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|Reflections on International Practicum Experience|
Mylène Melançon, – reflections on international practicum experience
November 29, 2005
A relatively recent relationship innovation of Mennonite Church Canada and Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) is the opportunity for students to complete practicum experiences in international settings. Mylène Melançon (Joliette Evangelical Mennonite Church PQ) writes about her recent experience in Colombia.
Winnipeg, Man. - Whatever it is you think you bring to people, what they remember most is the way in which it was delivered. This is the revelation I encountered while working at Venga tu Reino Church in Bogotá, Colombia, one of two placements for my practicum. Through interaction with several members of the church, I came to see that they desired my friendship and companionship over my skills and knowledge about conflict resolution.
My first task was to help ex-members from armed groups re-integrate with society in the context of the Venga tu Reino church – a spitirual home for people displaced because of the war. Gathered here are both aggressors and victims. I learned how important it is to listen to the people you are serving. It may appear obvious to us that what Colombians need the most are peace tools, but who knows better about what they need than the people of Colombia themselves? This reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend on our perception of missionary work. We wondered if our notion of ‘help’ was the same as the people we were assigned to helping.
My experience in Colombia has led me to re-evaluate the interpretation of one of my favourite verses, 1 John 3:18: “Dear Children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Before I had understood these actions to be large and worldly, like a vast contribution of money or skills. And while these have their place, what I learned in Colombia is that actions are more meaningful taken on a daily basis; rooted in the reality of the pain and joy of the very people you want to help.
The hardest part of my experience at Venga tu Reino was to face my powerlessness. I wanted to help but didn’t have the resources to do so. Numerous times I thought “If I was in Canada, I would call so and so, to get an apartment, go to a food bank, apply for welfare, etc” I felt really humbled to learn (again!) that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
For the second half of my practicum experience I was assigned to teach English at Colegio Americano Menno, a Mennonite school in La Mesa. Here I found a close-knit community similar to the one I had experienced at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Canada. I joined a teacher prayer group and connected with the students.
The Colegio was by far the most beautiful and ironic part of my stay. My main objectives were to help with the English classes and to help restart a peer mediation program. I say ironic, because I was to help with the English classes when I am a francophone and even more ironic because the “help” was taken in a very Colombian way:I ended up teaching the English classes for a semester! I also say most beautiful, because there is no way I would change what happened.
Having worked as a Teachers Advisor in Canada, I was thrilled to work in the Colombian educational system. I feel so blessed for having been able to get to know my students in a more intimate way than the typical teacher-student interaction. I had a chance to understand what a teacher really is and how they are most effective: Not through periodic contact with the student but through an ongoing interaction.
My time spent with the children once again illustrated the importance of actions over words. I enjoy the quote, “people want to know how much you care before they care about how much you know.” That’s exactly what my kids taught me. The daily sharing and care I exhibit is more important to them than any amount of instruction or knowledge I can share. They might not remember every single word of English I taught them but what I hope they will remember is how much I cared.
I found it extremely rewarding to work in Colombia and be immersed in a different culture. I gained an appreciation for being able to read my Bible in another language. So much can be lost or gained in translation. Each language can give a different weight to the same word, changing the meaning of a verse or a biblical context. Certain passages and texts touched me more deeply when I read them in my Colombian tongue, others in my Anglophone/CMU tongue and others still when I read them in my native Francophone tongue.
This practicum experienced enabled an appreciation for this diversity of culture, language and experience. I am grateful to God for creating such diversity, but especially for allowing us to catch a glimpse of what it is for God to understand all languages and see all the different paths that lead to God. I have come to see that God calls me to work in this diversity; to walk in companionship of my brothers and sisters, wherever they may be located in the world. Being in a different country pointed me back to the fact that God is the provider and knows what is needed.
I discovered that hope is what makes Colombia alive. Hope is knowing, just as we Christians do, that this is not how things are supposed to be, and to want to change them.
I felt highly unprepared to do a practicum in conflict resolution, even after having studied it for three years. It is up to each of us to cultivate this culture of peace we theorize so much about. I discovered in my practicum experience that nine months is too short a time to translate theory into practice. It is a start, but all my life I will have to repeat the exercise.
There is always a big step between theory and practice but it can be reduced by an active engagement in the field. Through partnerships between CMU and Mennonite Church Canada, students like me can take the first step into our selected field and start making this transition from theory to practice. My practicum made me even more passionate about peace and justice issues and to live up to it everyday of my life.