Thursday, June 27, 2013

Our Induction

On Sunday, CCAP Zambia held an induction service for Joel and me. Worship began at 9am and it ended around 2pm, with a meal afterwards. Now, one might think that sitting through a five hour worship service would be an exhausting ordeal. But this was simply not the case for us; it was energizing, exciting, full of life, but most of all, a precious gift.

I am not sure how many choirs sang: the Mandevu women’s choir, the Matero men’s choir, the Matero women’s choir, the children’s choir, the Bethel choir, the Chawama choir, the Section of John choir, and a few others. The music went on an on, complete with dancing and laughter, and a few high pitched cheers of joy.

There were speeches; the president of the Council of Churches for Zambia was the honored guest, and he offered an ecumenical address, encouraging Joel and me in our ministry. The sermon was delivered by a colleague at the Chawama CCAP congregation. Our Regional Liaison, from Presbyterian Church USA, gave a beautiful speech about the power of partnership.  

At the end of the service, gifts were presented. The gift presentations alone took over an hour. Group after group processed forward, dancing and singing, their arms laden with wrapped presents. We received over 60 gifts, and they were held high, as people streamed down the aisle of the church, dancing their way towards us. Present after present piled up, person after person hugged us, smile after smile offered us beaming congratulations. We shook hundreds of hands and there were a few times that I simply could not contain the tears. How is it possible to be so welcomed? How is it possible to be so loved? How can I even begin to thank our Zambian partners for their generosity, their kindness, their infectious, inspiring joy?

One of my colleagues traveled by bus from Northern Zambia to attend the induction, arriving in Lusaka at one in the morning. I was overjoyed to see her, and humbled that she had traveled through the night just to attend our induction. Others rode buses for an entire day just to be present. As an incredible blessing, my mother and Joel’s parents were able to travel from the United States to be present at this unique and beautiful ceremony. American friends in Lusaka made their way to the event, as well. It was remarkable to look out and see our Zambian friends, American friends, neighbors, colleagues, and even parents, gathered in this church, in a compound in Lusaka, to sing and dance and praise and celebrate together. Wow.

When we returned home, we opened the gifts. There is no way to name all of the things we received: beautiful Zambian clothing, exquisite cloth, copper clocks in the shape of Zambia, pots and pans, glasses and mugs, wall hangings, a coffee maker, a toaster, a dvd player, a sound system, a Chichewa Bible, and on and on and on. We even received a satellite dish, a large flat screen television, and a cable subscription. Now, Joel and I have never, ever had cable, and in fact, we went for years without a television. But, the people in the Synod, our CCAP friends, wanted to be give us above and beyond what we would ever, ever think to expect. 

As a privileged American, it was hard for me, at first, to accept all these gifts, to not give in to guilt. I don’t deserve all these things! Especially from people who sometimes struggle to feed their families, who have to make choices I would never dream of having to make. But I do know, without a doubt, that I must receive these gifts not with guilt, but with gratitude. For they are a sign of love, of trust, of hope, of solidarity, of pride. My Zambian sisters and brothers are not recipients of charity, they are not people to be pitied. They are men and women of strength, power, resilience, generosity, and courage. And they will give, they will dance, they will sing, they will celebrate, because they live in community, they live in love, they live in faith in a way that we often do not.

My house is now decorated with signs of this love. When we drink water from our new glasses, when we sip from our new mugs, when we see the time on that lovely copper clock, we witness the love and community that surrounds us here. These gifts stand as a testimony to the powerful, fierce, courageous love that our Zambian brothers and sisters display for us, for their church, for their community, and most of all, for God.

I hope to one day be as generous, as courageous, as faithful as my friends here. In the meantime, I will choose to simply say, “Thank you.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Mom's Visit to Lusaka

Arriving in Lusaka
Yesterday, I said good-bye to my mother, as she headed towards a plane, to take her from Lusaka back to her home in Michigan. And while I was so sad to see her go, the blessing of her visit to Zambia left me feeling profoundly grateful. Not just that we got to spend a week with her, sharing the joys of living in Lusaka, but also because I was reminded, once again, of how deeply blessed I am that she is my mother.

Johnny and Grandma
While she was with us, my mom volunteered at a center for children with special needs here in Lusaka. She is a pediatric physical therapist, and in the United States, she works with kids who have a variety of diagnoses: cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida, and many other issues which create physical and developmental challenges. When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes treat children in her home office, and I was honored to become acquainted with some of her students, and witness my mother's love and care for each one of them.

One thing that I learned early on from my mother is that it is not our accomplishments that make us valuable. While I was so proud of learning to ride a bike, or reading a chapter book, or getting a perfect score on a spelling test, my mother would consistently demonstrate that her love for me had nothing to do with these things. She loved me, and she celebrated with me, but she also celebrated little Caitlyn, who would never be able to walk, much less ride a bike. She also loved Benjamin, who could not speak, much less read a chapter book. She also delighted in Jonathan, who struggled so hard to move that scooter board, and would never even take a spelling test. Caitlyn was not valuable because of what she could, or could not, do. Benjamin was not valuable because of what he could, or could not, do. Jonathan was not valuable because of what he could, or could not, do. They were all valuable, and loved, simply for being who they are, precious and sacred children of God. And my mother loved these children, and celebrated them, with a sincerity that impacted me profoundly. We are not valuable because of what we can, or cannot, do. We are valuable because we are precious, sacred children of God.

Visiting my office
And so, going with her to a center for children with special needs here in Lusaka, was an overwhelming experience. I watched my mother do stretches with a little boy whose face lit up with a brilliant smile. She did tracking exercises with an 8 year old girl who could not sit on her own. Another child, named Precious, clapped his hands and sang along as my mother led sound and movement.

As I watched my mother, and saw the children, I also watched their mothers. Each child was there with a mother or grandmother, and I know that these women do not have easy lives. They live in a compound in Lusaka, and struggle with the burden of poverty on a daily basis. But they also fight to care for their children, to advocate for these kids with the double burden of poverty and special needs. Sometimes, these women are blamed for bearing children with developmental delays, or their children are labeled the products of witchcraft. And so these moms have a profound struggle, to defend the dignity of their children, to care for their special needs, to face ridicule and blame, and to fight against poverty and hunger. But here, in this place, the women sat in a circle, with their precious children on their laps, and they sang songs with beaming smiles, as they helped their children by clapping their little hands together. During one of the songs, each child got a change to dance, and the mothers jiggled the kid's arms and legs, and everyone would laugh together, children and adults.

Oh, mommies. It is not easy to carry your heart outside your body. And it is especially hard for parents of children with special needs, and it is especially hard for parents of children with special needs living in a developing country, facing the burden of poverty and ostracism and inadequate medical care. But here is one thing that have I learned, thanks to my mommy:

The love that was visibly shining in that room cannot be taken away, and is not at all dependent, on whether a child can walk or talk or get straight As. The women in that room have joy in their lives because despite all the obstacles and challenges they face, they have chosen to love their children with reckless hope and courage. And each person in that room is of infinite, incredible, awe-inspiring value, not because of what they have accomplished, but because God made them exquisite, beautiful human beings. And so are we. Beautiful not because of what we can, or cannot, do, but because of who we are. A radiant, brilliant light of love, God glowing inside each of us.
Visiting CCAP Mtendere Community School

I miss my mom, but I get to keep her with me every day. Because she calls me to be my best self, and I cannot thank her enough for all that she taught me from the minute I was born. It feels pretty awesome to have someone love me for who I am, and not for what I can do. So, thanks Mom. I love you. And please, please, please, come back again soon!

Friday, June 7, 2013

2 bikes, 30 kids, 3 check points

There are about thirty children who live on the campus where we reside. And there are two bikes. And those two bikes belong to my two children.

What this means is that there is a track, worn down through the grass, creating a circle around our house. And on that track, children of all ages and sizes take turns riding Frankie and Johnny's bikes in circles. Yes, a 13 year old rides Johnny's 5 year-old sized bike, knees pointing out at very awkward angles, because that is the only bike the kid will get the chance to ride. And yes, the 2 year old sits perched on the bike seat, while older kids hold her on, because she can't stand to be left out of the fun.

But my favorite part is what the kids do who are waiting for their turn with the bikes. Frankie, Johnny, and their friends have created a game called "license." In the game, as two children zoom around on the bikes, the remaining kids create check points, to stop the bicyclists and demand their "papers." The children on the bikes must produce their license (a leaf off one of our trees), and the "police" decide if it is real or fake. If it is fake, the leaf is ripped up, and the child speeds away on the bike, a fugitive. If it is real, the leaf is returned, and the child speeds away on the bike...All of the outcomes involve children zooming on bikes, but they also allow for ripping up leaves and shouting at speeding fugitives, so everyone is happy.

I love the creativity that I witness in the children here: They transform the inconvenience of a police check point into a rousing game of "license." Only 2 bikes for swarms of kids? No problem, they'll just find some leaves and create fake documents. Want to play cricket? Well, that stick will make the perfect bat, and they'll just grab a rock to use as a ball. As I write this, our kids are outside playing on a group "swing," created with a plank of wood. The children here make soccer balls out of plastic bags, and they create amazing cars and trucks (galimotos) using bent wire and plastic bottles. Joel and I watch kites fly high in the air, maneuvered by a child who transforms a thrown out plastic bag and a few sticks into this wondrous toy.

If we had that kind of creativity, I wonder what kind of transformation could happen. Can we look at a discarded plastic bag and see the beginnings of a high-flying kite? Can we look at an old soda bottle and realize that it would make the perfect wheel for a galimoto? Can we find a piece of old twine and decide to create a soccer ball? Can we look at 30 children, see only 2 bicycles, and realize that a hysterical game is about to be invented?

It is easy to give into the "not enough" mentality, especially here. There is not enough food, there is not enough education, there are not enough doctors, there are not enough clinics. But the people here do not give in. They simply do not. They look at what they do have, and they transform their world. They share the food they grow, they volunteer to teach orphans, they pool their money to arrange transport for a sick friend. They are creative, they are resourceful, and they don't give up. Right now, at Mandevu, the women are using old clothes - shirts, pants, skirts - and cutting them into squares, to sew into blankets. They will sell these blankets and use them to raise money for their many, many ministries. Yes, indeed. They look at an old, ripped dress and they see the beginnings of a beautiful quilt.

I am trying to learn from these wonderful children and these inspiring women, as even with all of my enormous privilege, I sometimes give into the "not enough" mentality. I worry that my Chichewa is not good enough, that I do not have enough to offer to my job, that I don't have enough savings, enough retirement, enough skills, enough knowledge. Can you imagine? The children can transform a plastic bag into a kite; the women can transform a dirty shirt into a blanket; and I cannot trust that I have enough?

The creativity, the trust, the faith here is amazing. And I hope it can inspire all of us to remember that we have enough, we are enough, and we can offer what we have. For when we look at the world with creative, hopeful, faithful eyes, we can transform garbage into galimotos, broken fabric into warm comfort, poverty and sorrow into a hope-filled future.

2 bikes, 30 kids, 3 check points, and 1 happy mother. Thank you, lovely children, for reminding me that through the grace of God, we have enough. We are enough. Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

My new office

As I write this, I am sitting in my new office; it is in a chicken coop, and I couldn't think of a better place to be. Our partners, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia, have their temporary offices in a line of chicken coops, and one of them has been remodeled to accomodate my department. The General Secretary, Deputy General Secretary, Accountant, and Administrative Assistant, all share another remodeled chicken coop, at the opposite end of mine. And in between us are chickens. Lots of chickens. Right on the other side of my door, there is clucking and squawking and strutting.
In front of my door is the community bore hole. Streams of people flow by to pour water into buckets and carry them home, often balancing one jug on their head, holding another in their hands. On my first day of work, a man stopped by and asked to buy a chicken from me. On the second day, someone approached my office to purchase manure. And every day, I greet men, women, and children, as they wait for their turn to fill a jug of water.

After seven months of working from home, it is delightful to be here. Baby kittens play near the bathroom, crops grow outside my window, and there is the noise of life all around me. But the best part is the people, of course. The laughter as women wait for water, the fearless girl who climbs on my lap, the men who play games with giggling children, the administrative assistant who comes into my office just to sit and chat. My colleagues, who speak of abuse and disease and HIV/AIDS and hunger, and then get to the work of changing the world. Wow. I keep thinking, I can't believe I am here.

This is a place where people come together; they come for water, they come for a chicken, they come for manure, they come for assistance, they come to serve. The other day, I watched as the General Secretary of our denomination got on his knees to clean the hands of his two year old granddaughter. Serving, loving, coming together. This is a place where love is.

I have come here from so far away, to do what I can to support the work of this wonderful denomination, as it seeks to follow in the ways of Jesus, loving all people, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, witnessing to God's love. And I get to be here, where people gather together. I am so deeply grateful.

When God's people gather together, when we drink and eat and serve and farm and work together, beautiful things happen...and I can't think of many places more beautiful than my new office!