Student Aliese Sumner reflects on a challenging and unexpected GlobeTrek practicum experience
Going into GlobeTrek, I knew that the unplanned and the unexpected would be an inherent part of the journey. I even prayed that it would be. And yet somehow this desire didn’t translate well into being called back home due to a worldwide pandemic. The truth was that when I asked for unpredictability, what I really wanted was manageable excitement that lent to memorable experiences and fun stories. Despite going through all the formalities of submitting the trip to God, I approached GlobeTrek with a white knuckle grip and a paramount-of-my-life kind of anticipation. Although I have absolutely no intentions of trying to claim that Covid-19 emerged as a result of God trying to teach me a life lesson, I do know that the timing of these monumental events clashing was no surprise to God.
During the first one month portion of our trip, Melissa and I traveled through eight different countries, eleven different cities, and visited many more organizations and international workers. We learned lots and saw much. It’s hard to imagine how the first leg of the trip could have possibly gone better. That’s not to say there weren’t challenges or frustrations; we had our share. But just as I unknowingly wanted, they were all perfectly bite-sized and manageable. As we went from place to place, I maintained a course of subconscious control, keeping God in a safe, travel-sized box.
When Melissa and I parted ways for the six month individual placement portion, I felt myself getting renewed with fresh excitement. I was hungry for what was to come, wanting to dig deeper into one country, culture, and organization. The natural bumps of adjustment put aside, the first two weeks felt like a dream. My placement landed me in the small mountain town of Bulembu, Eswatini, complete with awe-inspiring views and engaging ministry. Similar to the first month of travel, I could not imagine much better. But it wasn’t long before the natural contours of life revealed itself in the form of a tragedy.
On November 3, 2019, a fatal car crash resulted in the death of a young Canadian family and a local Swazi young adult. I do not believe that it is my place to go into the specifics as I had only the brief pleasure of meeting these wonderful people. Nor do I have any interest in trying to rewrite what happened for my purposes. I do wish to say that who they were, and the events that unfolded after their death, has impacted me deeply in a life-long way. In the wake of their death, the sharp reality of the complexity of the human experience started to take shape in this small, highly interconnected town and organization. I found myself uniquely positioned in the place of being both an outsider and a friend. Emotional depth began to be a marker of my experience. As a result, reliance on God and trust in his plan became the only available option for both myself and many others. The town of Bulembu ached, and so did all of its international extensions. Raw, honest, Spirit-led community stepped in and filled up the hurting places. In moments of doubt and frustration, I read pre-written words, “God has you right where he wants you” and felt assurance in a previously unknown way. In the midst of irreplaceable loss, God was present and active.
Time continued to pass. I began to settle in to routine and establish relationships. I adjusted to one time zone and my suitcase was finally unpacked and tucked away out of sight and well out of mind. The first few weeks became the first few months, and soon enough Bulembu became more of a home than just a place I was visiting. In slow, small ways I began to tighten my grip again. I was open enough to have new experiences and learn new things, but I remained limited in my submission to God.
As the itinerary for the last one month traveling portion started to fall into place, I started to get invested in an antsy kind of way. During the last few weeks of my placement, Covid-19 came crashing in. A sense of the increasing global awareness and unease surrounding the coronavirus was not completely unbeknownst to me. However, like many others I lacked the frame of reference to fully realize the potential severity of the issue. A pandemic was not in my plan, or really anyone’s, and accounting for it made no logical sense to me. When I was told that things had escalated to the point of my needing to come back to Canada as soon as possible, I couldn’t really register. A very limited amount of time was given for me to race around town to try and say goodbye to the people I had grown to know and love dearly. Within a few days after the initial call, I was on my way across the South Africa and Eswatini border to meet up again with Melissa. In a practical sense, I knew what was happening. Emotionally, I couldn’t seem to process.
There wasn’t all that much for logistical obstacles. Despite the potential for limited travel access and availability, no real interferences surfaced. Before we knew it, we were flying over the snow covered prairies, home again. Except “home” was different now. And we struggled to fully know why. In the midst of the craziness of travel and the mundane reality of day to day living, we had grown and changed. What made the transition even harder was the fact that the people and places we left behind in Canada had changed too. Our jarring return mixed with this reality of disorientation made for an uncomfortable concoction of emotions I still find myself sifting through.
When we did come back the fanfare was reduced to weeks of mandated quarantine. Selfishly, I wanted our return to be a bigger deal than it was – perhaps that would somehow fill the empty space. It wasn’t that no one cared, or prayed. Many people did and we were blessed by it. But they did so from a distance. A new, worldwide-implemented standard distance. And as many of us have come to realize in new ways, we need community and face-to-face interaction because loneliness is never too far away.
It has been over a year since we first left. So much has happened, and yet, it frustratingly didn’t take long for feelings of normalcy to settle in. A year of monumental experiences, seemingly reduced down to a sense of disconnect and unease of not knowing what comes next. Despite having GlobeTrek ripped out of my white knuckle grip, I find myself regularly scrambling to try and take hold of control again.
In truth I never really had as much control as I had led myself to believe. Days before receiving the call that I had to come back to Canada, I had the verse of Jeremiah 29:11 prayed over me. Initially my instinct had been to dismiss the situation, chalking it up to knee jerk cheesy Christianity. It wasn’t until weeks later as I sat in quarantine that I found myself fumbling back to that passage with renewed perspective. Jeremiah 29: 11-14:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[a] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
The larger section of verses started hammering at my struggle to surrender control to God. I have found myself encouraged by knowing God has sovereignty and purpose for my life. I have been humbly reminded again and again that I cannot idolize control; his plans need to be over mine.
Now being back at Prairie for a final year, I have a huge opportunity to enter into a state of purposeful reflection of the past year, with intentions for meaningful integration for the future. I look forward to seeing how I can continue to learn and grow, and step into whatever God has next.
Aliese (right) and Melissa (left) are enrolled in Prairie’s Intercultural Studies program. Prairie’s four year Intercultural Studies degrees offer an eight month international practicum called GlobeTrek.