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Life Lessons at St. Andrews

Written by Wendy A Varisco

By Jed Hawkes Koball ’95

Three of the most important lessons I learned at St. Andrews, I learned before the end of my first week on campus.

Dr. Dick Prust, professor of Philosophy, was my SAGE instructor that year. His first writing assignment for us was to justify the courses we had chosen for our first semester of study. Having taken Calculus I in high school, I had the option to take Calculus II with upper class students. My approach, however, was to ease my way into the rigors of college life, so I wrote to Dick that I would effectively repeat a class I had already taken. The following day, when our papers were returned, lesson number one was scribbled at the bottom of the page in red ink: ¨Don´t be a chicken s**t!¨ I promptly went to the Registrar and switched to Calculus II. What I learned studying at SA was not just to challenge myself; I learned the need to be honest with myself – to be honest with my fears.

Lesson number two actually began the previous year when I was on campus for an interview as a prospective student.  I sat in an office seated across from  Dr. Neal Bushoven, professor of Politics. In my application essay for St. Andrews I had written about ¨Little Shop of Horrors¨, a musical in which I had performed in high school. Neal asked me what I had learned in that experience.  In an attempt to be witty, I replied, ¨Don´t feed the plants.¨ (If you know the musical, you´ll get it). Neal roared with laughter. Was I really that funny?  I joined in laughter, all the while feeling as if I had missed the punch line to my own joke. Later that day, on a tour of the residential side of campus, I passed through Mecklenburg Hall where Neal also served as the Resident Director. The lounge was filled with plants. Taped to the wall was a sheet of paper with lesson number two handwritten in magic marker: ¨Don´t f**k with the plants.¨  Living at SA, I learned more than just respect for other people´s property. I learned reverence for life. All of life.

Lesson number three was more of a question that became a quest. During a workshop for new students, Dr. Mel  Bringle, professor of Religion, asked, ¨where do work and play intersect?¨ In effect, she was initiating a process of vocational discernment, and it felt daunting. What I failed to recognize then and for so many years thereafter is that the pursuit of finding one´s calling is not an individual task. It takes a community. It takes other people – especially people who do not look like you, talk like you, or think like you  — to support you, challenge you, celebrate with you and to hold you accountable. The lesson I have learned in the search of my vocation is this: choose your friends wisely, and remember that they have chosen you, too.

Today I find myself in Lima, Peru where I live with my wife Jenny and our son, Thiago. South America was never on my mind and certainly not in my plans when I was at St. Andrews. Had it been, I probably would have taken a Spanish class instead of Mandarin Chinese. I am here as a Mission Co-Worker of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and I serve with our global partner Joining Hands Against Poverty in Peru. My job is to generate global solidarity by facilitating partnerships between communities in Peru and the United States that are fighting systemic oppression and injustice. Working for the church was also not in my plans during college. I majored in Math and Politics. The choices we make when we are young may impact our future, but they need not define it.

I suspect it was a study trip abroad to India during my senior year that altered my trajectory. Having been raised in the church, my still burgeoning faith was a lens through which I encountered a people who largely identified as either Hindu or Muslim. Among them, I learned of justice movements, experienced unconditional kindness, and witnessed a profound humility that I had longed to know within my own faith tradition. I returned to school and to the US wanting to quench my thirst for more, and so began a post college life of faith seeking understanding that took me from North Carolina, to the Philippines, to Chicago, Nicaragua and New York. I sought and I accepted the invitation to walk with those whose lives are radically different than my own – those who know struggle in ways I will never fully comprehend – in the hope of finding together our common humanity.  Along the way, I picked up some Spanish.

A little over a decade ago I accepted an invitation to accompany our partners here in Peru in their historical struggles for justice in the face of extreme inequalities and the destruction of their land. Just prior to traveling here, I sorted through my belongings to pack, donate or throw away. Tucked between photo albums and yearbooks was a term paper I had written my sophomore year for a class with Neal. It turns out that while in college South America actually had been on my mind. I wrote about a US oil company that had poisoned lands of indigenous peoples in the Amazon and the people´s subsequent fight to hold the company accountable. To this day I cannot tell you what compelled me to write about that issue at that time.

Fast forward, I had been in Peru for about six months, when Jenny, who I had met just a few months prior, invited me to a march in Lima. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon had been protesting against a trade agreement between Peru and the US that would facilitate access for oil companies to exploit their communal lands threatening their life and livelihood. Their protest ended when the Peruvian National Police opened fire on them and massacred dozens. Our peaceful march in Lima was in defense of their rights to protect their land – the Amazon. Nearly twenty years prior, St. Andrews had prepared me for such a time as this.

As police in riot gear lined the roads, butterflies fluttered about in my stomach as I knew what they were capable of. That´s when the red inked words of Dick Prust flashed before my eyes: ¨Don´t be a chicken s**t!.¨ As we proceeded to march expressing the rights of the indigenous and the rainforest they care for, Neal´s sign in Meck lounge screamed out to me: ¨Don´t f**k with the plants! ¨  As I walked in unison with the love of my life and ten thousand other Peruvians, I knew I could finally answer Mel´s question. The intersection of work and play is right here. It´s on the streets. It´s in the jungle. It´s with the people who struggle. It´s with those who invite me to walk with them. It´s where voices come together out of love and for reverence of life. It´s where we practice harmony so that one day all might partake of the bounty of this one common home we share. This is my work. This is my life. And, it gives me great joy.