Thursday, April 10, 2014

Even More Than I Love Frankie

He blinked rapidly, but not fast enough to stop the large tears, leaking down his reddened cheeks, past his mouth, still waiting for grown-up teeth to fill the gaps. And when he started to hit himself in the face, I gently held his hand, and waited for the words to come. "Oh, little boy," I wanted to say to my son, "whatever it is, please just be gentle with yourself." But I waited, and pretty soon, Frankie started to speak. It turns out that he had lied at school. Some other boys teased him about having a crush on a certain girl, and Frankie told them that he did not. "I lied, Mom." He choked out those words like the confession of a terrible crime and then collapsed on himself again. "I am a bad person." A few days later, the same thing happened. A minor infraction, a small perceived sin, and Frankie was ready to beat himself up, literally and metaphorically. "Oh, sweet, sweet child," I wanted to say to my son, "whatever you do, no matter what, just try to love yourself half as much as I love you."

I look at my oldest son, who won the Impeccable Manners award at his school, who gives away all his money before he can spend it, who is always ready to share any dessert, who protects colonies of ants at school. I admire his generosity, his kindness, his courage, and I want to be more like him when I grow up. And yet, any lapse of behavior on his part, any perceived sin, and he is convinced that he is the worst person in the world. He can't stand his own imperfection; he seems to believe that being perfect is the only way to live faithfully in the world.

I understand how he feels. It is easy to give into guilt living in Zambia, easy to see the ways I don't measure up...The times I choose to eat at an expensive restaurant, knowing that my neighbors are going to bed hungry. The times I give into anger over a towel on the floor, when I should be angry that my friend is struggling with a disease that should have been eradicated a long time ago. The times I am just too tired to visit a struggling colleague, knowing that if I am struggling, fifteen people will come with prayers. The list goes on an on of all the ways I fall short, all the ways I choose what I want, instead of ministering to the very real needs of people who I love. 

Around me, I see Zambian colleagues who have given up so much. My boss was a successful art teacher. He was offered a job at a school in Botswana, and received a decent salary. He was even able to afford a car. But he felt the call to go back to Zambia, to enter ministry, and he took an enormous pay cut to move into a small, leaking parsonage in a remote rural area. He suffered, his family suffered, but he helped move the denomination forward in powerful and world changing ways. I look at him and I listen to him, and again, I see all the ways I fall short.

I think many of us are like that. It is harder to hear that we are loved, that we are cherished, that we are beautiful, as we are, than it is to hear that we have work to do, we are not enough, that we had better just step up. But I think God looks at us the way that I look at Frankie. "Oh, sweet, darling, beautiful child," God says to you and me, "If only you could love yourself half as much as I love you."

All the brokenness inside of us, all the sin and shortcoming, all the pain...none of that is even remotely as big as the power of God's redemptive love. We are redeemed, we are chosen, we are enough. We are called, we are empowered, we are sustained. 

In the liberal church, we often skip prayers of confession in our worship services. We resist conversations around redemption. We hush any whispers about sin. But it still clings to us. It is still there, and we carry the burdens of our imperfections, because we are not told over and over and over again that we are forgiven. And we need to hear it. We need to know it. We need to talk about sin and brokenness, because otherwise, we are like my little boy, sobbing on the floor, hitting our heads, trying to take away the pain ourselves. We forget that God is already there to take away the pain, that God is already there to forgive us, that God is already there to tell us that we are beloved, we are cherished, we are redeemed.

There is a lot to do in Zambia. And while I am there, I will do some ministry that matters, by the grace of God who can work in and through broken vessels. But I will also make mistakes, I will also fall down, I will also spend too much money at a restaurant. And that will be okay. I will be okay. And so will Frankie. And so will you. We keep on moving forward, keep on loving God, keep on caring for our neighbor, keep on trying. And we must know that it is enough. Because redemption is everywhere we look, because God is bigger than our imperfection, because God loves us even more than I love Frankie, and that is so, so, so very much. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letting Our Hearts Hurt

One of the hard parts about living here is that my friends move away all the time. My Zambian and Zimbabwean and Malawian friends finish their studies and leave campus; they spread throughout central Africa, ready to serve God with faithfulness and courage. My American friends finish up two to four year terms and move back to the US, or on to another assignment. The same thing happens to Frankie and Johnny; at their international school, children come and go with enormous frequency, as their parents’ terms begin and end.

In the past year, I had a rash of losing friends that hurt a lot. An American friend, who served as auntie to our children and family to me, returned to do important work in the United States. A Zimbabwean friend who was a sister and beloved cultural guide, returned to her home, to work as a nurse. A Zambian friend moved to the other side of the country. My pastor took on a new church, hours away. And a lovely Zambian colleague left Lusaka for the Copperbelt. Five good friends in a very short period of time; it left me reeling. In a different country, very, very far from family, these friends provide space to breathe and process and feel less alone.

I have made new friends, and some of my old friends remained. And yet, as I anticipate this fall, I know that three more neighbor families will move away. Two of the families have children who are dear friends to our boys; the other family sang to us in Chichewa last time we had dinner together. And now, I am getting tired. Tired of trying to form new friendships, knowing that everyone is in transition, moving from one place to another, and the effort of loving another person will most certainly result in the pain of saying good-bye.

I remember being eight, finding out that my best friend was moving to another state...I sobbed until my whole body shook, and my dad held me on his lap, and he said, “Oh, Kari. Your heart is so big it is going to break a million times.” And I remember thinking that was a good thing: a big heart. What could possibly be wrong with that? Why would it hurt so much?

In Zambia, friendships don’t just end because people move away. They also end because of death, and I look at people I love who are very sick, and I am terrified. It hurts. Over and over again, it hurts.

My Zambian friends, colleagues, neighbors, choose to love. And they have big hearts, and when they lose someone, they sob until their whole body shakes and they fall to the ground and they let loose the pain of love. They don’t give up, despite tuberculosis and HIV. They don’t give up, despite dysentery and malaria. They don’t give up, despite hunger and disease. They keep on loving. They don’t give up on people. They don’t give up on love. They let their hearts break, over and over again. A big heart. Bigger than mine, because I struggle intensely when friends leave my life, and yet they have struggled with more death and loss than I will ever face.

This month, I am in the United States, initially for work, and then for my mother’s wedding. I will hug my darling sisters, and my hilarious brother, and my beautiful mom. And I will cry. I will cry a lot. And then, I will say good-bye, and I will go back to Zambia, and I will welcome new neighbors, and start all over again. Because we just don’t give up. We choose to love. We choose to let our hearts hurt. We choose to face loss, guaranteed loss, and I am not sure why.

It is either something that God does to us, or something God does for us, and I don’t know which it is. This power to love so much that we will crumble, that we will have to say good-bye, and yet we decide to do it anyway. I think it is because God’s love remains. It always remains. It is the one thing that will not leave us. And once our heart is big enough for God’s love, it is tough enough to mend, strong enough to heal, and brave enough to love again. So, I guess it is something God does for us, after all. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Wow! The last month has been a month of challenge and joy, confusion and hope, hectic preparation and impatient waiting. And now that there is some clarity on what is going to happen, I get to share it with you.

My job description is changing, and I am excited to be taking on the position of Young Adult Volunteer Coordinator, along with HIV/AIDS specialist. This is in addition to my current job, so the new position is Church Growth-HIV/AIDS Specialist/YAV Site Coordinator. It is quite a mouthful, but it is a temporary assignment. I will take over these duties for one year, on an interim basis, in order to assure that all three programs can move forward.

I am thrilled to be coordinating the YAV site here in Zambia. It is a new site, and we will be welcoming young adults, 21-30, to come and spend a year learning and serving in Zambia. It is a great opportunity to grow spiritually, while also participating in the life of the community, sharing gifts and stories. I can't wait to get to know the young adults who will be here in Zambia, and I am incredibly excited to share with them the joy that we experience here.

The HIV/AIDS specialist work will involve equipping church leaders to further address HIV/AIDS, particularly among young people, ages 15-35. We are gathering resources, creating workshops, and making contacts, in order to help the church fight stigma, increase compassion, and offer information that is much needed.

I will continue with the other aspects of my job, as well, and I feel that much of this work can overlap, and create a beautiful opportunity for me to grow. At the same time, it will not be without challenge. And so, I ask for your prayers as I move into this new reality. Please pray for me, that I can find balance and peace. Please pray for the young adults, as they prepare to join us in Zambia. Please pray for the HIV/AIDS projects and those affected by HIV/AIDS.

In a few days, I will leave to travel to the United States for the YAV discernment event, where I will meet with young adults, who are candidates for the Zambia program. I will also meet with other site coordinators from around the world. I will have a lot to learn!!! But, I trust that my new colleagues will be gracious, and that God is in the midst of all this. It will be good. Very good. And for that, I am grateful.

Again, I thank you for your prayers and your support. Especially in these upcoming weeks, please do hold me in your prayers, as well as these important programs. It means so much to me, because together, we get to do some wonderful things in God's kingdom. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Science Fair

This past week, the kids had their Science Fair at school. For the Science Fair, they made a very silly video with Joel. So, we thought we would share it, because we think our kids are funny....(And, no, they didn't really drink that entire two liter bottle of soda!)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Community Schools

Recently, I was asked about the 28 community schools that are run by our denomination. So, I thought I would share the information with all of you, along with the video that Joel made about these amazing schools!

The community schools serve the most vulnerable children in Zambia, offering an education to students who cannot attend the public schools. Their inability to attend public schools has to do with the fees that are charged and the cost of uniforms. Most of the children are orphans; all of them are vulnerable in some way. The churches themselves run the community schools, and members of the churches actually seek out kids who are not going to school and invite them to attend the community schools. Here are a few ways that the community schools transform lives:

*Education: The teachers at these schools provide a very high-quality education; most of the teachers are volunteers from the church, some are paid a very small stipend. It is important to note that the passing rate for these schools is over 90%, well above the government schools. They are very successful in doing what they do; one of the teachers said that their success is due to the fact that the teachers are there because they feel that this is what God is calling them to do; they are deeply committed to the children. 

*Nutrition: Children at the community schools are provided one meal during the day; women at the church prepare the meal and the food helps the children learn, while also encouraging them to come to school.

*HIV/AIDS nutritional supplements: These are not provided by the Community Schools program, but some of the schools work in conjunction with the HIV/AIDS home based care program, which provides nutritional supplements to HIV positive children and adults. So, the children come to the school, and go home with small bags of groceries which provide nutritional supplements, thereby helping their anti-retroviral drugs to be more effective in fighting HIV/AIDS.

*Trauma counseling: This one is so important! Dr. Bob Bielke is a child psychologist, who has done multiple trainings for teachers and caregivers. The teachers and caregivers have formed after school clubs, where children can learn how to deal with trauma, loss, anger, and so many of the challenges they face.

One caregiver told me about a little boy who was angry all the time. It turned out that he had been alone with his little brother, when his little brother fell into a river and died. The boy could not save his brother and had to watch him drown. He has been dealing with incredible guilt for a very long time, blaming himself for the loss of his brother. The caregiver is working with him, using the skills she learned from Dr. Bielke, to help in his healing, and to help alleviate that guilt and anger.

In another case, a student felt guilt because his father had left his mother when he was born. He thought it was his fault that his mother was on her own and the family was so poor. The caregivers are working with him, too, to try and help him find healing and hope. These after school clubs help the children learn to deal with trauma and pain; they enable to children to make good choices, and to see the possibilities of bright, hopeful futures.  

*Spiritual nurture: The community schools involve Christian lessons, and encourage the children to live in love and peace. At the same time, the community schools are ecumenical and interfaith. Most of the students are not a part of the church, but are invited to come to the schools, regardless of faith or denomination.

The community schools care for the students in a holistic way: their minds, through a very good education; their bodies, through nutritious food and HIV/AIDS nutritional supplements; their spirits, through Christian education; their psychological well-being, through well-trained caregivers and after school clubs. 

We recently went to Matero Community School, where there is a new building that the school is using. The teachers and students are very excited about it! Here are some quotes from them:

Elizabeth, volunteer teacher: "This building is very helpful because whenever we have a program at church, we have to send the children back home, but with this new building, we never have to send the children back home. That is so beneficial to us. Some of the community members are discouraged because of using the church building and all the unnecessary holidays, but with the new building, more children will come."

"It is very hard to teach with three classes in one room. The babies are screaming while the other children are trying to read and write. With the new classrooms, they will have their own room. There will be desks in the new building and each class will have a board. Right now they are sharing one board."

Tenashe, Boy, Grade 3: "I have been in school for four months. I like to learn reading in school. I am excited about the new classroom because it is quiet and there is no noise. When I grow up, I want to be a doctor."

Katija, Girl, Grade 3: "I have been in school for five years. My favorite subject is English. I am very excited about the new classrooms. I like playing on Thursday. I play football on Thursdays. I want to be a nurse when I grow up. When I come to school I come to learn, to teach us the songs, to play football, see the teachers, play the games."


Finally, here is the seven minute video that Joel created, about the work of the community schools. I think it is a very good overview, and worth the seven minutes!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Church Without Walls (Literally)

“This harvest, there will be much food. We will not go hungry. And we have time for other things, too. We do not spend all our time in the fields. We have time to enjoy the life that God has given us.” Her pride was almost tangible; her joy infectious.

I looked at her, and beyond her, past the rough branches that acted as non-existent walls. The sky was brilliant blue and the clouds, white and fluffy like a child’s drawing. An artist couldn’t make walls so magnificent, I thought. Like a mural on a cathedral, this church had only sky and field, grass and crops, to create an image for worship.

The pastor spoke again, about the seminar they held on child sexual abuse. How to prevent it, how to report it, how to fight the stigma and the judgment that can create a double victimization. Another women stood, “Even if the man is the one who brings in money, we still will not accept it. It is a disease that hurts us all.” 

A report was handed to us, four pages of detail about this congregation’s community health evangelism (CHE) projects: providing nutritional supplements to people living with HIV; enhancement of security in women and child-headed homes; planting moringa trees to supplement child nutrition; teaching about natural insecticides; conservation farming seminars and model plots; seed and cassava distribution; holistic evangelism programs; solar cooking seminars; working with 200 households on food security. It was all there, on the paper, but it was also there, on the faces of the thirty men and women in that wall-less church. They were getting things done.

Having served as a parish minister in the United States for twelve years, I honestly can’t imagine a congregation, meeting in a building without walls, with tree branches driven into the dirt to hold up a tarp roof. Pieces of plastic tacked onto scraggly boards, an attempt to keep out the rain. But, instead of saying, “Hey, we really need to focus on our building project before we start working on nutrition, agriculture, HIV/AIDS, child nutrition, sexual abuse, holistic evangelism, seed distribution, etc....” Instead of holding off on the outreach, holding off on the justice work, holding off on the acts of mercy and compassion, this congregation has decided that it is okay without walls, for now. They will keep on worshipping, keep on singing, keep on praising God. And they will keep on serving, keep on caring, keep on feeding their community.

While there, we went to visit a woman’s home; she had donated part of her land as a model plot for conservation farming, and another part of her land was donated to sustain and feed the pastor. She beamed with pride as we saw the abundance of her land, the crops growing strong and tall and green. Food. There was food. They would be hungry no more.

I am hungry for a faith like this, for a church like this, for a world like this. Where our walls are as beautiful as God’s own sky, because we have forgotten to use any bricks. Instead, we have spent our time and our money and our energy on feeding one another, caring for one another, serving one another. And we realize that we don’t need the walls, after all, because the church stretches forth, in field upon field of cassava and ground nuts and maize and sweet potato. 

This harvest, there will be much food. Thank God for this harvest.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Broken Down

I couldn’t write about it until this morning, when the battery died on a washed out dirt road, enormous piles of rock blocking my path. The rain falling, of course, I stepped out of my car, into thick muck, foot sinking in, pink toe nail polish disappearing under brown ooze. And standing there, wondering if someone would stop. Broken down car on a sunken road, standing ankle deep in muck, as rain spattered my shirt. That is when I realized that I could write about it. About Victor’s death. A week ago. Because I was stuck in that car, and I just couldn’t move, and I am stuck on his death, and I just can’t move, unless I tell his story. So, here it is.

He was the youngest son of Elias Phiri, himself only a young father, twenty-five years old. Victor was one and a half. His older brother, Paul, is four; named after his Uncle Paul, a smiling, kind man who always helps me with my Chichewa. When we visited their home last year, Victor flew into his daddy’s arms, his tiny arms wrapped tightly around his smiling father. We walked into the small room that served as dining room, bedroom, and living room. A few chairs and a bamboo mat that doubled as the family bed. Paul Junior was shy; he clung to his mother. But little Victor was curious; safe in his father’s arms, he kept on peeking at me with enormous, deep brown eyes. 

That was almost a year ago; since then, Elias has become a part of the family, throwing Johnny up in the air, teaching Frankie to prune trees. He works two days a week as our gardener, allowing him an income that can sustain his family. He laughs a lot, and brings home mangos from our tree as a special treat for his two little boys.

But Victor, the youngest, has been sick lately. And we have been paying for medicine, for doctor’s visits, for anything we can, to treat the tuberculosis that left lesions in his mouth and a never ending cough. We have prayed, we have hoped, we have waited. And we thought he was getting better.

So last week, as I pulled into the campus, and saw Elias waiting for me, I was sure he just needed more money for medicine. But then I saw his face. Elias’s older brother, Paul, approached me as well. “Victor is dead,” Paul said, because Elias could not get the words out. “Last night, around 2am. That is when he died.”

I brought them to my home, and they detailed the funeral expenses. The cost for transportation, food for the mourners, a burial site, and a coffin. A small coffin. For a one and half year old child.

We cried with them and prayed with them, and gave them the money they needed to bury that small, beloved, sacred human being. And then they left, to travel ten hours into Eastern Zambia, where they would bury the baby in his ancestral home.

Victor Phiri was the youngest son of a very funny man, who loved life and loved children and worked hard and knew how to play. He had an older brother, Paul, named after his Uncle Paul, a kind and loyal and responsible man, who cared for all his younger siblings when their parents died. He had a mother, Amayi Phiri, who stayed up nights with him, held him close, willed him to keep on breathing. And he died last week. Of a treatable illness. And a few days ago, he was buried in a little, tiny coffin.

Awhile ago, I was telling a friend, someone who lives in the US, about life here, and death here, and I was furious. Just angry. And that man said to me, “Well, I guess the only thing you can do is just be grateful for what you have.” And I responded, without any filter, without any thinking, “No. The only thing you can do it get off your butt and do something about it.”

I don’t know exactly what it is. It might be donating money. It might be advocating for foreign aid. It might be supporting global health initiatives. It might be switching jobs. It might be getting on a plane. I don’t know what it is. But I guess I just think that we should all probably do something. Something.

In the mud this morning, rain seeping through my shirt, and I was stuck. Just plain stuck. A dead battery, wet and dirty and sad. And a stranger came, and he pulled over, and he spent some time, hooking and unhooking the jumper cables, pushing the car for a better angle, moving his car until the cables stretched. Standing with me in the rain, standing with me in the dirt, until the car burst to life again. And I could move again. I could go forward.

We do have it in us to do something. To stop our normal route, and pull over, and take the time to stand in the rain, to wade in the muck, to give life to someone else. And I think that is the only way we move forward. The only way I move forward. The only way you move forward. If we all just stop, stop what we are doing, and try a little harder. For Victor. For little Victor with his huge brown eyes, I think we can wade in the muck together. Can’t we?

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