First, I’ll set the scene. 1st September 2016. I walked into a room full of people I’d never met before and sat down in the first seat I could find. I felt like all eyes were on me, as if I’d done something wrong. I had. Apparently, in Belgium it’s customary to kiss everyone before you sit down. That was my first faux pas.
I’ll explain a bit. For anyone who hasn’t met me (which is probably quite a few of you), my name is Sarah. I’m originally from Northern Ireland but I’m currently in my third year of a French and German Language degree at the University of York. Third year + languages degree = year abroad!
Before embarking on my year abroad, when I explained to people that I would be splitting my time between Belgium and Austria, the question always came up, “What will you be doing there?” My standard response was along the lines of “I’ll be doing an internship in Brussels, then I’ll be working as a language assistant in Austria”. Often, the next question was the one I dreaded the most, “What kind of internship?” You see, my internship was to be a church apprenticeship. Through the Christian mission agency Crosslinks, I had been given a position in the team at l'Eglise Protestante Evangélique de Bruxelles-Woluwe. But I didn’t enjoy explaining this to non-Christians. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed about what I’d chosen to spend my time doing but I was worried about their reactions. I was worried that they would judge me and categorise me in a certain box. I don’t think it was a surprise for my closest friends that I’d chosen to work in a church. After all, they’d seen me heading off to the Belfrey every Sunday for two years and we’d chatted before about what I believed in. But I was ashamed of what others would think of me.
This is one of the vital lessons that I learnt soon after arriving in Belgium. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” These words from Romans 1:16 formed part of my second Bible study at Woluwe and they reminded me that I shouldn’t be at all ashamed about the good news that Jesus “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Of course, there would be plenty of embarrassing moments throughout my time year abroad (like the one I mentioned at the start) and I’m expecting several more before I’m finished in Austria, but I don’t need to be ashamed of what I believe in. I might fail and make mistakes but God never does.
I settled into my new role fairly quickly. Team meeting on a Monday to discuss both the week before and the week ahead, and to receive some training in studying the Bible. Then I headed off to the GBU meetings (Groupes Bibliques Universitaires - the equivalent of Christian Union) to meet up with other Christian students and study Galatians together. Tuesday was arguably the most stressful and the most rewarding day of the week. It was the day I went to the IBB (l’Institut Biblique Belge - the local Bible college) where I studied two modules (in French): Bibliology & an Overview of Doctrine and Methods of Exegesis. I learnt so much in these classes! In the first module, we studied how the Bible is the Word of God and looked at its characteristics, then we examined the main points in different areas of doctrine. In the other module, we learnt how to understand the correct meaning of any passage of the Bible. We were also required to read Creuser l'Ecriture, which is the French translation of Dig Deeper - a book I’d been planning to read for a while and just never found the time to.
The rest of my week included two Bible studies (one for female students and one for other women in the church), carrying out practical tasks (setting up the church for different events, making tea and coffee, the odd bit of cooking) and working with the children and youth in the church. This last one was one of my favourite parts of the internship! I spent Thursday mornings playing with toddlers (and talking to their mums), several Sunday mornings teaching 6-9 year olds at Sunday School and every other Saturday evening in the company of the teenagers.
Each of these groups (and every other part of my week) taught me so much! I heard about things I’d never heard before, I learnt to look at some aspects of the Christian life in a new light and I grew in confidence that little old me could teach and encourage people through God’s word.
Speaking like this makes it sound like my time in Brussels was all sunshine and rainbows. It wasn’t. I had some pretty extreme lows while I was there but it showed me that the Christian life is not just plain sailing. If we want to live our lives glorifying God and telling others about the good news that Jesus took the punishment we deserve for our sin so we can have eternal life, we need to be ready to suffer. But we know that we don’t need to be embarrassed about what we believe in and we don’t need to be ashamed of the message of the gospel.
Please pray for me now in Austria, where I’m having a completely different year abroad experience, that I won’t forget what I learned in Belgium but that I’d continue to put it into practice. If anyone wants to ask me more about the practicalities of doing a year abroad/experiencing church in a new culture, please get in touch!
More information about the Crosslinks programme and prayer points can be found here.
Sarah is a Languages student at the Belfrey who is currently studying in Austria.