According to my plane ticket, 6 weeks from now I should be boarding a flight to South Asia to begin my year-long legal fellowship with IJM. I’ve spent the past 6 months preparing for life in this most colorful, sensory-overloading of places. I’ve studied books on the culture, researched the legal system, found a church, located an apartment, and identified the necessary vaccines, bank accounts, cell phone plans, clothing, medicines, and toiletries that I’ll need to bring with me. I’ve connected with friends of friends and other NGO workers currently living there. Oh, and I’ve fundraised $20,000, given up my apartment, and essentially quit my job in anticipation of this year. Going to this particular country to do this particular work has been a dream for 15 years.
But a few days ago, I received a dreaded email from the South Asian government stating: “Your passport is being returned with a stamp – VAF ‘Visa Applied For’. This stamp does not constitute a visa and will not allow you to enter [the country].” While not a flat out denial, this “stamp” indicates that the government will likely deny the visa. IJM has never seen a visa granted after a VAF stamp is given. Obtaining a visa was the last step in the journey and I’ve had a whole team of people praying it would go through. One of the other volunteers who’ll be heading to the same location, received her visa in just a few days. Even though I knew getting an employment visa from this particular country can be tricky, I thought since I’ve spent so much time in prayer over this and feel a sense of “calling” to this work, surely my visa would come with ease.
Logistically, what comes next? Well, there are a number of possibilities. One is that my visa could miraculously be granted. When my passport arrived back to me, there actually was no VAF stamp, but there was also no visa. I received a letter reiterating that the consulate was waiting for clearance from the governmental authorities. This could take weeks or months. The government could also deny my visa flat out, in which case I’m not sure if I could appeal it or reapply. So, if my visa is denied, or doesnt go through in a timely manner, the next option is that IJM could reassign me to a different country.
That’s right, with only 2-3 weeks notice, I could be packing my bags for a year in: Uganda, Ghana, Thailand, Cambodia, or the Philippines. Each of these places is so different from each other and from South Asia. Each of these places involve different types of legal work. And honestly, while I can find beauty and magic in any country, none of these places were my first choice when I signed up for IJM. And even more honestly, I don’t know if I would have gone forward with the year long volunteer program had I been initially placed in one of these countries. This is not because the people in these countries are any less valuable than in South Asia, but rather, my 15 year sense of call to South Asia and to bonded slave labor issues were a huge part of the calculus in deciding that it was worth giving up my current job (which I’m passionate about and could see myself doing forever) for a single year volunteer program.
However, one thing I know is that God’s ways are higher than our ways. There have been many times in life where I was certain I would “hate” a place only to have it be a locus of huge transformation and growth. Proverbs 16:9 says: “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.” I knew this year would be a journey of faith, but it is already proving to require me to step out in faith beyond what I imagined. Its requiring me to let go of the path I thought I was supposed to be on and to be open to roads that I never thought of trekking on.
Another reflection on this situation comes via a conversation with my pastor this Sunday. He said: “Remember, you are committed to the person of God, not the plan of [South Asia].” Wow. Powerful words. This year, and really, all of life, is about following the heart of God. I know that God loves people of every nation beyond measure. I know that God’s heart breaks for injustice of any type, anywhere. It breaks for widows and orphans (“You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. If you exploit them in any way and they cry out to me, then I will certainly hear their cry.” Ex. 22:22-23). It breaks for laborers treated unfairly (“Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” James 5:4) And it breaks for those oppressed by society (“LORD, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them.” Psalm 10:17).
One thing that had brought me comfort in this journey was the notion that God had given me a specific calling to South Asia. Although its nice to feel that God has ordained a “specific will” for me to follow, a wise mentor once said that as we mature in our faith, God often gives less specific directions and lets us make choices about how to serve Him. Anything that reflects his heart is within His will. But its scary sometimes to make choices because if things get difficult, we have to wrestle with that choice. Its easier just to “blame” it on God. Moreover, sometimes God just lets this broken humanity play out as it without intervening. Perhaps my visa wasn’t granted just because someone working at the consulate was skeptical about having a foreign lawyer coming over and working for an NGO. God doesn’t promise to remove every obstacle, but He does promise to be with us wherever we go. Ultimately, there is greater comfort in knowing that regardless of where I end up and why I end up there, God goes before me, and behind me, to my right, and to my left.
So, some final thoughts. Yes, I am a bit anxious given the uncertainty of where I will be six weeks from now. I worry there won’t be enough time to make the mental shift and prepare for all the logistics before I leave. Its really weird to think that I’m (God-willing) going to be hopping on a plane to somewhere for a year, but not knowing where that is. I am nervous that I will feel like I’m bumbling around at the IJM orientation in D.C. in 3 weeks when everyone breaks out into groups by assigned country. I worry that I will be placed somewhere with less activities to do than in South Asia, or where its harder to find community. I could go on. But beyond all this, I know that worry is futile. I am not in control of the logistics here, only how I respond to them. I want my response to reflect the truth that God is trustworthy. I can cast my cares upon Him. He will direct my steps. God has given me a spirit of adventure and its time to let that part of me shine. In ways, I’m excited about the unknown, the endless possibilities of people I’ll meet- who will impact me and hopefully visa versa, of the places I’ll encounter ways that God will transform me there.
In conclusion, I’m reminded of lyrics to a song I posted on this blog when I started this journey and that has become my anthem for this year “You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown, where feet may fail. And there I find You in the mystery, In oceans deep, My faith will stand”
Please join me in praying that my faith will stand in the midst of this great unknown.