Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Epilepsy, Fire, and Faithfulness

She knew she would not be able to eat her lunch; nshima and relish packed carefully that morning. But if she did not do it, who would? Everyone else refused to go near the man, with his rotting flesh, his septic skin, this living human being who smelled like death.

A man cooking nshima; the open fire is very
dangerous for people with epilepsy
He was epileptic, she knew that right away, because so many people with epilepsy walked in with burns like this, with limbs that had caught on fire, and stayed in the flames during the seizure. Like so many others, he was cooking his food, over the open flames, when the dancing lights of the fire set off another fit, and he had no control as his arm began to cook, instead of his meal. 

The difference with this man was that he did not seek treatment right away. In fact, it had been weeks, and the burns had melted away his flesh, the dirt had infected his body, and the wounds were now septic. He was alive, but that flesh was dead, and he smelled like a rotting body. He was covered with dirt everywhere; he lived alone in a compound.

My language partner was the only nurse at the clinic who would tend to him; she washed his body, she cleaned his wound, she wrapped the rotting flesh in clean, white cloth. And then she spoke to him, encouraging him to go to the hospital, telling him that there was hope for his arm. He just needed to trust her. And as he waited for transport to the hospital, she offered him her drink, brought from home. He sat, and he sipped, and he waited. And finally, he left.

Amayi Soto wondered about him, and prayed for him, for weeks. And then, a few days ago, she saw him on the street. He walked up to her and smiled, showing her a clean, healed arm. At the hospital, he received a skin graft, and despite the presence of a few scars, his arm was whole again. 

Amayi Soto did not just care for the man medically; she gave him her own drink, she spoke to him with kindness, she offered him hope. And when no one else would touch him, she did. She reached out her hand, and she helped to make him well.

Sometimes, I wonder how it is that I have the blessing of knowing her, how it is that God brought us together, every week, to study Chichewa and talk about our lives, our faith, our families. But I am so grateful for this women, who inspires me with her faithfulness, with her love, with her compassion. Even though she has lived with poverty, pain, and disease her whole life, she has never given into complacency. Instead, she keeps on reaching out, she keeps on touching the untouchable, and she keeps on living as Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

I am so grateful to know her and to learn from her, a bit about Chichewa, and a lot about love. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Johnny's Three Mommies

Four years ago, in Ethiopia, when Johnny became our child
"Rushing river of days,
Cradle every parent's child in
your waters.
We launch our babes in fragile baskets,
Moses multiplied by millions,
released from muddy shores.
We squint to see around your bends
As our hearts are carried away.
We toss small sticks to float behind the baskets,
our prayers."
Rev. Meg Riley

"You are my sweet, sweet baby." I said a few days ago, as I squeezed Johnny and gave him a big kiss on the forehead. He looked up and me with a strange smile, and replied, "But you are not my only mom; I have three mommies." I was a bit confused by the three mommies comment, and asked for clarification. "I have you, and my Ethiopian mommy, and God," Johnny explained. "I have three mommies." I nodded and gave him one more kiss. "That is true. And we all love you very, very much."
Johnny and Mommy today!

Sunday was Mother's Day, and I thought of Johnny's comment quite often. His birth mother, an Ethiopian woman, spent a year loving her little boy, until she was too sick to care for him any longer. She brought him to a hospital, where she knew he would be safe, and she returned to her village, certain that she would not live much longer. I desperately want her to know how lovely Johnny is, how funny and generous and full of life! I want to thank her for loving him so much during his first year, because he radiates love, because the love that she gave him will always be a part of who he is. I want her to see Johnny's eyes light up beneath those beautiful long lashes and feel the way that he runs and takes a flying leap into my arms. But mostly, I want a world where all mothers can hold onto their babies, and watch them grow into the amazing, spectacular human beings that they were created to be. On Mother's Day, I couldn't help but cry for Johnny's first mom, and that is why I so desperately need the reminder that Johnny offered to me. God is our mother, too.

Johnny's third mother, our mothering God, holds us tight when we cry, wipes away our tears, offers us hope, and strength, and comfort. For all the mothers who have to say good-bye, our mothering God is right there, crying with them. And as I contemplated our mothering God, it brought to mind another one of my favorite poems. I will leave you with it, today, in thanksgiving for Johnny's two other mothers, and in faith that Johnny's Ethiopian mother is with Johnny's divine mother, and together they are watching Johnny with joy and love, just as I do, every day.

"Bread-baking, kitchen-dwelling, breast-feeding God,
We return to your lap and to your table
because we are hungry and thirsty.
Fill us again
with the bread that satisfies,
with milk that nourishes.
Drench parched throats with wet wonder;
feed us ‘til we want no more.
We come to your lap and to your table
and rediscover your romance with the world.
As you nourish us with the bread of life and the milk of your
let your Spirit hang an apron around our necks.
Fashioned and patterned like that worn
by our Lord-become-friend, Jesus.
Instruct us here in the halls of your kitchen-kingdom,
with the recipes of mercy and forgiveness,
of compassion and redemption.
Leaven our lives
‘til they rise in praise:
Offered, blessed and broken
for the healing of the nations."
Rev. Ken Sehested

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Boys Who Kick Frankie

Here are the things that are true about my oldest son: He wears leg braces, every day, to school, due to toe walking and scoliosis. His two best friends are girls and his favorite color is pink. He is on the Chess Team, and is remarkably excited about getting a book on ways to check mate opponents. He is incredibly polite, so polite that he will say “thank you” to adults for saying “thank you” to him. He has been a vegetarian since he was born, and he adamantly refuses to eat meat, while trying hard not to judge meat-eaters. And finally, he is his teacher’s pet. (She has told me that she has two favorites in her class, and Frankie is one of them.)

He is a remarkably good kid. I often feel so shocked that he is mine, that somehow we must be doing something right to have a child as kind, sweet, and loving as he is. (I feel that way about both my kids, but this post happens to be about Frankie...) Frankie hates to see anything get hurt, and awhile back, at recess, he defended a colony of ants from getting stomped on by a couple of boys. But, that is when the trouble began.

For the past couple of weeks, a group of three boys has been chasing, kicking, hitting, trapping, and harassing Frankie every day at break. They have been doing the same thing to his two friends, and even trapped Frankie in the boys’ bathroom. Frankie came home with a scratched up arm from being caught and thrown down, and a week ago, he had a nightmare. After he woke up terrified, he told me that one of the boys from school was trying to kill him in his dreams.

We are addressing the situation with his teachers and other parents, and I feel assured that things will get better. In fact, the past two days have been good. But this is not the first time this has happened to Frankie. It is not even the second. It is the third.

In pre-school, he was pushed, trapped, and hit by two older boys, and came home from school with a black eye, after a kid hit him in the face with a stick. Two years later, at a different school, he would hide from a group of kids every day at recess. But, the kids still got to him, and one day, he came home with a black eye, after a boy pushed him down and kicked him in the face. He was five. And so now, at age seven, it feels like an old drill. Kids are picking on Frankie. He is getting hit, kicked, pushed. Time to do something. Again.

There are six kids involved in this current situation, and between the six of them, there are six different countries represented. Because our kids go to an international school, the kids who are fighting come from different cultures and represent three continents. So, why is it the same here as it was in East Lansing? Why does Frankie get picked on wherever we go?

We are pacifists, and Frankie does not hit back. He does not kick back. He does not fight. But it is hard, so hard, to trust God in this situation, to trust God with Frankie’s life. How do we protect him, cherish the unique, peaceful, artistic, polite, sensitive kid that he is, knowing that others will not cherish that in him? 

We work for peace with justice, for hope and health for all people, but we also want it for our kids. We want them to know that they are cherished, beloved, sacred children of God. And I don’t want anyone, ever, to make Frankie feel any less worthy of kindness, grace, and love.

So, please pray for us, that Frankie will know that he is beloved and cherished, and pray for the other children, too, that they might all walk in the ways of peace and love. And please pray for wisdom for us, as well, that we might guide Frankie through this in the best way possible. Thanks so much!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Walking Humbly

It took a good long while to get there. In a car. But he walks it every day. I was sure it would be a quick trip, and I had appeased Johnny with this assurance. Half way there, Johnny whispered, “You were wrong, Mom. He lives far away.”

By the time we got close to his house, we had to get out off the car, leaving it on the side of a rocky dirt path, and walk the rest of the way. No car could make it to his home. We climbed up rocks, and I held onto Joel, so as not to fall. We crossed a rickety bridge, just two logs going across the river, held together with a few planks. Under us, people washed dishes, clothing, and children in the water. Frankie and Johnny walked ahead of us, fearless. I held Joel again.

After the bridge, and a few more hills, we ended up at his house. Elias’s house. Our gardener. Who walks to our campus almost every day.

As we got closer and closer, debris filled the land, and chickens peeked out from underneath the trash. Fires burned on piles of charcoal in the dirt, and women walked with baskets on their heads, eyeing us with curiosity, as the bravest of the children called out greetings. 

We entered a small room that served as dinning room, bedroom, and living room. There were a few chairs and a bamboo mat on the floor. Off to the side, a small pantry completed the house. Elias’ ten month old son saw his dad and practically flew into his lap, small arms wrapped tightly around the smiling father. The three year old clung to his mother and started to whimper when I greeted him in Chichewa. Their mother, Amayi Phiri, shook our hands, offered us seats, and then sat on the mat with her oldest son.

Our conversation quickly turned to money. It turns out that we were invited into his home so that we could see all the need, so that we would give more money to the family. “Mwana wanga sagona bwino.” Elias said. My child does not sleep well. “Timagona pamodzi pa mpasa.” We all sleep together on the mat. I looked at the bamboo mat on the floor, which served as the family bed.

Elias spends a lot of time at our house; he has eaten at our dining room table, tossed Johnny into the air, taught our kids how to prune roses, and fixed Frankie’s bike when the chain broke. He is an incredibly hard worker; our garden is beautiful, overflowing with vegetables, and our yard is full of colorful flowers. Without him, we would just have dirt and dying plants.

But Elias has seen our bedrooms, our mattresses set atop wooden frames, our comfortable blankets, our fluffy pillows, our extra beds for guests. And he wanted me to see how his family sleeps. He wanted to me to know that no matter how often he holds Johhny’s hand or ruffles Frankie’s hair, or laughs with me when I say something ridiculous in Chichewa, his life is exponentially different than mine. He struggles to feed his children, he does not have money for medicine, and his boys sleep with him on the hard floor.

It is true that we paid for the clinic visit for his son and the medicine for his wife; it is true that we sent him to the doctor with funds and days off. It is true that we send him home with extra food, feed him two meals a day, and pay him 30% more than the average daily rate. But Elias’s family needs more. And he is not afraid to ask. This visit to his home was his way of asking, again, that we support him, so he can support his family.

Joel and I have discussed our plans and our responsibility to pay Elias a fair, living wage, to make sure that he gets the health care that he needs, to not accept what is status quo as that which is just. But there are so many gray areas, and it is hard to live with the incredible disparity that cannot be ignored. When we lived in the US, it was easier to pretend that our lives were “normal.” But here, we know better. Our lives were, and are, lives of extreme privilege.

I am glad we went to Elias’ house, and I am so glad that we have the honor of knowing him. But I know that it will be a constant struggle for me, and for many of my colleagues, to figure out how best to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. 

Perhaps the humility part really is what resonates right now; I so desperately want to change the world, to fix all the problems, to create equality, to end these awful disparities, and I cannot. All I can do is trust God, do my best, and be humble enough to believe that I, alone, simply cannot do all that I want to do. But when we work together, with God, I can trust that there is justice, there is life, there is hope. And it is a gift to be a small, confused, imperfect part of it...So, I guess, we just try to walk together.