Global Perspectives in a Global Pandemic

Global Perspectives in a Global Pandemic

CCS program staff Marcie Gibson reflects on the challenges, the questions, and the creativity of GPE in the time of Covid.

How does one plan a Global Perspectives Experience (GPE) in the midst of a global pandemic?  How could you even consider going to another continent when you aren’t allowed to go to a restaurant, or to visit grandma, let alone another province, or gather in Winnipeg for circle?  A GPE via Zoom? Maybe not.

For those unfamiliar with the GPE, it’s a piece of the CCS Diaconal Ministries program which students usually do in the year before their Integration Year and graduation.  The GPE component has gone through many changes, but essentially it is a 10-14 day immersive experience (usually a trip to another community or country) with a partner organization, followed by a 30+ hour integration project done in the student’s home community.   Students are strongly encouraged to go in pairs or small groups, to deepen the theological reflection, though CCS no longer organizes cohort trips.  In part, this change is in responses to the different learning needs of students, given their life experiences – whether because they have previously lived in a place where students might have otherwise visited, or they have already had a significant amount of that kind of learning experience and need to expand in a different learning edge.  CCS provides recommendations for partner organizations, vets student proposals, and supports pre- and post- experience reflection and action.

Questions about the practicality, ethics, and environmental impact of the GPE are not new, just further complicated.  This has been an active conversation for many years; considering whether it makes sense to require students to travel in the midst of a climate crisis, fueled in part by air transport. Or whether it is ethical to expect marginalized or impoverished communities to absorb the impact of encounter, for the sake of our students’ learning.  Or whether this model of intercultural immersion experience problematically assumes all CCS students are white, middle-class, anglophone, lifelong Canadian residents; when this is clearly not the case nor our goal.  We have long differentiated the GPE from traditional Christian mission trips, being clear that ‘we’ are there to learn, not to ‘save them’; spiritually, economically, or in infrastructure needs like building schools.  But does the GPE still promote a misguided missiology or actively harmful trauma tourism?

Diakonia is sometimes considered a ministry of being a go-between, a special agent.  We need skills to do this in a global context, not just in our local churches or community organizations.  Particularly for our UCC students, the fact that our denomination is nationally-based, can shield us from the gifts and complications of international dialogue, cooperation, and conflict.

Experience is important.  It is a key part of our pedagogy, our learning, our theological reflection, the spiral.  It is why we integrate field placements in the program, it is why students offer student-led sessions, why we practice active pedagogy and embodied learning. 

Often that’s messy.  Often that’s uncomfortable.  And often that’s where transformation happens.

Some days, it feels like an endless cycle of; ‘we shouldn’t go’, ‘we have to go’, ‘it’s outdated’, ‘it’s life-changing, you don’t know until you go’, ‘it’s colonialist’, ‘you can’t learn this from a textbook in your comfort zone’, ‘it’s a waste of money and carbon’, ‘but what about our global Christian siblings??’ – from both sides.  There are no easy answers, which is perhaps one of the best learnings of all. 

In the midst of these merry-go-round conversations, our students continue to think critically and creatively, identifying their own learning edges, opportunities, goals, passions, and plans.  And then, COVID happened, and it all stopped.  A little like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, all of a sudden, travel was off the table.  Now what??  But like the Whos down in Whoville who started to sing, our students continued to think critically and creatively, and low and behold they figured out a way in the wilderness. 

When Alana and Bri-anne couldn’t travel because of COVID, they each drew on their own previous international experiences, conducted further interviews and research on what has changed since then, organized workshops and developed local ministry materials.  When John’s previous plans were off the table, he took the opportunity of moving to a new community as the opportunity to explore connections, colonization, stigma, the role of church and ministry in addressing addictions and homelessness. Rebecca too explored her own local context of Newfoundland, its colonial history and its current Indigenous communities over the course of a whole year.  Another student is spreading her GPE over a full-year of online learning with and from those in Palestine and Israel.  Some students are able to travel still, discerning that this is an important part of their learning experience – whether as someone who has never been off Turtle Island or wishing to learn with a community that has a particular concentration of experience such as Charmain’s conversations with the LGBTQ+ homeless youth population in Atlanta, Georgia, most of whom are people of colour.  

The theoretical and pedagogical question of the GPE is still at hand for CCS.  We have learned to do things differently.  We appreciate the resilience of our students, who are adaptive, focus on goals, action and reflection.  We are exploring new avenues with ecumenical global diakonia, through travel and ongoing relationship. We are listening to related denominational conversations, and we value and encourage your input.  Join us for the journey.