I was 18, fresh out of high school in Southern California, working a part-time job at T-Mobile, and attending community college when my intrigue with exploring the world began. The two places I was most interested in were Norway and New Zealand, based on a talk given by a missionary family who lived in Norway and the incredible cinematography of The Lord of the Rings, which was filmed in New Zealand. And so, as soon as a customer would leave the T-Mobile store with their new Nokia 3390, I’d be browsing Netscape Navigator (it was 2002) for opportunities to study or serve abroad.
My exposure to traveling up until then was limited to short-term mission trips across the border to Mexico, and a youth group trip to Quito, Ecuador. My worldview was based on God’s calling and traveling depended on divine intervention to be sent somewhere. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Lord of Things: Return of the King, but I felt super called to the fjords.
I genuinely wanted to experience life abroad and help people. In a matter of weeks, I found an opportunity to volunteer for this YWAM-related organization that was putting on events all over New Zealand, and they seemed quite eager to have an American with some web design skills and a heart of gold :). I prayed about it; the opportunity seemed right. I raised a few thousand dollars and got my dad to give me all his United Airmiles — and I was off. Five months of the sweet-as life awaited me. Long story short, I was confronted with the reality that my expectations were unrealistic. The environment, humor, food and approach to faith was not what I thought it would be. Most of all, I was confronted with isolation which I was not prepared to deal with. Just a year before all of this I was in a tragic car accident in which I lost both a friend and my younger sister. A nightmarish event.
If nothing else, events like these force you to grow up and either make the most of your life or sink into the depths of despair. I suppose I did a bit of both the year that followed. A year after the accident I felt like a different person, a stronger person and I felt like I had a new lease on life. It almost felt wrong to get past the grief. But in many ways this event brought Joel 2.0 to New Zealand, but I was not ready to confront the reality of the pain I had been burying.
I lasted 6 days. I returned home a few weeks too late to enroll back into college. It was the first time in my life I had felt shame of that magnitude. I was use to being liked, respected and admired. The send-off party I had experienced just a few weeks before felt so far away. I returned the money to the donors. The months that followed I spent a lot of time coming to terms with what had happened. I had my first little stint of teenage rebellion dabbling in drinking, cigars and online poker. I was wild! It was a dark time, one of the harder times in my life in terms of feeling off track. I even contracted whooping cough somehow. An illness which I believe once killed a ton of children. I wasn’t joking about the dark times.
Failure To Launch
Having returned I was convinced of a few things: 1) I’m not leaving California and have no desire to leave; 2) I won’t leave my home and family for a while. Honestly, though, these new convictions were squarely related to fear of failure and reflecting on the guilt of leaving my family after what we’d been through.
Most of my big decisions in life were laced with spirituality and chasing girls. In 2004 I decided to leave home for the summer to work at a big summer camp called Hume Lake Christian Camp. The girl I was chasing was too cool for me, so I spent two weeks sulking about that before finding dozens of other girls to fall in love with — there were just so many ‘ones’ for me. On Saturday mornings the kids left camp, and most of the staff head to their rooms to get some much needed rest. On one of these Saturdays, I awoke to an unfamiliar language outside my door. I got up and greeted the four people cleaning outside my room and asked them where they were from. I assumed they were European but found out they were South African, and that they were speaking Afrikaans. How weird and wonderful. And the women were beautiful. I spent the next week falling in love with all of them. The way they spoke about Cape Town and the camp they ran there sounded exotic and intriguing. At the end of their week they invited me to come volunteer at their summer camp, the following December. I told them I would pray about it…but I already knew I was going. It was my destiny.
I won’t go into the details of my month on the tip of the African continent, but I will just say that I was confronted with a wonderful and disturbing world which is South Africa. A mish-mash of abundant beauty, familiar comforts, immense poverty and inequality that is hard to get your head around. We ran camps with children from the informal settlements. I then had Christmas with an incredible family in a suburb that, in some ways, felt nicer than what I had back in California. Most families had housemaids, neighborhood security patrolled the streets — South Africa was weird, fantastic and devastating. It was so foreign, but the connections to friends I made there felt different than anything I had experienced before. I returned home and became that annoying friend that wants to talk about something you couldn’t give a shit about. It was South Africa this, South Africa that — I was the South Africa guy. But I didn’t care. That month meant everything to me. I spent the following year dreaming of returning. So I returned again the following year.
I was about to finish University, I had been working full-time during the final two years of my studies. It was a job that paid me better than most University students but I knew I wanted something more. My world was pretty small. The job was starting to feel mundane, so my options became trying to pursue a different, more fulfilling job in California, or go back to South Africa. Life in California was at its best, though. I had great friends, a really cool car, money in the bank and a good job, but I just knew I needed to do something crazy and I felt like might just be ready to leave home.
So I chose South Africa. I quit my job and I decided to go for a year. It had been five years since my Kiwi failure. I was so scared I’d fail again but at the same time proud that I had come this far. I had something to prove. I raised money, lined up a job at the Non-Profit I volunteered at before, and I went.
It’s funny how cyclical life can be. Thinking about life’s recent events and how similar they are what I was feeling at age 23. I was scared but I knew what I had to do. I guess the gambler and risk taker lives on.
In part 2 I’ll talk about my life in South Africa and twists and turns that led me to today.