Maria Kozhinova is a Helsinki-based long-term WSCF volunteer, and currently works as Communications Officer for WSCF-Europe. She studied Speech Communication in Jyväskylä, and International Studies in Leiden. Environmental issues, Irish dance and big dogs are among countless things that make her tick.
Butterflies, mountain butterflies everywhere. During lunches and during workshops, creating invisible air lace; during the night, attracted by the bathroom lights, dancing next to my ear while I am brushing my teeth. These butterflies have become for me the symbol of Agape: they are not intrusive, yet they are all around you if you just look around. I felt the same with the “spirit of Agape” – it is not forced upon you, and yet after a few days, sooner or later, when you look around, you start realising why people who came to Agape once, always remember the adventure, and I guess, always want to return.
This is how Agape church looks like – no walls to divide denominations, faiths, anyone. Photo by Maria Kozhinova
My experience with Agape started in spring 2016, when I decided to take the challenge and to apply for the Agape scholarship. The deadline was in March, and the application seemed pretty serious in terms of describing motivation – why should I be one of those people receiving a subsidized chance to stay at Agape? I was endorsed as a delegate by the WSCF-E Regional Office, and a couple months later I found out that I am one of the lucky ones! Scholarship awarded.
Agape has mesmerized me right from the beginning. I was expecting to see some old mansion in the woods, with mattresses all over the floor, a mini kitchen, and meeting rooms too small for all to fit. But instead I was met by stone walls of an aesthetically mouthwatering architectural ensemble, a yummy combination of dark-grey stone and dark wood. Truly, although built over 60 years ago, Agape Centre could just as well be built yesterday. I have discovered that Agape is not just one building, but it actually consists of a number of interconnected buildings. On my first morning in Agape, the mountains have greeted the newcomers with a beautiful sunrise and a clear blue sky.
Sunrise reflections. Photo by Maria Kozhinova
The camp I was attending was the last of the three international camps, organised every summer. The other two camps were a theological camp, and a community-serving “work” camp. My political camp was dedicated to exploring the root causes of migration through non-formal and informal methods of education, such as workshops, role plays and storytelling. For me, and probably for some others, storytelling sessions by migrants were an eye-opener. Hearing people telling their stories of travelling months, or even years, to their destination, and then later sharing a lunch or a dinner with them, or dancing side by side at legendary Agape parties, and laughing together, are the experiences which tuned my brains and my heart to a different frequency. I realised, in the words of my colleague Maria Gabriela, “we are all migrants”. This topic, as well as many other interesting thoughts, are reflected in the camp journal, which the journalist workshop (in which I took part), collected during the camp.
All sessions at Agape were synchronically translated to English, Spanish, Italian and French. Photo by Luciano Kovacs
I loved the fact that people there were from all over the world, not just my continent. Hearing “International Political Camp” beforehand, I thought that it will be like most events I have attended so far – mostly European, with two-three participants from overseas, cherished as “special guests”. I couldn’t be more wrong: at Agape 2016 International Political Camp, there were people from all over the world – in addition to most European countries, there were participants from Zimbabwe, Cuba, Kenya, Uruguay, Turkish Kurdistan, South Korea, Guinea-Bissau, Mexico, Tonga, Brazil, Sudan, China, Uganda, Colombia, Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, and Cameroon! This is really rare and precious experience nowadays, because such truly global events are seldom organised due to money restraints. I very much appreciate the fact that the Hosting Committee really made an effort to invite people from Global East and -South, despite that it would be so much easier (and cheaper) to invite participants only from nearing countries. Almost all participants mentioned to me that they sincerely appreciated the genuinely global nature of the camp. I think it is important that such platforms for discussion exist – when else could people of all ages, faiths and sexes meet and talk, outside of the usual political neo-liberal world structures? Participants brought stories about events and struggles which are not visible in the mainstream media. Some participants could lit light on such stories which are featured in mainstream media, but portrayed in a way which is not reflecting the whole situation, such as, for example, young African women’s dangerous and scary voyage on their way to Europe. Having all these perspectives and experiences on the table has enabled us to have the discussion about migration on a very deep, very special level of expertise, and has touched each of us on both informational and emotional levels.
Hamdi, one of the young people sharing their stories of migration. Photo by Maria Kozhinova
Agape is all about interaction and being together as a community. Even the structure of main area vs. sleeping area is designed so that it would be most easy and most desirable for people to spend time in the main area, with other members of Agape community. This is also where the best conversations happened. I am not a small talk-person, I rather stick to a small number of people and get to know them really well. I had this experience also in Agape, and I feel that connection with my new friends has a very special flavour, as it was “seasoned” by Agape experience. It also has a hint of mate flavour, as I received a very precious gift from my new friend – a mate gourd with half-kilo of best Uruguayan mate! Now I can have my Agape experience at home, as well.
My first experience with this weird overseas grassy drink, Uruguayan mate! Photo by Jonathan Cornú
There were also a few mini-gatherings of WSCF people during the camp – we were many! We shared a meal or two, and met for a few discussions on WSCF thematic work. The most interesting ones was when members of the WSCF Advocacy and Solidarity committee met and shared their ideas and views on work with migrants and refugees in WSCF. We had a special honour of sharing our thoughts and ideas with WSCF Senior Friends, Rev. Liberato Bautista, Assistant General Secretary for United Nations and International Affairs at the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and Dr. Katalina Tahaafe Williams from the World Council of Churches.
Sharing a lunch with WSCF people. Photo by Luciano Kovacs
One of my absolutely favourite experiences during the camp was the hike day. We got a chance to communicate with people, unrestricted by the schedule or thematic discussion. I was among the last people in the hiking group, and for me it was the best option! We stopped to check on interesting stones, lizards and tree shapes, and once we walked upon a stock of grazing cows!
This is my favourite cow whom I “christened” Fabio; the guardian cow of the squadron of free-roaming mountain cows. The bells of these wandering cows were the hymn of Agape for me – I even got one bell to take home. Photo by Maria Kozhinova
Man as part of Nature, never Man vs. Nature. Photo by Maria Kozhinova
My camp was such a beautiful experience. Big thanks to the Staff team for excellent preparation of thematic materials, panel discussions and storytelling sessions! Also thank you for providing the translation, it must be insanely complicated to enable such a diverse and rewarding linguistic and cultural experience to almost 100 people! Finally, a big thanks to the Agape Hosting Committee, for making this International camp possible, and making it a very special, global yet individual, experience for each of us. I have never had such a pleasantly piercing international experience. On the day I left Agape, I promised myself that I will return.
Alvaro Soler’s “Sofia“-song was used to call people to each starting session, sort of like a bell, but better. There was also a Sofia-dance to this song, introduced to us by the Staff – every time Sofia was playing, anyone could join the dance freely. This song was like our special 2016 camp alma mater song.