminded of the Psalmist who writes:
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves (Psalm 126:5-6).
Jesus’ life shows a way to bear both of these realities – the tears and the celebration – for he is indeed the bread, given for us to take and eat together at the table just as we are. In reflection, I find myself remembering moments – little stories of joy, resilience, and connection that stuck with me. I am going to share a few with you.
The first day, I arrived at a women’s and children’s center, joining a group of kids at the play-doh table. The morning was relatively quiet, with most doing puzzles, bracelet making, or legos. At one point during the afternoon, however, things took a turn. One of the other volunteers began a game of bingo. Only a couple of children were playing initially, identifying letters, numbers, and images. Soon, the energy picked up and more kids gathered around the table. The enthusiasm quickly escalated when the volunteer began leading everyone in exclaiming “1, 2, 3, BINGO!” For me, this experience resonated with Jesus’ words on entering the kingdom of God as a little child. That enthusiastic and joyful energy was carried into a new moment later when the lead volunteer started a drum circle. The whole group joined together in the timeless rhythms of the beat, clapping, drumming on chairs, or playing the djembe drum. For me, the drum being passed around the circle was a beautiful expression of our common humanity – celebration through sharing music.
At the rec center the next day, I recall feeling frustrated about some of the rules around doing specific activities. Just before this, however, I was greeted by the smile of a child, perhaps two or three years old. Though it had an air of mischievousness, it fed me in its authenticity. I don’t think this kid stopped smiling from when he entered the building until he left with his family later. I smiled back, only visible by my squinting eyes. I am grateful for this child who reminded me to remain open and responsive to the gift of a smile.
I recall another moment I shared with one of the guest volunteers. As we folded the fabric in the sewing center, we talked about school and where we were from. I learned she was going to start university soon and wanted to know about what I studied. She was going into computer science. We talked about our favorite states and she shared she wanted to move to California because of the warm weather. I also learned that she still had family in Afghanistan and hadn’t been able to contact some of them since she left. The difficulty of the truth was palpable. It was a human connection and included the mixed bag of realities of our humanity.
Throughout this trip, I felt I was on a balance beam – holding space for joy, and holding space for pain. One moment we were laughing in the van driving home from dinner, and the next, we were reflecting on why we were there in the first place. I am grateful for our group, the care and intentionality that was nurtured, and the memories we shared. I will also remember the messiness, the fatigue of just being present with those carrying so much, and the unanswered questions about what to do next. Keeping my heart open, knowing I belong to Christ, created space for the appreciation of beautiful moments amidst challenge. The next breath in and out is a doorway through which I can give and receive the gifts of my humanity, no matter what I encounter.