Thursday, November 28, 2013

Our Thanksgiving

My plan was to ignore Thanksgiving this year; I figured that was the best I could hope for. Maybe, if I ignore it, I won’t feel this aching longing to be with my mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephews...Maybe, if I ignore it, I won’t miss the pie and the stuffing and the fudge that Joel’s grandma always makes....Maybe, if I ignore it, I won’t be frustrated that I have chosen to live half a world away from the people I love the very most.

Last Thanksgiving, we had been in Zambia for less than two months, and I remember spending a lot of that day in tears. In the kitchen, trying to cook, trying to make Thanksgiving work, while tears flowed and frustrations grew. And just as I was attempting to create some semblance of a Thanksgiving meal, the power went out. No electricity, no water, and a half cooked meal. I think that was the point that I sunk to the floor and asked Joel to just leave me alone to sob in the kitchen.

So, this year, my goal was to ignore it. I could be thankful, that was for sure. And I try to be thankful every day. There is so, so much that I am thankful for. But on this day, I figured, I could just give myself a break, and get through it. Without tears. That seemed a good goal.

And then, some American friends invited us to their house for Thanksgiving. I took a little while to respond, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to ignore Thanksgiving anyway, so we accepted the invitation. They didn’t ask us to bring anything; we chose a few things to take along, but they cooked and created and brought us to their table. And not only was it a Thanksgiving feast, it was a vegetarian Thanksgiving feast, and our family is vegetarian. It was delicious.

Something happened today, as we prepared food with friends in their kitchen, as our children played together, as we all joined hands and shared what we were grateful for, as we ate and laughed and shared our stories...I realized that I was having Thanksgiving. Not a tear-filled day of missing my family, not a stubborn day of ignoring my pain, but a real feeling of gratitude, for these people who were strangers to us a little more than a year ago. But even more than that, a feeling of gratitude that no matter where we are, we are never far from love.

We were far from home today, but we were not far from love. We were invited into a home, to share in that love, to share in the gratitude of the day. I was ministered to, and cared for, and fed. And that is exactly what I needed. And I am so grateful.

Lately, I have heard way too many horror stories. Really, really bad stuff about pain and suffering and violence. From Joel’s travels in South Sudan, to my colleagues’ terrifying accident, to a friend struggling to keep her son alive, I have spent days sick with sorrow. But I do believe that we are never far from love; that no matter what we are going through, whether it is simply being homesick, or having one’s heart ripped open, God’s love is present and powerful and real. In fact, this is the one and only thing that I really can depend on.

And so, today, my friends reminded me of this love, through their kindness, their invitation, their open home, and they filled me with gratitude. There is love. It is real. It is God. And I do believe that this is the foundation of everything that makes me feel grateful. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Last weekend in photos

Frankie's birthday party: 20-something children, 2 adults

A very sweaty birthday boy

Our friend Precious 

Lots of smiles, a few tears, no blood

Art table

Bounce house

More art

Ball games

Singing Happy Birthday and cupcakes

Sunday morning worship
Frankie singing with the choir

Making a funny face while preaching in Chichewa

Johnny doing a seriously awesome dance, a little preaching

Home for Scrabble by candle and solar light (Johnny did "quiz" and was very proud!)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Yoga in a refugee camp

My memories of yoga are not all that fond. It was pregnancy yoga, eight years ago, and I was the only person in the class required to use a chair. I simply could not do it, and the instructor was worried I would break myself. So, I got the "special" station, where I could use a chair for balance and support. It was not a pretty sight, and after about a month, I gave up. I decided to dance instead. 

This past week, Joel came back from South Sudan. And during his time in a land that has been devastated by interethnic violence and civil war, he worshiped in a refugee camp. They sang and danced and played drums. They praised God with joy and clapping. Many of these people had seen their family members murdered, their houses burned to the ground, watched their loved ones die. But they believe in a God who is more powerful than the violence they have endured. They believe that God’s love will win, that life will triumph, that there is reason for hope.

And at that refugee camp, they also have a yoga class. It is amazing to me to think about people who have lost everything, spending time stretching their bodies and paying attention to their breath. The woman who teaches the yoga class maintains that the refugees are incredibly strong; they can hold positions that most other women cannot. They are strong. They are breathing. They are holding onto hope.

Joel shared so many devastating realities; one of the stories that he heard over and over again has to do with dowries. A man has to provide hundreds of cattle for a dowery, which he does not have. And so he steals cattle from another tribe, killing the owners and often their families in the process. After awhile, the other tribe takes revenge, stealing the cattle back, while murdering the original thief and his family. This happens again and again, as cattle are stolen and re-stolen, as people are slaughtered in order to provide an unreasonable dowry. When I think about the joy, the love, the new life that is supposed to define a wedding, this horrifying practice of stealing, killing, and revenge makes me so deeply sad.

Joel also mentioned riding through South Sudan with his driver, who explained that one should never argue with a police officer. “They will just shoot you,” said the man. He went on to reassure Joel that he had his own guns hidden in the trunk. At the schools Joel visited, he saw teachers walking around with large sticks. The sticks were used to keep the children in line; beatings are all too common. Domestic violence, as well, is rampant. In a country that has only known war for twenty-two years, violence seems to lie just below the surface of most interactions, and is often considered the only way to solve a problem. 

What do we do with all this? We find our way to God. Our way to pray and worship and build. Our way to breathe. We join with other people of faith and we claim our power. We support ministries of reconciliation in places of violence and pain. The women in that refugee camp refuse to give up; so must we.

The stories from the typhoon in the Philippines, the Ethiopian adoptee abused and murdered in the US, the cuts to programs that feed the hungry. These things make me feel hopeless and sad. But then I picture the refugee woman in South Sudan, doing yoga and then getting up to dance her faith. And I know there is a God. I know there is something more powerful than all this pain, all this death, all this horror.

I believe that God works through the church, the body of Christ, to bring peace, to bring hope, to bring reconciliation. As Joel traveled, he saw people doing incredible work of transformation. RECONCILE, one of our partners in the Presbyterian Church, USA, brings together people from different ethnic groups, to work on peace-building, justice, and forgiveness. Theological colleges, also PCUSA partners, train new leaders to live out the love of the gospel. South Sudanese Christians and mission co-workers come together and declare there is hope, there is breath, there is a future. For they believe in a God of liberation, a God of reconciliation, a God of transformation.

There is yoga in a refugee camp. There is dancing in a refugee camp. There is worship in a refugee camp. There is breath. There is joy. There is God. 

Monday, November 4, 2013


At the goodbye picnic
A very good friend is moving today. She just called me from the bus station. It will be all day on a dilapidated bus, packed full of people, hours at the border crossing, and finally, she will arrive in the middle of the night, in Zimbabwe. She and her husband and their two boys will soon start a new life in Zimbabwe, in a town she has never been to. They will struggle to survive on the funds that a poor church can raise; they will simply live in faith that God can provide enough.

She wants to send her boys to a good school; she worries about the fees and if she will be able to afford a decent education for them. She is smart, educated, incredibly generous, faithful, loving. I know that she will figure it out; I know that she will succeed. But it will be hard, so hard. So much harder than it is for me.

I have written about her before; she is the nurse, who cared for the epileptic man with severe burns. If you didn’t read that post, you can find it here:

My friend is a model of love and faithfulness and goodness, and she held me up so many times. She loved me through every pain. She inspired me and walked with me and made me feel like I was not alone. She has been a sister for me here, and thinking about her getting on that bus in one hour hurts my heart.

She is also pregnant. She found out on Wednesday that it will be a little girl. She is due in February, and since I will not be there when the baby is born, I gave her baby gifts over the weekend. A smile lit up her face and she said, “It is a gift of hope. Hope that the baby will come.” I thought about baby showers in America; we don’t call them gifts of hope. We just assume that the baby will come, that all will be well. But for my friend, that is not her assumption. That is her hope.

I took her out on Friday to a restaurant, for a goodbye meal. I asked how she was feeling about the pregnancy, about delivery in the town that she does not know. She began to tell me stories; as a nurse, she had some horrific ones. “One girl, she was only 16. She was pregnant, and trying to deliver at home. It was expensive to deliver in the hospital, so she was in her house. Labor stopped, and she kept pushing, but the baby was stuck. The midwife told her that it was her fault, that she had done something wrong during the pregnancy, and that the girl needed to admit it, or the baby would not come.” My friend’s face was creased with sorrow. “They would not take her to the hospital until she admitted her crime. There was nothing to admit, and by the time she had pleaded to go, it was too late for the baby. The child died, and we had to remove that young girl’s uterus. The girl survived, but can you imagine?” 

My friend went on to explain that some people believe that any labor complications are the fault of the mother. Either she had an affair while she was pregnant, or she infuriated another woman, who then cursed her. The woman must admit her crime before the baby can be born. My friend said that she had seen it many times; women die because of it. 

I kept looking down at the little swell in her belly, the little girl that was forming there. Oh, how I wanted to protect that life, to cover my friend with all of my privilege, to allow her the security and safety I felt during my pregnancy. She smiled again as she took the two wrapped gifts. “I will wait to open them until the baby is born,” she said. “I will have the discipline to do that.” I looked at the gifts of hope, at my friend, and felt my heart break again.

Together on campus
I thanked her for letting me be me, for being patient and helpful with all of my learnings and fumblings and mistakes and questions. I thanked her for being a friend when I really needed one. 

I keep thinking of a night about a month ago, when Frankie’s fever spiked high, 103 degrees, and I was home alone, and scared. I called her, and although she was in middle of making dinner, she came immediately to our house. She brought a malaria test, a thermometer, medicine...Her husband came, too, lifting Frankie up in prayer. They offered to take us straight to the clinic, leaving behind their food, their needs, to make sure that my sweet boy would be okay. That is who she is, who they are. And I hate it that she is getting on a bus in an hour. That I can’t just call her and know she will be there.

But I am so grateful that I got to know her, that I had the privilege of calling her friend. I am so grateful for the pain of missing her, because that means I had the joy of knowing her. And I am grateful for the excuse to go to Zimbabwe, to visit my friend, and to meet her little daughter, after that baby is born.

Holding a friend's baby
We will both hold onto hope, the gift of hope. That is what she gives to me, that is what God gives to us. Hope in a God who is big enough to see us through. Hope in a God who creates beautiful people. Hope in a God who works through friendships, allowing us to experience the power and the beauty and the wonder of love.