Why would Grace* ’10, Eastern Mennonite University Young Alumnus of the Year for 2016, choose to live, indefinitely, half a world away from her family of origin, in a slum community built on a city trash pile?
“I think my parents are mostly to blame,” she says, laughing.
She was born in Honduras to Luke ’82 and Carmen ’81 [last name omitted for security reasons], then working as Mennonite Central Committee peace and development workers. After spending her younger school years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her parents were pastors, she urged her parents to pursue a dream of returning to MCC work. When Grace was ready to begin ninth grade, they moved to Manila, the Philippines, for a three-year MCC assignment.
Her parents worked with local partners on social justice issues and cared for those with fewer resources. Grace remembers a particularly significant time of helping her father distribute MCC school kits and food supplies to a rural community affected by flooding.
The family lived relatively comfortably in a middle-class neighborhood with access to air conditioning, transportation and other basic needs. That didn’t sit quite right with her. “I thought, ‘It seems like Jesus would be on the streets with these people instead of in air-conditioned comfort,’ ” she says.
After EMU, the call to long-term service
After majoring in Culture, Religion and Mission (now Religious and Intercultural Studies) at EMU and taking part in a variety of service trips and conferences, Grace pursued her call to incarnational ministry among the poorest of the poor. For more than five years, she has served jointly with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor and Virginia Mennonite Missions, working in impoverished and marginalized communities of a southeast Asian country.
Beyond the gleaming high-rises of the country’s largest cities, an estimated 25 percent of the population lives in slums, many of them eking out a living by picking through mounds of garbage. “It’s a country of contrasts,” she notes.
The realities of life in the setting can be heartbreaking as well as life giving, says Grace. During her first year, a fire – likely set by those determined to clear out the community for new construction — devastated her neighborhood, forcing many who had lived there for decades to relocate.
It was actually due to the fire that Grace met her husband, a member of a local Mennonite church. They were married in January 2013.
“She went halfway around the world and still managed to marry a Mennonite,” jokes Grace’s mother.
Grace and her husband now have a two young boys and spent summer 2016 on furlough in Harrisonburg, Virginia. They spent time with family and friends here, but Grace admitted it sometimes felt odd to be back in this lifestyle, a sort of reverse culture shock.
Their home is in a primarily Muslim neighborhood established next to the city trash site where many scavenge for a living. The couple are part of a small team of local and international service providers who live in the community, building relationships and providing some basic services.
Each weekday, the couple welcomes about 60 community children into the small bamboo-walled classroom (about 50 square meters, or 500 square feet in area) next to their tiny home. Two groups of 30 children come each day, one group in the morning and another in the afternoon. Special Christmas and other gatherings can draw as many as 120 children to their home.
Morning pre-school and kindergarten classes are followed by an after-school program for older children, since the local public school is only for two or three hours per day. “The desire is to keep them learning,” says Grace, especially for first-graders learning to read. Each Friday is a special health education or arts and crafts day. Her husband plays guitar for music time.
They also bring the children out to a nearby grassy area – a huge blessing, according to Grace – for some outside games and activities.
The pre-school activities are especially important in preparing the children to move into the public school system for first grade. For “graduation” each year, the couple uses one tiny cap and gown to take an individual picture to present to each child along with a certificate. This documentation is important for matriculation into the school system with a chance for advancement.
Tuberculosis is common in slum communities in the developing world, and their community is no exception. While medication from the government is free, the process of getting a diagnosis involves negotiating limited transportation service and frequent misdiagnosis. “We help pay for the diagnostic tests and then get necessary paperwork to transfer from the hospital to the free clinic where they can pick up their meds each month for six months for free,” Grace said.
Yugo began providing transportation to a city hospital when a girl in their program began showing tuberculosis symptoms. Thus began an ongoing effort to get the children, and their parents, for disease assessment and follow-up. Often it is discouraging, she says, because “we spend hours waiting in lines at the government hospital but only meet the doctors for a few seconds.”
It costs $20US for diagnosis per person, plus the many hours of transportation, provided by her husband, and more hours of waiting in long lines. So far, they have treated more than 50 adults and children and had more 50 others tested with negative results. Once medication is prescribed, the couple offers regular encouragement and reminders to complete the lengthy medication regime to return to full health.
One of Grace’s greatest joys is working with expectant and new mothers. She offers a weekly class where about 10 women gather to discuss nutrition and provide mutual support. “It has been a real discovery for me to learn how much I enjoy this,” says Grace. “Now I’m considering becoming a certified doula (birth companion) and perhaps a midwife someday.”
Why they stay
Despite the discomfort of living in extreme heat where electricity can be spotty and smells and acrid smoke from the nearby city trash heap can be overwhelming, the couple is committed to their neighborhood. The bond with other members of their service team is strengthened by regular prayer time, shared meals and frequent fun together. The neighborhood women have become true friends.
“I don’t feel like I am making a big sacrifice,” says Grace, who accepted the EMU Young Alumnus award with some misgivings. “I am where I am supposed to be and find great joy in that. We believe we can meet Jesus there, and that’s where Jesus wants us. We still have a lot to learn, and hopefully we’re making a little bit of a positive difference.”
She won’t be on hand when the award is officially presented at Homecoming and Family Weekend Oct. 13-15, 2016, but a short video about their work with a greeting from the couple will be shown.
The Young Alumni Award is granted each year along with EMU’s Distinguished Service and Lifetime Achievement awards. Past winners and an online nomination form (welcome any time) are available at emu.edu/alumni/awards