The Agape Experience
Charles McKinney is a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer in Macedonia where he teaches English in a rural primary school. When he’s not busy with Peace Corps work, he likes to explore new parts of the country and, when permitted to cross the borders, he endeavors to see as much of Europe as possible. Charles was a first-time visitor to Italy recently and a first-time participant at Agape’s political camp. Connect with him via LinkedIn.
Tucked away in the bodacious Alps Mountains of Northwest Italy not far from the French border is found an ecumenical center by the name of Agape that has been around since 1947 when it was constructed post-World War II by a dynamic new generation of Protestant youth under the tutelage of a Waldensian pastor. Agape’s foundation and evolution to this day has been rooted in a spirit of volunteer service, communal living and diversity, equity and inclusion to all the people who encounter its atmosphere. Each year folks the world over flock to Agape to partake in the various camps it offers: political, theological, work, family, women’s (to name a few).
This year I attended the international political camp on Migration: Breaking Down Boundaries on a Journey toward a Common Home in Prali, Italy, an hour by car from Turin (the nearest metropolis). Men and women from over 30 countries assembled for this impactful camp that explored the causes and effects of universal migration, the human rights issues associated with migration, and practical ways that we all can get involved as activists to combat injustices faced by migrants/refugees before, during and after their journeys in search of a new normal, a better way of living.
We heard the powerful and heartfelt stories of migrants from Turkish Kurdistan, Somalia and Sudan, putting us up close and personal with the bona fide struggles they endure and the victories they work toward as they establish themselves in their new homeland, that being Italy (a Promised Land for many refugees escaping political, religious and/or military conflict or persecution in their native lands).
For a whole week, I had the chance of meeting, learning from and enjoying the company of newfound friends that all brought something unique to the table of brotherly love and unity. Community service remained at the forefront of this experience as everyone pitched in to prepare for each meal that we ate collectively and, likewise, to clean up afterward. The multiple interpreters present facilitated everyone’s ability to understand the guest presenters during the camp; English was not necessarily the lingua franca as I had presumed beforehand and was challenged in being able to communicate with the non-English speaking campers. Nonetheless, nonverbal communication became all the more important in this context.
Not only were we stretched intellectually, but also physically as many of us embarked on an intense daylong hiking adventure in the Alps on the third day. Most of the group persevered until it reached the zenith while the rest of us relished the idea of moving at our own pace, taking frequent breaks and snapshots of the breathtaking landscape before eventually eating lunch and power napping. Then we decided to make the descent down the mountain in an attempt to avoid what appeared to be a potential rainstorm. Gelati and crepes awaited us on solid ground!
One of the highlights for me at this political camp, especially as a Peace Corps volunteer representing both Macedonia and the USA, was when I conversed with Dr. Katalina Tahaafe Williams from Tonga. She sat on the human rights panel, discussing her work and the hardships she has witnessed by migrants in the fight against the dehumanization and discrimination that tries to impede their progress en route to a promising tomorrow. Dr. Williams told me how she was influenced by a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga and how her family even named her after the place where the Peace Corps volunteer (who was a nurse) was from in the States (Katalina Island). It was heartening to hear this educated, cosmopolitan Tongan woman applaud the Peace Corps for its longstanding grassroots work and to be connected in this way. Now I just need to keep on running, working and acting in conjunction with my convictions that proclaim the inherent dignity and sanctity of every human life, migrant or not. I remember the countless migrants stranded at the Macedonian-Greek border in refugee camps, stagnant yet hopeful they can reach their dreams, never to return to a life or country infused with violence, pollution and despair.
Thank you God and Agape for this outstanding opportunity to live in a Utopian milieu for seven days, the prototype for how the whole world should be at its best!