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MVSer follows diverse life to diverse Montreal


MC Canada release by Grant E. Rissler

Knob Noster, Missouri - Rafael Barahona's mobile and cross-cultural past helped make his Mennonite Voluntary Service assignment in diverse Montreal a logical next step after college.

A Canadian citizen of Chilean parents, Barahona says that while growing up, he moved around a lot, living in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Calgary before attending high school and college in Goshen, Ind. Barahona, who speaks English, French and Spanish, says crossing borders and cultures left him feeling the same as many persons who have cross-cultural experiences: that he didn't really belong in any one place.

"Moving around is very emotionally taxing, there's a sense of disconnectedness," Barahona says. "But looking back I can't imagine growing up in one place, though that is a lot of people's experience. I would have missed so much."

He remembers the feeling crystallizing when he visited his parent's native Chile and "felt that was not really me either. Those places [I come from] are all part of me, and that's who I am, but [my identity] was not in any of them."

That cross-cultural identity has become a strength in his MVS assignment, says Barahona. "Having a lot of different experiences, it gives you a broad base of skills and a certain appreciation for diversity. All of this fits really great in me coming to Montreal because it's a place of many cultures. I feel like I can understand, contribute to the people there."

Using his background, Barahona works as Assistant to the Director at the Mile End Community Center, a drop in shelter, community food bank, and gathering place for the homeless and those who scrape by day-to-day in one of Canada's most diverse cities.

The diversity and energy of the city, Barahona says, was as helpful to him as his own diverse background was in helping others.

Finishing college "I felt like I was in a bit of a spiritual rut," Barahona says. "My life was in a very set pattern. I just wanted to do something different, put faith into action. The city itself intrigued me. I'd heard that it's very vibrant, that it's very different from a lot of North American cities, that it has a European feel. It's a city with a lot of life."

Barahona says he found that life to be abundant at Mile End as well. He describes Mile End, which has a weekly lunch and a monthly dinner, as "not just a place to go to get food, but hopefully a place where community can be built."

Many times, says Barahona, that community is built, sometimes even more strongly than in places where everyone has everything they need.

"There's such a bond within that community because they can identify with the strength of need," he says. "They don't turn to money as their source of comfort, but more to relationships with each other and with God. It's just a deep, firm faith."

Reflecting on the discussions that hum across meal tables with each participant speaking from a very different context, a different understanding of faith, Barahona says "one of the great discoveries [here] is to find similarities in differences. Community doesn't mean sameness. [Even with diversity] you can have the same goal. It's something I appreciate."

Learning about community from people often thought to be on the edge of society has been one of the many things Barahona says he will take away from his year-long assignment.

In the end, Barahona says that doing service in Montreal is "for me, about continuing to build my understanding of the world. Everywhere I've gone I've found something I can anchor my experience to. It's something that keeps growing, building upon itself."

MVS Canada is a partnership program with MVS USA. For information about getting involved, contact Brad Reimer (1-866-888-6785, email