On Saturday I went to a celebration service to mark the ending of Careforce; the Christian gap year organisation that started 32 years ago. It was great to hear stories of many whose lives had been changed by experiences of volunteering or hosting volunteers in churches. It was amazing ot hear now one small organisation effected so much change in our churches and the lives of so many individuals.
Careforce was probably the original Christian gap year agency – started in 1980 when gap years were relatively new and opportunities to travel overseas for such experiences were rare – even if they could be afforded. It has changed considerably in that time and more recently has recruited more volunteers from overseas than the UK. It is a small organisation but with a paid staff of only 3 it punches way above its weight simply because it works by deploying volunteers in churches and organisations for a year at a time; volunteers who have various levels of experience but all with an enthusiasm and commitment to serve Christ and to live out their faith and make a big impact wherever they are.
I was a Careforce volunteer for 2 years in the 1980’s and more recently have hosted students on placement in my own church. It’s impact on my own life is immeasurable! When I applied to Careforce at the end of my university course I was sent to the Romsey Mill youth centre in Cambridge. Like many who told their stories on Saturday, my motivation was to explore my calling – for me this was to youth work and through the year my vocation was sealed. I stayed for a second year and applied for post-graduate training in youth and community work. Of more significance and also in common with many other volunteers, I met the beautiful woman who was to become my wife in that first year and we were married at the end of my time at the Mill.
But its impact on me was also deeper as it not only set me up for a life of youth work and ministry and a life with a wonderful wife who shared a passion for young people but it left me with a belief in, and commitment to, the ‘gap year’ experience. I have invested much time and energy in supporting young people to take time out to volunteer and serve others in cross-cultural settings – either within this country or overseas. I have also set up an ‘intern’ programme for my own church and recently for my diocese. Ian Prior (retiring director of Careforce) spoke of the legacy of Careforce as inspiring others to emulate such programmes and I can testify that this is true for me! (Ironically it is possibly the success of such schemes that have led to the demise of Careforce).
Ian also spoke of the legacy of bringing people together from other cultures and particularly the impact of overseas volunteers coming to serve the UK church and then of course the legacy of changed lives. ‘Of course’ we might say, of course lives are changed by such experiences, it’s obvious. But I think the gap year has a power to change people and enable growth and maturity because it offers an experience of liminality that is often rare for young people.
Liminality or liminal space is the place of ‘threshold’, the neutral space where we are able to grow and change due to different experiences that take us beyond ourselves and our normal patterns of behaviour, giving us opportunity to take risks, grow virtues and develop character. Tribal initiation rites are often used as the key example of liminality where young boys are taken out of their village and home, subjected to some trial or ordeal and return as a man. The key thing is the change that happens and that this is recognised by the community, leading to a change in status or role on return. (http://www.liminality.org/about/whatisliminality/)
It seems to me that a ‘gap year’ or indeed any significant time spent in a different cultural context offers that liminal space. For young people leaving the security of their home and journeying to a different cultural context, often alone and joining another group to be challenged and learn to serve. It may have that experience of adventure, ordeal and being on the edge that is characteristic of liminality. In this space people will grow up and find meaning and purpose, discover God in new ways and return as different people.
This is for me the power of the’gap year’ and why that term is both helpful in suggesting that liminal place that is ‘betwixt and between’ but also unhelpful in its proposal of being an unimportant time filler before we get on with real life. Careforce volunteers may not know they have been in liminal space but they will know that the ‘gap year” has been life-changing.
Careforce may be ending but I hope its legacy will be long remembered and long may the gap year continue to offer liminal spaces to young people.
NB for more on liminality and the church see the work of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost e.g. ‘The Faith of Leap’ 2011 Baker Books www.theforgottenways.org
- Between worlds (afeatheronthebreathofgod.com)
- We Are Liminal People (alongthelittleway.wordpress.com)