The following is an excerpt from “CBF at 25: Stories of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” a new book celebrating the 25th anniversary of CBF published by Nurturing Faith. This edited volume featuring more than 80 first-person stories of mission and ministry and was released during the 2016 CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C. Order a copy of “CBF at 25” here.
By Ashleigh Bugg
During the orientation for Student.Go, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s student missions initiative, leaders and former students often say, “You will be ruined.” But the official slogan of the program is, “Beyond Your Culture. Beyond Your Comfort Zone. Beyond Yourself.” After having served three internships through Student.Go, I feel empowered, frustrated, furious and hopeful—but not yet ruined.
When something is in ruins, it is abandoned, uninhabited, crumbling. When I look at the situations of the people with whom I’ve worked, I think, “This isn’t right. The way they’ve been treated isn’t right. The way I’ve tried to help isn’t right.” Sometimes the world does crumble, and people must hold the pieces and curse the ground. Sometimes we can only live in these crumbled places and attempt to build up from the ruins.
My first Student.Go internship was during the summer of 2013 with Karen Morrow, one of CBF’s field personnel serving in Fort Worth, Texas, where I lived in government housing alongside refugees from more than 30 countries. If anyone knew about the earth shaking, it was my neighbors. They had fled from Rwanda, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq and the Congo. They had escaped ethnic cleansing and political persecution. They had left behind mothers and fathers, children and friends. They had left the beautiful landscapes of their past lives to build something new in the United States.
Kelsey, my Student.Go partner, and I were meant to help refugees assimilate to life in the United States, but they were the ones who welcomed us to the neighborhood, whatever their country of origin, religion or language. We worshiped with a Congolese-Burundian congregation whose members wore bright print dresses and headscarves and danced in the aisles. We stayed up late playing guitar with our neighbors from Bhutan and Nepal who sang for hours on their front steps. We went on family walks with our Iraqi friends who welcomed us like sisters. They taught us how to cook Middle Eastern delicacies such as dolma and biryani rice, and served us coffee on real silver platters. We spent time with Muslims and Christians and with the nicest family in the neighborhood, who were Hindu.
“You girls are ground-shakers,” said Chameka, our neighbor. “Sometimes people just need someone to come into their lives and shake them up.”
Chameka was right about being moved, but it wasn’t because of Kelsey or me. It was our neighbors who taught us the restorative power of community. I learned I could travel without leaving my state. They showed me travel isn’t just about visiting other places, but coming to terms with and understanding the complexities of your own places.
The next summer I did leave home, accepting an internship in Slovakia with CBF field personnel Dianne and Shane McNary. I would learn about the history of the Roma people and document their culture through photographs and blog posts. I knew I would be
tempted to treat these people like sideshow attractions, coming into their country without knowing anything except stereotypes. I wavered between telling an important story and exploiting a story.
The Roma have been discriminated against for centuries. Their culture has been denigrated and misinterpreted. They’ve been taught that their ethnic identity is shameful or unimportant. They are still segregated from the majority culture and, when people write about them, it is to show them as pitiful or to call them liars and thieves.
In fact, the term “gypsy” translates to “liar” in Slovak, which is why I never use this term.
However, the Roma have a fascinating and resilient history. No matter how hard scholars try, they can’t write the Roma off as being one way. Their languages and customs differ from country to country, sometimes even from village to village. They are talented at music and arts but have other interests, including politics, science and math. It’s harder for them to get ahead because of discrimination and economic exclusion, but I met dedicated Roma who were working toward change.
I ended my internship with a series of photos and a short video. I asked people to donate to the CBF Offering for Global Missions so that a media organization run by Roma could make a documentary about human trafficking in Roma communities. It wasn’t a model of charity, but one of art and justice.
I came back from Slovakia after seeing the ruins of slavery and the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust). My stories were snapshots of beauty, resourcefulness and education. They showed Roma children playing at music festivals, Roma priests volunteering in the community, Roma educators teaching children about Roma identity.
After coming home, I wanted to work with communities in my own country who had dealt with xenophobia and exclusion. I was raised in Texas and had friends who were born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States when they were children. I saw their struggle to navigate the immigration system. I saw how they were called names, such as “illegal” and “alien.” I’ve learned that no person is illegal. Actions are illegal, but people are not. I decided to use my minor in Spanish to work with immigrants.
The only available Student.Go placement with Latino and Hispanic immigrants was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with CBF field personnel Greg and Sue Smith. So I packed up my hiking boots and moved to Virginia. I loved being able to improve my Spanish while meeting people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Spain, Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico. Being from Texas, I felt at home among the Hispanic phrases and the wonderful foods like tamales and gallo pinto.
One of my duties was to teach English to a group of Latino adults. On my last day of class, a student shared how she’d never gone to school in her country because she had to walk five hours to get there.
“Besides, it’s tradition for the boys to be educated. Girls don’t go to school,” she said.
I was in awe of my students who came to class despite their long work schedules and the responsibilities of families at home. I was the instructor, but they were the ones who taught me.
Student.Go has taught me to seek out transformative experiences. I understand the bigger picture of the privilege of travel and the importance of going to places as a listener and learner. I am not a savior. But I want to meet people from all walks of life, to learn from them, to see their history and to share a little of my own. I’ve learned that if I want to be an ally, it’s not enough to simply give misrepresented groups a voice. I must listen to the voices already crying, singing and shouting to be heard.
There’s a verse in Isaiah that talks about how a servant will come and bring good news to the captives, the prisoners and the brokenhearted. They will be comforted, and they will be seen for how they truly are: beautiful and strong, a planting of the Lord.
“They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations,” the verse says.
Student.Go opens us to ruined and crumbled moments and places. But it also shows us how lives are being renewed in the rubble. I am grateful to the communities, families and mentors who have shown me a way to restoration.
At the end of three years, I think back to my Student.Go orientation and wonder if I am “ruined.” I don’t think “ruined” is my word. I am deconstructed. Student.Go deconstructed my life. I have been taken apart, and I am being put together again with the patience of my friends, family and neighbors. And for that, I am grateful.
Ashleigh Bugg works as a community content producer at the Center for News and Design in Austin, Texas. She has studied and interned in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Slovakia, Virginia and Texas.