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As many of you know, getting my visa for my upcoming GMI placement in Greece has not been easy. What we initially thought was going to be a quick six weeks back in the US to get things sorted has now turned into over thirteen weeks. So that I’m not wasting any time here, I’ve been itinerating and traveling all over the country to speak with local churches about my work in Hungary. So far I’ve spoken at churches in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and for the next week I’m in Massachusetts.

In each of these communities I give a pretty similar reflection. I speak during the sermon time and tell the congregation about my three placements during my two years in Hungary (with the RCH’s Ecumenical Office, at Kalunba Social Services Association Nonprofit, and with the RCH’s Roma Mission), and then I talk about the key lesson that I learned about connecting to the diversity in your communities through radical vulnerability.

Radical vulnerability is the process of being totally open about who you are with those around you – and not being conditional about it. I tell the audience that during the year before I moved to Hungary, when I lived in Westford, MA in the UCC’s YASC program, I started being intentional about opening myself up to people more readily. I learned when I moved to Hungary though that this wasn’t enough – I had to learn how to open myself up to everyone, not just those that I thought would reciprocate my authenticity. I had to be okay with opening myself up to folks and taking the chance that they might not share a piece of themselves in return.

This is real, intentional, difficult work. And I struggle with it every day – because it’s terrifying to bare your soul to someone, to give away a piece of yourself, and have no guarantee that they’re going to reciprocate and make that connection with you. What I didn’t realize until I spoke this morning at my church in Westford is just how much of myself I kept hidden during my year here, for a variety of reasons. I was up in front of these people talking and all of a sudden it hit me just how much growth I’ve experienced in these last three years.

I kept bits of myself hidden for many reasons, but I guess on the whole it’s that I wasn’t in a great mental state for the majority of my year in Westford. Due to this, I didn’t blog at all because I was so worried that anything I tried to write would subconsciously lash out at the people and situations around me, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was in a very vulnerable place during that year and yet most people at the church where I served had no clue. I had a few folks that I confided in, basically my coworkers at New England Forestry Foundation (where I volunteered, and who were able to give me an outside perspective on the situations I faced because they were geographically distant from the church community I was part of) and my spiritual sojourner. If it was not for those people, I would not have made it through my year in Westford, there’s no doubt in my mind.

There was pressure during my time in Westford to have it all together – to get along wonderfully with my housemate, to make friends with everyone in the congregation, to dive into social events even when my introverted self was screaming for rest, and to steer clear of difficult conversations that cultural New Englanders were not comfortable having with me.

Now is not the part where I’m going to divulge everything that went wrong that year on here, though. I’m in a totally different mindset now and so I think I could be more objective in my observations of that time in my life – but I’m also past it. For better or worse, I worked through my stuff and learned how to handle other people’s stuff without taking it all on as my own burden.

Mostly I say all of this because returning to Westford and speaking in front of a crowd of people who know me has shown me just how different I am now from the woman of three years ago. Talking to people at the church made me realize how much of me I was hiding during my time with them, and I was then able to compare my experiences in Westford with my time in Budapest – where I realized my shortcomings and took intentional steps to connect with even the most unlikely people around me.

When I moved to Hungary I began taking chances on people, and on myself, trusting that somehow everything would work out all right – and it did. My relationships blossomed in ways I never could have anticipated and I was challenged and stretched far out of my comfort zone, never to be the same.

My time in Hungary made one thing abundantly clear – dropping the façade of the perfect life is critical to honest connection and it was not something that I had been able to do in Westford. When I moved abroad, not having my shit together all the time and sharing that struggle with the people around me was one of my biggest assets, and I’m a little sad that I didn’t realize that just a bit sooner so that I could have shared more of myself with the people here in Massachusetts.

This week while I’m here I’m going to be intentionally working to correct that mistake – I’m going to share deeply and try to connect more authentically with the people in this community who have supported me from afar these last two years I’ve been away. I know it won’t be the same, but my realizations from this morning have resounded in a deep way within me and so now I will try to consciously tear down the walls that I spent an entire year building to keep these people at a safe distance. I’m not sure what will happen over the next week in Westford, but I know that I don’t want to keep myself hidden from this wonderful community of people any longer.