What would it be like to get married in the American Midwest, then move halfway around the world to spend a year working in the Muslim Middle East? We asked Matthew and Mary Ann Bates, who did just that!
Matthew and Mary Ann Bates recently took on the responsibility of working in Amman, Jordan, on the longest United Youth Corps project that the United Church of God currently conducts. They arrived in Jordan in the summer of 2007 and will be staying for one year.
Mary Ann grew up in New Jersey, Texas, Germany and Ohio, finishing her degree at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and embarking after graduation on a Fulbright Program in Switzerland.
Matthew grew up in California, where his family still lives, and attended California State University at Long Beach as well as Ambassador Bible Center (ABC) in Milford, Ohio, in 2005. Mary Ann also attended ABC, but a year earlier, in 2004. They met at the Challenger II rock climbing camp in the mountains of Arizona, and in August 2007 they were married in Ohio.
Shortly after their wedding they began their journey to Jordan to gain a new understanding of the Middle East, its people, religions and the complexity of the current political situations.
Vertical Thought (VT): Leaving so soon after your wedding for Jordan, how have you adjusted to married life in a new culture?
Matthew: It hasn't been a problem. I think that it has been much easier being here with my wife than it would have been even if I were here with a close friend. We have a support structure, and we know we can rely on each other. We are also both adventurous and flexible people, which helps a lot.
Mary Ann: We are together most of the time; we work on the same projects together, and we're able to spend our first year of marriage discovering a new part of the world together.
VT: What were your first impressions of Jordanian culture?
Mary Ann: From the time we walked out of the airport, we were amazed at how often we heard, "Welcome to Jordan!" This must be the first bit of English the people here learn, and we have continued to hear it in taxis, at falafel stands and shouted from children. [Falafel is a Middle Eastern food made from chickpeas.] The people of Jordan are very eager to make visitors feel welcome and appreciated, a lovely aspect of their culture.
VT: What are your jobs on a daily basis?
Matthew: We work at the Amman Baccalaureate School on a full-time basis. I co-teach ninth and tenth grade mathematics with several Jordanian teachers. I also coach a Lego Robotics team that recently competed at a tournament near the Dead Sea. In addition to our official duties, Mary Ann and I have started teaching weekly English classes for Jordanians and Iraqi refugees in one of the less affluent parts of Amman.
Mary Ann: I work in the junior (elementary) school. I teach literacy, art and science in English for second grade. I also do a gardening club for the fourth and fifth graders. Right now we are helping to coordinate the details for this summer's (2008) Youth Corps project. If all goes well, we will be providing volunteers for two summer camps here in Jordan.
VT: Since you have no local congregation to attend, what do you do for services on the Sabbath and Holy Days?
Mary Ann: We listen to sermons and services posted on the Web by various United Church of God congregations. We try to be as involved as possible, playing hymns on a guitar.
Matthew: Sometimes we put a sermon on our iPod and head out into the countryside for services or take the computer up to the roof to enjoy the fresh air.
VT: Jordan is a mostly Islamic country. How do those around you view your religious beliefs and practices, and how do you, in turn, deal with their views?
Matthew: Jordan, by population, is about 95 percent Muslim. That said, the Christian minority here is tolerated and allowed to express themselves freely. One trait that I appreciate about the culture here is how socially acceptable prayer is. It is not uncommon to find people rolling out their prayer rugs behind their desks or even beside the road, in plain view. Prayer, as we have observed it here, is indeed a personal thing yet lacks the social awkwardness that I feel sometimes accompanies prayer in public throughout the Western world.
VT: Have you enjoyed sampling the local cuisine?
Mary Ann: Middle Eastern food is amazing! The dishes are very flavorful, and it's easy to find things you like to eat. Many dishes have lamb and goat's meat, or chickpeas (hummus, falafel). When you visit people, a meal might have four different meats, three salads, a bunch of side dishes and three kinds of dessert.
VT: Why is it important to have projects like the one in which you are currently participating? How does it help young people grow?
Mary Ann: Projects like these are essential in two ways. First, having ambassadors of God's way of life interacting with others on a personal level builds mutual understanding in a way that news coverage and TV never could. Secondly, the young people on projects like this bring back to their own countries a new, essential perspective of the world that can only be gained via extended time living abroad.
VT: What advice would you give young people who might want to consider working on a similar project?
Matthew: Be flexible, and remember that you are there to serve. It's not about you. People of character will thrive because they are people of character; build this first.
Mary Ann: Having a high tolerance for change, delays and disorganization helps too. If the thought of riding in a car without seat belts or using squat-style toilets alarms you, you may want to stay home.
VT: What custom of the region will come to mind when you have returned home from Jordan?
Matthew: Hospitality. Among a people descended from the nomadic Bedouin, taking care of one's guests is still of paramount importance. I cannot even count the number of times that we, as perfect strangers, have been welcomed into someone's house for coffee or tea. It is easier to imagine the biblical scene of angels approaching Abraham's tents and his asking them to come in for a morsel of bread, as he slips out back to slaughter an animal and prepare a feast, when we ourselves have experienced the modern-day version of this desert hospitality time and time again.