The Words of the Meijer Family
Over a ten-month period, Renee Meijer, a young second-generation member living and studying in Korea, did voluntary work in Russia, Israel, Zambia and India. She spoke about how she was inspired to devote time to service and about what she gained from the experience.
While you were still not twenty years old, you spent months volunteering in service projects around the world. Two years before that, even, you were accepted to work with a project in Thailand, a country where tragedy had recently struck.
Yes. It was a few months after the tsunami. My fifteen-year old brother and I were the youngest on the team from Korea. The rest were college students. But I wanted to do it so much that I had -- I can't say "begged" -- I'd convinced them to let us come. I wanted to do it. I said, "Please take us; we'll blend in well." Finally, they relented, and the older college students took care of us.
I was able to combine my desire to work with children with working in a multi-cultural situation. Such projects as the one in Thailand are great for everyone.
What was the focus of the project?
We built houses for the victims of the tsunami. Then we spent a day with children who had lost their parents in the tsunami or whose homes had been destroyed. I was partnered with a little boy. We were on a bus, sharing a bag of chips. We were going past the sea. He pointed to the water and he was smiling. It kind of broke my heart; his mother had died in the tsunami, but he still loved the sea. That was amazing. It seemed he had somehow accepted the situation. He was about eight years old. He was like my little brother; when my little brother was born, I realized how precious children are. It takes so little to please small children. You don't have to do anything complicated. The little boy and I couldn't speak the same language, but children know how to communicate without words. We have to remember what it's like to be a child, with a pure mind and a pure heart.
You mentioned you built homes for people who had lost theirs.
We were divided into teams with people of all different nationalities. The building teams were erecting houses, which were raised off the ground on platforms. The boys (who were stronger) would mostly fit the houses together, and we girls would paint them. We were hammering and painting for hours; it was the first time I'd done that, but if what you do is for a greater purpose, you don't feel how difficult it is. Thailand is hot; you are sweating, covered in paint! It made it more enjoyable because we could feel why we were doing the work and because of the people we worked with.
I couldn't communicate with everyone on our team in English. At one point we were all in one house painting. It was really quiet -- a loud silence. I decided to sing, to create a livelier atmosphere.
I asked, "May I sing?"
They said okay. I started singing a Backstreet Boys song, and a Japanese boy who couldn't speak a word of English started singing it with me. He knew their songs. We sang Backstreet Boys songs all afternoon! That was how we connected.
So what did you learn, having persuaded the organizers to take you on?
If there is something you really want to do, just do it!
That lesson is what inspired me to go through with planning a trip around the world, because there were so many obstacles. People said no one does that; you're a girl; it's dangerous, and so on. I had set my heart on the project in Thailand, which was a miniature of the longer journey I took later. I told myself that if I liked the two-week Thailand project, I would pursue service work for the rest of my life. I was testing out what I wanted to do with my life.
Were you conscious of your path being a spiritual one?
Before I left home for my long journey, I prayed to God, "Teach me what I need to know." I wanted mostly to learn what would be useful to God in the future. So I kept my eyes open to everything, believing that in every person, every experience, God had sent me someone or something to learn from, like secret messages that I had to discover. I tried to "decipher" all the situations that I was in, especially the difficult ones (which sometimes took forever, but had the most valuable lessons to be learned).
Your first stop of your world tour was Russia, where you taught in a school for blessed children.
Yes, at a new school in St. Petersburg. When I got there, I found that there were only eight children! I taught there during the day. The program was well planned. That was liberating, because I didn't have to prepare everything.
Had you had some experience teaching English before you left for Russia?
Yes, at various times in Korea, including at an English program for children as an assistant teacher. One of the teachers told me that I had a gift for teaching. She said, "Renee, God gives you gifts for a reason."
I thought then, "Wow, that's scary." But it was exciting at the same time. It made me think about what I might do in the future.
Where did you stay in St. Petersburg?
I lived in the CARP center and participated in CARP activities. On Senior Citizens Day, for example, we went to a senior citizens' home where the residents were former artists, poets and actors. We gave them roses and spent time with them -- that was very nice. Another day we went to an orphanage and organized team challenge games.
Being around first-generation members who were near my age helped me sense the value of being from the second generation, and the value of Unificationism. These people, who were only three to four years older than I, had chosen this religion of their own accord. They loved it and had no doubts that it was right. Their inspiration and sincerity was so genuine and contagious. I felt so loved and encouraged that for the first time I saw the potential of leadership in myself.
What was it like doing service work in Africa?
It was at first quite an ordeal to find a project to do that was in Africa, and church-related. After a point, I stopped looking. My father said, "God already knows what you want to do, so calm down a little bit."
Then one day after I had forgotten about it, I came across an e-mail asking for interns to teach the UPF character education program in the summer. You could choose among African countries or Pacific islands. So I wrote an application and said I wanted to go to Africa; and they decided I should go to Zambia.
How did that work out?
I stayed with a missionary family and taught the UPF character education series in Barlastone, a church-founded school, and gave talks as a guest speaker at some universities and other schools. The church community was wonderful; and there were quite a few blessed children, so I was also asked to give a couple of workshops for them.
You jumped into the role of a teacher.
Not much was prepared in advance. I had to take initiative and organize my classes myself. I had to sometimes ask, "Can I please teach a class?" If I didn't ask, it might not happen. But I did have the character education textbook.
What ages were the children you taught?
There were students from the first to eleventh grades -- primary school to high school. There were students almost my age. I realized that parts of the book were too complicated for some age groups, so I made adjustments.
How did you conduct the classes?
Because I did not have my own time slot, I had to work with other teachers. Most of the time I taught during religious education classes.
One of the most important people for me was this one sister, the religious education teacher, Sister Agries. I shared her office at the school. She had once been preparing to become a Catholic nun, but decided not to take her final vows. Some years later, she met our church.
She came to the school at the same time I did. We were both unfamiliar with the school system, so we supported each other. Sister Agnes lived on our farm -- where I stayed -- and worked closely with Rev. Farber, the Zambia national leader, with the idea that she would become a school manager. Sister Agnes was very interested and passionate about character education. We spent hours brainstorming about how to implement character education (to revolutionize the school, internally and externally!). We felt character education workshops for the teachers were a good idea, because if the teachers didn't follow these principles, what use was it to teach the students?
Sometimes, we would combine our classes Sister Agnes would speak for half of a class, and I would speak for the other half. One of her topics was world religions, and other classes were similar to character education. She might give an introduction to Buddhism, and I would say something about how it began. So I was able to contribute something to her classes too.
What kind of response did you get from the children?
They loved it. Especially the younger kids -- middle school age, twelve, thirteen or fourteen -- they loved the classes. They were very enthusiastic. The older kids -- everyone knows what teenagers are like -- they would ask, "So what's this about?" African teenagers are the same as teenagers everywhere else.
So for the older kids, I sat down at the desks with them and turned it into a discussion. We would talk about relationships with parents especially.
Did the children pay attention?
These school children were very clear. They listened to their teachers and they were focused.
Did people seem conscious of your "foreignness"?
When walking outside, I always walked with Sister Agnes. She said I shouldn't wear jeans because people would stare at me. She suggested I wear a skirt. So I stopped wearing trousers and wore skirts. I tried to blend in. I bought a chitenge that you wrap around your waist. They really appreciated that, and I really enjoyed wearing it. I felt that dressing that way when I was a guest speaker at a school gave me more credibility and that they listened to me more!
You mentioned you also gave presentations in other schools and universities. Was that exciting?
They would introduce me as a motivational speaker and always mention my "tender age" of nineteen! Just being there was inspiring, and seeing their reaction was gratifying. I was glad to be doing it for them.
Teaching at Barlastone School gave me some preparation on what to speak about, and how to give a presentation to Zambians. But it was almost overwhelming. I had faith in my new-found ability of conveying an inspiring speech. But I was lifted up so much, praised constantly and confided in continuously, so that I began to feel that people depended on me far beyond my abilities. But I can say it definitely improved my public speaking skills.
I became a better and more confident public speaker.
So you weren't nervous about standing in front of university students who were older than you?
Not so much! I felt really passionate and inspired about what I was doing. I was speaking to them about following their dreams and fulfilling their potential, and I could see that they were inspired and moved. They were told that I had come all the way from America to speak to them and I think that fact moved them just as much as my talk.
Did you feel God was guiding you?
I definitely wanted to convey God's love to these people in some sense. You witness with your life, right? In Africa you can talk about God, no problem.
I also had one experience that I felt was God's direct intervention to protect me and two other British second-generation girls. I had met the two other girls in Delhi, and we ended up visiting the city of Jaipur, known as the Pink City. But for some reason all of us felt sick on the day we were going to go shopping there, maybe because of some food we had eaten. So we decided to see a movie instead. While we were in the movie theater, people suddenly began to run out screaming. We didn't know what was going on at the time, but seven bombs had been set off in the city's market areas, killing eighty people and wounding hundreds. We would have been there. I felt strongly that we had been spiritually protected and I felt so grateful.
Did you feel different as a result of your experiences?
When I came home I felt changed. I now have opinions about world issues and how they should be dealt with. I had discovered my potential, and in what area I would like to work in the future, which is with NGOs to help underdeveloped nations and to influence people through the power of the written word.
My activities in Africa -- the planning, the material -- were all good preparation. In Zambia, I had learned to present content in an interesting and interactive way. I learned what works and what doesn't, especially for teenagers. They don't like it when you are condescending or think they are naïve. As I said, teenagers are the same everywhere.
The other day, my mom told my brother that she joined the church when she was nineteen. I then hugged my mom and said that I also joined the church when I was nineteen. It was in a light manner, but we both knew that I meant it. In Zambia, Sister Agnes had told me that everyone needs to "join their church" even though they were born into it. Blessed children hear that a lot in the movement, about "owning our faith," but she was the first person I ever heard it from.
I am not the first second-generation member to do something like this. During and after my trip, I have frequently met other blessed children who have done amazing things, which has been an enormous source of encouragement and inspiration. I hope that they can share their stories as well. One thing that I learned is that the inspiration and lessons you receive are not only for yourself but also for those around you.