(Written on December 19, 2020)

I’m somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean right now, 10 hours in to a 22-ish hour journey home. I sprinted through Heathrow Airport to make it on this connecting flight, guilty with a vegan smoothie in hand. (It was worth it.) Earlier today, my feet were touching Lebanese soil for the last time in who knows how long. I’m in that weird space of traveling where nothing feels real; my time in Lebanon seems like a dream and Atlanta might as well be a lifetime away.

How can I possibly put this experience into words?

The final few months of my volunteer service with Relief & Reconciliation were rewarding, challenging, amazing, and certainly life-changing. I continued to teaching English to Arabic-speaking children and youth in our Kousha camp school and up in Mishmish. I also got to help out with a women’s sewing workshop, teaching them how to knit, which was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted. The team and I did outreach with local Syrian families, drinking lots of chai with lots of sugar. Despite more coronavirus lockdowns, we continued activities as fully, but also as safely, as possible. I even got to see some of the famous cedar trees, harvest more olives, make friends with some local Lebanese shebab, and explore a place called Fnaidek. Fnaidek! What a fun name! But Fnaidek and all the other fun had to come to a close, with a few tearful goodbyes, trying to get rid of my last Lebanese liras, and saying peace out to the Peace Center.

Now, as I pause to reflect on the past six months and all they’ve meant to me, the first feeling that comes up is gratitude. Who am I to promote and provide education for Syrian refugee children? To implement peace-building programs between groups of diverse religions and nationalities? To practice my Arabic in the most authentic way possible, while using my growing language skills to help those in need? To play even the tiniest, most minuscule role in the lives of these beautiful, resilient people? I am thankful, so thankful, for this opportunity that only God could have provided. I am grateful, so grateful, for each and every student who trusted me, laughed with me, built Lego houses with me. I’ve kept a gratitude journal beside my bed throughout this whole journey, writing down at least three things I’m grateful for every night. I can’t wait to read through it and see the faithfulness of God in each day, and then thank Him all over again.

Other than gratitude, one of my biggest takeaways is hospitality. You pass by a family’s tent and they invite you in; you sit inside and they instantly offer coffee or tea; they make you feel like family before you’ve taken your first sip. We talk a big game about Southern hospitality, but y’all, we’ve got nothing on Arabs.

I want to live my life with this radical hospitality. It’s not just quick visits over chai; it’s a spirit of welcome toward everyone you encounter. It’s prioritizing community and relationships more than anything else. Sure, sometimes you need to finish projects, meet deadlines, go on a business trip. But when those times are more the rule than the exception, we’ve got to reevaluate. I think that reevaluation needs to happen on a cultural level, not just an individual or family one. But by our little choices—by making the extra effort to visit or call a family member, by organizing dinners with old groups of friends, by actually FaceTiming instead of saying “we should FaceTime soon!”—we can start treating people like they are the most important thing in our lives. Like when they walk into the room, they have our attention, loyalty, and of course, a good cup of coffee or tea.

There’s so much more I’ve learned, gained, and grown in throughout my time in Lebanon: the meaning and importance of spiritual solidarity, what Christians can learn from Muslims, values in international humanitarian work, ideas and opportunities for my future career advancing global justice—the list goes on. I’m sure I’ll be unpacking everything, both literally and figuratively, for a while. Until then, I’m excited to get home, hug my family, pet my dog, and eat a good sweet potato. I want to invite you, whoever you are reading this, to add a little extra dose of gratitude or hospitality into your day today. I hope that, in doing so, you’ll experience the same spark of joy that I’ve come to know amidst the olive groves and northern hills of Lebanon.