What in the world would prompt a 23 year old, May 2016 graduate of Clemson University to spend her very first Christmas away from her family, her boyfriend, her precious cats, and even her country this December? Maybe a more probing question would be, “What would it take for you to be willing to make such sacrifices?!”
For Rebekah Swygert, native of West Columbia, South Carolina, and four-year resident of the Upstate, it wasn’t merely about missing Christmas with her family, or giving up an exciting football season with her beloved Clemson Tigers, but sacrificing a grand total of 11 months of her life in America to follow her “call to be, not just do.” This would not be a vacation, or even a semester of studying abroad, but an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, living among and serving with the Roma people of Hungary through a program called, “Young Adults in Global Mission,” or “YAGM” for short. YAGM is a ministry supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which Rebekah has been a member of her entire life, which required her to pass a thorough application, acceptance, and training process in order for her to be eligible to participate. Not everyone who applies is accepted. However, at no surprise to anyone who knows her, Rebekah was accepted and jumped in with both feet to follow through with this giant leap of faith beyond her comfort zones.
Rebekah’s call into ministry started years before her acceptance into the YAGM program. In fact, it began at what has come to be one of her favorite places on earth, and the place that up to that point in her life felt more like “home” than anywhere else. Her precious “Lutheridge,” a Lutheran summer camp in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. She first served as a camp counselor there in 2012 and returned every summer since, including this summer. It was at Lutheridge that Rebekah really learned about her identity in Christ and fully embraced her call into ministry. She said, “I’ve met so many people who have changed my life for the better- campers, staff, and even guests. It is at Lutheridge that I first realized that the kingdom of Heaven is alive here on earth, and it is there that I discovered how to seek God out in every person and place I encounter throughout my life.” With all of that being said, Rebekah started to wonder what “home” really means. She started looking at Jesus’ ministry, and particularly in Luke 9:58 where Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Right after that Jesus instructs a man to lay down everything in order to follow Him. What an incredible thing,” Rebekah says, “to know that wherever we call home, God is there with us and in us. And, as I travel to my new home in Hungary, this is my greatest comfort, that wherever I am, I am home.”
With a heart that substantially eclipses her diminutive four-foot eleven frame, Rebekah said some of the hardest goodbyes of her life in August before boarding a plane that left her parents, brother, boyfriend, and countless others who have contributed to her faith journey over the years, behind as she made her way far from them. With the ink barely dry on her Bachelor of Arts degree in Production Studies in Performing Arts, Rebekah found herself on a Transatlantic flight to Budapest late this summer with 6 other “Hungary Hearts,” and one of her most prized companions, her guitar. Excited and anxious to go, Rebekah said that the biggest thing on her mind that day wasn’t the anxiety or the logistics, or the list of things she still needed to do. What was most on her mind was gratitude. “As I reflect on all the experiences that have shaped who I am, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by it. If I could go back and change anything, I wouldn’t. Every day, God continues to create me. He continues to shape me into the broken, but beautiful, person that I am.” She also clung to a line from a favorite Christian song by Rend Collective, “My future hangs on this–You make preciousness from dust. Please don’t stop creating me.”
So, what exactly has Rebekah been doing since touching down in Hungary? She is serving in Nyíregyháza and working with two different organizations: Élim Szeretetotthon and Evangélikus Roma Szakkollégium.
Élim Szeretetotthon is a home that houses 50 disabled women. Rebekah’s work there includes helping the women in their daily work, helping feed girls who are unable to eat on their own, and various other tasks. She is also currently using her musical skills and training in performing arts to help with the ministry’s Christmas program! One of the things Rebekah has most noted about the language barrier between her limited Hungarian (she is taking classes while there) and the limited English among those she works with, “Where we struggle to communicate and connect through words, music comes through!” She recounts a story of getting to teach a very simple English worship song to some of the ladies at the Élim (shortened nickname for the home for disabled women she works at) during their Sunday worship one weekend. As she taught them to sing the same six words over and over again, more and more women began to sing. Better than that were the smiles and laughter, she recalls. “As soon as I stopped they’d ask for the song again, never getting tired of the same thing over and over, but instead enjoying it and embracing the moment.” Rebekah is looking forward to playing her guitar and singing more with these sweet ladies for the Christmas program.
The other place that Rebekah is serving is the Evangelikus Roma Szakollegium. This is a ministry program that supports Roma college students in various ways and helps them to succeed. Her work there includes helping teach English, bonding with students, and other various tasks that come along. On the Friday evening after she arrived, there was an opening ceremony for the Evangelikus Roma Szakkollegium. Rebekah’s mentor, Pastor Erzsebet, asked if she would play guitar for a few songs at the event. The evening before, three students came to her dorm room and excitedly learned one of her favorite worship songs in English. Rebekah and these students sang that song over and over, and the talent of the Roma students put a whole new spin on it. They even taught her to sing a worship song in Hungarian, “Az Ur Van Itt.” Rebekah says it was absolutely beautiful and that “the experience of worshipping through music with these incredible young people is a feeling I will never forget. It was something that absolutely brought us together.”
Christmas is not the only family event Rebekah will be missing while in Hungary, since she is not scheduled to be back on American soil until July of 2017!! Her grandparents celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary on October 21st, and though Rebekah couldn’t be with them in person to celebrate, she shared some beautiful words of appreciation to them in her blog that serves as a communication link between she and loved ones back here in the States while she is on the mission field.
”When I was a kid, I spent as much time as possible with both sets of grandparents. They taught me many, many things. Among those countless things were some very important lessons about love. Through witnessing the love that they shared with us, with one another, and for God, I became a better person. About five or six years ago, Nanny started to show signs of Dementia or Alzheimer’s. As heartbreaking as it has been to watch her forget who she is, seeing Pop’s unconditional and incredible love for her has opened my eyes to a bigger picture of God’s love for us. She is his beautiful bride, and he wouldn’t stop taking care of her for anything. Congratulations on 60 years of true love, and thanks for being an inspiration to all.”
As you read this, Rebekah still has about eight months left before she returns to her loved ones. And she readily admits that some days are easier than others for her over there. She says, “Life here in Nyíregyháza is often confusing and quite chaotic for me. It’s not a bad thing by any means. In fact, part of the reason I decided to come here was to be pushed out of my comfort zone, and every day I have been. Sometimes it’s because I can’t communicate with those around me as well as I’d like to. Sometimes it’s because I have no idea what I’m doing or how I got to where I am. Sometimes it’s because I want to contribute more than I am able to. This is a part of my everyday life, and it isn’t easy, but it isn’t a bad thing. However, in the midst of all of the confusion and chaos, this is a place that I can feel God’s peace in a huge way.”
On the days when it is most difficult, Rebekah leans in closer with the ladies at Élim. Some of the disabled ladies at the home have developmental delays, but Rebekah has a firm belief that they can see God in a way that she cannot. She observes how “they can be joyful in situations where I struggle to, “ and “They can see God’s presence in places where I can’t see beyond darkness.” Rebekah confesses that the women at Élim never fail to make her day and to remind her of God’s unconditional love. In a place that is unfamiliar and sometimes confusing, the joy, laughter, hugs, and welcoming smiles remind her of God’s peace, and that everything is going to be okay.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Lee Millspaugh, INSPIRE
After getting my degree from Southern Wesleyan University, I eventually became a pastor at The Mount Church in Clemson where I’ve had the privilege of serving for the past 19 years, doing what I believe I was created to do.