Life is wild. I never imagined my small-town Minnesotan self would end up in Nepal, embracing a new culture and relying on God and my college experience to guide me.
I’m going to take you on a journey from a small lake in Minnesota to a mountaintop school in Nepal, and share how God and Concordia shaped me and taught me lessons that I never expected.
Minnesota, Summer 2007: Sold to the future
My legs dangle off the edge of the dock at my family’s place on Spirit Lake, roughly 45 minutes away from my home near Rothsay, Minnesota. I dip my toes into the sparkling water and the sun warms my face. Heaven. I’m reading a book called “Sold” by Patricia McCormick. It’s the Summer Book Read for Concordia, the college I’ll be attending in the fall. I’m fascinated. I’ve never read anything like this. It’s got culture. And beauty. And suffering. It’s all about a young girl who is sold into sexual slavery in some country far away. Devastating. How does this even happen? I think to myself. I can’t imagine a life like this. But I’m interested. Curious. Who’s helping girls like her? It all seems so distant from my safe haven on this summer day. I like it here. I can’t imagine helping. I can’t. I’m not there. Minnesota is where I’m meant to be, right?
Concordia, 2007-2011: learning to Brew
“It’s all about Becoming Responsibly Engaged in the World,” says one of my Concordia professors. BREW. BREW. BREW. It’s the acronym that gets drilled into my brain while I’m a Cobber. Who knew? I knew students drank a lot of coffee in college, but this wasn’t about that. It was about appreciating the world and knowing your place in it.
It’s something I began to value about Concordia – the emphasis not just on the self, but also on other people and places. A focus on paying attention to the world because, in some way that I don’t completely grasp, we’re all interconnected.
But, to be honest, my time at Concordia isn’t particularly full of active “BREWing” as I stay mostly in the Concordia bubble. But I am doing things I love. I feel at home writing lesson plans in the Carl B and spending time with cute kiddos in classrooms as I pursue a teaching degree. I’m also at home running millions of miles with my best friends, looping around the Olson Forum track with the Concordia cross country and track teams. Running is where I’m meant to be. I know this because it’s how I survive my mother’s death from when I was 14 and it’s how I continue to survive. Legs burning, struggled breaths, it’s the only thing that I find comes close to matching my emotional scars. But running also leads me to the highest of highs, giving me a loving community and finding purpose.
There isn’t a lot of active “engaging with the world,” but all of my experiences are preparing me for what is to come.
In my final semester as a Cobber, there’s one more thing that impacts my future BREWing. It has nothing to do with teaching or running. It’s a creative writing course with Dr. Bill Snyder. In the class, I write a poem about my mother’s death. My professor tells me it’s “poignant.” I’m not even sure I understand what that means, but I discover I have words buried deep inside. Words that need releasing. My shy, unconfident self actually has something to say and my soul is on fire. I call my sister a few weeks before graduation and, through tears, I say, “Court, I think I chose the wrong major. I think I want to be a writer.” Listening intently, she says, “I’m sorry, Hail. It’s probably too late to do much now. But you are going to make a great teacher.”
Graduation came and I walked across the stage in Memorial Auditorium with a teaching degree, BREW tattooed on my heart and confusion about my newborn literary passion. Where do I belong now?
Hawley, Minnesota, 2011-2015: getting my Brew wings
I left Concordia not really knowing how I would BREW in the big ol’ world. I landed a teaching and coaching job in a small town in Minnesota. It was another safe haven – close to my family and it was a community full of wonderful and familiar people.
I could’ve done this forever if it was what God wanted me to do. But somewhere down the line, I began to question, is this where God wants me to be?
The care and curiosity about the world that Concordia had planted in my heart was still there. In fact, my curiosity only increased while I was teaching. It would take four years, but in the spring of 2015, I finally grew what I like to call my BREW wings.
I got accepted into the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program to do one year of volunteering overseas. I hoped it would strengthen my relationship with God and help me discover more about the world and my role in it. As luck would have it (or, as I like to say, it had to be a God thing), the doors finally opened to pursue my writing passion when I was given a placement as a writing intern in England.
England, 2015-2017: getting my Brew on
My world got a lot bigger when I began writing at my placement – BMS World Mission, a Christian mission organization working in about 35 countries. I thought the cultural focus of my year would be learning more about the queen and brewing good tea, but instead it was so much more.
I was soaking in culture from all over the world, interviewing people working in places like Afghanistan, Uganda and Peru. It opened my eyes to the heartbreaking needs and beauty of these places that I never expected to know about. It was so enriching that I decided to do a second year of volunteering. That led me to the most memorable part of my work experience, a solo journalistic trip to Nepal.
Nepal, April 2017: it all makes sense
Tiny hands cup together and giggly “namastes” float in the air as I walk around the grounds of this mountaintop school in rural Nepal. A young girl, maybe 5, with black braids and a nose ring stops to greet us. Oh, my heart. “I just look at these kids and think that they could be anything,” says Annie Brown, one of the BMS-supported teacher trainers I’m spending time observing and interviewing on this trip.
I can’t help but share Annie’s hope. These children are no different than the ones I used to teach. Even though many have been born into more difficult circumstances, I know God loves them and they deserve to dream, too.
I learn this is a serious challenge in a country where rote learning is the norm and many teachers don’t have any formal training. But I also see the hard work Annie and the other teacher trainers are doing to equip and empower teachers across Nepal. It’s making a difference.
I interview teachers, administrators, teacher trainers and students throughout the trip, but there is one interview I don’t see coming.
Radhika dumps a heap of metal and paper on the table. “These are all my medals,” she says, pressing her hand to her heart. “I love running.”
I can’t believe it. Somehow one of the students is also a star runner at her school. This is such a God thing. I don’t think many people even run in Nepal. Radhika tells me about her love for long distance running and the struggles her family faces in not being able to send her to school because they don’t have enough money. I learn that she’s been given a scholarship by the BMS partner KISC so she can be in school. And, because of that, she’s been able to pursue her dream of running and she’s been her district’s champion for three years in a row.
After the interview, we go for a walk in the hot Nepali sun, chatting more about life and running and dreams. Heaven. As I’m about to leave, she hands me two bright pink hibiscus flowers and says, “I will never forget this day. When you look at them, remember me.”
I know I’ll never forget Radhika because we are kindred spirits. The small-town girl, passion for running, facing struggles as a teenager and this overwhelming desire to be the best she can be. I look at her and see a younger version of myself, even though she’s been born into a completely different culture. We are connected.
I walk away in disbelief. Did this really just happen? I say the old Cobber running prayer, “May her legs be swift and her breath be plentiful.” And God please take care of Radhika, run aside her in the race that is life.
Emotions dance inside like I’m at a Johnny Holm concert as I leave Nepal – I’m happy, exhausted, thankful and sad to leave. As I walk through the airport, I see a small bookshop. Maybe there’s a cool book about Nepal that I can take home? I wander over.
My eyes are drawn to a bright yellow cover featuring a young girl wrapped in a headscarf, her gaze pulling me in. It’s “Sold.” My eyes widen: It’s that Concordia book! My mind takes me back to the dock at Spirit Lake, reading about a world so foreign to me. I try to remember what country that girl comes from. Somewhere in the Middle East? I don’t remember. I grab the book and start reading the back. It’s Nepal.
Suddenly, Concordia, the teaching, running, writing and Nepal all swirl together and make sense. I am supposed to be here. All of my passions, success and even failures led me to this experience in Nepal. Incredible. It’s as if God was saying, Hailey, you’ve been through some things in your life, but I promise I’m always working it out for your good. I have the best plan for your life. If you follow it, you will find your place. You won’t always understand it, but I will use you to do good works and you’ll be rewarded in ways that you can’t imagine.
What a gift. I’m still unpacking what I’ve learned from Nepal and how I can use what I’ve seen and learned to make some kind of positive impact in the world. I’m still not sure. But ideas are brewing.
Photos: BMS World Mission
Hailey Brenden '11 is a writer residing in Great Britain.