Fresh Perspectives Out of Algeria – Notes from Chaplain Jim

Leadership  |  March 20, 2023

Blog Feature Image - Out of Algeria

By: Jim Kok, Executive Director of Chaplain Services for Christian Living Communities

Greetings from Algeria! You may be asking yourself why in the world is Chaplain Jim in Algeria? I’m here with my wife, Carol, who is teaching English. She was accepted into the English Language Fellows program through the U.S. State Department. I am only here for a few months, but already I have learned so much and I want to share these newfound perspectives with my family back at CLC.

I’ll be writing some short reflections, which we’re calling Fresh Perspectives Out of Algeria. Finding myself in a completely different culture has been fascinating. In these letters, I will share somethings new that I have learned, as well as how these lessons and examples relate to our vision, mission and values at CLC. I can’t wait to take you on this journey with me! We’ll post a new letter every couple of weeks – simply click on the bar(s) below to read each letter. 

Until next time, Ma’a salama (“May you go in peace”).

Chaplain Jim Kok

Letter #1: Greetings from Algeria!

February 20, 2023

Greetings from Algeria! As I begin sharing some of my observations, I want you to know a little something about Algeria.

Algeria is part of what is known as the Maghreb, a region of North Africa that also includes Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. These are majority Muslim countries; in their recent history they were all colonized by either Spain, France, or Italy.

Algeria is the largest country in Africa, covering nearly a million square miles, with a population of over 44 million. It has a long Mediterranean coastline, but most of the country is comprised of the Sahara Desert. The largest population areas are along the coast, in cities such as Algiers (the capitol) and Oran, but of course there are cities, villages and towns throughout the country.

My wife and I are living in the city of Laghouat, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Algiers. With a population of about 180,000, it is one of the larger cities in this region. The name Laghouat means “oases” and the city is built around an oasis on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

As to why we are here: my wife, Carol, has been teaching English to international students for the past ten years, and has always dreamed of teaching internationally herself. Several years ago, pre-pandemic, she applied for and was accepted into the English Language Fellows program through the U.S. State Department. This program has been placing English teachers in universities throughout the world for the last 60 years, as a part of their diplomatic outreach. Last summer she was offered a position at the École Normale Supérieure de Laghouat, teaching English to future teachers. I was blessed to be able to join her for a part of her term here in Algeria.

As part of my continuing work for CLC, I’ll be writing some short reflections, which we’re calling Fresh Perspectives out of Algeria. Finding myself in a completely different culture has been fascinating, and I hope to share some of what I’m learning with you.

Until next time, Ma’a salama (“May you go in peace”).

Chaplain Jim Kok

Jim and Carol ENS
Jim and Carol at École Normale Supérieure de Laghouat

Letter #2: Thoughts on Community

February 27, 2023

I’ve now been here with my wife for a few weeks, and I want to begin recording some of my impressions and lessons learned. There is so much about this culture that is new and interesting for me.

We recently had been visiting with some friends at the Cultural Center here in Laghouat. This is a group of very talented musicians who get together almost every evening. More about that later. We walked home afterward with a young man who has taken us under his wing, helping us with an understanding of the culture here. More about him later, too.

When we arrived back at our apartment, I went inside while my wife continued talking with our friend. As they talked, a boy came from one of the other apartments, carrying some food that he was bringing to one of the neighbors. Before long, my wife was surprised to see the boy go back to his apartment, and return carrying a plate of food for her as well.

None of this seemed to surprise our friend, who happily joined us inside as we enjoyed some delicious soup along with some meat and vegetables. He indicated that this is the kind of thing that happens in most of the small neighborhoods here. Hospitality is very much ingrained in this culture. If you have something to share, you share it without hesitation, and without any expectations.

All of this got me thinking about community. A basic definition of the word is “a group of people living together who share some characteristic or interest.” But I think we all know that it means much more than that. When we live together in community, we contribute to the welfare of the community by bringing who we are, and by sharing our gifts with others for the good of the whole. That could be a plate of food, but it could also be our insight/expertise, our time, our leadership, our listening ear. All these things make the community stronger and our experience of living in community richer.

Sharing a Meal - Out of Algeria Blog Series

I’m blessed to be able to experience community here in Algeria in a different way, and I have so much to learn from these good people. More to come as I continue this journey.

Peace to all,

Chaplain Jim Kok

Letter #3: Sharing Food Together

March 6, 2023

IMG 2461I was talking to someone back at CLC the other day, and she asked me, “What’s been your favorite thing to eat so far?” This part of North Africa is known for lamb and couscous, so those have definitely been part of my diet so far. Also a lot of vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes and turnips, etc. And some wonderful pastries and sweets. But the interesting thing is that I’m discovering that as wonderful as the food is, sitting down with someone to eat is more important than the food. What I mean is that the act of taking a meal together means friendship and chances to talk, and in the end whatever you’re eating is not the point.

Recently I was talking to a couple of young men who were telling me that, in their culture, people are encouraged to put aside petty grievances against one another. In fact, they said that sometimes when people get into a squabble, one of them might say something like, “We’ve shared salt together,” reminding them both that they have shared food together at the table, and this bond of friendship is more important than their disagreements.

None of this means that there aren’t plenty of disagreements and people who hold grudges, of course, but I like the idea that the simple fact of sharing a meal together can remind us of what’s really important.

It’s good to be reminded that we’re created by God to live in relationship with one another, to find meaning from the connections we share, and that these things should be more important than whatever divides us.

Letter #4: Music and Legacy

March 13, 2023

Greetings from Algeria!

Before I arrived here to spend time with my wife, she had formed wonderful relationships with some great people. She’s good at that; in fact, that’s the biggest part of what she’s here to do. Thanks to her, I’ve been able to get to know people here pretty quickly, too.

Some of the people I’ve come to know and appreciate are musicians, specifically a group that gets together at the Benkeriw Cultural Center here in Laghouat almost every day in the late afternoon/early evening. A couple days a week, we try to drop in to listen, and occasionally to participate. We get to hear violin and guitar, as well as traditional instruments like the Oud – an Arabic lute – and the Qanun – a large zither-like instrument played on the lap. Both of these instruments, in some form, have been a part of Arabic music for well over a thousand years.

Out of Algeria music and legacy

One of the interesting things we’ve discovered, among many, is that most of the music we hear doesn’t come from a written score or composition. Most of what these incredible musicians play has been passed down from one musician to another, sometimes within families, and sometimes for hundreds of years or more. And it is their passion for keeping the music alive that often drives these musicians to learn and to teach.

Observing this process reminds me that so much of what is beautiful and gives us life is passed on by those who have gone before us, and that we need to treasure these gifts. CLC is a great example of this, because what we enjoy in our communities today is due to the commitment and passion of those we call “Founders.” People like Earl Lammers and Dr. Gary Ritsema, both of whom played such an important role in who we are today, and both of whom passed into eternity in recent weeks. I’m so grateful for their legacy, and somehow I believe that we have the opportunity to take up where they left off, to continue to pass along the music, so to speak, and to leave our own legacy.

Letter #5: The Ham Radio Club

March 20, 2023

Greetings from Algeria!

One of the things that happens here, because Carol and I are not from here, is that we get noticed. The soccer-playing young boys just down the road try out their English, and their French, when they see us. We’re greeted by a chorus of “Hello” and “Bonjour” and “How are you?” every time we walk by the plaza where they are playing. Last week as we were walking through our neighborhood park, a couple of young men and women who were chatting together on a bench greeted us and wanted to know where we were from. In addition to trying out their English, they wanted to take some selfies with us!

We also get invited to many special events. Several weeks ago we went to a celebration of a ham radio club that is part of a local youth organization. They call themselves YOTA, Youngsters On The Air (7X3YOTA). This group had recently won second place in their regional competition (a region including all of Africa, Europe and Western Asia!) for number of contacts made. While we were there, they were contacting other operators from Scotland, Germany, even Canada. It was so much fun for us to hear these young men and women talk about their hopes and dreams for the future.

So much of what we’ve experienced here in Laghouat is about celebration: the ham radio club, the anniversary of a local Down Syndrome Association (Trisomie), a school robotics team winning a competition in Egypt (Delta Pro!), a new book by a local professor, Dr. Bediyar, on Andalusian history and culture, or children celebrating Asseggas Ameggaz -the Amazigh New Year. These people have created a culture of appreciation which celebrates the community and recognize accomplishments, often with food and music and certificates of appreciation given to all!

Sometimes we forget, in the midst of our very busy lives, that there is so much to celebrate. And perhaps we forget the people who make such a difference in our lives; forget to acknowledge the time and energy involved, or forget to say “thank you.” Our friends here in Laghouat have reminded me that real community means noticing that there are good people doing great things, and taking the time for joyful moments of celebration.


About the Author

Jim KokJim Kok serves as Executive Director of Chaplain Services for Christian Living Communities, and has been a part of the CLC family since 1986. He has held a number of positions within the organization, including Life Enrichment Director for both Clermont Park and Someren Glen Communities. He has been Chaplain for the organization since 1993. Chaplain Kok is a Board Certified Clinical Chaplain through the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, and is a licensed minister and endorsed Chaplain of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. He supervises the CLC Chaplain Team, and is responsible for all spiritual care and services for Christian Living Communities.

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