Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pure Joy

This past week I was invited to participate in a free 4 day/3 night retreat hosted by Pure Joy International. Pure Joy offers retreats for missionary women around the world. They pick three countries a year, and this year happened to include Tanzania. The entire trip was so meaningful and deeply rejuvenating. Here are a few of the highlights…
·    Arriving at a beautiful 4-star resort on the beach in Dar es Salaam and having that feeling of, “Is this for real?” Everything was stunningly beautiful.

·    That first feel of air-conditioning…ahhh… the funny part was all the Tanzanian missionaries aren’t used to it, so eventually we had to ask for the temperature to be turned up.
·    Meeting the 15-person team that had come to host the retreat. Each of the women came from a church that partners with Pure Joy, and several of them were former missionaries themselves. One of them was even a former Tanzanian missionary who had lived in Shinyanga from 1988-1994. It was so fun to hear her stories of taking her kids to the Mwadui pool J
·    Beginning to get to know the other 48 missionary women from all over Tanzania. A few of them I knew from our days in Morogoro and our trip to Dar in May, but most were new faces.
·    Our first of many little gifts we would get throughout the retreat. People from various churches had made/bought all kinds of little gifts for us—candy, jewelry, bags, devotion books, a cd, etc.
·    Worshipping in English in a large group for the first time in a year. The music was so beautiful. I especially enjoyed the song “Never Once” by Matt Redman.
·    The first messages. Over the course of the week, 8 different women would give talks. That particular night, the topics were trusting God when He gives us more than we can handle (because sometimes God will) and taking down the masks that we wear, which is especially hard for missionaries who feel like they have to be perfect/inspiring in order to get funding.
·    The first of many delicious buffet meals--so nice to not have to decide what to cook, not have to clean rice, etc.
·    Rooming with and catching up with Shantelle, one of my friends from our language school days in Morogoro.
·    Talks on being secure in our worth as a child of God, relying on God when we can control so little about our lives, Christ as our immovable rock, paying attention to the dry areas of our life, and trusting God to see and complete the whole picture. I especially appreciated when one of the leaders had the group brainstorm the daily hassles of life in Tanzania, things that clash with our personality, life events we have experienced while here, traumatic events we have walked through, and losses/gains of living here. Suddenly we all felt that we weren’t alone in our experiences.
·    Sharing stories, advice, and resources among fellow missionaries.
·    More amazing worship and time of prayer
·    Free time at the waterpark next door. Apparently there are two water parks in Dar Es Salaam. Who knew?! It was so much fun to be a kid again and zoom down waterslides.
·    Movie night. They had brought a trunk full of popcorn and movie theatre candies. It was the first time in ages I’ve had Raisinets. Then we laughed our way through the movie Mom’s Night Out.
·    Talks on living a life of faith and gratitude, what we can do in those “What am I doing here?” moments, finding our strength in God, and nurturing our marriages in Christ.
·    More amazing worship and getting to know even more people. Several other people were also considering adoption, so I was so happy to be able to pass along what we know.
·    More time racing down waterslides J Yes, grown women can make a tube train.
·    Individualized gift bags. Months ago, they had asked us about things we miss and things we enjoy, and then individuals filled each of our gallon-sized bags. Mine was full of caramel popcorn, cheesecake jelly bellies and a cheesecake chocolate bar--since they couldn’t send a real cheesecake--, dark chocolate, some fun make-up, and an Amazon Kindle gift card. I loved it all!
·    A short walk along the beach
·    Letters from people who had been praying for us the whole time
·    Last morning worship and closing thoughts
·    More books and potential resources to help us as we head back into real life
·    Exchanging contact information with people all over Tanzania. Looks like we will have people to stay with if we want to travel! J
·    Getting stuck in Dar with one of my new friends—getting stuck in Dar Es Salaam traffic and missing our flight wasn’t fun, but getting to have a last evening by the ocean with seafood and gelato with a friend made it much better

I want to say a special thank you to Pure Joy on behalf of all of us who were nourished by this retreat. I only wish Eric could have experienced something like this too. It was so special! I hope that someday I can pay it forward and help a Pure Joy team in another part of the world. For those of you in the U.S., check out their webpage, and if it looks like a ministry you’d like to be a part of, invite Vicki to your church. For those of you who are missionaries, if you’d like to have a Pure Joy retreat in your country, send Vicki an email and she’ll see what she can do J
P.S. If you are wondering why this is such a great ministry, check out this article I came across recently on missionary stress. It also provides some ideas of how those in a missionary’s home country can help reduce missionary stress.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Inside My Brain

Just in case you are under the impression that cross-cultural missionaries know what they are doing, here’s a little inside look. This is part of my internal monologue during a recent new event. I had never been to a rice cleaning party before. I had been invited by the bride’s mother that morning, and all I knew was that we were supposed to clean rice for her daughter’s Send-Off on Saturday and that they needed the school’s speakers for the event. For those not from Tanzania, cleaning rice means picking the tiny stones out of the dry rice. For an event as big as a Send-Off I imagined they would need a whole lot of rice. I was right. Our best guess is that it was about 50 pounds of rice.

(Upon arrival…)

“Oh wow. They all look so nice! Apparently I underestimated the dress code for a rice cleaning party. Note to future self, dress nicely to a rice cleaning party. At least I arrived about the right time. I’m an hour later than they told me, and I’m still one of the first ones here, but not the very first one here. And look, some of them have already started cleaning rice. Something I know how to do, since we do it at least once a week every week.”

(I greet the host and start cleaning rice.)

“Ok. Doing good cleaning rice. Oh wait, I’m sitting cross-legged and no one else is. Gotta sit with my feet tucked under me or legs out in front.”

(I put my legs out in front)

“Well, this isn’t going to last long. I’m not flexible enough to sit like this for long periods of time. Tucked under it is.”

(I adjust and continue cleaning rice)

“Oh, they are just using their right hand for cleaning. Not both. Ok. Right hand it is. Man, I’m so much slower one-handed.”

(Someone comes up to greet me.)

“Ok. Here it comes… the Swahili…. O goodness she is talking fast! And it’s so hard to hear her over the music. I think I got three words out of that. Ok. How to respond? “

(I give it the good college try)

“Hmm… confused look. Guess that wasn’t it. Ok, she’s trying again. Got more. Time to respond.”

(I give a second response)

“Ok. That was better. Not great. But better. Is she giving me a look of pity? Ok. Deep breathe. Yes, Swahili is hard.”

(I continue cleaning rice after she leaves. I get to the point of cleaning where the rice is tossed in a woven shallow basket to get the chaff out.)

“Ok. I got this. Wait, how do they do it so little extra rice doesn’t fly out. Slower maybe. More intentional. Ok that’s better. Does anyone notice that I’m a novice? Hopefully not.”

(I keep working at the rice. Eric shows up to take a few pictures.)

“Yay. My partner in awkwardness. I’m saved! Or at least I won’t be the only one for a few minutes.”

(Eric takes some pictures and then leaves.)

“Oh man, my butt’s falling asleep. Time to shift.”

(More women arrive.)

“Huh. Everyone makes kelele (tradition female cry of joy) when more people arrive. I’ll have to try that next time.”

(Later more people arrive.)

“Shoot. Missed the kelele again.”

(Even more people arrive. Over 50 are now present.)

“Wow. How many people do they need to clean rice?!?,,, Remember, Linda, this is a social thing. It’s not just about the activity.”

(A woman offers to help me and takes my basket.)

“Hmm… was I doing something wrong or was she just being nice? I mean I think I’m doing everything everyone else is doing.  I’ll assume nice. Please let it be nice.”

(I help out the other women without baskets.)

“Oh man, losing feeling in my legs again. How do they sit like this for so long? Shift.”

(The woman soon returns my basket, and with a little more work the pile is finished.)

“Well it looks like our pile is done and most of the piles are done. Now what?”

(I watch the five dancers for a while.)

“I feel weird just sitting here. Maybe I should go dance. But it’s such a small group and I don’t see anyone I recognize. I’m not sure I’m emotionally prepared to be in the spotlight. Maybe later.”

(I sit and wait some more.)

“Now I feel really awkward. Maybe I’ll go talk to someone I know.”

(I find our neighbor and ask what happens next. She says that nothing happens right now, but eventually there will be a TSH 5,000 collection from each woman.)

“O goodness. I don’t know that I have that on me. I didn’t know about a donation. Maybe I’ll go home and grab it, and just take a little breather from feeling awkward.”

(I return home with promises to come back shortly. I get the money, chat with Eric for a few minutes, use the bathroom, and then return.)

“Oh, some people are already leaving. Perhaps I waited too long. I wonder where to give the donation”

(I check with our neighbor and find out they’ve already taken the donation.)

“Bummer. I guess I stayed in the house too long.”

(I find out who is collecting the money. They receive it gladly, and then a few minutes later give me TSH 1,000 back.)

“Wait, there’s change? I’m so confused.”

(I hang out some more. I see some of the people who were dancing earlier.)

“Oh, I did know some of the people who were dancing! I guess I could have danced. Oh well, I’ll dance up at the Send-off on Saturday.”

(I sit for what seems like a very long time.)

“Ok. Don’t let your American impatience get the better of you, Linda. Just be present. Hang out until your neighbor leaves.”

(I chat a little bit and sit some more. Finally, I hear from our neighbor that it’s an appropriate time to leave.)

“And another event, more or less successfully, navigated.”

This whole scenario reminded me of one of the great tips for cross-cultural missionaries in the most recent post:

Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.””

Am I always fine not knowing what is going on around me? Nope. But I’m trying to be, and that’s the first step :-) 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

10 THINGS MISSIONARIES WON'T TELL YOU (From our perspective)

This blog post is going to be a little bit different, because it is actually written for other missionaries. However, those of you who love and support missionaries might also like to listen in and get the inside scoop. There’s an article that we’ve seen passed around for a few days on Facebook called “10 Things Missionaries Won’t Tell You.” When we read it, we found that the ideas were definitely common among missionaries like ourselves, and yet, we didn't agree with the tone of the article. The author sounded really jaded, perhaps at the height of culture-shock or burnout. The article was probably very therapeutic for many missionaries to read, because it normalizes a lot of feelings. Yet, we fear that if a missionary maintains this mindset, he or she won't last long. Here are a few ways we've found to reframe these ideas.


What the original article said:Newsletters, blog posts, website updates – all the “experts” tell me that I need to be sending you fresh content on a regular basis so you won’t forget about me. But here’s the thing…writing is hard, especially for those who aren’t natural writers. You know what else is hard? HTML, CSS, PHP, and a bunch of other tech-geek stuff that you have to learn about just to make a decent-looking website or email. I really want to tell you what’s going on, but it’s hard to turn out gripping narratives while I have a sick child asleep in my lap. And if I have to look up how to code a “mailto” link one more time, I’m going to scream!”

From our perspective: Newsletters are hard, even for those of us who like to write. However, it can be helpful to think of them as "the job," i.e. what pays the bills. Everything else is "the ministry.” (This is not entirely exclusive however, because ministry can also happen through newsletters.) Spending time writing a newsletter every month is just part of the job. Plus writing a newsletter is an opportunity to slow down, reflect on life, and document your life here. Have I complained when I have writers’ block or when something isn’t working right in the e-newsletter program I am using? Yes. Absolutely. However, I also realize that someday my children and grandchildren are going to treasure these newsletters, and many people do faithfully read them and pray for us. It’s worth a few hours of inconvenience a month.


What the original article said: I’m glad that you liked my Facebook status. I really am. The thing is, when I say we need $1,200 by the end of the week to pay the school fees for orphaned children, I’m talking about actual dollars and actual need. Contrary to the rumors, Bill Gates doesn’t donate a dollar for every Like. That part is up to you. So, the next time you Like my status, consider sending a few bucks my way too.


For our perspective: We know Facebook doesn't pay the bills. It’s really not designed to. However, it helps keep people connected and excited about the work, and excited people pay the bills. Facebook is a prime example of group-think. As another missionary quoted, “Every man’s challenge is no man’s challenge.” If you really want to raise funds, you have to connect with people individually, not through an impersonal social media blast. Besides, Facebook can serve other great purposes. For example, it's a great opportunity for emotional support and to support and encourage others.


What the original article said: “Lest you think #2 sounded a little whiny and money-hungry, you should know that I truly despise asking for money. I always have. And now I have to ask for it almost all the time. Even when I’m not asking for it, I’m thinking about asking for it. There are never enough funds to do all the good I’m trying to do, and I live with a nagging feeling that the one person I don’t ask is the one who would have written the big check. So, when I ask for money, know that I do so with fear and trembling.”

From our perspective: One thing I’ve discovered in all my years of fundraising is that people in the U.S. WANT to give to meaningful causes. In fact, being a part of something bigger than themselves that leaves a legacy HELPS them. It’s a win-win situation for all involved. No, not everyone you come in contact with will think your cause is a priority and not everyone who does value it will be financially able to support you in that way. However, you are not doing them a disservice by inviting them to partner with you in a cause that is meaningful.  And if you don't feel your cause is meaningful, then there are some other issues that need to be addressed.


What the original article said: “Things are pretty bad here. If I told you what’s really going on, you would either come rescue me, or think I was exaggerating. If you heard some of the things I’ve said out loud, you might question my salvation. If you knew some of the thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head, you might question my sanity. Sometimes good days are hard to come by, but I don’t dare tell you the worst. If I did, you would probably tell me to throw in the towel.

From our perspective: Sure, no one likes to hear that you spent the afternoon crying your eyes out in frustration, and every missionary gets to that point. Don’t believe me? Click here. And you can't be completely transparent with everyone. However, you should be completely transparent with a few people, and at least somewhat transparent with all the people who are part of your prayer team. We personally try to share our struggles, but we also try to maintain a grateful heart and share our thanksgivings as well. And if you are having more hard days than good days, it might be time to talk to a counselor through Skype or other means. There is no shame in this, because living in another culture is HARD, and talking it out is way better than becoming bitter and burned out.


What the original article said: “After 2 or 3 years of hard work, most people feel like they deserve a little break. Take the family to the beach. Visit a theme park, a national park, or Park City. I would love a vacation, but honestly, I feel guilty “pampering” myself, rather than putting all my time and resources into the ministry. On top of that, I know some people will judge me if my vacation is “too nice.” If I scrape and save pennies for 5 years so I can spend a week on an exotic island, you’ll never hear about it, because I can’t handle the snarky, “It must be nice” comments (the ones you’ll say to my face), or, “My donations paid for your vacation” (which you’ll think, but not say out loud – at least not to me). So, I keep some great stuff to myself for fear of being judged.”

From our perspective: Take the vacation!! It is so very important to take breaks. Working in another culture and language is stressful, and many, many missionaries experience burn-out if they are not proactive about getting rest and rejuvenation. We understand the concern, and we too wonder, “Does our vacation sound too extravagant? Will we lose donors over this?” However, we’ve found that if we explain why this vacation is important to us and the ways we have tried to be financially responsible in planning the vacation, most people are incredibly supportive.


What the original article said: “Bless your heart. You think you’re doing me a favor. Thirty people show up at my door and expect me to provide transportation, food, lodging, sight-seeing, and a list of service projects a mile long. You’re here to “help.” The thing is, the other 51 weeks out of the year, we manage to do what needs to be done here just fine. That is, except for the time we spend working on the logistics for your team. You come over and want to help build a fence, when I can hire local workers to build a fence for a tiny fraction of what you spent to come here. I appreciate your desire to help, and I even love having visitors, but consider the size and expectations of your group before you plan your trip. A team of 3 or 4 highly skilled people is much more valuable to our ministry than a gaggle of mission tourists.

From our perspective: For sure there are horror stories. We’ve heard many of them from fellow missionaries. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. A lot of it depends on the make-up of the team and how much preparation they’ve had. Try to stay active in the preparation beforehand, helping the team set their expectations, giving them resources, and letting them know what to bring and what not to bring. In the preparations, make sure that the team is working with local leaders on projects that local leaders feel are a priority. Then be available for mentoring while the team is there. They may not look like the people that you normally share God’s love with, but it’s quite possible that they need your love and care as much as, or more than, your normal crew. Keeping the groups smaller can also be really helpful, and make sure that they understand that the primary reason they are there is building relationships, not building a fence. Even with all your planning and effort, sometimes things won't go the way you hoped. At that point you just have to bless it and release it. Try to learn from the past and keep an open mind and heart for the next team. Short term mission teams are a fantastic opportunity for developing partnerships, as every single person that comes to visit will (potentially) return to their home country as an ambassador for your ministry. It’s also possible that in hosting these teams, you are helping to raise up future long-term missionaries.


What the original article said: “Please understand, I now have two homes. When I’m at one, I’m away from the other, and there is a lot of emotion involved in that. On top of that, my life is absolutely crazy when I go “home.” I have to see relatives and friends, visit with partner churches, and take care of any number of issues that have arisen with my health, my electronic devices, and my government paperwork. Whether it’s a few weeks or a few months, I spend my time living out of suitcases and hustling from one appointment to the next. Is it good to be home? Sure. But when I get on that plane to go to my other home, I breathe a sigh of relief that life is almost back to ‘normal.’”

From our perspective: Very true. Furloughs are exhausting. And yet, they are also deeply refreshing. They give you an opportunity to catch up on other parts of your life and make memories with family and friends. They also give you the opportunity to miss things about your life in your host country. Furloughs can be so good for restoring perspective.


What the original article said: Let’s face it, I’m no saint. I’m not any more spiritual than you are. I don’t start my day with three hours of devotional reading and prayer. I typically just get up and get to work. And there is a lot of work to be done. In fact, there is so much need here that it’s really easy to become so focused on doing things for God that I lose sight of God himself. In pursuing my calling, I’ve somehow forgotten about the caller. My spiritual life is almost nonexistent, other than the occasional desperate cry of ‘Why God?’”

From our perspective: For sure we are not more spiritual than our friends who are not cross-cultural missionaries. That being said, we’ve discovered that we do need to be more intentional about being spiritually-fed here than we did in the U.S. If we aren’t spiritually fed, we will fall apart. Personal story: Sometimes it sneaks up on you. I realized I hadn’t gotten enough spiritual nourishment when we missed our opportunity to go to an English-speaking worship service in Dar Es Salaam. We had the right time, but the wrong place. When I found out our mistake, I completely broke down in tears and it took a while to pull myself back together. It’s like dehydration. By the time you realize you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. So, yes, intentionality. Since it is still hard for us to be spiritually-fed through Swahili worship services, we supplement with sermon podcasts, evening devotions, and most recently an English-speaking bible study. Do what works for your family and time frame, but do SOMETHING to regularly connect with your Maker.


What the original article said: There are good people here, there really are. But I have seen the worst of humanity in my work here – much of it from people I worked with and trusted. Other missionaries and pastors can be the worst. Just when you think you know someone, they stab you in the back, the front, and both sides. I’ve gotten to where I simply don’t trust anyone. My guard is up, and it’s not coming down. I refuse to get burned again. If that means I have to do everything myself, then so be it.

From our perspective: Have we had people take our words and actions out of context? For sure. Have people lied to us? Yes. However, that happens everywhere. It really sounds like this particular author has some trust issues to work out. Vulnerability is hard, but is also the source of all that is meaningful in life. Here’s a really great talk on the subject: “The Power of Vulnerability” or you can read Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly.”


What the original article said: “Having neglected my relationship with God, and given up on people entirely, I’m left with just me. I hate it. I want to quit. I have dreams about what my life would be like if I went back to my old home town, to my old church, and my old friends. I could get a normal job earning a salary – with healthcare and paid vacation. I could shop and eat at normal places. Most of all, I could have normal relationships. But here? I’m all alone. I don’t know if there’s anyone like me here, and I know no one back home understands. I want to feel wanted, invited, and loved. I want someone to pour into me the way I’m pouring into others.”

From our perspective: This is especially true in the first year. Building relationships is hard whenever you move, but it is especially hard when you are moving to a new culture and doing it in a new language. Every missionary has moments when they want to quit. Be gentle with yourself. Reach out to start building relationships in your community as soon as possible, but also reach out to other missionaries who “get it.” This might mean driving somewhere to visit or finding a missionary community online. We highly recommend as a place to get started. It has helped normalize many of our feelings. 

This post is simply our gut-response put out there to hopefully encourage and help a few fellow missionaries. Perhaps as we continue to think about these topics, other ideas will come to us. We would love to hear from other missionaries as well. What has worked well for you? How do you work through the raw emotions found in the original article? 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What God Is Teaching Me: Self-Care

Eric and I recently came across a blog post that describes the normal stress levels of cross-cultural missionaries. Here’s a snippet:  

When stress levels reach above a 200 {on the Holmes-Rahe scale}, doctors will advise patients to make life changes– drink a glass of wine, exercise, sleep more, that kind of thing. The goal is to keep stress levels below 200, since anything over that can result in some incredibly negative effects, especially over the long term. In fact, 50% of the people scoring a 200 were hospitalized in the two years following the scoring with heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, or other severe illnesses. Apparently, the cumulative effect of stress on the body and mind can be an extremely damaging one. Then, they used the same standards and scale to assess missionary stress levels. They found that the average missionary’s stress levels for the first year are typically around 800-900, and the sustained stress levels of a cross cultural worker stays around 600.”’
Our first thought was “Wow! So this is why so many mission organizations stress self-care.” As we thought more about it, especially about our last week, we can definitely see why many missionaries get burned out.
This week we experienced the many normal stressors—
·    Trying to teach students who have many gaps in their education
·    Trying to support other teachers who are overworked and underpaid
·    Trying to function in a language that does not come naturally
·    Missing key pieces of information either because it is not yet available (a lot of decisions here come last minute) or because of the language barrier. We often feel like we are the last people in town to know what’s going on.
·    Patiently -- or not so patiently-- enduring sporadic internet that toys with our emotions, sometimes allowing us to stream Youtube videos, but sometimes distorting our Skype calls with family beyond the point of recognition
·    Bargaining for many of our needs in order to get a good price and still paying too much sometimes
·    Trying to determine when and how to help when someone comes to us with a need
·    Driving 30 minutes to two hours for cash, mail, and supplies, and still not always being able to find what we need and want. And bless your heart if you forget something on your list, because it will have to wait until the next time you are in that town.
·    Spending 40 minutes to 2 hours preparing meals every night.
·    Having things break in our house pretty much weekly thanks to low quality products (this week it was my hairdryer and our cd player in our car. Replacing the hairdryer meant a two-hour drive to Mwanza, so it wasn’t a quick fix).

However, we also had some “fun” bonus stressors this week.
·    Losing power for almost two days which means terrible sleep without our fans, changes in our menu thanks to the lack of an electric oven, minimal use of electronics or having to find a place to recharge, and doing everything at night by flashlight.
·    Having to siphon water into buckets from our lower water tank because the electric pump couldn’t pump the water to the upper tank. We used those buckets to do everything from washing dishes, hands, and clothes to flushing the toilet.
·    Getting a sliver of glass stuck in my foot that must have come in from outside
·    Getting shocked by our electric oven/stove and realizing that we are going to have to call an electrician because it is not working properly.
·    Having our debit card—our primary source of income—rejected because there is a limit on how much you can withdraw during a weekend. Being a national holiday weekend in the U.S., we would have to wait four days before we could access money again.
·    Coping with the additional homesickness that usually accompanies the U.S. summer. In the winter, we just miss the people. However, in the summer we miss family vacations (my family will soon be en route to Hawaii for my cousin’s wedding and Eric’s family will travel to Colorado later this summer), baby-showers, weddings, the Deaconess Annual Meeting, reunions, and favorite summer activities like hiking, swimming, and attending plays and festivals.

Yep, this is why we have been told to consistently monitor our stress-levels and put in place habits that ease the stress. Self-care is so important. Exercise, the occasional evening walk, evening devotions/prayer, watching childhood TV shows, talking with a Skype counselor who specializes in missionary care, listening to music, and reading books are a few of the ways we’ve found to cope with the daily stresses. However every now and then we just need a vacation. Two things officially brought us to Dar Es Salaam this week—meetings with Bishop Makala at the Ministry of Social Welfare and chaperoning our Form 4 students with their senior trip next week—however, we’ve decided to use the time before and after these events to breathe. We are looking forward to enjoying time with some of our former language school friends in Dar. Then, since we are “in the neighborhood” we will pop over to Zanzibar for three nights as a belated birthday present to Eric and 3rd anniversary present to each other. We pray that this time will allow us time to process the months past and rejuvenate us for the work ahead J Thank you to everyone who supports us in our work and in our rest.

** As a side note, we know missionaries don’t have the market cornered on stress ;-) We pray that you all, who work so tirelessly, also find ways to cope daily and that you get some opportunities to breathe deeply this summer. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What God Is Teaching Me: The Complexity of Poverty

For many years I have been on a quest to understand poverty and, even more importantly, to understand the lives of people who live under the weight of poverty daily. Pivotal moments flash in my mind…

- As an 8-year-old helping at a food pantry, I learned that one person’s health tragedy is enough to send an entire family over the financial edge. The daughter of this family was in my sister’s class. It hit home.
- As a teen, I was surprised and mesmerized by the joy I saw in a church in Mexico, a joy that had nothing to do with material possessions.
- As a student, I began to understand social work, as well as the rudimentary outlines and implications of poverty. My intellect was engaged.
- As a guest in several orphanages of Romania, I witnessed corruption and innocence existing side by side.
- As an intern in Papua New Guinea, I heard individual stories of friends dreaming of a life where their children could get an education or maybe simply live beyond the age of five.
- As a listener, many conversations with deaconess sisters and classmates further deepened my awareness of the complexities.
- As a grad student, I spent two years of full time study delving into some of the hardest, most unanswerable questions of poverty.
- As an intern, I saw the pain and strength of women in the St. Louis “ghetto” with unimaginable histories and admired the immigrants who strained to adjust to life in the U.S. while battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I received a Master’s degree, but I also received the awareness that there is still so much to learn. I will never be finished. Each experience has changed me, and my time in Tanzania is likewise forcing me to grow. I learn from the stories of survival, despair, and achievement of my Tanzanian friends and neighbors. Sometimes I learn from my own mistaken assumptions: “Why can’t you just… oh, that’s why.” And most recently, I have been grateful to learn from the writers of the blog series “A Life Overseas”.

One of the writers particularly caught my attention in her post, “Please Don’t Say They Are Poor But They’re Happy.” Rachel Pieh Jones often writes about extremes when talking about people struggling with poverty. She notes that there is a tendency to make others one-dimensional. Some tend to stigmatize those who are lacking material wealth. “If they just ________ or didn’t _______, they would be fine.” “Why don’t they __________?” More common among missionary and nonprofit agencies is the ennobling of poor. (Ironically, I’ve seen Americans veer one way in viewing other Americans who are impoverished, and veer the other way in their perception of people in poverty in other parts of the world.)  

As I read Rachel’s post, I realized that in years past I have likewise fallen into the trap of saying, “They are poor, but happy. Look at how amazing they are!”  Sometimes it is good to recognize and celebrate the moments of nobility. Yes, there is something about having to rely on God on a very real and daily basis that can bring about spiritual growth. And wealth can be a deterrent to deep faith. However, poverty and suffering do not in and of themselves make people noble.

At Rachel’s suggestion, I read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo. Katherine spent four years listening to stories, pouring over records, and observing life in a slum in Mumbai, India. The book feels like a fictional novel, but it is the real life journalistic account of the lives of people in that slum. It’s a hard book to read. Eric can vouch for the fact that every time I picked it up, I ended up in a bad mood. It does not shy away from the harsh realities. I think many people will react to the narrative with anger and heartbreak, as I did. However, I am glad I read it. It shows how complex, how messy, and how agonizing decisions of survival can become.

At the end of the book, Katherine writes,

“In my reporting, I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. Children have little power to act on those imaginations, and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. How does that happen? How—to use Abdul’s formulation- do children intent on being ice become water? A cliché about India holds that the loss of life matters less here than in other countries, because of the Hindu faith in reincarnation, and because of the vast scale of the population. In my reporting, I found that young people felt the loss of life acutely. What appeared to be indifference to other people’s suffering had little to do with reincarnation, and less to do with being born brutish. I believe it had a good deal to do with condition that had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.”

People are people. Sometimes they are noble, sometimes they are corrupt. Sometimes corruption comes solely out of our own sinfulness. And sometimes it is a survival mechanism bred by a corrupt system constructed by other sinful people.  We all have good and evil within us. The idea of each person being both saint and sinner is not limited to one socioeconomic class. I pray that we, as individuals and as a society, can continue to move past one-dimensional thinking and depictions of those whose lives seem so different from ours. Most heartily I pray I can daily find the cultural humility to ask meaningful questions and to learn.

** If you would like to read more, I recommend Rachel Pieh Jones’ post “When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners.”   It was such a great challenge to me and I’m still unpacking how this looks in my daily life.

Friday, January 24, 2014

6 Lessons From Kilimanjaro

From Linda’s perspective, but with Eric’s input.
1)  THROUGH ANOTHER PERSON’S EYES. Every person experiences the mountain differently. Just because it is the same mountain does not mean that everyone sees it the same way. The person from Switzerland experiences it differently than the person from Phoenix. The young experience it differently than those older. The porters experience it differently than the tourists. And a person with fibromyalgia and IBS experiences it differently than someone who does not face that challenge. However, just because each person’s story and experience is different doesn’t make one person right or wrong. We gain a lot when we can begin to see the mountain through another person’s eyes. Looking through Eric’s eyes, I saw how the mountain was a vacation for him, a chance to get away and breathe, the fulfillment of a dream. Through him, I saw the various patterns and textures of the earth as we climbed. When Eric looked through my eyes, he saw the intensity of the challenge, the sacrifice that it took to get to this point, the mental battle to push past the pain, and the indomitable spirit required to achieve this goal. By looking through each other’s eyes, we gained a new respect for the mountain and for each other.
2)  THE GUIDE’S PACE. Sometimes our guide seemed to go at a snail’s pace. There were times when we wanted simply to push on ahead and complete the task as quickly as possible, or at least faster than the present speed. However, the guide knew better. He knew that if we climbed the mountain too quickly, altitude sickness would set in and we would never make it to the top. While it would have been easy to accomplish the short term goals a lot faster, he had the ultimate goal in mind. So it is with our eternal Guide.
3)  PERSEVERANCE AND DISCERNMENT. When challenges hit, sometimes it means we should take another path, and sometimes it’s simply time to persevere, to look past the pain. It can be difficult to know which time is which. That’s why it’s always a good idea to discuss such matters with your Guide.
4)  BREATHE.  It’s really beneficial to stop sometimes, to take a step back, to breathe, and to look around. It is so easy to lose appreciation for the journey when you want to achieve the goal so badly. When we get so focused on what we are doing, we can lose sight of the beauty and diversity around us. Plus, we save ourselves a lot of headaches when we take those moments to breathe.
5)  THE NEXT STEP. During the night of the summit, we traversed a seemingly endless amount of switchbacks—right, left, right, left. We could see the top of the peak, but it always seemed so far away. Our guide told us, “Don’t look too far ahead. Focus on my feet.” The sentiment reminded me of Stormie Omartian’s book “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On: Trusting God in Tough Times.” Sometimes looking too far ahead can be intensely overwhelming and not helpful. We just needed to focus on that next step, and then the next, and then the next. It’s not comfortable, especially for Americans who like to plan every last part of our lives, but this technique is often necessary.
6)  STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS. Many people might think that climbing Kilimanjaro is empowering. “Look at me. Look at how strong I am. I can do anything. I’m on top of the world.” That wasn’t my experience at all. When I reached the top, I didn’t feel strong. I felt intensely weak. For hours I had pushed past the pain. I had “dug deep,” and all I wanted was a blessed release from the pain. That is what the top meant to me when I reached it—I could finally turn around and begin heading towards a place where I could rest. Maybe I had conquered the mountain, but it had also conquered me. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I could not have done it alone. I could not have reached the top without someone carrying my pack for me. I could not have reached the top without the encouragement of Eric, without his reminders that people were praying for us. I could not have reached the top without the expertise of our guides. I could not have reached the top without Diamox helping my body absorb oxygen at maximum efficiency. I could not have reached the top without a community of support praying for us, a community that believed in us and in our school enough to pledge money for every step. And I could not have done it without God. So many things could have gone wrong that didn’t. So many things could have made this goal impossible to accomplish. But by the grace of God, I did make it to the top, and maybe it’s better that I didn’t have a “mountaintop experience” in that moment. There is a part of me that wants to be seen as a champion, a part that wants to be the hero and inspire people. However, I can’t pretend that I felt victorious or that the smile wasn’t plastered on a tear-stained face. That picture on the mountain will always be a reminder to me—a reminder of God’s words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I echo Saint Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).