Mission Possible: Orientation Program Prepares Canadian Volunteers for Realities of Life Overseas

By Sison, Marites N. | Anglican Journal, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Mission Possible: Orientation Program Prepares Canadian Volunteers for Realities of Life Overseas


Sison, Marites N., Anglican Journal


"IMAGINE YOURSELF at the airport," Mary Helen Garvin told a group of men and women gathered in a circle, their eyes shut as she guided them to a meditation journey. "Who's seeing you off?. How do you feel as you say goodbye to them? Imagine yourself inside the waiting room of the airport--what are you feeling? The flight is called--what are you feeling?"

Throats cleared, tears fell on cheeks, palms curled up into balls as those in the circle listened intently to the firm yet soothing voice of Ms. Garvin, a Christian psychotherapist who had been asked to help the group explore their feelings about moving to a foreign country. The group, with ages ranging from the early 20s to late 70s, included two lay persons and two clergy from the Anglican Church of Canada, three from the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and six from the United Church in Canada. All are volunteers who, like Christians many centuries before them, heard a calling to serve in countries most only know by name. Two lay people from Jamaica and one from Trinidad, who have volunteered to serve in Toronto's tough neighbourhood of Jane and Finch, also joined the group in the exercise, which was part of a three-week orientation program for new volunteers (Anglicans call the outreach program it began in 1986 as Volunteers in Mission or VIM.)

"Feelings are really, really useful because they inform us of what's going on inside and they help us to proceed," said Ms. Garvin, who also has a diploma in nursing, a certificate in theology and Christian education, and 15 years' experience living in Taiwan tucked under her belt. The exercise, which asked participants to explore their fears, hopes and expectations about leaving one's country to serve another, are designed to identify "stressors" attendant to such a huge transition, she said. These "stressors" are likely to affect their mental and emotional health as they adapt to a new life, she added

Participants talked about the roller-coaster of emotions they experienced during their "journey": loneliness, exhaustion of travel, anxiety about not being met at a foreign airport, adjusting to a new culture and new surroundings, excitement, fear for one's safety, fear about fulfilling the host's expectations, worry about language barriers.

"Everything was either moving too fast or too slow," observed Rev. Stanley Isherwood, an Anglican priest from Cobourg, Ont. assigned to Belize. (Mr. Isherwood left Canada last Aug. 28).

It was "nurturing" to imagine being given a sendoff party, said Glenys Verhulst, a United Church volunteer from Victoria, B.C. assigned to the Philippines.

The meditation exercise was a segement of the intensive orientation program facilitated yearly by and at the Toronto office of the Canadian Churches' Forum for Global Ministries, a coalition of Christian churches in Canada involved in international cross-cultural ministry.

The orientation is "a time for learning and growing and self-testing of your calling," said Jill Cruse, VIM co-ordinator and regional mission co-ordinator for Africa at the partnerships department of the Anglican Church of Canada. The goal is also to equip volunteers with skills that they would need to maintain their physical, mental and spiritual health while they are overseas. They also learn "the ways, means and attitudes which are most likely to help in making friends and integrating into a new culture," said Ms. Cruse. "The orientation provides a broad outline of what one might expect to experience, some of the joys and some of the common pitfalls."

It is an "ecumenical event" where Christian volunteers--who at this year's orientation were housed at the residences of St. Michael's College in Toronto - also spend time just hanging out and getting to know each other. This year brought a diverse group from coast to coast--among them, a Korean-Canadian couple (David Adrew Kim-Cragg, his wife Hye Ran Kim-Cragg and their two young children, Noah and Hanna, of the United Church) who will be assigned to Seoul; a young, guitar-playing United Church volunteer from Winnipeg, David Ball, who will fly to Lebanon; and Shirley Newell, an Anglican widow in her 70s who wants to use her teaching skills next year in Sri Lanka. …

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