Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Different House

Not too long ago, we sold our home in East Lansing. It was a house we lived in for 5 years; the only home our boys remember. On moving day, all four of us sat on the floor in our empty living room and shared memories of the joy we experienced together in that home. Our living room dance parties, racing matchbox cars on a track that ran all the way down the stairs into the kitchen, playing Jenga at the dining room table, fooseball tournaments, dodgeball games. Regular, fun family stuff.

But for the past few days, we stayed in a different house; much different from any house in which our family has resided. It was the home of a Bhutanese family; a young couple, their baby, and an elderly mother-in-law.  They had recently been resettled in Pittsburgh after 18 years in a Nepali refugee camp. Our time with them was part of our training: a cultural immersion that involved no car, no telephones, no computers, no contact with the outside world. Instead, we stayed in a home with this very kind family, whose cultural norms are significantly different than our own. Granted, it was only a few days, but during that time, I did learn a lot about the experience of parenting children in the midst of a different culture.

Exposure to violence on television, norms for eating, and expectations regarding sleep and discipline were significantly different. While I try to keep my kids from watching very much television at all, in this home, the television was on almost constantly, and included graphically violent Nepali movies. The children were served large amounts of food (good food), but they couldn't eat as much as was expected, and this caused significant stress for the young woman who was kind enough to prepare it for us. Dinner was not served until nine at night, so the kids weren't able to go to bed until 10pm, which resulted in very tired children in the morning.  In addition, our kids were expected to stay very quiet, and the family spoke about the importance of very strict discipline.  Finally, I was instructed to stay home with the children throughout the days, while Joel went with the father to do the work of the church.  It was a very odd change of roles; I was not able to leave the house at all, but Joel went out to do ministry with the man of the house, who served as pastor of a Nepali church.

We learned a lot from this faithful family, about the challenges they experienced as refugees, the incredible generosity they show in caring for new refugees, the commitment they demonstrate to faith, service, and family. Both of these young people dedicated themselves to caring for their community, feeding new refugees, serving as translators, and helping struggling Nepali youth. The young man had served as a physics and math teacher in the refugee camp in Nepal, as a social worker in Pittsburgh, as a hospital translator, and now as a pastor. In addition, they opened their home to us, while caring for a nine month old baby and a seriously ill mother-in-law, who is on oxygen and has numerous medical challenges.  Yes, their culture was very different than ours, and I honestly couldn’t imagine giving as much of myself to others as they do.  

But, at the same time, we learned about ourselves and about the very real struggles we will face: challenges with gender roles, discipline, expectations, and the sheltering of our kids.  We will not be able to protect our children in the ways that are comfortable for us.  This will not be easy, and these past days helped me to realize this truth. 

Another very interesting reality is that the family we stayed with desperately wants to send their baby daughter back to Bhutan for her education; they told us that they do not like American culture or American schools, and they don't want to expose their daughter to this culture. It is not just hard for us Americans, as we choose another culture, to adjust.  It is also terribly hard for people who have no other choice, like refugees, who have to raise their children in another culture.  I suppose, as we deal with the challenges of gender roles, discipline, exposure to violence, issues around food, and other cultural differences, we will need to remember that cross-cultural encounters are not just hard for us; they are a challenge for many.  

I have many critiques of American culture; I am deeply saddened that we often care more about football games than famines, that we often care more about appearance than reality, that we often care more about time management than developing authentic relationships.  I see these characteristics in myself - a focus on the frivolous, the desire to project competence even when overwhelmed, choosing deadlines over friendships.  But, I will miss my culture in ways I didn't realize until recently.  I will miss understanding the norms, being able to accurately interpret my surroundings, connecting with people who have shared cultural values.  Even as I often criticize my culture, it is my culture, and I am beginning to understand the way that it shapes me, and keeps me emotionally safe.

For refugees, there is no choice but to leave the culture that they know and to encounter one that can be remarkably jarring.  I deeply appreciate this family opening their very "different house" to us, even as I am aware that we can chose to leave, and re-enter, our own culture in ways that are much easier for us than for many people around the world.    

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Safety and Security

On Friday, we had security training all day.  We learned how to be "good" hostages, strategies for resisting assault, how to avoid carjackings, what to do in the case of riots, how to survive natural disasters, and preparation for sudden pandemics.  In addition to that, we learned about how to secure our belongings, avoid theft, and all the many ways that we can be attacked.

Now, it is important to remember that this training is given to all new mission personnel, regardless of where they are serving.  So, people who are going to countries where there is political instability, war, and frequent kidnappings are being trained right along with those of us going to countries that are relatively stable, like Zambia.  We are blessed to go to a country that does not have a seriously high crime rate; according to the United Nations Seventh Annual Survey on Crime, Zambia's crime rate is significantly lower than the crime rate in the United States.  This is a real blessing for our family, although we will be aware of safety issues, as we would anywhere that we reside.

However, safety in general is something I have been thinking about a lot lately.  Who has the right to be safe?  How is safety a function of privilege?  Why do I assume that my children should always be protected from violence, while other children face violence on a daily basis?  Sure, God wants all of us to be protected from abuse; God does not desire that any of us endure violence.  However, we need to recognize that our "right to safety" is actually a privilege in this world. 

bell hooks writes, "Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity.  Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community."  While I do desire safety and security for my family, I am comfortable with choosing risk, at times, so that we can live more fully and connect more deeply with God and with God's children.  I often find myself giving into fear, and so this is an on-going process for me.

The sermon on Sunday was taken from the book of Esther, speaking about the enormous risk that she took when she came before her husband, the king, in order to save the Jewish people from massacre. She faced immediate execution for daring to approach without invitation, but she did so anyways.  Our family does not face this kind of danger; in fact, we are going to a place where we are not afraid for our safety.  But it is my prayer that we take the risk of loving, learning, becoming vulnerable, facing our fears, and offering our selves, that God's love might grow in us, and radiate through us, more and more each day.  While training in "safety and security" is important, I hope we also learn the importance of "risk and vulnerability" in our lives, as well. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My Call

During training today, I was asked to come up with a 5 minute talk about my sense of call and my ministry in Zambia.  So, I thought I would share it here, too....

My first trip to Ethiopia occurred four years ago, and I spent most of my time at an orphanage for HIV positive children.  A couple days into my stay, a young woman arrived, a look of weary agony on her face.

Genet was about 17 years old, and from a sling around her back, a tiny face peeked out.  He was a little over one year old, and when she sat him down on the ground, he crawled straight to the toy that my son was playing with.  She looked up at me, uncertain, as I got out another toy and handed it to her little boy.

In a few minutes, the social worker came out, and what followed was a wrenching conversation.  I couldn’t understand the Amharic, but I could understand the pain in this young woman’s voice.  I need you to take my child.

Like many mothers who are HIV positive in Ethiopia, Genet faced a horrifying choice.  She knew she would die and she needed to be sure that her child would be cared for upon her death.  Her hope was that her son would be adopted, but she knew that the longer she waited, the less likely it was that he would find a permanent home.  And so her choice was to continue to hold her baby, for as long as she could, or to place her little boy in an orphanage early, in hopes that he would find a home.  Genet chose to lose that precious remaining time with her son, placing him in an orphanage at a young age, knowing that this increased his likelihood for adoption.

Genet was HIV-positive and with treatment, she could have lived a long life, she could have watched that beautiful boy grow into a man.  But she didn’t have access to the life-saving drugs that would keep her alive.

And so here she sits in an orphanage, saying good-bye to her beloved baby, as she waits to die.  How can this happen?  The most distressing thing is that is has happened, over and over again, to millions of parents, to millions of children, to millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a mother, I cannot forget Genet's face, or that little boy's smile as he picked up the toy rattle.  For the past four years, I have been blessed to work with a program for HIV affected families in Ethiopia, and to support social workers in a community care program, which seeks to keep families together through education, medication, and community development.  As I have witnessed transformation occur in families and in communities, I have felt God's call to do this work on a full time basis, and to move with my family to Africa, walking with partners to address issues of poverty, public health, and spiritual growth.

My new ministry will take place with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia, where life expectancy is 39 years old.  Zambia is among the poorest nations in the world, and in addition to poverty, it struggles with the burdens created by the rapid spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and AIDS.  Zambia has one of the world’s most widespread rates of HIV/AIDS, with more than 1 in every 7 adults living with HIV.

While I am in Zambia, I will be working with church leaders, clergy, and community figures to address the physical and spiritual well-being of the people in Zambia.  I will work with congregations throughout the country, using a model called Community Health Evangelism, a form of outreach that combines community health and development, and evangelism and discipleship.  It is a holistic approach to health, proclaiming that God cares about our spiritual and physical well-being, and that together, churches in the United States and churches in Zambia, can seek to improve the health of the Zambian people.

As Christians, we have good news to share!  We worship a God who loves us and cares about our minds, our spirits, and our bodies.  We worship a God who wants us to be whole, a God who invites us into transformation.  As we share the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ, we are able to walk together on the journey towards wholeness.

The Bible tells us, over and over again, that God wants us to experience life in abundance!  God does not desire that so many children die of malaria, God does not desire that so many mothers die of AIDS, God does not desire that families suffer malnutrition, God does not desire polluted, contaminated water, causing so many children to die from diarrheal disease.  God wants us healthy and whole; and so my ministry in Zambia will focus on ministering to the spirits, minds, and bodies of the Zambian people.

You are invited to join me in this, to be a part of the miracle.  You are invited to believe, right along with me, that God can do something amazing in, and through the people of Zambia, in, and through, you and me.  You are invited to give of your time, your prayers, your money, your presence, to be a part of this blessing, to be a part of God's work in the world.

Women like Genet, mothers just like me, have a right to watch their babies grow.  They have a right to sing lullabies to their grandchildren.  Just as much of a right as I do.  And there is hope, today, for mothers like Genet.  In the past four years, I have seen amazing changes in Ethiopia, and the numbers reflect the reality that things are getting better for HIV positive people in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The rates of new HIV infections and HIV-related deaths continue to decline.  Education, treatment, and prevention are on the rise, and mother-to-child transmission is continuing to fall. There is great hope in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it is incredibly exciting that we all can be a part of this miracle of change, of health, of wholeness.  We get to work with God on this transformation!

So, thank you so much for your interest in this ministry and for your time today.  And thank you in advance for your prayers and support.  May God bless you.

Fountains, Friends, and Fears

We are coming close to the end of our first week of orientation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) staff in Louisville, Kentucky.  Each day here has involved sessions on personnel policies, technology, security, communication, training on faithful and effective mission, communities of mission practice and information on the three critical global issues that we focus on in World Mission.  Those issues are: 1) Addressing the root causes of poverty, particularly as they affect women and children, 2) Peacemaking in the midst of cultures of violence, including our own, and 3) Sharing the good news of God's love as embodied in Jesus Christ, in respectful and authentic dialogue.  There is a lot to learn, including a new strategic plan that is very exciting.

One of the reasons I feel so blessed to work with PC(USA) is that they truly seek to follow a partnership model of mission, working at the invitation of global partners, as guests and co-workers, emphasizing that we are all transformed as we do mission together. Community Health Evangelism, the program I will be working with in Zambia, does just that.  It is a holistic, community-based program, that creates sustainable development through community empowerment.  It affirms God's vision of health and wholeness for all of us, addressing spiritual, physical and emotional needs.  At the same time, it allows for everyone to grow through community ownership, in a true model of partnership and common ministry.

It is a beautiful gift to be a part of this work, and at the same time, it can be somewhat overwhelming.  The very long days have created some stress in our family, as Frankie and Johnny have spent more time away from us than they usually do.  PC(USA) has run a wonderful children's program for the kids while we have been in our sessions, but our boys are really in need of some time with Mom and Dad, too.  So, we went on a walk the other night, and passed a fountain on one of the Louisville streets.  The boys took off their sandals and ran through the water, and listening to thier giggles was an enormous joy.  We have also been blessed with new friends here, including another mission co-worker couple with two little boys, about the same age as Frankie and Johnny.  They are wonderful children, and Joel and I really enjoy their parents, as well.  So, even in the midst of long, hectic week, God's blessings abound.

We do ask for your prayers for us and for Frankie and Johnny in the midst of orientation.  They really are doing so well, considering all the change in their lives, but they also have some fears about the future, and Frankie has been expressing his concerns about making new friends and living far away from the people he loves.  It is good to hear Frankie, who is only 6 years old, communicating his concerns, but I just ask for prayers that he and Johnny are able to feel the love that surrounds them, and to know that God is there, in the midst of their fears.  It is hard to understand all this when you are 5 and 6 years old; as a 34 year old, I have similar fears.  So, please, please pray, and thanks so much for your support and love!

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Well, it is official.  We stood in front of thousands of people at the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and spoke our vows to serve as mission co-workers in Zambia.  We were asked if we would reflect the love of Jesus Christ in the world, seeking to show God's grace to all people, and to serve with humility and compassion.  We agreed to do these things, with the help of God. And one thing that occurs to me is that without a doubt, I will need the help of God.

I don't know how to do any of this work without faith that God can work in and through me. I know my own flaws and failures, my own imperfections, and sometimes, it seems far too overwhelming.  But then, I remember that God is bigger than I am - way bigger that I am - and God can use me, despite my glaring imperfections.  I am so grateful for that, so grateful to serve such a gracious God.

During the commissioning, Johnny, our 5 year old, fell asleep.  We were standing in front of the General Assembly, speaking our promises, and Johnny was completely crashed, sleeping over Joel's shoulder the whole time.  I am sure that Frankie and Johnny have no idea what they are getting in to, but we found it particularly hilarious that Johnny slept through the whole thing.  We have to trust that God can work in, and through, our children, as well, and that they will learn and grow in amazing ways in Zambia; sure, it will be a hard adjustment, but I can't wait to see how our kids are blessed through this experience.

After the commissioning, which took place on the 4th of July, we watched the Pittsburgh fireworks from the roof of the convention center.  It was beautiful, and as I watched, I realized that I will not be in the United States for the next fourth of July, and that it will probably be a long time before I am in the United States watching fireworks again. The kids had popsicles and talked about their favorite fireworks, and I thought about all the different ways we experience beauty.  Yes, the colors in the sky, the purple, red, and green sparks in the black night, were gorgeous.  But there are so many ways to see beauty, so many ways to experience God, and we are ready to go and encounter God in Zambia.  We are blessed with the opportunity to see God, to witness beauty, to experience love in another land, and I am so grateful.

While we are in Zambia, we will focus on holistic health, knowing that God cares for our minds, bodies, and souls, and working with the Zambian church to address issues of health and wholeness.  I am sure that I will grow, that I will experience healing, that I will move towards wholeness, because of this blessed opportunity.  I am so grateful for the experience of being commissioned, and deeply grateful to the God who works through, and sends, someone like me, imperfect as I am, but serving a perfect, loving, amazing God!